BOOKS IN REVIEW
The First French Mad Scientist.
Honoré de Balzac. The Centenarian, or, The Two Beringhelds. 1822 [as by Horace de Saint-Aubin]. Early Classics of Science Fiction. Trans. and ed. Danièle Chatelain and George Slusser. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2006. lvi + 312 pp. $29.95 hc.
The Centenarian, or, The Two Beringhelds (original French title: Le Centenaire, ou les Deux Béringhelds), the authorship of which was attributed to “Horace de Saint-Aubin,” was first published in 1822. It is one of a dozen pseudonymous or anonymous novels, several of which have fantastic elements, that in the early 1820s the young Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) churned out solo or in collaboration with others as part of his fictional apprenticeship. Not until the 1830s would Balzac turn his attention toward fashioning that monument to realism, the great series of interlinked fictions entitled La Comédie humaine [The Human Comedy, c. 1830+].
Set chiefly during the Revolutionary and the Napoleonic eras in the vicinity of Tours, Balzac’s home town, The Centenarian is generically hybrid and so loosely constructed that neither of its alternative endings satisfactorily resolves the plot. For the reader today, the novel’s most coherent parts deal retrospectively with the sentimental education of its protagonist, Tullius Beringheld. These sections, and others in the narrative present by which time Beringheld has become a general in Napoleon’s army, are framed by vaguely described antagonistic interventions by the Centenarian, who (we eventually learn) is the general’s father. Also named Tullius Beringheld, this Centenarian is a cadaverous giant of a man who, born in 1470, has kept himself alive for more than three hundred years by surgically extracting and absorbing the vital fluids of dying human beings. (He prefers young, attractive female victims.)
The Centenarian is very far from a masterpiece, but it is noteworthy not only because it is by a writer who would develop into one of the greatest European novelists but also because it raises the issue of the fantastic roots of nineteenth-century realism. For Anglophone readers, Balzac’s borrowings in The Centenarian are particularly interesting. He adapted the fantastic scenario of a peripatetic immortal hero-villain from Charles Robert Maturin’s romantic-gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). (Balzac would write a sequel to Melmoth, Melmoth réconciliè [Melmoth Reconciled, 1835], later in his career). Balzac also recycled motifs, themes, and narrative strategies that he had picked up from his readings of Ann Radcliffe, Walter Scott, and Laurence Sterne, among others.
That The Centenarian has some evident sf interest was acknowledged by the brief reference to it (as a “horror novel”) in the “Balzac” entry of the Clute and Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993). The Centenarian’s eponymous antagonist uses a quasi-scientific means to extend his life far beyond the natural span. The novel may therefore be read as an example of the topos of the quest for human immortality in the process of being generically “translated” from the supernaturally-inclined gothic into materialist proto-sf.
This handsome volume in Wesleyan’s Early Classics of Science Fiction series goes far beyond making one of Balzac’s esoteric juvenilia available to English-speaking readers. The co-editors Danièle Chatelain and George Slusser provide an extensive apparatus that, taken as a whole, makes a compelling case for The Centenarian’s importance as the earliest dramatization of a theme that gives French sf its specificity. They are careful not to claim that the young Balzac’s novel was itself directly influential on later French sf writers, as it has always remained relatively obscure. But as “perhaps the first uniquely French work of SF” (xiv), The Centenarian (especially in its original 1822 form) constitutes for sf scholars the defining theme of French sf in its earliest manifestation.
In their superb essay entitled “Balzac’s Centenarian and French Science Fiction,” which immediately follows their introduction and precedes the text of the novel itself, the editors lay out their case with convincing rigor. In an arena adapted from the gothic but purged of all forces not susceptible to a scientific interpretation, The Centenarian dramatizes, via its monstrously long-lived antagonist, nothing less than the irresolvable conflict between mind and body instigated by Cartesian dualism. In Balzac’s scenario of “an entrapped mind ... forced to seek its infinities in some inner hidden world inexorably bounded by the material envelope” (l), French sf comes into being as Balzac makes a turn that is simultaneously inward and backward relative to his more outward-looking, future-oriented Anglophone contemporaries. (The turn is particularly striking as many of the chief influences on Balzac when he was writing The Centenarian were British novelists.)
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) was published four years before The Centenarian and has been much more influential on later work. Indeed, Frankenstein has been long theorized by Brian Aldiss as the fons et origo of Anglo-American sf. Chatelain and Slusser agree with Aldiss, as his theory supports their case for a very different French sf tradition, not so much stemming from The Centenarian as finding in it its first textual incarnation. In Frankenstein, a scientist, after having rejected works by metaphysicians as superannuated, creates by scientific means a new being in nature, intended as an improvement upon humanity. Frankenstein’s madness is a side-effect of his lack of foresight about the monstrous implications of his experiment for the future of our species.
In The Centenarian, by contrast, the mad scientist’s sole aim is to keep himself alive at all costs, and his method is to rediscover “theories or principles formulated earlier by wise men who achieved absolute knowledge of the unity of all things, a knowledge now lost in the fragmented present” (xxix). French sf writers as different as Jules Verne, Philippe Curval, Kurt Steiner, and Michel Jeury all revisit this theme. (I would add that J.-H. Rosny âiné’s great works of prehistoric fiction also support the editors’ implication that nostalgia for a lost archaic unity fuels the speculative impulse in francophone sf.) The editors conclude that French sf continues to be “written ‘by’ the Cartesian tradition” (lv). More specifically, Balzac bequeathed the “existential situation” of The Centenarian to French literature via the Comédie humaine itself (xlvi), in which the social body functions as a metaphor for the physical body. In an Afterword entitled “The Centenarian in the Comédie humaine,” they develop this intriguing idea at some length.
At the risk of detracting from the editors’ achievement, I find it necessary, in the light of claims on the book jacket that this is the first time The Centenarian has been available in English, to set the publication record straight. A translation by George Slusser of the 1822 text of The Centenarian was published by Arno Press of New York in 1976 as part of this now-defunct reprint house’s Supernatural and Occult Fiction collection. The Arno edition has a brief foreword by Slusser but no other scholarly apparatus. The Wesleyan edition is therefore either a retranslation of the source text or, more likely, a revision of the Arno translation.
While the Wesleyan translation is more faithful to Balzac than the Arno, it is not always superior in readability. For example, the Wesleyan, introducing the character of Jacques Butmel, General Beringheld’s devoted aide-de-camp, reads: “the least of his master’s wishes was for him what a firman of the Grand Potentate was for a Muslim” (7; emphasis in original). The corresponding passage in the Arno runs, “the least of his master’s wishes was for him what the dictate of some high potentate was for his Moslem followers” (6). As the Wesleyan does not gloss “firman,” the Arno’s meaning is clearer.
Libraries that already possess the Arno translation, however, should not be deterred from supplementing or even replacing it with the Wesleyan. The Chatelain-Slusser apparatus is not only exceptionally valuable as a means of understanding The Centenarian but also, given the many insights it offers into the specificity of French sf, probably more important than the novel it frames. —Nicholas Ruddick, University of Regina
Inventing Futuristic Fiction
Félix Bodin. The Novel of the Future. 1834. Trans. Brian Stableford. Encino, CA: Black Coat Press (<www.blackcoatpress.com>), 2008. 255 pp. $20.95 pbk.
This is a very welcome translation of Félix Bodin’s 1834 book Le Roman de l’avenir, an incomplete novel accompanied by a mélange of essays that includes the first literary criticism of novels set in future time as well as the first poetics of that genre, for which Bodin invented the term littérature futuriste. Bodin also correctly remarked that no fully realized example of the new form yet existed, thus also providing the first instance of genre criticism written predictively before the emergence of the genre in question in order to encourage its creation—an altogether fitting sequence for futuristic fiction.
According to Bodin, previous writing set in the future lacks imaginative appeal, verisimilitude, and characters about whose fates readers would care. The literature of religious apocalypse has little to attract those seeking what novels can offer. Utopias set in future time, like those set in the past or some remote present place, remain schematic expositions of ideas. Because the myths of antiquity no longer command belief, resort to them cannot evoke awe. Bodin is sure, however, that new wonders created or revealed by science can supply viable substitutes for the old legends:
If ever someone succeeds in writing the novel or the epic of the future, he will have a vast source of marvels to draw upon, and of marvels that are, so to speak, entirely plausible—which will make reason proud, instead of shocking or depreciating it, as the machinery of all the marvelous epics it has so far been possible to create has done. In offering perfectibility in a picturesque, narrative and dramatic form, he will have found a means of gripping and stirring imaginations and hastening the progress of humanity ... much more powerful than the finest displays of theoretical systems, even if they are presented with the highest eloquence. (34)
Bodin insists that although no one, including himself, has yet written such an epic of the future, much less a great Homeric tale, plausible speculation about progress to come affords ample material. Thus, in the future
can be found the revelations of somnambulists, flights through the air, voyages into the ocean depths, just as one finds sibyls, hippogriffs and the grottoes of nymphs in the poetry of the past—but the marvelous of the future ... is entirely credible, entirely natural, entirely possible, and will therefore strike the imagination more vividly, and grip it firmly, by painting therein as in reality. We shall thus find a new world: a new milieu that is entirely fantastic, and yet not unbelievable, in which human beings may be deployed, with the mutability of their ideas and the immutability of their propensities. (39-40)
Bodin’s vision of futuristic literature combining the appeals of fantasy and realism might even now serve as a basis for explanation and defense of much sf.
The main part of Bodin’s book is a prolix introduction of the chief characters whose adventures his novel proposes to relate, along with some account of the technology and politics of the twentieth century in which they live. Bodin presents his sketch of their world as a possible though not inevitable outcome of the nineteenth century that his 1834 readers inhabit. His vision of the future is partly utopian suggestion along vaguely Benthamite lines of how the world ought to progress toward abolition of war, polygamy, and slavery, among other evils. It is also partly a warning that, given the sheer bloody-mindedness of so many people, neither warfare nor other perennial horrors are likely to disappear from any foreseeable future. To underscore this warning, the main action of Bodin’s novel was to be a clash between the armies of civilization trying (ironically) to maintain world peace and the forces of a retrogressive “Poetic or Anti-Prosaic Association” which finds a peaceful world merely tedious. This conflict promises readers exciting aerial warfare as well as battles on land and sea. Kidnapping and piracy are also featured attractions, as is the hint of further encounters with a group of fierce female latter-day Amazons. All this in full whoop was reserved for a second volume that, alas, was neither written nor much, if at all, requested by readers of The Novel of the Future. At the end of its narrative Bodin confesses that “Indeed, this volume is, to tell the truth, only an exposition, and I shall lower the curtain at the moment when the action is about to commence” (206). With that confession of what his readers could not fail to notice, Bodin abandoned his effort to exemplify fully the poetics of futuristic fiction that is in fact his most accurate prediction of things to come.
Stableford’s Introduction nicely locates Bodin’s literary and political ideas in their nineteenth-century context. His Afterword looks back from our part of the twenty-first century to explain how Bodin’s book fits into the current scheme of things in and outside literature. There is a section on “The Novel of the Future and the Future of the Novel,” a discussion of how Bodin’s allusions to Mesmerism square with later developments in medicine and psychology, and a section on how his vision of the future relates to other ideas about “Progress and Providence.” Throughout Bodin’s text Stableford scatters footnotes that accurately explain and often amiably comment on its more obscure allusions.
All of Stableford’s challenging Afterword deserves to be carefully considered by everyone seriously concerned with sf. Among other matters, Stableford argues that Bodin’s reluctance or inability to complete his novel by writing its concluding volume is a sign of his unresolved inner conflicts about the possibility of progress and also, more importantly, a clue to what may be sf’s inevitable failure to achieve the goal that Bodin set for it. Stableford suggests that “still unresolved” in our time is “the question of whether the ‘novelistic’ aspects of novels of the future are really compatible with their ‘futuristic’ aspects” (252). He goes on to explain this gloomy observation by remarking, “It certainly seems to be the case that the fictional aspects of modern science fiction still tend to be novelistic and ‘poetic’ in the same way that Romantic literature was novelistic and poetic, rather than in terms of any new ‘poetry of civilization,’ while its scientific aspects are still ‘positive’ in the same way that the progressive politics of the early 19th century attempted to be positive” (252). If this proposition— dubious, I would say, though Stableford does not seem to doubt it—is accepted,
then modern science fiction is a genre whose every individual example is fundamentally divided, no matter how much it pretends (dishonestly, for the most part) to be pandering to a new sense of the marvelous rather than the old one. Given that, there is not the least residual mystery about the fact that admittedly, and necessarily, unsuccessful attempts to write “hard” science fiction have been so spectacularly outperformed in the literary marketplace by stubbornly Romantic varieties of anti-science or mock-science fiction, and by proudly Romantic varieties of quasi-Medieval fantasy. (252-53)
To pronounce as retrogressive in that way “every individual example” of modern sf is nothing if not thought-provoking. If the marvels of sf are no more than dishonest pretense, the genre may be inherently trivial or at least irrelevant to actual science and its consequences. How worried should we be?
It is reassuring to recall Sturgeon’s law. Of course ninety per cent of hard sf is junk. So is ninety per cent of all fiction (and everything else). Small wonder that failed attempts to write hard sf are “outperformed in the marketplace”—i.e., do not sell as well—as the other kinds of now more fashionable junk Stableford describes (accurately enough) as mock-sf (I think of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time ), anti-science sf (I think of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park ), and quasi-Medieval fantasy (see most of the ads and reviews in your current issue of Locus). That people who buy books prefer one kind of junk over another may or may not be a sign of their poor taste, but it does not prove anything about successful attempts to write hard sf—about, in other words, that ten per cent of hard sf that Sturgeon’s law tells us will not be junk and in fact is not junk, whether or not it makes the bestseller lists. Of its worth or even existence marketplace statistics are not a reliable measure. Although Stableford has very good reasons to cast a cold eye on most of what now outsells or passes for sf, it does not follow that the best sf inevitably suffers along with the worst from a slippage away from achieving scientific varieties of the marvelous. We need not despair. There is more than enough to keep our spirits up in the ten per cent of sf that conforms to Bodin’s predictive prescription for genuine futuristic literature.
Stableford’s translation of Bodin’s text is accurate, elegant, and complete. It is a reliable version available in a conveniently portable form. Typos abound. I found 41 egregious ones before giving up the count in annoyance, but it is the only game in town. Apart from what is apparently the same text dated 1835 on its title page, there has been no French edition since its first printing in 1834. Copies are hard to find. The British Library has one. Another is at the Maison d’Ailleurs in Switzerland. The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris has one, used by Stableford as his copy-text from a pdf file available at gallica.fr, that library’s internet archive. A very few other libraries may have one. A private collector I know recently found one on sale (he did not say where) and snapped it up. Do not count on getting that lucky again any time soon. When I visited the gallica.fr site to see its posting of Le Roman de l’avenir, all I found was a message stating that Bodin’s book was currently unavailable. Now you see it. Now you don’t. Guttenberg’s technology remains the most reliable. Stableford has done sf scholarship an immense service by providing Bodin’s landmark work in a form that will not vanish when you go to read it. Great thanks are also due Black Coat Press, which according to its web site (given at the head of this review) “is primarily devoted to publishing English-language translations of classics of French popular literature, as well as comics and stage plays.” Included in this project is a large agenda of translations of early sf and neighboring genres, with an awesome number of these also done by Stableford. Rivière Blanche, a sister division of Black Coat, “publishes French sf novels in French, for the French market.” Brush up your French and check them out too via a link at Black Coat’s web site. Certainly everyone interested in the history of sf should have Stableford’s translation of Le Roman de l’avenir. To read it is to understand better what futuristic fiction is or at least ought to be. To read Stableford’s comments on Bodin’s relevance, whether in agreement or disagreement, is to see what is at stake in how sf presents its marvels.—Paul K. Alkon, University of Southern California
Viagra for SF
Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The Coming Race. 1871. Ed. Peter W. Sinnema. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview, 2008. 234 pp. $17.95 pbk.
Most of us now think only of the Victorian aristocrat and best-selling author of his time as the inspiration for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for worst opening line. But despite this easy dismissal, The Coming Race (1871), which appeared just at the end of Bulwer-Lytton’s long career, is still a fine read and, further, a deep penetration into the foundations of what extrapolation means and what utopian thinking offers. In fact, the story that the American narrator Tish tells in de Tocqueville fashion carries sf and genre implications with which we still wrestle in our commitment to reading and to exploration. At the end, Tish, like his lordly Brit creator, is resigned to a sort of Wellsian heat death when “our inevitable destroyers ... emerge into sunlight” (168). This is clearly sentimental writing, and it is yoked with a lost love romance plot that made the book immensely popular for its Victorian audience and then immediately anathema for Modernism and beyond. But the extrapolative path to the end that is built lavishly from Darwinian bio-science, from Maxwellian electromagnetism, from historical linguistics, and even from feminist and gender theory is no joke and fully justifies the recent study it has received. Bulwer-Lytton was no lightweight dandy. In his novel, Tish discovers a utopian society underground, but it is degenerate in its totally successful control of nature (read technology). Vril-ya need to come to the surface of the Earth in order to generate again (read biology, read electricity); and this inevitable movement will surely destroy humanity, just as Cro-Magnon destroyed Neanderthal, just as Cyberpunk destroyed Golden Age sf. The coming race of Vril-ya is profoundly ambiguous.
I think there is little ambiguous, however, about Broadview Editions and about the fine work of editor Peter Sinnema here. His introduction does have some stiff competition from the introduction by David Seed in the Wesleyan UP edition of The Coming Race (2005). I actually prefer the Wesleyan editions of important and seminal works in the field because they include introductions by some of the most important sf scholars, such as Seed, and they invite students to do more research beyond the text. But clearly, both in these two reprintings only three years apart and in several key essays, all of which may be located in Sinnema’s work here, Bulwer-Lytton’s nice ideas about genre, generation, extrapolation, and entropy are getting a good workout in our time. I have used Broadview Editions a lot, with their apparatus of substantial bibliographic listings, detailed chronologies, and historical snippets from the culture of the time printed as appendices. In fact, my students may feel that they are utopian editions—so much material so easily at hand. But if we as students have access to what seems to be all the facts in an organic work of the mind, facts about the author and about his/her time, then it becomes like the Vril-ya. It may consume us in its totality. One essay cited here apparently argues that Bulwer-Lytton’s coinage “Vril” comes from virility and, in fact, anticipates our own proud Viagra. With almost too much information right at hand, these comprehensive Broadview Editions may wear us out just as Tish is worn out at the end of this potboiler of extrapolation. Better to be in on the developing competitiveness of a new literature rather than to seem too scholarly in our reading. Just as he was dying, Bulwer-Lytton saw this and, perhaps, saw ahead to modern sf.—Donald M. Hassler, Kent State University
Mapping the Unmappable
Scott Connors, ed. The Freedom of Fantastic Things: Selected Criticism on Clark Ashton Smith. New York: Hippocampus, 2006. 376 pp. $20 pbk.
The Freedom of Fantastic Things is a fine and useful collection. The critical selections assembled here vary almost as greatly as their focus: Clark Ashton Smith. The pieces have many goals and follow widely divergent paths towards them but the collection as a whole succeeds far beyond the success of any single author, since it offers insight not just into Smith’s work, but into the possibilities for speculative criticism in general.
One of the more pleasant surprises is the historical perspective provided. After a commemorative essay by Donald Sidney-Fryer explicating Smith’s relationship with George Sterling, editor Scott Connors includes period reviews of Smith’s poetry. Readers who know Smith primarily as the least famous member of the pulp triad (Lovecraft, Howard, and, oh, yes, Smith) may be surprised by how highly Smith’s poetry was regarded. Including these reviews serves to remind readers just how much the practice of criticism has changed; this insight becomes specific to speculative fiction when a fairly clumsy essay by James Blish dismissing Smith’s work is included, then answered.
The first entries situate Smith at the nexus of several traditions, and the essays that follow make these traditions explicit. S.J. Sackett tags Smith as “The Last Romantic,” while Fred Chappell analyzes Smith as “The Last True Symbolist,” and Laurie Guillard as a decadent. Connors analyzes Smith’s relationship to Modernism, while several contributors chart other predictable but necessary paths, analyzing Smith’s fantastic and macabre tendencies.
These critics visit and revisit the same texts, creating a recursive loop appropriate to Smith’s aesthetic concerns. Among the works that frequently reappear are the stories “The Maker of Gargoyles” (1932) and “The Maze of the Enchanter” (1933) and the poems “The Hashish-Eater” (1922) and “Medusa” (1911). With the essays read in quick succession, this return can be dizzying; multiple readings of the same texts can blur individual arguments. If they are allowed to settle, however, the result is synergistic. That is to say, taken together, they convincingly argue that Smith’s work should be read for its profusion. They make a case that it is complex enough to carry all of its genre banners successfully, and that Smith deserves far more attention than he receives.
A host of essays analyze Smith’s recurrent themes and techniques, and an overlapping cluster discusses the various fictional settings/themes to which Smith returned, for example, Hyperborea, Zothique, Averoigne, and Atlantis. While few of these essays call out for individual attention, they do cast light on elements of Smith’s work that fit well with the various critical lineages indicated: the various discussions of loss agree with the view of Smith as a decadent, the discussions of doubling with the macabre tradition, and so on.
Some of the works included will primarily be of interest to scholars of the weird (Steve Behrend’s annotated chronology of Smith’s fiction, for example), but three pieces stand out as worthy of special mention. One is S.T. Joshi’s piece on Smith’s prose poetry, which is useful because of the attention it gives to formal complexities, a matter too often neglected. A second is Dan Clore’s Barthesian reading of the lexical codes in “Xeethra” (1934). This deserves special attention because of its focused application of critical theory, because it provides new tools for understanding how speculative fiction functions, and, most importantly, because it provides a critical frame for understanding how the reading communities focusing on speculative fiction see that which mainstream fiction can miss. The joy of the collection, though, is Brian Stableford’s “Outside the Human Aquarium,” which explores Smith’s cosmic perspective. In Stableford’s skilled synthesizing discussion of Smith’s work there is an appreciation and understanding of the cosmic perspective crucial to much of speculative fiction.
As should be obvious, the collection as a whole is a success. It is essential for scholars of weird fiction and useful for anyone trying to place genre fiction within the contexts of larger cultural trends. It is not perfect, of course. Some individual pieces are not as strong as others and seem to misread stories by stretching at interpretations. Some minor editorial choices were odd (foregrounding dates for the early reviews left me expecting similarly obvious dates for the others, and unclear about when certain pieces were written). The biggest gap, though, is clearly conscious, if somewhat baffling. In addition to writing poetry and fiction, Clark Ashton Smith was a sculptor and painter. Several of the essays mention this, but no one in the collection addresses his larger artistic practices or discusses how his thematic concerns carried over into the visual arena.—Greg Beatty, University of Phoenix Online
John S. Partington, ed. H.G. Wells’s Fin-de-Siècle: Twenty-First Century Reflections on the Early H.G. Wells. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007. vi + 150 pp. $46.95 pbk.
Our shelves groan under the ever-increasing number of books about H.G. Wells. Yet each is likely to complain, as John S. Partington does in the introduction to this latest volume, that much of Wells’s work is “badly neglected by literary critics today” (1). There are, perhaps, three answers to this conundrum, two of which are, at least obliquely, suggested by the essays collected here. (The essays were all previously published in The Wellsian, a regular and long-running journal devoted to the work of this “neglected” author.)
The answer you would not glean from these pages is that Wells was an extraordinarily prolific author. His first two books, Text-Book of Biology and Honours Physiography, appeared in 1893; then there was a gap of a year (inexplicable in the light of his later output) before Select Conversations with an Uncle and three other books appeared in 1895. From then he published at least one book, and more often three, four, or five, every year of his life. And these were not all slim or lightweight works; they included massive tomes such as The Outline of History (1920) and The Science of Life (1931), as well as works on politics, futurology, autobiography, and novel after novel after novel. With such a rate of production, one would have to be very devoted to read everything by Wells, especially since, inevitably, some works stand up to rereading far less than others.
But, such simple practicality aside, there are two other ways of looking at the question. The first tells us that Wells’s early work, and in particular six novels written between 1895 and 1901, changed the history of literature. They were brisk novels, the work of a young and eager writer (Wells was only 35 when The First Men in the Moon appeared in 1901) who was full of fresh ideas that he just wanted to set down as quickly as he could so as to excite his readers as much as he was excited. Replete with notions gleaned from his own scientific education and with extraordinary invention, these books did not define science fiction, but they gave it a shape, a direction, a texture it had never enjoyed before. They have, consequently, attracted proportionally far more of the critical attention paid to Wells than any other aspect of his long career.
Wells went on to produce science fiction periodically throughout his writing life, though you will probably find more critical work on The Time Machine (1895) alone than on, say, In the Days of the Comet (1906), The World Set Free (1914), The Shape of Things to Come (1933), and Star Begotten (1937) put together. The later science fictions often recapitulate ideas in his non-fiction, and are certainly nowhere near as revolutionary as the early works, but it is probably possible to find people who believe Wells wrote no science fiction after The First Men in the Moon, so disproportionate is the attention paid to these phases of his career. And if the later science fiction receives scant attention, the later mainstream fiction is at least as poorly served, if not more so.
The effect of the inequality is evident in this slim volume. The book opens with four essays on Wells’s early science fiction, one each on The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds (1898) and two on The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). This section is followed by three essays on his non-sf of the same period, one each on The Wheels of Chance (1896), Tono-Bungay (1909), and The History of Mr Polly (1910). The essays on science fiction are clearly struggling to find something fresh to say, and end up employing esoteric bits of theory not, it would seem, because these particular fragments of theory really illuminate Wells, but because they give the author a chance to do something no one else has so far done. The essays are also surprisingly free of context. In the best of the four, “Vivisected Language in H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau” by Kimberly Jackson, the author is keen to place Wells among the decadents. Yet she does not draw attention to one of the central concerns of the decadents, even though this is so significant a part of Wells’s novel that it could only help her case: what it is to be a person. This issue is key not only to such archetypal decadent works as Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), but also to their forebears, Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) and Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). In fact, neither of the two essays on The Island of Doctor Moreau so much as mentions Frankenstein.
In contrast, the essays on the non-sf novels, even such relatively well-known ones as Tono-Bungay, are full of context. “The Wheels of Chance and the Discourse of Improvement in Health” by Hiroshi So, for instance, tells us much about the social dynamic that led to the popularity of cycling in the late nineteenth century, the health of the urban poor, and the social thinking that informed not just The Wheels of Chance but also such near-contemporary works as The Time Machine and “A Story of the Days to Come” (1899). In fact, without mentioning the novel, this essay provides as much insight into The Time Machine as the earlier essay specifically on that book.
This emphasis on context is also present in two further essays that situate Wells within the social body of fin-de-siècle literary life, the first examining his friendship with George Gissing and the second his friendship with Joseph Conrad. Both these essays suggest that while Wells had a facility for developing friendships, he also had an unerring ability to lose friends and alienate people. And at the core of this ability seems to have been a stubborn loyalty to his own particular aesthetic sensibility. While he remained personally close to the aging and struggling Gissing, he would not compromise in his criticisms of George Gissing’s work; so much so that when Wells tried to help Gissing’s heirs by writing an introduction to a posthumous novel, he only antagonized the heirs and saw his words rejected in favor of a much poorer alternative. Similarly, with Conrad, Wells refused to go along with the modernist ideas of his friend, and they would eventually drift apart.
In this drifting apart we get the first hint of the third response to the oddly uneven critical reaction to Wells, but this point only really becomes clear when we turn to the last and most interesting essay in the collection. “H.G. Wells the Poststructuralist” by Sylvia Hardy is something of an oddity here. It predates everything else collected here by some six or seven years at least, and it does not focus, as this volume’s title would suggest, on the years between 1895 and 1910. Moreover, it brings critical theory to bear upon Wells’s work with far more assurance and more revealingly than the attempts to do this in the four essays on his scientific romances.
Hardy suggests that, though he would have been totally unaware of the work of Saussure, Wells independently developed a notion of language cognate with Saussure’s. She shows that, as early as 1891, Wells was questioning the notion that language relates unproblematically to pre-existing reality; on the contrary, he believed that “by categorizing and classifying, language creates meanings” (114; emphasis in original). He developed these ideas continuously throughout his career, influenced in part by William James’s view on pragmatism and language, and by the 1930s “Wells is outlining a view of language as signifying system which is in many ways as revolutionary and far-reaching as Saussurean claims about the arbitrary nature of the sign” (115). The consequence was that Wells remained ideologically opposed to the linguistic and aesthetic ideas represented by modernism. Where Henry James sought an ideal artistic representation of the real world, Wells considered such an endeavor impossible “because language does not represent pre-existing meanings, but mediates—and to that extent creates—meaning” (115; emphasis in original).
This lies behind the distance that we have seen developing between Wells and modernist writers such as Conrad and James who had started out as close friends. And as Wells stuck rigidly to his linguistic model, his work became increasingly out of step with the prevailing modernist aesthetic of the early twentieth century, which in turn led to his work being attacked or ignored by modernist critics. “Wells’s rejection of the modernist aesthetic has resulted in much of his fiction being misunderstood and underrated because it does not measure up to the criteria established by modernism and upheld by its critical counterpart, New Criticism” (113). Indeed, as Hardy notes, it was only with the emergence of critics versed in structuralist and postmodernist approaches, such as David Lodge, that Wells again received the critical attention his work deserved. And hence, to take us full circle to the beginning of this review, there is the still abiding sense that he has been unduly overlooked by the critical establishment.
Hardy is not alone in pointing out that Wells’s work was out of step with the modernist aesthetic, but she is, I think, original in her analysis of the linguistic underpinning of this dissonance. I confess that I remain unconvinced by Hardy’s identification of Wells with Saussure, and I am certain that she is taking far too great a step in calling Wells, even tentatively, a “poststructuralist.” Nevertheless, I felt she argued convincingly that Wells had developed a linguistic approach that put his work at odds with modernism, and it seems a logical next step to see this as defining perceptions of his place within twentieth-century literature. Taken together with the three essays on his non-sf novels and the two that place him within the social context of English literary life, we are presented with a fascinating and coherent portrait of Wells as anti-modernist.
Curiously, the four essays on his early science fictions, which try most strenuously to bring the artillery of critical theory to bear on Wells, were all written after Hardy’s essay but seem totally unaware of its suggestions and conclusions. This is a pity, since a measure of Hardy’s insight, while complementing the general thrust of their arguments, might have brought a little more clarity and understanding to their work.—Paul Kincaid, Folkestone, Kent
The Self-Made Man
John F. Carr. H. Beam Piper: A Biography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008. xii + 250 pp. $39.95 hc.
The fifth edition of Anatomy of Wonder (Libraries Unlimited, 2004) calls H. Beam Piper “an unduly neglected writer” (334). Try to locate Piper’s fiction on the internet and you will find a slew of used paperbacks and magazines for sale on eBay but nothing “currently available” on Amazon—a sign of an author who is slipping past the fringes of fame. Personal information is sketchy, too. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia (1993) incorrectly lists him as “H(orace)” but hedges that “his first name ... may have been Henry,” while Anatomy of Wonder correctly names him “H(enry)” but adds “(pseud. of John J. McGuire),” Piper’s sometime collaborator. And so it goes.
John F. Carr, who has edited several collections of Piper’s stories, has scrupulously researched this little-known figure. The book contains a thorough bibliography and explanations of the future history underlying Piper’s sf. Carr also has interviewed everyone imaginable who interacted with Piper, gathered Piper’s surviving letters and diaries, and studied Piper’s friends’ memoirs that show their affection for “Beam” and their shock at his suicide in early November 1964. The research sometimes feels overwhelming, but as quotes fill pages they eventually form as full a mosaic portrait of the man as possible under the circumstances.
The circumstances are especially difficult in Piper’s case, since he deliberately misled people about his name and most other aspects of his life. He was not an “engineer” in any sense of the word; he worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a guard at the car shops in Altoona. He behaved like a courtly gentleman— “Victorian” is used several times to describe him—and lived beyond his means in clothing and dining. Yet he also saw himself as a Bohemian intellectual and was pleased that townspeople called him a vampire because he prowled the nights dressed in black. He seems to have wanted to be noticed but not understood.
In particular, Piper wanted to be known as an author. He spent decades learning to write fiction, almost always laboring through preliminary drafts that had to be thrown away or massively rewritten. Once he had the story whipped into shape, he had trouble figuring out what to do next. There was, for example, one violent detective story, introduced by a quotation from Nietzsche, that he submitted to the genteel Saturday Evening Post (58-61). Nor did he know what kind of story he could write successfully. Though his one published mystery novel sank without a trace, he persisted in writing detective fiction in the vein of S.S. Van Dine throughout his career. He was also, however, reading sf pulp magazines and eventually began sending manuscripts to John W. Campbell, Jr. When “Time and Time Again” was published in the April 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, it must have seemed that he had arrived at last.
Although that first story won the reader-voted “Analytical Laboratory” bonus, Piper never became a dominant sf writer. Alva Rogers’s A Requiem for Astounding (1964) mentions Piper respectfully in passing but does not dwell on his work. His best series was probably the Paratime Police stories; his best singleton was “Omnilingual” (Astounding Science Fiction, Feb. 1957), a puzzle story about cracking the language of long-dead Martians. Beyond that, his Little Fuzzy novels could have become a franchise with a little luck, and he wrote a couple of successful juvenile novels. He had a decent, unspectacular career.
Unfortunately, as Carr documents, almost no one was able to make a living as an sf writer at that time, and Piper’s habit of spending money as fast as checks came in—for booze, tailored suits, antique weapons, etc.—left him on the edge of absolute destitution. Referring to a 1961 diary entry, Carr notes that “When he completed ‘A Slave is a Slave,’ Piper didn’t have enough money to mail it to New York. He wrote, ‘If you can’t eat, the next best thing is to sleep.’ Dinner was ‘some ice flavored with chili-sauce, and snippets of Vienna sausage. It was sort of good’” (170).
The bravado of that last sentence is typical of Piper’s attitude. He wore armor over his vulnerable feelings most of his life, never asking for help when he needed it. As Michael E. Knerr comments, wistfully looking back, “He had a great many more friends than he realized” (135). But admitting that he needed help would not have fit the ideal reflected in his sf. As John W. Campbell put it, in a letter to Piper dated May 19, 1964,
Your Aryan-Transpacific paratime line allows for some grand yarns, with men who are MEN.... It’s a world where insurance hasn’t been invented, and every individual is acutely and personally responsible for his own acts and behavior....
There’s very little neurosis in such a culture. The neurotic gets himself killed off too quick to pass on his problem! (186)
From decades later and miles away, it is impossible to be sure how much Piper’s suicide was the result of his feeling written out, his dread of another siege of starvation, despair at the failure of his marriage—and his inability to live up to the image of competent responsibility he had created as a disguise. We can enjoy the stories Piper labored over, and we also can admire the fact that such a guarded man shared so much warmth and wit that he gathered a crowd of friends. It is difficult, however, to avoid echoing the mourner at Jay Gatsby’s funeral who murmured, “The poor son-of-a-bitch.”
Still.... This genuinely touching book suggests that H. Beam Piper does deserve to be remembered, even if it is as much for the fictions he lived as for the ones he put on paper. Fair enough. Carr does an extremely good job of dragging the man out of obscurity.—Joe Sanders, Shadetree Scholar
Innie or Outie? Putting the Extra Back in Extraterrestrial
Deborah Battaglia, ed. E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2005. vii + 290 pp. $22.95 pbk.
Maria, a young Mayan woman who grew up in a refugee camp in Mexico and has now returned to Guatemala to work full‑time for indigenous people’s rights, recently told me: “I sometimes wonder if the elites, the rich people, have a space station somewhere, or another planet. They certainly act like they have somewhere else to go after they’ve destroyed our Madre Tierra.” Like many of the people we encounter in E.T.Culture, she was using outerspaces in her efforts to make sense of things. In the last few years, Euro‑Americans—even the elites—have been insistently invited to contemplate the destruction of Mother Earth. Planetary events such as Live Earth and media attention to secular saints such as Al Gore and Leonardo di Caprio join the usual summer blockbusters to provide the shivers of delight in and fear of novelty (in Edward Said’s words) that are also, somehow, familiar (End Times have made popular bedtime stories for a long while). These meditations offer different takes on the innie vs. outie, terrestrial vs. extraterrestrial options. For Live Earth‑ers the Inconvenient Truth is that the problems are local but worry not, the solutions are too—and relatively painless (change your lightbulbs, buy a Prius). Similarly, for fans of Apocalypto (2006), the disastrous effects of over‑consumption (in this case of still‑beating hearts) are also local, but the alien invaders (a.k.a. European Catholics) will fix things (those bloodthirsty Maya never expected the Spanish Inquisition!), while for Transformers‑heads, both the problems and the saving come from elsewhere, with humans just passive damsels in distress. The Left Behinders (the best‑selling sf of all time, it behooves us to remember) mix innie and outie perspectives in both their diagnosis of the problem and their prescriptions for salvation. Satan and Jesus are both aliens, but humans can decide to hinder or help God’s extraterrestrial plans for Rapture, Apocalypse, and Redemption. (Hinderers are those sporting the bumper sticker. “When the Rapture comes, can I have your car?”)
The essays in this volume explore how people in North America, Europe, and Japan have contemplated their lives historically through imaginaries of outer space: how “Martian” languages influenced the development of modern linguistics, which in turn influenced many sf writers (David Samuels), or how Theosophists imagined race through alien seeding programs, ideas also deeply seeding many sf narratives (Christopher F. Roth). But they also look at the here and now: how people drawn to the peripheries of Nevada’s Area 51 negotiate power relations (Susan Lepselter), how Japanese kids inhabit the Yugioh universe (Mizuko Ito), or how people struggle with unrecognized illnesses such as Chronic Fatigue through metaphors of Host Planet Rejection Syndrome, in which they are the aliens (Joseph Dumit). “Are you an innie or an outie?” refers, of course, to bellybuttons, those strange bodily signs we carry forever of our former not‑oneness, our physical connection to our mother‑ship, now severed. All of the essays explore this fraught relation to otherness—other humans as singularities and as often‑alien pluralities (the State, the Media, the CIA, the Medical Establishment, the Market)—and the self as also other: once we were connected, so something of the other is also inside us.
Both dread and desire infuse these formations. Paranoia and conspiracy theory wash through fears that we do not know what is going on, that we do not control our worlds or even our “selves”; yet we also long for release into that tempting togetherness promised by the Vulcan mindmeld, of not always being responsible and instead letting someone else take care of the mess. In several of the essays translation becomes the site to explore these ambivalencies. Samuels looks at spirit mediums, linguists, and sf writers to explore how language is not only what allows community, but also trips it up, when meaning is lost in translation or when learning another language is actually a re‑programming, making us a different person. Dumit also addresses problems of translation, for people suffering from a set of body distresses that are not recognized by doctors, insurers, or family and friends, or that are cruelly translated into whining, malingering, or mental disturbances, alienating sufferers further from their communities and selves. Debbora Battaglia looks at the media events created by the Raëlian religious movement (sometimes called a “cult”) announcing that it had cloned a human (Baby Eve), igniting that strange promise and threat of self as other. Ito explores how Japanese children, adult geeks/otaku, and women manga/comic‑writers and cosplayers (costume play) inhabit the universe of the book/show/game Yugioh so deeply and intensely that it begins to inhabit them.
Anthropologists as well as sf writers and fans are fascinated by these relationships among humans and with what Allen Feldman calls the inhuman: something in us, but also, uncannily, outside us. An external logic that produces both possibilities for and limits on human expressions of identity, that provides a set of signifying practices to use and to innovate with: my tribe (anthropologists) calls it “culture”; others may call it UFO. Some of the authors in this collection are “traditional” in that they earned their spurs working with people in the Amazon jungle, American Indian reservations, or Pacific islands, and then turned “home” to find plenty of strangeness in the so‑called familiar. Others have always been “cyborg anthropologists,” using the tools of participant‑observation and interview to study “modern tribes” such as lab scientists, internet fellowships, otaku, or abductees (including the Nobel Prize- winning developer of the PCR [polymerase chain reaction], the DNA replication device—another uncanny innie/outie thing). In these essays all are interested in how the extraterrestrial (outie imaginaries) provides signifying practices with which people work, and how this offers both possibilities and limits. Most read the ET‑effect as a symptom, a working through of a moment often called the postmodern, with some paying more attention to the general speed‑up of work and play or transformations in “millennial capitalism,” and others to information overload. Richard Doyle says “it took humans approximately three hundred thousand years to produce twelve exabytes of information, and since the year 2000 we have likely doubled that output” (201).
All of the essays are interesting and worth reading, although Battaglia’s introduction seems most oriented towards debates in anthropology (and a bit unnecessarily anxious about the topic’s acceptance there, and stuttery in its style). Reminding us that one third of North Americans believe in aliens, she finds us inherently spacey and deeply anxious about invisible powers and sped‑up mobilities. Yet she honors the knowledge production among non‑academic ET theorists and “their dedicated leaps of faith, their brave hypothesis making” (4), signaling the compassionate attention that informs most of the book’s essays. Hard to sum up but deeply pleasurable to read, Doyle’s funky “Close Encounters of the Nth Kind: Becoming Sampled and the Mullis‑ship Connection” weaves form and content to sample this enmeshed world whose familiar is Gumby (our flexible intertextual fellow-traveler), considering the proliferating alien icon (the Grey), mutating corn appearing in Taco Bell shells, a scientist’s encounter with a glowing raccoon, descriptions of abduction by the naturally occurring and “scientifically administered” psychedelic drug DMT, Philip K. Dick, and the increasingly everyday experience of being “out of our heads,” our memories and selves distributed through the net to the tunes of Sun‑ra. In “The License: Poetics, Power, and the Uncanny,” Lepselter movingly evokes life in the blasted sacrifice zones of US high-tech capitalism, both the broken‑down desert oasis of Rachel, Nevada, and the inner worlds of stymied hopes melded to dreams of re‑enchantment. It is there, in a UFO, that you might encounter the “fact of power—its vastness, its hidden sources, and its just visible clues ... its potential for transformation and the strange pleasure of tearing holes in the real” (140). Samuels’s “Alien Tongues” is a delightful romp connecting theories of language and their debts to and effects on science and sf, relating Saussure, Tesla, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Carl Sagan (the pondering of translation and the Voyager messages, visual and aural, is fascinating), Noam Chomsky, Klaatu, Neal Stephenson, Samuel Delany, Suzette Hadin Elgin, and the Whorfs—both the Klingon and Benjamin, the language theorist, closet sf writer, and Theosophist.
The essay that reprogrammed me, however, that kaleidoscoped and re‑meshed my understandings of everything from the Sapir‑Whorf thesis to the swastika to Mexican nationalism to Octavia Butler, Gene Wolfe, and Steven Spielberg, is Roth’s germinal tracing of “Ufology as Anthropology.” This is a rather humble title, actually, for what he does is tell a fascinating, non-obvious story of the continuing power of a theory supposedly consigned to the dustbin of history: Theosophism (and thereby Victorian colonial thinking—itself a complicated combination of the white man’s burden and the sweet melancholia of watching the passing of a superior if underappreciated race as its struggles and sacrifices pave the way for a new world). Alongside a history of UFOlogy as a folk theory of race—from the first sightings, through institutionalizing details of contact (as Nordo‑oriental aliens morphed into Greys, carrying along hints of Hiroshima, the yellow peril, and anti-Semitism), and the mixed‑race couple who were some of the first abductees—Roth shows the ongoing force of ideas first articulated by Madame Blavatsky, a spiritualist who claimed to channel Tibetan lamas. Drawing on late-nineteenth-century social sciences, Theosophers are mostly autodidacts, organic intellectuals thinking lives that are “outie” to mainstream science but in constant relation to it, developing an anti‑Darwinian evolutionism alongside academic theorizing, “pseudo” yet strong. Theosophy holds that there are seven Root Races—some are extraterrestrial (from the Moon, Venus), some developed terrestrially—that can be linked to “today’s” apes, Mongols, Anglo‑Saxons, etc. Two of the seven are yet to come, via a combination of race mixing and ET intervention. Rosh suggests theosophical connections to Buddhism, Kabbala, Masons, Gnostics, Rosicrucians, Nazis, New Agers, theories of hybrid vigor, mestizaje, and the “cosmic race,” H.G. Wells, juvenile delinquents, folklore, psychotherapy, and MUFON (the Mutual UFO Network).
In all, the collection powerfully shows that innie and outie must be thought together. The essays juxtapose material realities with imaginary engagements, and examine the possibilities and breakdowns of community/communication, the hope and dread evoked by Sagan’s famous white heteros heading out on Voyager, and Star Trek’s mutant, militarized return of our “own.” The essays give us ways to think through the unintended consequences of the best‑laid plans, through the deepening class and race divisions in the “privileged” world, through the impoverishment and precariousness surrounding centers of white hot wealth in these plague years. They encourage identification with homo experimentus who is open to outie‑ness and is curious, but they are also critical of that geek slogan “The meek will inherit the earth. The rest of us are going to the stars.” To conclude with Mother Jones, here and now we must pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living, including Madre Tierra.—Diane Nelson, Duke University
Agrama Gymnosophon Labarem [Displaying to All Without Argumentation]
Tim Conley and Stephen Cain. Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006. xxvii + 236 pp. $75.00 hc.
Linguistics has always occupied a central place in sf, albeit one that has oftentimes waxed Gernsbackian, where, as Ursula K. Le Guin writes in the evocative foreword to Conley’s and Cain’s encyclopedia, “Aliens were Xbfgg and Psglqkxxk, unless they were princesses, in which case they were Laweena or Zu-Zolla” (xvii). On the other hand, there have also been many authors who have taken language as their novum, using it not only to drive their story but to wrench the reader (however momentarily) from her sociolinguistic ethnocentricity and gesture towards other possibilities. Conley and Cain consider the whole spectrum, running the gamut from hokey Golden Age peccadilloes to sf novels that read like dissertations on Chomskyian grammar; they organize their work according to dictionary entries of works (story, novel, film), additionally indexed by “Related Topic,” “Subject,” and “Language.” Their encyclopedia is an important work describing many of the best-known languages invented in fantasy and sf over the course of centuries. While hardly exhaustive, it is nevertheless an important contribution to the tiny corpus of critical works on linguistics in sf.
That they consider so much in such an even-handed and lively way is testament to their work as encyclopedists and a measure of the worth of this volume to sf scholars. And this is not a work larded with linguistic theory—any reader who does not tremble at the occasional reference to the agglutinative will find Conley’s and Cain’s work readily understandable
In bringing this wealth of material together, they draw a series of (necessarily) artificial boundaries defining the scope of their work. No “conlangs” (constructed languages), no “dialect writing” (xxii), no transcriptions of animal sounds. As they write, “This encyclopedia exclusively surveys languages that originate within fictional realms (specifically, prose literature, film, and television),” and (with a couple of exceptions), only in the context of the original oeuvre in which they appeared (xxii). And while the terrifying volume of constructed languages in existence would defy any attempt to catalog them, it is unfortunate (for me, anyway) that the authors are not able to look to the fannish elaborations of, say, Barsoomian, Klingon, and Elvish over the last decades, multifarious efforts that have brought these languages alive in a way that the original works did not. Of course, if one were to attempt to sum up the diabolical scholarship surrounding languages in Star Trek (first series 1964-69), Star Wars (1977 on), and Middle Earth (there are substantial entries for all of these), then there would hardly be room for anything else. And yet it is not always clear why one work is included while another is not. Why is the polyglot mash-up spoken by Salvatore in Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980) here, while Finnegans Wake (1939) is not? Conley and Cain’s answer (Conley is a Joycean and a scholar of modernism) is insightful: “Thus, the aesthetic extremes posed by artists in the modernist experiment— Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein, among many others—and the various contingents of subsequent ‘LANGUAGE poetry’ are also excluded from this book’s attention” (xxiii). While, again, understandable due to the necessity for brevity, the exclusion of “modernism” has its problematic dimension as well (more below).
It may also irritate readers to see some of the slighter treatments of language in fantastic fiction given equal weight alongside the work of giants like Le Guin, Cherryh, Delany, Ian Watson, and Borges. For example, I found myself wishing that the entries for Mork and Mindy ([1978-82] 132) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer ([1997-2003] 22) might have been deleted in order to give more room to, say, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket ( 133); but it is testament to sf as a genuinely popular genre that more intellectual treatments of language co-habit (however uneasily) with the kitsch. Still, I can only guess at the hundreds of equally desultory, guttural burps and growls in sf worlds that the authors must have considered before including Mork and Mindy among their 200-plus entries. But there are moments when these slighter entries surprised me in spite of myself. For example, Lovecraft’s “Rats in the Walls” (1923) ends (as do rather many of his stories) with its unfortunate protagonist maniacally babbling to the elder gods. Knowing that this particular locution “contains old English, Latin, Gaelic, and primal grunts” (155) gave me some additional insight into Lovecraft’s racial prejudices and their embeddedness in the fascist anthropologies of his time, including degenerationist theory. There are, in any case, important references (on- and off-line) appended to the more scholarly entries that compensate for their somewhat telescopic treatment here.
My one complaint with the volume lies in its apparent parsimony. By definition, this should not be chock-a-block with linguistic theory. Something like that already exists, with works such as Walter E. Meyers’s Aliens and Linguists: Language Study and Science Fiction (1980). Yet there are, unavoidably, some references, mostly to a 1960s debate in linguistics (occasionally revisited) between proponents of Benjamin Lee Whorf's linguistic relativism (glossed in posthumous formulations as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) and those of Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar, that would have been welcome. Hence, Jack Vance is decidedly Whorfian in many of his works, especially The Languages of Pao (1958), where the slightly demented linguist, Lord Palafox, invents languages in order to engineer social change; Ian Watson, on the other hand, falls into the “Chomsky” camp in The Embedding (1973), with aliens playing the part of Chomskyian scholars travelling the globe in search of a “template for universal language” (57). Other writers fall in place somewhere between these two positions, with, for example, Delany playing both sides in his own fictional ruminations.
Knowing that these writings partake of their historical milieu and engage the linguistic theory of their time is one thing, but it is probably not the most interesting thing one could say about sf and linguistics. After all, budding linguists are unlikely to score points in graduate seminars with examples drawn from the sf canon (“Of course, Whorf is correct; haven’t you read Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’?” ). And yet, there is a real power to sf imaginings here—if nothing else, they interrogate what Deborah Cameron, in her essay “Ideology and Language” (Journal of Political Ideologies 11.2 [Feb. 2006]: 141-52) has called (in a different register), has called “language ideology”—i.e., beliefs in the ways language develops and is structured, as well as considering the sense of what language can and cannot do in social and cultural fields. Even otherwise passing references to linguistics in sf may be useful—they also reveal the limits of what we think about language. For example, sf has generally been complicit in what might be called “linguistic essentialism,” where a “race” (meant, as in so much of sf, as the inhabitants of a planet), speaks a consensual language seemingly outside of class and inequality—in other words, bereft of the powerful negotiations that accompany the adoption of “official” languages and “standard” dialects. Sf can, in admittedly rare cases, gesture towards something else. Here, I cannot help but think of Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940), where the “citizens of Tlön” speak a language of brachiating possibility. As Conley and Cain write, “The past of Tlön, it seems, is ever in the future, and its language is not phenomenologically secondary or simply descriptive, but primary and inventive. A word precedes and may even generate its object” (191). But this is also highly reflexive: in the Borgesian universe, language is not only rich in paralogy, but also apprehended through a vespiary of translation fragments and tertiary works, extending the surreal inversion to the description of language as well as to the language itself, as in Borges’s celebrated Chinese encyclopedia (in “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” ). Borges is not the only one who makes us reflect on our linguistic assumptions—Le Guin has done the same, and in a variety of (variously reflexive) ways, during her long career, and there are others—modernist experiments all: Vaclav Havel’s “Ptydepe” (in The Memorandum ), Samuel Delany’s “Babel-17” (in the eponymous novel ). That is to say, all of this begins to look more Joycean in the end anyway; this strain of sf seems more about adding to the discourse of modernism than about debates in linguistics.
In any case, I have found that the Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages (like Borges’s fantastic, category-eviscerating encyclopedia) is good to think with, and sf scholars will no doubt find it richly suggestive.—Samuel Gerald Collins, Towson University
Not So Scary Monsters
Guido Ferraro and Isabella Brugo. Comunque umani: Dietro le figure di mostri, alieni, orchi e vampiri [Still Human: What Lies Behind the Figures of Monsters, Aliens, Ogres, and Vampires]. Rome, Italy: Meltemi Editore, 2008. 239 pp. Lire 20,00 pbk.
Written by two Italian semiologists, Guido Ferraro (who teaches semiotics and theory of narratives at the University of Turin) and Isabella Brugo (who works on folklore and alimentary symbolism), this book is only partially relevant for sf scholars. In fact, it deals with “the ways in which our culture has rethought the modes of representation of Evil” (7, translation mine here and throughout), which include “the monster, the vampire, the alien, the undead who violates the borderline between the space of the dead and that of the living” (7). A quick survey of the table of contents of this volume tells us that the first chapter, “Riconoscere i mostri” [To recognize monsters], deals primarily with such fairy tales as “Beauty and the Beast” and the characters that are so important in them, for example, monsters, ogres, dragons, etc.; most of these figures are outside the scope of sf scholarship, although Ferraro and Brugo have devoted three sections of this chapter (1.10-1.12) to King Kong (both the original 1933 movie and its 2005 remake), and that classic of the US cinema has generally been considered within the boundaries of sf. Here the purpose of the authors is to highlight the “insoluble ambiguity” (83) of the monster, and to propose King Kong as the paradigm of “a bewildering indetermination between seeing whatever is monstrous out there, in the objective reality of the world, and what we may catch as the projection of horrors and nightmares that lie within us” (83).
The second chapter, “Il mito di Dracula” [The Dracula myth] deals with the figure of the most famous vampire in the history of both literary fiction and cinema, while the third chapter, “Non-morti” [The undead], focuses on a different version of the vampire that may be found in Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871), more human than the almost-alien Count Dracula. This chapter deals primarily with fantasy and horror fiction, but its fifth section, “La paura si avvicina” [Fear comes closer] (145-49) is devoted to George A. Romero’s film The Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954), two horror classics that have sf components (weaker in Romero’s film, stronger in Matheson’s novel and in its cinematic adaptations). Once again, Ferraro and Brugo’s semiological interpretation questions the borderline between good and evil, us and them, monsters and normal people, aiming at reading traditional figures in non-realistic fiction as bearers of complex and often contradictory cultural significations.
Surely the most interesting chapter of this book for sf scholars is the fourth, whose title is “Alieni” [Aliens]. Here Ferrero and Brugo focus on that classic of literary sf, H.G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898), then on the popular Aliens series—Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), David Fincher’s Alien3 (1992), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection (1997)—as well as M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002). Wells’s classic novel and Shyamalan’s recent movie are dealt with only cursorily, however, as the chapter is mostly a detailed semiological analysis (171-207) of the four Alien films. The purpose of the authors is “to show how the figure of the ‘monster’—here somewhat foregrounded—is able to assume several complex values, thus animating a story and a setting whose elements are charged with meaning” (172).
The authors carry out a blow-by-blow analysis of the four films of the cycle, focusing on the issues of reproduction and maternity, and they do this by taking into account the vast international secondary bibliography available. The changes in the significations associated with the alien(s), with the character of Ripley, and, above all, with the places where the action is set, are accurately outlined and discussed. The interpretation of the cycle takes a socio-psychological turn in the end, when Ferrero and Brugo maintain that “What we are, be it good or evil, does not depend on what someone or something else did to us, but on what we have done: if we may use a generational metaphor, we are defined by the ‘children’ we have given birth to—those we have kept with us and those we have let go of” (205), so that the aliens in the four films are read as projections of our fears and nightmares. The basic message in Brugo and Ferrero’s analysis is that since the terrifying aliens are ultimately generated by us—the alien bodily invasion, which constitutes the characteristic and recurring horrific scene of the cycle, is in fact read as a transmogrified pregnancy and childbirth indifferent to traditional sexual roles—the extraterrestrial creatures are, above all, a product of our cultural imagination. The monster, we might say, is us, even if we may not recognize it, maybe because we are too frightened by its alien features.
It is a legitimate reading of aliens in sf, no doubt, but one might wonder whether it is exhaustive. Surely many aliens we meet in sf can be read this way: emblems of inner drives, be they patent or hidden, that operate in our mind or in the collective (un)consciousness. These aliens are undoubtedly quite close to the monsters of folktales, fantasy, and horror fiction. But this is not the only possible genesis of the aliens in sf. Thomas M. Disch proposed a different interpretation in his brilliant collection of essays The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of (Free Press, 1998), especially in “The Third World and Other Alien Nations”: there the late lamented author and critic remarked that “the most well-documented collision between alien cultures took place on this continent [i.e., North America] as the nations of Europe made ‘first contact’ with the various indigenous cultures” (192). No wonder then that the tradition of US sf is so crowded with aliens; no wonder that aliens are also important in the sf of another country, Russia, which built a vast empire in northern Asia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; no wonder that the greatest colonial power of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the United Kingdom, gave birth to the first story of alien invasion, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds.
One might object that scholars have proved beyond doubt that Wells’s seminal novel is indebted to another work of sf, George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871), where an imaginary invasion of England by the Prussian army is graphically depicted: so behind Wells’s blood-sucking Martians there may be the Prussian Junkers, who were foreigners, but not as alien as the pre-Columbian American cultures, for example. But the Darwinian frame of reference of the novel is quite clear in telling us that what is done by the more evolved race (the Martians) to the less evolved one (the British) is an anamorphic image of what the British colonizers had been imposing on non-European peoples: domination and exploitation legitimized in the name of social Darwinism.
We can say that behind the aliens there may often be the non-European cultures that Europeans have met, fought, and subjugated (or attempted to subjugate) since 1492. And this other genesis of the figure of the aliens in sf asks for a different critical toolbox: sometimes aliens in sf may be seen as a projection of our minds (individual as well as collective), but they should more often be read as anamorphic images of the peoples that live on this planet with us Westerners in an increasingly complicated and interdependent coexistence. And when the aliens are images of flesh-and-blood others, we perhaps need a more historically- and politically-oriented critical toolbox.
But Ferraro and Brugo seem to ignore this, maybe because they have dealt with the figure of the alien by focusing on four films that mix a heavy dose of horror fiction with the scenery of sf (and nobody can deny that their approach works quite well when applied to horror fiction). No wonder then that they end their essay by reading another fantasy film, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004), which is much closer to the basic topics and structures of the folktale than to the complex and contradictory architectures of sf. One might wonder whether their semio-anthropological reading could work on something like Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip (1964), where the Bleekmen are easily readable as anamorphic images of Native Americans, rather than projections of any horror or nightmare that may live within us.—Umberto Rossi, Rome
What It Is We Want To Do When We Read Paul Kincaid.
Paul Kincaid. What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction. Harold Wood, Essex: Beccon, 2008. 365 pp. £15 pbk.
What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction is a very eclectic collection. Sometimes this phrase is used to convey elegantly a sense of disconnection and haphazardness, but it is not the case here. Although individual essays in the volume have been culled from a variety of sources and almost all were originally published or presented elsewhere (the oldest piece dates back to 1985 and the latest is from 2006), there is a definite coherence at work, not only because of recurrent interests or themes but primarily thanks to the author’s uniform voice.
The book is neatly divided (the division tastefully marked in the text by a repeated table-of-contents page with a “moving” highlight) into six major sections of varying lengths and a seventh extremely short one, the acknowledgments, notes, and bibliography, and the index. The first section, “Theory,” comprises only two essays: the eponymous one and “On the Origins of the Genre.” While the latter revisits the familiar ground of the definitional battles, or rather confusions, the titular essay is a wonderful attempt at describing the mechanics of reading science fiction, strongly reminiscent of Tom Shippey’s “Learning to Read Science Fiction,” which it beautifully complements rather than overlaps. The second section, “Practice,” builds upon these theoretical musings and covers a wide spectrum of themes. Some of the essays are reviews: of Clute’s and Nicholls’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979), of two hard sf anthologies by Hartwell and Cramer, and of several “Year’s Best” anthologies. On the other hand, “Practice” also features an essay devoted to British sf and one on American Civil War alternate histories.
The third and sixth sections are author studies—Christopher Priest and Gene Wolfe respectively—each comprising four essays. The two longest sections are titled “Britain ...” and “... and the World.” The former features eight pieces: some of those thematic, including “Islomania? Insularity? The Myth of the Island in British Science Fiction”; others are author studies such as “Inside Christopher Evans”; and yet others are work-specific, including the article on Keith Roberts’s The Furies (1966). The global grouping, just as large, is even more eclectic, oscillating among discussions of Joe Haldeman, George Turner, and cyberpunk, on the one hand, and the writers who have exerted various degrees of influence on genre writers or have explored the same preoccupations from outside genre literature on the other—Steve Erickson, Jorge Luis Borges, Steven Millhauser, and Russell Hoban. A short review of the completely non-sf and astoundingly elusive novel, By-Ways on the Shining Path by Carlos Orfila Nunez (the Google search yields all of four results and the bibliography at the end of the volume does not list the text and its publication details), in itself constitutes a separate section cryptically entitled “1 April 1984,” a date that gives one pause—the review in question appeared in 1985 and is the earliest piece in the collection.
As becomes clear from the above, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction is a diverse collection, which in itself can encourage many readers. As David Langford states in the short introduction, “an sf critic’s best work tends to be scattered haphazardly through space and time” (v). There are, however, two other qualities of this volume that make it a recommended addition to any self-respecting sf library. The first of those is the range of themes and interests.
With very few exceptions, such as Haldeman, Wolfe, or recent sf anthologies, Paul Kincaid covers the ground that most critics avoid—not necessarily because it does not deserve attention or because the writers are secondary and derivative. Given the number of texts published every year (something he alludes to in “A Year At Its Best”) and the number of earlier texts that have never received any critical attention, there is more work to be done than all researchers of the fantastic can humanly hope to accomplish in the foreseeable future. This does not, of course, mean that the umpteenth article on Gibson, Le Guin, or Tolkien is not needed, but very often the attention major writers attract indirectly entails diminished work on other, often equally interesting, writers. Kincaid’s reviewing and speaking interests (a number of the essays originated as conference presentations) clearly veer towards those less written about, such as Robert Holdstock, Christopher Evans, George Turner, or Keith Roberts. Such non-central exploration is even more evident when it comes to the non-genre writers covered—Steven Millhauser’s fiction is virtually unwritten about otherwise and Kincaid has been the only critic consistently writing about the criminally underestimated Steve Erickson (the American author not to be mistaken for Canada’s Steven Erikson). More importantly, in these explorations Kincaid does not merely remind the world that these authors are out there writing—he explores individual issues and engages various surfaces of their fiction.
Style is the other remarkable quality of What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction. One will not find multi-syllable “-isms” and “-ations” here—in fact, many pieces have the casual dynamic and informality of oral presentations, more often than not occasioned by precisely that origin. Clearly, Kincaid does not believe in the deployment of heavy theory as a necessary condition of scholarship, either. Instead, most of the essays are close readings of individual works and authors, at times perhaps leaning towards the formalist school but without any references to it.
This veneer of easy, occasionally chatty, style is very deceptive, though, and even a cursory reading uncovers disciplined and meticulous scholarship combined with a plethora of details and original thinking. Kincaid’s breadth and meticulousness are evident both in close readings of particular motifs, such as the presence of maps and topography in Erickson’s fiction, and wide-ranging overviews, such as the examination of Civil War alternate histories or the comparison of “Year’s Best” anthologies.
What is, however, most important about this collection is the author’s capacity for engaging readers. Good reviews (not that there are many venues that feature them) encourage reading; the same cannot generally be said about academic and literary criticism. Often, a thorough discussion of this or that angle of the text may impress intellectually but not necessarily compel one to go out and purchase the title. Paul Kincaid’s views, opinions, and analyses, no matter how detailed they can be, simply make one want to read the books he writes about. The perfect balance between incisive reading and accessible style results in what all critics—and especially those writing about authors that are not household names—could ultimately aspire to: involving their readers in the texts they are discussing. In this respect Paul Kincaid succeeds on all counts and in all departments.—Pawel Frelik, Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, Lublin, Poland