#57 = Volume 19, Part 2 = July 1992
Interaction without Activism.
Brenda Laurel. Computers as Theatre. Reading, MA:
Addison-Wesley, 1991, 211 pp.
------."Art and Activism in VR.," Verbum
5:14-17, Fall/Winter 1991.
My one foray into the world of cyberspace, or rather cyberspace engineering, was not
very successful. It was at a conference in Santa Cruz, CA where technologists and
theorists of cyberspace had gathered. Each had their own specialized languages, and I
didn't expect to understand the arcane cyberjargons to which I was sometimes exposed. But
when the theorists from the humanities stood to deliver their papers, a perceptible change
occurred. References to Derrida, Baudrillard or Merleau-Ponty were greeted with
incomprehension, mockery and even overt hostility. Armed with the latest in
literary-critical and phenomenological "theories," I did not fare very well.
Thus I am somewhat jealous of Brenda Laurel, who has served to mediate between these
two groups for several years at conferences and in her written work (especially useful is The
Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, 1990). As the computer industry's resident
woman/artist/intellectual, Laurel has undoubtedly done more than her share of negotiating
alien environments. When she explains to her readers that Bacchus was the fat guy on the
mule in Fantasia, I am forced to admit that she probably knows just who those
readers are, and just what their limitations might be. I have never read a book that so
persistently cajoled its readers into continuing to read. You expect her to promise
everybody a cookie.
Laurel stresses the performative aspects of human-computer interaction: a provocative
and useful perspective on a complex and seemingly disunified range of activities. Drama
does possess real value as an analogy for human-computer interactions. Laurel describes
the centrality of such reassuring dramatic phenomena as causality, character, agency and
closure. All of these have the diverse benefits of familiarity and a sense of wholeness.
Work on a computer is therefore not to be fragmented into a series of discrete
"operations," but rather re-unified from an experiential perspective.
For readers outside of Laurel's main audience however--interface designers--there is
little that her text can offer apart from its central metaphor--definition, really--of
computers as a performance medium. Laurel relies heavily, if not exclusively, on
Aristotle's Poetics for her definition of theatrical representation and
experience. She is not concerned to examine her models, so much as to apply them to the
relatively new form of graphically sophisticated computer technologies (in Laurel's
oft-repeated phrase, the computer is a medium, not a tool). Thus, Aristotle's model is
praised for being "comprehensive and well-integrated" (which sounds like a review of
ClarisWorks), and mimetic representation is offered as a useful goal, rather than an
ideologically suspect form. When she discusses Brecht ("the early twentieth-century
German dramatist"), it is to extend Aristotle's notion of dramatic affectivity, and not
to critique it.
Despite Laurel's emphasis, moreover, it is not only theater that provides models for
the unity of perceptual/performative experience. In Artificial Reality II
(Addison-Wesley, 1991), Myron Krueger has also argued that the sensory immersions now
produced by computer simulations define a new medium, but his reference differs from
Laurel's: "An artificial reality is a medium of experience. It is more akin to film
or television than it is to a mainframe computer" (my emphasis). While Laurel cites
several other figures who use cinema as a structuring metaphor, she doesn't discuss film
in any detail. It becomes unclear as to why theater is such a privileged form for
Laurel--is it because her dissertation was produced in a theater arts department, or
because there is no Aristotle of the cinema?
I think that cinema is by far the more productive metaphor. When Laurel writes that
computers "can emulate any known medium," or cites Alan Kay's description of
computers as a "metamedium," I am tempted to define cinema in precisely the same terms. Further,
cinema combines iconic, symbolic and indexical signs, as Laurel claims computers do, and
cinema's more pronounced illusions of kinesis and immersion are also relevant to the
sensory address of, say, virtual reality systems. In the late 1940s, André Bazin
described the driving "myth of total cinema," in rhetoric that is remarkably close to
the technicians of virtual reality. The prehistory of cinema was dominated by a desire for
"a total and complete representation of reality," he wrote. The inventors of the medium
(those other technicians) "saw in a trice the reconstruction of a perfect illusion of the
outside world in sound, color and relief." It might be useful to propose that computer/VR
technologies synthesize aspects from a range of media: the performative mode of cinema,
the kinesthetic and immersive qualities of cinema; the electronic continuum of television
and radio; and the narrative aspects of, well, narrative. Laurel ignores such
Laurel's computers-as-theory theory finally lacks interest and heft because it moves in
only one direction. While theater might help us to understand computer interactivity,
computers do little to enable us to understand theatrical experience (Laurel does note
that computer-games have influenced the rise of site-specific "interactive" plays
involving murder mysteries and like events). Although she argues that "new media open new
possibilities for experience," her description of an essentially Aristotelean cybernetic
experience anchors the experience in a common, and recognized (that is, already-cognized)
Laurel objects to most interface metaphors because what they ultimately metaphorize are
the internal workings of the computer itself, rather than the actions that the person
wants to take. This is an interesting point, but I have argued in a number of places that
metaphors for the internal operations of the computer are precisely what people do
want--if not as a part of their daily work environment, then as an alternative, fictive
realm of dataspaces-- hence the explosion of discourse around virtual reality and the
ongoing popularity of Gibson's Neuromancer. When the Museum of Modern Art in New
York City hosted an exhibition of gigantic microchip drawings, the internal topographies
of the computer became an entirely aestheticized (and therefore metaphorized) space. We want to
know what goes on within that inertial off-white ("platinum") shell, and herein lies the
appeal of immersion. These are performative spaces--that's true--but Laurel never tries to
understand what, exactly, is being performed.
By limiting her understanding of human-computer interaction to a one-way, purely
descriptive, model derived from Aristotle's description of the theater, Laurel fails to
engage with the deep specificity of either medium. On the other hand, she does provide a
clear and developed analogy with obvious relevance to software designers, which is, after
all, more than I could ever do.
At her worst, however, Laurel contributes more than her share to the reams of
cyberdrool that dominate the popular media today, in journals like Mondo 2000
and, increasingly, Verbum. Writing in a recent Verbum under the title of
"Art and Activism in VR," Laurel manages to produce an article about political
responsibility and activism that avoids any mention of a specific (or even a
general) political agenda. There is an expressed desire to enrich the spirit, to forge
"new connections between body and imagination and spirit." In the age of large-scale
ecological armageddon, AIDS, the assault on civil liberties and the decline of the urban
industrial superstructure, Laurel's use of the work "activism" to describe the
exploration of a new medium is, at best, an act of startling hubris. Laurel is angered and
"nauseated" by the continuing proliferation of violent, sexist, jingoistic videogame
entertainments, but she is also puzzled, mystified, by the phenomenon--as though sexism no
longer exists; as though it was a temporary aberration on the world stage.
Here and in Computers as Theatre, Laurel seems blind to almost all
ideological issues--in her book, for example, she notes that "Brecht's ideas have been interpreted
primarily in a political and social light," as though a political discourse had been imposed
on these "ideas." There is little understanding of social process or political
understanding revealed in Laurel's writing, just an obsolete and naive liberalism that
believes that if we all just thought about it like reasonable human beings,
societal inequities and the drive for power would evaporate. Hence her conclusion, in
which she calls for a vigorous commitment toward the advancement of a more humanist
technological agenda for VR. "Conscience and heart," she writes, "can make all the
difference." Can they? Has Laurel forgotten her own experience in the videogame industry?
Is she ignoring the broader social context into which VR will undoubtedly be (is already
being) absorbed? The history of technology teaches us that those technologies which
succeed, which are disseminated throughout a culture, are those that tap into (or can be
adapted to) existent desires and structures. Even the folks at the Whole Earth Review,
a cyberdrool sanctuary, have begun to rethink their commitment to technological
advancement as a plebiscite for social ills. It is surely a worthy goal to work towards a
virtual reality that permits diversity, openness and pluralism, as Laurel advocates, but
the absence of a more thoughtful and disciplined political agenda turns the prospect of
positive change to a fond wish rather than a credible, prospective future.
--Scott Bukatman Yale University
Psychopath, Mystic, or Postmodernist?
Gregory Stephenson. Out
of the Night and Into the Dream: A Thematic Study of the Fiction of J.G. Ballard.
Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy #47. Westport, CT: Greenwood
Press, 1991. 200pp. $42.95.
For many readers, especially casual readers, of the fiction of J.G. Ballard, the master
of British New Wave SF is a sadomasochistic psychopath, a postmodern nihilist, a monster
of multiple iniquities. He revels in suicide, murder, entropy, and disaster. For many
critics, such as Gregory Stephenson, Ballard is a modern mystic. In Douglas K. Wood's
phrase, he is a "man against time," following in the tracks of Eliot, Jung, and Aldous
Huxley. Plausible alternatives to both these readings are available, but Stephenson is not
an aficionado of alternatives. Blending New Critical and Archetypal methodologies, he
gives us a quite unambiguous Ballard, an explorer of transcendence, almost a saint.
By and large, Stephenson builds his case well. He leaves this reviewer convinced that,
if there is one "correct" way to decode Ballard's atrocities, he has found it.
Broached earlier in his article, "J.G. Ballard: The Quest for an Ontological Eden" (Foundation
35:38-47, Winter 1985-86), the informing premise is that Ballard's fictions subvert
ego-consciousness in favor of a timeless inner landscape barred from our gaze by the
meretricious rationality of modern culture. Ballard's work consistently invites us to
re-enter Eden by breaking through the illusions of waking reason to a deeper realm of
absolute being. To shatter these potent illusions, extreme measures are needed: hence his
abundant use of cosmic disasters, mass psychoses, and violent deaths as metaphors of
Stephenson divides his study into five substantial chapters, devoted in turn to the
early short fiction, the tetralogy of world's-end novels beginning with The Wind from
Nowhere (1962), the novels of urban and technological disaster from Ballard's middle
period, the later short fiction, and four of the most recent novels and novellas ending
with Running Wild (1988). The Kindness of Women (1991) had not yet
appeared when Stephenson laid down his pen. In a concluding essay, he reviews his argument
and discusses the writers whose work most closely parallels Ballard's, in particular
William Burroughs. He also identifies some of Ballard's chief sources of inspiration,
stressing (as in earlier chapters) archaic mythic structures, but also noting the
influence of English romanticism, surrealist art, and SF itself, which, he says, liberated
Ballard's literary imagination.
Out of the Night and Into the Dream is a remarkably comprehensive survey of
the body of Ballard's work. Stephenson treats the short fiction with special care, not
excluding the many unreprinted stories. Some of these even the most devoted Ballardians
are likely to have missed, but all the short fiction makes its contribution to the
propagation of Ballard's kerygma, and deserves the attention it receives here.
The mark of Stephenson's success in arguing his thesis is that his categories work just
as well for the most violent fictions such as Crash (1973) as they do for the
most relatively benign such as The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), and also for
those on which the hero's quest for transcendence fails, such as The Day of Creation
The only serious problem is the way in which Stephenson's premises and methods shut off
his access to other readings. Stephenson figures out everything. Every character, every
situation, every event is clearly explicable in archetypal terms. In The Drowned World
(1962), the sea is the healing, fecund unconscious. In The Drought
(1965), the desert is the arid landscape of the ego. In The Crystal World
(1966), the jungle of timeless light is an ontological Eden. In Crash,
the automobile collisions are inseminating ritual sacrifices. No doubt remains.
For Stephenson, Ballard is deadly serious about the need to seek salvation outside of
space and time. He blasphemes, but his blasphemies are holy, pointing us to the World
Beyond. In Ballard, Aldous Huxley is reborn.
But is Ballard a mystic? Huxley wrote The Perennial Philosophy(1945), and
various other works, to broadcast his conversion. Ballard has done nothing of the sort.
What if, to follow Brian McHale in Postmodernist Fiction (NY & London, 1987,
69-70), he is a postmodern writer? Stephenson explicitly dismisses postmodernism as one of
many recent "fashions and fads" (152) to which Ballard has proved immune. But what if
Ballard is not immune? What if he is simply a player, who plays with the stuff of myth,
with Shakespeare and Coleridge, with Dali and Tanguy, leaping from one archetype to
another, not to lure us to transcendence but to demonstrate the unknowability and the
multivalence of reality? Perhaps his flights to the sun are metaphors not of redemption
but of emancipation from all determinisms, including those of the "spirit."
I prefer Stephenson's reading. Nevertheless, there is something a little too fixed and
steely about his methods. Out of the Night and Into the Dream is the best book on
J.G. Ballard now available, but let us reserve judgment in expectation of many more.
--W. Warren Wagar SUNY Binghamton.
New and Recycled Translations of Jules
Jules Verne. The Floating Island. London and NY: Kegan Paul
International (Routledge, Chapman & Hall), 1991. xvii+352. $19.95 paper
Jules Verne. The
Complete Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, ed. and trans.
Emanuel J. Mickel. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992. ix+499. $29.95 cloth.
These recently-published English translations of two of Jules Verne's classic romans
scientifiques--one new and the other sadly recycled--might easily symbolize the two
extremes in quality to be found in most translated foreign SF. The former is a facsimile
reprint of Routledge's own horribly bowdlerized English version of Verne's
L'Ile à hélice (Propeller Island) first published in 1895 in Great Britain. With the
exception of a new (albeit cursory and largely uninformed) introduction and a new snazzy
cover, the text itself appears to be photocopied directly from the pages of Routledge's
original translation. The text uses "proper" 19th century British idiom
that railway"  for Maudit [Damn]), consistently glosses over or undermines
Verne's humor and word-play, and somehow even manages to mistranslate a variety of common
French words ("promised the driver a handsome present"  for pourboire
[tip]; "an invasion of this decadent pest"  for peste [plague];
"There was nothing in a failure to astonish Americans"  for faillite [bankruptcy]).
But that's not the worst of it. This translation is severely abridged, and almost all
the passages excised from Verne's original French text happen to be in some way or another
critical of England and/or the English people. Coincidence? Hardly. I counted at least 17
instances throughout this translation where passages describing British politics,
religious beliefs, or social customs--some mildly satiric, others quite virulent--were
summarily "censored" by the translator because they were (ostensibly) considered
offensive. Some were up to 3 pages in length! And where such passages were deemed too
integral to the plot to be chopped out, the characters' nationalities were systematically
altered: e.g., where Verne portrayed the malevolent influence of English missionaries on
South Sea island cultures, the translation now identifies these same missionaries as German(190)!
Given this massive tampering with Verne's original novel, it seems highly ironic that
the publisher of this book--in an obvious attempt to hype this modern repackaging of a
very old, very bad translation--tries to advertise Jules Verne as "a social satirist
whose work has been compared to that of Montesquieu, Swift and Voltaire. Today he is
recognized as one of the most significant writers and social commentators of modern
times" (back cover). Insofar as I am aware, this is the first time Verne has ever been
classified as a famous writer of social satire, and comparable to Voltaire no less! But,
even worse, to characterize him as such from this outrageously truncated translation is
more than simply (and sadly) ironic, it is insulting both to Verne and to any
To summarize, a revised and more accurate English translation of Verne's
L'Ile à hélice would have been genuinely welcome and would have done honor to any publisher.
In contrast, this book brings shame: it represents a commercialized resurrection of a
translator's travesty, and it aptly demonstrates how an industry's profit motive can
sometimes overpower its sense of literary integrity.
Fortunately, the new translation of Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea
by Emanuel J. Mickel represents the opposite extreme of this quality spectrum. Although
some might criticize it as "yet another" English translation of this popular work
(especially when there currently exist several Voyages Extraordinaires which
remain to date untranslated), Mickel's version must be recognized as truly professional in
its scope and its integrity. What Mickel has done is to use the original Hetzel (1869,
1870, 1871) French texts as his point of departure, instead of the hackneyed and
much-abridged 1928 Hachette text (used by many 20th century translators). But one might
wonder: what are the differences between Mickel's "Complete" Twenty
Thousand Leagues and the fine translation done by Walter Miller in 1976
which he called the "Annotated" Twenty Thousand Leagues (wherein he
attempted--prior to Mickel--to reestablish the original)? Mickel explains:
[Miller] provides the Mercier Lewis translation and supplements it with an original
translation of the portions of Verne's work which had been omitted. ...Although it is
interesting to read the Mercier Lewis translation and it was important to Miller in making
his case against the shortened English version, the modern reader might have been better
served by an entirely new translation of Verne's novel. (63)
In addition to his re-translation of the text itself, Mickel is generous with
explanatory footnotes (a very Vernian trait). And he also includes a lengthy introduction
which discusses a wide variety of biographical, thematic, and critical issues pertinent to
Jules Verne's life and work. Although occasionally based too much (in my opinion) on
several early canonical French studies that are now either outdated or highly
controversial--like Marc Soriano's Freudian "psychological" biography of the author, or Allotte de la Fuye's gossipy
"family" biography--Mickel's critical introduction is one
of the most informed (i.e., the best) that I have seen in English. The book also provides
a chronology of the events portrayed in Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, a
relatively up-to-date critical bibliography, and reprints of many (though not all) of
those now-famous Riou, Neuville, and Hildibrand lithographs found in the original. All in
all, this Indiana UP publication of The Complete Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea proves
to be an excellent translation and a fine piece of scholarship. My only regret is that
Mickel did not lend his expertise to some of Verne's lesser-known but equally-deserving
works. Like L'Ile à hélice, for example?
A Mexican Anthology.
Más allá de lo imaginado: Antología de ciencia-ficció mexicano.2
vols. Mexico City: Tierra Adentro, 1991. 180pp, 177pp.
Mexico, understandably, has not produced a substantial shelf of SF novels and stories,
for the country's collective self is concerned less with the future than with the past.
Nevertheless, there have been a few scattered books of fiction with SF themes, most
notably Carlos Fuentes's Christopher Unborn, a Rabelaisian anti-utopia about the
nation's capital in the year 1992; an idiosyncratic tale by the enfant terrible
of the '60s, José Agustín; and another by the famous environmentalist Homero Aridjis,
the author of 1492: The Life and Time of Juan Cabezón of Castile.
Now comes the anthology under review, divided into two volumes. The first of its kind,
it includes 26 SF stories, all by young writers between the ages of 25 and 40. It has been
published and distributed by Tierra Adentro, a government-run book company devoted to
promoting marginal writers, especially those living in the provinces. Federico Schaffler
(b. 1959), a citizen of the northern state of Tamaulipas, besides his role as editor and
contributor here, has been one of the most important supporters of SF in Mexico: for a
while he was the only Mexican member of SFWA; his work has appeared in Spain and elsewhere
in Hispanic America; and he is one of the organizers of a well-publicized national contest
of SF stories, which began in 1984. Thanks to him, many fans and writers have found a
means to communicate.
While clearly unbalanced in quality,
Más allá de lo imaginado (Beyond the
Imaginable) includes a few outstanding stories. Many mix recurrent SF themes--time travel,
nuclear weapons, utopian societies--with typical Mexican characters and collective
symbols: in one, for example, a poor, hungry peasant in the state of Durango is seen
praying for rain; in another an Aztec deity has fantastic devices that allow for the
control of individual minds; a third deals with a crowded subway in Mexico City that
becomes a metaphor for apocalypse; and a fourth makes use of hallucinatory mushrooms, as
in Carlos Castaneda's anthropological saga about the magician Don Juan in Oaxaca. The
three best stories are "Fase Durango" (Stage Durango) by Juan Armenta Camacho, "La voz
de nuestros mayores" (Our Elders' Voice) by Guillermo Farber, and "El día perdido"
(The Lost Day) by Jorge Martínez Villaseñor. The first depicts the coming of the next
ice age, as perceived by an old citizen of humble means living in a desert; while the
Soviets and Americans are ready to annihilate each other, he is anxious to see the rain
keep his life afloat and his family together. The second story, confessedly a tribute to
"The Aleph," one of Borges' masterpieces, is the tale of a meteorite with supernatural
powers that enables a rich adolescent to have a view of eternity. The third, by a native
of Jiquilpan, Michoacán, is the most amazing and memorable of them all. It is about Sor
Juana Inés de la Cruz, a nun of literary genius during the Colonial period, who wrote First
Dream and some immortal feminist poems. The precursors of "El día perdido" are
Henry James (The Sense of the Past) and H.G. Wells (The Time Machine).
The protagonists are two doctors in Mexico City today who mysteriously find themselves
transported to the year 1695. They are lost in the past until they meet Sor Juana, who
tells them how to travel back to the present. But before they leave, they drink some water
and thus contract cholera--the sickness that ended the nun's life--or perhaps infect the
water. The story is well crafted: the reader is never quite sure whether the doctors
brought cholera to the past, thus killing Sor Juana, or got it from her.
The anthology's criteria for selection leaves much to be desired. Schaffler perceives
himself as a hero--a champion of the voiceless. He is flabbergasted by his enterprise,
thus ignoring the most basic aesthetic standards. The result is a collection with very
good but also very bad stories. His brief introductions and headnotes are mediocre. He
never explains why, for example, Mexico has never been able to produce a solid SF
bookshelf, or how the young writers included in these volumes have suddenly come to
consider themselves inheritors of Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, and Stanislaw Lem. Many
questions need an answer. Hispanic America has indeed produced first-rate SF writers,
among them Angélica Gorodischer, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Borges, but most of them have
been Argentinean. Why? A possible answer is that the River Plate, pedantic in nature,
considers itself an extremity of Europe, not quite a part of the lands of Simón Bolívar.
And why has Mexico been so slow in cultivating SF? Perhaps because it lacks a scientific
mentality and is obsessed with the past, not the future.
Are things changing? I doubt it. My sense is that
Más allá de lo imaginado
is an example of a genre with an implausible life in Mexico. Nevertheless, the anthology
contains a handful of wonderful stories that deserve to be translated. They are proof that
popular culture in the neighbor south of the Rio Grande is a hybrid--a mixture, a
confusion, but one that can offer illuminating, unforgettable insights.
--Ilan Stavans Baruch College.
Donald E. Morse and Csilla Bertha, eds. More Real Than Reality: The Fantastic in Irish Literature and the
Arts. Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy #45.
NY: Greenwood Press, 1991. xi+266. $45.00. Credit-card orders: 800-225-5800 ID# 701.
The subtitle misled me and it might fool you, too. It invokes the lurid and extravagant
traditions of archaic Celtic culture--in literature, the cheerfully hyperbolical
attributes of heroes and beasts of that quintessential Irish epic, the
Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), with its semidivine warriors and
poets, its supernatural sídhe, and the magical imperatives of oracles, curses,
and geisa; and, in the visual arts, the haunted standing stones, the wild totems,
or the spirals and curlicues embellishing every frantic inch of brooches, chalices, and
gilded manuscripts. For the Celts, these vibrant symbols were less metaphors for than
emblems of a violent, sensuous universe.
I expected the essays to bring such material to the attention of a wider audience and
to explicate modern works which rediscover and plunder its imagery, from the mystic
reconstructions of the Irish Revivalists a century ago to the celebratory, full-scale
adaptations of Gregory Frost's Táin(1986) and
Remscéla (1988) of
But this collection, like the others in its series, offers a heterogeneous set of
articles whose use of the term "fantastic" is broader than my own. Most of the
contributors--and they include widely recognized authorities on both Irish studies and
fantasy--rely upon two seminal studies, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion
(1981) by Rosemary Jackson and Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western
Literature (1984) by Kathryn Hume, who defined that shapeshifting animal, the
fantastic, as "any departure from consensus reality." Not surprisingly, no consensus is
reached here about its exact contours or content. The editors admit that "most of the
essays in this volume explore works of art and literature that are not obviously or
exclusively fantastic" (247).
The book is organized in four overlapping parts, each with well-researched introductory
sections which nonspecialists will find more useful for their philosophical insights than
for their attempts to rope these eclectic essays together: a section on "Ancient
Knowledge and the Fantastic," on "The Irish Arts: Theatre, Music, and Painting," on
"Irish Playwrights," and on "Swift, Joyce, and Yeats."
Few of the articles discuss the fantastic in the narrow sense of the supernatural and
the frankly impossible, and fewer consider the Irish mythology or superstitions. Those
that do include Maureen Murphy's "Siren or Victim: The Mermaid in Irish Legend and
Poetry," Anthony Roche's "Ghosts in Irish Drama," and Jürgen Kamm's "The Uses of the
Fantastic in the Later Plays of Sean O'Casey." Christopher Murray's excellent "Irish
Drama and the Fantastic" supports the volume's purported objective. Vernon Hyles' short
but cogent "Lord Dunsany: The Geography of the Gods" touches on Tolkien, Lewis,
Lovecraft, and Borges in its argument that Dunsany is the "distant uncle" of magical
Most of the authors interpret "fantastic" as "expressive of the subconscious" or
some variation thereof, and are usually interesting even when neither innovative nor
wholly persuasive. Csilla Bertha distinguishes between the totalizing role of myths and
the inversion function of fantasy in the first of numerous studies on Yeats; and elsewhere
analyzes the strength of fantasy to portray repressed fears and desires in
"Thomas Murphy's Psychological Explorations." Bettina Knapp proposes in "The Only Jealousy
of Emer: Recycling the Elements" that the "goals of the Yeatsian hero and of the
alchemist are similar" (67). Hilary Pyle discusses how music, romance, and death
apparent' what was beyond the naked eye" (97) in Jack Yeats's art. Peter Egri presents
"John Field's Imaginative Achievement" to assert that music weaves "a sensitive network
of inner relationships without any immediate reference to a visible or tangible world of
external objects" (113). Toni O'Brien Johnson discusses dreams, desires, and the
expression, usually through double entendre, of such taboo subjects as sex,
loneliness, and death in the plays of J.M. Synge. Donald Morse targets anti-realism in
"'Fidelity to Failure': Time and the Fantastic in Samuel Beckett." Colin Manlove draws a
parallel between fantasy and satire as genres reliant on techniques of inversion in
"Swift and Fantasy." Aladar Sarbu analyzes Joyce's narrative strategies in Ulysses
to show the ways in which the "Penelope" chapter "is an objective representation of
extreme subjectivity" (228) and how "Circe" "becomes a series of enacted thoughts,
half-thoughts, anxieties, and complexes. What we witness on the plane of the
phantasmagoric is the mind dramatized" (226). Summarizing the various philosophies of
Yeats, Coleridge, and other Romantics concerning apprehension, imagination, and the power
of language, Joseph Swann sees Yeats's A Vision as an attempt to bridge the gap
between word and world, and finds that it "reestablished the fantastic as continuous with
the world in which we live" (232).
--Ellen Feehan University of Miami.
The Great Pioneer.
Sam Moskowitz. After
All These Years. Based on a postal interview conducted by Jeffrey
Elliott; edited by Fred Lerner. Niekas Publications (RFD #2, Box 63, Center Harbor, NH
03226-9729), 1992. 4x10", 96pp. Paper, $5.95 + $1.50 shipping.
For many years now Sam Moskowitz has devoted himself (his spare time, at least) heart
and soul to SF as a collector, reader, editor, anthologist, and historian. The spare-time
parenthesis is necessary, for it must be added that he has also pursued a successful
career as an editor of trade journals ("jobs that were relatively well-paying" ), so
that he has been financially able to build up one of the world's largest SF collections.
It is, he emphasizes, a research collection. It includes first editions of
Paltock's Peter Wilkins and Defoe's The Consolidator, the latter
"autographed" (80), as well as complete runs of all US SF magazines and extensive runs
of US and UK general magazines of the late 19th and earlier 20th century, not to mention
"6,000 hardcover books" (78) and a vast number of paperbacks.
False modesty is not one Moskowitz's vices, nor modesty of any kind one of his virtues.
He goes into some detail about the "gratuitous criticism" he has received, "even from
those who are lifting my researches wholesale and using them in their own works" (84):
To make it worse, those books [his histories of SF] were
admittedly of a scholarly cast, yet they enjoyed readership. Academics, who were taking to
science fiction, watched a man without academic degrees placing books that would have done
very nicely to aid them in their university status, at a time when they were having
problems interesting a college press.
Unfortunately, this is not altogether true. "Admittedly" scholarly books written in
ignorance of and/or disdain for scholarly methods do not serve to further an academic's
"university status." The first two of Moskowitz's historical works--Explorers of the
Infinite (1983) and Seekers of Tomorrow (1966)--are of very little value to
scholarship, for one can never be certain of their accuracy and must redo his research
without benefit of source citation. Having said that, I must grant that in recent years
his work has been much better with respect to scholarly method; e.g., "The Origins of
Science Fiction Fandom: A Reconstruction" (Foundation 48: 5-25, Spring 1990).
It is as a pioneer that Moskowitz has made his great contribution to our knowledge of
SF: the digging into old magazines and newspapers that enabled him to produce such
valuable works as Science Fiction by Gaslight(1968), Under the Moons of Mars
(1970), and The Crystal Man(1973). It is very probable (I am tempted to say,
certain) that he is the world's most knowledgeable authority on SF. On his critical
abilities, opinions may differ. To me it seems that, at least with respect to
antisemitism, he is incapable of distinguishing between depiction and advocacy: see his
"The Dark Plots of One Shiel" (Shiel in Diverse Hands, ed. A. Reynolds Morse
[Cleveland, 1983], 57-68).
We have clashed a few times over the years, but on this occasion I am happy to salute
him. He is indeed what Fred Lerner calls him in concluding the introduction to this book:
"one of the Grand Old Men of science fiction."
The Black Mencken (and Black David H.
George S. Schuyler. Black
No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of
the Free, A.D. 1933-1940. Foreword by James A. Miller. Boston:
Northeastern UP, 1989. v+222. $11.95 paper.
George Samuel Schuyler writing as Samuel I. Brooks.
Black Empire. Edited and with an
Afterword by Robert A. Hill and R. Kent Rasmussen. Foreword by John A. Williams. Boston:
Northeastern UP, 1991. xx+348. $24.95.
Of these two volumes in the Northeastern Library of Black Literature, the first is a
minor classic of American satire from 1931 and the second is a provocative and rewarding
example of popular SF retrieved from the pages of 1936-38 issues of the Pittsburgh Courier.
George S. Schuyler (1895-1977) was the most prominent black journalist and essayist of
his time. In 1924 he began his "Views and Reviews" column in the Courier, and a
bit later "Shafts and Darts: A Page of Calumny and Satire" in A. Philip Randolph's
socialist magazine, The Messenger. These columns came to the attention of Henry
L. Mencken, who asked him to contribute to The American Mercury and who later
called him "the most competent editorial writer now in practice in this great free
republic" (312 n15). "Our White Folks" was the first of nine essays by Schuyler that
appeared in Mencken's magazine in the years 1927-33. The New York Evening Post
sent him to Africa in 1931, a trip that resulted in six articles that appeared in the Evening
Post and a number of other papers under the title "Is Liberia a Slave State?" and
in a novel, Slaves Today: A Story of Liberia (1931).
Schuyler became a controversial figure in the Negro literary community with "The
Negro-Art Hokum," published in The Nation in 1926, and remained one for the rest
of his life--a matter explored in the forewords to both books and the afterword to Black
Empire, most vividly by John A. Williams. Ideologically his career was something like
Mencken's, moving from socialism (in Mencken's case, general iconoclasm) to elitist
conservatism. Call him an assimilationist: for him art was art and as art owed nothing to
ethnic origins. W.E.B. DuBois once wrote, if memory serves, that white gentile Americans
were prejudiced against Jews because they insisted on remaining different from gentiles
and against Negroes despite their ambition simply to be accepted in a color-blind society.
Judged by color-blind literary and intellectual standards, Black No More is one
of the best satires in American literature--and incidentally one of the best American SF
novels (for a contemporary appreciation, see the review by C.A. Brandt in the February
1933 issue of Amazing Stories).
Black Empire is something else: a book, as the saying goes, only of historical
interest. In addition to his literary and critical work, Schuyler wrote, under various
pseudonyms, a great deal of pulpish fiction for the Courier, including a number
of SF stories. As Schuyler/"Brooks" he might well be considered the black
Faust/"Brand" in that both considered their pulp fiction beneath contempt, but with the
provisos that whereas Frederick Faust's literary ambitions never materialized, Schuyler's
found considerable success, and that whereas "Max Brand" made millions from his
hackwork, "Samuel I. Brooks" made only pocket money from his.
But it is best to think of Schuyler/"Brooks" as the black David H. Keller, M.D., a
psychiatrist whose professional work was mostly at insane asylums and whose crude stories
on psychological and sociological themes made him for some years the most popular
contributor to the SF pulps. To any student of popular fiction, Black Empire
should be of great interest for the ways in which Schuyler, in order to write on
psychological and sociological themes for a black audience, inverts the modes of racist
fiction intended for a white audience. Hill and Rasmussen demonstrate that Schuyler was
familiar both with SF in general (Wells, Stapledon) and with the SF pulps in particular
(306-09). Keller's THE MENACE, a series of
four stories in the Summer 1928 issue of Amazing Stories Quarterly (reprinted in
the Winter 1933 issue) may well have had some slight influence on Black No More in
that the first of the four stories is concerned with turning Blacks white; it most
assuredly was a major influence on Black Empire. Schuyler's black scientists are
just as evil as Keller's, but whereas the apocalyptic events of THE
MENACE lead to a final solution of the Negro Problem in a world
catastrophe, those of Black Empire lead to the fulfillment of black-power
fantasies in the establishment of a Black utopia in a better world. Despite all its
crudities, Black Empire is a work of great imaginative power.
We owe a debt to Robert A. Hill and R. Kent Rasmussen for producing this fine scholarly
edition of a kind of SF previously unknown or little known to students of SF. It is to be
hoped that they or others will bring to our attention other such works; that is, SF
written by and expressing the hopes and dreams of oppressed peoples. A collection of
Schuyler's other SF stories would be a good way to start.
Briefer Notices (RDM)
- Robert A. Collins & Robert Latham, eds. Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review Annual 1990
- H. Bruce Franklin. M.I.A. or
Mythmaking in America
- Brian Atteberry. Strategies of
- Cosette Kies. Presenting Young
Adult Horror Fiction
Robert A. Collins & Robert Latham, eds.
Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review Annual 1990.
Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991. x+711. $75.00. (Credit-card orders 800-225-500 ID
The 1989 volume (the second in this series) was reviewed by Robert M. Philmus in
#53, March 1991, under the title "Worthy of Improvement"; a response by the editors and
a rejoinder by Philmus appeared in #54, July 1991. A book of this kind, whether or not one
thinks it as good as it might be, is almost necessarily a valuable reference work. The
first 178 pages are introductory. Author profiles appear for the "Writer of the Year,"
Dan Simmons, and also for S.M. Somtow (SF), Tanith Lee (fantasy), and Thomas Ligotti
(horror). The year's work is surveyed for SF, fantasy, horror, young-adult fiction, and
scholarship. There are also lists of recommended books and award winners. 477 pages are
devoted to "over" 500 of the 1134 new books published, according to Locus, in
1990, the list reduced by ignoring certain types of hackwork but also held down so that
the reviewers could write "in depth" reviews ranging from half a page to three pages.
Indexes occupy pp. 656-711.
H. Bruce Franklin. M.I.A.
or Mythmaking in America. Brooklyn: Lawrence Hill Books, 1992.
Now in 1992 each presidential candidate is confronted by someone who demands what his
policy will be on the "prisoners of war still held in Vietnam," and each makes the stern
response that he will use all his Presidential power to bring them home. What could be
more fantastic? SFS readers, surely familiar with Bruce Franklin's scholarly work, will
expect and find a careful, searching study of the origin and persistence of this myth,
which delayed the ending of the Vietnam war for many months and continues to make a
normalization of relations politically inexpedient.
Brian Atteberry. Strategies
of Fantasy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992. xv+153. $22.50.
The treatment of fantasy in this brilliant book by the author of The Fantasy
Tradition in American Literature (1980) is in some ways similar to Carl Malmgren's
treatment of SF in Worlds Apart (reviewed in SFS #56, March 1992). Brian Atteberry
reads recent fantasy and rereads some older works in the light of recent theoretical
studies of narrative. The chapter on "Science Fantasy" may be profitably compared with Malmgren's treatment.
Cosette Kies. Presenting
Young Adult Horror Fiction. Twayne's United States Authors Series.
NY: Twayne Publishers, 1992. x+203. $19.95.
I can't recall that I, when a young adult, was ever encouraged to read. Books were
considered dangerous, so that one never curled up just with a book but only with a good
book. Nowadays it seems to be felt (and I do not disagree) that it is better for children
to read anything than not read at all. This survey of horror fiction, beginning with The
Castle of Otronto (1765) but devoted primarily to such current luminaries as Stephen
King, is not confined to "young adult fiction," a label that perhaps still suggests some
degree of adult control over what young people should read or of supercilious decision on
what they are capable of understanding. The book's purpose seems to be to advise
librarians and teachers on what "teens" like to read, which is surely an advance over
the older theory that their reading should be strictly controlled. I found it interesting,
since I like to know what's going on in all provinces of the literary world, but I would
rather read about than read horror fiction, which SFS reviews only in such notices as
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