BOOKS IN REVIEW
From Decadence to Popular Fiction.
Harold Billings. M.P. Shiel; The Middle Years 1897-1923. Austin, TX: Roger Beacham, 2010. 384 pp. + 24 photographs. $69.95 hc; $29.95 pbk.
As a West Indian novelist and short-fiction writer in English at the turn of the twentieth century, Matthew Phipps Shiel (1865-1947) is a figure ripe for recovery within studies of science and adventure fiction and, more broadly, within literary and cultural history. Harold Billings’s M.P. Shiel: The Early Years (2005) and the present volume, along with valuable critical essays by Kirsten MacLeod, begin the work of reintroducing Shiel, who immigrated in 1885 to London, where he wrote two remarkable collections of Decadent short fiction, Prince Zaleski (1895) and Shapes in the Fire (1897), before turning his hand to serialized adventure novels. Of these he is known principally for The Purple Cloud (1901), a last-man narrative, and The Yellow Danger (1898), which seemed to anticipate the Boxer Rebellion and depicted a prototype of Dr. Fu Manchu. But Shiel remained Decadent, both in his scandalous personal behavior and, more interestingly, in his self-fashioning as the elusive King of Redonda, a tiny rocky island off the coast of Montserrat, his birthplace. Shiel makes intriguing subject matter both for the biographer and for the literary historian: he links the rococo style and tenets of Decadence to popular genre fiction, emerging as a writer and personality of unique brilliance, arrogance, and tumult whose life and writing played out on a self-consciously global scale.
Billings helped to assemble the archive of Shiel’s writings and other documents at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin; these materials form the basis of the volumes, which make a major contribution to the study of Shiel. The Early Years established the minute details of Shiel’s descent from the Shiell family of Irish planters and their slaves; Shiel’s mother was a free black, and his father was a Methodist preacher and merchant. Billings reproduces letters and other material that describe “Phipps’s” early life, including his favored status as a member of a light-skinned, elite family, as the only son in a family of many daughters, and as a brilliant student who graduated from Harrison College in Barbados in 1884. He reprints an early short story, “A Shot at the Sun” (1903), about a vicious slave master who suffers supernatural vengeance. It becomes clear that as a writer, Shiel was formed by the cross-currents of Paul Gilroy’s “Black Atlantic,” the counter-cultural zone of modernity haunted by the memory of the slave trade and its legacy. In The Middle Years, Billings shows how Shiel exoticized himself for “fatuous” English newspapers that asked him if “your story telling talent is largely of your tropical origin?’” (143). Shiel embroiders witty responses: “I have said that I was born in the West Indies, in the very room where the Empress Josephine first ‘saw the light.’ Or as I put it in one case, ‘first felt the heat….’” (27). Billings cannily surmises that the amusing legend of Redonda, which will presumably be treated more fully in the anticipated third volume, emerged from this sort of self-fashioning.
Billings’s reproduction of letters and other materials from the archive will be a great resource to scholars researching Shiel from the point of view of literary and cultural studies, which are now more carefully attuned to the nuanced relations of race, gender, sexuality, and class. The scholarly presentation of information on these identity formations is valuable because previous work on Shiel, such as A. Reynolds Morse’s privately published The Quest for M.P. Shiel’s Realm of Redonda (1979), enthusiastically replicated white imperial attitudes to Shiel’s blackness and Montserratian origin.
The Middle Years dwells principally on Shiel’s publishing contracts and messy personal life. Shiel was a turbulent character, and many of the letters that Billings quotes and reproduces show him “g[iving] it pretty hard … though without the bamboo” to figures such as Peter Keary, his liaison at Pearson’s Weekly, where some of Shiel’s serial fiction appeared; or appealing to John Lane and Grant Richards to accept a story, pay more money, or write him references (105). At the same time that he must have been tracking international events, fictionalizing them in serials, then negotiating their publication as novels, Shiel was also busy courting and marrying a Spanish woman, Carolina Gomez, and fathering a child by an English acquaintance, Nellie Seward. Later, Shiel was convicted of raping a twelve-year old Hindu girl and was sentenced to sixteen months in Wormwood Scrubs. Just before this, in 1914, he had successfully applied to the Royal Literary Fund for assistance, as he was at a low point, financially and artistically, in his uneven career.
Shiel was a writer of color who crafted some terribly racist caricatures; a man surrounded by women and girls who loved but also neglected, betrayed, and violated them; and a prolific writer keenly attuned to popular tastes who nonetheless stooped to plagiarism, was constantly scrounging for money, and may have missed his moment of greatness. Such paradoxes oblige a biographer to fashion a critical account of them, but Billings’s alternative strategy of chronicling the correspondence merely gestures at these explosive tensions without interpreting them. In perhaps the most egregious example, Billings reproduces, without much remark, Shiel’s two-page justification of the rape on the basis that women of color are more sexually precocious and should be exempt from the English age of consent. Here, Shiel’s mingled racism and misogyny ought to be identified and analyzed: how much do they express his character, and how much do they reflect the attitudes of the age? By leaving Shiel to speak for himself on such topics, Billings risks becoming his apologist. Accordingly, M.P. Shiel: The Middle Years is valuable less as a biography and more as a record of Shiel’s correspondence. As academic interest in Shiel builds, it will certainly prove useful to scholars who are ready to undertake the daunting task of interpreting Shiel’s life and fiction.
—Susan Zieger, University of California, Riverside
A Cacophonic Modernist.
Christopher Bolton. Sublime Voices: The Fictional Science and Scientific Fiction of Abe Kobo. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009. 332 pp. $39.95 hc.
Christopher Bolton’s first book, Sublime Voices, brings a new appreciation to the works of the late perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Bolton’s strategy is highly ambitious. The first half of the book focuses on a close reading of Abe’s works, whereas the latter half, especially the penultimate chapter, applies Abe’s own theory of fictional science to the discourses of the postmodern sciences, especially during the so-called Science Wars of the past decade (triggered by the notorious Sokal Hoax in the late 1990s). With his training in literary criticism and the sciences, and his fluency in Japanese, Bolton is ideally qualified to analyze both the literary and the scientific imaginations of Abe Kobo, who was the son of a doctor and himself graduated from the medical department of the University of Tokyo in 1948.
Most early studies of the author put an extreme—and sometimes unnecessarily heavy—emphasis on the author’s existentialist philosophy and avant-garde methods. Critics were accustomed to comparing Abe’s radically unsettled characters with those of Western modernist expatriates such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and Samuel Beckett. As a result of this emphasis Abe Kobo the hardcore modernist lost some of his literary luster during the 1980s, the early years of Japanese postmodernism. When he passed away in 1993, a number of postcolonial critics began to shed light on the author’s childhood in Manchuria, an approach that rather conflicts with the author’s renunciation of autobiography; as Bolton states: “Abe himself was hostile to the autobiographical streams in Japanese literature” (41). What made Abe unique in world literature was not so much how he lived as how he constructed his Janus-like face as both a literatus and a scientist. Bolton argues that “Abe forces the reader to question the distinction often drawn between the scientific and the non-scientific, blurring the boundary between science and literature” (5). Without Abe’s Inter Ice Age 4 (1959), the first work of hardcore sf in Japan, postwar Japanese literature would not have enjoyed the flowering of fantastic and slipstream writing by such authors as Komatsu Sakyo, author of the best-seller Japan Sinks (1973), as well as the influential literary manifesto, “Dear Comrade Ivan Antonovich Yefremov” (1963), which proposed the necessity of establishing a “Science of Literature.” Komatso’s recent memoir, Autobiography of Komatsu Sakyo (Tokyo: Nikkei, 2008), tells us that when Abe received in 1951 the Akutagawa Ryunosuke Literary Prize (the most prestigious mainstream literary award in Japan) for his Kafkesque story “The Wall: The Crime of S. Karma,” an exhilarated Komatsu felt convinced that “science fiction is not trash but a branch of serious literature” (46).
Sublime Voices covers almost all of Abe’s life and works in eight substantial chapters, adopting a variety of critical approaches ranging from Russian Formalism to Cultural Studies. Chapter Two, devoted to Abe’s essays, seems to me particularly important, with Bolton’s deft contextualization of Abe’s idiosyncratic literary vision in terms of the history of Western critical theory. Bolton retrofits Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of heteroglossia, dialogism, and polyphony, proposing the concept of “cacophony”—the avant-gardist orchestration of diverse discursive voices—as the most useful tool for comprehending Abe’s rhetoric. This musical metaphor is quite apt since, as Bolton notes, the novelist himself “composed electronic music during the infancy of the genre”; an antique patch-cord analog synthesizer still remains in his study (2). Bolton also develops, via Fredric Jameson and Jean-François Lyotard, the concept of the postmodern sublime to account for Abe’s literary effects “in later works such as Secret Rendezvous” (1977), where “technology multipl[ies] and accelerate[s] language until it produces a euphoric cacophony” (64). Bolton’s book could singlehandedly resurrect Abe as a “cacophonic modernist” who provided us with ways to survive our cyber-globalist postmodern moment.
In the third chapter, Bolton offers a fascinating reevaluation of Inter Ice Age 4, the work that made Abe not only a mainstream avant-gardist but also a hardcore science-fictionist. With the help of Baudrillard, Jameson, Hayles, and others, he relocates the novel in the literary and cultural genealogy of Japanese sf and slipstream, revealing its impact especially on Komatsu Sakyo and the Akutagawa winner Murakami Ryu, author of Coin Locker Babies (1980). When I first read Abe’s novel in 1968, I had difficulty grasping how a computer might commit homicide; in the wake of cyberpunk in the 1980s, however, which evoked a variety of dangerous cyber beings, we have become more familiar with the concept of an impeccable digital copy that can undertake to betray, entrap, and menace its “original.” Furthermore, Abe’s vivid representation of the biotech aquans, constructed to survive the submersion of Tokyo, calls to mind the new species Clarke created in Childhood’s End (1953), written only six years before Inter Ice Age 4, and points forward to the deep-sea civilization envisioned in Hayao Miyazaki’s popular anime Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008). Thus, today’s posthumanist perspective, which invites us to consider the possibility of symbiosis with artificial intelligence as well as with animals and chimeras, can lead to a reevaluation of Abe as one of the key prophets of contemporary sf.
Bolton’s transpacific rereading of The Face of Another (1964) in chapter four is also pathbreaking and deeply suggestive, especially its argument for the novel as a work of nuclear-age fiction. As Bolton argues, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 coincided with the dawn of Japan’s own nuclear era: “The heroine of the film described at the end of the novel is a survivor of Hiroshima, so through her the narrator’s fate is connected explicitly with the nuclear threat. In The Face of Another, the [eponymous] mask represents a technology like this, where the excess freedom and power imparted by science threatens to spill over into violence or dangerous unpredictability” (161). Reading The Face of Another as a crypto-nuclear fiction makes it easier to understand Abe’s science-fictional route from Inter Ice Age 4 to The Ark Sakura (1984), a text more obviously engaged with the phenomenology of nuclear panic and which, as Bolton points out in his final chapter, was published the very year that the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization was established within the US Department of Defense. Sublime Voices is filled with such moments of shrewd contextualization, which complement the sophistication of its critical apparatus, making it the finest study of this major author to appear in quite some time.
—Takayuki Tatsumi, Keio University
A Sharply Defined Model of SF.
M. Keith Booker and Anne-Marie Thomas. The Science Fiction Handbook. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 348pp. $33.95 pbk.
Drawing on the work of György Lukács, Darko Suvin, Fredric Jameson, and Carl Freedman, M. Keith Booker and Anne-Marie Thomas develop a largely post-Marxist definition of sf as a literature of cognitive estrangement with a social and political mission: at its best, sf contributes “genuine meditations on the historical process” (23) and participates in that dialectical critique of the present that can promote analysis and change. In this view, real sf estranges the “normal,” while other kinds of sf are mainly escapist opiates at best and at worst the products of the seemingly unstoppable capitalist marketing and production machine.
There is much merit in this approach, for Booker and Thomas can select and sort texts and writers rapidly on this basis, dropping such figures as Jules Verne whose works seem, from this angle, to be more interested in the romance and awe of the strange, and foregrounding such figures as Wells and others whose works ply cognitive dissonance to critical ends. The Handbook does not so much build on the familiar opposition between Wellsian and Vernian sf as concentrate entirely on one side of it: while Booker and Thomas effectively deploy a sharply defined model of sf, they do not account for dimensions that lie outside that model’s laser-like beam. This Handbook knows little, for instance, of structuralist, myth-based, or psychologically-rooted approaches to sf, nor of critics, works, and writers who do. No doubt these choices were driven partly by the economics of the printed text: one cannot include everything. But it is fair to wonder whether the apparently tight coherence and clear borders drawn here would remain so were they presented amidst the older and broader intertext of the fantastic, for instance.
Nevertheless, few would deny that many sf readers primarily want “a thought-provoking reading experience” (25), or dispute that the texts and writers here (briefly) presented all contribute to sf in these ways. Indeed, in addition to its sharply defined theoretical model, The Science Fiction Handbook’s other strengths include its effective thematic groupings of important sf texts and writers and its parallel commentary on sf film and television—Booker is a widely published media critic, and his notes on these aspects of sf are well-informed and incisive. Perhaps most useful is the Handbook’s emphasis on themes, writers, and works that have risen to prominence largely in the last ten to fifteen years. In all these respects, Booker and Thomas provide a compelling orbital view on sf from the late nineteenth into the early twenty-first centuries, capturing glimpses of Wells and the Golden Age, the New Wave, Cyberpunk, and posthuman sf, and even the British Boom now underway.
The Handbook is designed to take the reader from the general down to the specific, moving from a series of thematic overviews (Time Travel; Alien Invasions; Space Opera; Apocalyptic/Post-Apocalyptic Fiction; Dystopian SF/Utopian Fiction; Feminism; SF and Gender; SF and Satire; Cyberpunk/ Posthuman SF; Multi-Cultural SF) to brief literary biographies of writers (representative sf authors: Asimov, Atwood, Butler, Delany, Dick, Gibson, Griffith, Haldeman, Heinlein, Hopkinson, Le Guin, McDonald, Miéville, Orwell, Piercy, Pohl, Robinson, Stephenson, and Wells), ending with concise readings of key texts by those writers, as well as a glossary of relevant terms. The thematic overview essays arise logically from the Handbook’s model of sf in that each explores writers and texts largely in terms of their contributions to a dialectical critique of the oppressive social and political structures and practices of their period—a further benefit of the volume’s overall concern with socially and politically engaged sf. Yet this manifest thematic coherence can come into conflict with the book’s overall purpose and structure. One usually thinks of handbooks not so much as unified and carefully argued works, but as galleries of snapshots specifically designed for one to slice into at need; as such, a certain amount of repetition and echo is to be expected if the overall themes are to be noticed. Here we find such repetition, but when reading the work as a coherent argument as the structure seems to require, one can find it distracting. At the same time, periodically one finds information lacking in one thematic essay, but then turning up in another, the placement serving the thematic concern rather than the need for completeness. This odd pattern of repetitions and gaps afflicts the text lists too: the Selected Bibliography does not include all the items already cited, although it does list many of them.
These smaller matters aside and though it might have been better titled “SF and the Left: A Guide,” The Science Fiction Handbook certainly serves its main purposes very well. For readers new to the field, and especially for those perplexed upon encountering the socially and politically challenging sf texts and media of the last 30 years, it will provide immediate help in getting oriented and quickly finding one’s way to nearby points of interest.
—Len Hatfield, University of Oregon
A Nickel Tour of Wells’s Utopias.
Justin E.A. Busch. The Utopian Vision of H.G. Wells. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. 204pp. $35.00 pbk.
Justin E.A. Busch’s book on Wells is divided into the following sections: Introduction; Part I: The Individual; Part II: The Role of the Novel; Part III: The State; Part IV: Freedom and Social Patterns; and Part V: The Problem of Death. These sections elaborate Busch’s reading of Wells’s utopianism, with particular attention to the post-scientific-romance phase of his career. Each chapter builds on the others, elaborating or refining key arguments regarding Wells’s approach to utopia. Busch treats his readers to a multiplicity of Wells’s utopian visions, what he calls “way station[s] along an infinite pathway” (9), but carefully stresses the impermanence of these way stations and remarks on the ways in which each is “flawed, both designedly and accidentally, in such a way as to elicit from within itself the next stage in the indefinite series” (9).
In spite of his obvious affection for (indeed, idolatry of) Wells, Busch demonstrates no significant awareness of the history of utopian literature outside Wells and a handful of progenitors. While it is true that Wells “revisits many of Plato’s concerns [in The Republic], including extensive examinations of the nature of the person, the necessity for power and its control, and the character of life in a vastly different society” (11), there is seemingly nothing worthy of mention in the intervening two thousand years. I exaggerate for effect: Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) appears on a few occasions, and a handful of random references to Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1624), Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602), and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) are scattered throughout the text, but these are few and far between. Pretty much nothing else of literary significance merits discussion. This is particularly distressing considering that Wells scholars have written on his indebtedness to literary utopias, both antecedent and contemporary. Granted, this book is a study of Wells’s utopianism and not an overview of utopianism per se, but in Busch’s estimation, it is as if Wells worked in a vacuum, effectively isolated from literary history (Plato notably excepted).
Another difficulty is the tendency for Busch to cherry-pick quotes when assembling his arguments, leaving the reader to trust that his phrase-here/phrase-there technique is not twisting Wells to fit pre-given conclusions about utopia. This trust is lost by the book’s end, for The Utopian Vision of H.G. Wells is clearly more interested in advancing what Busch would like to see in a Wells-inspired utopia than in presenting careful close readings of Wells’s works. The centrality of specifically literary creativity to Wells’s vision is given a cursory nod as Busch shifts gears to explore other concerns, especially the role of education in socialization. At other moments, critical objectivity is abandoned altogether, notably when provocative statements are made without any grounding or further discussion. For example, Busch writes of a Wellsian vision that is “neither so structurally rigid as its predecessors nor so vacuous as the common free market attitude, the root of postmodernism, in which all ways of thinking and acting are of equal value intellectually and morally (if not necessarily practically), and therefore of no real value at all” (14). Busch clearly has a bone to pick with postmodernism, but rather than seriously engage with the issues of postmodernity and utopianism, he instead lobs a judgmental grenade before moving on to other subjects. These hit-and-run tactics are quite common in the book, particularly when Busch puts Wells’s critics in his crosshairs and dogmatically reduces counter-arguments to obvious misreadings and misinterpretations of his literary icon.
By the end of The Utopian Vision of H.G. Wells, I felt very much like a skeptical visitor to utopia: impressed by the journey and the nickel tour, but deeply suspicious regarding how the panorama was assembled and presented. While meticulously organized, The Utopian Vision of H.G. Wells feels disingenuous once Busch’s biases become apparent. Readers are simply less interested in Justin E.A. Busch than in H.G. Wells, and unfortunately, the former overshadows the latter here.
—Graham J. Murphy, Trent University
Religion and SF.
Douglas E Cowan. Sacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2010. xi + 314 pp. $24.95 pbk.
In Sacred Space, Religious Studies professor Douglas E. Cowan examines the various ways that science fiction has dealt with religious themes. Cowan focuses on the quest for transcendence, which he defines as “the search for something beyond ourselves, the belief that outside the boundaries of everyday living something greater exists” (11). He argues that sf is especially well-suited for such a project, as it “is the genre of possibility” and allows for a fuller exploration of the nature of transcendence (11; emphasis in original). Cowan’s goal is not simply to find religious symbols and metaphors in science fiction, and he strongly critiques those who do only that. Cowan defines religion as “the human quest for transcendence” (xi), arguing that spiritual faith is largely a social phenomenon and so the quest for transcendence can only be understood in its effects on human relationships. Religion also reflects our hope that we are part of something larger than ourselves; with its technological futures, alien others, and explorations of our place in a vast universe, the genre reflects our culture’s understanding of our relationship with the unseen order of the cosmos.
The first two chapters, “Pinocchio’s Galaxy” and “First Contact,” examine two genre staples: artificial beings and aliens. Drawing on classic sf films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Blade Runner (1982), Cowan argues that as artificial creatures breach the human/machine boundary, they encourage us to transcend our own limitations. In the second chapter, he discusses the relationship among religion, the belief in human exceptionalism, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life, arguing that aliens challenge the premise of human uniqueness that undergirds much of Christian faith. God made humanity in His image, and the Bible makes no mention of little green men from Mars; therefore, they must be the work of the Devil. Cowan critiques this reading for taking a too narrow view of transcendence and the nature of the divine, paraphrasing Carl Sagan’s statement “your gods are too small” to argue that stories of alien contact reveal both our hopes and our fears that we might not be alone in the universe.
Although the first two chapters trace specific themes through several sf texts, the rest of the book’s sections are close readings of individual films and television programs: The War of the Worlds (1953, 2005), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007), Babylon 5 (1994-1998), and the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica (2003, 2004-2009). All of the chapters are well-conceived, but the two I found most intriguing were those that include Cowan’s analyses of Deep Space Nine and Battlestar Galactica. Cowan observes that Deep Space Nine is notable both because it is a community-based drama and for its “thoughtful concern for religion that is unrivaled in the Star Trek franchise” (145). The show demonstrates that different belief systems can provide different perspectives on our relationship with the unseen order of the universe. Deep Space Nine also highlights the notion that “lived religious belief takes place most commonly in the context of relationships” (154): as the characters go about their lives on the space station, they must encounter others whose views of the universe are radically different than their own. This forces them, and the show’s viewers, to realize that transcendence can take many forms and its meanings are culturally determined. Cowan returns to the theme of artificial beings in his chapter on the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. In his reading, the series realistically explores the complex interactions of individuals, communities, and lived religious faith. Both the human and Cylon religions are not uniform wholes but rather collections of diverse religious practices, a more accurate portrayal of how religion functions within cultures. Ultimately, Cowan argues, the sacred is what a group of people agrees it is and the definition of transcendence is a communal act.
Sacred Space works better as a collection of essays than it does as a book-length argument, since it becomes repetitive by the end. On the other hand, each chapter can easily be read separately, and even the weaker ones here are still well written and engaging. Cowan’s project is partly a pedagogical one, and the book’s languageis accessible enough that chapters could be assigned to advanced undergraduates. There is also an extensive filmography and bibliography. Ultimately, this is a worthwhile contribution to the study of religion and sf, joining (and usefully updating) such earlier works as Frederick A. Kreuziger’s The Religion of Science Fiction (1986).
—Jennifer Kavetsky, University of California, Riverside
Arthur B. Evans, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham, and Carol McGuirk, eds. The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2010. xviii + 767 pp. $85 hc; $39.95 pbk.
The goal of the editors of The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, according to their Introduction, is to include stories that show the genre’s great variety and to serve as a jumping-off place for deeper exploration of the vast, splintered, yet curiously inclusive body of literature that is science fiction. Having used the anthology in the classroom as soon as it became available, in the fall semester of 2010, I found that the editors met and exceeded their goals.
In choosing this anthology, I read several—Heather Misri’s Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts (2008), Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery’s The Norton Book of Science Fiction (1993), and David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF (1994)—and scanned many others. I chose the Wesleyan Anthology because it seemed exceedingly well-balanced in its selection of stories and also because it did not force any particular conclusions or avenue of investigation on the reader—the closest the anthology approached this was in tones of gentle suggestion. I wanted the students to come to each story as free as possible of any interpretive framework, probably because that is my preferred approach to fiction: I want to form my own opinions as I read, rather than see texts in the light of others’ analyses. I wanted my students to have this freedom, and that meant the stories themselves would have to perform with exceptional vigor without reliance on extra-textual material. Of course, slant is embedded in the seemingly impossible task of creating any well-balanced anthology, and the slant here seemed to be one that I wanted—inclusion of stories that stand on their own in one or more of the ways that we define good stories regardless of genre.
Next, I wanted an anthology with a long historical span. Such a span shows that, paradoxically, the genre that looks at the world as it is now, as it will be the day after tomorrow, or after untold millennia is not a wild new endeavor, but a wild old endeavor. Looking at the world through a science-fictional lens began long ago. Fiction is a basic human mechanism for interpreting the data, and science fiction interprets the data through one or more extra lenses that are easily identifiable once you know what you are looking for—or through. This criterion was met with the Wesleyan Anthology.
Finally, I wanted an anthology containing stories that had the solidity and depth to stand up to being sliced into from any and all directions, and these stories do. They have been repeatedly battered and taken apart in powerful critical barrages, and remain unscathed and fresh. This meant, as I sorted and sifted, that each story not only met my requirement of “good story, period,” but that there was something about each that made it an important part of the development of the field.
The Introduction, though short, is transparently written and grounds the reader in necessary sf terms and reading protocols, though I suggest that it is best assigned after students have read a few stories so that they can see for themselves the elements of a story that might come into sharper focus thereby. For example, after having read Gene Wolfe’s “Useful Phrases” (1992), the meaning and energy of the term novum is instantly recognizable; it clicks, and the reader is probably more likely to apply this information to future analyses. Individual headnotes provide biographical information about the writers as well as brief historical/literary contexts and describe why each story is important. At the end of the book, a substantial bibliography lists important critical resources. Other than the introduction and headnotes, the stories were refreshingly, excitingly bare. Beginning with stories, and sturdy stories at that, gave the course staying power: the students were repeatedly engaged.
The editors define “megatext” in the Introduction as “a place of shared images, situations, plots, characters, settings, and themes generated across a multiplicity of media” (xiii). By the time the class was a third of the way through, students could begin to grasp the concept of the sf megatext by relating the stories to their own predominantly mass-media interface with the genre, allowing them to realize that they already had their own version of the sf megatext. They began to understand that sf reaches into many fictional dimensions, and that in some cases holds its energy in deep reserve, disguised as more domestic fare until the “science fiction” lens is affixed to the critical eye. After some reading and discussion, the students began to infer the relationships between science fiction and history, politics, gender studies, science, technology, and other literatures, and began the process of making these relationships a part of their own flexible lens for reading. They could see that science fiction’s considerable depth not only springs from other intellectual and technological histories and currents, but that it infuses and sometimes births and defines these currents. They began to understand the origin of these shared informational fields, and also saw how science fiction is a conversation and a culture, and that both are, indeed, our shared global present. These are not realizations to which every reader or student might come, but the possibilities for bringing them to consciousness resonate through and are encouraged by the stories chosen for the anthology.
One of the most valuable aspects of the Wesleyan Anthology is the online teaching guide, which is broken down into “Online Sources,” “Archives and Collections,” “Discussion Questions,” “Research Paper or Essay Exam Question Topics,” “Sample Syllabi,” and “SF Criticism.” I used the discussion questions, research topics/exam questions, and the sample syllabi as a jumping-off place for designing the class, but one need not even jump off. The discussion questions are thoughtfully designed and ought to get a discussion going in the most reticent class. The exam questions approach each story from myriad angles and ask students to provide a case for thematically linking stories, for which exercise they must reach deep into the tales and their own developing critical toolkit.
“Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844), and the latest is Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” (2008). In between are stories, progressing through the decades that have shown that they can carry a lot of critical weight; their energy is atomic in that, despite their small size, they unpack with astonishing strength, cutting through or illuminating cultural constructs in ways that range from the sly and subtle to the blunt and deadly. Following a chronological listing of the stories, they are then listed according to nine key themes: “Alien Encounter,” “Apocalypse and Post-apocalypse,” “Artificial/Posthuman Life-Forms,” “Computers and Virtual Reality,” “Evolution and Environment,” “Gender and Sexuality,” “Time Travel and Alternate History,” “Utopias/Dystopias,” and “War and Conflict.” These thematic bunchings were very useful in organizing the course, and as the course progressed, the students could see that many stories could just as well have been affiliated with a different theme; they could see that science fiction is didactic up to a point, but then slips its bounds no matter what kind of critical noose stills it for the short time necessary for close examination.
Using the Wesleyan Anthology in the classroom was an interesting adventure. Along the way I yearned to infuse the course with the rich critical discourse that I love with an addict’s love, and certainly found many opportunities to relate the stories to contextual matter from my own fairly rich library of sf criticism after the initial reading and discussion. Inevitably, contexts—historical, cultural, scientific, and otherwise—arose without inexorably fixing the stories in a rigid medium. When teaching is approached in this way, it becomes evident to the reader that each story illuminates and draws from many contexts, and this sense of discovery is a valuable asset in the classroom.
No anthology can incorporate all the stories all teachers will find valuable. I was able to contact authors of stories that I wanted to add to get permission for use, but fair use is an ethical conundrum that, as a writer, I respect. In retrospect, I would say that these additional stories were not strictly necessary. Critical essays, supporting historical material, and film illustrated and synergized with the texts. Some stories cry out for ancillary material: James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur” (1995), included here, had to be paired with Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (1954), in order to generate an exciting discussion; on the other hand, coupling Borge’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940) with Wolfe’s “Useful Phrases” merely puzzled the students. Adding, with Steve Brown’s permission, relevant columns from SF Eye when discussing William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome” (1982) and Bruce Sterling’s fiction and critical work was quite fruitful, and I used a similar approach with other stories and materials throughout the course. When it came time for the students to choose research paper topics, the online resources as well as those in the bibliography were very helpful, as was having many of these sources immediately on hand.
I found The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction well-rounded, exciting in scope, and tremendously useful in the classroom.
—Kathleen Ann Goonan, Georgia Institute of Technology
Colonialism and Early English SF.
Francis Godwin. The Man in the Moone. 1638. Ed. William Poole. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview, 2009. 176 pp. $18.95 pbk.
A wave of quality scholarship has been published in the past decade on colonialism and sf, including major studies by John Rieder and Patricia Kerslake. This new scholarly edition of Francis Godwin’s posthumously published The Man in the Moone fits cleanly within the current conversations about colonialism within sf studies. Godwin’s text itself constitutes only fifty-five pages of the book, but William Poole’s forty-nine page introduction, extensive footnotes, and bibliography of primary and secondary sources make this a scholarly edition worth having. The appendices, which include several excerpts from texts that influenced Godwin, also provide an interesting perspective on the early narrative origins and concerns that laid the foundations for later sf.
Judging from the introduction and bibliography, Poole is either unaware of much recent work on colonialism in sf or chose not to reference it because of his specific emphasis on the seventeenth century. That said, Poole’s introduction constitutes a solid primer on Godwin’s text for those who are not versed in seventeenth-century literature and culture. Poole’s discussion of the pre-existing genres that Godwin’s text draws upon should prove of particular interest to sf scholars: Poole glosses the travel narratives and representations of the moon that Godwin’s text echoes, and he references a number of scholarly works on the period that either directly or indirectly address sf. Poole also spends several pages discussing the scientific theories of the day and provides key insights on how to understand the astronomy, physics, and linguistics with which Godwin’s text is engaged.
In the preface, Poole describes Godwin’s text as the “first work of English science fiction that can claim some title to that status” (7). While this claim might prove controversial among some sf scholars, the story narrated by Godwin’s diminutive Spanish protagonist Domingo Gonsales must certainly be recognized as an important part of the narrative tradition that we now label as sf. After leaving school to pursue some adventures, the Spanish nobleman finds passage to the East Indies with “2000 Ducats,” where he is successful in his trading, earning a “yeeld ten for one” on his investment (74). Falling sick on his return voyage, however, he is left on an idyllic island named St. Helena to recover with only “a Negro” named Diego to attend to him (76). While recovering on the island, Diego muses, “I cannot but wonder, that our King in his wisdome hath not thought fit to plant a Colony” on St. Helena (74). Using his year on the island to master the local animals, Gonsales trains some “wilde Swans” he calls “Gansas” and creates a rig that allows the birds to carry his small frame through the air (76). When his ship is attacked during his return home, Gonsales uses this flying rig to escape. This is where the narrative turns to the fantastic.
The colonial nature of Godwin’s sf narrative is clear from the structure of the text. The colonial travels and adventures of Gonsales in the East Indies become a springboard for his trip into space: the flying birds fueling his escape take him straight up, eventually landing on “the New World of the Moone” (97). There he meets a society of giants superior in every way to the people on Earth. As Poole’s footnotes point out, the description of the “Lunars” and their society is consistent with travelogues and anthropological accounts of the period. Where travelogues and fantastic voyages of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries increasingly emphasized physical (and especially racial) differences, Godwin’s text focuses more on clothing and religion. The superiority of the Lunars is epitomized by their hatred of vice and their fervent Christianity. The landscape of the moon is described as Edenic, and Lunar culture is described in utopian terms.
Poole’s footnotes throughout are detailed and insightful, pointing the reader to Godwin’s source material and to appropriate scholarship. The introduction, footnotes, and bibliography engage the history of science, politics, literature, and many other fields. As such, this scholarly edition lends itself to use in courses and to scholarly work in a number of arenas. For scholars of sf, this book will help further the ongoing investigation of sf’s colonial origins and narrative structures. It will also stir the old debate about when sf began and what textual elements qualify a text to be labeled as sf.
—Patrick B. Sharp, California State University, Los Angeles
Gwyneth Jones Unplugged.
Gwyneth Jones. Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics. Seattle: Aqueduct, 2009. 253 pp. $19.00 pbk.
Many readers of SFS will be familiar with Gwyneth Jones as a British science fiction and fantasy author whose creative work has won several awards, including two World Fantasy Awards and a Tiptree Award. Others may also be familiar with her critical work and book reviews; in 2008 she was the winner of the SFRA Pilgrim Award for sf criticism, and her 1999 book Deconstructing the Starships: Science, Fiction, and Reality received widespread favorable reviews. My personal favorite of her critical essays is “Metempsychosis of the Machine: Science Fiction in the Halls of Karma” (SFS 24.1 [March 1997]), an insightful interrogation of sf’s debt to the travelogue genre and its troubled complicity with the imperial dynamics of global capitalism.
Readers looking for the sort of rich critical engagement demonstrated by Deconstructing the Starships and “Metempsychosis of the Machine” may find Imagination/Space disappointing; rather than offering a collection of critical perspectives, the book instead assembles a conversational miscellany of short reflections originally published or presented in other venues. The volume collects conference presentations, book reviews, reference essays (such as Jones’s chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction and her article on Sheri S. Tepper from Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction ), blog posts, guest-of-honor speeches, award acceptance speeches, annotated book lists, one short playlet reflecting on oil scarcity (commissioned by BBC radio), and a few critical essays.
The opening selection, “What is Science Fiction?” (originally a presentation for the Finncon SF Researchers meeting in 2004) offers a review of the genre’s origins in the pulps, in the gothic tradition, in travel writing, and in the French roman d’éclat, examining the sublime and grotesque dimensions of sf along with its emphasis on progress and ideas. Part of what is fun about this entry (and many of Jones’s other offerings) is her use of moments from her own fiction to exemplify the ideas she discusses; in this regard, much of her critical writing can be seen as an ongoing dialogue with her fiction, and readers who are familiar with Jones’s creative work will likely find this aspect of Imagination/Space very appealing.
Some of the best moments in Imagination/Space are the places where Jones reflects in a casual way about feminism and science fiction. Her “Postscript to the Fairytale” (a review of Joanna Russ’s The Two of Them ), for example, engagingly considers Russ’s insight into the representation of women in the liberal-feminist sf of the 1960s and 1970s. One of this book’s most appealing aspects is the opportunity to see Jones as a feminist sf writer reflect on the relations between feminism and science fiction in the works of other major authors. Some of the more critical essays in Imagination/Space are more disappointing: “The Games,” for example, seems to start off bashing video games for collapsing the richness of fantastic imaginative play into banal and formulaic repetition. It then goes on, however, to ponder the possibility that video games may offer something greater as “the medium our magical powers of creation have been waiting for” (190), but an argument for how this might be possible never emerges in any comprehensive way. “A String of Pearls,” Jones’s Guest of Honor Speech at the 2004 World Fantasy Convention, begins as an exploration into the relations between sex and horror, but it eventually wanders in a different direction and concludes with a chatty celebration of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel novels (2001-11).
In a nutshell, Imagination/Space will be a very entertaining book for Jones’s fans and for focused scholars interested in her life, work, and perspectives regarding feminism and science fiction. It is also a book of interest to more casual readers, and certain essays from the volume could be used productively in undergraduate classes with an sf component. Academic readers may find the book a bit thin on the level of thesis-driven analytical arguments, but this is not the collection’s primary purpose; instead, this is a volume where we can see Jones conversing in a more informal register, and it is a nice complement to her othe published works.
—David M. Higgins, Indiana University
A Necessary Book.
Farah Mendlesohn, ed. On Joanna Russ. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2009. xi + 285 pp. $29.95 pbk.
Samuel R. Delany begins his essay in this new collection by claiming that the late Joanna Russ was “one of the finest—and most necessary—writers of American fiction” (185). Delany makes this admittedly “large” claim for Russ based upon several factors, including the fact that her body of work is born from, but not reduced to, a feminist politics. And, indeed, I would agree that fiction informed by feminist politics and aesthetics is necessary. But more than that, Delany champions her sheer aesthetic style; he sets her stylistic and aesthetic abilities and accomplishments next to those of Cather, Woolf, Nabokov, and Joyce, among others (186). Heady company, indeed. While my claims about the collection of essays On Joanna Russ may not be as “large” as are Delany’s, I will contend that this volume is a “necessary” one. As Farah Mendlesohn suggests in her Introduction, Russ occupies a significant position within the sf field as a writer, a feminist, and an academic.
Mendlesohn divides the collection into two parts: “Criticism and Community” and “Fiction.” Part I considers Russ’s role within sf, its history, its conventions, and its community. Although the Alyx stories can be approached from many perspectives, Gary K. Wolfe considers them in relation to the generic conventions of sf, contending that they shift from “historical fantasy” (sword and sorcery) to “science fictional tales” (sf puzzles). Wolfe suggests that Russ deliberately and effectively alters received generic conventions in order to carve out a space for a feminist aesthetics of the genre. Edward James turns the critical lens toward the 110 reviews that Russ wrote for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction between 1966 and 1980. In the end, James finds Russ to be an old-fashioned reader and reviewer; many of her personal criteria are firmly wedded to the Campbellian Golden Age, equally committed to entertainment and to science. Of course, her feminist politics require that she challenge some of these traditional assumptions and practices.
Lisa Yaszek argues that Russ was central to the development of feminist sf and feminist sf scholarship. Russ argues that “good” feminist sf always emerges within a particular historical context and politics; further, Russ understands sf to have a didactic component, which renders it the ideal medium to reimagine the “naturalness” of “social relations” (37). For Russ, feminist sf should critique patriarchy and envision egalitarian social structures. While her early work was limited in its critique and vision by the conventions of the genre, her later work turns to “more thoroughly progressive modes of storytelling” (47). Yaszek’s contention falls between Wolfe’s argument that Russ subverts the conventions of “ladies magazine fiction” and James’s argument that she is tied to (some of the) aesthetics of the Golden Age.
Helen Merrick examines the extent to which Russ affected the larger sf community of authors and fans. In her contributions to ’zines, Russ defended herself, her writing, and/or feminism, though she grew more and more “frustrat[ed] at having to explain ‘feminism 101’” (50). In a prolonged “debate” with Poul Anderson, Russ reiterates the point that sexism is not an individual or “personal failing, it’s institutionalized oppression” (55)—a point emphasized throughout the current collection. Russ also participated in a three-year-long roundtable on “Women in Science Fiction” that, Merrick argues, provided a space within the sf community for discussion of feminist issues (56). Finally, Dianne Newell and Jenéa Tallentire examine the personal, intellectual, and political connections between Russ and Judith Merril. While these two figures might seem to have a great deal in common, Newell and Tallentire argue that the two were pitted against one another to “succeed in the male-dominated literature” (69). Although Russ quite successfully played the game of aggression and possession, by 1968 she obtained the feminist “conceptual tools” to “abandon that game” (77). Instead, she rejected her own “exceptionalism” and reached out to feminist sf authors and came to uphold and espouse many of Merril’s ideals.
The five essays that constitute Part I work remarkably well together. They converse with one another, occasionally referring specifically to other essays in the collection. While this practice produces a sense of unity, it does not do so at the expense of individuality. Furthermore, while the five essays consider Russ’s relationship to the sf community and sf generic conventions, they make no attempt at a totalizing perspective. In fact, they open up a great deal of space for further considerations.
Part II of On Joanna Russ turns to critical examinations of Russ’s fictional oeuvre. Sherryl Vint and Pat Wheeler both analyze the novel The Two of Them (1978), with Vint reading the novel in terms of the relationship between the second-wave and third-wave feminist movements. Some in the third wave, Vint argues, have taken the success of individual women to signal that the need for feminism and solidarity is past; thus, Irene’s exceptionalism in the story initially blinds her to larger social structures, but she comes to learn the pervasiveness of patriarchy and the need for solidarity. In her essay, Wheeler argues that “anger” functions as a “unifying force” in Russ’s work, representing the female as an active subject—as when Irene comes to realize that killing Ernst is the only way out. Both these essays, then, adopt the second-wave assumption that “the personal is political.”
Andrew Butler and Tess Williams both examine the novel We Who Are About To... (1977). According to Butler, while Russ has overtly rejected Cixous’s notion of a separate, feminine language, she does illustrate Cixous’s example of the French verb voler (to fly/to steal), and her use of laughter as “a political weapon for the physically weak” (147). Since humor can also be exclusionary, however, he suggests a notion of “nonaggressive humor” or “laughter as social lubricant” (156). But if Russ’s goal is to radically transform social structures and practices, to what extent would she accept the notion of “laughter as social lubricant”? Further, Russ has never sought reconciliation and never renounced anger and violence, as Williams shows. Williams then reads the novel through the lens of Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnivalesque. While Butler examines the transgressive figures of the Medusa and the unruly woman, Williams argues that the spectacle of the public, transgressive female body is “powerfully resonant” (211). Williams suggests that Russ aligns herself with the “medieval subversive form of carnival” which mocked and parodied the mainstream values of society and the church (214; emphasis in original).
In something of a departure from the other essays in Part II, both Paul March-Russell and Samuel R. Delany consider Russ’s work in relation to another artist. March-Russell examines Russ alongside the early twentieth-century artist Mina Loy, suggesting that the two transgressed traditional feminine roles, rejected traditional heterosexual romance and coupling, and opposed the “hegemonic discourse of misogyny and homophobia” (169). Finally they were both “part” of movements (Futurism and the New Wave) that, despite claiming a rupture with the past, “reproduced traditional attitudes toward women and sexual behavior” (175). For his part, Delany notes that previous critics have catalogued all the acts of violence by men against women, but they have failed to note all the times within Russ’s work that women kill other women. Delany argues that Russ’s women can be equally ruthless, that the primary factor is not biological sex but social power structures. He then turns to D.W. Griffith and his “feminist” film, Intolerance (1916), which intertwines the stories of four women from disparate historical periods. In the primary characters and in the narrative structure, Delany argues that Intolerance and The Female Man (1975) are perfect mirrors. Indeed, one of the intertitles in the film reads: “Put away thy perfume, thy garments of Assinnu, the female man” (193). While both March-Russell and Delany compare Russ with an early-twentieth-century figure, they make no claims of influence, with Delany’s connection to Griffith seeming less based on ideological and aesthetic similarities than on sheer coincidence.
Although the volume contains many other fine essays, I would like to comment on just one more. Sandra Lindow reads the Kittatinny: A Tale of Magic (1978) as an alternative folktale or myth for contemporary young girls. Kittatinny takes the form of a traditional tale—separation, initiation, and return—but transforms the received generic conventions. Kit finds she cannot live an “authentic” life, and so she leaves home; along the way, she discovers sexuality, learns to think, rejects normative femininity, and eschews normative manhood. Kit returns home but finds that a part of her had always stayed behind. Lindow argues that society often compels girls to split into a socially acceptable half and an authentic half. Kit realizes that B.B. is a mirrored reflection of herself: “the integration of Kit’s boy/girl self is now complete” (142). Kit transcends the “heteronormativity of her culture” (142), and she takes Rose as her traveling companion. Kit offers young girls a powerful alternative, a model for authenticity and agency that contrasts sharply with the gender messages encoded in most texts marketed for girls.
Despite some minor quibbles (for example, a lack of variety of texts discussed, especially the absence—save for Graham Sleight’s essay—of serious engagement with her short fiction), On Joanna Russ is an important book for anyone interested in the genre’s history, in feminist sf, or in Joanna Russ. Sf scholars regularly suggest that Russ is a major figure in the development of the field; and yet, as Sleight points out, nearly all of James Tiptree’s stories are still in print, and nearly all of Russ’s are out of print. Certainly, Russ has garnered substantial critical attention from the likes of Tom Moylan, Frances Bartkowski, Marleen Barr, Jennifer Burwell, Carl Freedman, and Tatiana Teslenko. Until the publication of On Joanna Russ, however, only Jeanne Cortiel’s Demand My Writing (1999) has been dedicated to a critical examination exclusively of the work of Joanna Russ. I hope and trust that On Joanna Russ is just the beginning of a wider, more varied consideration of a truly “necessary” writer.
—Ritch Calvin, SUNY Stony Brook
Károly Pintér. The Anatomy of Utopia: Narration, Estrangement and Ambiguity in More, Wells, Huxley and Clarke. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. xi + 232 pp. $38 pbk.
Hungarian scholar Károly Pintér’s The Anatomy of Utopia promises a new contribution to utopian studies, claiming to return to the field’s literary origins, but, unfortunately, it largely rehearses debates long settled. While its close reading of More’s Utopia (1516) as Menippean satire, its examination of H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905), and its discussion of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610-11) as an intertext for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) may prove useful for newcomers to the field, specialists will find the study’s arguments somewhat conventional and its secondary sources often dated. The work’s most original contribution appears in its examination of the utopian aspects of Arthur C. Clarke’s relatively neglected novel, The City and the Stars (1956). The study does nicely frame the key issues and contradictions inherent in any discussion of “utopia,” literary or not, in the few brief pages of its introduction. The author states clearly “three critical issues” of concern for his investigation: “an argument with the currently dominant Marxist critical idiom of utopian studies, an examination of More’s Utopia as the generic archetype of literary utopias, and the critical analysis of H.G. Wells’ utopian oeuvre” (6). Pintér treats these questions in the first three chapters of his book, with the fourth dedicated to “After Utopia? Anti-Utopia and Science Fiction in the 20th Century,” but ending its analysis, disappointingly, at the chronological halfway mark with Clarke’s 1956 novel.
As its title reference suggests, Pintér relies upon Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957); in this respect it does, perhaps, take a fresh look at a much-discussed genre. Pintér also offers a potentially useful, critical reinterpretation of Darko Suvin’s notion of cognitive estrangement. The study again disappoints, however, in its superficial engagement with the utopian theory of Ernst Bloch and with the notion of the literary utopia as a game, drawing on Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1938) and Michael Holquist’s How to Play Utopia (1968), names that barely resurface after mention in Patrick Parrinder’s (one paragraph) preface and the book’s introduction. While it is well written and its assertions are backed up with clear examples from the four works it analyzes in detail, The Anatomy of Utopia dissects the genre—as might be expected of a book drawing largely from a dissertation apparently defended some time in the mid-1990s—using rather rusty tools.
—Amy J. Ransom, Central Michigan University
Stephen E. Tabachnick, ed. Teaching the Graphic Novel. Options for Teaching 27. New York: MLA, 2009. viii + 353 pp. $25 pbk.
With this entry in the Options for Teaching series, the Modern Language Association boldly goes to a new realm of critical study called, variously, Comics, Comix, Graphic Narrative, Graphic Novel, Bande Dessinée, and/or manga. (Indeed, the vexed question of what to call this form is much considered in these essays; in compiling the permutations, one begins to resemble Polonius.) The more experimental younger sibling to the MLA’s venerable Approaches to Teaching series, Options for Teaching focuses on emergent genres and newly discovered or recovered literatures.
This volume divides its 34 entries (plus an informative introduction by the editor) into five sections: “Theoretical and Aesthetic Issues,” “Social Issues,” “Individual Creators,” “Courses and Contexts,” and “Resources.” The individual essays are short, averaging about nine pages, and are written in clear prose. The strongest section of Teaching the Graphic Novel is the first, which includes five essays that look at the medium of “sequential art” (the descriptive term that Scott McCloud, the most cited figure in the volume, has given to comics). His discussion of the complex way the medium works, not merely as a combination of words and images, not simply as a slowed down (or speeded up) form of film, but as an entirely distinct process of creating meaning in the space between the comic panels (called “the gutter”), will be fascinating reading to teachers and scholars, and to anyone who has found Marshall McLuhan and his media-studies avatars work informative.
The intelligent and knowledgeable essays in the second and third sections of Teaching the Graphic Novel, “Social Issues” and “Individual Creators”— sections that make up nearly two-thirds of the book’s pages—offer insightful readings of individual texts or authors. For students and teachers of sf, the most exciting chapters in these sections are on Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman (1999+), on Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen (1986-87), and on Frank Miller’s Batman comics (1986+). In the former essay, Christine Ferguson looks at how and why the Victorian era has been reconfigured in steampunk. In the latter, Darren Harris-Fain shows how comics can be used to open up discussion of contemporary issues: “Like many science fiction or fantasy works, Watchmen and the Dark Knight books allow readers to approach personal, social, and political issues at an angle, using the fantastic to deal with real-life concerns obliquely rather than directly, and often students will discuss such issues in imaginative literature more readily than in realistic fiction that announces itself as relevant” (150).
The fourth section of the book, “Courses and Contexts,” combines the theoretical and critical insights on “sequential art” of the first section with the close readings of the second and third sections, as it considers various subgenres and international incarnations of the graphic-narrative form. Notable in this section are essays on other great comics traditions, including the Franco-Belgian Bande Dessinée (“drawn strip”) and the Japanese manga (“frivolous art”). The last section, “Resources,” has an article on building a library collection of comics. In a time of tight budgets, and with an ever-evolving comics canon, important choices will need to be made during such an endeavor, especially as comics texts are not available online or in database form. This section also includes a “Selected Bibliography” of over 200 works on comics that includes books, articles, and websites. This generous bibliography, while of interest to the expert, needs to be even more “selected” for an audience that is probably using the book because they have recently become interested in teaching this expanding and newly legitimate form. The MLA’s older Approaches to Teaching volumes always began with a “Materials” section that discussed various editions and noted their relative merits, along with a quick overview of relevant criticism, and a discussion of various aids to teaching. Such a focused, annotated and perhaps openly opinionated list of critical sources would have been a welcome inclusion.
Another criticism of this otherwise excellent volume is one that also applies to the Approaches to Teaching series as a whole, and which also comes from a consideration of this book’s probable audience. For a book published in a series on teaching, there is far too little consideration of the pedagogical methods, technical apparatus, and other stage-management techniques that are essential if a class lesson, or a semester, is to go well. While many instructors have an established bag of tricks that work in the classroom, the book would have been more useful with a section that specifically focused on pedagogy, or a requirement that the individual essays contained a detailed account of how to make the lesson work. It is hard to believe that a newly recognized medium, with its own ways of making meaning, might not be inspiring new ways of teaching.
—Paul Rosa, Nassau Community College
Data, Not Theory.
Gary Westfahl. Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature. 2nd ed. Rockville, MD: Borgo/Wildside, 2009. 265pp. $19.99 pbk.
As these very sentences are being typed, the space shuttle Discovery is breaking away from Earth’s gravity on what is the ship’s thirty-ninth and final mission. Just what that “mission” is remains something between obscure and unclear, as has been the case for many of the 133 flights since 1981, when the program began. Some scalawags have argued that the mission of the shuttle program is just to have a mission for the space shuttle—how very postmodern of NASA! Discovery’s current task is that of cargo hauler: to deliver supplies and equipment to the International Space Station, another interesting, problematic project. As the product of space bureaucracies of the US, Russia, Europe, and Japan, the Space Station has, nominally, a twofold mission: to serve as a laboratory for exotic scientific research and as a launching platform for missions to the moon or to Mars. The Station has proved untenable for specialized research, and claims that its experiments have produced novel results are disputed. Missions to the moon or Mars never went beyond political posturing. Predictions are that the station will be obsolete by 2020 or earlier, suggesting that its only real scientific mission is an exercise in engineering: to see what the problems are in building a space station. Those same scalawags have attacked NASA’s rhetoric, arguing instead that the true purpose of the shuttle and the space station has always been simply to provide aerospace jobs in the home districts of American senators and especially congressional representatives.
Yet space vehicles and space stations are among the most privileged emblems of our genre, the sort of topoi that instantly identify sf’s contextual protocols. In Islands in the Sky, Gary Westfahl provides an extraordinary catalog of how space stations have appeared in sf, and the general functions they serve. We have long relied on Westfahl, whose previous books include such essential contributions to sf scholarship as The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction (1998) and Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction (2007), for comprehensively detailed and insightful accounts of sf history. Rumor has it that he is working on an assessment of William Gibson as the direct descendent of Robert A. Heinlein, something I am very eager to read. He has, as the cliché would phrase it, forgotten more than any ten of us have read, and his ability to marshal and deploy data derived from that reading is nothing short of remarkable. Islands in the Sky will be essential for anyone writing on space stations.
Divided into six main sections, the work surveys types, functions, transformations, and iconography of the space station topos, trying to suggest the several ways that this topos becomes thematic (what the classical tradition would have called an eidos topos, or in the translation of the great Ernst Robert Curtius, an “intellectual theme”). The book’s structure is the catalog of examples divided by a rough and occasionally overlapping taxonomic grid, which makes the volume quite clear if rather mechanical. For example, the last chapter of the first section is devoted to showing that space stations can be a business office, a haunted house, or a comforting home, and those three functions then become the second section’s three chapters, which individually illustrate each type. Like the book’s organization, Westfahl’s prose is admirably clear but generally uninspired, though he does have a good sense of humor and often uses it for sharp effect. This second edition is only slightly revised from the first (1996), with some small modifications and additions. One chapter has been expanded, and a previously published essay has been retitled and included in the appendices as three separate chapters, though these just rehearse the other chapters in a shorter form. (And this strategy yields some awkward results, since the last three chapters average just four pages each.) The most important part of the second edition is that it makes available a book that was previously hard to obtain and, to the best of my knowledge, one that has no rival in sf scholarship, since it covers more than 500 titles.
It seems to me, however, that the volume has two fundamental design flaws that will severely limit its usefulness for most sf scholars. First, the strategy for development is the list, which makes for lots of illustrating and some taxonomizing, but little arguing. Most readers will find taxing the sequential accretions of paragraphs primarily comprised of titles accompanied by quick summaries of plot or setting. A not altogether unrepresentative example is the paragraph that begins on page 37 and ends on 38: eight sentences total, which mention eleven different stories and one writer’s criticism: one paragraph, eight sentences, twelve references. Islands in the Sky usefully provides an extensive bibliography and index (216-64), and some readers might actually spend more time with these sections than with the main body of prose. I frequently found myself wishing I instead had the book’s companion volume: The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993 (2009), which contains 975 annotated entries, including films and television.
In this regard, a good comparison might be made to Farah Mendlesohn’s Inter-Galactic Playground (2009), which works from a text base of approximately 400 titles but is much more aggressive about focusing development on analysis that eventually yields inferential claims. This identifies the second design flaw of Islands in the Sky: it does not offer an inferential thesis, or at least not one about space stations. Here is the closest we come to an interpretive argument: “The presence of space stations tends to challenge and confuse the way we think about space” (42). That challenge is to confuse the “widely accepted metaphors” (44) that variously configure space as land or as sea (45). Maybe so, although this seems to me a very small inference to justify an entire book. An alternative comparison might be to Westfahl’s own very useful, three-volume Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy Themes (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005) which contains an entry on space stations written by Richard L. McKinney, who partially concludes: “Space stations are common in science fiction narrative, but are rarely the primary focus of stories.… [T]hey are usually relegated to the status of a futuristic prop, or backdrop against which actions take place. They are seldom centrally important in and of themselves” (vol. 2, p. 741).
Westfahl’s short but extremely interesting “polemical introduction” revolves around three competing tensions—the expression of runaway legitimation anxiety (29 passim), a serious proposal about the nature of scholarly criticism, and an assertion that sf inspires innovations in real science—any of which might merit a separate book, perhaps several books each. Certainly the introduction will interest every scholar of sf, not just those working on space stations. Apparently a publisher had rejected the original 1989 draft “on grounds that its subject matter was too narrowly focused” (8), and so between 1989 and 1991 Westfahl drafted the polemic to argue otherwise. It appeared in the first edition and is reprinted “basically as it was” (9). The matter of legitimation anxiety takes two forms—that initial rejection from within sf scholarship of a “too narrow” text, and the larger matter of canons within literary scholarship. Westfahl attacks the notion of a “cozy canon” (28), both within and outside sf studies, but circa 1991 surely this expresses a vague antipathy toward what I suppose we must call mainstream criticism, disciplinary hiring, and the choices for publication made by the big academic publishers. However much many of us would concur with Westfahl’s assessment, I wish he would have given concrete examples and subjected them to explicit analysis; though that would require a significant expansion of the introduction, it would have been useful, now or then. I find it particularly surprising that Westfahl does not seek out some of that mainstream scholarship, which at the time was just as obsessive about critiquing the cozy canon as was Westfahl. Three prominent examples should suffice: Paul Lauter’s Canons and Contexts (1991), John Guillory’s Cultural Capital (1995), and Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s Contingencies of Value (1988).
Westfahl’s polemic is most powerful in its call for a new emphasis in criticism. Chastising sf scholars for their “appalling ignorance of their own subject” (24), Westfahl rightly notes that many of us rush to generalize about the genre on the basis of just a handful of texts (of this charge I am embarrassingly guilty, and mea culpa). The locus classicus for this complaint may be Ian Watt’s extraordinarily influential The Rise of the Novel (1957), which constructs its analytic scaffolding on the basis of just three writers—Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding. Instead, Westfahl proposes that barrels-full of reading and hence barrels-full of illustration is a prolegomenon to any inferential generalization about genre. Unlike many critics of the early 1990s, he does not reject theory so much as favor rigorous, focused, more complete reading, arguing that we need “not new theories, but new data” (28; emphases in original). Once grounded in a comprehensive and inclusive experience of the texts themselves, only then can we turn toward our precious inferences: “bibliography is a necessary prelude to criticism, and criticism is the natural consequence of bibliography. And I propose that sf criticism be the vanguard of this new attitude” (28).
The position Westfahl takes here is striking in several ways, and the thrust of the claim has nothing specifically to do with sf. In practical terms, one could not do better than to simply applaud. No matter how accomplished one’s mastery of Hamlet (1599-1601), for example, mastery of this one play does not confer mastery over Renaissance revenge drama. Three cheers for the fellow who has read Asimov’s initial Foundation trilogy (1942-53) or Van Vogt’s Slan (1946), but that does not establish critical authority over sf’s Golden Age. Here Westfahl strikes a palpable hit. Yet when I ask my mathematician friends, especially those with expertise in statistics (and hence the general relation between how quantities might be meaningfully related to the interpretation of data), what percentage of a category we must sample before our inferences can be called legitimate, I am always met with various and sundry cognates of “well, it depends.” What would constitute a representative, satisfactory sample of a genre that exists in more individual iterations than anyone, even the most obsessively voracious reader, can hope not just to finish but to finish responsibly? However much I agree with the sentiment, Westfahl’s apparent answer is just more. That is inadequate—and according to some statisticians, unnecessary.
Entirely consonant with Westfahl’s view, recent attempts to address this problem of raw data have been popping up all over, perhaps most prominently in the work of Franco Moretti, who, in Graphs, Maps, and Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2005) and to a lesser extent in his Atlas of the Modern European Novel (1998), tries to come to an understanding of the novel-as-genre according to large sets of empirical data rather than minutely detailed readings of discrete texts, canonical or otherwise. (Some of the methodology is explored in Moretti’s co-authored “Quantitative Formalism: An Experiment,” a 2011 white paper available at Stanford’s Literary Lab website). A variant of the quantitative approach is called text mining, and many humanists, now enabled by enormous databases of digitized public-domain books, are turning to such an analysis to track themes, suggest juxtapositions, and sequence causal chains, either analeptic or proleptic. It is a fascinating area, and again I wish Westfahl had developed this position at greater length, though I do appreciate that his heart is in another place—not the theory but the data itself.
The final tension and topic of the polemical introduction is Westfahl’s reaffirmation of the traditional claim of direct connection between real science and sf, such that practitioners of one have frequently (and perhaps equally) sought inspiration from the other. Westfahl sees sf not as the doodling of “dreamy visionaries” (21) but serious nuts-and-bolts scientific extrapolation. That what follows in his book is an extensively detailed catalog of such suggestive extrapolations and applications also indicates how Westfahl primarily conceptualizes his audience—not literary scholars so much as NASA engineers, to whom portions of the book are explicitly directed. For what it is, Westfahl’s Islands in the Sky is extraordinary and without peer. I just wish it were something else—more of the polemic and less of the list.
—Neil Easterbrook, TCU
The Genre That Is Not.
Dongshin Yi. A Genealogy of Cyborgothic: Aesthetics and Ethics in the Age of Posthumanism. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010. 164 pp. £50 hc.
The cover blurb describes this book as a “provocative and timely study of posthumanism.” I take “timely” to be a hackneyed marketing term, but this is certainly one of the most “provocative” books I have read recently, and not necessarily in a good way. There are facets of A Genealogy of Cyborgothic that are superior, even brilliant, but there is also an aspect of it that to me is plainly exasperating. In many ways, it is a schoolbook example of how demonstrable analytical acuity, ability to bridge philosophy and literature, and original thinking can be harnessed in pursuit of an argument that is, to my mind, fallacious and futile at its very core. Still, I would like to start with the superlatives.
In the most general terms, the argument that Yi presents in the book is this: aesthetics and ethics can become solutions to various dead ends or locked grooves of our thinking about Otherness as exemplified in selected literary texts. More specifically, Yi seeks to inject aesthetics and ethical thinking into a range of discourses, most of which are concerned with various forms of technoscience and anthropocentrism. The two areas into which such injections are presumably in order are the practice of the beautiful in gothic literature and the dimensions of the ethical in science fiction. In order to illustrate how to do this, Yi reads five novels, which span over two hundred years, against philosophical texts. The selection of the former may not be groundbreaking, with the exception of Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith (1925), a somewhat forgotten but very interesting novel; but the individual pairings are certainly where the author excels. And so Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) is discussed against Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) in the context of Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) in comparison to John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism (1863) and System of Logic (1943), Arrowsmith against William James’s essays on pragmatism, and, finally, Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1991, a.k.a. Body of Glass) in the context of feminist writings on motherhood and recent studies of posthumanism. In each case, the literary text is read as potentially challenging the dominant discourses expressed in the philosophical text.
Yi’s readings are careful and balanced, showing him to be both an elegant and original thinker. His familiarity with fields surrounding each pairing is unquestionable—both the discussions and the copious footnotes demonstrate the author’s breadth of reading and depth of reflection concerning multiple, particularly philosophical, sources. Each of these chapters reads really well and with sufficient padding could serve as a stand-alone article. Incidentally, this self-containedness is underscored by the lack of a conclusion, which, considering the presence of the solid introduction and the depth of individual chapters, is somewhat puzzling. In the original dissertation, of which the book is almost an unchanged version, the discussion of Piercy’s novel served as Conclusion, but in the published book it has become another chapter with a tiny, two-page section entitled “Last Words” attached at the end. This unfortunate reallocation could be a minor defect in itself, but it presages the real problem that appears once we step back and bring all the chapters into focus as a whole.
The biggest flaw of A Genealogy of Cyborgothic is, to my mind, embedded in the very nature of the argument it attempts to make. Yi postulates the establishment or the emergence (it is not entirely clear which) of cyborgothic, supposedly “a remote adaptation of ‘cybergothic’” (3). I will not even attempt to guess why the latter term, in itself hardly possessing much critical currency and not in the least remote, is insufficient to identify a range of issues connected to the figure of the cyborg and why there is the need for an even narrower denomination. In any case, cyborgothic is conceptualized as
a literary genre that emphasizes the necessity of an imaginary/imaginative approach to posthumanism, the current discourses of which are limited by practicalities of technoscience and dictates of anthropocentrism and, therefore, incapable of envisioning an aesthetical ethics for non-humans. It is a nascent genre, whose life will be filled with imaginary meetings with non-humans and committed to the imaginative development of an aesthetical ethics of posthumanism. (3)
There are so many things wrong with this statement and the project it underwrites that it is hard to decide where to begin.
The very conception of “genre” is used in the most general of all senses and flies in the face of most genre theories of at least the last decade, especially those current in the literatures of the fantastic. Piercy’s novel is positioned as “a mother text” (125) to the nascent grouping, but only in one of the footnotes does the author indicate what “other texts can be included in this genre” (126; emphasis added). Among them are Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless (1988), Richard Calder’s Dead trilogy (1993-96), one short story by Paul Di Filippo, and the 2004 cinematic version of I, Robot (but not the literary original). These may well share thematic connections, but the indulgence in generic taxonomies seems more ideological than rational.
The title of the study, which represents the general flow of the argument fairly well, reflects the contradictory impulses of serving simultaneously as an excavatory archaeology and an overview of “a future-oriented literary criticism” (7) in the posthuman era, which, as the author repeatedly stresses, is still “upcoming” (124). The obvious question arises: what is the point of constructing a genealogy for a genre that does not really exist and is defined by six texts that are brought together very tentatively and that can be very comfortably discussed in other frameworks? The answer is probably “none,” and while, as I indicated, the chapters work very well individually, their stringing together seems strained at best. Admittedly, the first three novels can be classified as gothic, but one would be hard-pressed to find gothic traces in the remaining two primary texts, especially in He, She, and It. Consequently, it is not at all clear why it should be read as “cyborgothic” (139; emphasis added). Considering its importance as the sole text with the genre-defining figure, the entire enterprise seems to be informed by unclear intentions. Conversely, if it is the non-human/posthuman cyborg that motivates the creation of the genre, in what ways do the previous texts constitute its genealogy? By token of the aesthetic and ethical re-readings that Yi applies to all of them? One is tempted to conclude that these texts constitute a genealogy of cyborgothic because some of them are gothic, one involves a cyborg, and one bridges the others chronologically but is really concerned with neither of the two.
On another matter, I cannot shake the impression that the author remains undecided between the fictional figure of the cyborg and its hypothetical (possible? probable?) counterpart in our world. On the one hand, the discussion focuses on a range of literary texts that, with the exception of Arrowsmith, involve fantastic scenarios, however metaphorical they may be. On the other hand, in the crucial last chapter Yi states that “the cyborgothic that I hope to present in this chapter must be speculative, since it remains a product of human imagination, unable to represent the cyborg that is yet to be born” (125). If cyborgothic is indeed a genre, and one born of the two particular traditions of non-mundane fiction at that, what else could it be if not speculative and imaginative? Consequently, this passage, at least the way I read it, betrays Yi’s ambition for cyborgothic to be at least partly reflexive of future real-world developments, which makes it even more tentative. This is confirmed by an earlier statement defining cyborgothic “as a genre that eagerly anticipates the upcoming age of posthumanism” (124).
All these deficiencies are especially painful in the presence of, I would like to stress once again, the high quality of writing and thinking. In short, Dongshin Yi’s analytical skills and meticulousness could be used far more productively. A Genealogy of Cyborgothic, albeit titled differently, could be a very balanced study of aesthetic and ethical revisions of accepted interpretations of selected literary texts. Its insistence on birthing a completely redundant genre is futile and ultimately detracts from the clarity of its thinking. As it is, A Genealogy of Cyborgothic joins a great deal of solid academic work in the service of a cause that is not so much lost as non-existent.
—Paweł Frelik, Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, Lublin, Poland