#106 = Volume 35, Part 3 = November
BOOKS IN REVIEW
Duchamp Does Wiscon Proud.
L. Timmel Duchamp, ed. The Wiscon Chronicles. Vol. 1. Seattle: Aqueduct (<www.aqueductpress.com>), 2007. 196 pp. $17.50 pbk.
I know that there are academics who work with science fiction but who have had no connection with the sf fan community and who, if they think about fans at all, have trouble getting past the stereotypical paunchy nerd wearing Spock ears, so here is your basic Wiscon 101. The world’s oldest, largest, and most famous feminist sf convention opened its doors in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1977 and in the thirty-plus years since has repeatedly proven itself to be one of the most rewarding and intellectually challenging sf conventions in the world. Specifically founded to be a safe space for feminist discussion, but one that did not exclude men, it has also attracted a variety of other constituencies, including GLBTQ people, people of color, and a growing number of academics. Each year Wiscon features panels on a variety of topics: many, though not all, of them centered on feminism and gender; many, though not all, of these centered on various works of science fiction and fantasy. Each year two famous sf or fantasy writers with feminist or progressive credentials are invited to be guests of honor. The list of past guests is an illustrious one, including Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler, Suzy McKee Charnas, Joan Vinge, Connie Willis, Samuel R. Delany, Iain M. Banks, Karen Joy Fowler, Judith Merril, Mary Doria Russell, Nalo Hopkinson, China Miéville, Robin McKinley, Patricia McKillip, and many others. The James Tiptree, Jr., Award for gender-bending sf was first announced at Wiscon in 1991, and first awarded there (to Eleanor Arnason and Gwyneth Jones) in 1992. The award now alternates between Wiscon and a variety of other conventions. The Carl Brandon Society’s Parallax and Kindred Awards for, respectively, the best sf by a person of color and the best sf dealing with issues of race and ethnicity were first awarded at Wiscon in 2006.
This brings us to the current volume. Edited by sf writer L. Timmel Duchamp and published by her Seattle-based Aquaduct Press, each volume of The Wiscon Chronicles is intended to commemorate one year at the convention, with volume 1 featuring the 2006 event. Unfortunately, Duchamp has not or could not publish what might be thought of as Wiscon 2006’s centerpiece speeches, the guest-of-honor addresses by Kate Wilhelm and Jane Yolen, or Geoff Ryman’s Tiptree Award speech, presumably because they will appear elsewhere. What she has included, however, is a treasure trove of Wiscon 2006 memorabilia, including a variety of panel transcripts, several academic papers, a number of other essays either read at the conference or written in response to it, several valuable interviews, a selection of brief Q&A’s with various convention attendees, and a short story.
Although the panel discussions occasionally offer brilliant insights into the current state of both science fiction and feminism, readers of this journal will find most interesting the essays (some of them academic, some of them decidedly not), the interviews, and the short story. The first of these, “Wonder Woman: Lesbian or Dyke? Paradise Island as a Woman’s Community,” by comic-book artist and author Trina Robbins, traces Wonder Woman’s development over the years and the various ways that she has been interpreted, from positive role model for girls to potentially dangerous lesbian to disempowered sex symbol. Dramatist, novelist, and theater professor Andrea Hairston, in “Lord of the Monsters,” examines the subtle racist subtext in Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong (2005). She argues that “giving a nod to racism, or sexism, displaying an awareness of Kong’s colonial context, doesn’t salvage the story. Jackson re-inscribes the power dynamics he is struggling to side step ... he weeps at Kong’s demise, but doesn’t stop the show” (47-48). Graduate student Linda Wight, in “Piercy’s Gendered Cyborgs: Hope, Threat, and Blurred Boundaries,” writes tellingly about the construction of both masculinity and femininity in Piercy’s novel He, She, and It (1991), pointing out that the male cyborg Yod has the ability to “reject and destroy an unsatisfactory cyborg masculinity ... but cannot provide an alternate symbol of hope and a permanent challenge to masculine superiority,” whereas Piercy’s female cyborg Nili “becomes a hopeful cyborg image ... not simply because of her freedom from external control, but because her cyborg identity is open to, and compatible with, a celebration of difference” (78-79). Academic Joan Haran, in “Researching WisCon Stories: Revisionist History or Re-Visioning the Past with the Future in Mind,” discusses her research into the many and varied versions of Wiscon that exist in the minds of those who run it and attend it. In “We Aren’t Civilized Yet: Reflections from the Wiscon 30 Panel on Women Warriors,” author and martial artist Nancy Jane Moore reflects on the interrelated topics of human aggression and overpopulation, and makes some fairly controversial suggestions on how to deal with the latter. Scholar Sylvia Kelso, in “‘A Man is Like a Nut’: Gender and Magic in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Later Earthsea Novels,” argues that Le Guin’s construction of masculinity in the early Earthsea stories (A Wizard of Earthsea , The Tombs of Atuan ,and The Farthest Shore ) is “predicated on traditional oppositions, including gender, but also follows traditional narrative patterns for the male magician,” while in her later books in the series (Tehanu , Tales of Earthsea , and The Other Wind ), she “resists or modifies these patterns” (143). Kelso then suggests how those patterns are in fact modified. Finally, author Nisi Shawl discusses the origins of the Carl Brandon Society, the development of the Parallax and Kindred Awards, and their importance for sf writers of color.
Samuel Delany’s transcribed telephone interview with “The Legendary Joanna Russ” will be of interest to anyone familiar with Russ’s classic fiction, but particularly to those who may have wondered why she has fallen so sadly silent in recent years, largely, it seems, as a result of poor health. Then, in “Sympathy and Power,” L. Timmel Duchamp asks Delany to discuss whether men can be feminists or must instead define themselves as “feminist sympathizers” and how the relationship between these two terms may have changed over the past thirty years. Delany never quite answers Duchamp’s question, but instead responds with a thoughtful discussion, based on his own experiences as a gay man, of how power imbalances play themselves out.
The Wiscon Chronicles, Vol. 1, ends with “No Man’s Land,” an original short story by Australian writer Rosaleen Love. A variant on the trope of the exclusively female society that must suddenly deal with the arrival of men, Love’s story stands on its own as an entertaining and thoughtful read while fitting nicely in the company of such classic works as Russ’s “When it Changed” (1972) and Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (1976).
Blending academic and fan concerns, this volume will appeal primarily to people working in the fields of feminist, gender, or queer studies, or, alternately, to Wiscon regulars who want a high quality keepsake of the 2006 conference.—Michael Levy, University of Wisconsin-Stout
Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth, eds. re:skin. Cambridge: MIT, 2006. xiii + 356 pp. $40 hc.
As Roland Barthes so famously observed with his trope of reading as striptease in The Pleasure of the Text (1975), “it is intermittence ... which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself which seduces” (Scarborough, Ont: HarperCollins 10). With too much skin, the flash gives way to the flasher and eroticism and seductiveness disappear. Therein lies the potential danger with a collection like re:skin—that an overexposure to or even literalization of the single subject of skin might simply produce a kind of monolithic slab that ceases to be appealing at all. Clearly, Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth take pains to steer clear of that danger, offering an assortment, an intermittence, of “cutting edge fiction,” artistic manifestoes, creative non-fiction, and scholarly essays in re:skin that presents the reader with a “compelling opportunity to gain insight regarding the complex cultural combinations fashioned around skin” (1). This cross-hatching of disparate genres of artistic and critical production reflects their belief that the “broad fields of technology, art, and cultural criticism are [already] permeating one another’s boundaries around the thematic of skin” (14), and that digital technologies in particular are changing the ways in which (gendered) bodies are inscribed artistically, medically, architecturally, and virtually, to name only those topoi covered most extensively in their volume. Flanagan and Booth’s self-professed goal in the collection, apart from bringing together different sites of inquiry into skin, has less to do with Barthesian seduction than with providing “chilling, witty, and enabling fusions of possible futures in which gender is redrafted in myriad ways” (15). But re:skin is nevertheless intermittently seductive.
The collection, which is organized around three sectional thematics—“Inside, Outside, Surface,” “Transgression,” and “Mapping the Visual and the Virtual”—moves fluidly among its different genres. These, however, are not different enough in practice to warrant the sectioning, except perhaps for the “Transgression” section with its emphasis on fiction and creative nonfiction. In many respects the fiction is the real strength of the volume, constituting almost a third of its overall length. Although all the stories have been previously published, with the exception of L. Timmel Duchamp’s “The Man Who Plugged In,” their place in re:skin gives them a special contextual twist, inviting an explicit and pleasurable dialogue among Duchamp’s tale, Nalo Hopkinson’s “Ganger (Ball Lightning)” (2001), Jewelle Gomez’s “Lynx and Strand” (1998), and Élisabeth Vonarburg’s “Readers of the Lost Art” (1997). Duchamp’s is the only story that appears outside the “Transgression” section, and it is probably the least daring of the four; it traces the gradual transformation of Howard, who, with the aid of injections and a carapace-like womb or maternal interface worn against his stomach, becomes an emotional, hormone-addled would-be woman over the course of his pregnancy, while his marriage falls apart due to the increased butchiness of his wife. Hopkinson’s tale, delivered with her characteristic dry humor, envisions a couple whose experiments with their full-skin sex toys, Senstim “wetsuits” (144) that enable them to switch sexes briefly, among other things, go awry when they fail to repackage them properly at the end of the night. Gomez’s and Vonarburg’s stories both involve skin art, tattooing in Gomez’s and body sculpting in Vonarburg’s. At more than fifty pages, Gomez’s “Lynx and Strand” is a bit bloated but still absorbing, narratively arranged around tattooing sessions between Strand and her friend and tattoo artist, Nelson, and tracing both the relationship between two women, Lynx and Strand, in a near-future, bureaucratic dystopia and the incremental emergence of Strand’s culturally taboo full-body tattoo. Vonarburg’s “Readers of the Lost Art” cleverly figures a literalization of body sculpting and the dynamic intersection of the Operator (sculptor) and his Subject, threaded through the clinical perspective of a sort of arts-caster, who delivers the blow-by-blow details of a sculptor performing for a betting audience in a casino-like theater. With their speculative scenarios in near futures and their preoccupations with altered bodies, sexuality, and gender, and skin as both canvas and interface, the four short stories intersect beautifully, augmenting each other through their proximity.
Understandably less coherent, but not necessarily less interesting, are the pieces in re:skin produced by artists outlining the rationale for their own work on skin. Melinda Rackham’s “Safety of Skin” begins with a consideration of the almost-tactile and malleable skin of the virtual avatar in on-line internet environments, recognizing that most on-line avatars are, for all their apparent artistic potential, essentially boring because they “don’t question the real-world status quo” (60). Rackham uses this conclusion as an entry point to describe her own virtual-reality environments with non-humanoid avatars that challenge the “usual mimicking of hardspace stereotypes” (61) because they accentuate the essential, interpenetrating otherness of our avatar bodies. Sara Diamond’s “Fur Manifesto” playfully outlines the development of her Code Zebra project, which experiments with reaction/diffusion patterns, pattern recognition, and the intersection of the human and animal—a project that includes interactive software constructs, dance components, and tactile experimentation. Keith and Mendi Obadike’s “The Black.Net.Art Actions: Blackness for Sale (2001), The Interaction of Coloreds (2002), and The Pink of Stealth (2003),” illuminates the intentions behind three of their projects, the most fully rationalized being Keith Obadike’s Blackness for Sale, in which he wittily auctioned off his blackness on eBay for several days, until eBay pulled the auction as inappropriate. Although the Obadikes’ descriptions of their varied artistic and political installations and actions are diverting, their piece in re:skin reads more like a brief catalogue entry than anything else. So too does Shelley Jackson’s “SKIN,” probably because it simply recapitulates her initial call for participants in her one-person/one-tattooed-word project, which she designed as a form of publication, in which, word-by-word, her story appears on the living skin of geographically and culturally disparate bodies. Despite the relative lack of thoughtful text, however, both the Obadikes and Jackson provide intriguing photographs of their projects. Indeed, all the artists here illuminate their projects with compelling pictures, giving the sense at times that re:skin is, for them at least, an opportunity for self-promotion.
The rest of re:skin is devoted to critical essays interspersed throughout the fiction and artistic projects; as a group, the essays are not uniformly strong. Flanagan and Booth have self-consciously cast the net wide, including essays on artists, films, medical imaging, architecture, computer ideology, and race. Bernadette Wegenstein’s “Making Room for the Body: From Fragmentation to Mediation” and Rebecca Cannon’s “Perfect Twins” both examine visual artists whose work involves an exploration of skin (so too does Jennifer González, but I will return to her later). After a lengthy introductory foray into psychoanalytic and phenomenological body theory, Wegenstein looks at the works of Alba D’Urbano, Diller and Scofidio, and Aziz and Cucher; most relevant to the collection as a whole is her examination of D’Urbano, whose photographic skin garments, constructed from digital enhancements of her own skin draped on mannequins or coathangers, speak to Wegenstein’s smart observation that, despite the ongoing cultural preoccupation with it, “there never was a body to begin with” (92). A little context here would have been welcome: Jana Sterbak’s Flesh Dress of 1987, also displayed on a coathanger; or even Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), with the desire for the new gendered skin, would have placed D’Urbano’s photographs contextually as a specific intervention. Cannon’s treatment of Linda Erceg and Tobias Bernstrup, whose work explores gender and identity through technology—specifically 3D embodiments—is less accomplished than Wegenstein’s, because it argues, now rather dustily, that the male gaze is the perspective most challenged by Erceg and Bernstrup. And, possibly worse, Cannon insists that both artists provide a virtual “thoroughly safe zone for gender experimentation” (173), as if their works were proffering pornography-lite for the greater gendered good of boys and girls everywhere: with Erceg’s game modding and explicit material, for example, girls can have “safe anonymous access to pornography, like their brothers” (162).
As probably the only big-name academic in the critical pool of re:skin, Vivian Sobchack contributes the reprinted “On Morphological Imagination,” which teeters between the critical and personal, detailing at once the strange Hollywood formations of such films as The Mask (1985) and Death Becomes Her (1992) with their libidinal investment in skin’s ability to portray desire transparently, and her friend’s facial plastic surgery as the echo of that investment. She argues, convincingly but rather sparingly, that “[c]inema is cosmetic surgery” and “cosmetic surgery is cinema” (111). On the other end of the spectrum of Sobchack’s recognizable critical mode is Christina Lammer’s “Eye Contact: Fine Moving Hands and the Flesh and Blood of Image Fabrication in the Operating Theaters of Interventional Radiology”—an odd case study, cum personal account, of the video/personal relationship between Lammer and a geriatric patient, Anna, who is undergoing a surgical procedure for an aneurysm of the abdominal aorta in Vienna. Although Lammer rightly points out that the “integrity of the body is deeply touched and transformed through medical practices of objectification” (253) and argues that the skin is effaced in the medical drive towards draping and concealing its identificatory and personal tags, she nevertheless emphasizes her personal interaction with Anna to the extent that it is easy to forget her crucial point that surgical practices alter both the skin and the body in ways that are rarely acknowledged in the medical profession and elsewhere.
If the space between Hollywood’s plastic surgery and Vienna’s (and elsewhere’s) surgical digital imagery seems relatively slim in terms of its subject matter, despite the different approaches of Sobchack and Lammer, the space between architecture and the implicit ideologies that drive our average PCs seems even slimmer. And yet Alicia Imperiale’s “Seminal Space: Getting under the Digital Skin” and Mary Flanagan’s “Reskinning the Everyday” are easily two of the strongest essays in the collection—not because they have a great deal in common, but because they are unexpected and offbeat, addressing the metaphors of skin in terms of, respectively, the structural curtain walls or facade engineering of buildings and the interface between users and computers. Imperiale examines the computer-generated models of architectural spaces, suggesting that the more outré proposals for architecture evolve from “artificial life computational scenarios for the design of architecture” (282) and are thus better understood as “genetic architecture” (283), because they emerge from DNA-type computer constructs that are, if not self-generating, then programmatically self-selecting. This is fascinating stuff, except that Imperiale waits too long, until the final few paragraphs of her essay, to address the gripping question of application. If models for DNA mutation drive speculative architects to reconsider the relation of space and form, what exactly are the ways in which such speculations could be or are realized in built form? Flanagan presents a series of insights into the ideology of the Western computer (especially the home PC and laptop), belying her contribution to the rather lame introduction to re:skin and trying, a bit weakly, to build in some sort of personal dialogue with her live-in partner to intersperse with her critical work—perhaps to make the piece seem more hiply in-line with those of the artists? Interrogating the naturalization of computer language and availability—its monadistic impulses, its Western command structure, its often irrelevant but fully accepted icons and metaphors—Flanagan points out that the interfacing skin between the user and the computer has become so naturalized that we cease to challenge its underlying ideology.
What has not, of course, been wholly naturalized is the question of race—and who could imagine a collection on skin that did not consider visible registers of color? The final two essays in re:skin, David J. Leonard’s “Performing Blackness: Virtual Sports and Becoming the Other in the Era of White Supremacy” and Jennifer González’s “Morphologies: Race as a Visual Technology,” offer readings of the ways in which, as González asserts, “race is, among other things, a visual technology” (352; emphasis in original). Leonard’s essay is a timely inquiry into the preeminence of pumped, buff, and famous all-star African American figures in football and basketball computer sports games, maintaining that such games glamorize the ghetto and the cool factor of blackness for the benefit of white players, who perform a kind of black-face minstrelsy when they adopt and play virtually the impossibly over-muscled and hyper-cool black bodies of the real stars of the NBA and NFL. For all that Leonard is bang on about white boys performing blackness while they play NBA Street (2001- ) and NFL Street (2004- ), he nevertheless fails to acknowledge that black boys, too, perform the same accentuated sports-star blackness when they play the games—they may play from a different racial subject position, but they are still performing a particular form of blackness that they do not inhabit themselves. González is more cognizant of the nuanced and potential double bind of race performativity. Exploring the work of various contemporary artists, primarily digital photographers Prema Murthy and the artists’ collective Los Cybrids, she argues persuasively and intelligently that “[t]echnologies of visualization such as photography, film, and video have been mutually constitutive with conceptions of race” (345), suggesting that such technologies have both facilitated critiques of race categories and relied on and reinforced the “ongoing stability of such categories” (351). Criticism of racial skin through new artistic venues is thus simultaneously enabled and caught—expansively rich yet constrictively circumscribed.
In a way such logic encapsulates re:skin as a collection. It is expansively rich, and yet, because it attempts to encompass so much, it ends up paying lip service to, or ignoring altogether, many different aspects of skin. There is, for example, no mention of Steven Connor’s The Book of Skin (2004). Nor does the volume address the subjects that the contemporaneous Channel 4 production, The Human Canvas (2006), takes up—flesh performers, body modders, and flesh hangers; just as there are no essays on piercing, tattooing, or ritual scarification. There seems to be little sense that artists who work with skin have any predecessors. Perhaps the place for such larger considerations would have been in the introduction to the volume. But Flanagan and Booth seem to parrot weakly all the writers and artists they have assembled in the collection, content to paraphrase their way through others’ ideas and not to give any larger intellectual or critical context whatsoever. Still, as Barthes reminds us, it is the edges, the intermittence, the flash between what is exposed and what is revealed, that is at the heart of seduction. And there is certainly enough revealed and hidden in re:skin to give us pleasure.—Nicola Nixon, Concordia University
Charles E. Gannon. Rumors of War and Infernal Machines: Technomilitary Agenda-Setting in American and British Speculative Fiction. 2003. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005. vii + 311 pp. $26.95 pbk.
In 1992 Jerry Pournelle was interviewed for the second episode of the BBC program Pandora’s Box about his role as chairman of the Citizen’s Advisory Panel on National Space Policy, the group that communicated the idea for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to Ronald Reagan. It is great viewing. With Larry Niven sitting quietly at his side, an animated Pournelle recollects, “We had access to the President. And because we had that access nobody refused an invitation to come to the meetings.... So we ended up with a bunch of four-star generals and captains of industry and the entire military-industrial complex in Larry Niven’s living room.” The entire military-industrial complex? How big is Niven’s living room? Pretty big, for Robert Heinlein, Greg Bear, Jim Baen, Dean Ing, Poul Anderson, and Gregory Benford were also at those meetings, and because of their presence—along with that of Buzz Aldren and some generals and industrialists—Pournelle remarks that “one RPG through the plate glass window of Larry’s tank would have pretty well crippled the United States technologically for 20 years.” Since that did not happen the Panel was able to forward its SDI proposal to Reagan, who in 1983 then incorporated it into a speech and signed a national security directive pushing forward SDI R&D. As Pournelle tells it, “We used all the rational analysis we could to put together a strategy to bring down the evil empire, and we did it! It happened!” (<http://www.livevideo.com/video/ BB1B99F00C2E4C64A5938B1F38CCE18E/pandora-s-box-ep-2-to-the-.aspx>). That is the story of how science fiction won the Cold War.
It is exciting to see sf writers taken seriously and serving not only as commentators but as true players in the world’s grand affairs. At the same time, I cannot help but suspect that Pournelle is, perhaps, overstating things. Reading Charles E. Gannon’s Rumors of War and Infernal Machines—originally published in 2003 in Liverpool UP’s Science Fiction Texts and Studies series—feels a lot like listening to that interview with Pournelle. For it is Gannon’s assertion that for the past 130 years “future-war fictions” such as SDI have been history’s true movers, influencing the grand strategies of superpowers, setting their military agendas, building their battlefields, and ultimately shaping the fate of the earth. Other literary historians have studied the history and political significance of future-war fiction before, most notably I.F. Clarke in Voices Prophesying War (1992), H. Bruce Franklin in War Stars (1988), and Chris Hables Gray in his Science Fiction Studies article, “‘There Will Be War!’: Future War Fantasies and Militaristic Science Fiction in the 1980s” (SFS 21.3 [Nov. 1994]: 315-36), all of whom Gannon relies upon heavily throughout his book. Yet while Clarke, Franklin, and Gray document how works of sf have influenced certain aspects of military history, none then claims that the past 130 years of military history is a process of this kind of fiction becoming fact. Gannon does just that, however, arguing that superpowers are in the thrall of future-war fiction, their global struggles shaped by the subgenre’s weapons, strategies, and anticipated modes of conflict.
As Gannon argues throughout his book, future-war fiction has shaped the total mechanized warfare of the first and second world wars, the nuclear threat, the space program, the military use of computers, and new military technological systems such as the mobile infantry. To explain “the profound political influence of the genre and its authors” (211), Gannon proposes a “trickle-down/trickle-up model of discursive exchange” in which future-war writers get ideas from experts and test them in the laboratory of fiction and then provide experts with new ideas of their own; the experts then reflect on those literary tests and realize the writers’ new ideas in strategies and machines and systems that then circulate back to the writers, who test them in the imaginary battlefield of the future; and so on (126). “Either future-war fiction predicts the shape of the coming battlefield, thereby informing those who will one day fight upon it,” Gannon summarizes, “or it helps to ‘create’ that battlefield through its cultural and technological influence” (211). Often, the experts doing the military thinking and building are also future-war fiction writers, and these people stand as seers linking the “expert and lay” communities (126). Thus, future-war writers figure in Gannon’s account as a major component of the modern military-industrial complex, which ends up looking a lot like that group in Niven’s living room.
As Clarke, Franklin, and Gray document in their respective studies, there is no denying that future-war stories can at times be extremely politicized and very high-profile affairs. Future-war stories did get talked about in Parliament. Science fiction writers do get hired by the military as consultants. Influential science-fictional ideas and references have cropped up in places far more important and far stranger than Larry Niven’s living room. At their best, what makes Clarke’s, Franklin’s, and Gray’s studies compelling is their attention to textual and historical detail, their ability to comb the archives of popular and expert culture and document the circulation of ideas from science fiction through politics and sometimes even into military fact. I had hoped that Gannon would continue this scholarly tradition and update these analyses for the twenty-first century. Gannon, however, does not update or expand upon these studies. Rather, he uses much the same material that Clarke, Franklin, and Gray use in their studies in his own attempt to prove the much larger claim that future-war fiction has profound political influence and regularly shapes military affairs. Since Gannon does not offer much new, detailed historical, textual, or archival evidence in support of this claim, it ends up being very difficult to prove.
To his credit, in one instance Gannon comes close. The strongest section of Gannon’s book is his new analysis in Chapter 3 of the literary origins of the tank in the pages of Blackwood’s Magazine. Literary credit for the tank usually goes to Wells, but through some fine archival work and close reading, Gannon shows how Ernest Swinton, an early champion of the tank and a future-war writer, should get at least some of the credit. After all, the tanks deployed in the field bear little resemblance to Wells’s machines; rather, their dimensions and tactics are remarkably like those in a short story by an obscure writer named Charles Vickers, with whom Swinton happened to be close friends. Swinton later claimed that he invented the modern tank and denied ever having read about it before, but Gannon has found personal letters indicating that Swinton helped get Vickers’s story published. I am not sure if this is hard proof that a future-war story shaped tank R&D, but it is proof that a future-war writer was a player in its production.
If Gannon paid as close attention to detail in his other chapters as he does here, his argument would be on sounder ground—and this would be a much larger and more focused book. For the most part, however, he has not assembled nearly enough critical, historical, or textual material to prove his major claims and ends up covering too much ground too quickly, relying on speculations and historical glosses instead of textual evidence. In fact, the bigger his claims get, the less documentary evidence he tends to give. Gannon for the most part relies on his own organic knowledge of the historical subjects he covers and makes scant reference to any major works of historical or critical scholarship beyond Clarke, Franklin, and Gray. Given the kind of major influence he wants to prove, his lack of much new documentary material or any willingness to create a new interdisciplinary dialogue or rigorous theoretical framework ends up undercutting his biggest claims. For example, in the chapters where he argues that future-war fiction set the paradigm for the strategies and technologies of the nuclear threat, Gannon does not refer to a single major work of scholarship beyond those of Franklin and Gray on American military, scientific, or technological history, Cold War history, or nuclear strategy, nor does he quote, let alone closely analyze, a single new example from a strategic or scientific document or policy paper or treaty to prove either that ideas migrated from fiction to fact or that any specific policy or strategy is in some way science fictional.
Instead, Gannon reviews in detail all the military ideas and gadgets that writers came up with first, and from this fact he imputes a tremendous influence. Gannon’s book is strongest when he is not writing in support of his model of tremendous influence. His surveys of what these storytellers anticipated are comprehensive and sound. His readings of literary texts can be insightful; for instance, his ideas about how nuclear war can be known only through texts are right on target, and his discussion of the power of nuclear-war narratives to both mirror and shape public opinion is solid—but that is not evidence that it was nuclear-war fiction writers alone who originated the paradigms of the nuclear age. Gannon’s evidence that Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) is a touchstone in discussions about the mobile infantry is very interesting; his assertions that Heinlein’s book is the military’s master metaphor and has shaped DARPA’s exoskeleton research, though, are overstatements. In Rumors of War and Infernal Machines, Gannonoffers a thorough study of what future-war writers anticipated, but in the end he does not offer enough evidence to prove that those writers created the world they foresaw.—Doug Davis, Gordon College
A Strike Back at the Empire.
Patricia Kerslake. Science Fiction and Empire. Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2007. Distr. U Chicago P. 217 pp. $75.00 hc.
A study on sf and empire sounds like a massively ambitious project, and indeed it would have to be in order to cover the intersection of two such broad concepts. Patricia Kerslake’s foray into the arena is not as wide-ranging as its title implies but is a good, broad-based volume. Considering that postcolonialists generally only look at one or two particular works or the sf of a particular nation, Kerslake’s contribution to the discussion is worthwhile as a proper theoretical approach to the genre as a whole.
The first half of the volume examines the nature of both empire and sf and leads Kerslake to ask what role “empire” as a concept plays in the genre as well as how that role serves society. Chapter One explores the postcolonial relationship between Self and Other; in sf, she points out that the Other, whether anthropomorphic or monstrous, friendly or hostile, is almost always truly alien. Even humans who are considered Other are literally alienated, living in or returning from some far-off place or time. The second chapter, “Silencing and Cultural Appropriation,” looks at the way the Other is treated by the mainstream or Center. Kerslake provides specific examples in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). She shows how the Other is repressed and ultimately destroyed by humanity in both works, although, interestingly, silence and appropriation are barely mentioned. She rounds out this part of the book with Chapter Three, “Metaphor and Empire,” and Chapter Four, “Relativity, Distance, and the Periphery.” Each of these chapters is meant to strengthen Kerslake’s premise that sf is an ideal genre for the exploration of postcolonial issues. In the former, using works by Stanislaw Lem and Ursula K. Le Guin, she explicates extended metaphors of power and Otherness; in the latter, she shows how the re-imagining of distance required for a galactic or intergalactic empire highlights the problematic relationship between Center and Periphery.
The three succeeding chapters move away from background in postcolonial critical thought and toward postcolonial analysis of specific sf visions. Chapter Five compares Kurd Lasswitz’s and H.G. Wells’s two very different pictures of Martian invasions in Two Planets (1897) and The War of the Worlds (1898), which are read here as parallel and startlingly similar indictments of the barbarity inherent in imperialism. The next chapter, “American Greats,” looks at Robert A. Heinlein’s political philosophies and Isaac Asimov’s robot Other as perhaps the nation’s most influential sf. This chapter and the one that follows, “Homo futuris and the Imperial Project,” are a bit unfocused. The former, regarding Heinlein, tries hard not to discuss his work as a whole but cannot settle on one tale to examine; it ends up bouncing from story to story before fitfully landing on The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). The “Homo futuris” chapter seems to be about more contemporary sf and even begins with a list of twenty-first-century titles; it then undertakes comparisons between them and mid-twentieth-century sf before almost inexplicably turning to the 1960 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz.
It is not until Chapters Eight and Nine that Kerslake truly examines recent works, specifically Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1990s Mars trilogy and Iain M. Banks’s Cultureseries, begun in 1987 and still running. The chapter on Robinson provides the strongest postcolonial reading in the book, as Kerslake illuminates Robinson’s paired problematics: the Mars pioneers become colonists ruled by a distant, imperial authority; at the same time, those very pioneers are settlers invading and conquering (via terraforming) a foreign land. The reading, which incisively discusses colonization’s relationship to such concepts as the environment, technology, revolution, narrative, and character, shows the possible scope and power of postcolonial analysis when brought to sf. It also hints at the direction a future post-imperial society might take. Unfortunately, the Banks chapter is a bit too exuberantly uncritical of his work. The Culture series is presented as a potential example of “true” postcoloniality even as some of the cited examples show that Banks’s future Culture uses its power to subvert and control other societies in a reiteration of classical imperial models.
Kerslake moves deftly—though sometimes too rapidly—between theoretical discussion and concrete examples, and in spite of the huge amount of ground covered, the discussions and arguments are expanded thoroughly. As might be expected, however, there are some significant omissions. Most of the works examined are forty or more years old; while this in itself is not problematic, Kerslake does not explicitly mention that the study is largely limited to classic or Golden Age sf. Perhaps more glaring—at least to some readers—is the absence of any mention of Octavia E. Butler, who is arguably the genre’s strongest voice for postcolonialist thought.
In fact, much of sf seems glossed over. William Gibson is mentioned a couple of times in passing, but cyberpunk and its children are not seen at all. There is, along with the bias toward classic sf, a pronounced but unacknowledged focus on aliens, invasions, and literal empire, even though there are occasional mentions of more metaphorical colonization. The text wants to be ambitious about the amount of material to be covered but disciplined about not straying out of control. In the end, it is more successful than not at both goals, which is an admirable achievement. Science Fiction and Empire is thought-provoking and insightful, and is, regardless of its flaws, the kind of large-scale postcolonial work that sf has needed for quite some time.—Bola C. King, University of California, Santa Barbara
Cyborgs, Cylons, Humans, Politics.
Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall, eds. Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica. New York: Continuum, 2007. 278 pp. $24.95 pbk.
With the 2005 relaunch of Battlestar Galactica (BSG) on the SciFi Channel after the successful 2003 miniseries, sf TV proved that it could still be about ideas, not just action-adventure. Edgy stories, stunning visuals, A-list leads, and a filmic quality that evokes handheld documentary work updated the shlocky 1978-80 BSG. Critics argue that the program is unremittingly bleak, with a ragtag group of ships hopelessly questing for mythic Earth even as the relentless Cylons hunt them down. Fans argue that no other program so successfully melds character and drama while commenting on love, war, hate, and the nature of the human condition. Considering the hugely popular critical and fan response, it is surprising that it took this long for a truly academic book to appear.
Cylons in America collects 18 essays by scholars in a variety of disciplines. An introduction by the editors lays out an overview of the show as well as of the book’s contents, and a short note explains how the editors chose to normalize reference to the various BSG characters, many of whom are copies, referred to by number, of a single Cylon model. The volume also lists all the episode numbers and titles through March 2007 and the end of season three (the fourth and final season is currently airing), including the miniseries and Web episodes. The 2007 TV special, Razor, is not dealt with because it had not yet aired when the book went to press. With the context thus provided, the authors can focus on their ideas. Unfortunately, the bibliography is shared, even though endnotes conclude each essay, so readers have to flip to the end of the book if they want to locate an in-text citation. Considering the variety of different approaches taken and the lack of sourcing overlap between essays, this choice seems strange, and it is inconvenient for scholars who want only a single essay. No essay can stand alone because of the shared bibliography, and it is hard to figure out how the author is situating himself or herself in regard to the literature. Author biographies and an index conclude the volume.
The book is divided into three parts that I might summarize as sf/reality, human/machine, and text/analysis; each part comprises six essays. In part one, “Life in the Fleet, American Life,” the contributors discuss BSG as political and cultural commentary on the current American condition, with particular emphasis on post-9/11 politics and the war in Iraq. The essays in this section closely analyze the text of BSG and contrast the episodes with events in the political moment: torture (Erika Johnson-Lewis, “Torture, Terrorism, and Other Aspects of Human Nature”), economics and capitalism (Carl Silvio and Elizabeth Johnston, “Alienation and the Limits of the Utopian Impulse”), and representations of science and its usefulness in warfare (Lorna Jowett, “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know”). The authors all struggle with the sprawling text of BSG: for every assertion, there is a caveat; for every troubling problem, there is an apology or a negation. The latter is particularly true for the complex character of Admiral Helena Cain, whose presentation in BSG defies easy answers and serves as a locus for a variety of contradictory but valid interpretations. The readings in this section are competent but not particularly revelatory: linking BSG to 9/11, for example, does not take much of a leap, but I am glad someone did it, even as I wish that the essay (Brian L. Ott, “[Re]Framing Fear”) had taken that final step to draw a conclusion beyond how BSG acts as a mirror for us to see ourselves. This section’s essays rely too much on close readings of the source text and do not provide enough theoretical framework to permit readings that contribute meaningfully to scholarship. The essays do not go beyond the revelation of connection, and the scholarship cited seems scattershot and insufficiently integrated into the essays’ theses. For example, Silvio and Johnston focus on the exploitation of labor and women’s bodies, and then in the last two paragraphs suddenly bring in Jameson via Bloch, then Brecht and Epic Theater, leaving me more puzzled than enlightened.
Part two, “Cylon/Human Interface,” focuses on BSG’s act of othering. The new BSG’s big revelation, and one of particular use to textual analysis of the program, is to make the Cylons look human: instead of the mechanical hordes of machine-soldiers, we have sexy women and cunning men. BSG oscillates between presenting the Cylons as the future of humanity, and perhaps its salvation, and the Cylons as bringing about humanity’s utter destruction. C.W. Marshall and Matthew Wheeland’s “The Cylons, the Singularity, and God” links the Cylons’ monotheistic god (in contrast to the humans’ pantheon of what we recognize as Greek or Roman gods) to the moment of transcendence known as the Singularity. Tama Leaver, in “Humanity’s Children,” uses some of these ideas as he explores “the shape of things to come,” which is what the Cylons call the birth of Hera, a human/Cylon hybrid, noting that BSG seems to hint that the future of humanity lies within the boundaries between humanity and technology. Alison Peirse, in “Uncanny Cylons,” moves beyond the analysis of literal othering and links the Cylons to “resurrection and bodies of horror” (the subtitle of her essay), with each section titled with the familiar words of the opening credits of the show: “The Cylons Were Created by Man,” “They Rebelled,” and so on. The Cylons’ ability to be reborn in new bodies that contain all the memories of the old means that they cannot die, and the endless doubling becomes horrific. Christopher Deis, in “Erasing Difference,” analyzes the Cylons as a racial other, where current uneasiness about race is displaced onto the Cylon body even as race (and gender) are integrated into the presentation of humanity as living in a kind of utopia where difference of body matters less than philosophical or religious differences. The essays in this section vary greatly in their theoretical stance: most do not interrogate the human/machine divide in terms that literary sf scholars will find familiar. For example, posthumanism may be touched on and the hot-button scholars named, but the essays are not situated within that rubric. TV and film studies, hybridity, and gender are all discussed, but within a constrained context that fails to resonate beyond the text itself. The essays in this section apply various theories to BSG to create informed readings.
The third section, “Form and Context in Twenty-First-Century Television,” foregrounds the text/context connection. The essay that best exemplifies this approach is Kevin McNeilly’s “This Might Be Hard for You to Watch,” an analysis of “Final Cut” (BSG 2.08) that uses the episode, about a crew filming a “day in the life of” documentary on board ship, as a microcosm for the show itself. In “Long Live Stardoe!” Carla Kungl assesses the program through the recasting, in the new BSG, of Starbuck as a woman, a controversial choice mitigated by the actress’s success in the role and the character’s subsequent popularity. This decision raises issues of toughness, gender, and equality. Bear McCreary’s fantastic music is analyzed in Eftychia Papanikolau’s “Of Duduks and Dylan,” and it makes much of the use of non-Western instruments (such as the duduk, an Armenian instrument) in the creation of an aural landscape removed from familiar cultural encoding. The third section’s focus on textual analysis would perhaps be more striking if essays in the other two sections did not have much the same feel, so part three ends up feeling like a catch-all for essays that did not quite fit elsewhere. Part three is the least integrated section of the volume.
The problem with books that are about a source text and not a particular analytical approach is that they seem to be all over the place, and this is true of Cylons. Each essay is too short to do more than sketch out an idea and indicate BSG’s place in it, but I was pleased to see lots of evidence from the show itself, including scene descriptions and quotation of dialogue, which some publishers do not permit and which are most welcome here as support. I would have liked to see a headnote to begin each section that attempted to tie the essays together—it would have helped ease the scattershot feel of the book. BSG is a fraught, loaded text that permits contradictory readings, and further, it talks about things that are actually important—life, love, forgiveness, marriage, death, sex, political alliances—so a scholarly text that acknowledges this is most welcome. Non-academic fans of the show will pick up the volume and find the essays dense and inaccessible, but scholars working with BSG will probably find something useful here, simply because there are so many essays on so many subjects. The book is important in that it fills a critical gap: BSG is worthy of scholarship, and this book is an expression of that worth. But the essays are not really important in the greater scheme of the scholarship because they do little more than say, “Aha! look!” Although they offer insightful close readings, I was left thinking, “So what?”—Karen Hellekson, Jay, Maine
Poolside Reading for the SF Scholar.
Robin Roberts. Anne McCaffrey: A Life with Dragons. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2007. xi + 243 pp. $28 hc.
I knew from the moment I received Robin Roberts’s biography of Anne McCaffrey that it would be fun to review. The cover is a brightly colored affair featuring mysterious islands, a luminous sky, and two semi-naked men cavorting with dragons and dolphins. As such, it cleverly revises the time-honored tradition of brightly colored sf magazine covers featuring exotic landscapes and semi-naked women—who are sometimes depicted as human women threatened by alien creatures and sometimes as alien beings threatening tiny human men, but who rarely appear to be cavorting or having much fun of any sort. The young men gracing Anne McCaffrey: A Life with Dragons, however, are clearly having a great time and I figured I would be, too, once I packed up the book with my flip flops and headed off to the local pool.
I am pleased to report that Roberts’s book lives up to the promise of the cover, although, for the sake of thematic unity, I wish those buff boys were actually a couple of teenaged girls—or better yet, a group of adult women of varying ages. As Roberts explains in the brief introduction to her biography, McCaffrey is “an icon” whose fantastic tales of adolescent and female empowerment have inspired legions of fans and generated millions of dollars while changing the face of science fiction and fantasy forever (1). Roberts connects the power of these tales to the author’s own equally fantastic life, explaining that McCaffrey’s “struggles and triumphs as a woman writer reveal much about women’s lives, particularly how to balance work and children, career and romance, and how to find meaning in a world that still values women more for their appearance than for their creativity” (1). From the very first page, then, it is clear that Roberts intends to explore McCaffrey’s life in the context of recent women’s history and to show how the author “transmutes the features of her life into art” (5).
Roberts achieves her goal admirably over the course of eight detail-packed but easily digested chapters, each of which considers a different phase of McCaffrey’s life and its relation to her literary career. Chapters one and two demonstrate how the author’s family imbued her with a “sturdy sense of self” and penchant for dramatic self-expression at odds with the early twentieth-century ideal of “decorous and decorative” American womanhood she encountered throughout her childhood and adolescence (16, 46). In what would become a life-long habit, McCaffrey found solace in the company of books, including feminist historical romances, heroic adventures, socially progressive Westerns, and utopian fictions. Perhaps not surprisingly, while the quirkier aspects of McCaffrey’s family members often resurface in her most memorable characters, the literary themes of her adolescent reading inform many of her most powerful stories.
The next two chapters consider McCaffrey’s experience with college in the 1940s and marriage and work in the 1950s. Like many other young women of her generation, McCaffrey found herself torn between the progressive turn-of-the-century suffragist ideals that encouraged women’s independence and the conservative postwar expectations that encouraged feminine self-sacrifice. Similar tensions informed her life as a suburban newlywed in the 1950s. Even as she seemed to embody the Cold War ideal of the feminine mystique, McCaffrey searched for a professional calling that “could fit with being a wife and mother” (87). At first sf writing seemed to be ideal part-time work, but by the 1960s it was a full-time career that earned McCaffrey her first of many Hugo awards.
Chapters five and six continue in a similar vein, tracing the emergence of McCaffrey’s feminist consciousness as her marriage collapsed and the author moved her family to Ireland for a fresh start. Here, McCaffrey honed her skill as an sf series author and accumulated numerous awards and honors. Throughout this section Roberts is careful to show how McCaffrey’s personal experience as a newly-single, middle-aged woman juggling a career, family, and, eventually, a mid-life crisis predicated by “society’s negative attitude toward ageing women” resonated with the more general experience of many Western women during the heyday of the women’s liberation movement (152). And she is equally careful to show how McCaffrey inspired millions of readers by weaving these issues into her fiction, even if she did not always succeed at resolving them perfectly in her own life.
A Life with Dragons ends on a triumphant note, explaining that McCaffrey came through her mid-life crisis and capitalized on her success to become her own “fairy godmother” (174). Chapter seven explores the creation of Dragonhold-Underhill, the dream house where McCaffrey now lives with her extended family, support staff, and animals while co-authoring books with new authors to help them launch their careers. Chapter eight summarizes McCaffrey’s lifetime of literary achievement, especially as it was recognized in 2005, when she became the third woman named Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and in 2006, when she was inducted into the Science Fiction Museum’s Hall of Fame. Appropriately enough, Roberts concludes that, just as McCaffrey’s “own fiction offers alternative endings for her characters’ lives, so her own life defies a conventional conclusion,” making the author “as effective and compelling a model as any of her heroines” (217-18).
Although it is enlightening to think about McCaffrey as an avatar of twentieth- and twenty-first-century womanhood, what really made this biography good reading is Roberts’s attention to the more humanizing details of her subject’s life. I enjoyed learning about McCaffrey’s quirky, Wes-Anderson-like family, who taught their children to believe in racial tolerance and second sight with equal fervor and who pushed them to excel at their studies while encouraging them to skip school for the premiere of Gone with the Wind (1939). I was fascinated to learn that McCaffrey flirted with Bobby Kennedy in college, lunched with Betty Friedan as a suburban mom, and enjoyed a brief affair with Isaac Asimov as a budding sf writer. And I am still grappling with jealousy over McCaffrey’s trips to rock concerts in limousines, the floor plans for her Irish mansion, and the designer clothes she now wears to award ceremonies.
If A Life with Dragons goes to a second printing, there are a few details regarding sf history I would like to see amended. Early in the book Roberts accurately notes that McCaffrey’s earliest forays into science fiction were part of a then new subgenre of domestically-oriented women’s sf called “diaper copy” by its detractors. Roberts locates debates over the value of that fiction in the 1960s, however, when such debates actually took place (and were largely resolved) a decade earlier. Elsewhere Roberts claims that McCaffrey was “the first science fiction writer to have a book [1978’s The White Dragon] on the New York Times Bestseller List” (7, 120). That honor actually belongs to Robert Heinlein, whose Stranger in a Strange Land became a New York Times bestseller in 1961. And although it is less immediately pertinent, Roberts refers to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America by the acronym the “SFFWA” when that organization voted to call itself “SFWA” in 1996. Clearing up such details would make an already fine work even better.
Having said that, the few minor problems I encountered with Roberts’s book were nothing compared to the sheer fun I had reading it. Anne McCaffrey: A Life with Dragons would be an excellent gift for the Anne McCaffrey fan and a fine counterpart to scholarly studies of women’s writing for the sf scholar. A recommended read.—Lisa Yaszek, Georgia Institute of Technology
Joanna Russ. The Country You Have Never Seen: Essays and Reviews. Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2007. Distr. U Chicago P. 305 pp. $35 pbk.
The Country You Have Never Seen brings together Joanna Russ’s book reviews, essays, and published letters, all of which were previously scattered and difficult to get. More importantly, the collection speaks in new ways from and to a broad range of interests, including sf, feminist theory and activism, and lesbian politics. As such, the book is a valuable contribution not only to sf criticism and the history of feminism in general, but also to scholarship on Joanna Russ’s own fiction.
The book nicely complements To Write like a Woman (1995), Russ’s earlier collection of critical essays. Bringing together previously uncollected pieces, The Country You Have Never Seen fills some of the gaps left by To Write like a Woman but also serves a different set of needs. The earlier collection had a clear thematic focus and two introductions—one by Sarah Lefanu and one by Russ herself—that provided a strong interpretive frame. Moreover, each essay was introduced and contextualized in a short author’s note, so that the book gave a coherent idea of Joanna Russ as a feminist sf critic. In contrast, The Country You Have Never Seen has no such framing and makes no attempt at generating an idea of unity and cohesion around a single cause or commitment. It is not organized around themes, but around form and chronology: first, book reviews, which make up almost two thirds of the collection; then essays; and finally published letters. This makes for a much more personal collection and puts the focus more strongly on the complexity of Russ herself as a writer.
Russ’s book reviews, which constitute the bulk and the heart of the collection, are wonderfully sharp and ruthlessly devoted to literary quality in sf and elsewhere. They not only trace the development of sf from the 1960s to the 1980s, but also define critical standards for authors and publishers in the field. Yet when I opened the first page and looked at a (largely negative) review of a 1966 sf anthology, I was positively startled. I missed an editorial voice that would tie together, evaluate, and historicize the pieces. But this apparent lack turned out to be one of the collection’s most compelling strengths, liberating the reader to provide her own conceptual frames around Joanna Russ, feminism, sf, and literature in general. The first sentence, “Strange Signposts is a bottom-of-the-barrel anthology” (3), is exquisitely characteristic of the book, throwing the uninitiated reader right into Russ’s prose, with no guidance other than chronology. And in this case, that is a good thing indeed.
This is not a re-run of well-worn categorizations of Russ as feminist sf writer and critic who in “revolutionizing science fiction in the 1960s and 1970s” (jacket text) became the poster woman of radical feminism in the field. While it is certainly true that Joanna Russ can be described as a radical feminist, this has also meant she has often been reduced to a closely circumscribed idea of that label. The light editing in The Country You Have Never Seen is a great boon of the collection, in part because it avoids the pitfalls of such circumscription without watering down the toughness of Russ’s stance. The texts speak to current readers with much of the freshness and originality that marked them in their original contexts, but enhanced by the new juxtapositions and heightened by the different historical environment.
The reviews delight in apparent contradictions that demonstrate Russ’s penchant for critical humor and a winsome playfulness as set against her unyielding commitment to the literary quality of sf: “Omar by Wilfrid Blunt ... is pleasant, charming and slight. It is a fantasy in the old-fashioned sense (say, talking badgers) and if your sugar tolerance is low, stay away. I liked it” (21). She takes writers to task for bad writing and bad science or both. She takes publishers to task for publishing bad books by inexperienced writers. Her reviews take account of all levels of writing: the economics of publication, the development of individual authors as writers, as well as the aesthetic structure of the text. Nor are feminist writers exempt from criticism. Russ is unwavering in her materialist critique of society, also the wellspring of her feminism, though not the only source. In a letter to the editor responding to a review of Lefanu’s In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (1988), Russ says about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale(1985): “Despite my admiration for Atwood’s other work, I find this novel thin and evasive, lacking in economic plausibility and without any of the political history we have every right to demand of a dystop[i]a” (290). Yet economic plausibility is not enough. Her review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974) argues compellingly for lyricism in utopian extrapolation:
no Utopia can provide a genuine blueprint for social change, only a poetic image of what we need or want, and can thus (like a good Dystopia) illuminate the questions we need to ask. For all its beauty, The Dispossessedwrecks itself on just this issue, and since Ursula Le Guin is neither hack nor craftswoman, but an artist, the inauthenticities show. (110)
Other books reviewed with similar acumen and lack of reverie include Frederik Pohl’s The Age of the Pussyfoot(1965), Frank Herbert’s The Santaroga Barrier(1968), Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang (1969), Kate Wilhelm’s Let the Fire Fall (1969), Brian Aldiss’s Frankenstein Unbound (1973), Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), and Ray Bradbury’s collection of short stories I Sing the Body Electric (1979), to name just a few. Her review of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland: A Lost Feminist Utopian Novel(1915, republished in 1979) for The Feminist Review, including the appended letter that criticizes Gilman’s racism, makes an excellent companion reading to The Female Man(1975).
The reviews in this collection show the range and characteristic critical edge of Joanna Russ’s thinking—no book she reviews comes away unscathed. Even the ones she enthusiastically endorses, such as Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, are not exempt from a long, hard—or short, biting—look at their weaknesses. Conversely, few books that receive a severe battering come away without at least a hint at their brighter moments. The voice we hear in these reviews is genuine Russ—it has a breathtaking scope, a deep knowledge of sf, and an equally deep commitment to the field’s quality. This voice holds sf to the same standards as any other form of literature—but at the same time insists on its uniqueness as a genre: she demands depth of character but also consistency and scientific credibility of the extrapolated narrative world.
As in her reviews of fiction, Russ’s reviews of feminist theory and criticism of the 1970s not only demonstrate her appreciation of radicalism in thinking and precision in writing, but also her impatience with unproductive bickering. For example, she favorably reviews Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex(1970) for F&SF, arguing that it contains the “most exciting social extrapolation around nowadays” (62), implicitly presenting the book as a model for sf writers. Yet such praise is not reserved for materialist-feminist critique. In an extensive and in-depth review of Mary Daly’s Gyn/ecology (1978) for Frontiers, Russ celebrates the unapologetic wrath of its writing as well as its lyrical excellence: “Gyn/Ecology is a terrifying book because of its bad manners, because of its poetry, because it rips through the thin veils of the accommodations under which we all shelter, and because it threatens us with a return to the basics—and the anger and terror they rouse” (156). Similarly, she finds Adrienne Rich’s unflinching loyalty to women even in the face of harsh criticism the most praiseworthy quality of On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978 (1979), even as she points out the book’s general unevenness. On the whole, these reviews evoke a tangible sense of the 1970s and 1980s in sf and feminism and (re)introduce a wide range of less known sf texts.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the six essays in The Country You Have Never Seen are similarly incisive. They include important pieces left out of the earlier collection, such as “Daydream Literature and Science Fiction” (Extrapolation, 1969), “The Image of Women in Science Fiction” (Red Clay Reader, 1970) and “The Wearing Out of Genre Materials” (College English, 1971). A true gem among them, which I would like to highlight here, is Russ’s comment on her own writing process in The Women’s Review of Books (1989). She begins powerfully by talking about her personal struggle with the bodily obstacles to writing, her arthritis and other illnesses making the physical act of typing a constant challenge (243). The main part of the essay, however, is devoted to the passion for and pleasure of writing fiction. Between the lines, this essay also demonstrates how important book reviews—reading books critically and talking about them—have been to Joanna Russ’s own writing. Both Russ’s fiction and her critical work ultimately draw sustenance from the voice and the attitude of writing book reviews. This significance makes the central position in The Country You Have Never Seen of Joanna Russ’s work as a reviewer for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Village Voice, Frontiers, and others an apt choice. The book reviews are the foundation on which Russ builds her literary criticism and the palpable source of much of the productive political, cultural, and aesthetic irritations that drive her fiction.
Like the essays, the included letters sustain the book’s powerful devotion to feminist practice, turning with equally crisp ruthlessness to professional and political relationships between women; they are both funny and endearing. To give a few examples: Russ, in an “Author’s Note,” proposes to resolve what she calls “The Great Lesbian/Feminist Sex Wars” by locking “one of the less sensible of each camp in a room until they either come to some agreement or meet the fate of the Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat” (297). In a famous letter to Extrapolation published in 1990, Russ outs Alice Sheldon, who had died several years earlier, and says about keeping her lesbianism to herself: “Straight people, however sympathetic they may be, don’t know the texture or the difficulties of gay lives” (292). Similarly, she criticizes Joyce Carol Oates’s Solstice(1985) for its use of the harmful cliché of the predatory older woman, classifying Solsticeas “another Sadistic Lesbian novel” (274). But her critical vision does not get blurry when looking at lesbian culture. In a letter to Lesbian Ethics(1987), Russ speaks of the “butch/femme” divide as specific to gentile American culture; to Russ, fixing cars, for example, is not recognizable as a marker of masculinity from a Jewish perspective. Russ’s idea of assuming male privilege and transgressing gender roles is not to swagger and to tinker with mechanical devices, but to read and teach as a rabbi or a melamed would (284). In the reviews, essays, and letters collected in The Country You have Never Seen, Russ succeeds delightfully in performing just such transgression.
Beyond teaching about sf and recent cultural history, the book as a whole also importantly speaks back to Joanna Russ’s own fictional work. Her critical response to Le Guin’s utopia in The Dispossessedand Atwood’s dystopia in The Handmaid’s Taleis a case in point and may serve to highlight the social and economic extrapolations of her own Whileaway in The Female Man as well as of such later texts as “Bodies” (1984). In a letter to SFS in July 1980, Russ further explicates her conception of the political and literary role of feminist utopias, again implicitly commenting upon Whileaway and anticipating some of her work in the 1980s: “I am not a separatist in the sense that I envision the perfect future for our planet as a manless one—such an eventuality seems to me undesirable, immoral, and totally impossible—but I do believe that crucial to the process of women becoming primary to themselves is the possibility of becoming able to imagine such a state” (269). Certainly, Russ’s fiction speaks for itself and does not require commentary. However, Russ’s distinctive, moving, and movable critical voice—ironic, warm, opinionated, open, yet committed to a number of stable principles—echoes productively off and against her fiction.
With beautiful clarity, these texts address some of the central issues that moved the late twentieth century: materialist politics, economic inequality, race, historical thinking, gender, and resistance to compulsory heterosexuality. They explore the qualities in writing Russ cares about most as a critic: sound thinking, well-crafted story-telling, historical accuracy, well-founded science, and timely surprises. There is passionate opposition to sloppy thinking and murky reasoning, as well as resistance to stories abstracted from life and ideas about sex mired in a limited patriarchal imagination. Underlying all of this critique is a forceful demand to know the structures of oppression and power: Russ is an astute political and historical thinker for whom the aesthetic pleasures of reading and writing are in no way separate from the social impact of making words. My only complaint is that this collection, through no fault of Russ’s, comes so late—it is an invaluable resource for sf scholarship, and scholarship on Joanna Russ specifically, that would have been welcome if published earlier. Especially when teaching Joanna Russ’s fiction, I wish I had had this book much sooner, not to learn more about Joanna Russ, the Author, but to see intertextual synergies among short stories, novels, essays, reviews, and letters that give a rich and deep insight into American culture in the latter half of the twentieth century, the development of feminism, feminist practice, lesbian politics, sf, the world, life, love, and the passionate reading of literature. Ultimately, the book may serve to teach not only about sf, but also about the craft of writing, which is the necessary foundation of its art.—Jeanne Cortiel, Ruhr-Universität Bochum
I Think, Therefore I Extrapolate.
Steven M. Sanders, ed. The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film. The Philosophy of Popular Culture. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2008. viii + 232 pp. $35.00 hc.
Sanders’s The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film is the most recent book in Kentucky’s series on The Philosophy of Popular Culture. Previous titles include books on Stanley Kubrick, The X-Files, and basketball. Like books from Open Court (on The Simpsons or comic-book superheroes), Sanders’s collection attempts to make philosophical discourse “accessible to the general reader though examples in popular culture,” as the publisher phrases it. In this sense, the book is extremely successful. That it will have limited usefulness otherwise ought not to be regarded as a failure. Beginning undergraduates or “general” readers will find the volume practical and enlightening, covering a wide range of philosophic questions in admirably clear prose.
The films taken as study-examples are, as they say, the usual suspects: Frankenstein (1931), Blade Runner (1982, 1992, or 2007), The Matrix (1999), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Total Recall (1990), and The Terminator (1984). That these are the usual suspects can be confirmed by a quick glance at Mark Rowlands’s The Philosopher at the End of the Universe: Philosophy Explained through Science Fiction Films (St. Martin’s, 2004), which in nine chapters charts much of the same territory: Frankenstein, Blade Runner, The Matrix, Total Recall, The Terminator (and given the nature of the films, most of the same philosophical problems as well). In Sanders’s book, only a few of the films are not those usual suspects—so it is refreshing to see some discussion of Metropolis (1926), Alphaville (1965), Dark City (1998), and 1984 (both 1956 and 1984 versions). (Unlike the highbrow surprises in The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film, Rowlands’s surprise selections are decidedly lowbrow: Hollow Man  and Independence Day .)
The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film contains an introduction by the editor and twelve essays organized in three sections, written mostly by philosophers, although two authors are in literature and one is a sociologist. The first section revolves around identity and agency: Deborah Knight and George McKnight together address definitions of the human; Shai Biderman examines personal identity; Sanders provides an essay on psychotic paranoia (and unreliable narration, although he does not use the term); and Jennifer McMahon reads Whale’s Frankenstein as an opportunity for an adventure with Heidegger’s existentialism. The loosely-grouped second section concerns common sf tropes—time travel, technology, space adventure, and AI evolution. Here we find Aeon J. Skoble on the ethical difficulties of encounters between cultures of radically disparate technologies; William J. Devlin on time-travel paradoxes; Kevin L. Stoehr on how 2001 provides a rich catalog of philosophical topics; and Jason Holt on what in aesthetics is called the paradox of fiction—how it is that people might (or might not) have real emotions in relation to the inventions of fiction or film, which are peopled by people who do not actually exist.
The third section takes up the broad example of the future, including how it sometimes encodes a commentary on the present or past: Jerold J. Abrams compares Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) with Metropolis; R. Barton Palmer suggests the ways that Michael Anderson’s 1956 1984 more fully captures Orwell’s point than Michael Radford’s 1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four (which Palmer spells “1984”); Alan Woolfolk traces the complex displacements between technological modernity and “hope of an enchanted future” (203) through Alphaville; and Mark T. Conard outlines how The Matrix illustrates Plato’s allegory of the cave. Unfortunately, The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film contains no essay about the philosophy of science.
The essays are generally good, and while several seem stronger than others, none is bad. Many are limited in a very specific way, however: most of the book is not about sf film—it is about philosophy, and then generally about the accessible exposition of introductory philosophical discourse. Of course that is the volume’s aim, and it is appropriate that the contributors stick to what they know—showing how sf films can be used as a vector for useful philosophic elucidations. But then in that sense choosing either sf or sf film is not particularly relevant. It might just as well be basketball or The Simpsons, magazine advertising or Pink Floyd. Sf film is just Mary Poppins’s spoonful, Horace’s dulce that makes the utile go down.
As an example of how some of the essays use the films only as launching pads for philosophic reflection, take Biderman’s accessible and analytical account, where Total Recall is simply an excuse for an excursus about personal identity. Biderman provides a compact survey of problems of self since Descartes, quickly covering psycho-physical dualism, memory, psychological continuity through time, and Humean (and postmodern) skepticism concerning the very ontology of selves. An undergraduate coming to the problems for the first time will find this essay and those by Skoble, Devlin, Holt, and Conard excellent introductory guides to the general questions.
Night and McKnight provide another example. They give a topical treatment of philosophical issues as themes linked to plot and character in Blade Runner and Dark City (what is humanness? what roles do memory and emotion play in identity?). Nevertheless, the essay remains quite superficial in its understanding of the films. In this essay, and throughout the volume, there is nothing about the films as cinema; film is simply plot, character, and situation—not image or movement in time. Perhaps the target audience—undergraduates and the general public—explains away this simplistic approach.
Because it takes a simple, expository approach, The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film contains few errors or matters for interpretive quibble. What errors there are really have nothing to do with the book’s philosophical usefulness. Here are two examples from Night and McKnight. First, they do not recognize an important allusion in Dark City. One key character (played by Kiefer Sutherland), Dr. Schreber, recalls the name of one of the twentieth century’s most famous psychotics—Daniel Paul Schreber—a detail that would certainly support some of the philosophic discussion, but might, if it is taken to suggest unreliable narration, undermine the specific reading of the film. This is an error of omission. An error of inclusion concerns their claim that in Blade Runner, “it is a simple step to conclude that [Deckard] is a replicant” (26). They base this tentative inference on two details, one of which is wrong and the other fundamentally ambiguous. The first is that they say that “Deckard realizes that one of his own family photos is identical to a photo possessed by the Nexus 6 replicant Leon, leading him to think that perhaps he too is nonhuman” (25). This claim does not correspond to any moment in the 1982 theatrical release, the 2007 “Final Cut,” or the 1992 “Director’s Cut,” which Night and McKnight cite as their “authoritative” source (36n1). The photo in question is Leon’s, which Deckard finds in Leon’s apartment and then pockets. Later, in his own flat, Deckard closely examines the photos, and in a famous scene enhances and prints an image of Zhora. Deckard’s own photos are conspicuously unlike Leon’s; they are, for instance, obviously older—printed on different stock and largely black and white. Nor does the film contain any clearly epiphanic moment or image that confirms Night and McKnight’s contention that Deckard “realizes … that perhaps he too is nonhuman.” The second detail they invoke is Gaff’s origami unicorn, which they take to mean that Gaff knows Deckard’s dreams of a unicorn, hence Deckard has implanted memories (25-26). But even if Deckard does have some implanted memories, it does not necessarily follow that he is a replicant.
As critics of sf and especially sf film know well, the Deckard-is-a-replicant reading comes from elements of the shooting script (as explicated by journalists such as Paul Sammon), one extraordinarily brief shot in the Final Cut (with Deckard looking over Rachael’s shoulder, his eyes glow for approximately a pico-second), and the director’s persistent claims for such. The film itself, however, contains no compelling evidence for the claim.
But of course such textual details and interpretative errors are irrelevant to Night and McKnight’s philosophic question—what does it mean to be human?—which is a textual theme whether or not Deckard is an android. Whether or not Deckard is a replicant, however, is crucial to any discussion of Blade Runner. This is what I mean when I say that generally the articles are not about sf film, and occasionally they are utterly indifferent to it as well. I would not have spent so much time on these small textual and interpretive errors were it not for the fact that Sanders, both in his introduction (5-6, 15-17) and in his essay (55-64), devotes a good deal of space to condemning the errors of other film critics, and often his tone is intemperate. The body of scholarship on sf film is large, and much of it is good. Except for a few brief citations, in The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film the writers fundamentally ignore that secondary scholarship, and again largely because the target audience is undergraduates and general readers rather than scholars. I do wish the treatment of critics had been more tolerant, however.
When it comes to his own interpretation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Sanders argues that “the film is really about the philosophical significance of paranoia” (69). Setting aside the “really,” which carries the dubious implication that works of art have one definitive meaning, Sanders has an excellent, useful point. The attack on the critics might have been condensed to two paragraphs, and the remarks on paranoia’s philosophical significance expanded. Sanders says, “my reading … departs dramatically from previously offered interpretations” (66)—but most of the interpretations I have read do in fact feature some discussion of paranoia’s disjunctive effects on personal identity—and perhaps a more generous relation to the secondary scholarship would eliminate the gratuitous attacks and soften his self-important claim to have offered a novel reading.
Three chapters, perhaps a fourth, are more like film or literary criticism, and try to offer discussions that are far more interpretive than merely expository of philosophic problems. These essays include the two best in the book, to my way of thinking. Abrams’s account of Lang’s Weimar Metropolis illustrates the central threads of the Frankfurt School’s critique of the logic of Enlightenment and offers a novel way of treating the film. While not unprecedented in its approach—Thomas Elsaesser’s Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary (2000) makes much the same point (although the vocabulary differs radically, and I do not recall that Adorno and Horkheimer are specifically invoked)—Abrams maps the thesis of Dialectic of Enlightenment against the film. The “technototalitarian” Metropolis leads to the desublimation of nature and the reinscription of the very mythic relations Enlightenment was thought to have dismantled and surpassed. In suggesting how this “cinematic bible” (154) of sf film is the genre’s ur-text, Abrams may stimulate readers to extend his analysis to other sf films, to think of the way in which the very project that grounds sf (the project of Enlightenment), collapses and produces the very opposite of the results intended.
A second excellent chapter is Woolfolk’s. Beginning with Susan Sontag’s contemporaneous comment that sf films are not about science but about disaster, Woolfolk presents the planet of Alphaville’s disaster as an example of general dehumanization, arguing that Goddard’s dystopic vision is not of the future but of the present—contemporary Paris is already a “no place.” Though a sociologist, Woolfolk seems much more informed about the structures and codes of cinema than the book’s philosophers, and so the essay is somewhat more attuned to notions or space or image than to plot and character. He draws on several critics, generally in disagreement but also gently, to further his analysis rather than ridicule other interpretations. Peter Wollen, for example, is invoked to discuss the narrative construction of filmic space. Turning to the social philosopher Max Weber’s 1919 essay “Science as Vocation,” Woolfolk examines a line of thought that is familiar to any reader of Dialectic of Enlightenment—that our present is an age of “symbolic impoverishment and spiritual disenchantment” (198). Weber thought that we cannot escape this condition, but in Woolfolk’s view Alphaville’s surrealist moments shatter the prosaic nightmare and provide an “exquisite dérangement” signaling “the transformative power of art” (200). Anyone more interested in interpretation than exposition will find these two chapters well worth reading.
But even the essays I liked the least—Night and McKnight both make mistakes and cover ground one would have thought already beaten to death, and Sanders’s crabby tone and excessive length are not justified by the meager reward at the end—might be recommended; undergrads could do far worse than to start their reading with Night and McKnight, and the last third of Sanders contains a sharp critique of the motif and consequences of narrative paranoia.
“Science fiction is a genre that exploits, probably more than any other, a range of central philosophical themes and topics” (Night and McKnight 26). Agreed. In tracing some of these topics in familiar films and in making them available to those with neither a background in philosophy nor in film criticism, The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film is a successful volume. Pedagogues, both of philosophy and of film, will find the book a useful compendium of ideas for the classroom and for student writing. A lucid, moderately interesting, and admirably accessible collection, it is recommended for all undergraduate and public libraries.—Neil Easterbrook, TCU
Breaking Through the Frontiers of SF: The Fiction of Valerio Evangelisti.
Luca Somigli. Valerio Evangelisti. SCRITTURE IN CORSO. Fiesole, Firenze: Cadmo, 2007. 187 pp. €11,00 pbk.
The popularity of Valerio Evangelisti has been growing steadily in Italy and beyond the national borders since his debut in 1994. Evidence of this is the translation of his novels into many languages (French, German, Portuguese, Romanian, Croatian, Spanish, Greek, Hebrew, Serbian) and the increase in critical attention in the last ten years. Along with a number of articles, three monographs have been dedicated so far to this prolific writer, whose career is still in the making. After the special issue of the French journal Phénix: La revue de l’imaginaire titled Dossier Valerio Evangelisti, edited by R. Ernould in 2000, and the book by A. Chianese titled L’anima dell’inquisitore: L’opera di Valerio Evangelisti [The Inquisitor’s Soul: The work of Valerio Evangelisti (Trento: UNI Service, 2004)], Somigli’s is the most recent and therefore the most updated contribution to the study of Evangelisti—for obvious reasons it does not include his latest novel La luce di Orione [The Light of Orion (2007)], which nonetheless is referred to at the end of the volume as a work in progress. The book is part of the series Scritture in corso [Writings in progress], which is devoted to contemporary Italian authors, a category to which Evangelisti apparently belongs only from a chronological perspective, due to the well-known resistance—in many respects still alive in Italy—of the mainstream to genre writers.
This is a major point in Somigli’s argument. Evangelisti can be considered in fact part of a recent resurgence of made-in-Italy genre fiction, which has been quite unexpectedly acclaimed by a wide portion of the reading public. Still, Evangelisti is a literary case, since his work has broken through the twofold barriers existing in Italy between mainstream and popular literature: that of sf readers, who tend to be hostile toward any innovation, thus keeping many good authors trapped in the net of amateur underground circulation; and that of leading publishing houses, whose goal is normally beyond the modest sales of genre fiction. But there is more to this. Although he is often identified as such, the label of sf writer is inadequate to describe the fiction of Evangelisti, which is characterized instead by a peculiar blending of sf, noir, horror, and Western. This hybridism is one of the features of Evangelisti’s style as well as the main reason why locating him in the literary scene is so difficult.
Rather than trying to classify Evangelisti, however, Somigli presents the author from the point of view of the internal development of his works and the role he plays in the debate about paraliterature. Somigli maintains that realism lies at the core of Evangelisti’s fantastic fiction. In the first section of the book—significantly titled “Valerio Evangelisti: il realismo della narrativa fantastica” [Valerio Evangelisti: the realism of fantastic narrative]—this thesis is proven through an engaging illustration of the stages in Evangelisti’s career, of the themes explored in his narrative series, and of his varied interest in history, sociology, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism. A chapter called “Opere” [Works] follows in which each novel is described in detail, chronologically ordered by year of publication. Apart from presenting their plots, Somigli’s concern here is to single out the constants in Evangelisti’s fiction as well as to outline the evolution of characters and motives within each cycle. The third part of the book contains a bibliography of the author’s fictional and nonfictional writings, comics and radio dramas based on his most famous creation, the inquisitor Eymerich, and a critical bibliography on Evangelisti. The fourth is Somigli’s interview with the author, in which they discuss the characteristics of his narrative together with his views on sf and popular fiction.
What Evangelisti says about sf lets us better understand the peculiarity of his literary project against the background of contemporary fiction. He notices how Italian sf writers have tended to stand quite apart from one another, whereas in the US, the UK, and France they have been able to give rise to national movements responding to common cultural lines and intents. Evangelisti declares that at the beginning of his career he availed himself of certain sf topoi in order to make his own way into the world of genre fiction. Once in, he began experimenting by engrafting other genres onto an sf base “per creare come una sorta di nuova letteratura popolare, una specie di feuilleton moderno, con pretese a volte anche intellettualistiche” [to create a sort of new popular literature, a kind of modern feuilleton, which sometimes has rather intellectual claims] (172). His contribution to the promotion of Italian contemporary sf and his participation in the critical debate on genre fiction are reflected respectively in two anthologies that he edited in the 1990s and in three collections of essays about paraliterature that appeared between 2000 and 2006. While lamenting the neglect of sf by Italian critics, Evangelisti tries to draw the contours of popular fiction, acknowledging that it has the same function covered in the past by the realist novel: “la descrizione critica della realtà” [the critical description of reality] (32) through the process of estrangement.
As a novelist Evangelisti attempts to go beyond the conventions of sf. Somigli stresses the fact that the novum in Evangelisti’s fiction does not necessarily correspond to an object or an invention; for instance, in the first novel of the Eymerich series, Nicolas Eymerich, inquisitore [Nicolas Eymerich, Inquisitor] (1994), the novum is a theory of the universe developed by one of the protagonists. This factor opens up speculations regarding the very notions of human existence, life, and alienation. Some traditional sf motifs, such as space travel and the encounter with other forms of life, constitute the springboard for “un viaggio all’interno dell’immaginario collettivo della razza umana” [a journey into the public imagination of the human race] (73).
If sf keeps a critical eye on the world, so does the historical novel. These are the two major genre coordinates that Somigli indicates for Evangelisti. He moves easily between these poles since they both aim at commenting upon reality. History is at the base of Evangelisti’s work: his always well-informed historical reconstruction is a way of reconsidering the past, of spotting events and figures that are usually left “ai margini della storiografia instituzionale” [at the margins of official historiography] (13). Their fictional treatment thus presents the opportunity to understand facts, to keep memory alive, and to imagine alternative pasts and futures, because the temporal distance of historical settings is often adopted as a vantage point to observe the present. The novelist like the historian has a moral responsibility, that of telling stories, and is inevitably linked to his/her social and cultural background. Such methodological principles inform the historical and sociological writings of Evangelisti, who before becoming a novelist published extensively as an historian. Some of these essays examine class struggle in its multifarious and sometimes obscure aspects; others range from pop culture to rock music and experimental cinema. All these essays reflect Evangelisti’s strong interest in apparently peripheral manifestations of contemporary culture (such as punk music and snuff movies), an attitude that also pervades his fiction.
Evangelisti’s four narrative series in fact bring to the fore historical figures and events that are almost unknown to non-specialized readers. In the Eymerich cycle, the character of the great inquisitor is the result of historical accuracy and psychological study; he evolves from one novel to the other by overcoming a sequence of oppositions (good/evil, order/chaos, body/soul, feminine/masculine). The so-called Metal-Series is inspired by pop culture, French avant-garde comics, heavy metal, and punk, and is imbued with the spirit of rebellion against capitalism animating these trends. What unites the short stories and novels devoted to the metaphor of metal is the focus on social changes occurring at the advent of industrial capitalism, with particular reference to the development of the working-class movement in the US. The Magus trilogy (1999) has as its protagonist the prophet Nostradamus, who is presented in a new light, since Evangelisti is less concerned with his prophetic status than with the presentation of his private and public figure in the setting of sixteenth-century Europe. The two novels forming the fourth series are centered on the foundation of modern Mexico; historical vicissitudes here are reconsidered from the viewpoint of those minor figures who are often left aside by official historiography but whose contribution along the bloodstained path towards democracy was fundamental.
Somigli underlines how Evangelisti’s literary project is intertwined with other art forms and makes use of different media. Nicolas Eymerich has been the trigger for his creator’s various collaborations in other artistic fields: rock music, opera, graphic novel, radio drama, cinema, and TV. Evangelisti is editor of the paper and electronic journal Carmilla (<www.carmillaonline.com>) and contributor to other periodicals. His website (<www.eymerich.com>) is a useful source of information about the writer and of discussion with his readers.
While Somigli’s book is a companion to the work of Evangelisti for Italian readers, the English-speaking public must wait to appreciate this author. Only one of his short stories, “Sepultura,” has been translated into English, by Sergio D. Altieri, and is collected in the anthology SFWA European Hall of Fame, edited by James and Kathryn Morrow (Tor, 2007).—Valentina Polcini, University of Exeter
Wells’s Cinematic Ekphrasis.
Keith Williams. H.G. Wells: Modernity and the Movies. Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2007. Distr. U Chicago P. 279 pp. ₤16.95 pbk.
H.G. Wells’s originality, foresight, and artistry have been well documented over the years. Few authors can boast such an abundance of criticism devoted to their work. And that is not just as an sf author, of course—while he is best known as sf progenitor and exemplar of the scientific romance, Wells wrote widely outside the genre and worked with multiple media. Any new critical work on Wells thus has a long, intimidating hermeneutic to negotiate. Keith Williams pulls it off without a hitch. H.G. Wells: Modernity and the Movies fills a gap in Wellsian studies, considering the cinematic texture of his writing. Specifically, Williams analyzes his vanguard use of ekphrasis as a tool of modernist animation: “Wells was instrumental in extending the classical literary principle of ‘ekphrasis’—the verbal imitation of visual modes such as paintings of sculptures so that audiences might ‘visualise’ them without seeing them directly—into the simulacral age of moving images” (7). Wells witnessed the dawn and evolution of the cinematization of culture and reality through the course of two world wars. As Williams shows, his fictions foresee the deeply pathological ways in which film has influenced and reproduced narrative, metaphysical, and ontological space.
The introduction supplies pointed context for the emergence of cinema at the turn of the twentieth century in conjunction with the scientific curiosities of Wells’s early novels and stories. Williams describes the bearing of Wellsian ekphrasis on the craft of literature and media. He argues that Wells’s “optical speculations” deserve more attention than they have received in the past:
Wells made a crucial contribution to understanding and advancing not just the possibilities of cinematic narrative, but also the impact of other forms of recording technologies. We need to account for the fuller creativity involved in Wells’s response to, and investigation of, one of the shaping forces of modernity. Consequently, this book also examines how his interaction with cinema’s wider context makes him a principal pioneer of the media-determined parameters of modern subjectivity. (1).
Following this qualification, Williams introduces his dominant themes—time, urbanity, and perception—explaining how they figured in Victorian consciousness. The theme of perception takes precedence. We learn that this is a book about ways of seeing—from the perspective of Wells, from the “mechanisms of vision” that shaped fin-de-siècle culture, and from the perspective of contemporary hyperreality (8).
Williams moves forward more or less chronologically through Wells’s career, focusing on a different set of texts in each chapter. He does not exhaust or attempt to exhaust the entire Wellsian canon—the book is not a survey—but rather chooses texts most representative of cinematic ekphrasis. It is fitting that the first chapter, “Optical Speculations in the Early Writings,” begins with The Time Machine (1895). Wells’s first and most famous scientific romance “models the theory of time as the fourth dimension in terms that parallel the technological extension of the photograph’s virtual stereoscopy into filmic movement” (24). Williams underscores how Wells’s prose, in The Time Machine and then in select short stories (e.g., “The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes” , “The Crystal Egg” , “Under the Knife” ), exhibits a rich and spectatorial film-consciousness. The second chapter, “The Dis/Appearance of the Subject,” turns to another scientific romance, The Invisible Man (1897), and its screen adaptation by James Whale in 1933. Both were major successes in their own right. Whale’s film was a “talkie masterpiece” that “rendered speech ‘all the more visible,’ in a way which actualises Wells’s prophetic foregrounding of a crisis in language and subjectivity through technological displacement” (2), whereas Wells’s novel engaged a metonymic reflexivity similar to postmodern orthodoxy. Williams reads these texts individually and against one another, setting the scene for Wells’s own exertions in the film industry.
Chapter Three, “Seeing the Future,” explores the relationship between When the Sleeper Wakes (1910) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the latter of which pays homage to the former. Wells disliked Lang’s vision of futuristic city life; for him, Metropolis was a sentimental, unrealistic, naïve fantasy that extrapolated the worst parts of his juvenilia. Despite this disavowal, Williams makes a case for the effective extrapolation by Lang of key themes in When the Sleeper Wakes (e.g., totalitarian control, biblical imagery, metanarration, media politics, and mechanized bodies). Chapter Four, “The ‘Broadbow’ and the Big Screen,” measures some of Wells’s own screenwriting endeavors, namely Things to Come (1936), by first discussing the ekphrastic strategies of his “film novel,” The King Who Was a King (1929). The fifth and final chapter, “Afterimages,” further investigates Wells’s synergy with cinema by sampling adaptations of his work on big and small American and European screens. Here Williams mainly looks at Hollywood versions of The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. Limited attention is paid, for example, to “European Wells” and “British Television Wells” (169, 173). As Williams admits, however, “Wells’s texts remain an inexhaustible rhizome for intelligent and visually self-aware SF on film and television. To trace the mutation of their influence through post-war films and programmes fully would require a separate study” (130).
In the conclusion, Williams suggests that Wells’s ekphrastic narratives contain the seeds of high modernist praxis. “The sheer ingenuity and range of optical speculations in Wells’s early writings, and their refraction of the manifold political, social and cultural implications of cinema, undoubtedly makes him the unjustly neglected precursor of High Modernist interest in and influence on both avant-garde and popular aspects of the new medium” (179). This, perhaps, is Williams’s boldest claim in the book, one that he successfully defends from beginning to end. As a grandparent of the sf genre, Wells is sometimes viewed more conservatively, if only compared to contemporary sf authors, and the gravity and inventiveness of his experimentalism can be easy to overlook or take for granted. Williams reminds us just how dynamic Wells was and still is. Wellsian scholars will appreciate H.G. Wells: Modernity and the Movies for its freshness and insight. The book also provides an excellent framework for a course on Wells that studies the interactions of his work in written and cinematic forms.—D. Harlan Wilson, Wright State University-Lake Campus
Putting the Science Back in Science Fiction.
Martin Willis. Mesmerists, Monsters, and Machines: Science Fiction and the Cultures of Science in the Nineteenth Century. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 2006. viii + 273 pp. $29 pbk.
Martin Willis’s study argues that sf has largely been excluded from the existing scholarship on literature and science primarily due to bad timing. When the study of literature and science first rose to prominence in the 1980s through the work of critics such as Gillian Beer and George Levine, sf was still establishing itself as an academic discipline. Sf critics were therefore still engaged in the process of defining the boundaries of sf studies at the same time that these interdisciplinary scholars were attempting to break down just such disciplinary boundaries. Willis’s book is an attempt to correct this oversight by examining how various nineteenth-century sf texts represent and intervene in contemporaneous scientific debates. Willis provides the clearest articulation of his underlying methodology in his conclusion, where he reveals that his approach is largely based on Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of dialogics. Willis argues that both literary and scientific discourses “often constructed a heteroglossic narrative of conflicting philosophies” (239), and these conflicting philosophies can also be understood in terms of Bakhtin’s notion of carnival, as it highlights “the relationship often found between the orthodox and heterodox scientific communities” (239). Bakhtin’s theories thus help to elucidate Willis’s main argument, which is that sf texts both reflect and shape the struggles for authority taking place within scientific disciplines.
This conclusion also helps to explain why Willis has chosen to focus on science and sf in the nineteenth century, as this was a time when science was gradually establishing itself as an institution by setting the parameters for legitimate scientific research. In his chapter on E.T.A. Hoffmann, for example, Willis argues that Hoffmann’s short stories frequently reflect the tensions between such heterodox sciences as mesmerism and the more orthodox science of mechanics, which was based on the creation of automata. In addition to illustrating what Willis calls “the kaleidoscopic landscape of the sciences in the early nineteenth century” (36), Hoffmann’s texts also intervene in these struggles over scientific authority by depicting scientists who integrate both orthodox and heterodox practices, thereby collapsing “the distinction between the magical and the scientific that was beginning to take hold in the 1810s” (54). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) similarly illustrates the competing notions of electricity held by Romantic and materialist science, which saw electricity as either a spiritual force or simply another form of matter. According to Willis, Shelley “constructs her text as a constant dialogue between [these] two opposing philosophies” without clearly privileging one over the other (91), thus serving “to underline the problematic nature of scientific truth” (92). Willis argues that Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories similarly reflect tensions between Romantic and materialist science, yet Poe ultimately critiques the ways in which both of these approaches serve to exercise control over the human body. Stories such as “The Man That Was Used Up” (1839), for example, illustrate the detrimental effects of materialist science by depicting the transformation of the human into a machine, yet stories such as “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” (1844) also employ mesmerism to depict how humans “must give up control of themselves to science” (130).
While the first three chapters address the tensions between orthodox and heterodox science in the early nineteenth century, the last three chapters examine scientific debates in the late nineteenth century. For example, according to Willis, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869) represents the competition between amateur and professional scientists in the field of natural history. While Nemo is an amateur oceanologist who conducts research in the ocean, Aronnax serves as a model of the professional scientist who remains in the museum and is solely engaged in such practices as cataloguing and classifying. Verne’s intervention is to argue for an integration of these approaches by combining field research and scientific accuracy. Willis also examines how Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s novel Tomorrow’s Eve (1886) illustrates the tensions between orthodox and heterodox science by incorporating a real-life scientist (Thomas Alva Edison) as the main character, yet revealing that this scientist also believes in spiritualism:
By placing a prestigious science and a subordinate ‘pseudoscience’ in the same context, and in the work of the same scientist ... Tomorrow’s Eve is [able] to reveal how the varied avenues of scientific investigation, while apparently in positions of very different authority and power, are actually striving for the same intellectual, ideological, and philosophical ends. (179)
Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s novel serves as a critique of orthodox science, in other words, by arguing for its fundamental affinities with such heterodox sciences as psychical research, which employ the same language and ideas. In the final chapter, Willis examines H.G. Wells’s novel The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) within the context of debates concerning laboratory science and the practice of vivisection. Willis argues, however, that Wells’s novel is a critique not of vivisection, as it is often understood, but rather of the scientific community itself: “Wells’s concentration on the scientific community tends to place Moreau more as a victim of a powerful political body than as the perpetrator of moral crime.... Wells [thus] suggests that vivisection is not the horrific practice that it appears to be. Horror, indeed, comes from power unchecked by public liability” (229). By illustrating the scientific community’s failure to acknowledge the legitimacy of public concerns, in other words, Wells argues for a greater degree of transparency and accountability.
Within each of these chapters, therefore, Willis illustrates the dialogic relationship among scientific discourses, public debates, and sf texts. Rather than simply representing or demonstrating scientific ideas and principles, Willis argues that sf texts actively respond to and intervene in public debates concerning the nature of scientific authority and the regulation of scientific institutions. If there is a weakness in Willis’s argument, it may be his tendency to exaggerate the novelty of this approach. In his discussion of The Island of Dr. Moreau, for example, Willis argues that Wells’s novel “has not ... ever been read as a document that speaks directly to the rise of laboratory science in the 1890s” (202). This statement is difficult to accept, as Willis himself points out only a few pages later that Wells’s contemporaries already interpreted this novel as a direct intervention in these debates (205). Willis’s readings are extremely original and convincing, however, and his book clearly illustrates the value of employing such an interdisciplinary approach in sf studies.—Anthony Enns, Dalhousie University
Daniel Compère, ed. Albert Robida: du passé au futur. Amiens: Encrage, 2006. 207 pp. 30€ pbk.
I confess to being terribly remiss in not calling attention to this excellent book before now. Although his reputation was largely eclipsed by the world-wide fame of Jules Verne, Albert Robida (1848-1926) was one of the most notable writers of French science fiction during the latter half of the nineteenth century and arguably the father of science fiction illustration (see Philippe Willems’s “A Stereoscopic Vision of the Future: Albert Robida’s Twentieth Century” [SFS 26.3 (Nov. 1999): 354-78]). This collection of sixteen essays on Robida constitutes, to my mind, some of the best criticism on him ever published.
The phrase du passé au futur [from the past to the future] in the book’s title accurately reflects Robida’s own chronological focus in his fiction and his art. His principal interests were preserving the past, chronicling the present, and visualizing the future. In his many collections of drawings such as the Vieilles villes [1878-1910, Old cities series as well as in his historical art books such as Paris de siècle en siècle [1895, Paris from century to century] or Paris à travers l’histoire [1898, Paris through history], Robida captured the images of hundreds of medieval and Renaissance buildings, streets, and squares that were rapidly disappearing from French and other European urban landscapes. In his work as editor and journalist for the satirical weekly magazine La Caricature (1830-1893), Robida showed himself to be an insightful commentator on current political and cultural events in France, tackling a broad range of topics from changes in banking laws to the suffragette movement. And, of course, his many futuristic sf works such as Le Vingtième siècle [1882, The Twentieth century (available in English as The Twentieth Century, trans. and ed. Philippe Willems, Wesleyan UP, 2004)], La Guerre au vingtième siècle [1887, War in the twentieth century], and La Vie électrique [1892, The Electric life]—all lavishly embellished with his fanciful illustrations—have carved a special niche of honor for Robida in the history of speculative fiction.
Appropriately, the essays in Albert Robida: du passé au futur are organized into four basic categories: the first three reflect the tripartite focus of Robida’s professional life as mentioned above—“Robida témoin de son temps” [Robida as witness of his time], “Robida visionnaire” [Robida as visionary], and “Robida voyageur du passé” [Robida as traveler to the past]—and the final part called “Robida parodiste et adapté” [Robida as parodist and as adapted] includes miscellaneous articles on the author’s literary tastes, his attacks on Zola and naturalism, and his international legacy and imitators. The entire book is prefaced by a brief but excellent overview by Sorbonne professor Daniel Compère entitled “Albert Robida aujourd’hui” [Albert Robida today] and concludes with a very thorough secondary bibliography courtesy of doctoral student Sandrine Doré.
My favorite essays in this collection include: Philippe Hamon’s “Le Dix-neuvième siècle de Robida” [Robida’s The Nineteenth century] which discusses the author’s views of French history and the social mores of his contemporaries; Gérard Klein’s “Robida l’anticipateur, entre science-fiction et prospective” [Robida the seer, between science fiction and futurology], which places Robida’s work in the context of the evolution of French sf; André Lange’s “Entre Edison et Zola; Albert Robida et l’imaginaire des technologies de communication” [Between Edison and Zola: Albert Robida and the imaginary of communications technologies], which, as the title suggests, examines the portrayal of extrapolated telecommunications in Robida’s fiction; and Carole Aurouet’s “De la littérature illustrée au cinéma muet, ou le voyage de Saturnin Farandoul d’un continent artistique à l’autre” [From illustrated literature to silent film, or the voyage of Saturnin Farandoul from one artistic continent to another], which analyzes Robida’s sprawling satiric novel (and often hilarious parody of Verne’s Extraordinary Voyages) hyperbolically called Voyages très extraordinaires de Saturnin Farandoul dans les cinq ou six parties du monde et dans tous les pays connus et même inconnus de M. Jules Verne [1879, The very extraordinary voyages of Saturnin Farandoul in the five or six parts of the world and in all the countries known and even unknown by Mister Jules Verne] and its adaptation to the Italian silver screen in 1913.
It is important to note that this collection was published as the “acts” of an academic conference devoted to Robida that took place at the Université de Paris III, Sorbonne Nouvelle, in October of 2003. It was organized by Professors Hamon and Compère and partly sponsored by the Association des Amis d’Albert Robida. Academic conferences are not rare in France, but academic conferences devoted exclusively to sf topics are very rare. Nearly ten years ago (in SFS 26.1 [Mar. 1999]: 149-50) I reviewed a 1998 book of critical essays on science fiction produced by French academics in which the editor of the book, Stéphane Nicot (now Stéphanie Nicot), explained that “The French university today voluntarily embraces the study of those various forms of literature descending from Dracula, but the study of sf still remains essentially suspect.... [S]erious study of sf has been slow to develop, especially in comparison to other countries like the United States or Canada” (150). During the ensuing decade, it seems that—apart from those many works focused on Jules Verne (who, in France, is not considered to be a writer of sf) and the occasional theoretical study of the genre (such as Richard Saint-Gelais’s L’Empire du pseudo [1999, The Empire of the pseudo, reviewed in SFS 27.2 (July 2000): 319-21] or Irène Langlet’s La Science-fiction: Lecture et poétique d’un genre littéraire [2006, Science fiction: the reading and poetics of a literary genre])—the situation has changed little, and very few volumes of “serious” academic criticism on science fiction have appeared in la douce France. That is all the more reason to appreciate this fine collection of critical essays on Robida.—ABE (SFS)
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