#103 = Volume 34, Part 2 = July
BOOKS IN REVIEW
A World of "Ifs."
Paul K. Alkon. Winston Churchill's Imagination. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2006. xxiii + 267 pp. $55.00 hc.
In 1931, a book appeared with the intriguing title, If It Had Happened Otherwise: Lapses into Imaginary History. It contains eleven speculative essays by distinguished commentators on how the world might have been different “had certain events ‘taken another turn’” (vi), as the editor, J.C. Squire, puts it. The essayists playfully ponder the likely consequences if Don John of Austria had married Mary Queen of Scots in 1568, or if Napoleon had escaped to America in 1815. One of the essays is by the Rt. Hon. Winston S. Churchill, M.P.; the casual browser may conclude that the author, then in his Wilderness Years, had time on his hands for such frivolities. The careful reader, however, will instantly observe that even the title of Churchill’s piece, “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” sets it apart from all the others. As General Lee actually lost the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863—I include this information in the awareness that the postmodern condition debars sufferers from absorbing historical data—Churchill’s essay is not merely speculative but counterfactual. It is, in short, a fiction.
In the vein of George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871), which of course he knew, Churchill has produced an sf alternative-world scenario. In it, the smug narrator tells us that a current fashion among historians has encouraged him “to enter upon an absurd speculation” (175): he then describes the series of escalating crises leading to a disastrous global war circa 1914 that might well have transpired had Lee not triumphed at Gettysburg. His readers’ simultaneous awareness of what did occur in the real world enables Churchill to develop a subtle, ironic critique of historical truisms—for example, the Union as crusader against slavery—suggesting that these truisms constitute a victor’s mythology in which contingent outcomes are attributed to providential design and moral superiority.
Paul K. Alkon, in this extremely original, interesting, and readable study, uses “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg” as one small but important part of the evidence for his entirely convincing argument that the key to Churchill’s greatness lies neither in accident nor design but in the exceptional quality of his historical imagination. As a wartime leader, Churchill was able to fathom the (mostly appalling) likely consequences of what was transpiring in the present, and to articulate his dread in a way that inspired people to combat the threat before it was too late. Fortunately for his country, Churchill’s imagination was also “a means of strengthening ties to a wider community by animating convictions in the spheres of literature and politics to serve society no less than self” (5): in short, “Churchill’s was above all a moral imagination” (65). Hitler had an equal ability to inspire the masses, but he did so by entrancing or terrifying them into suspending their better judgment, while Churchill was able to make his audience, even with their backs to the wall, defiantly rediscover their moral core.
Churchill’s historical imagination was of a higher order than most of his contemporaries, but it alone was not enough to make him great. Alkon demonstrates in his first chapter how Churchill’s colleague and correspondent T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”), endowed with an equally powerful imagination, was paralyzed by it into nihilism and social withdrawal before his untimely death in 1935. In contrast, Churchill found the “extra courage” that from 1940 enabled him to “imagine every possible scenario of invasion and related military or diplomatic disaster in order to shape countermeasures” (1). But Churchill did not attain such a level of courage by “being himself”: rather, he consciously perfected a Churchillian role, aware that “Most men aspire to be good actors” in the drama of existence and determined himself to be one of the “few who are so perfect that they do not seem to be actors at all” (125).
Emerson said in Representative Men (1850), “I count him a great man who inhabits a higher sphere of thought, into which other men rise with labor and difficulty; he has but to open his eyes to see things in a true light and in large relations, whilst they must make painful corrections and keep a vigilant eye on many sources of error.” By this definition, Churchill the Politician is surely the Representative Man par excellence of the twentieth century. But there was also Churchill the Writer, who published about thirty books in his lifetime and who in 1953 won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Alkon persuades us that the laurel was deserved. Churchill recalled that during his schooldays at Harrow “I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence” (xiv), to the great benefit of his mature rhetorical style. And Churchill was a profoundly literary man of a sort now almost extinct: he re-read his favorite books continuously; he extolled his touchstones, Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), Robinson Crusoe (1719), and Gulliver’s Travels (1726), as models of “lucid, forcible, fascinating narrative” (33); and he could quote reams of poetry by heart, “occasionally with his own improvements” (70). His masterpieces are the magnificent speeches of 1940-45, but nothing that Churchill wrote is without literary interest.
Winston Churchill’s Imagination anatomizes the Titan’s brain using such diverse products as Savrola (Churchill’s 1900 utopian novel), Marlborough (his 1947 biography of his great ancestor), his screenplays of unmade films written in association with Alexander Korda, his essays on “Painting as a Pastime” (1921) and on Charlie Chaplin (1935), and even his large corpus of amateurish landscapes on canvas. Alkon is very well qualified to take on this large task: his books on sf, The Origins of Futuristic Fiction (1987) and Science Fiction before 1900 (1995), show a firm grasp of literary-historical context, and he is an accomplished close reader. This is how he elegantly unpacks Churchill’s famous sentence “This was their finest hour”: “an invitation to consider how the present will be regarded by the future and what, in the light of that consideration, ought to be most highly valued in present conduct” (131). But Alkon stays this side of idolatry, noting for example that Churchill “seldom expresses doubt about the ability of language—especially as used by himself—to convey meaning” (139). Indeed, Churchill had little time for modernist novelists (and would probably have had none for postmodernists) though he must surely have sympathized with Flaubert’s struggle for the mot juste. As a painter who had been coached by Walter Sickert, however, and who admired the Impressionists, Churchill knew that artistic masterpieces do not just happen. They result instead from what he called a “cold, profound, intense effort of memory, knowledge, and will-power, prolonged perhaps for weeks” (30), and this effort he evidently reserved for his speeches, where his rhetorical skills would be most likely to bear fruit.
What readers of SFS will find most intriguing is Alkon’s argument that Churchill had a science-fictional imagination, and not just in a figurative sense: “Imaginative engagement with science was one of Churchill’s fundamental traits” (155). In chapter 4, “Imagining Science: Churchill and Science Fiction,” Alkon demonstrates that Churchill had read and absorbed such classic sf works as Karel „apek’s R.U.R. (1920) and Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930), and had anticipated in his dystopian essay “Fifty Years Hence” (1931) Aldous Huxley’s main theme in Brave New World (1932). But what emerges perhaps most strikingly and unexpectedly here is the extent of Churchill’s debt to H.G. Wells. Eight years younger, Churchill was streets apart from Wells in social class and miles apart in his publicly stated ideological positions, especially on the British Empire, capitalism, and Bolshevism. In 1920 Churchill had attacked Wells’s support for the Soviet Union in the Daily Express, and the latter had shot back that Churchill was “the running sore of waste in our Government.” Yet Alkon makes it clear that the pair were connected by profound affinities. Churchill retained a lifelong admiration for Wells’s scientific romances, and Wells eventually acknowledged the affinity by dedicating his last scientific romance, Star-Begotten (1937), “on a sudden impulse,” to his “friend” Winston Churchill. By 1937, Wells, whose historical imagination matched Churchill’s, had correctly gauged that the latter was the best person to steer the ship of state through the fog of impending dread enveloping the world.
The Wellsian touchstone for Churchill was The Time Machine (1895), which he referred to as a “marvelous philosophical romance” and one that had made him shout with joy when he had first read it (222). Without doubt, there are linguistic and thematic connections: The Time Machine’s prophetic glimpse of the nightmare to come if present social tendencies were not resisted underlies Churchill’s admonitory references to “the abyss of a new Dark Age” (156) in his most famous speech (“Their Finest Hour” [June 18, 1940]). Alkon suggests, plausibly, that Churchill in his occasional aspiration toward the “science fictional sublime” (166)—e.g., in “Fifty Years Hence” (1931)—had as his rhetorical model “The Further Vision” chapter of The Time Machine. In his Envoi, Alkon even cites The Time Machine as a possible inspiration for Churchill’s posthumously published autobiographical fantasy “The Dream” (1966). But perhaps the centrality of The Time Machine to Churchill’s imagination lies in the fact that this literary work first fully articulated what Alkon terms “Churchill’s acute awareness that the modern period—thanks largely to science—is in crucial respects an unprecedented break in the continuity of human history and accordingly demands new modes of historiography, including the occasional practice of future history” (161-62).
In this splendid study, Alkon has finally settled, at least for me, one recurring grand historical question. For to read Winston Churchill’s Imagination is to be forced to acknowledge that great-souled leaders like Churchill do make history; they are not mere puppets of impersonal social forces. (Recent events suggest that leaders with very small souls make history too; it tends to be very bad history, however.) Alkon shows that Churchill’s success as a leader from 1940-45 resulted from his exceptional quality of mind—a subtle and far-seeing, scientifically-informed historical imagination—allied to his equally exceptional moral courage. “We live in a world of ‘ifs,’” wrote the young Churchill in 1899; “‘What happened’ is singular’; ‘what might have happened,’ legion” (54). In 1940 Churchill would be forced to confront possible realities that were horrific enough to have paralyzed or overwhelmed even the most unimaginative leader. Now Paul K. Alkon has provided a definitive explanation of how and why Churchill was able to rise so magnificently to the challenge.—Nicholas Ruddick, University of Regina
John Clute. The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror. Seattle, WA: Payseur and Schmidt, 2006. 162 pp. $45.00 hc.
In John Clute’s earlier work—such as the essays and reviews collected in 1995’s Look at the Evidence—he has little time for horror fiction per se. In a comment typical of his attitude toward the field at the time, he describes it as a “subgenre” that “suffers from an intractable vacuity of premise, with only its very finest writers only very occasionally coming up with anything verging on the new” (Evidence 140). While he has always been sensitive to the virtues of a work such as Dan Simmons’s Carrion Comfort (1989), Jonathan Carroll’s A Child Across the Sky (1989), or Thomas Disch’s The M.D.: A Horror Story (1990), these are the exceptions proving his rule.
By the more recent Scores (2003), however, it is clear that Clute’s interest in horror has been piqued. In addition to appreciative reviews of Stephen King and Peter Straub’s Black House (2001), Dan Simmons’s A Winter Haunting (2002), and F. Paul Wilson’s The Haunted Air (2002), there are a series of passages scattered across the book’s entries that begin to describe the kinds of narrative moves that horror stories make—passages that are, significantly, gathered under the heading of “Horror” in the book’s index. (No such heading exists in Look at the Evidence’s index.) Something has changed: Clute has recognized in horror what he had found previously in science fiction and fantasy: namely, a cluster of recurrent narrative features that indicate to some degree what the genre is about. (I had the chance to ask Clute about this shift in his perspective during the 2004 Fantastic Genres Conference at SUNY New Paltz. In response to my question, “What happened?” he answered, “I read more.”)
For the last several years, Clute has pursued his growing interest in horror, working on a volume analogous to his encyclopedias of science fiction and fantasy. Now, he has published a selection of entries from that volume as The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror. As excerpts from a work in progress, the entries in The Darkening Garden ask for a certain latitude. Were we reading the complete volume for which they are intended, some of the questions they raise, the shortcomings they display, might be compensated for by additional material. At the same time, the decision to publish these entries does seem to put forth some notion of their sufficiency. So we may take the book at face value, but should keep in mind the larger work to come.
In some ways, the argument at the heart of The Darkening Garden is fairly straightforward. Clute is concerned with supernatural horror fiction, which he contends follows a four-part plot movement comparable to the four-part plot movement he has identified driving fantasy fiction. Whereas fantasy begins in Wrongness, passes through Thinning and Recognition, to end with Return, horror starts with Sighting, proceeds through Thickening and Revel, and concludes with Aftermath. According to this schema, horror commences with a glimpse of the bad to come, which is followed by a complication and closing off of plot options. In turn, this yields to the moment when the badness has arrived and stands revealed as the awful truth. This blaze of revelation leaves the remainder of the story a wasteland literal and/or figurative. As part of this progression, the narrative may employ such devices as the double, the hook, and the motif of harmful sensation. According to Clute, horror finally concerns vastation, a word that describes the characters’ (and, by extension, readers’) apprehension of what he calls the malice of the world. It is in vastation, in horror’s confrontation with the recalcitrance of existence, that Clute locates the genre’s ultimate value.
Clute is a sensitive and sensible enough critic to admit that the narrative process he identifies is open to challenge by writers of sufficient ambition and talent; indeed, he expresses concern that his model may be too open, more thematic than grammatical. A testing of his ideas against a selection of classic horror stories—say, Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” (1910), Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), Bowen’s “Demon Lover” (1945), and Jackson’s “The Lottery”(1948)—demonstrates the framework’s applicability to a variety of texts. Clute himself offers intriguing readings of works not generally associated with horror, including Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Walter Owen’s The Cross of Carl: An Allegory (1931), and D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel (1979). If the test of such a schema is its ability to open a range of texts to meaning, then this one surely succeeds.
The other important move The Darkening Garden makes is an attempt to connect horror to the history of the last two and a half centuries. Like science fiction and fantasy, Clute argues, horror arises in response to Modernity writ large. It, too, is a child of the Enlightenment, one rooted in an acute awareness of reason’s limits and failures. To invoke Melville’s famous description of Hawthorne, horror says, “No!” in a voice like thunder. Particularly as regards such events as the First World War, the Holocaust, the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, horror, with its emphasis on vastation, would seem well-suited to engage the outrages of a history that so stubbornly resists the efforts of more mundane representation.
The virtues of this volume are many; its faults, few. Those faults, though, are significant enough to affect and to some degree compromise its success. As such, they bear discussion. Probably the book’s greatest problem is Clute’s decision to amputate supernatural horror from non-supernatural horror, which Clute attempts to corral under the catch-all “Affect Horror.” To help define Affect Horror, Clute draws on two popular quotations: Douglas Winter’s assertion that horror is not a genre but an emotion, and Stephen King’s division of the effects for which he strives in his fiction into terror, horror, and revulsion. These lead Clute to construct a kind of fiction whose principal aim is to affect its reader viscerally. In effect, he builds a straw (or wicker) man to burn down. As is the case with all straw men, if you poke around its innards, it collapses.
For one thing, the quotations in which Clute anchors Affect Horror are taken out of context. Douglas Winter’s editorial Introduction to his 1992 anthology, Prime Evil, and his 1998 essay, “The Pathos of Genre,” which it informs, are poorly worded and even more poorly thought-out exercises in bluster. Nonetheless, they slouch towards a thesis—namely, that horror writers should reach beyond formulaic plot and hackneyed monsters in the interest of achieving a more resonant fiction. While Winter does emphasize the importance of affect, he also argues for the genre as a reflection of contemporary anxieties, a view consonant with Clute’s attempt to read horror in relation to its historical context. Stephen King makes the connection between horror and history even more strongly in Danse Macabre (1981), his autobiographically-inflected consideration of the genre. And while King pays attention to the varieties of affect, he does so alongside an awareness of horror’s concern with entropy, with the way things fall apart. Granted, King’s unmaking is not Clute’s vastation, but the connections between the two are suggestive.
Given the widespread quotation of Winter’s declaration and King’s dissection—also generally out of context—the case could be made that, regardless of their original meanings, the statements have assumed the senses Clute assigns them. If that were the case, if these sentences were on the loose, infecting unsuspecting writers, then one would expect to find significant evidence of it. This is not so, however, which further undermines Clute’s definition. Indeed, despite his critical credo of “Excessive Candor” (i.e., remaining as honest in his assessments as possible), Clute is curiously reticent when it comes to identifying writers/texts of Affect Horror. He flirts with discussing King’s fiction in relation to it, only to withdraw; the supernatural character of the majority of King’s work seems to present significant difficulties for considering it in terms whose province is supposed to be the non-supernatural. Clute mentions Peter Straub’s Floating Dragon (1983) as a text that deliberately piles affect on affect with a self-consciousness that apparently exempts it from Affect Horror (once again, it is a narrative of supernatural horror). About the closest he comes to naming names is a passing remark about Thomas Tessier’s early books (the majority of which are also supernatural horror).
Furthermore, apply Clute’s four-part map of horror to non-supernatural horror novels—say, Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959) or Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs (1988)—and it conforms to them quite well. Indeed, it is difficult to see why Clute feels the need for an entry such as Affect Horror. Possibly, it arises from a sense of the genre’s concern with physicality, with human beings as flesh and specifically flesh that can suffer, but such concern is constituent of the genre as a whole. What Clute describes in terms of affect might better be understood in terms of Excess, the analogue at the levels of narrative and character to the genre’s propensity for stylistic extravagance (what Clute calls Fustian).
There is one more thing. Reading The Darkening Garden, it is hard not to be struck by the book’s failure to engage many of the genre’s most significant texts and writers in a meaningful way, if at all. There is no requirement, of course, for a critic to treat every text and writer who has attached to a field, but even if a critic is arguing for a revisionary understanding of the genre (as S.T. Joshi did in The Modern Weird Tale ), there would seem to be some necessity to address those books and figures that have shaped its general outlines. Interesting as may be Clute’s reading of It’s a Wonderful Life as horror film, it would be of still more use to learn what he has to say about a film that declares itself horror, whether Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), or Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). In all fairness, this may be the result of the volume’s status as a selection of entries rather than a complete encyclopedia; in that case, one looks forward to the complete work.
If patches of The Darkening Garden have not yielded fruit, the rest promises an interesting harvest. Perhaps above all, one is grateful to John Clute for attempting to discern within the texts of horror its significant forms. His lexicon joins King’s Danse Macabre, Joshi’s The Modern Weird Tale, and Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets (2001) as one of the more intriguing efforts at understanding the horror genre.—John Langan, CUNY Graduate Center
Gabriele Frasca L’oscuro scrutare di Philip K. Dick [Philip K. Dick’s Dark Scanning]. Rome: Meltemi, 2007. 263 pp. €20.50 hc.
There has been a certain commotion in the field of Philip K. Dick studies in Italy. Three book-length works on the Californian writer have been published in less than six months: Trasmigrazioni: I mondi di Philip K. Dick [Transmigrations: The Worlds of Philip K. Dick], edited by Valerio Massima and myself (Firenze: Le Monnier, 2006), which is the proceedings of an international conference held at the University of Macerata in 2000; La macchina della paranoia: Enciclopedia Dickiana [The Paranoia Machine: A Dickian Encyclopedia], edited by Antonio Caronia and Domenico Gallo (Milano: Agenzia X, 2006), a well-documented Dickian encyclopedia; and now this dense contribution by Frasca. It is remarkable that two of these works (Trasmigrazioni and L’oscuro scrutare) have been published by prestigious houses specializing in academic nonfiction (Meltemi, for example, has such names in its catalog as Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Arjun Appadurai, and Slavoj Žižek), and this tells us a lot about the status achieved by Philip Kindred Dick as a writer and a cultural icon in Italy.
Something should also be said about Gabriele Frasca, who is not the typical sf buff or Dick specialist, though this is not—as we shall see—the first time he has tackled a US writer. Frasca is a tenured ricercatore (researcher) of comparative literature at the University of Siena. He has written several essays on the Middle Ages, the Baroque, Samuel Beckett, and other canonical literary topics. He has translated not only Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (1977, its Italian title is Un oscuro scrutare, hence the title of his essay), but also two Modernist classics, Beckett’s Watt (1953) and Murphy (1938). Frasca is also a poet who has translated Beckett’s poems into Italian and published his own collections Lime (1995) and Rive (2001) in the very prestigious “Collezione di Poesia” of Einaudi.
L’oscuro scrutare di Philip K. Dick can be said to sum up the intellectual’s long-term fascination with Dick and his fictional world, which is interwoven with Frasca’s ongoing research on the evolution of mass media. In fact, the first chapter of the book, “Su un fondo nero” [Against a black background], which deals with The Man in the High Castle (1962) and—to a lesser extent—The Simulacra (1964), has already been published as part of Frasca’s previous essay La scimmia di Dio: L’emozione della guerra mediale [The Ape of God: The Emotion of the Media War] (Genova: Costa e Nolan, 1996), a complex reading of Beckett and Dick that puts them in connection with the evolution of the “electric media” and draws from de Kerckhove and McLuhan (the latter being one of the theoretical guiding lights of Frasca’s interpretation of Dick, with Slavoj ðiñek, Gilles Deleuze, and Alain Badiou). In the 1996 essay there was also a chapter devoted to A Scanner Darkly, which has been turned into the third chapter of L’oscuro scrutare, “Un oscuro scrutare,” an articulate analysis of Dick’s drug novel. It should then be added that the fourth chapter of L’oscuro scrutare, “Restare nel buio” [Remain in darkness], which carries out an in-depth reading of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), was born as a chapter of La lettera che muore [The Dying Letter] (Roma: Meltemi, 2005), an ambitious book on the relationships of what we call “literature” with oral culture and the electric media, and which reads the history of Western literature as the interregnum between orality (symbolized by Homer) and the multimedia communication of late modernity (represented by, among others, Dick). So the only original chapter of this essay is the second, “La notte delle superfici” [The night of surfaces], which deals extensively with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), and also tackles Time Out of Joint (1959), Ubik (1969), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964), Now Wait for Last Year (1966), and Martian Time-Slip (1964). Moreover, the other three chapters are not mere reprints of previous contributions, but have undergone a thorough rewriting and updating. Frasca in fact has strengthened his bibliography by adding the most recent items in the Italian secondary literature on Dick, although he quotes only a few works from the Anglo writing world (for example, Darko Suvin and Lawrence Sutin, but in translation).
The absence of certain names one typically finds in academic articles in English—e.g., Fredric Jameson or Christopher Palmer—or of the ritual discussion of Blade Runner (1982) and/or cyberpunk and posthuman discourses might startle non-Italian readers, but it is not the only difference between current US or UK criticism on Dick and this essay. Another relevant difference is the style of Frasca’s prose: far from the regular syntax of the Lockean tradition, it has a complex and baroque structure, where 150-line sentences are not a rarity. Frasca, however involved with English language authors and thinkers he may be, remains an heir to the Italian tradition of literary criticism, whose prose should have a literary quality in the vein of the great Italian literati of the past, such as Benedetto Croce, Natalino Sapegno, or Gianfranco Contini. Indeed, Frasca’s prose has a baroque quality of its own that makes its reading quite demanding (at some points, luckily only a few, bordering on the annoying) but also rewarding. The maze of coordinate, subordinate, and parenthetical sentences in which we sometimes may get lost is not gratuitous: it mirrors the maze of Dickian narratives much better than some po-mo proclamations, which monotonously heap slogans and inappropriate quotations. Though wading through Frasca’s labyrinthine sentences may be at moments difficult, it cannot be denied that they get us closer to the text he is anatomizing and offer precious and unexpected insights on Dick and his world.
A good example of this might be this passage (in my own translation) I have taken from the first chapter, where Frasca discusses The Man in the High Castle and its relations with media and Nazism:
The Lebensraum Goebbels assigned to the destiny of the Third Reich had nothing to do with Göring’s or Heydrich’s “limited” geopolitical deliria; on the contrary it was the virtually infinite but unsustainably close space where, through the electric media (and the great innovation of magnetic tape, with its original possibility to mold a body-less voice, for all bodies), it was possible to let the tribal drum of Hitler’s words ... resonate, maybe to discover what the zero world always gets back to: adding a soundtrack. (52; emphasis in original)
Frasca’s very personal use of a notorious geopolitical term such as Lebensraum (literally “vital space,” that is, space sought for occupation by a nation whose population is expanding) may be bewildering, but it is rooted in his interest in media theory: the vital space is that of the radio, where the body-less voice of Hitler could resonate, adding a powerful soundtrack to the collective consciousness of Nazi Germany. And by using this category to reinterpret the concept of zero world—which any Dick scholar should recognize as a key concept (introduced by Carlo Pagetti) in the narrative architecture of The Man in the High Castle—Frasca manages to read in a new way Dick’s fascination with Nazi Germany, which was so horribly “attractive” just because of its being a media-dominated empire (and this also sheds light on The Simulacra, the other novel analyzed in this chapter); but it also sees in the idea of a zero world—the historical reality of Dick’s readers where the USA, the USSR, and the British Empire won WWII—a verbal construction, or in Frasca’s words, “narration, fiction, docudrama, opinion,” or better, “a world of shouts and few clearly-pronounced words” (52; translation mine, emphasis in original). This is a world of propaganda and ideological use of the media, where the mythical US President, who has won four elections in a row, is no more than a “synthetic image distilled from hearing assorted talk,” as Dick wrote in a famous passage of The Man in the High Castle (141).
One might be annoyed by Frasca’s complexity (which luckily amounts to obscurity only at a few points of the text) or by his irritating use of parenthetical quotations that specify the text he is referring to, yet do not provide readers with page numbers; nevertheless, a number of groundbreaking ideas in the essay make it an important critical contribution (and I recommend that it be translated into English). Among those ideas, I wish to highlight his tracing Dick’s idea of alternate histories/realities (and texts) to Frank Capra’s 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life (57); his use of Michel Foucault’s The Birth of Bio-Politics (2004) to detect echoes of economic ideas in Dick’s oeuvre probably stemming from the School of Chicago theorists; his description of the complicated interplay of “hidden prolepses” in A Scanner Darkly (192); his reading of that novel based on a strong connection between drugs and the “liberating” use of electric media in the countercultures of the 1960s; his soundly researched discussion of gnostic and Pauline sources in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer,which does not aim at reading Dick’s final texts as religious revelations but at showing what literary intertextual practices underpin the novels of the Valis trilogy. All in all, the added intellectual value of L’oscuro scrutare di Philip K. Dick makes it a difficult, fatiguing, yet rewarding read, and a rich source of inspiration for PKD scholarship to come.—Umberto Rossi, Rome, Italy.
David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, eds. The Space Opera Renaissance New York: Tor, 2006. 944 pp. $ 39.95 hc.
David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, eds. The Space Opera Renaissance. New York: Tor, 2006. 944 pp. $ 39.95 hc.
A behemoth of a book at almost a thousand pages, The Space Opera Renaissance is heavy to carry, but it is useful in all sorts of situations and groundbreaking in its understanding of what space opera actually implies. That there is a need for such a volume seems to be best confirmed by the fact that, as the editors note, between 1982 and 2002 (when the work on the anthology started) the Hugo Award for best novel generally went to a space opera. With the varying diagnoses of space opera’s death or super-animated life, some description of the convention’s pulse was very much in order. Enter The Space Opera Renaissance.
The volume is divided into six chronologically-determined sections. Over them presides the introductory essay “How Shit Became Shinola: Definition and Redefinition of Space Opera”—to my mind one of the best essays ever written about the subgenre. In it, Cramer and Hartwell examine the evolution of the term itself from a deprecatory to a neutrally descriptive label. They also contextualize authors and their fiction against a range of critical judgments and trends in publishing, doing all that in a wonderfully breezy language. This may sound like an inflated claim, but the essay should become a template for introductions to thematic anthologies.
The first of the main sections, “Redefined Writers,” remembers four older authors—Edmond Hamilton, Jack Williamson, Leigh Brackett, and Clive Jackson—and presents them as predecessors of the later flowering that the title of the whole book promises. Williamson’s presence is not a surprise, but Edmond Hamilton was for a long time the name not to be mentioned. The fact that it is he who opens this hall of fame indicates the editors’ intentions. The next five blocks treat successive decades, showcasing significant works within a variety of categories. And so Cordwainer Smith, Samuel Delany, and Robert Sheckley are the 1960s “Draftees.” Among the late 1970s (whatever happened to the early 1970s?) to the late 1980s writers—labeled “Transitions/ Redefiners”—are David Brin, David Drake, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Iain M. Banks, while the early 1990s “Volunteers: Revisionaries” include Dan Simmons, Colin Greenland, Peter F. Hamilton, Catherine Asaro, R. Garcia y Robertson, and Allen M. Steele. The most extensive group of writers, described as “Mixed Signals/Mixed Categories” from the late 1990s, includes Gregory Benford, Donald Kingsbury, Sarah Zettel, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Reed, Paul J. McAuley, Stephen Baxter, Michael Moorcock, and Michael Kandel. Finally, the “Next Wave” of our new century are Tony Daniel, Scott Westerfeld, Alastair Reynolds, Charles Stross, and John C. Wright.
This is a long list of even longer works (more often than not excerpts from long novels—space-operators’ favorite form) and there is little point in enumerating who contributed what, but it becomes obvious after even a cursory glance at the names that Cramer and Hartwell understand “renaissance” as something more than just a re-emergence of the convention or longer publishers’ lists featuring titles defined as this or that. Here, the renaissance clearly involves re-evaluation and re-definition (as the introduction and some of the section titles indicate) of what space opera was and is and how important it has remained for science fiction in general. This naturally explains the presence of some of the names not necessarily associated with that particular sf convention. Admittedly, other names are missing—C. J. Cherryh, Vernor Vinge, Gordon Dickson, and Stephen Donaldson (whose Gap series could be a good example of a non-canonical writer venturing into SO’s space) are most conspicuously absent among the usual suspects—but then again, perhaps this is also part of the re-evaluation, not to mention that no collection can showcase everyone. Equally valuable are critical introductions preceding each piece—usually short but packed full of information, highly incisive, and extremely insightful.
The Space Opera Renaissance is best read chronologically—the sense of both continuity and change is remarkable—but one can also “hopscotch” through the collection, discovering how diverse the material is. The volume is very effective in piquing readers’ interest and sending them to full texts where only excerpts are featured—or at least this is what happened to me. Yet it is not only leisure reading that the anthology encourages. It is impossible to think of a better text for any course devoted to or at least involving space opera. No course could use the volume (or, then again, why not?), but chronological selections from the entire volume would work well as focused studies of particular sections/periods. With the introductions to individual stories or excerpts putting them in context, Cramer’s and Hartwell’s work is suitable for undergraduate surveys and upper division courses, or even for graduate seminars. Anthologies do not get much better than that.—Pawel Frelik, Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, Lublin, Poland.
S.T. Joshi, ed. Icons of Horror and the Supernatural: An Encyclopedia of Our Worst Nightmares. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2007. x + 796 pp. $175.00 hc.
Critical and popular interest persists in both sf and horror, and the need for a rigorous introduction to them is the aim of this two-volume encyclopedia. In particular, it strives to cover the landmark characters that have come to epitomize the genres, including those enduring figures of terror that straddle them both.
While the majority of the twenty-four leading icons isolated for consideration is concerned with the tropes of horror and the Gothic, as the title suggests, there is still plenty of interest here in the field of sf. Editor S.T. Joshi’s preface draws attention to the increased popularity of supernatural horror over the last few decades, outlining the encyclopedia’s broad goals of providing essay-length and thus exhaustive coverage of the individual topics through “an eclectic mix of critical approaches—historical, thematic, philosophical/religious—as dictated by the subject matter” (ix), in order both to guide and to inspire its intended readership.
Key areas of interest to sf scholars will include such entries as “The Alien,” “The Cosmic Horror,” and “The Cthulhu Mythos,” while essays such as “The Zombie” also naturally include some discussion of relevant themes and texts. “The Alien” begins with some definitions before moving on to observe the longevity of such motifs as UFOs, and the distinctive BEMS who inhabit them, from the mid-twentieth century onwards. This entry is exhaustive, although largely descriptive, in its consideration of how aliens have been represented from H.G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898) through to the many and varied cinematic representations that have followed in its wake, via conspiracy theories surrounding events at Roswell in 1947. Other entries, such as that on the zombie, follow a very similar format; in concentrating on a chronological explication of the plot synopses of a wide range of relevant films, the latter also leads to an essay that is descriptive rather than critical.
In contrast, the entry on cosmic horror, while also organized chronologically, is divided into sections that provide the framework for an informed discussion of philosophy, genre, and authorship, leading to a consideration of how cosmic horror influenced sf in terms of cosmic pessimism and genre hybridity. It is further strengthened by an extensive bibliography of both primary and secondary sources. Similarly, Lovecraft scholar Joshi’s entry on the Cthulhu Mythos is structured in sections outlining the key ingredients of the Mythos, how it was crystallized with Lovecraft’s landmark “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928), and developed—or bastardized—after his death through the intervention of August Derleth. Of particular interest is the emphasis on Lovecraft’s continued engagement with cutting-edge science, an enthusiasm clearly reflected in his fiction yet tempered by his awareness that it lacked the explanatory (and emotional) power necessary to plumb the deepest mysteries of the universe. This entry is peppered with supporting quotes from Lovecraft’s fiction and letters, rounded out with some observations of how the Mythos has permeated popular media more generally. Mention of critical work, such as Jason Colavito’s The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2005), builds up a sense of how sf develops through fiction and shapes popular thinking.
This work’s chief strengths lie in its accessibility and diversity. Because there is no uniformity in format or style, the essays vary considerably: some are divided thematically into a number of clearly-delineated sections, while others are simply presented as extensive versions of more traditional encyclopedia entries. The scope and nature of additional material provided also changes with the author, with some entries, such as “The Vampire,” having wide-ranging bibliographies, while others stretch to less than half a page and are rather limited in the information they offer for further research. Many entries incorporate chronologies, annotated filmographies, or lists of novels and short stories of central importance to the topic. Overall, the varied nature of the information works well, providing a wealth of different perspectives on accessing—and understanding—these historically far-reaching and potentially complex subjects that have often extended far beyond their origins to include many different types of media representation.
As a foundation to study, this book works well to introduce important themes, texts, and authors in an accessible format, breaking up the text with images and boxing information in the form of quotes, poems, timelines, and key facts wherever applicable. This is an informative resource, whether entries are simply dipped into from casual interest or read through for a more nuanced understanding.—Rebecca Janicker, University of Nottingham.
Secret Histories. Secret Lives.
Victoria Nelson. The Secret Life of Puppets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001. xi + 350 pp. $29.95 hc.
A popular television series goes by “The Secret Lives of Women” (2006-07), while Amazon.com lists 1,500 items associated with the words “secret life(ves) of.” One can easily imagine why “secret life” stories exist or (mostly famous) people, such as Bogie, J. Edgar Hoover, Houdini, Oscar Wilde, Dali, Gene Roddenberry, Carl Jung, the Duchess of Windsor (Wallis Simpson), Fergie, Henry Ford, Betty Crocker, George Soros, etc., yet numerous anonymous, collective, and other sorts of “secret lives” have also been documented. Subjects such as “a Taoist master,” a geisha, men (but men are apparently insufficiently interesting for a tv series), critics (food, not literary), cowboys, girls, it girls, sororities, and corporate jesters also rate attention. I’m not sure how to classify the Secret Life of God, but the following categories—and these are far from the only ones—have also inspired book-length “secret lives of”: bees, plants, beer, germs, trees, lobsters, insects, cells, food, flowers, families, the brain, breasts, sharks, and compost. Surprisingly, even non-organic and fantasy items have “secret lives of,” such as “inanimate objects,” “things” (presumably a very extensive monograph), water, fairies, dreams, dust, numbers, cosmetics, electronic objects, logos, the Seine, and, to the book at hand, The Secret Life of Puppets. In this review I will, of course, have something to say about Victoria Nelson’s interpretation, especially as it applies to sf, but I intend also to comment on the broader cultural fad of “secrecy.”
Nelson, an independent scholar and creative writer, aspires in her wide-ranging monograph to offer a wholly new and radical (re)interpretation of Western art, especially from the Renaissance forward, namely “the heresy of challenging a materialist worldview” (16) that will serve as a corrective to the “one-sided worldview that scientism has provided over the last three hundred years” (288). By her account, a battle has been raging for centuries between the Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian views of ontology, and the latter—much to the detriment, she claims, of Western consciousness—has prevailed, especially since the Enlightenment. By Neo-Platonic she essentially means a transcendent underlying design for the universe that includes human spiritual immortality. In a previous golden era of more fully human consciousness, the supernatural was “the cornerstone of Western intellectual culture” (56), humans considered themselves to be “projections of God” (208), and religion was the inspiration for all artistic practice. Since about the 1500s, however, scientific and rational materialism has become the basis for intellectually respectable “high art,” while “the ‘low art’ of secular entertainment would come to fill the vacuum left first by the expulsion of god status and later by the expulsion of religious experience itself from the main currents of Western intellectual culture” (43).
Drawing on numerous examples from nineteenth- and twentieth-century film and fiction, Nelson contends that low art, or rather, popular culture, has become the far more important and interesting arena, being the specific province of the “longing to reconstruct the transcendent” (177), an “unconscious wellspring of religion” (9) wherein artists “engage religious discourse without being aware of doing so” (22). She insists that “we can’t use empirical reasoning to disqualify the existence of the soul or a kind of reality outside time and space” (289) and concludes by suggesting that we are now possibly in the midst of a new Great Awakening that might redefine “truth” as a balance between materialism and spiritualism.
We learn early on that the “secret life” part of the title refers not to some clandestine, nefarious project promoted by a group such as the Freemasons or Skull and Bones, but rather to the historical dynamics leading to what Nelson believes is the repressed, subterranean Western consciousness energized by the desire for understanding and connecting to the universal transcendent, and finding expression in contemporary popular culture. Such a controversial argument, one challenging all other views of Western intellectual and artistic production, consumption, and interpretation, obviously requires a substantial rhetorical framework, and while I certainly agree with some of her concerns about the significance of religious thought to pre-modern art and the dehumanizing and anxiety-producing effects of contemporary life and its representation in the arts, at least four major problems (and many lesser ones) are raised by her claims regarding the interpretation of sf and other forms of cultural production.
First, the “argument” simply posits a priori the unarguable existence of a supernatural, transcendent, mirror world to our own. She insists upon the fact that cultural production, albeit unawares, connects to a “level of reality beyond the one our senses apprehend” (163) and seeks to make “a leap” that broadens “the boundaries of our consciousness” (26) by revalidating the importance of the supernatural. Thus this book is meant to be far more than a suggestive cross-cultural argument for the influences of various beliefs in the transcendental upon cultural production, high or low, though her work on this score sans diatribe is valuable and compelling.
The second point concerning the nature of Nelson’s argument is simply impossible to allow. She insists that many a story or film representing other planes of existence is not just an imaginative, playful flight of fancy but an intentional attempt to connect with the transcendent. These works are allegories, she insists, such that “one level of reality, however we define that level, does not stand for an element in another level; under the element’s original terms, both manifestations are to be regarded as equally real” (16; emphasis in original). Some of her “exhibits” (her term) include James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898)—what if the ghosts are real; Poe’s “The Raven” (1845)—birds can speak to us if we choose to listen; H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu stories—those demons really exist and are just about to break through from the other side; and Philip K. Dick’s VALIS period (1974-82)—the Programmer of the universe is speaking to us all the time. These authors are not writing fantasies, according to Nelson; these are bona fide revelations (168-69), each being, if we simply appreciate the fact, “a door in the sky” (one of her chapter titles, taken from The Truman Show ) that allows us “to break out of the manufactured cosmos” (275) and reconnect to “a very different reality that lies either below or above us” (6).
These de facto insistences on the given of the transcendent are disconcerting, but the third problem, being the complete conscious rejection of virtually all scholarly work on cultural interpretation, and especially from the European philosophical tradition, is even more damning. This book, while seeming to be scrupulously researched, inasmuch as it contains numerous endnotes and bibliographical references, is in fact defiantly anti-scholarly and accordingly rejects the “parochialism or limitation inherent in … [the current empirico-materialist] viewpoint” (26). Nelson does not bother to mention, let alone to address, any of the extensive, major arguments intersecting with (and sometimes even supporting) the grounds of her subject. Her implicit position is that contemporary scholarship is spiritually bankrupt, hence methodologically flawed, and thus precisely the proof of what is wrong with any interpretation but her own. Very brief, and I do mean minimal and highly selective, mentions occur of Benjamin, Hayles, Foucault, ðiñek, and a very few other notable critics, but not a word on Althusser, Adorno, Raymond Williams, Eagleton, Pearson, Jameson, SFS’s own Suvin, Hollinger, Latham, or Gordon, et al. Rather, her grounding authorities are Plato, Freud (but only the mystical side), Goethe, Kleist, C.S. Lewis, and her guiding light and protagonist, Giordano Bruno, a mystic “branded a heretic who was burned at the stake in 1600” (55). This is not a scholarly study but an esoteric foray structured as historical narrative.
The last point, and finally we may arrive at those sections of the book most relevant to the readers of SFS, concerns the “puppets” component of the title. Nelson’s preliminary discussion summarizes the well-known and definitely not secret knowledge of the history of puppets. She begins with the anthropological scholarship that documents the uses of human-like figures in ancient religious ceremonies, and then selectively highlights certain historical developments of puppets and puppetry in Western cultural practice through the nineteenth century. A great deal can be said about her choices and interpretations, but let us push ahead to her grand claim: sf is the “puppet turned robot-android-clone-cyborg seeking humanity and immortality at the same time” (61). In other words, sf is, according to Nelson, perhaps the premier mode of contemporary cultural production energized by the repressed longing for connection with the transcendental planes of existence, and so all puppets, from Frankenstein to Robbie to T3, embody “the urge to divinize” (59). Those who teach in faith-based settings will be delighted by this conclusion: sf, far from being the repulsive expression of godless scientism, can now be claimed as the unfortunately misrecognized quintessence of the spiritual!
Nelson, while briefly mentioning sf authors and modes such as William Gibson and cyberpunk, offers two main sets of sf “exhibits.” The first consists of a generalized discussion of Dick’s final “mystic” period, which offers no new insights or details, does “not presume to make a judgment” (176) concerning the validity of Dick’s belief in the Programmer, and yet generally avers that he was indeed a classic mystic in touch with the transcendent and hence someone who fits squarely into the claims of her argument. The second set of “exhibits” consists of interpretations of various recent sf films, such as Blade Runner (1982), The Crow (1994), The Truman Show, and a few others, her main examples being Dark City (1998) and The Matrix (1999). Dark City, we are told, depicts “no transcendental otherworld but a shockingly ugly different version of material reality” (277), but in this conclusion, far from supporting a materialist interpretation (the rhetorical nemesis of this book), Nelson asserts that these films have “moved the dormant Platonic sensibility in Western culture from its exile in the sub-Zeitgeist back into the mainstream” (278).
Space prohibits a closer examination of the book’s numerous, complex, and detailed specific arguments, such as her dubious reading of Kafka, but I hope here to have given the reader a taste of the issues. Still, and I will end on this point, something must be said for the project’s impetus and place within cultural production at this moment. Being an unabashed empirico-materialist of the sort that Nelson believes is provincial and limited, I see the collective trend toward secret lives and histories such as Nelson’s as “exhibits” of the drive for explanations of the maddeningly complex dynamics of life in an age of hyper-access to competing forms of information.
Theodore Adorno in his posthumous Aesthetic Theory (1970) coined the term “contingent particularity” to address certain specific dynamics of art in the twentieth century, but, in imitation of Brecht, I would like here to “re-function” Adorno’s term as a means to theorize what I see as a widespread epistemological pathology. We are bombarded by information and cannot heed all of it, so we must be selective, but how do we know when we are paying attention to the “right” information? We cannot know. And how can we know if what we chose to focus upon is true? We cannot know that either. Thus we are caught in an epistemological bind between the necessity to choose particulars and the hopeless contingency of general verification. So we construct paradigms—always ideological—that attempt to make sense of what we encounter. Fredric Jameson calls the process “cognitive mapping,” while Adorno and Walter Benjamin invoke the term “constellation” to specify the consequence of idea formation. Nelson, borrowing from computer scientist David Gelernter, prefers the term “topsight” for what I would see as an urge simply to understand the world, but she, unsurprisingly, insists that the “messianic undertone is hard to miss” (281).
In any case, I propose that the category of “secret” histories and lives, therefore, is a symptom of the epistemological crisis generated by the contradictions of life under capital. Let me sharpen this point: we would rather come up with any other explanation for our confusion, no matter how fantastical (aliens), warped (conspiracy theory), or supernatural (ghosts), than to consider that the explanation might be directly in front of us in the form of capital’s inherent inequalities. The resulting outpouring of “secret” lives and histories, when seen in this epistemological light (copy-cat marketing fads are not the issue here), is a wide-scale therapeutic strategy to create satisfying but ultimately imaginary and contingent explanations for the complexities of (post)modern life. Would it not be nice if everything could be explained by a “secret history” that had a basis in the supernatural, as Nelson contends, rather than in hard-ball economics and politics? The recently published The Secret (2006)—of controlling the universe, no less—and A Lifetime of Secrets: A PostSecret Book (2007) claim to be just such revelations, but take notice. I am (secretly) at work upon a book intended to top them all—The Secret History of All Secret Histories, Secrets Lives, and Secrets—which will certainly be the final words on the subject once the secret is out.—William J. Burling, Missouri State University
Reification and Class Consciousness.
Yusuf Nuruddin, Alcena M.D. Rogan, and Victor Wallis, eds. Socialism and Social Critique in Science Fiction. Special issue of Socialism and Democracy 20.3 (Nov. 2006). viii + 276 pp.
This special issue of Socialism and Democracy is a substantial, varied, stimulating collection devoted to the literary, cinematic, and folkloric presence of sf in contemporary American society. Victor Wallis sets forth the editors’ explicitly politicized agenda in his brief introduction. Their interest, says Wallis, lies in sf that “encourage[s] new ways of thinking about human society, or provide[s] new sources of strength for resisting oppression, while at the same time (thanks to [its] wide diffusion) bringing social consciousness and political awareness to constituencies unresponsive to overtly political messages” (1-2). The issue’s goal is “to suggest new ways in which popular understanding of the need to go ‘beyond capital’ can grow” (3). This collection does not aim to offer a representative sampling either of sf phenomena or of the current state of scholarship and criticism. It is, instead, a sharply focused project dedicated to an unabashedly Marxist understanding of the goals and methods of social critique, and it will prove most congenial to those who share those goals and are versed in the tradition of Marxist criticism and theory that informs the entire volume. Yet its contents have a wider appeal as well, simply because every essay in the volume is worth reading on its own for someone interested in the particular topic it covers. Anyone interested in cyberpunk and the social impact of digital technology, in the role sf has played in both popular and literary African-American culture, in the folklore of flying saucers, or in the writing of China Miéville, Nicola Griffith, Ursula K. Le Guin, Marge Piercy, or Octavia Butler will find something of interest in this volume.
I am more interested here in what the volume offers when taken as a whole. Viewed as a collection, this volume is comparable to the 2002 special issue of Historical Materialism on Marxism and Fantasy edited by China Miéville. Both are signal examples of the continuing vitality of the Marxist-oriented strain of sf criticism launched in the 1970s, most prominently by Darko Suvin and Fredric Jameson. As exemplars of the current state of sf studies, these two coherently focused Marxist volumes stand in sharp contrast to the scattered, supposedly less ideologically exclusive, special issue of PMLA in May 2004, a project that was first accepted and encouraged by the editorial board of that august journal and then subverted and severely truncated by a reconstituted board. (One of the present editors, Alcena M.D. Rogan, was the sole younger scholar who slipped through the PMLA board’s grasp into the pages of its journal.)
Socialism and Social Critique in Science Fiction does not adopt the same position toward earlier Marxist criticism of sf as the Historical Materialism issue. In contrast to Miéville’s volume, which self-consciously strove against Suvin’s restrictive conception of sf as the literature of cognitive estrangement and toward a broad sense of the literary and social dimensions of fantasy and the fantastic, the editors of this volume are content to work within Suvin’s definition (“Works conceived within this tradition are the ones in which we find promise,” says Wallis ). But the contents of the volume, while they bear out Suvin’s disdain for Tolkien-esque fantasy (Suvin himself contributes an epigram against Tolkien, printed at the end of the preface), are varied in an interesting fashion not dictated by Suvin’s theory or practice. Victor Wallis says in his introduction that the subject matter falls into two main areas, “social-scientific critique (analysis and proposals) on the one hand, and cultural expression (nurturing resistance and personal transformation) on the other” (3). The actual dichotomy one finds in this volume is not so much between the work of analysis undertaken in the various essays and the cultural expressions those analyses take as their subject matter, however. It corresponds better to the division advanced in the title of one of George Lukács’s most important essays, “Reification and the Class Consciousness of the Proletariat” (1923). About half of the essays devote themselves to analyzing reification—that is, the logic of capital, its transformation of social interaction and personal experience, and the basis of bourgeois ideology in that transformation. In keeping with Suvin’s notion of cognitive estrangement, the essayists find that the sf they examine is already at work on this analytical project. The “class consciousness of the proletariat” half of the volume, on the other hand, focuses on analyzing cultural expressions crafted by subordinated minority groups, particularly African-Americans, that resist or subvert hegemonic culture and on thinking strategically about achieving the political and cultural goals of those subordinated groups.
Foremost among the essays that examine the logic of capital are two that concentrate on cyber-technology and the so-called information economy: Steven Shaviro’s “Prophecies of the Present,” and Sherryl Vint and Mark Bould’s “All That Melts into Air is Solid: Rematerialising Capital in Cube and Videodrome.” Both of these essays draw their inspiration from the classic Marxist notion of the fetishism of commodities. Shaviro holds that the profit engine of capital valorization depends, not on an economy of needs or of scarcity, but rather on the constant stimulation, and therefore the constant frustration, of desire. Hence he sees the aesthetic as being an ever more privileged category in understanding consumer society: “The problem of beauty ... is formally identical with the problem of the commodity” (23). Vint and Bould, engaging in an extensive dialogue with Manuel Castells’s three-volume work on The Information Age (2000-2004), stress the fantasy of disembodiment that pervades both Castells’s analysis and cyberpunk in general, and which, they argue, corresponds to the apparent dissolution of capital itself into flows of financial “information.” Their effort is mainly directed against capitulation to the “fantasy of transcendence” engendered by “the logic of network society in which the symbolic has replaced the material as the site of meaningful social and political action” (239).
A number of other essays in the volume similarly concentrate on the way the dominant economy shapes individual experience, personal identity, and social structure itself. Carl Freedman’s essay on China Miéville, following the unexceptionable scholarly strategy of reading an important author’s non-fiction for insight into the fiction, interprets Miéville’s Bas-Lag trilogy in the light of the theory of international law adumbrated in Miéville’s Between Equal Rights (2005). Here the ideological constitution of the sovereign individual able to enter into the free contract between wage-earner and capitalist turns out to be the lynchpin of legal ideology and a central critical target in the Bas-Lag trilogy. Alcena Madeline Davis Rogan contributes an acute essay on alienation in Marxist theory and in the fiction of Nicola Griffith and Rebecca Ore. Dennis Lensing writes well about gender ideology in the utopian and dystopian fictions of Ursula Le Guin and Marge Piercy. And finally, Marleen Barr, the very antithesis of academic gravitas, contributes a piece on what she calls post-postmodernism that delivers a searing attack on the Bush administration’s attitude toward truth in a tone reminiscent of Mel Brooks.
The other half of the volume (though, I hasten to point out, the organization of the volume’s table of contents does not correspond to this division at all), instead of working over topics such as desire, disembodiment, alienation, and the sovereign individual of bourgeois ideology, tends to take popular culture more on its own terms, and to pose questions about political and cultural strategy rather than to theorize about the current mutations of capitalism itself. The final essay in the volume, for example, Michael G. Bennett’s “The Adoxic Adventures of John Henry in the 21st Century,” tackles the same general subject matter as Shaviro and Vint and Bould, but poses a quite different question: “how can technoscience be made to underwrite more meaningful and humane lives for Black people?” (245; emphasis in original). Although the sort of analysis done in the other essays is relevant to Bennett’s question, and although the type of practical concern announced in his question plays a role in the essays of Shaviro and Vint and Bould, Bennett’s essay explicitly occupies itself far more with weighing different strategies for the Black community’s dealing with technoscience than with the ideology of the ruling class. In a similar vein, Jonathan Scott’s essay on Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993), “Octavia Butler and the Base for American Socialism,” is less concerned with Butler’s analysis of late capitalism than with her delineation of a strategy for galvanizing and uniting a community in resistance to it.
Two other essays describe the impact of sf on Black American cultural production, first in Lisa Yaszek’s informative survey of Afrofuturism, “Afrofuturism, Science Fiction, and the History of the Future,” and then in Yusuf Nuruddin’s fascinating piece, “Ancient Black Astronauts and Extraterrestrial Jihads: Islamic Science Fiction as Urban Mythology,” which details the impact of sf on two inner-city alternative religious movements, the Nation of Gods and Earths and the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, that developed out of and broke away from the Nation of Islam. The project of these essays is more one of constructing an anti-hegemonic cultural identity than of deconstructing the dominant ideology. Yaszek wants to demonstrate that “Afrofuturism is a coherent narrative tradition in its own right” (42), and Nuruddin argues that the extravagant cosmologies he describes are “the people’s social critique” (164; emphasis in original). In terms of Marxist theory, we find ourselves less concerned with alienation and the fetishism of commodities than with Gramsci’s notion of the organic intellectual.
I have saved for last one of the most pleasurable essays in the volume, Robert P. Horstemeier’s “Flying Saucers Are Real! The US Navy, Unidentified Flying Objects, and the National Security State.” Horstemeier carefully documents the bizarre role that the US Navy played in lending credibility and energy to the flying saucer legends that circulated wildly in the early post-WW2 years in the US. What Horstemeier calls “the ‘sciencefictionalization’ of US life” (213) involves a tangled web of popular legend, commercial and political opportunism, Cold War paranoia, and inter-agency struggle among the branches of the military for control over an emerging array of advanced weaponry. In the course of this struggle the US Navy actively sought to undermine the Air Force’s efforts to debunk flying saucer myths, encouraging, for example, the idea that flying saucer sightings involved either new Russian weapons or top-secret American technology. The Navy’s motives for casting doubt on Air Force claims, Horstemeier argues, stemmed from competition over control of the national security apparatus. Uncovering such crass and cynical manipulation of American mass hysteria in the Cold War years is perhaps no longer any surprise, but Horstemeier’s careful documentary effort makes extensive use of formerly classified government documents from the files of the CIA and FBI, providing his study with an exceptional level of detail and credibility.
The volume as a whole conveys a vibrant sense of sf’s diffuse and complex importance in twentieth-century American society. The most refreshing and salutary decision made by the editors of this volume, in my estimation, is their inclusion of a folkloric dimension in the pieces by Nuruddin and Horstemeier to complement the more usual attention paid to literary and cinematic sf. Including studies of such non-literary and non-commercial narrative production as the urban mythology of the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors or Cold War legends about flying saucers implies a sense of sf as a dynamic and open-ended social practice, not just as a niche in the mass market or a variant in the panoply of literary forms. Pushing the concept of genre itself towards the fluid and conflicted realm of social practice is of course entirely consonant with the volume’s Marxist and activist orientation, and it may be an unintended consequence of the editors’ simply sticking to their basic principles. But I think that it makes this volume of interest, not just to those who share the editors’ political and theoretical positions, but to all scholars and students of sf.—John Rieder, University of Hawai’i at M~noa.
“What are you grokking in that sci-fi zine, Hamlet?” “Words, words, words.”
Jeff Prucher. Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. xxxi + 342 pp. $29.95 hc.
We really have needed an sf dictionary for some time. Words such as “space shuttle,” “beam” (as a verb), and “fanzine” have spread into general usage, meaning that they can be ignorantly misused too. Gary K. Wolfe’s Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy (1986) is too specialized, and encyclopedias offer mini-essays about sf terms rather than concise definitions. Promising “more than 3,000 terms,” prepared with the editorial oversight of the New England Science Fiction Association, and bearing the imprimatur of Oxford University Press, this book is likely to become a standard reference work.
The major problem in writing about a dictionary is that, since the work itself is an assemblage of small parts, one tends to nit-pick. Instead of a review, the result is a re-edit. Keep in mind, therefore, that most of what follows is just carping: if I had been in charge of this project, I would have done things differently—but mainly in the details, superficially. Prucher, his advisors, and the multitude of contributors have produced a valuable, useful book that is also fun to browse through casually. Still....
Anyone putting together a dictionary must decide which words to include and how thoroughly to cross-reference them. I can shrug and accept most of Prucher’s choices, recognizing that they are judgment calls. To deserve inclusion, words must have been widely used for some time, so that “scientifiction,” for example, deserves to be included because, though currently obsolete, it was used throughout the sf community for years. Thus, the absence of “deros” may be justified because the Shaver Mystery was a relatively short-lived, though intense, sf scandal. It is harder, though, to understand why “flying saucer” is left out. “Little green man” is included because its usage spans several decades and has widened to non-sf periodicals; my guess is that “grey” has been around for a long time, too, but it is missing. While we consider scandals and hoaxes, since “pseudo science” is included, why is there no entry for “dianetics”—or a cross-reference to the entry for “psionics”? And, on the subject of debatable omissions, why is there no entry for “wormhole”? Or for “bionic,” one of the words Gene Wolfe mentions in his introduction as justifying this dictionary’s existence?
Although most of the terms come from print/media sf, I am glad to see that this dictionary includes so many words that originated in sf fandom. As noted above, words such as “fanzine” obviously have migrated into the general pop culture vocabulary (though I would have thought that “one shot” had also gained enough widespread use to deserve an entry too). Besides that, fanspeak deserves to be recorded and examined. We academics flinch at fandom because we find it difficult to admit our kinship with those nerdy autodidacts, even though they were reading and writing seriously about sf long before anyone in the mundane world cared. But fanspeak is worth preserving just as fans deserve admiration for their ingenuity in making something out of nothing and for their general disdain for smug authority figures. Prucher shows how fannish enthusiasm balances skepticism in the entries for “slan” and “slan shack”: If we are superhuman mutants, why are we stuck in this dump? The sometimes-serious acronym “FIAWOL” (Fandom is a Way of Life) is balanced by the jeering response “FIJAGH” (Fandom is Just a Goddam Hobby). Both feelings are sincere; maybe, as Grue editor Dean Grennell once opined, Fandom is Just a Goddam Way of Life.
Fandom obviously is a diverse community, one that delights in accumulating a mass of lore and creating arcane jargon. If a dictionary includes some fannish terms—as an sf dictionary must—choices of inclusion and cross-references become especially tricky. To see how this works in one area, consider the task of creating a fanzine. Before we had computers to turn out beautiful text with standardized spelling and justified margins, everything in a self-published magazine had to be done by hand. Most fanzines were typed on some kind of sheet that was then attached to a duplicating machine.
Somehow, the fan-ed had to put each page of the words and art either on a dittograph master or a mimeograph stencil. (Okay, a few fanzines were produced with printing presses or, ghod help us, trays of hektograph jelly, but those were exceptions.) Typographical errors were inevitable. If a faned discovered a mistyped passage (and cared—or did not decide that, whathehell, it looked cute), he or she could scratch the offensive carbon off the reverse side of the dittograph master with the corner of a razor blade; errors on mimeograph stencils could be filled in with a blob of correction fluid, then retyped as soon as the stuff dried. Thinking about this whole process might make one wonder mildly why, if some elements are important enough to be defined in the dictionary, others are not. Why are “coreflu” and “filk” (one typographical error that entered fannish usage) included but “mimeo,” “ditto,” and “typo” are not?
Beyond this kind of quibbling about what is not included for one reason or another, however, let us look at what is there. The heart of any dictionary should be its definitions, and the ones in Brave are usually straightforward and clear. The biggie, of course, is “science fiction” itself. Three definitions are included. The first and most substantial is as follows: a genre (of literature, film, etc.) in which the setting differs from our own world (e.g. by the invention of new technology, through contact with aliens, by having a different history, etc.), and in which the difference is based on extrapolations made from one or more changes or suppositions; hence such a genre in which the difference is explained (explicitly or implicitly) in scientific or rational, as opposed to supernatural, terms. (171)
Another definition, cross-referencing “imaginative fiction,” indicates that things are not quite that neat, so that readers may have difficulty identifying specific works as sf/fantasy/speculative fiction/whatever. That subject has been explored in books, essays, and encyclopedia entries already, and it deserves even more discussion. Still, to cite one problem area, I am not sure if this definition helps distinguish sf from the swarm of political-technical thrillers that have appeared in recent decades. It is pretty clear that Richard K. Morgan’s novels, which he calls “future noir,” are sf. Tom Clancy’s books, on the other hand, do not feel like sf, nor are they labeled as such by publishers or reviewers. But, although they are not identified as sf either and do not change the surface details of their modern American settings, a fair number of Richard Condon’s mordant extrapolations of public corruption reinterpret our social conditions so thoroughly that novels such as The Manchurian Candidate (1959), Mile High (1969), or The Whisper of the Ax (1976) resemble the work of a somewhat less metaphysical Tim Powers. Maybe this illustrates a useful distinction between superficial identifiers of sf—the presence of gadgets, aliens, etc.—and the kind of daring speculation that marks genuine sf, whatever that is. In any case, it would be unfair to expect a dictionary to untangle overlapping genres. Even the writers of such novels are uncertain about the basis for definitions. When I wrote an essay considering Condon as an sf writer, he sent a note saying, well, that had not been his intention but he was willing to admit that “maybe there’s a Martian in there somewhere.”
In fact, however, the definitions do not have to stand by themselves. Like the OED, Brave uses citations, showing the historical record of a term’s usage. These lists are fascinating, sometimes startling. “Alien,” for example, was first used in a rather sf-ish context by Thomas Carlyle in an 1820 letter: “I am like a being thrown from another planet on this dark terrestrial ball, an alien, a pilgrim among its possessors.” Dictionary users can observe how Star Wars wrenched “android,” a lifelike artificial human, into the all-metal “droids.” They also can see how usage of “space opera” abruptly changed from dismissal of trite adventure fiction to recognition that people kept writing the stuff because it represented an important aspect of sf. Even in the lists of citations, to be sure, there are things to carp at. The entry for “corpsesicle, corpsicle” begins with a 1966 quote that concludes “(This is certainly more dignified than Fred Pohl’s ‘corpsesicles.’)”; although this must refer to something Pohl had written earlier, however, the first Pohl quote is dated 1969. In the same way, the first cited usage of “planeteer” is a 1927 letter of Amazing Stories requesting reprints of “‘The Planeteer’ and its sequels.” Since Homer Eon Flint’s story appeared in All-Story in 1918, that logically should be the first citation. Etc.
In all, as I said originally, this is a useful book, even though there are deficiencies and maybe even some outright flaws. For sf does deserve and need a dictionary. You may recognize this fact if any of the words in this review have croggled you as much as they have my spellchecker. For another illustration of the need, check the ad for Oxford University Press on the back cover of the April 26, 2007, issue of The New York Review of Books, including Brave New Words. Brave’s entry for “sci-fi” contains two definitions, neither positive and one downright pejorative. Nevertheless, the ad stresses the new book’s range of subjects: “Sci-Fi, Secessionists, and a Jewish Mother.” Sigh. Yes, we need a good dictionary for sf. This one is good enough if only we can persuade people to use it.—Joe Sanders, Shadetree Scholar
Shedding a Little Light on the Worldcon
Mike Resnick and Joe Siclari, eds. Worldcon Guest of Honor Speeches. Deerfield, IL: ISFiC Press, 2006. 707 Sapling Lane, Deerfield, IL 60015-3969. 320 pp. $30 hc.
No field of literature has as long-standing and intensely designed a relationship between its authors and its readers as does science fiction. This, of course, is made manifest in the annual cycle of sf conventions, and especially the “Worldcons” held annually (with interruptions in World War II) since 1939. This book collects thirty of the speeches delivered by Guests of Honor at Worldcons, and so should provide a couple of ways into understanding the field. First, one hopes that it will shed some light on the motivations of some of sf’s central writers. Second, it should shed some light on the relationship between them and sf fandom: on who they think their audience is, and what its concerns are. And third, the historical span of the book (from Frank R. Paul in 1939 to Christopher Priest in 2005) should give a sense of how the field has evolved. As it turns out, the book is pretty good at fulfilling the second of these goals, patchy at the third, and not terribly helpful at the first.
Before I move on to substantive comments, a word of caution. I reviewed this book from a bound proof rather than a finished copy. The proof was studded with typos, as proofs sometimes are, and I assume that these have been picked up in the final version. But there are also some more substantial gaps in what one would expect from a book of this kind, and I assume that these have not been fixed. Broadly, there is a lack of information to enable the reader to put the speeches in any kind of context. Apart from an introduction and brief biographical paragraphs on each speaker, there is nothing to help the reader get any bearings. I am not arguing, of course, that a book of this kind should have referencing or footnoting as detailed as, say, an essay in SFS. But when, for instance, Ben Bova begins his 2000 speech by saying, “[Harry] Turtledove, I never rejected you. You never offered yourself” (215), one assumes the reference is to Bova’s 1970s period editing Analog. But there is no definite pointer to that, nor to what Turtledove had said (immediately before? when introducing Bova?) to provoke this remark.
The editors state up front that their choice of speeches has been constrained by, among other things, what was recorded and what they have been able to gain permission to use. So, for instance, we have here only the first of Robert A. Heinlein’s three GoH speeches, the other two being reproduced in his Expanded Universe (1980). Some of the speeches are not speeches at all: the Strugatsky brothers and Vernor Vinge, for instance, offer interviews. But I suspect that, even if we had a broader selection of writers here, the book’s qualities would only be amplified rather than materially different. (I suspect that its ratio of two women authors out of 30 speeches would not be radically different, either.)
Frank R. Paul’s 1939 speech encapsulates many of the qualities to be seen in its successors. For instance, it has the appeal to sf fandom as a distinct subset of society with very specific qualities:
The Science Fiction Fan may well be called the advance guard of progress. We are the fellows who are willing to give every new idea a chance, without ridicule.... To my mind, a Science Fiction Fan is intensely interested in everything going on around him, differing radically from his critic. His critic is hemmed in by a small provincial horizon of accepted orthodox and humdrum realities, and either does not dare or is too lazy to reach beyond that horizon. (4)
That litany—frequently cartooned, after A.E. van Vogt, as “Fans are Slans”—recurs frequently here. It follows logically on the idea of Golden Age sf as a kind of advocacy of what shape the future should take: sf fans are, in a sense, the ones charged with bringing the future into being. It crops up periodically in the early speeches here, and is particularly tied to the idea of scientific progress: Paul concludes with “the conviction that in the future we will have bigger and better Science fiction, with the accent on the Science” (5). In 1952, Hugo Gernsback sounds an even purer version of this note, with a speech that makes a kind of equivalence among science, inventions, and societal progress. The picture is of the lonely inventor (always a man) coming up with gizmos that automatically make a radical transformation in society. In a sense, the disappointment that science fiction has arguably registered since (and the swerve away from plain technophilia in these speeches) comes from a realization that this model, while eminently “story-shaped,” had very little relevance to how technology actually comes into society. Inventions are usually produced by groups rather than individuals, are usually owned by the companies that funded their development, and tend only to bring incremental and patchy change to society.
So, by the time we reach 2000 and Ben Bova’s speech still preaching the work of science fiction as isomorphic with the work of space advocacy, his words seem out of time. Certainly an earlier speaker, Gene Wolfe (1985), had reconstituted the story of sf fans as an embattled minority in a different way. They were hounded not by the mundane world disbelieving their optimism but by the literary establishment or, as he calls it, the Stink of Literacy. He says, “[The Stink] is the thing that teaches people who can read not to read.... The question is, What shall we do? How can we break out of our ghetto? How can we win the acclaim, the dignity, and the awestruck recognition that we feel to be our birthright?” (184). Though Wolfe is too canny to believe in this version of things (note the ironic tone of “awestruck recognition”), he again tries to assert the sense of sf as a privileged space for a particular kind of dreaming.
Throughout the book, in fact, it is those people who are not conventionally regarded as pure sf writers who make the most interesting contributions. Apart from Wolfe, there are Robert Bloch (1948), Fritz Leiber (1951), Theodore Sturgeon (1962), and, in a very different vein, Doris Lessing (1987). A couple of specific cases show the strengths and weaknesses of this book. Christopher Priest (2005) spends a significant amount of his anecdote-based speech complaining about a comics writer who had adopted the pseudonym Christopher Priest and in doing so caused him much difficulty. In the context of the convention (I attended but did not see the speech), this was felt to be a reasonable, if slightly unusual use of the GoH platform; collected in print, it just looks sour. And Harlan Ellison, perhaps predictably, steps outside the brief entirely. His speech at Iguanacon II in Arizona in 1978 was dominated by that state’s refusal to sign the Equal Rights Amendment and thereby help to guarantee women’s rights. He provides a lengthy introduction (not marked as such by the editors, so that the reader has to figure out from context that it is not a speech) saying that he has “examined at length the eighty-page double-spaced, woefully transcribed and erroneously translated manuscript of my live performance” (163) and found it wanting. Given the subject of the speech, one wishes (to put it mildly) that Ellison had a finer control of tone when saying that “Most of the speech was taken up with bitch-slapping the mass of Arizonans who helped, ultimately, to defeat the ERA” (163).
But Ellison’s self-dramatizations are, as always, at an extreme end of the graph. Most of these speeches are curiously reticent about writers’ motivations or autobiographies—nor does one have the right to ask for anything else. Within the bounds I have described, it is a useful work and collects material that would be very difficult to find elsewhere. But one does feel that more light could have been shed.—Graham Sleight, Foundation, Liverpool, UK
Caverns, Cavities, and Abysses, Oh My
David Standish. Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface. Oxford: Da Capo, 2006. 304pp. £14.99; US $24.95 hc.
Les Terres creuses.
Guy Costes and Joseph Altairac. Bibliographie commentée des mondes souterrains imaginaires. Préface de I.F. Clarke, annexe de F. Tortey, postface de S. Lehman. Paris: Encrage-Les Belles Lettres, 2006. 800 pp. €60 hc.
These two books are not academic studies, yet one manages to delight while the other is a disappointment. David Standish’s Hollow Earth is, as the subtitle puts it, an overview of the “long and curious history of imagining strange lands, fantastical creatures, advanced civilizations, and marvelous machines below the Earth’s surface.” In eight chapters, the book surveys some of the high points in this history, beginning with a review of possible sources for the idea of a hollow earth, which Standish attributes primarily to the astronomer Edmond Halley (with help from Athanasius Kircher). He then turns to the eccentric American John Cleves Symmes, followed by chapters on Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and Cyrus Tweed. This parade of key figures is interrupted by a chapter, “Hollow Utopias, Romances, and a Little Kiddie Lit,” before returning to fiction with Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Pellucidar novels (1914-44); and the book concludes with some modern versions of hollow-earth fiction and theory. While this is a handsomely illustrated and attractive book, it covers no new ground, borrowing heavily from some earlier sources (such as William Stanton’s The Great United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 ) and giving the reader biographies and plot résumés. Moreover, the book is marred by an overly breezy style and a number of mistakes and questionable interpretations. When I write that it breaks no new ground, I am referring not so much to his overlooking of my own Subterranean Worlds; it was published in 2004, and the author may have missed it in the course of his research (which seems to have been done mainly on the internet). I am thinking rather of Walter Kafton-Minkel’s ground-breaking Subterranean Worlds: 100,000 Years of Dragons, Dwarfs, the Dead, Lost Races and UFOs From Inside the Earth (published in 1989), which covers all of the areas dealt with by Standish. Admittedly Kafton-Minkel’s book was published by a small press and is now out of print, but it is certainly available in libraries (and Amazon has used copies for sale); and it is mentioned on many of the hollow earth web-sites Standish cites in his research.
Standish’s account reads at times like a caricature of journalistic writing. “Darwinism itself seemed the second hit of a one-two punch after Copernicus had eighty-sixed the formerly supreme earth and its solar system to an obscure corner of an obscure galaxy” (169). The author further asserts the non-academic character of the book by avoiding page references in either his primary or secondary sources, at times citing works not mentioned in his bibliography—an exasperating practice for the reader interested in following up a particular reference. On page 57, for instance, he quotes at length from a letter of Gerardus Mercator to John Dee, but there is no indication where Standish found this letter, and no reference to Mercator in the bibliography.
On page 63 Standish asserts that Symzonia (1820) “is universally attributed to Symmes.” This is certainly not the case, as I discuss in some detail in my Subterranean Worlds (102-106). (The first important challenge is to be found in R.D. Mullen, “The Authorship of Symzonia” [SFS 3.1 (Mar. 1976): 98-99]). Kafton-Minkel considers it “unlikely” that Symmes wrote the novel (68-69). He also quotes Victoria Nelson (in 1997) as arguing that Symzonia was “the very first American utopia” (64). But it was J.O. Bailey, in the introduction to the 1965 facsimile edition, who first developed this argument, and as a glance at Lyman Tower Sargent’s British and American Utopian Literature, 1516-1985 (1988)shows, there are at least half a dozen American utopias that predate Symzonia. Moreover, despite his lengthy review of Symmes, Standish does not discuss the discrepancies between the “sectional view of the Earth” on the frontispiece of Symzonia (and reproduced in Standish 73), which shows a single internal sphere, and Symmes’s repeated declaration that the earth contains “a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other.”
There are other minor mistakes. Joscelyn Godwin becomes a woman, Jocelyn Godwin (19), for instance; and while Standish mentions Godwin’s book Arktos: The Polar Myth in Science, Symbolism, and Nazi Survival (1993), he does not seem aware of his book on Athanasius Kircher (1979). In sum, this is not a very interesting book, although I should admit that my biggest objection lies probably in the author’s attitude, which seems to stress how weird and wacky this all is. I suppose that all readers and fans of sf are used to this attitude, but it does not mean that I have to like it.
On the other hand, Guy Costes and Joseph Altairac’s annotated bibliography of “imaginary subterranean worlds” is a wonderful and delightful book, one that immediately brings to mind Pierre Versins’s monumental (1000 pages) Encyclopédie de l’utopie et de la science fiction (1972). I would not compare it to John Clute and Peter Nicholls’s exceptional Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993), on the other hand, precisely because the latter fits more closely the model of an essential reference work. Like Versins, Costes and Altairac have produced a fan labor of love, as can be seen in the subtitle, meant to be a humorous imitation of the sixteenth-century French of Rabelais. Following the original French is my own translation, attempting to capture some of that humor:
Traitez non moins utile que délectable de la présence de grottes, cavernes, cavités, gouffres, abimes, tunnels “extraordinaires,” mondes souterrains habités, et autres terres creuses dans les romans (populaires ou non), à conjectures rationnelles, y compris les récits préhistoriques comportant icelle ou icelui, autant que les essais, desquels iusques à présent l’on n’a peu ou prou ouy parler. BIBLOGRAPHIE GÉO-ANTHROPOLOGIQUE COMMENTÉE DES MONDES SOUTERRAINS IMAGINAIRES ET DES RÉCITS SPÉLÉOLOGIQUES CONJECTURAUX. [A treatise as delightful as it is useful, dealing with the presence of grottoes, caverns, cavities, gulfs, abysses, “extraordinary” tunnels, inhabited subterranean worlds, and various other hollow earths to be found in novels (popular or not) based on rational conjectures, including prehistoric novels based on one or another of these features, or in essays which may or may not be known. AN ANNOTATED GEO-ANTHROPOLOGICAL BIBLIOGRAPHY OF IMAGINARY SUBTERRANEAN WORLDS AND OF CONJECTURAL SPELEOLOGICAL TALES.]
Eight hundred pages are devoted to presenting every possible reference to the hollow earth—2211 entries arranged in chronological order and covering more than 2000 years of hollow earth imaginings, beginning with two texts by Plato that discuss Atlantis, Timaeus and Critias (c. 360 BCE), and ending with an “esoteric” novel published in 2005. The second entry is Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (1308-21), an inclusion that gives an idea of the catholicity of their interests and the wide range that they give to the notion of “hollow earth.” The book, like Versins’s Encyclopedia, is illustrated on every page with book covers and other illustrations—the absolute best of fan writing and research.
There is also an annotated critical bibliography of more than 125 essential works, and a very good introduction that covers—in 60 pages—all of the areas dealt with by Standish, but in more factual and informative fashion. The entries give the initial publication information along with details about the first French edition of each work. They are relatively brief, usually with a representative passage dealing with the hollow-earth setting, and often some brief commentary. Think of the work of Everett Bleiler, but more idiosyncratic and with lots of illustrations. Unfortunately, the book is in French and probably not available in most North American libraries. But if you do read French and are interested in subterranean worlds, this is the book for you.—Peter Fitting, University of Toronto
Sherryl Vint. Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction. Toronto: U Toronto P, 2007. vii + 243 pp. $50 hc.
One reason to read science fiction seriously is that it serves, from time to time, as a sort of cultural town meeting, in which important ideas are debated and new forms of conceptual consensus hammered out. Sherryl Vint’s new study takes up a cluster of these ideas and examines their presentation in a dozen or so key texts. Some of the ideas are clearly signaled in her title: bodies, technology, subjectivity. Others include virtuality, gender, and, increasingly throughout the book, ethics. These are vast and unruly topics, but Vint impressively keeps her discussion impressively coherent by showing how these ideas not only co-occur within her exemplary texts but also, in their older formulations, collectively form the basis for a liberal-humanist consensus that threatens to dissolve in the face of new information and technological innovation.
Vint begins by recounting a story by Greg Egan, “Reasons to Be Cheerful” (1998). In this story (one of the most powerful of the past couple of decades), the protagonist suffers a series of mishaps that leave him with a partly prosthetic brain and a personality that must be rebuilt practically from scratch. As Vint points out, this story challenges a number of long-held ideas about mind-body duality, authenticity of experience, and the autonomy of the self. Drawing on political and cultural critics such as Tony Davies and C.B. Macpherson, she identifies liberal humanism as the belief in a disembodied, universal humanity. (One caveat is that the version of liberalism described by Vint and her sources is closer to what I think of as libertarianism on the modern political spectrum.) We are, in this view, self-contained, rational, self-interested beings: perfect building blocks for a democratic state and a capitalist economy.
But Egan, like many recent sf writers, throws scientific and technological challenges at every part of the overall model of selfhood. If the condition of the body so impacts the workings of the mind, what happens to Cartesian dualism? If Egan’s character can decide (thanks to his new brain) whether to desire males or females, which brand of sexuality represents his “authentic” self? If the basic programming for his rebuilt personality comes from a composite of “4,000 dead men,” (qtd. by Vint 5), then what happens to the idea of self-sufficiency?
Egan’s story is a wonderful, appalling combination of extrapolation and analogy—we very well might develop prosthetic brain tissue and the ability to program it, but we are all, already, composite beings whose autonomous selfhood is an illusion. Everything we think we know about thought, desire, humanity, and the world can be called into question by advances in neuroanatomy, computer simulations, and new formulations of economic and political power in this postmodern world. The writers Vint selects are among those who are aware of these changes and have been able to embody them in compelling narratives of transaction and transformation. Vint’s analysis convinces us not only of the interrelatedness of her themes but also of the theoretical sophistication of her group of writers, who include Gwyneth Jones, Octavia Butler, Iain M. Banks, Raphael Carter, Jack Womack, Neil Stephenson, and, collectively, the cyberpunk movement. These are Vint’s theorists, as much as the scholars she cites. Perhaps that is one reason she can use the ideas of Donna Haraway and Judith Butler and still write coherent and compelling prose (not often the case with followers of those important but cryptic thinkers).
Each chapter of Vint’s book takes up a particular writer, or group of writers, along with a specific emphasis. The chapter on Jones’s Aleutian trilogy (1991-98), for instance, focuses on the way characters in Jones’s novels construct identities and use those identities as a basis for communication. Whether human or Aleutian, each character responds to a particular call issued by his or her society. (Vint uses Althusser’s model of an ideologically constructed self but avoids most of the jargon that comes with it—hence “call” instead of “interpellation.”) The parts of the self that correspond to the call are reinforced; the leftover becomes unconscious and unspeakable. Among Jones’s aliens, however, that which can be spoken is the least of what can be communicated. Aleutians also send messages through gesture and implication (the Common Tongue) and through chemical signals. They interpret such nonverbal messages by assuming commonality of experience: each carries a model of all the others in his (gendered pronouns are both appropriate and misleading when applied to the Aleutians) memory and genes. The Aleutians have traded some degree of autonomy for a greater flexibility of communication. As Vint says, “The Common Tongue is the limit culture places on the expression of the self, and the evidence that culture constitutes its subjects” (36).
In the first book of the trilogy, White Queen (1991), this feature clearly distinguishes Aleutian from human culture. By book three, Phoenix Café (1998), however, the two groups have begun to converge culturally and even physically. Vint observes that by deliberately confusing definitions and blurring boundaries, Jones “undermines the human characters’ construction of themselves as distinct from the aliens and suggests a new way to conceive of humanness through what we share with others” (35). In other words, by the end of the trilogy, humanity has become alien simply by recognizing previously unacknowledged patterns lurking in our languages, cultures, and bodies. This transformation is not accomplished without heartbreak and violence (after, all, Jones is telling an entertaining story), but it does move the characters toward a more ethical view of the world, one in which they no longer conceive of themselves as something separate from the material world.
The concepts Vint develops in her discussions of Egan and Jones remain on the table as she moves through the other writers on her list—each chapter talks about self, separation, communication, and materiality while offering a new perspective on these concepts in each iteration. These perspectives are the product of a dialogue between one or more theorists and a group of fictional texts. Vint reads Octavia Butler, for instance, in conjunction with several writers on the topic of genetic determinism: Chris Hables Gray on genetic manipulation, Steven Best and Douglas Kellner on the Human Genome Project, Marque-Luisa Miringoff on genetics and social welfare, Lee Silver on popular-scientific descriptions of genetics, and so on. As a matter of fact, I got bogged down a bit in this chapter because it is so thoroughly documented. The reading of Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-89) seems not so much Vint as Vint channeling a whole chorus of scientific and social commentators. Nonetheless, these readings of Butler’s novels are convincing and they add another key ingredient to Vint’s theoretical recipe: the idea that “the body and its genetic code are part of the subject, not just a base material house.... The body, in Butler’s work, is a cultural as well as a natural product” (77).
Following the discussion of Butler, Vint takes up Iain M. Banks’s novels of the Culture, treating his series as a utopian extrapolation of the ideas of liberal humanism: individualism, freedom of choice, and diversity taken to their logical conclusions and mixed with a heady dose of technological advancement and space-opera adventure. Though Vint does not press the point, this particular utopian dream is common to much of sf, from Asimov to Star Trek. Hence, the tensions within Banks’s work, especially the apparently benign Culture’s ventures into subtle coercion and cultural imperialism, are also tensions within sf as a genre. Though “The Culture would have us believe that it is possible to transcend body-based biases and the social injustices that flow from them simply through changing bodies and making bodies interchangeable” (100), Banks shows groups outside the Culture and dissidents within its borders resisting the “violence implicit in its reduction of a plural world to [a] unitary model of ‘true’ subject” (101). The internal contradictions that make Banks’s universe a critical, rather than a simple, utopia are predicated on the fact that bodies resist being transcended and having their physical differences erased.
The following chapter takes up cyberpunk writers from Gibson to Cadigan and draws on feminist critiques of cyberpunk as a boy’s dream of escape from physicality, coded as feminine. Like Anne Balsamo, Vint sees in Pat Cadigan’s Synners (1991) “an alternative narrative of cyberpunk identity that begins with the assumption that bodies are always gendered and always marked by race” (Balsamo qtd. by Vint, 116). The chapter after that can be read as a continuation of the same argument in which Raphael Carter’s The Fortunate Fall (1996) not only critiques cyberpunk for its naivetë but also “offers a vision of what is omitted when we construct a cyberspace posthumanism based on transcendence of the body” (125). Vint does not characterize these later novels as attacks on the cyberpunk Founding Fathers; rather she shows how Carter and Cadigan make use of tensions already present within Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Taken together, all three novels “offer a critique that coincides with that made by social critics of information-technology culture” (133). Reading backward from Carter to Gibson, we can see the genre of cyberpunk not as a glorification of disembodied and ethically vacant hackerdom, but rather as a reminder of everything lost when the body is repudiated and the self turned, as Hans Moravec would have us do, into computer code.
Vint next reads two novels together: Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (1995) and Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1993). Both focus on textuality. Womack presents his novel in the form of a diary written by a young girl while her world is being remade into a more violent and impoverished environment. Stephenson portrays an interactive book as a poor girl’s entry into power and privilege. Both can be read as metafictions; the texts within the texts can stand for literature in general or for sf in particular. Vint shows how these two novels illustrate the degree to which “the practice of reading [must] be understood as an inextricable blending of the ideological constructions of the text and the personal subjectivity of the reader” (169). Such an understanding is the first step toward the “ethical posthumanism” which is the subject of Vint’s concluding chapter.
As Vint reminds us, “[t]he category of the human has historically been used in exclusive and oppressive ways, and the category of the posthuman entails similar risks” (172). She locates some of those risks in the “Transhumanist Declaration” issued by a group of self-styled Extropians, who wish to bring the science-fictional vision of posthumanity into the real world “using the technologies of mind-uploading, nanotechnology, neuroscience, robotics, smart drugs, cognitive science, and genetics” (176). Vint points out that Extropians such as Max More and Hans Moravec would hardly consider themselves liberal humanists, and yet they share with that tradition a tendency to construct an abstract and universal humanity out of a set of assumptions derived from the experience of privileged white males. Their rhetoric simultaneously denies social difference based on the body and blames those whose embodied social position keeps them from becoming good posthumans. Vint aligns herself with critics such as Mark Dery, Donna Haraway, and N. Katherine Hayles, who embrace the changes in perspective that come with the new technology but who wish to keep their notions of posthumanity embedded in “concrete, real-life situations” (183). As her title indicates, she wants us to recognize that we are bodies (no matter what sort of body), rather than Cartesian intelligences housed within “the body.” It seems pretty clear that we are already on our way toward major interventions in the human genome and its various embodied expressions and interactions with cybernetic systems. Vint would like us to examine accounts of such interventions, including both tracts and works of fiction, with a skeptical eye and an awareness that “an ethical posthumanism which acknowledges that self is materially connected to the rest of the world ... is an accountable posthumanism” (189).
Bodies of Tomorrow meets all of my requirements for a good critical work on sf: it is engaging and readable, its readings are solidly grounded in both theory and history, and it offers me new things to do when I read. I can already see ways to use these ideas in rereading writers she has not discussed, such as Melissa Scott or Geoff Ryman. As I read Vint’s study, I could not help thinking about current political rhetoric, especially the way debates over ethics and identity are being couched in terms of religious traditions and ancient texts. It would be fun to see candidates and commentators arguing over Cadiganian versus Gibsonian cyberculture, or contrasting Jones’s and Butler’s versions of humanity’s hidden alienness, rather than debating Biblical injunctions and faith-based initiatives. Tomorrow is already here, our bodies already technologized and our subjectivities altered by science-fictional thinking. We need studies such as Vint’s and works like those she examines to tell us how to live in these bodies. —Brian Attebery, Idaho State University
Eric G. Wilson. The Melancholy Android: On the Psychology of Sacred Machines. Albany, NY: SUNY P, 2006. vii + 172 pp. $19.95 pbk.
Over several thousand years of myth, legend, esoteric doctrine, literature, popular culture, and art, we can see the proliferation of a strange iconography, the figures of human-like, yet quasi-mechanical beings. You could crowd city streets with them all: the mummies, golems, robots, replicants, living dolls and puppets, artificial homunculi, and statues brought to life. The Melancholy Android covers this slightly creepy phenomenon over an historical span that stretches from Egyptian mythology and religious practice to contemporary Hollywood movies.
Eric G. Wilson approaches his theme in an unusual way. The writing is highly personal, not to mention idiosyncratic. For sizeable chunks of the book, he broods about his own obsession with certain images, and particularly with certain specific movies that he once felt the urge to watch every evening (his obsessions, so he confides, now take a different form). His ornate prose blooms with adjectives, squeezes in seemingly endless references to arcane sources, and often expresses the author’s ideas through provocative, even cryptic, metaphor. This is not, then, a book for clarity fetishists. As I was reading The Melancholy Android, it seemed less like a standard work of literary scholarship and more like someone’s private system of occult lore, something akin to W.B. Yeats’s A Vision (1925), though Yeats himself receives few mentions, and these are overlooked in the index.
The language is quite engaging, at least most of the time, but it can also seem overdone, as when the author describes Ficino’s theory of melancholy—a psychological condition, Ficino argued, that particularly affects profound scholars. Showing no interest in precise theory or consistent terminology, Wilson seems to immerse himself in Ficino’s thinking, evidently casting himself as one of the scholars concerned. He conveys the main concepts in loving detail, with lushly precious variation. On just one page, he refers to the experiences of “gloomy scholars,” “sad scholars,” “melancholy scholars,” “melancholy thinkers,” and “dejected philosophers,” using all of these expressions synonymously. Over the page, he continues in the same vein, with the next few lines of text adding in references to “sad geniuses” and “sullen philosophers.”
Wilson focuses most particularly on three twentieth-century movies—Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932), and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982)—seeing these as key works, a modern cinematic culmination of his theme; but he also discusses the myth of Horus, the Kubrick/Spielberg movie A.I. (2001), and everything of relevance in between, whether it be a kooky legend about Descartes, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), or the kabbalistic image of the golem. Much of the critical discussion is insightful, as with a long endnote that analyzes the Frankenstein and Pygmalion tropes in modern cinema. I was impressed by Wilson’s elegantly worded reminder that movies such as The Terminator (1984) do not merely allow us to live out our fears of machines taking over our world (while providing some reassurance when evil is defeated); they also allow us to identify secretly with the killing machines that are displayed as unhesitating and untroubled in their rampages. For these intelligent, inhuman entities, there is no gap—no shadow of anxious choice—between desire and action. This is monstrous, but creatures like us find it enviable.
For all that, the quality is uneven: I found the discussion of Metropolis forced and unconvincing. Having seen several cuts of Lang’s masterpiece, I cannot be sure which one Wilson is describing when he gives a simplistic account of the film’s climax.
Near the end of the book, Wilson reflects upon the continuing, yet always changing, relationship between humans and machines; but this part of his discussion does not really satisfy. To his credit, the author deals with important contributors to the current debate around these issues—K. Erik Drexler, Hans Moravec, Ray Kurzweil, Bill Joy, and N. Katherine Hayles, among others—but he never engages with their ideas in rewarding depth. As he acknowledges, the discussion here is rather schematic, or reductive, pitting homogeneous concepts of mechanism and organicism against each other, with only glimpses of any complexities or possibilities of synthesis.
Worse, some of Wilson’s argument is clichéd: it repeats popular yet naïve points that surely merit skeptical examination. Consider, for example, an oft-expressed fear to which he refers uncritically: the fear that we will cease to be human, in some sense, if our life spans are extended, or if we could establish a world of economic plenty. There is much more to be said, pro and con, about this, and Wilson ignores a substantial body of literature that might have helped the discussion. As the book stands, it makes large philosophical assumptions about what it is to be human, and about what, if anything, is actually valuable about it.
In many respects, The Melancholy Android is more a curiosity than an essential lode of new scholarship or ideas. Still, it contains much fascinating material, compressed into a relatively short space. At the least, it is a good resource for scholars with an interest in science-fiction cinema and its penumbra of fantasy and horror. Though far from definitive, it provides useful readings of a wide range of movies, myths, metaphors, mechanisms, monsters, marvels, and out-of-the-way theories of melancholy.—Russell Blackford, Monash University