Science Fiction Studies

#47 = Volume 16, Part 1 = March 1989


World's Ends

Carl B. Yoke, ed. Phoenix from the Ashes: The Literature of the Remade World. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1987. xi + 247pp. $39.95

About a dozen volumes are now in print on the subject of "terminal visions," images of the world's end in speculative fiction. The task that Carl B. Yoke has set for his collaborators is an exploration of the theme of renewal after the endtime. Phoenix from the Ashes brings together 19 short essays on a variety of authors, texts, and topics.

The volume is launched by Yoke's Introduction, a pithy definition of the idea of the "remade world," eked out with useful concepts from the work of Gary K. Wolfe, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell. Along the way we learn that in addition to fictions of post-catastrophic rebirth, the contributors will also discuss fictions of the failure of post-catastrophic rebirth, "negative" illustrations of the model such as Nevil Shute's On the Beach and Mordecai Roshwald's Level 7. In this way, much of what Yoke appears to exclude returns through the back door. But he argues that even in these despairing stories, endtime transformations abound.

The reader must then embark on the choppy seas all too often encountered in journeys through symposium volumes. Strong chapters alternate with weak, terms are used in different senses, and waters already sailed by one critic are sailed again by another. Five chapters deal with eschatological literature (and cinema) in a general way, and the rest focus on specific writers or texts or films. With two exceptions, all the essays are quite brief--which is sometimes a mercy, but more often a pity. The volume closes with a useful bibliography and filmography, the joint effort of four scholars (Yoke, Paul Brians, Thomas P. Dunn, and Marshall Tymn).

The best contributions, in this reviewer's judgment, are those of Brians on the revival of learning in remade world literature, William Lomax on character and myth, Dunn on Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, Judith B. Kerman on Ballard, Michael R. Collings on Piers Anthony's Battle Circle as a Homeric-Virgilian epic, Theodore L. Steinberg on the apocalypses of Malamud and Hoban, and clearly the best of all, Wyn Wachhorst on post-holocaust films.

At the other end of the spectrum we have Carl Goldberg's essay on the psychology of creativity, a largely irrelevant ramble, and a chapter that establishes the "boundaries" of eschatological fictions by C.W. Sullivan III. Sullivan's piece turns out to be a comparison of just two texts, Alas, Babylon and On the Beach. The one, he discovers, is optimistic, the other pessimistic. True enough, but--?

The balance of the volume consists of essays, most of them perfunctory, narrowly focused, and superficial, on subjects ranging from global floods to H.G. Wells, Stanley Weinbaum, and Poul Anderson. Among the authors ignored--but the format makes such omissions both inevitable and excusable--are M.P. Shiel, John Christopher, Michael Moorcock, Kurt Vonnegut, Doris Lessing, Thomas Disch, and René Barjavel. Many others, such as James Blish and Edgar Pangborn, are barely mentioned. Of the critics who have written most extensively or perceptively on eschatological themes in SF (such as David Ketterer, H. Bruce Franklin, and Gary K. Wolfe), only one (Paul Brians) is represented among the contributors.

But the real problem with Phoenix from the Ashes is the format itself. The chapters average only ten pages each, which is rarely enough space to probe deeply into anything; too many offer self-contained analyses of a single text or film; and too many are, frankly, uninspired. It is a book that aficionados of the apocalypse will want to have. Most readers of SF criticism can find better ways to spend their money.

--W. Warren Wagar State University of New York at Binghamton

Glances into the Nuclear Abyss

Paul Brians. Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1895-1984. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1987. xi + 398pp. $29.50.

David Dowling. Fictions of Nuclear Disaster. Iowa City: Iowa UP, & London: Macmillan, 1987. ix + 239pp. $20.00

Works like Brians' Nuclear Holocausts (hereafter Holocausts) and Dowling's Fictions of Nuclear Disaster (from now on, Disaster) serve several purposes for the dedicated reader of SF or the literary scholar. The number of short and long works of fiction, films, and plays that include at least tangential reference to nuclear conflict is large enough to make any attempt at codification and analysis welcome for the specialist or anyone else seeking a long-term perspective on this segment of SF. Each of the books considered here certainly represents a massive research-undertaking worthy of praise.

Numerous articles and books in the last several years have provided a focus on one or another aspect of the cultural, political, or psycho-historical ripples that spread from the use of atomic weapons in wartime in 1945. What Dowling and Brians have attempted is an extension of such studies, using fiction as the medium of analysis. They supplement other such examinations by identifying anticipatory writing as it slowly emerged and spread in the wake of initial scientific speculation and experimentation up to the days of the Manhattan Project and beyond. Both authors thereby indicate, though not in an exhaustive fashion, the manner in which fictional explorations have followed each discovery in chemistry or theoretical physics in the years from the Edwardian Era to the events at Trinity Site, just as fiction reflected changes in the social or political ambit.

Understandably, such atomic precursors in fiction appearing before the physical manifestation of nuclear weaponry represent a relatively small portion of both studies. Much more attention is paid to the wave of such stories and novels that in many ways dominated SF until the early 1960s, and the various permutations that have resulted from the maturation of the subgenre. Dowling, however, spends additional time in historical exploration, looking farther afield for the loci classici of disaster fiction: he devotes space to an extended examination of the nature of the apocalyptic in its biblical and other classical variations, then relates his observations of the nature of the prophetic voice and vision to the subset of SF stories containing both apocalyptic and nuclear thematic elements.

Paying attention to the antecedents of nuclear fiction may seem obligatory, but what is lost in Disaster is the unique perspective of the 20th century. As expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre and Viktor Frankl, among others, the nuclear apocalypse, like the Holocaust in Europe, bears the stamp of capricious fate--punishment without crime, a message far different from that carried by the biblical exegesis or by the Dürer woodcuts of Apocalypse that Dowling uses to illustrate his volume. Like the Existentialists, however, both Dowling and Brians sense that the overwhelming horror of the nuclear event forces the modalities of short and long fiction to stretch to the point of rupture: only a transformation of the forms can begin to communicate what the experience would bring; stock fictional styles, no matter how technically skilled, fail to portray how wholly "other" large-scale atomic destruction would be.

There are, however, even sharper differences in approach and focus between Holocausts and Disaster. In seven chapters and a short "Conclusion Without Closure," Dowling has taken recurring images and themes, such as the role of the scientist ("mad" or not), and examined them in some detail, dwelling on both fictional and philosophical portrayals to illustrate his points. By including observations from outside the world of SF or even of literature in general (C.P. Snow, J.B.S. Haldane, and Solly Zuckerman, for example, are quoted in the chapter on the scientist), Dowling places an emphasis on seeing the best of the fiction analyzed in Disaster as paralleling or mirroring discussions taking place among other observers of these phenomena in the realms of philosophy or social science.

Even so, Brians' is the more systematic attempt to place the stories in their historical milieu. The five chapters that make up the first 94 pages out of almost 400 in Holocausts start with a careful look at many of the major stories that anticipated or came close on the heels of technical breakthroughs. Brians looks at these stories as publishing events; he enhances his presentation by displaying a broad knowledge not only of the stories, but of the personalities and policies of the editors and of the individual magazines in which most of them appeared. Following this introductory chapter, Brians shifts to a more analytic mode, in chapters entitled "The Causes of Nuclear War," "The Short-Term Effects of Nuclear War," and "The Long-Term Consequences of Nuclear War." These chapters are quite systematic, looking at such recurring elements as shelters, survival techniques, mutations, and various forms of social and political disintegration and reorganization. Repeatedly, the emphasis is on the degree to which nuclear fiction and known fact diverge. Nuclear fiction is often escapist fiction, in Brians' estimation, with nuclear imagery larded onto stock plots to provide an excuse for including scenes of orgiastic sexual indulgence or to prop up macho rape-and-pillage or defense-of-the-home plots.

In an interesting final chapter entitled "Avoiding the Holocaust," Brians first looks at works that focus on the literal avoidance of an intended disaster, such as any of the great number of spy thrillers in which getting or defending a doomsday weapon is the central plot element. He then concentrates on an additional set of works that include either an overt or covert political agenda (in favor of or against disarmament or control of nuclear weapons), and shows how these have waxed and waned in the years from the 1950s to the present.

Beyond the chapters of thematic analysis (as well considered as they may be), Brians provides a treasure trove: 250 pages of extensively annotated bibliography, arranged by author's surname, and consisting of all the works mentioned in the narrative and hundreds more. This bibliography of 800 entries, supplemented by full title and subject indexes, is reason enough to make Holocausts a part of any SF scholar's personal reference library. For those who teach, Brians includes a timeline and four supplementary checklists arranged by theme, to allow the selection of near-war narratives, as well as fiction centered on nuclear testing or on reactor disasters.

Unfortunately, Disaster not only does not include such a bibliography; it incorporates numerous serious or merely annoying flaws in presentation that reduce the utility of what Dowling does include. The most immediately noticeable of these is an inconsistency in citation. Dowling's organization clearly warrants the mention of works from a variety of authors and chronological periods; but some works are mentioned without any date of publication, and that information may also be missing in the bibliography.

Dowling's book also suffers from extremely careless copy-editing. Although there is a "[sic]" carefully inserted into a quotation after Mohandas Gandhi's spelling of "twinckling" (p. 148), Gandhi's name is itself misspelled as "Ghandi" two lines above, as it is in several other places in the book. There is discussion of a novel's inclusion of "the true story of American Defense Secretary James Forrestall's [sic] suicide" (pp. 187-88), a reference to the suicide of Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal. Dowling clumsily twits General Sir John Hackett's The Third World War and The Untold Story because "[t]he jargon of Nukespeak...irradiates the books" (p. 75); but Dowling vitiates his criticism by giving as examples five terms which haven't the slightest connection with nuclear weapons or systems (e.g., such commonly used acronyms as COMECON [Council for Mutual and Economic Aid] and CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union]).

Dowling, who teaches at Massey University in New Zealand, can be amusingly provincial in his orientation. He writes of a tidal wave drowning "[e]ighty thousand people in Carolina" (p. 77), for example, as if unaware that there are separate states so-named; and he describes "two men ambushing a Mini" (p. 63), assuming his readers will know to make the correct choice among skirt, computer, or automobile.

Dowling includes, in Disaster's penultimate chapter, an extended description and thematic analysis of two works that he labels as "exemplary fictions," Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. Both works fall squarely on the mythic and prophetic end of the scale of fictions included in both Holocausts and Disaster, rather than among the more naturalistic, technologically-oriented works. Both Dowling and Brians identify these two novels as superior, with Brians introducing Riddley Walker as "one of the finest of all postholocaust novels" (p. 24) in the body of Holocausts, and identifying it as a "brilliant novel" (p. 218) in his bibliography. Brians also calls Canticle "one of the best-written, most thoughtful explorations of the theme [of a post-nuclear-war future]" (p. 261). Dowling's essay on the two works includes a thoughtful examination of the critical role played by preserved language (here, Miller's pre-Conciliar Latin in Canticle) and radically altered language (the Joycean riffs Hoban envisions as the degraded English of Riddley Walker's far-distant future). This chapter of Disaster, like several others, seems more like a stand-alone article than an organic part of a unified work. Nevertheless, it shows favorably Dowling's ability to handle extended analysis of texts, and is the most engaging single section of his book. Brians, by contrast, does not at any point spend such a concentrated amount of time analyzing a single work or pair of works. This is not a deficiency, however; and the sustained quality of the analysis that is provided in his text proper, together with the incisiveness of the annotations and the extremely evident utility of the bibliographic research involved in producing such volume, make Holocausts the far more valuable find

--Alexander H. McIntire, Jr. Graduate School of International Studies, University of Miami

Feminist Good Places

Barbara Holland-Cunz, ed. Feministische Utopien--Aufbruch in die postpatriarchale Gesellschaft. ["Edition Futurum," No. 9.] Meitingen: Corian-Verlag Wimmer, 1986. 224pp. DM39.00

As both editor and contributor to this collection, Barbara Holland-Cunz crosses invisible boundaries to explore a new landscape of interdisciplinary feminist scholarship. First there is the great language barrier. Among the 11 selections in this anthology, five appeared originally in English. Readers of SFS will be familiar with most, although their inclusion here is an important stimulus to the reception of feminist scholarship from North America and Britain in the various German-speaking countries of Europe.1 Second, Holland-Cunz mixes analytical selections with examples of utopian fiction, crossing the traditional divide between these discourses. Three narratives, "Die Grenze" by Bärbel Gudelius, chapter seven from Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, and "The Reach" by Anna Wilson, "punctuate" three clusters of critical articles.2 This arrangement splendidly demonstrates the closeness between women's writing and feminist theory in the field of SF--a topic taken up directly by Holland-Cunz in her own outstanding contribution to the collection. These include her general introduction as well as articles on "Politische Struktur und Machtverhältnisse in der feministischen Utopie," and "Doris Lessings Pentalogie 'Canopus im Argos: Archiv'." "Politische Struktur" in particular advances the criticism of feminist SF into new theoretical territory, and deserves to be translated for the community of English-speaking feminist scholars from whom she takes part of her methodological orientation.

In the introduction, Holland-Cunz differentiates feminist utopias from other kinds of women's SF (or SF by women) according to three criteria. First, feminist utopias fully elaborate the social and economic structure of a non-patriarchal society. On a phenomenological level, they have many characteristics in common, including subsistence economies and socially androgynous characters who affirm anti-dualistic philosophical concepts. Holland-Cunz's list of these characteristics is clearly the result of patient, comparative research. Second, feminist utopias critique the patriarchal relations of power that obtain in the "real" world and may therefore be viewed as political writing. Their image of men is often polemical and serves a political end, frequently on the level of plot, where "invasion from without" is a common topos. And third, utopia is best understood in the context of the feminist movement itself, especially its internal debates on gender roles, social freedom, and autonomous sisterhood (pp. 7-9). Feminist utopia in turn offers the women's movement "realistic fantasies of the future," providing through the vehicle of fiction "speculative, symbolic answers to urgent questions of the day" (p. 63).

In "Politische Struktur," Holland-Cunz turns from questions of definition and phenomenology to what is the most stimulating discussion in the book: her typology of feminist utopia derived from two cross-sections of her data--namely, how utopia governs itself and how it articulates its own history. Most of the 15 texts she examines embrace a flexible form of Basisdemokratie with elements of anarchy and matriarchy, the latter newly defined from the perspective of cultural feminism and women's spirituality. Feminist utopia, like the movement at its best, is non-static and capable of handling the conflict between individual and communal interests that often structures the plot. Holland-Cunz rightly detects aspects of consensus building in utopia as it is practiced in many feminist organizations. With respect to history, the overcoming of an often violent patriarchal past is transformed into a structural principle--the utopians' reappropriation of their own history is the precondition for their becoming historical subjects.

"Politische Struktur" is part of Holland-Cunz's ongoing work on the political philosophy of feminism as it can be theorized from utopian texts. What makes her research so interesting is the way she sees utopian plots responding to unsolved problems in the feminist movement. "Attacks from without," for example, grapples with the issue of how the movement should respond to violence; plot questions of contact with non-utopians correspond to the debate on autonomy versus a politics of alliance in feminist practice.

Some aspects of Holland-Cunz's theory need a finer articulation. I am most disturbed by her monolithic concept of the feminist movement. She states, for example, that the comparability of all the (mainly British and American) novels she analyzes is guaranteed "by the similar structure of the [women's] movement in Western Europe and the US" ("durch die ähnliche Struktur der Bewegund in Westeuropa und USA": p. 71). Yet in the US alone, it has become standard to speak of many feminist movements, whose political philosophies range from liberal through socialist to radical, with a corresponding variation in their internal structures. Another well-known continuum exists between academic feminism and the community-based movements. The German movement(s), by contrast, seem(s) more closely allied with anti-nuclear and ecological organizations. This multiplicity of feminist political practice has serious ramifications for Holland-Cunz's theoretical framework. In addition, there is a substantial literature on the various political philosophies of second-wave feminism that should be taken into account. Alison M. Jaggar's Feminist Politics and Human Nature (1983) is of central importance, especially since she refers to Sally Gearhart's The Wanderground in her discussion of radical feminism.

Another criticism involves Holland-Cunz's claim that feminist utopian visions arose largely in the context of feminist politics in the 1970s. While it is true that the '80s ushered in new political agendas, I do not agree that feminism in the first half of this decade can be reduced to the short-term aims of a consolidated movement (as she claims, p. 61). Nor am I convinced that feminist utopian visions have capitulated to other subject matters during this time period. Susanna J. Sturgis's review-article "Future Perfect?" indicates that utopia continues to be a feminist concern.3 The Women's Press SF series--to name but one source--has titles that might be added to Holland-Cunz's list of 15 (p. 99).

The question of androgyny poses another set of questions. As noted above, social androgyny belongs to the phenomenology of utopia as it is set out in the introduction to this collection. Holland-Cunz's understanding of androgyny is largely taken from Pamela J. Annas's "New Worlds, New Words," also contained here (cf. note 1 below). Yet Holland-Cunz's statement that social androgyny was a concept accepted by the women's movement during the '70s (p. 8) requires qualification. Jaggar, for example, distinguishes among social, psychological, and biological androgyny, showing how the various feminisms have transformed the concept or rejected it altogether. I suspect that androgyny is useful for feminist theory only if the concept remains flexible, subject to the sort of transformations that have redefined matriarchy. And then only if one is willing to put up with the dualism encoded in the word itself.

The other analytical contributions written in German for this collection are more modest. Their main purpose is to introduce writers well known among anglophone readers to a European audience, or perhaps to secure them for an academic readership. Anne Koenen explores typical themes in the short stories of James Tiptree, Jr. Monika Gutheil's article on "Utopia in Leben und Werk von Charlotte Perkins Gilman" suffers from not taking more of the English- language scholarship on Gilman into account. Uta Enders-Dragässer and Brigitte Sellach discuss the women characters in Marion Zimmer Bradley's "Darkover" series. They attempt to specify Bradley's appeal to feminist readers, despite the patriarchal framework of her narratives. The result is an intriguing look at the complexity of the act of reading as experience. As a whole, Holland-Cunz's anthology confirms the bold promise of feminist research.

1. These include Joanna Russ's "The Image of Women in Science Fiction" (1970); Ursula Le Guin's "Is Gender Necessary?" (1976), supplied here with notes newly written by Le Guin herself; Pamela J. Annas's "New Worlds, New Words: Androgyny in Feminist Science Fiction" (SFS 5 [1978]); chapter seven from Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976); and Anna Wilson's story "The Reach" (1984). The selections by Russ, Le Guin, and Wilson were translated into German specifically for this collection.

2. Anna Wilson's "The Reach" is the only explicitly lesbian intervention in the realm of feminist utopia as it is presented in this collection, although several contributors note the norm of heterosexuality in feminist utopian writing. Information about the author is not included in the notes on contributors. This omission is especially curious if one considers the last sentence of the story itself: "the author of this manuscript still has to be deciphered" ["der Verfasser des Manuskriptes muß erst noch entziffert werden"] (p. 211)!

3. See the Women's Review of Books, 3:5 (Feb. 1986):11. Sturgis reviews Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin (1985). She also cites important critical literature, especially Russ's essay on "Recent Feminist Utopias," in Future Females: A Critical Anthology, ed. Marleen S. Barr (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981). The title of this review is a phrase borrowed from Sturgis.

--Sarah Westphal-Wihl McGill University

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