BOOKS IN REVIEW
A Journey into the Supernatural
M. Keith Booker. Red, White, and Spooked: The Supernatural in American Culture. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009. xxiii + 204 pp. $49.95 hc.
M. Keith Booker introduces his discussion of the supernatural with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001), a book that serves as both a starting point and a first example of what Booker calls the “doubleness” of the American experience. Booker claims that the American popular interest in supernatural worlds and narratives at once reinforces the status quo and reflects a desire for “dimensions of life that go beyond the day-to-day” (x). Supernatural narratives in American culture tend to be dominated by consumerist desires, Booker claims, as they become mass-produced and marketed as commodities, and yet the unending longing of consumers for these narratives indicates a desire for something spiritually richer than the processes of consumption and capitalism. Booker’s text does not quite live up to the promise of its title and introduction, as he relies mainly on examples from film and television in support of his argument; this leaves the reader wondering whether there might be other aspects of “American culture” to consider. Nevertheless, he offers an accessibly written, compelling, and complex argument about the dual nature of supernatural and fantastic narratives, well grounded in consumerist theory and strongly supported by his knowledge of popular culture texts. Red, White, and Spooked, therefore, will be a useful resource for scholars working in the fields of fantasy, science fiction, and popular culture, particularly those with a film and television focus.
Booker begins his journey into the supernatural with an introduction that locates his argument within the theoretical realm, relying on Fredric Jameson’s discussion of “magical narratives” as evidence of utopian desires. He also refers to the sociologist Max Weber and other Marxist critiques of capitalism, noting that Neil Gaiman’s American Gods seems close to a Marxist point of view, in that the capitalist society portrayed appears to lack “any sense of wonder or magic” (xi). Booker, however, wishes to complicate this critique; one of his principal arguments involves the idea that American society is aware of this lack and therefore actively desires to recreate magic through participating in supernatural story-telling. In the introduction, Booker acknowledges that American literature has included supernatural elements from its earliest days, as in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) or the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. This nod to the literary antecedents of his main sources is useful but somewhat brief, as he moves on in the next paragraph to the acceleration of supernatural and superhero tales “in the past few decades” (xii). The resources of film and television programming provide the meat of Booker’s study, and the number of examples he offers here (many of which receive further discussion in later chapters) provides impressive support for his argument. He also spends time providing a case study of the appropriately titled television show, Supernatural (2005-), which Booker claims exemplifies the dual nature of American supernatural narratives. That program deals with human confrontation with potentially evil superhuman threats and yet belies any real anxieties by presenting such threats in a self-aware and ironic fashion, alongside humor and pop-culture references. Booker concludes by describing the three main fascinations of the supernatural narrative in America: the narrative of adventure, the appeal of heroes and heroism, and a “paranoid interest” in confrontations with supernatural evil that threatens life as we know it (xxii). These three fascinations provide the structure for the three main sections of the text.
The first major area of Booker’s study discusses the longing for adventure in American history and culture, beginning with the concept of “voyages of discovery” (3), a theme supported in American history by examples from Christopher Columbus to Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94). This section perhaps deals the most extensively with works from areas outside the film/television nexus, as Booker moves easily from travel narratives to Tarzan of the Apes (1914) to the birth of science fiction. He also demonstrates a good knowledge of historiography, with reference to historical data and studies. The second section of Red, White, and Spooked then moves to the desire for heroes in American culture, observing the central paradox of American heroism: the vision that “we all supposedly have the potential to become heroes” (49) negates the concept of extraordinary individualism, which leads to the desire for superhuman or supernatural heroic figures. Here Booker begins by discussing the tradition of folk and frontier heroes such as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, then moves to a discussion of superheroes from Superman to Luke Skywalker, the quintessential farm boy who finds an extraordinary destiny, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a Chosen One who imbues many others with her special abilities at the close of her story. This discussion makes Booker’s point about the paradoxical nature of American heroes very effectively. In the third and final section of the text, Booker examines American paranoia, what he refers to as “the longing for evil” (130) in American culture; he begins with Puritan narratives that “demonized” Native Americans (129), linking the supernatural with the threat of the outsider and thereby emphasizing a national identity and feeling of community—us (US) versus them. Booker traces this theme through Cold War science fiction, 1970s horror films, and The X-Files (1993-2002), with its theme of alien/governmental conspiracy, and even the contemporary offerings of Lost (2004-) and Heroes (2006-). He concludes this section by suggesting that this type of supernatural narrative both reassures audiences that there is order in the world—evil is not simply random—and also challenges those audiences by requiring them to engage in new processes of cognitive mapping, as viewers must actively make connections and attempt to solve intricate mysteries, as exemplified by Lost’s convoluted narrative. Overall, each section provides strong support for Booker’s larger claims about the attractions and contradictions of the supernatural narrative, with numerous examples drawn from popular texts throughout American history.
Red, White, and Spooked includes an excellent bibliography of contemporary and historical supernatural texts, adding to this study’s usefulness for scholars of the genre, and Booker’s writing is accessible without sacrificing critical acuity, as his knowledge of cultural theory and history is evident. Booker does focus on film and television sources far more than other contemporary aspects of “American culture,” but his arguments about the paradoxical nature of the American supernatural narrative may be productively extended to other media in the future, and his study is overall complex and intriguing.
—Kristin Noone, University of California, Riverside
Horologists Unite! Take Back the Night (of the Soul).
Samuel Gerald Collins. All Tomorrow’s Cultures: Anthropological Engagements with the Future. New York: Berghahn, 2008. 150 pp. $29.95 hc.
Imagine yourself set down on the arid plains of the Kalahari, the deep jungles of Palenque, the verdant isles of the Pacific. The invitation to “imagine yourself” opens the first field-work-based ethnography by Bronislaw Malinowski (1922) and is the great lure of science fiction, two virtual worlds that Samuel Collins thinks together in All Tomorrow’s Cultures. In anthropology’s weird space-time continuum, going a long way through space also promises to take you back through time (today’s “primitives” are imagined as “our” past) and also forward. Collins explores how social science and science fiction have influenced each other’s understandings of temporality and “tomorrow” in Euro-America over the past 150 years. He shows how anthropology’s assumptions that parting the mists hiding moderns from our ancestors would reveal our “true” selves not yet misshapen by industrialization, Wonder Bread, and couch potatoing. He shows how these journeys are also portents. These Others might hold our future. Perhaps it will be egalitarian, with sharing deeply etched into every interaction, every experience of selfhood. Perhaps it will be polymorphously perverse, titillatingly promising really hot future sex (tantrics are for kids). Perhaps it is a puzzle whose unraveling might save us, if we heed the Maya’s mute stone warnings of civilizational collapse due to warring superpowers (a past to accessorize a present/future of Cold War Mutual Assured Destruction) or unfettered resource extraction and ecological disaster (a past for granola-crunching viewers of An Inconvenient Truth ). Imbricating with the present, these future/pasts carry threats and the Enlightenment promise that by so knowing we can imagine other scenarios, brighter futures. This pregnant node of self and other that combines past, present, and future through involutions of anthropology and science fiction is the setting for Collins’s fascinating book. It is a small, tight text whose inside feels larger than its outside. Reading it is like opening a watch keeping time on a wormhole, finding the whirligigging gears and elements suddenly, dreamlike, transforming into a Wellsian machine taking you to quite unexpected chrono(il)logical space.
Engagement with the future is, of course, an exercise in sf and in optimism of the will, but readers also get a stiff dose of horror, the dark night of the soul. Collins opens with the dread that capitalist globalization’s threat of the end of history and TINA (There Is No Alternative) has totally colonized our mentalscapes, combining
faith and belief in perpetual change with an abyssal vision of repetition and stasis… Instead of a future characterized by ... unforeseen occurrences we get the rapid linear succession of “new” products that are endless iterations of consumer desire.... [O]ne of the most maleficent effects of globalization: the attenuation of alternatives to market-driven teleologies. We don’t need to speculate on what the future may bring when the answer is on the next page of the catalog. Thinking outside of these narrow futures has passed from being heretical (in the Cold War) to being ridiculous—the subject of fantasy rather than speculation. (3-4)
Now the Maya are all hackers, the !Kung San are movie stars, and the Pacific Islanders are radioactive and pimped to cannibal tourists. And they all have their own NGOs. In other words, we have built a machine to stymie the future and everyone is on board.
To genealogize and thereby problematize this end-time logic, Collins moves through Morlocks and Eloi by way of David Horowitz and Samuel Huntington, to Alfred Russell Wallace, Margaret Mead, Chad Oliver (sf writer)/ Symmes Oliver (same guy but a practicing anthropologist), and through other futurologists and social imagineers including Herman Kahn and assorted RAND-y thinkers, as well as Ursula K. Le Guin, Henri Bergson, and Gilles Deleuze—with some serious if unelaborated disses of Gene Rodenberry. Along the way he ponders the role of the alien in philosophizing the human and anthropologists’ work on SETI, CONTACT (role playing games for alien encounters), Delphi techniques, and robotics to philosophize the alien, as well as the place/time of utopia, and the ethical tasks of the committed horologist (student of time).
We begin in the nineteenth century, from whence H.G. Wells transported readers to a future that was really the colonial frontier. It was also a moment when, Collins shows, various models of how to think about time were in play. These included Cyclical time, now mostly relegated to Mayan calendrics (are you ready for 2012?) but closely connected to agricultural lifeways; Judeo-Christian time, with its fall and redemption forward thrust (“millennial” thinking tends to forget this is not everybody’s time); Modern time, isolated as a variable, separated from events and mapped onto a Cartesian space-time grid; Darwinian Modern, which also neutralizes time with evolution conceived as a succession of stages produced by random variations with no immanent future; and Greenwich Mean Time (globally adopted in 1884) in which Eurocentric time masquerades as “universal pan-human time; the time of technological progress, of civilization, and rationality” (20). (Is Mean Time just average or is it mean as in cruel?) English social theorists such as Herbert Spencer, Edward Tylor, and Alfred Russel Wallace grafted these various models into unstable progress narratives in which “mankind” would “convert the Earth, which had so long been the theatre of their unbridled passions and the scene of unimaginable misery, into as bright a paradise as ever haunted the dreams of seer or poet” (Wallace qtd. in Collins 18).
Who, how, and when the different humans in “mankind” would reach this paradise was—and remains, Collins suggests—a muddle. Would some have to be eliminated, or at best remain in the “waiting room of history”? Or was humanity on its way to a unified future? With Spencer’s “phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny,” all time was telescoped inside British schoolchildren, who raced through the savagery and barbarism in which colonials remained mired to become Massa Kurtzs all, the pinnacle of civilized humans. Even Franz Boas, tireless anti-racist reformer, carries along some of this temporal paradox (which Collins connects to Heinlein’s “‘All You Zombies—’” ) in which the West gives “birth to itself through the ‘retrograde’ creation of its own conditions of overcoming” (21). Such unacknowledged temporal assumptions led Boas to see homegrown racism and nationalism as atavistic forms that must be extirpated—rather than “primitive” peoples—but also laid the groundwork for modernization’s ideas of progress with anthropologists as social engineers, which in turn gave time itself a moral cast.
While Collins wears his learning lightly here, expecting a lot of background knowledge, it is intriguing to see the seeds of current controversies over the ethics of intervention, “progress,” and the role of intellectuals. Margaret Mead, the US’s great popularizer of anthropology (and a fan of sf) also mothered the progressive-anthropologist-as-social-engineer-military-complex with her work in WWII and later with Norbert Weiner and Gregory Bateson on cybernetics. As with anthropologist/sf writer Chad Oliver, working a bit later, for these theorists cultural change was supposed to work in a Newtonian fashion: a force (intervention, austerity measure) applied to an object (culture, nation) would produce change in a predictable (and profitable) direction. Their spawn might be General Petraeus’s Human Terrain Project, where anthropologists are part of counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Collins suggests that fieldwork (for Mead a return to the Pacific, for Oliver—who wrote a library dissertation—it was his first trip to Kenya) pushed them into a more Heisenbergian relation to culture and time. For example, Mead began to think in complex ways about how to encourage more open-ended systems, drawing on her love of conferences with their cascading chains of meetings, extensive and intensive discussions, and ideas emerging from a fecund frisson of working at the node of interlocking networks. In addition to the Mead-like character in Mary Doria Russell’s Sparrow (1997), I wonder if this thinking influenced other sf such as Doris Lessing’s Shikasta (1981), or real-world attempts to invoke the idea that another world is possible at meetings such as the Mexican Zapatista’s Encuentros Inter-Galácticas, and the World Social Fora.
Oliver—whose sf ideas and connections reached from Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction to Austin, Texas’s “Turkey Group” (which included Lisa Tuttle, Bruce Sterling, and Lewis Shiner)—began by expressing technocratic faith in the power of science and liberal beliefs, but moved to a far more post-colonial understanding that anthropologists get things wrong—dead wrong—and work under conditions of systemic misunderstanding. For Collins, Oliver, and Mead set the stage for anthropology’s 1970s and 1980s engagement with alien cultures. Through the American Anthropological Association, NASA, and the CONTACT conferences, they tried interdisciplinarily to imagine contact with completely unexpected others and envision an Institutional Review Board protocol for E.T. meet-ups that would learn from earlier “first encounters” that, overdetermined by pedestrian greed, desire, and hatred (66), had ended tragically. Collins argues that these intriguing experiments encourage a more general contemplation of the role of the alien in speculative flights, drawing on Rousseau, Kant, Ashley Montagu, and others. Yet a specter haunts the argument about close encounters in Chapter 4, and that is the way capitalism produces aliens through extracting labor and refashioning it into commodities. Marx rather than Kant might have been a more productive way to ponder alienation, as a writer who mixed sf with underworld images of vampires and werewolves to accompany our present/future horrorscape of zombie banks and toxic (asset) avengers.
The idea of the future being so bright you have to wear shades (in both its optimistic and thermonuclear senses) dissipated in the 1980s and 1990s, Collins argues, attenuated to Kondratieff curves of 52-year cycles of boom and bust, and Moore’s Law of the “dull algebra” of transistor capacity doubling every ten years, “that nevertheless excited people in the 1990s” (76). What use is revolution if you are stuck in a sinusoid pattern, and what good are the elicitation procedures of Ethnographic Futures Research if Hollywood has clogged our imaginations with decades of dreck? Not only are anthropologists no longer called in to discuss the futures of shamanism or aruyvedic medicine (although the South African police force does have a witchcraft unit), but also even the Santa Fe Institute’s work on unpredictability and anthropology’s cool new topics like “emergence” are all too predictable. The future is not about surprise but simply acceleration, proliferation, or intensification of the same, the foreordained entree into neoliberal hegemony. Following Fredric Jameson, now utopia only demonstrates our utter incapacity to imagine a better future.
Collins tries to muster some optimism through his work on “surprise” in multi-agent systems research, deep-sea lateral gene transfer, Bergsonian duration, the ways globalization is riven with discontinuous space-time (“financial arbitrage, futures trading, rolling over short-term debt to finance long-term loans, betting against national currencies in order to trigger a cascading devaluation: these are different loops of time, the varying timescapes of global capitalism” ), and even anthropologists describing leftist political movements, anarchist conventions, and union meetings (122). But given that a lesson of the book’s two case studies—Mead and Oliver—is that getting out of town can produce leaps in sophistication, it seems odd that the book does so little of it. Focusing on the future making of imperial capitalism is essential (with, perhaps, more attention to the utter violence of the shock and awe needed to embargo ordinary people’s futurological projects), but I wonder if the “surprise-free zero imagination” malaise derives from how All Tomorrow’s Futures are US culture’s? Glancing recognition of Afro-Futurism, Thai futures research, or movements in Latin America, and short shrift to anthropologically inspired sf imaginaries, especially by writers drawing on Duboisian double consciousness, seems to undermine the concluding hopes for “overcoming the present in an unpredictable, stochastic future defined by brachiating differences” (123). Short, useful, and often delightful (despite its patent dismay), the book could have used a bit more struggle, some dialectical bloodletting, to shiver us out of Anglo-Americo-centric anthropology’s ridiculous space-time continuum. But the question it raises, of planetary importance, is whether we can imagine something better than the stinking mess of today without “progress” leaving the Angel of History bedraggled in a FEMA trailer.
—Diane M. Nelson, Duke University
Mary Shelley’s “Hideous Progeny.”
Audrey A. Fisch. Frankenstein. Icons of Modern Culture. Hastings, UK: Helm Information, 2009. xiii + 206 pp. £38 hc.
There is little doubt that Frankenstein and his monster are icons of modern Western culture. Audrey Fisch’s recent guidebook to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and its progeny certainly confirms the extent to which, since the novel’s initial publication in 1818, the “Creature” has been “wandering around the culture in new shapes and guises, with a proliferation of meanings for those who encountered him” (7). While this volume is not the first cultural history of the Frankenstein phenomenon and it admittedly targets “the curious reader and non-specialist,” it nonetheless offers a scholarly overview “of the variety of ‘Frankensteins’ that have [sic] emerged over time” (5). This scholarly approach represents its greatest strength but also, for some readers perhaps, its weakness.
According to series editor David Ellis, each volume in Helm Information’s Icons of Modern Culture “describes and above all illustrates the process whereby a certain figure became iconic” (1-2). Tracing the evolution of Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s pen through its various theatrical and filmic adaptations, as well as addressing the critical reception of the novel and its scientific legacy, Fisch’s volume certainly achieves that goal. Dividing her study into two parts, Fisch devotes the first section (approximately one third of the book’s length) to the development and publication of the three editions of the novel published during Shelley’s lifetime. She presents the arguments for the use of the 1818 or the 1831 editions, providing a brief list of which major publishers rely on which edition (72). Fisch situates the novel in relation to Shelley’s circle, including her parents (William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft) and her husband (Percy Bysshe Shelley). She describes the famous ghost story writing contest, which included Lord Byron and John Polidori, at the Villa Diodati in the summer of 1816. In an appendix, Fisch reproduces “The Death Bride,” one of the ghost stories published in the collection Tales of the Dead (1812), read in French translation by Shelley and company that summer. Fisch also provides background on the scientific and philosophical context in which the story was—the procreative metaphor seems unavoidable here—conceived.
Chapters four and seventeen, “Early Science” and “The Scientific Legacy of Frankenstein,” will be of greatest interest to sf scholars. Although she approaches the text from a mainstream point of view, Fisch refers several times to Brian W. Aldiss, mentioning both his fictional homage Frankenstein Unbound (1973) and his insertion of Shelley’s novel into the history of sf in Trillion Year Spree (1986). She also cites Sylvia Norman’s somewhat begrudging assertion that “Mary Shelley herself created Science Fiction” (qtd. in Fisch 202). Defending Shelley against detractors of her use of science, Fisch insists that “the novel Frankenstein and its various progeny engage[d] and continue to engage with both historically and culturally specific scientific debates” (49). In particular, she addresses the political aspects of those debates, such as vitalism versus materialism, the origin of life, and the nature and definition of humanity.
In the second section of the study, “Beyond Mary Shelley,” the author dedicates the remaining two-thirds of the book to the development of the icon across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in theater, film, literary history, and other areas of popular culture. She devotes brief chapters to each of the following topics: theatrical adaptations of Frankenstein from the 1820s, Victorian-era burlesque spectacles adapting its plot elements, silent film, early twentieth-century stage adaptations, and the Universal and Hammer Studios films. Two subsequent chapters examine literary critics’ evolving vision of Mary Shelley and her novel, providing a useful review of the literature for those just embarking on Frankenstein studies. In “Feminist Canonisation,” Fisch aligns the novel’s appropriation to the canon with the rise of feminist literary criticism in the mid- to late-1970s. Tracing how the text moved from the margins of popular culture to becoming “one of a small number of literary texts that every literary critic feels compelled to take on” (215), the chapter “Critical Progeny” discusses subsequent Marxist, postcolonial, and queer (although she eschews using that term) readings of the text. The volume concludes with discussions of the “Contemporary ‘Frankenstein’” and its ubiquity. An extensive bibliography, an index, and fifty-four illustrations, ranging from book cover photos, to film stills, to political cartoons featuring the Creature, enhance the book’s usefulness as well as its attractiveness.
Clearly “Frankenstein” (placed in quotes by Fisch when discussing the icon as opposed to the novel or the character) fits the description of a true cultural icon as outlined by David Ellis in his “Series Editor’s Preface.” For Ellis, an icon reflects an “essential heterogeneity” that makes it vulnerable “to private, idiosyncratic appropriation” (1), and Fisch’s study reveals the often opposing uses to which the icon has been put. Although Frankenstein the novel has most often been read as a morality tale warning against the hubris of scientific curiosity gone unchecked (indeed, the author’s prefaces and Victor’s admonition to Walton support this reading), “Frankenstein” the icon has been employed for a number of symbolic purposes. While Victor Frankenstein appears as the prototype for all subsequent mad scientists (a role supported by his own account in the novel of a “nervous fever” that lasted several months), his creature has been utilized in the service of both the nature and the nurture arguments of human development, has become a figure for the violent creation which has escaped its creator’s control, and has been depicted as a mindless buffoon. With the multivalence proper to the icon, he has been portrayed as a warm and fuzzy children’s character as well as a powerful force of destruction.
I applaud Fisch for insistently consulting and citing a wealth of primary source documents, such as contemporary reviews of the original novel and excerpts, often lengthy, from the first plays produced, as well as from later Victorian and Edwardian dramatic interpretations of the Frankenstein story. For the undergraduate scholar, high school teacher, or even the instructor of a college composition course or literary survey teaching Frankenstein for the first time, this compilation of primary sources, handily collected in this highly useful reference work, represents a marvelous tool. For Fisch’s stated target audience (see above), however, I consider such insistence on citing primary sources at length (excerpts as long as two pages) a distraction during reading. In contrast, Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s Frankenstein: A Cultural History (Norton, 2007) tells the story of the icon in an engaging manner and, frankly, covers more ground than Fisch’s volume, particularly in relation to the explosion of popular-culture iterations of the Frankenstein icon since the Universal films.
While it does not necessarily offer a new interpretation of the icon, Audrey A. Fisch’s Frankenstein does provide a solid scholarly survey, including a wealth of reference material such as the extensive citations from original sources, of great use for the reference collection or for course preparation. Contrasting its goal with that of the novel’s numerous critical editions, by “offering a sampling and analysis of ‘Frankensteins’ ... this book enables students to examine first hand, across time and genre, the different strands of meaning the icon has acquired in different cultural vehicles” (6). I agree with Fisch’s conclusion that, as her study underlines “the fascinating continuities and disjunctions between the ‘original’ Creature and his many descendants” (260), disjunctions which simply “make manifest the strength of the original work” (260), we cannot fully understand “Frankenstein” the icon’s ubiquitous and often contradictory presence in contemporary culture without understanding not only Shelley’s novel, but also its numerous progeny.
—Amy J. Ransom, Central Michigan University
A Killer Primer.
Lesley A. Hall. Naomi Mitchison: A Profile of Her Life and Work. Conversation Pieces 15. Seattle, WA: Aqueduct, 2007. 146 pp. $9.00 pbk.
Naomi Mitchison is a killer to write about. Her life was hugely long, and her work was also long. That Lesley A. Hall does not exactly shepherd the century of Mitchison’s presence on the world stage into safe haven is, of course, a shame. But there is no point in being particularly cruel. Naomi Mitchison (1897-1999) is indeed a killer.
The difficulty is not that she wrote too much; given the span of her active life, from the teens of the twentieth century until her energy began to fade around 1990, she was not in fact impossibly fecund as an author of books. Hall makes no attempt to cover the thousand or more periodical publications not yet collected, and her checklist lists perhaps 90 books in all, many of which are ephemeral or short works for children or memoirs, with a considerable degree of overlap and gas, especially in the memoirs. The central focus of Naomi Mitchison: A Profile of Her Life and Work is, I think properly, the 25 volumes or so of her fiction for adults and older children. So quantity is not what may baulk the student.
The problem with Naomi Mitchison is that she was an activist, a politician’s wife, a stirrer and striver in the closet drama of 1920s and 1930s Britain; as such, she inevitably tended to treat the fictions she wrote as sounding boards for the issues—sex, feminism, communication, justice, totalitarianism, injustice—that roused her, or that she felt impelled to be aroused by. An inclination of this sort might seem catnip to any theme critic, as her books are full of Things They Are About; the catch is that Naomi Mitchison was a rather better storyteller than she was a thinker, that she did not in fact convey thought very well (even though she conveyed thought often). To a reader today, most of her work creaks with a kind of fortitude: I think I can, I think I can (her stories seem to tell themselves), I think I can be serious about stuff. I need a drink.
The result is a kind of virtuous adherence to matters of paraphrasable import, and an embarrassment about the flow of story itself. She was, in fact, a pretty good storyteller, when she gave in to the drink of it. There is, for instance, a perhaps slightly discombobulated serenity to the telling of Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962), now her best remembered single work, that allows the reader to benefit from the lessons Mary learns as a communications expert who, during the course of her Scientific-Romance-like fabulous voyages to various planets, encounters and becomes intimate with an omnium gatherum of exo-biologicals. These excursions into sometimes undue empathy are counterpointed by her utterly benign dropping of children everywhere and everywhen (space travel involves time dilation, so Mary ages a lot less quickly than some of her offspring are likely to). The book is relaxed, slightly dithery—Mary is a bit Ijon Tichy-and-water—and full of a peculiarly remote loving kindness. As a set of arguments about intimacy and exogamy, about communications and the species-specific disablements and enhancements that intoxicate any attempts at interstellar understanding, Memoirs is something of a mess, as Mitchison has little interest in context, in the conversation of sf that makes serviceable context-wonking a breeze. The book is a mess because Mitchison is more an activist than a thinker; and also—according to the kind of sexual distinction she found no reasons long after her formative years (before 1920) to shake free from—more motherly than fatherly in the occasionally ditsy loving-kindness of her narrative strategies.
What is true of this book is true of most of her work of any interest. To convey an understanding of a tale like this—or of her other, later, weaker sf; or of The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931), a tale of great circumstantial complicatedness that is hard to synopsize; or Beyond This Limit (1935), whose weird girlishness needs a sympathetic reading to make any sense of, certainly as she always credited the fierce Wyndham Lewis with co-creator status, his numerous illustrations being laid down interactively with the writing of the text—requires a redactor capable of grasping the snake-oil transmissal of stories, even when there is a screw loose somewhere. It is not good enough to speculate on the meaning of a Mitchison tale—sex is particularly confusing, especially in 1930s titles such as We Have Been Warned (1935)—if the slambang, offhand, gossipy, intriguing, congenial telling of that tale has not been properly conveyed.
Squaring this circle is, unfortunately, a bit beyond Lesley A. Hall’s grasp, nor was she much helped by her own, or possibly her publisher’s, apparent inability to work out whom to write/market her text for. Academics (though not unrefereed readers) will recognize her adherence to standard humanities-industry practice. Titles are cited in full only once in the text, sometimes without being dated; and are afterwards referred to only in properly industrialized acronym form. Unfortunately, these acronyms—The Corn King and the Spring Queen becomes, for instance, CKSQ—can only be decoded by the forgetful (me among that larger moiety) by reference to the checklist which, being divided into five parts, is not well designed for rapid data retrieval; the normal practice, of providing a list of these barbarous acronyms at the front of a text, has here been eschewed. No one will, on the other hand, welcome the decision not to indicate which edition of a book is in fact being cited by page—there are, for instance, five separate editions of CKSQ listed in the index, each (for all anyone knows) different settings; but no maven of MLA scholarship would be foolish enough to assume that Hall’s citations are to the original setting. Nor will academics be pleased at the lack of an index. Hall’s checklist is moderately complete, but where it is not the lack of an index can prove particularly troublesome. She does not, for instance, include in her checklist Mitchison’s early, privately printed play, Saunes Bairos: A Study in Recurrence; a Play in 3 Acts, a Prologue and Epilogue (1913) as by N.M. Haldane, presumably because she could not find it in the British Library, her prime reference source (both Oxford University and Columbia University do hold copies, however; there are some in private hands as well); but she does spend an interesting paragraph on it, noting en passant that the 1913 cast included Aldous Huxley (his photograph appears in the book). Hall’s discussion appears, by the way, on page 23 of the text.
More importantly perhaps, as I have already hinted, Hall does prove deficient exactly where she needed to bite the bullet: simple tales are adequately though uninvigoratingly conveyed; but the boneless parataxis of her attempts to unpack CKSQ or MOS (or for that matter WHBW or BTL or BOTM or QFWFQ) fatally disable understanding of the full-bore Mitchison’s drift, or cadence, or prolixity, or concision, or wit, or want. In the end, we are stymied. A primer on a difficult and wide-ranging second-rank (but not third-rank) author like Naomi Mitchison must be welcomed. But in the face of her author’s abiding, all-important, all-over-the-map companionship with the twentieth century and us, Hall seems to throw up her hands. To do so fails to gain much applause.
—John Clute, London
I Sing the Body Mechademic.
Frenchy Lunning, ed. Mechademia 3: Limits of the Human. Mechademia. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008. xvi + 288 pp. $19.95 pbk.
This collection is the third installment in an annual series of critical works devoted to the study of anime, manga, and fan arts, and their influence on media culture. Encompassing a diverse range of perspectives, methodologies, and techniques, each book in the series has a different focus. The inaugural volume, Mechademia 1: Emerging Worlds of Anime and Manga (2006), lays the groundwork for its successors, analyzing the rise of Japanese popular culture in broad terms. Mechademia 2: Networks of Desire (2007), as the subtitle indicates, concentrates on the roles of desire and sexuality in modern anime and manga. The most recent publication turns to the theme of posthumanity with regard to the body and identity. Specifically, Mechademia 3 articulates how the body is spoken and (re)constructed by discursive and electronic technologies in an attempt to outline a futurology of the human condition. As Lunning writes in his short preface:
This volume of Mechademia asked for a map of the terrain of the new humanities, using the cast of characters created for anime and manga as guides and the narratives as signposts to begin to discover how to speak, say, recognize, and pronounce out loud these new limits and potentialities. The artists and authors of this issue speak from different positions and locations but sing of this evolutionary shift in a condensation of voices inspired by the narrative and artistic power of Japanese manga and anime. (x)
Lunning calls for a serious study of anime/manga that bridges the gap between the academic and fan communities. The series is a dynamic and pioneering contribution to scholarship on anime/manga as well as on science fiction in general.
Mechademia 3 provides valuable insights into the origins of anime/manga, its influence on Japanese culture today, and its global impact, all in an effort to rethink former definitions of (post)humanity. Following a brief preface in which Lunning explains how he hopes the book will generate “a new understanding and a new level of compassion for the Other,” Christopher Bolton discusses the book’s topoi and structure in an introduction, “The Limits of ‘The Limits of the Human’” (x). The book is divided thematically into three sections, each with four to six essays: “Contours—Around the Human,” on the monstrous and the supernatural; “Companions—With the Human,” on animal and mechanical others; and “Compossibles—Of the Human,” on the coexistence of human and inhuman spaces. The essays are written almost exclusively by Japanese and American scholars, most of whom have a long history with anime/manga.
The central essay, “Refiguring the Human,” belongs to Mark C. Taylor. It is also the first and shortest essay (under three pages), yet the rest of Mechademia 3 seems to flow directly from the ideas and arguments established here. Taylor’s key point is that “[a]s opposition gives way to relation, self and other fold into each other in such a way that social and natural worlds come to self-consciousness in and through human awareness, and the human consciousness and self-consciousness are realized in and through natural and social processes” (6). Self and other, perception and the socius—above all, these topics are what the scholars who follow Taylor must grapple with and flesh out. Most of them do so by way of reading a particular artist, author, or set of texts. A recurrent figure is Tezuka Osamu, whom Yomota Inuhiko calls “the father of postwar manga and one of the most influential cultural figures in postwar Japan” (97). Another important figure is Natsume Fusanosuke; a manga author and critic, he created “a new genre of ‘manga criticism through manga’” (65). Mechademia 3 includes one of Fusanosuke’s pieces, a garishly meta-narrative comic whose narrator discusses the history, conception, and technique of manga while bursting through the walls of frames, thus calling attention to the constructedness of the form and breaking the rules of traditional manga storytelling. Another meta-narrative manga in the book, “The Signal of Noise” by Adàle-Elise Prévost and MUSEbasement, addresses the human’s relationship to digital technology. In addition to numerous supplementary photographs and illustrations, Mechademia 3 features regular thought bubbles that stem from the bodies of written texts and reiterate core themes. So the book itself critiques manga via manga, exhibiting a profound, almost romantic connection to and admiration for the genre.
Another topic under discussion concerns images of “yokai,” supernatural creatures or experiences popularized by manga/anime artist Mizuki Shigeru, in Michael Sylan Foster’s “The Otherworlds of Mizuki Shigeru.” The Japanese girl market and Lolita subculture are addressed in Theresa Winge’s “Undressing and Dressing Loli: A Search for the Identity of the Japanese Lolita.” Thomas Lamarre’s “Speciesism, Part I: Translating Races into Animals in Wartime Animation” and Otsuka Eiji’s “Disarming Aton: Tezuka Osamu’s Manga at War and Peace” both study the social and ideological impact of post-World War Two attitudes. Several essays center on individual texts or sets of texts: e.g., the Metropolis films (Osamu’s manga , Fritz Lang’s silent film , and Otamo Katsuhiro’s animated film ), Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers (1959), and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), using them to examine some aspect of “Japanoid” culture. Mechademia 3 concludes with a rather sizeable “Review and Commentary” section devoted to recent anime/manga television shows, DVDs, scholarship, and other media. The last piece is an interview between Lunning and anime voice actor Crispin Freeman.
Overall, the volume contains highly eclectic and unique analyses of a genre that is swiftly gaining popular and critical momentum in Western culture. One does not have to be an anime/manga scholar or aficionado to appreciate it. While I have a moderate interest in the genre, my knowledge leaves much to be desired, and I found Mechademia 3 as accessible as it was provocative and enlightening. Anybody interested in posthumanism will reap something from it.
—D. Harlan Wilson, Wright State University-Lake Campus
A Tenuous Future.
Ralph Pordzik, ed. Futurescapes: Space in Utopian and Science Fiction Discourses. Spatial Practices: An Interdisciplinary Series in Cultural History, Geography and Literature 9. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2009. 366 pp. €73 hc.
Futurescapes is made up of twelve articles held together by the most tenuous of threads, for—at best—only half deal explicitly with space, while the concept of the “utopian” is at times used in the most general way. In a first, more literal and geographical sense of place, there are several relevant studies in the volume. For the utopian reader, there is Nicole Pohl’s consideration of nostalgia in the country-house utopias of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, as well as Christoph Eland’s discussion of the garden city in two little-known turn-of-the-century utopias. For the sf reader, there is Elizabeth Leane’s explanation of the special nature of temporality in fictional representations of the Antarctic— although her list of novels seems incomplete since it omits a number of classical texts, from Poe’s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” (1838) as well as Jules Verne’s sequel An Antarctic Mystery [Le Sphinx des glaces, 1897] to more recent sf narratives, most notably Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica (1998).
More explicitly science-fictional space, though of the terrestrial kind, can be found in Doreen Hartmann’s reading of Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) in terms of “Postmodern Concepts of Space.” Another turn to the postmodern can be seen in Martina Mittag’s application of the concept of “deterritorialization” to a number of twentieth-century texts in an interesting attempt to provide what she calls a “nomadic reformulation of the utopian” (251).
Hans Ulrich Seeber’s “Utopia, Nation-Building, and the Dissolution of the Nation-State Around 1900” addresses the question of how “globalization and empire-building transform [visions of an isolated] utopia into [visions of] a world-state” (53). Yet two of his three examples—Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World (1907) and Richard Whiteing’s The Island (1899)—are so obscure that this reader wonders about the validity of the argument given the many better-known utopias published in this period that might confirm or refute his hypothesis.
The final article dealing with space and place is Saskia Schabio’s consideration of “Caribbeanness as Transnational Utopia,” although those hoping for a discussion of Caribbean sf/utopian writers such as Nalo Hopkinson will find instead a fascinating discussion—through the work of the theorist Edouard Glissant—of what the author calls the “critical inflection utopian desire has received in Caribbean writing” (322).
Dunja Mohr’s study of “The Role and Function of Fictive Languages in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction” is obviously not concerned with space, but it could have been of interest to scholars of utopia and sf in its review of some of the classic sf texts dealing with language. Since the latest novels she considers are Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue trilogy (1984-93), however, it remains a rather familiar account, one which prompts me to wonder whether there have been any significant sf or utopian novels dealing with language published since Elgin’s work. Or is this area of speculation (the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the idea that reality could be changed through the development of a new language) at an end? While Mohr mentions the influential studies of Myra Barnes and Walter Meyers, she does not seem to be aware of Peter Stockwell’s Poetics of Science Fiction (2000) and her article does not really move beyond those earlier works.
The other four articles have little to do with space: Gabriela Schmidt’s analysis of translation in More’s Utopia (1516), or Ralph Pordzik’s “Theological Space and Ritual Conversion” in 1984 (1949), or Richard Note’s article on Wells and the “Eugenic Utopia.” Finally, however interesting it may be as film analysis, Antonis Balasopoulos’s discussion of Charlie Chaplin’s films as “complex meditations on the precariousness of utopian desire” (327) is so far removed from the stated topic of the volume that one can only wonder at its inclusion here.
According to the editor, the articles collected in this volume intend to “map out on utopian and science-fiction discourses some of the new and revisionist models of spatial analysis applied in Literary and Cultural Studies in recent years” (18). Yet none of the “futurescapes” under discussion is set anywhere but on Earth. There is no outer space, nor inner space for that matter, and it might have been interesting to explain if and why these concerns are no longer relevant to the study of space in sf. Furthermore, the editor and his authors seem unaware of recent work in this area, as for instance Rob Kitchin and James Kneale’s 2002 edited volume Lost in Space: Geographies of Science Fiction (reviewed in SFS 30.2, #90 [July 2003]: 315-19). While SaskiaSchabio makes frequent references to Phil Wegner’s Imagining Community: Utopia, The Nation and the Spatial Histories of Modernity (2002), there is only one other brief reference to this important consideration of utopian and the spatial in the twentieth century in the rest of the volume. As can be seen from my description of these articles, this is a very heterogeneous collection which, despite a few gems, brings little new to our understanding of space in sf or utopian writing. At 73 euros (well over $100 US), this is an expensive collection that might be better consulted at the library.
—Peter Fitting, University of Toronto
Amy J. Ransom. Science Fiction from Québec: A Postcolonial Study. Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy 15. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. ix + 275 pp.
With Science Fiction from Québec: A Postcolonial Study, Amy Ransom has provided us with a rich study of the little-known yet significant body of literature, SFQ (Science Fiction Québécoise), science fiction written by French-language Canadian authors, born or living in Québec. Her work stands out not only for being the first book-length study on the topic, but also for its insightful participation in the new postcolonial reflections on science fiction. Ransom chose a challenging subject in terms of postcolonial perspective since, as she underscores early in her study, many critics, mainly those from Québec, question Québec’s affiliation with the postcolonial world. Ransom excels in interlacing postcolonial and science fiction tropes, which she couples with a sound knowledge of Québec history and literature, through a detailed and intelligent study of five major novel cycles by important SFQ writers. An excellent bibliography of SFQ novels and short stories (including translated works) and of critical reflections from various intellectual horizons, completes the study.
To establish her theoretical framework, Ransom analyzes convergences among the postcolonial perspective, science fiction, and Québec’s sociopolitical and historical situation. Because of Québec’s unique place within the context of European colonialism, Ransom is very careful to show how the French-language province, a minority culture within Canada, corresponds somehow to a postcolonial situation, demonstrated by her review of the province’s historical evolution. She partly bases her reading on the postcolonial positions taken by some Québec intellectuals in the 1960s, who, because of their understanding of the Conquest (1759-60) of the French colony by the British Empire and the subsequent political and economical domination by the English (as the failed 1837-38 Patriot Rebellions also demonstrate), considered French Canadians to be a colonized nation. This intellectual movement coincides with the “Quiet Revolution” (1960-66), a period of massive state reforms to modernize Québécois society, as well as a period of dreams of political independence that never materialized. According to some postcolonial critics, the province acquired a self-determination that corresponds to that of a nation-state. The situation is all the more ambiguous since Québec is not only “colonized” but also “colonizer” towards the Native nations on its territory. Thanks to her understanding of both sf and postcolonial theory, the author offers a very convincing analysis of the main postcolonial trends in Québécois sf.
Chapter one provides a detailed history of SFQ, enriched with an overview of contemporary fiction. Québécois literature has a long tradition of the fantastic, including proto-sf and utopia, but critics identify 1974 as the moment when contemporary SFQ emerged in the wake of the Quiet Revolution. From this historical overview, Ransom draws some general conclusions about SFQ’s characteristics: principally, its literariness, its close relation to the fantastic, and its oscillation between the universal and the local. Among some others, these postcolonial themes are largely present in SFQ production since the 1980s: alienation; oppression and resistance, including the struggle for liberation; utopian (and dystopian) foundations of new societies; and hybridity and multiculturalism.
Ransom’s overview offers the reader a foundation on which the subsequent chapters build in their close readings of five SFQ “sagas,” paramount to SFQ history, that were published by major writers. Ransom uses the word “saga” to refer to literary works that appear in cycles, narratives that develop across several stories or volumes. Always articulated within a pertinent critical frame, Ransom’s analysis provides a powerful—albeit sometimes overdone—interpretation of Jacques Brossard’s Oiseau de feu [The Firebird/The Phoenix, 1989-97], Esther Rochon’s Chroniques infernales [The Infernal Chronicles, 1995-2000], and Le Cycle de Vrénalik [The Vrénalik Cycle, 1974-2002], as well as Elisabeth Vonarburg’s Tyranaël (1996-97) and Reine de Mémoire [Queen of Memory, 2005-07]. Except for the last, these sagas were conceived in the 1960s and 1970s.
Chapter two concentrates on the trope of alienation found in L’Oiseau de Feu, Le Cycle de Vrénalik, and Tyranaël. Ransom illustrates how these novels depict Québec as a nation estranged from itself and from its Others due to a power dynamic of domination and oppression. The sagas adopt the perspective of the oppressed collectivity. Their main characters subvert a metaphorical colonial system in their quest for liberation, resonating with the Francophone—but also Native—situation in Canada. They also challenge binary oppositions and simplistic Québec-centered national allegory; in this way, they correspond to the ambiguous French Canadian situation. Rochon’s multivalent allegory and Buddhist grounds add nuance to both the “oppressors” and the oppressed Asven society, a population imprisoned on its Vrénalik archipelago. Brossard also offers an ambiguous saga in terms of a fully postcolonial discourse and a convergence with the situation of Québec. L’Oiseau de feu describes the dystopic Manokhsor society and its opposition by Adakhan, the main character, who succeeds in entering the Centralian elite. Adakhan soon realizes the dystopian aspects of that elite, and so abandons the City for Ashmev, a problematic New World. Finally, Vonarburg retraces the evolution of the planet Tyranaël over the centuries, its former inhabitants exiled on Atyrkelsaõ (Tyranaël in a parallel universe), and the human colonizers. Her complex narrative examines colonial and postcolonial themes from a postcolonial perspective.
Chapter three explores in a precise way the manipulation of the utopian and dystopian tropes found in the sagas, as well as what Marie Vautier calls the “New World Myth,” a subversion of originary myths. The three writers, according to Ransom, propose another way of writing utopia and describing Québécois identity. Brossard’s rewriting of Genesis with Ashmev, perhaps not virgin territory, as well as the very open conclusion of the saga, produce a highly ambiguous fiction, oscillating between colonial and anti-colonial discourse. The last volume of Le Cycle de Vrénalik depicts two utopian societies that share traits with the New World Myth, yet is ambiguous about the colonization project and resists Western binarism by blending logic with magic. Tyranaël also explores the New World Myth and challenges it with a complex process of decolonization and interaction with the Other (indigenes, colonists, and immigrants). A brief analysis of Les Chroniques infernales and of Reine de Mémoire is enriched by a pessimistic vision of the utopian New World Myth.
Chapter 4 analyzes tensions related to hybridity and transculturalism found in postcolonial societies and the solution offered by the five sagas. In spite of its ambiguity, Brossard’s saga progresses towards a hybridized model of humanity’s future that reflects José Vasconcelos’s controversial La Raza cósmica [The Cosmic Race, 1948]. In Rochon’s two sagas, hybridity and openness to the Other are shown to be crucial in avoiding social atrophy, even extinction. In Les Chroniques infernales, the use of the Tibetan Bardo suggests the idea that one must earn redemption through doing time in various hells before returning to the cycle of life. Tyranaël witnesses métissage [interbreeding] between the two humanoid populations and the growing ideology of acceptance within a pluralistic society.
Ransom constantly refers to the Canadian and Québécois context to ground her sharp analysis of alien nations seeking their potential disalienation, however ambiguous it may be. Nonetheless, as she underlines, SFQ sagas are open to universality in imagining ways to come to terms with problems created by a colonial past. This exciting study, the first of its length published on French Canadian sf, will undoubtedly prove to be influential not only in SFQ criticism, but also in sf and postcolonial studies.
—Sophie Beaule, Saint Mary’s University
What if Goethe Had Written Science Fiction?
Franz Rottensteiner, ed. The Black Mirror and Other Stories: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Germany and Austria. Trans. Mike Mitchell. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008. xxxix + 377 pp. $27.95 pbk.
The past decade has seen a renewed interest by North American scholars in science fiction beyond the Anglo-American world. This phenomenon is due in part to the greater availability of foreign-language science fiction in English. That said, there is a rich list of sf titles from the German-speaking world, but little of it is accessible to the Anglo-American reader. Still, there is hope. Several books by German sf authors have appeared recently in translation. These include Andreas Eschbach’s Die Haarteppichknupfer [The Carpet Makers, 1995] and Franz Schätzing’s Der Schwarm [The Swarm, 2007]. The Black Mirror and Other Stories is Austrian Franz Rottensteiner’s latest attempt to acquaint us with the long and influential tradition of quality science fiction from the German-speaking world.
Science fiction from Germany and Austria boasts one of the genre’s longest and most influential traditions. Its roots lie in the country’s seventeenth-century imaginary voyages and in the fiction of the nineteenth-century German Romantic author, E.T.A. Hoffmann (Nußknacker und Mäusekönig [The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, 1816] and “Der Sandmann” [The Sandman, 1816]). The first German sf writer, Kurd Lasswitz, dubbed in his day the “German Jules Verne,” wrote philosophical stories from an Enlightenment perspective. Bernhard Kellermann’s Der Tunnel [The Tunnel, 1913], a story of the construction of a transatlantic passageway, was translated into twenty-five languages. German sf film influenced countless Hollywood productions to come with Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou’s Metropolis (1927). This film alone has appeared in multiple versions, including the partially colorized print with the Queen soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder (1984) and the painstakingly restored 2003 version from the Murnau Foundation. Pulp sf fans will recall the Perry Rhodan space opera series dating from 1961, which still lives on today and is written by a variety of male and female authors. In the thirty-fifth anniversary press release from 1996, its publisher touted Perry Rhodan as the most successful sf publication ever, with over one billion copies sold internationally. Most recently, Roland Emmerich has dazzled global audiences with his apocalyptic disaster films, Independence Day (1996), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and 2012 (2009).
Although some North Americans might be familiar with the above titles, they will find that The Black Mirror and Other Stories will broaden their knowledge of this tradition. Even more so than in his The Best of Austrian Science Fiction (2001), Rottensteiner designed The Black Mirror to provide the reader with an overview of German-language science fiction since the nineteenth century. Rottensteiner claims that the new book does not always include “the best,” but rather includes those authors important to the development of the genre. For Rottensteiner, “important” does not always mean that the writer’s science fiction was influential, but rather that the author played an otherwise pivotal role—as an editor or a translator, for instance.
Rottensteiner himself is an expert in the field of European science fiction. He has long served as an editor of the Fantastic Library [Phantastische Bibliothek] series for the well-regarded German publisher Suhrkamp. He is also the founder and editor of the only critical German-language science fiction/fantasy journal Quarber Merkur (since 1963). Rottensteiner has several reference books in English to his credit, including The Fantasy Book: An Illustrated History from Dracula to Tolkien (1978) and The Science Fiction Book (1979); he has also edited a collection of critical essays by the late Stanislaw Lem entitled Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy (1983). He also has published over fifty collections of European science fiction. English-language titles include View From Another Shore (1973, 2nd ed. 1999), The Slaying of the Dragon (1984), and The Best of Austrian Science Fiction (2001) with Todd C. Hanlin. The Black Mirror was produced with translator Mike Mitchell, who has little experience with science fiction but has translated many German classics, plays, and contemporary novels for the presses Ariadne and Dedalus.
The book begins with an historical essay by Rottensteiner. This introduction traces the roots of German-language science fiction from the seventeenth-century imaginary voyage to contemporary German sf. It is set up as a guide for the American reader, since Rottensteiner locates German science fiction within an American context. For instance, Rottensteiner notes that the first ever PhD written in America on science fiction was a dissertation at Brown University in 1936 entitled The Pre-War German Utopian Novel (xxv). There is a special section on the German stories that appeared in American magazines published by Hugo Gernsback. Another section focuses on the roles played by the dime novel and the lending library both before and after World War II in the development of the genre. This section is particularly interesting since German science fiction appeared overwhelmingly in novel form before World War II and in East Germany afterward. In addition, Rottensteiner provides an introduction to each author and story and situates its significance within the German sf tradition.
The first two stories are by Kurd Lasswitz, as is to be expected, since he is traditionally considered the father of German science fiction. The anthology includes “To the Absolute Zero of Existence” (1871), his most famous short story. The second story, “Apoikis” (1882), is more of an “imaginary voyage” that takes place within the world created in Lasswitz’s best known book Auf zwei Planeten [Two Planets, 1897], and is therefore a way of paying homage to that important work.
Many German sf histories juxtapose the humanist Lasswitz with the right-leaning Hans Dominik to the exclusion of other writers from the pre-war period. Rottensteiner skillfully avoids this trap by placing the two authors in separate historical categories: pre-World War I and the Weimar Republic. Where a popular assumption is that all German science fiction before World War II was conservative to reactionary, the anthology refutes this notion by emphasizing the wide array of stories that were available. The pre-war or “Pioneers” section also includes tales by Austro-Hungarian Ludwig Hevesi (“Jules Verne in Hell,” 1906), Lasswitz disciple Carl Grunert (“The Martian Spy,” 1908), and the eccentric Paul Scheerbart (“Malvu the Helmsman,” 1912). In addition to Dominik, the inter-war section includes popular science author Otto Willi Gail (“The Missing Clock Hands,” 1929) and the assimilated Austrian-Jewish writer Egon Friedell (“Is the Earth Inhabited?” 1931).
No science fiction from the National Socialist period (1933-1945) appears, likely since so little of it existed. Indeed, because of sf’s ability to imagine alternate futures, this fantastic genre was all but impossible under Goebbels’s tightly controlled propaganda machine. It did exist in limited form, however. Since many scholars of German Studies are now working on the cultural production of this period, it would have been interesting to have at least an excerpt with a discussion of the topic. Certainly, the postwar section includes stories that deal with National Socialism.
The latter portion of the book is divided into post-World War II in the West, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and post-reunification contemporary German sf. Here, Austrian science fiction comes into its own with three selections from Herbert W. Franke, the founder of modern German-language sf and a long-time editor at Heyne. These are “Thought Control” (1961), “Welcome Home” (1961), and “Meteorites” (1961). Successful Austrian dime- novel author Ernst Vlcek is represented with “Say It With Flowers” (1980), a story about fascist aesthetics. The German environmentalist Carl Amery also makes an entrance with “Just One Summer” (1985). His influential eco-dystopia Der Untergang der Stadt Passau [The Fall of the City of Passau, 1975] was recently reissued by the SüdOst-Verlag (Southeast Publishers). Horst Pukallus, who is known mostly as a translator, is included with his parody “The Age of the Burning Mountains” (1989). In the area of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), The Black Mirror rightly includes stories by both Johanna and Günter Braun (“A Visit to Parsimonia,” 1981) and Angela and Karlheinz Steinmüller (“The Eye that Never Weeps,” 1984). Both pairs represent the rare and successful combination of the author couple. Rottensteiner also includes a story by Erik Simon, an incredibly influential editor and translator in East German science fiction. Today, he is known as the foremost German expert on Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. His story provides the title for the book: “The Black Mirror” (1983).
The contemporary author section is the largest and forms a survey of the more influential names since reunification. Several authors are quite important to the production of this science fiction. The most influential here would be Wolfgang Jeschke with his story “Partners for Life” (1996). Jeschke worked with Herbert W. Franke at Heyne as sf editor before taking over himself. Due to the efforts of both of these author-editors, Heyne is now one of the world’s largest sf publishers. Two other names are included, notably for their key roles in genre production. Michael Iwoleit, the critic and founding editor of the sf magazine Nova, is represented with a story that questions the true nature of reality (“Planck Time,” 2004). A former co-author of Ernst Vlcek’s and sometime editor of both the fanzine Pioneer and Nova magazine, Helmuth Mommers wrote “Habemus Papam” (2005), in which robots are allowed to become Catholic.
Since the German sf book market is flooded with Anglo-American translations, it is the rare author who is able to compete and live solely from royalties alone. Physics teacher Thorsten Küper is a good example of an author with a technical background who writes on the side (“Project 38 or the Game of Small Causes,” 2003). Austrian Peter Schattschneider is also a successful scientist-author who dedicated his “A Letter from the Other Side” (1994) to Umberto Eco. The award-winning author and illustrator Michael Marrak is represented with “Astrosapiens” (1998). Computer scientist and author Oliver Henkel’s “Hitler on the Campaign Trail in America” (2004) represents the copious web of alternate histories set during or after World War II. The final story of the collection is by Andreas Eschbach. Termed Germany’s “Michael Crichton,” Eschbach is the very rare example of a self-employed sf author (335). His sf thrillers have won numerous awards. The anthology concludes with his previously unpublished story “Mother’s Flowers” (2008).
The Black Mirror is composed strictly of sf stories. It does not stray into fantasy by including the likes of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Franz Kafka, Irmtraud Morgner, or Barbara Frischmuth. There is also a dearth of female authors. The only women are Johanna Braun and Angela Steinmüller, both excellent authors. However, they are represented by stories they co-wrote with their husbands. Although not a genre author, certainly Christa Wolf’s “Selbstversuch” [Self-Experiment, 1973] could have easily been included. Moreover, it is not as if other short stories by women do not exist. See for instance, the collections Female Science Faction (2001) or Anderswann [Different when? 1985]. Most recently, Myra Çakan has written several cyberpunk novels in German. Certainly, the relative lack of women authors is quite an oversight. On the whole, however, the book is a very useful resource. It includes a bibliography of primary and secondary works in the field. At the back, it also contains editor’s notes on each short story. Both libraries and sf readers looking to expand their geographical horizons should purchase this thought-provoking collection.
—Sonja Fritzsche, Illinois Wesleyan University
Ex Astris, Sophia
Josef Steiff and Tristan D. Tamplin, eds. Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy: Mission Accomplished or Mission Frakked Up? Popular Culture and Philosophy 33. Chicago: Open Court, 2008. xviii + 423 pp. $18.95 pbk.
Jason T. Eberl and Kevin S. Decker, eds. Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant. Popular Culture and Philosophy 35. Chicago: Open Court, 2008. xvii + 287 pp. $18.95 pbk.
With its new book on Star Trek (1966-), Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series has reached thirty-five volumes, and even more have been announced. This multi-volume project began relatively slowly, with one book (on the television show Seinfeld [1989-98]) appearing in 2000, a second (on The Simpsons [1989-]) in 2001, and the third (on The Matrix ) in 2002. Since then, however, it has gained momentum, with several volumes per year since 2003. The Popular Culture and Philosophy series now covers a surprisingly wide range of topics, from games (poker and baseball) to music (many volumes, including those on hip hop, the Beatles, U2, and Pink Floyd) to iconic road machines (a 2006 volume devoted to Harley-Davidson). Anything in popular culture is grist for the mill, though there has been an understandable tendency to concentrate on film and television.
I confess that I have read only a small fraction of this daunting output, and I cannot generalize about the approaches of either the series editor or the editors of the individual volumes. I was, however, struck by the markedly different approaches on display in volumes 33 and 35, dealing with Battlestar Galactica (1978-) and Star Trek (1966-), respectively. These two books appear to have been edited in accordance with totally different policies, though it is, of course, conceivable that the differences arise from those in the Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek media franchises themselves.
One presents the bleak vision of a desperate struggle for survival against the odds. Nothing is necessarily as it seems, not even the identity of your friends and lovers—and not even your own identity. In this desolate reality, the human species has almost been destroyed, and you could discover, one day, that you are among the destroyers, that you have merely been programmed to believe you are human. The other franchise—Star Trek—portrays, with whatever reservations and complexities, a hopeful future for humanity, one in which poverty and discrimination have been left behind, while technology has been employed wisely for universal benefit. Instead of destruction, grim survival, and varied forms of terror and angst, the emphasis is on creativity, harmony, and peaceful exploration (though these values are often endangered and need to be fought for).
Perhaps, then, Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek invite, or lend themselves to, different kinds of critical and philosophical response. Or perhaps it is simply that the editors of these two “and philosophy” books happened to receive material of very different sorts from their respective contributors. Still, for whatever reason or reasons, the contrast in approaches is quite striking.
In each case, the editors and authors assume extensive familiarity with an entire media franchise—with the many episodes of multiple series, related movies, and endless spin-offs of one kind or another. But there the similarity ends. The essays in the Star Trek book (Wrath of Kant) tend to use events, characters, plot situations, and so on, as starting points for rather “straight” discussions of philosophical questions. Generally speaking, the questions chosen are typical fare from Anglo-American courses in analytic philosophy and applied ethics. The Star Trek universe provides a ready source of examples to illustrate the concepts under discussion, but the emphasis is on providing introductory material to students who might be new to philosophy, though well-versed in popular culture, or at least Star Trek’s brightly lit corner of it.
The assumed reading age of the book’s audience seems to be about sixteen to twenty. That is, Wrath of Kant would be suitable for bright philosophy students at high school level or enrolled in foundational philosophy subjects at college or university. No doubt it would also appeal to older readers with an interest in philosophy and a deep knowledge of the Star Trek franchise, but it is not aimed at anybody with a more advanced academic interest in either philosophy or media/cultural studies. Some of the material is approached from fresh angles, but none of the philosophical discussion is very original or especially penetrating.
By contrast, the Battlestar Galactica book (Mission Frakked Up) appears to be pitched at a more academically sophisticated audience. Concepts tend to be taken for granted, rather than being explained from the beginning, and many of the essays would be of value to anyone who is interested in scholarly study of the Battlestar Galactica franchise: senior high school students, but also college and university students at all levels. Indeed, there is enough original scholarship relating to the franchise to make this book a must-read for all academics with a research interest in the area (whereas anyone teaching at university level is likely to find Wrath of Kant to be of solely pedagogical value in teaching philosophy). Most importantly, the essays in Mission Frakked Up are focused on critical understanding of the original and re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series, rather than on using them to illustrate philosophical concepts.
Thus, a typical essay in Wrath of Kant discusses teleportation technology as a way to introduce current debates about the nature of personal identity or survival. Does continuing to be the same person consist in psychological continuity, the continuity of a physical body, or what? What would we say if a teletransporter created not one but two individuals at the receiving end? Would two Jean-Luc Picards created in this way both be the same person as the original Jean-Luc Picard? Such questions are fascinating, of course, and they can be troubling, but they could be discussed with different examples, and the philosophical discussion sheds no real light on the Star Trek franchise itself. Even when these essays discuss moral or political questions, the purpose is not critical interpretation or evaluation of the franchise, or of individual movies or TV episodes; once again, the discussion moves quickly to the ideas themselves, ideas that could have been explicated with different examples.
By contrast, a typical essay in Mission Frakked Up is more likely to interpret or evaluate some aspect of Battlestar Galactica from, say, a feminist point of view, or a point of view based in political theory or psychoanalysis. These essays are not likely to be of value in introducing philosophical ideas to beginners, but they do illuminate the creative works under discussion. They are more tailored for use in a media-studies program or something similar, than one in mainstream philosophy.
Overall, Mission Frakked Up is a superior package—and not only because it contains much more material for the same price. I can envisage many situations in which it would be helpful to teachers or students, or to anyone who simply has an interest in Battlestar Galactica. On the whole, moreover, the essays are better written than those in Wrath of Kant, which tend to lapse into a rather plodding style, as basic facts and ideas are spelled out for philosophical beginners: “Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was an Austrian philosopher and one of the most influential thinkers on language in the twentieth century” (6). Still, Wrath of Kant would make an excellent gift for a bright teenager, or perhaps even someone rather older, who has a passion for all things Star Trek and a developing interest in philosophy.
It should, however, come with the caveat that many of the philosophical opinions that its authors offer are debatable—and sometimes, I think, naïve—and that the essays should not be read uncritically. Indeed, the same applies, to a lesser extent, to those in Mission Frakked Up. To take just one example from the latter, Hal Shipman’s essay, “Some Cylons Are More Equal Than Others,” offers a crude distinction between evolution (apparently seen as good or neutral) and eugenics (seen as automatically bad):
Evolution is a process based in the random development of characteristics that may or may not prove to be advantageous. Cylons improved technologically, but the development of the Cylons into the various classes was a conscious, engineered process. This was not evolution, but eugenics. Upgrades are not natural or random; they are planned, structured changes. (161)
But “evolution” is a perfectly familiar English word that need not carry the narrower meaning of “evolution by natural selection.” Something can evolve over time by mechanisms other than those countenanced in neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology. There is nothing at all wrong with saying that the Cylons “evolved,” even if the process of change over time involved a succession of planned interventions. Meanwhile, the word “eugenics” seems to be introduced solely for its negative connotations—arising from its connection with the coercive eugenics programs of the first half of the twentieth century, especially the horrific conduct of the Nazis.
While the processes employed by the Cylons are presented in the series as morally deplorable, which is, perhaps, Shipman’s main point, there is no reason to assume that anything that might be called “eugenics” is ipso facto bad, no matter the means or the circumstances. It is unfortunate to see this idea presented so uncritically, despite the vast body of current literature that challenges it. For example, restrictions on the use of Thalidomide have a literally eugenic purpose, to aid “good births.” It is not rational to condemn genetic engineering projects because they allegedly “subvert nature,” and it is problematic to describe breeding programs as subverting “free will” (162). No one has ever offered a convincing argument that there is anything wrong with subverting nature, however “nature” is defined, while the very existence of free will, in any metaphysical sense, is highly controversial. Government-controlled breeding programs are coercive, and thus an unconscionable attack on fundamental political freedoms, but that is a different point entirely.
Used carefully and critically, both of these books are thought provoking and potentially valuable. The most striking conclusion that emerges from reading them against each other, however, is that it cannot be assumed that all the books in the impressive Popular Culture and Philosophy series are produced with similar aims or even for similar audiences. I look forward to comparing other books in the series.
—Russell Blackford, Monash University
Diegetics of Mainstream Hollywood
James Walters. Alternative Worlds in Hollywood Cinema. Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2008. 232 pp. ₤14.95 pbk.
Concentrating on both classical and contemporary Hollywood cinema, this rigorous study analyzes the role of diegetic narratives within narratives in selected films, foregrounding scrupulous close readings over summary and interpretive gloss. The title of the book led me to believe that the films under scrutiny would fall squarely into the sf genre à la Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990), David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), or the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy (1999-2003). Most of them, however, are not thoroughbred sf, if they are sf at all. Walters’s thesis is based on the notion that Hollywood films have historically pitted various “worlds” against one another, worlds that take the form of dreams and alternate zones of existence. “I am concerned with the ways in which alternative worlds impact upon characters that experience them,” he writes, “engaging with an investment in questions of individual self-awareness and fluctuating self-identity that all the films share. At its most basic level, therefore, this is a study of films that explore what happens to people when they move between worlds” (13). Such movements consistently revise desire and perception in the diegeses of Hollywood cinema as well as in the real world, with the real world implicated by representation and extrapolation. Alternative Worlds is an impressive examination of this dynamic.
Walters devises three categories for filmic worlds: Imagined Worlds (dreams or hallucinations), Potential Worlds (alternate realities analogous to characters’ primary realities), and Other Worlds (distant, unfamiliar regions and societies). These categories form the book’s three parts and follow the first chapter, “Establishing Contexts.” As the title suggests, here Walters discusses works and critics that inform his argument, especially Stanley Cavell, whose ideas on Hollywood worlds form the basis of Alternative Worlds. Walters explains that his work aspires to develop and refine those ideas: “A central aim of this book ... is to attempt a more precise categorization of alternative worlds in Hollywood films that leaves us better placed to understand the contrasts and correlations that the films discussed wish to establish” (10). But this chapter is by no means limited to Cavell, citing and evaluating a broad range of film theory.
Each of the three parts, then, contains three chapters; in all cases, the first chapter erects scaffolding for the close readings that are performed in the subsequent two. The primary texts in “Part One: Imagined Worlds” are Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939), Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944), and Michael Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004); in “Part Two: Potential Worlds,” they are Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day (1993); and in “Part Three: Other Worlds,” they are Vincent Minnelli’s Brigadoon (1954) and Gary Ross’s Pleasantville (1998). Analyses are extensive and meticulous, paying attention as much to content as to form. They are also supplemented by shorter commentaries on many other films. Among the clearly identifiable sf films are Back to the Future (1985), eXistenZ (1999), The Matrix (1999), and Vanilla Sky (2001), but Walters’s remarks on them are peripheral at best, and he is not concerned with the role of what I call “worldplay” within the framework of sf. Overall this inattentiveness is justified; Walters is not an sf critic or theorist and does not purport to be. At the same time, given the longstanding seminal trope of worldplay in the sf genre, Alternative Worlds could be enhanced by a greater attentiveness not only to explicit sf themes but to how Hollywood cinema has represented the increasing science-fictionalization of the real.
This, perhaps, is mere wishful thinking on the part of an sf monger. While his prose is sometimes a little dry, Walters has written a valuable book that traverses a broad temporal span in cinema history. Ultimately, he offers a unique perspective on the relationship between fantasy and reality. Ardent movie buffs may like Alternative Worlds, but primarily it will appeal to film studies scholars.
—D. Harlan Wilson, Wright State University-Lake Campus
G. Peter Winnington. The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2006. xiii + 290pp. $35 pbk.
Mervyn Peake must have been about the most unromantic of Romantics. He certainly subscribed to Romantic notions of inspiration; G. Peter Winnington, who probably stands unrivalled as an expert on Peake, tells us again and again that all his writing and art came from the heart. “[T]he imagination’s heart / is constellation high and can’t be weighed,” Peake says in one of his poems (qtd. 6); to which Winnington quickly adds: “Although this sounds highly Wordsworthian, Peake was not necessarily influenced by Wordsworth” (6). It is strange that Wordsworth is the only author picked out as not influencing Peake, particularly as his name crops up several times in this book; but the truth is that Peake does seem to have drawn inspiration from Wordsworth and from other Romantic poets, if not directly in his writing then at least in his whole approach to art.
The heart was central to all Peake’s fairly substantial writing about creation (and Winnington adds to this body of work by suggesting that the Titus trilogy is all about creativity, a point we will come to later). And yet Peake placed little faith in what is generally believed to be the main function of that muscle: love. Of all his works, only the play The Wit To Woo (1957), an absurdist farce, has what might be called a conventional happy ending in which love triumphs. More usually, his characters flounder in increasing isolation; any attempt to establish a meaningful emotional relationship with another person is doomed to failure. Winnington has a chapter on love, but it turns out to contain “a great deal of hatred and death—for that is Peake’s world” (119).
Solitude is part of the fabric of existence and should never really be challenged. At one point Winnington says: “he draws like a writer” (36), that is, his [Peake’s] figures are always seen in isolation; there is no society in his drawings just as there is not in his writing. Animals may offer some level of companionship (Captain Slaughterboard’s Yellow Creature, Lady Sepulchrave’s cats), but humans bring only death and disappointment. Of course, animals can find their devotion rewarded with abuse, as Jackson the turtle has nails driven into his shell by his human companion in “Letters from a Lost Uncle” (1948). So bestial is humanity that the Moreau-like Lamb, in Titus Alone (1959), transforms people into animals, though such is Peake’s view of the relative merits of man and animal that we might imagine this a change for the better.
In direct contradiction of John Donne, Peake believed that each man is, indeed, an island. And the island (which crops up with unexpected regularity in both his writing and his drawings) always follows the same pattern: there is a central rocky crag that is the self, surrounded by a narrow beach where tentative encounters with the other might take place. In part, of course, this is a description of Peake’s beloved island of Sark, the setting for Mr Pye (1953), but it is a metaphorical model that appeared in his work long before he ever laid eyes on Sark; one is tempted to wonder whether his delight in Sark was not in part at least because the island conformed so closely to the island of his imagination. But if the beach allowed some limited engagement with the outside world, nothing really significant could occur there; deep and meaningful human interaction could take place only in the ocean depths between islands. Indeed, it is instructive how often Peake could manage to conjure up underwater images, even in the most unlikely of settings, such as when describing a rooftop scene. It is indicative of the complexity of Peake’s imaginative landscape, and the conflicts that abound in his view of relationships, that the ocean is also associated with salt tears. In Peake’s world it seems we can only drown in the sorrow of invariably failing relationships.
All of this is, inevitably, metaphorical. But in a writer whose distinctive style seems to consist of determinedly mixed metaphors, that is hardly surprising. And Winnington structures this study of the entirety of Peake’s work around metaphors. There are, for instance, chapters on Heart, Solitude, Islands, Birds, Identity, and Voice, but the analysis rarely stays true to its overt subject. In the chapter on Solitude, for example, Winnington strays so far from his topic as mainly to discuss imagination and creativity; while the chapter on Islands, perhaps unavoidably given Peake’s idealization of the island, is more about loneliness and death.
Peake’s work, therefore, might be presented as a quest for love, though one that is always doomed to frustration; but Peake seems so convinced of the impossibility of love that this is a difficult reading to sustain. A more convincing reading might consider the works as a quest for God. Certainly, Peake seems to have littered his writings with transcendental references, the “constellation high” that I quoted at the beginning of this review, the notion that the cosmos inheres in the fragment of world represented by the stories. As author he gave himself a godlike role, coining the self-description “authorjehovah” (and having introduced the term early in this book, Winnington goes on to use it repeatedly, indicating its importance either in Peake’s self-image or in Winnington’s take on that self-image). But it is a quest at least as frustrating as the quest for love, for this is a godless world. Witness Mr Pye, whose belief in divinity is at the expense of his own humanity, seeing him transformed into both devil and angel without ever becoming a good person. (Neither Peake nor Winnington seems to notice any contradiction in Peake’s self-representation as a god when he then goes on to create a godless world; this strikes me as rather more than an author wishing to be unseen in his own work.)
In other words, Peake assigns to himself the godlike role of creator, a very Romantic perception of the writer’s job. But the world created is most un-Romantic. Most famously, in the three Titus novels, Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950), and Titus Alone, his characters inhabit an enclosed world of ritual and shadow, and even when they leave Gormenghast castle they take their enclosures, their ties to place and ritual, with them. This is a world that holds out little hope for the human soul. And though Winnington, who has already written a biography of Peake (Vast Alchemies, 2000), steadfastly avoids suggesting any link between the life and the work, it is tempting to see Peake’s experience as one of the British contingent working in newly-liberated Bergen-Belsen reflected in the soured romanticism of Gormenghast, where all that constitutes life is cruel and meaningless.
The Voice of the Heart is not exactly the first in-depth study of Peake’s work (though it is, perhaps, the most intense), but Winnington makes no mention of any of his predecessors, except for the occasional dismissive aside. This approach has a flavor of arrogance about it, but if so it is an arrogance that seems well merited, for Winnington clearly knows every nook and cranny of his subject’s work. And he loves it too, for which the unwary reader needs to be careful; Winnington will occasionally excuse a weakness or failing in Peake’s work, but he will not voice any outright criticism. We have to find our own criticisms reading between the lines, but Winnington deals so extensively with the work and calls upon so much evidence that it is relatively easy to find support for views that are perhaps not so kindly disposed towards Peake as Winnington would be.
The thematic approach seems well chosen as a way into this eccentric writer, opening up the wealth of allusion and metaphor that can clog the Titus books for some readers. There are problems with this approach, however. Winnington is quite ready to excuse clumsy or ill-considered passages as the result of Peake’s inexperience; but without a chronological perspective it is impossible to see whether he learns from such early mistakes or whether his writing technique does improve. Indeed, Winnington makes extensive use of Peake’s plays (only one of which was ever performed) and short stories such as “Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor” (1939) and “Letters from a Lost Uncle,” but because much of this material was only made available in the posthumous 1978 collection Peake’s Progress (which Winnington edited), it is often difficult to place them within the course of Peake’s development as a writer, or indeed to see if there actually was such development. The rather free and easy way with metaphor, and the love of puns, seem to have been characteristic of his writing from first to last. Moreover, the thematic approach means that certain key incidents, Steerpike’s battle with Flay and wooing of Fuschia, Titus’s encounters with the Thing and with Lamb, are revisited several times throughout the book, and given a slightly different weight and perspective each time.
Nevertheless, this technique does have the added advantage of showing how interconnected all of Peake’s work was. Having explored, for instance, the iconography of the island in Peake’s work means that when we later encounter, in a completely different context, a passage in which Peake idiosyncratically compares something to an island, it gives an extra and unexpected frisson. And because Winnington has chosen to cover all of Peake’s work, including his poetry, his drawings, and his talks and writings about drawing, as well as the more familiar Titus books, we see how consistently the same concerns and issues arise. This approach also offers a few surprises. Peake’s creative process, it would seem, began with sound, then touch, and only then with the visual. This seems clear when considering his novels, in which the appearance of a new character is most often heralded by voice or by some other sound; this is generally followed by some tactile sensation; and any description of appearance tends to come last and is often rather skimpy or done in broad strokes without much in the way of detail. But having seen how thoroughly and consistently this works within Peake’s writing, we are suddenly confronted with the fact that he was also an artist, and indeed his career as an illustrator was longer than his career as a writer. Now, the realization of how insignificant visual stimulus was in the development of his creative imagination becomes, at the very least, a contradiction.
But then, so much about Peake’s work seems to be contradictory. None of these contradictions is resolved in Winnington’s book, but at least they are opened up in a way that allows us to explore them more thoroughly.
—Paul Kincaid, Folkestone, Kent