#72 = Volume 24, Part 2 = July 1997
The Soft Skeleton of Hard SF.
Gary Westfahl. Cosmic
Engineers: A Study of Hard Science Fiction. Contributions to the
Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Number 67. Greenwood Press (800-225-5800), 1996.
xii+148 (including bibliography and index). $49.95.
Gary Westfahl is science fiction's only real professional critic, dedicated to a job
that pays few bills. He always does his homework, delving into material not for enjoyment
alone or temporary notoriety from riding a popular wave, but because he thinks it matters.
It does matter to study originals, not just secondary sources. Anyone reading all the
editorials of Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell, Jr., deserves credit, though not all
readers may share his sense of how their views have defined the field.
I share his Teutonic tendency, if not always his dogged thoroughness, to read
everything available on a subject, though I know it may not shed much light on the matter
at hand. Even wrong answers reveal blind alleys and reveal the darkness which even a
feeble light may illuminate. Westfahl tracks down key words, pays attention to neologisms
and rhetorical strategies, and reads texts closely, if not always in full imaginative
context. He also looks into "first causes," as in this book he seeks the
emergence of "hard science fiction," as a term of art and a set of phenomena to
which that term applies.
As a matter of disclosure, I must point out that an earlier draft of chapter two was
the lead article for a special issue of SFS (July 1993) I edited on this topic, and Clarke
material deleted from that piece and expanded for publication elsewhere shows up in
chapter six. That issue called for an honest critical examination of hard sf, as the
branch of the genre perhaps most distinct from other fantasy writing. Taking up the
challenge, Westfahl finds it wanting, but his book is not intended as the last word on the
subject. Clearing some of the underbrush, he establishes a beachhead for further
explorations. In passing, he footnotes many of his previous publications, and tries to
establish "she" as the generic pronoun (an especially stubborn insistence in
discussing a subgenre all but exclusively male).
Most of this book does what Westfahl does best, digging into sources for facts about
others' pronouncements. The term "hard science fiction," he determines, was
first used in a professional publication by Astounding book reviewer P. Schuyler
Miller in 1957, though anticipations of it can be found up to 100 years before. From
Gernsback's single use of science "faction" to "hardcore sf," a
putdown phrase of the "New Wave," writers, editors, and readers of sf have
recognized a subgenre more faithful than most to the ideals and practices of science and
technology. In the second half of the twentieth century, hard sf emerged from the hands of
self-proclaimed proponents, willing to test their bona fides in the court of
The newly-minted term soon expanded from scientific accuracy and technical language to
include careful extrapolation, near future "documentary depictions," and
fabricated worlds. Never a large segment, "hard sf" appeals to a marginal but
vocal minority, who typically romanticize it as a lost art, though the examples they point
to are recent. Westfahl sees sf as largely indifferent to science before World War II, but
dominated by hard sf in the 1950s, with Arthur C. Clarke's pioneering work and the birth
of fictional world-building (pace Olaf Stapledon). In the 1960s, fans and
academics heedless of its provenance attenuated the label "hard sf" unmercifully
and countered it with "soft sf," a pseudo-category with no rules or defenders of
Writers of hard sf see it as a "game," limiting their fantasies to the least
possible number of violations of natural law and scientific practice, inviting their peers
to catch them out in necessary as well as unnecessary errors. Promoters of the craft such
as Poul Anderson, Gregory Benford, David Brin, Hal Clement, Robert Forward, and Larry
Niven, belittle such easy ploys as meaningless jargon (the Star Trek gambit) and
speculation about ideas that can never be disproved. Methods they find acceptable Westfahl
terms "microcosmic" and "macrocosmic." Making his reputation with the
former, near-future extrapolation concerned with exploring space, the hard sf writer earns
a license for the latter, more often concerned with building alien planets. Rather than a
continuum, Westfahl sees hard sf oscillating between polarities, with major differences in
fictional model and tone.
Perhaps the least expected result of Westfahl's research is how much the hard stuff
resembles other sf. Belying the 19th century model of cold science vs. warm humanism, hard
sf distorts science to coincide with more traditional human values. From the forced
didacticism of Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations," sui generis and
virtually dictated by John W. Campbell, Jr., and the documentary-like "juvenile"
sf of the 1950s and 1960s, to more sophisticated novels by Clarke, Clement, and Charles
Sheffield, he finds authors regularly overcoming limitations ostensibly set by science.
Most of the time the fiction writes the science, not vice-versa as Forward and
Clement have argued, despite the self-deprecation by many hard sf writers that they are
unskilled wordsmiths, ignorant of traditional literary values.
Humanistic values dominate extended discussions of Clarke's A Fall of Moondust (1961),
Clement's Mission of Gravity (1953), and Sheffield's Between the Strokes of
Night (1985). In each case, Westfahl posits a fictional model or two, using each book
is an example, and inserts sometimes digressive commentary on other texts he groups in the
same tradition. Estranging the familiar sf territory of the moon, Clarke finds facts
fascinating and liberating. Though he celebrates technology, it causes his microcosmic
story's disasters, overcome only by interesting scientific characters who refuse to accept
the judgment of the cold equations. Clement's macrocosmic travel tale, unlike Clarke's
problem story, features the alien world as its most interesting character and a quest for
knowledge by both humans and aliens as its theme. Unnecessarily difficult, Clement's novel
suffers from an inappropriate (early Heinlein) style: globs of information might have been
better than gradual introduction of background.
Sheffield's less canonical book highlights the shift from microcosmic to macrocosmic
hard sf. In it, competent creative characters at the beginning give way to the juvenile
fiction model of naifs learning to cope with problems beyond their reach. Westfahl calls
such changes in scale simple, but they limit human perspectives and ill fit human
feelings. Facing mystery and fear engendered by superior aliens, Sheffield's humans cling
to faith in (human) science. Westfahl infers from this and other examples that hard sf
writers are just as limited in language and thought as anyone else in dealing with the
Westfahl sees the hard-soft debate as mythological, not factual. He realizes also that
intention matters, for both writers of hard sf and their readers, who give allegiance to
an aliterary standard of excellence. History, he believes, will find the relative accuracy
of hard sf minor and temporary, its novelty limited, its "artificial
constraints" neither positive nor negative. Departing from the evidence considered,
he also concludes that the value of hard sf is not self-contained; it fertilizes sf with
scientific ideas, and intensifies sf characteristics found elsewhere.
Cosmic Engineers may well be definitive in discussing the provenance of the
term, "hard science fiction," and the temporal connection of that term with the
variety of writing it labels. Dating the birth of this subgenre, for all of its long
gestation, is a useful starting point, though it may still be worthwhile to explore the
relative "hardness" of prewar examples. Along the way, Westfahl virtually
destroys the hypostatic division of sf into equivalent "hard" and
"soft" categories, but not by granting dominant status to hard sf. He also
denigrates the 19th century caricature of science as cold and absolute, which John
Campbell sought to establish as a positive model for all sf. If that rhetorical model
survives, it is as one fictional strategy among many, but its dominance may never have
been more than a straw man, hardly waiting for Westfahl to knock it down.
Westfahl also errs, I think, in stressing Clarke's book as a problem-story, since
problems big and small perpetually need solving in the other two novels explored in
relative depth. The didactic message of Sheffield's book also fits a common pattern: most
hard sf both teaches step-by-step and propagandizes for a scientific civilization.
Faulting hard sf for "artificial problems," moreover, is problematic in two
ways: it implies that science is especially artificial and that other sf is less
artificial than the hard stuff. "Artificial" he uses as a pejorative term, but
how can humans be otherwise: what is more artificial than language and culture? The
distinctions between "natural" and "artificial" may be as mythological
or theological as those between hard and soft sf or cold science and warm human values,
gleefully exploded in this book.
Westfahl also starts a number of hares he lacks the scope or inclination to hunt down
in this volume, leaving other scholars and critics some breathing room. He points out that
science can be fascinating and liberating, replacing romantic illusion with new potential,
but does not really explore the idea, jumping instead to the inevitable failure of hard sf
to demystify the alien. He notes that hard sf affects style and tone, but limits his
discussion to gross features distinguishing the microcosmic and macrocosmic varieties.
Despite his sympathy for science as a human activity, and his desire to explode the
cold/hot dichotomy, he still draws distinctions between science and "human
values," as if science were not one of them and were not employed in the service of
other human values.
The basic difficulty may be a need for sf criticism to further reorient the problem. I
include as "givens" of hard sf a relatively short "shelf life,"
congruence with human values, importation of story types from other fiction, didacticism,
elevation of scale and scope, fixation on problems, use of limitations as story-telling
tools, and dependence on human language to express the almost inexpressible. Dealing with
hard sf also depends on the reader's awareness that verisimilitude and other fictional
devices require conventions of congruence with reality outside the text as well as
conventions of expression for rendering an illusion of that reality.
It is not really deprecatory, as Westfahl suggests, that hard sf depends on novelty,
that it fails to express the "truly alien," and that it falls short of being
timeless. All fiction--not just sf--relies on novelty (as is evident in the
etymology of "novel" and "novella"), knowing the truly alien is a
logical impossibility, and nothing is timeless. Hard sf does seek out particular kinds of
novelty, often related to what science can know. It may help us identify the alien inside,
in our social and artistic conventions. Like outmoded science, moreover, it may outlast
its accuracy, if its expression continues to touch a chord in human behavior. Westfahl's
final and disappointed conclusion that "except for its defining characteristics, hard
science fiction does not seem significantly different from its less scientific
relatives" (121) begs many issues that have just begun to be raised. Significance
lies not in the text but in the context generating the questions we ask of it.
--David N. Samuelson, CSU
A Completist Manifesto and Exemplar.
Gary Westfahl. Islands
in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature.
I.O. Evans Studies in the Philosophy and Criticism of Literature #15. 224pp. $33 cloth,
$23 paper (credit-card orders 909-884-5813).
The research that led to the writing of this volume (and a companion volume not yet
released, The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in
Science Fiction, 1869-1993) began in 1985 when Gary Westfahl was asked by a NASA
consultant to see if sf stories about space stations could provide any ideas that might be
useful to those engaged in the international space-station project. The Other Side of
the Sky lists and comments on some 900 space-station stories. The first section of Islands
in the Sky consists of a "Polemical Introduction" and chapters on
definitions, the history of the space station in fiction, and space-station design and
appearance in sf. The next six chapters, drawing on the bibliography, deal with various
aspects of his subject. Chapters 10-11 are concerned with space stations as icons. The two
concluding chapters apply what he has learned, first as ideas that might be of use in
designing and building Space Station Freedom, and second as the basis for a critical essay
on space stations in recent science fiction.
Westfahl was "tempted to introduce this book [Islands in the Sky] with a
single sentence: I have examined over 500 novels, stories, films and television programs
about space stations, and I have some interesting things to say about them" (11).
Would he had done so, for although chapters 2-13 are interesting and informative (whether
or not viewed as an examplar of what sf criticism should be), chapter 1, "Polemical
Introduction," seems to me both wrong-headed and poorly thought out:
there must be at the very least about 100,000 novels and stories that could reasonably
be classified as science fiction.... I could claim true familiarity with about 5000 of
those works.... And most critics in the field, I suspect, know far less than I do. Yet
this does prevent science fiction critics--and I include myself here --from presenting
grand theories, general observations, and profound commentaries about the nature and
purpose of science fiction--all based on their knowledge of only a small fraction of the
genre. These critics, it seems, literally do not know what they are talking about. How,
then, can they justify their work?
One safe and easy answer is that this appalling ignorance of their own subject does not
really matter; most of the unexamined texts of science fiction are simply junk, and
literary critics properly ignore them to focus their attention on the few works that
really merit close examination. In other words, critics should be free to talk about
"science fiction" when they really mean "superior science fiction."
But there is first one problem.
How do you
know that it is junk if you have not read it?
But the novels and stories in question have been examined. Junk consists of
things that have been tried, found wanting, and so discarded as not worth preserving. The
novels and stories in question were published as books or in magazines and were read by
thousands of readers. In some cases they impressed some or many readers sufficiently to be
discussed with other readers, to be written about in critical journals (if only those on
the fanzine level), and to be reprinted in new editions or in anthologies. Those that have
not impressed readers, critics, editors, and/or publishers sufficiently to win a degree of
permanence may justifiably be thought of as junk and banished to junkyards like the Eaton
Collection, where scholars like Westfahl can examine them again and bring some of them
back to our attention as works deserving another chance as candidates for permanence.
As I understand it, Westfahl's manifesto mandates a program intended to prepare the
critic for two tasks: making all-encompassing generalizations about science fiction (or
certain areas of science fiction) and assessing the worth of individual works. His
argument, which ranges back and forth between literary and scientific studies, with the
latter offered as a model for the former, is too extensive and varied for adequate
summary, but perhaps the following will do:
each science fiction critic should first acknowledge full and complete understanding of
every single work in the field as her ultimate objective; each critic must abandon the
cozy and lazy comfort of shared knowledge of a few "canonical" works and instead
commit herself to an intense examination of some particular area of the field; and each
critic must learn to depend on her own detailed studies, and those of others, in
constructing her all-encompassing theories and grand judgments about science fiction. With
a continuing influx of new information, critics can expect their ideas to continually
improve, as happens in virtually all other disciples committed to preferentially examining
new data; and they can do their work while looking down with condescension at their
colleagues in other fields who are still wasting their time re-interpreting what has
already been repeatedly interpreted. (20-21)
The last sentence cannot mean what it implies, for Westfahl also says that "if
critics do not know what sort of works surround their selected masterpieces, they cannot
fully understand them," which can only mean that those sf works that have been
repeatedly interpreted have yet to be properly interpreted.
I can see no point in having an ultimate goal that is obviously impossible to attain,
nor do I see any need to commit oneself to an intense examination of some ill-defined area
of great extent; most important, one should not depend on the work of others in other than
limited ways. This demand for a broader and broader study of science fiction seems to
assume that the sf critic needs to study nothing else, perhaps relying on such casual
knowledge in other subjects as can be gained in undergraduate general-education courses.
Let us consider a specific instance in which sf completism is offered as necessary for the
interpretation and evaluation of an acknowledged sf classic--an instance in which
confusion about other matters leads to gross misinterpretation:
Consider, for example, Walter M. Miller, Jr's A Canticle for Leibowitz. A
critic who knows little about science fiction might conclude that Miller is being
remarkably innovative in abandoning the typical historical model of the genre--upward
linear progress by means of scientific progress--to offer instead two distinct and
atypical models: Viconian historical cycles, and Christian teleology.... what if it turns
out that there are a number of other science fiction stories which also employ Viconian
and teleological structures?.... In that case Miller's novel is not diminished but
enriched, as it emerges as a commentary not only on earlier assumptions about linear
progress but on earlier uses of alternative models as well. In short, if critics do not
know what sort of works surround their selected masterpieces, they cannot fully understand
Now I doubt that Miller, or the authors of the other stories alluded to, had actually
read Scienza Nuova or thought of historical cycles as "Viconian
structures," but let that go.
Space stations are barely mentioned in Canticle, but since they are
mentioned Westfahl is justified in assessing their significance as symbolic of historical
cycles, even though the symbol works very poorly if at all, for space stations have only
circular motions whereas historical cycles--the rise and fall of empires--necessarily have
up and down motion. What Westfahl stresses, however, is the contrast between the cyclical
motion of space stations and the linear outward motion of spaceships, which can both be
applied to human progress.
science...offer[s] one possible avenue of slow linear movement from ignorance
to wisdom, breaking traditional cycles of human activity, and presenting the tantalizing
goal of ultimate knowledge of the universe. But there is another available model of linear
movement in human culture--Christianity, which postulates that people, both as individuals
and groups, are progressing toward a final purging of original sin and reunion with their
God. Like science but on different grounds, Christian thought rejects cyclical patterns,
seeing a final destination in human history--God....
The genius of A Canticle for Leibowitz is that its climactic starship
represents both models of linear progress: the scientific quest for knowledge and the
Christian quest for redemption. Miller argues that the two forces are natural allies, not
enemies; their common foe is traditional, destructive cycles of human behavior, and both
secular culture and Christian belief are necessary to break those cycles. Thus ...the
church will continue to preserve, by traveling into space, both secular and divine
knowledge after the second nuclear war. (131-32)
Alas, this just won't do, for Westfahl's "Christian teleology" is Teilhardian
whereas the Christianity of Canticle is Augustinian. The goals of science and of
Augustinian Christianity are incompatible. The hope that Eden can be recovered or that
Utopia can come into being in the physical universe is a delusion that leads inevitably to
disaster (see Canticle [Lippincott 1960] ß3.26: 274). The mission of the Church
is not to perfect human life but to facilitate the repopulation of heaven (the replacement
of the fallen angels) by the redemption of individuals one by one. The opposition between
the mission of science and that of Augustinian Christianity is evident in Book III in the
confrontations between Doctor Cors, who seeks to prevent suffering through euthanasia, and
Abbot Zerchi, who has sought to save souls at whatever cost and who continues to justify
himself to himself even while suffering a painful death:
Really, Doctor Cors, the evil to which even you should have referred was not suffering,
but the unreasoning fear of suffering. Metus doloris. Take it together with its
positive equivalent, the craving for worldly security, for Eden, and you might have your
"root of evil," Doctor Cors. To minimize suffering and maximize security were
natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends,
somehow, and the only basis of law--a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them,
we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security. (ß3.29:312).
The mission of the starship in Canticle is not to preserve
"civilization," whatever that is, but simply to preserve the Church so that it
can continue saving souls: "And yet the Memorabilia [records of secular knowledge]
was to go with the ship! Was it a curse?" (ß3.26).
A Canticle for Leibowitz is a highly ambiguous comedy of frustration. I for
one cannot judge whether Miller's sympathies lay more with Zerchi than with Cors. But Book
III in Canticle is Zerchi's story and as such does not lend itself to the idea
that the Christian mission needs science as a partner. For the understanding of A
Canticle for Leibowitz, reading the 162 pages of Frank E. Manuel's Shapes of
Philosophical History (Stanford 1965) would help more than reading any dozen sf
James Gunn. Isaac
Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, revised edition. Lanham,
Md., & London: Scarecrow Press (301-459-3366), 1996. ix+276. $36.00.
James Gunn must have felt confident, when he finished the original edition of Isaac
Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction in 1981, that he was surveying a completed
body of work: after all, as he notes in his preface, "Isaac had not written a science
fiction novel for ten years, and that novel, The Gods Themselves, was his first
adult science fiction novel in fifteen years." Yet a year later, as Gunn published
his book in the promising but short-lived Oxford University Press series Science-Fiction
Writers, Asimov published Foundation's Edge, expanding the series that had been a
trilogy for nearly three decades and immediately making Gunn's coverage less than
comprehensive. Nor was this the end: having found that he could indeed still write sf,
Asimov not only wrote more Foundation books in the last decade of his life but continued
the robot novels as well; moreover, several of the later novels linked the two series, as
Asimov attempted to account for differences among his projected futures. Gunn's delight in
the fact that Asimov was writing more novels might perhaps have been tinged with concern
that each new fictional work diminished his critical study. Or perhaps not: after all,
Gunn is himself a writer of sf, and his loyalties probably lie with the work rather than
with the status of his critical study. In any event, Gunn has turned the output of
Asimov's last years to good use, waiting a suitable amount of time for posthumous
publications to appear and then expanding and updating his own book, whose claim to
comprehensive coverage of Asimov's career is now relatively secure.
Reviewing the original edition in SFS #32 (March 1984), I noted what I thought were its
strengths and weaknesses. Among the weaknesses were (and still are) the book's reliance on
plot summary, the absence of reference notes, and the tendency to judge Asimov's work
almost entirely against the standards of American magazine sf. I also thought that Gunn
was so clearly a fan of Asimov's that he wrote "from a perspective that is almost
indistinguishable from Asimov's own view of himself." That criticism is not quite so
true of the new edition, in which Gunn is more openly critical of some of the later
"best sellers," and in any case I am no longer so confident about the importance
of trying to stand apart from the subject of our analysis. Maybe intelligent advocacy like
Gunn's is as valuable in its own way as objectivity--and far easier to attain.
The major revisions in this book involve the addition of chapter 8, "The
Best-Selling Author," which deals with the works published after the original
edition, and the transcript of Gunn's 1979 interview with Asimov; there are also additions
to several chapters as well as to the chronology and the bibliography of Asimov's work.
Apart from dealing with additional novels, the final chapter is important for its
demonstration of the continuities and discontinuities in Asimov's fiction: for example,
the observation that "Foundation's Edge altered the message of the
trilogy--the message that rationality is the only human trait that can be trusted and that
it will, if permitted to do so, come up with the correct solution." What is more
remarkable than such new judgments is how much of Gunn's book did not have to be
revised. The chapter on The Foundation Trilogy and on the first two robot novels (The
Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun) have been left fundamentally undisturbed,
and for good reason: for decades even Asimov believed that these series had been
completed, and it is necessary to consider the shape that each series had for so long
before looking at ways in which Asimov later altered the series. Gunn's organization is
basically chronological (the final chapter of the original edition dealt with The Gods
Themselves), and he is at all times concerned with the circumstances under which the
works were composed, so it makes sense to follow Asimov's own lead and return to the Robot
and Foundation series in a separate chapter at the end of the book. When he does, Gunn is
tactful in balancing criticism of some of the late works with praise for what Asimov
achieved in his old age. After staying away from sf for years because he was convinced the
field had left him behind, Asimov showed that he could still tell a good story right up to
This is a successful revision of a book that I thought was pretty good and that others
thought was much better, as evidenced by the fact that it won a 1982 Hugo for sf
criticism. Still, Gunn might have done more--e.g., by expanding the woefully inadequate
secondary bibliography, which at present consists of nine books, including a Cliff's Notes
volume on Asimov, or by taking into account less positive appraisals of Asimov. For
example, as in the 1982 edition, Gunn cites Charles Elkins' critique of the
"psychohistory" underlying The Foundation Trilogy in terms of "the vulgar,
mechanical, debased version of Marxism promulgated in the Thirties" (since there are
no notes, he does not tell the reader where Elkins made this judgment), but although he
clearly disagrees with Elkins' analysis he does not directly refute it. Perhaps more
seriously, he never mentions Stanislaw Lem's serious objections to the Robot stories, nor
does he compare Asimov's robots with the very different conceptions of artificial beings
in such later works as Alfred Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit," Philip K. Dick's Do
Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, or Walter Tevis's Mockingbird. Doing so
would have expanded the range of Gunn's analysis, but it would also have brought a broader
perspective to bear on Asimov's achievement.
--Patrick A. McCarthy, University of Miami.
Culmination in Lovecraft Studies.
S.T. Joshi. H.P. Lovecraft: A Life. Necronomican Press (P.O.
Box 1304, West Warwick, RI 02893), 1996. xii+ 704. $40.00 cloth, $20.00 paper.
S.T. Joshi. A
Subtler Magick: The Writings and Philosophy of H.P. Lovecraft.
Milford Series #62. 2nd ed., revised and expanded. Borgo Press (909-884-5813), 1996. 312p.
$39.00 cloth, $29.00 paper.
The serious study of H.P. Lovecraft began in the 1970s when a number of younger
scholars began to challenge the views of August Derleth, who, from 1939 (when his small
press, Arkham House, published Lovecraft's The Outsider and Others) until his
death in 1971, was almost universally regarded as Lovecraft's heir and hence as his most
authoritative interpreter. The vast number of books and articles on Lovecraft (many by
Joshi himself), the publication of all his fiction in carefully edited texts as well as
much of his poetry and correspondence, constitute a firm foundation for Joshi's
culminating work in the massive H.P. Lovecraft: A Life, which will surely stand
for many years, if not forever, as the definitive biography as well as perhaps the most
authoritative interpretation of the work.
The second of these volumes, A Subtler Magic, may be regarded as an
abbreviation of the first: comparing sections devoted to the same topic (e.g. on "The
Outside," pp 251-54 of the biography, pp 85-87 of the critique) will yield a lesson
on how the same thing may be said in different words (or rather, in sentences and
paragraphs constructed in different ways). Although abbreviated volumes are usually priced
at considerably less than the original works, that is not the case here for the paperback
editions, so that choosing which of the books to buy depends just what and how much you
wish to read. If a critique is what you want, if you are not interested in the details of
Lovecraft's hectic life, settle for the shorter volume.
Andrea Paradis, ed. Out of this World: Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature.
Quarry Press and National Library of Canada, 1995. Cloth Can$ 17.99. [French Edition:
Visions d'autres mondes. Andrea Paradis ed. Quarry Press/Editions RD and
Bibliothéque nationale du Canada]
This is Canada and therefore this book is published simultaneously in a French and an
English edition. It is the companion volume to an excellently produced and multimedia
exhibition of the same name in the National Canadian Library and the intention of which is
to make Canadians aware of the existence of Canadian Science Fiction. However, the
perennial Canadian two solitudes (French and English) are very much present here, the
great majority of articles concentrate on their own branch of science fiction, French or
English, and ignore science fiction published in the other language except, in passing, on
a couple of occasions. It would be then inappropriate and inaccurate to describe this book
as a treatise on Canadian science fiction; it is an exposé gathering articles on
English-Canadian science fiction and Québec science fiction, the latter term
systematically and strangely meant to include also science fiction from outside Québec, a
tendency condemned by Jean-Louis Trudel.
One feature, not peculiar to this book, is that most of the critics of Canadian science
fiction are also writers of the genre; the notable exceptions being John Robert Colombo
and Stéphane Nicot. This then has several potential drawbacks, the first one being that
several big guns of Canadian science fiction have been asked to write about the field in
which they themselves are participants and find themselves getting close to apologizing
for having to quote their own work.
The other drawback is we are getting the impression that several critics have to use
generalizations and sweeping statements when criticizing weak works of science fiction for
fear of hurting writers too close to their immediate environments. Consequently, the
non-specialist reader might be forgiven for thinking that, since writers often have to
double as critics, Canadian science fiction suffers from a shortage of writers and
independent critics. It is not that being a writer should prevent one from being a critic;
on the contrary, writers can have knowledge essential to the comprehension of the process
of writing. But the reduced number of critics and the incestuous nature of the milieu is
not conducive to the emergence of criticism sufficiently removed from the scene and able
to cast a strongly critical eye without having to be apologetic or bound by loyalties.
In spite of these shortcomings, Out of this World is a milestone in Canadian
science fiction and could well be titled "The Dummy's Guide to Canadian science
fiction." Like all the Dummy guides, it is lively, witty, refreshing and even
penetrating while creating the urge, after having read it, to go out and buy a meatier,
thicker, and more comprehensive volume.
Writing essays for this book must have been a very frustrating experience, for all the
writers were commissioned, it seems, to write essays of a very limited length. So, some of
them must have decided to use the platform to write about a subject they feel strongly
about and only give lip service to the main issue at hand, Canadian science fiction, or
treat it in a token fashion that should have barely justified the inclusion of their essay
in this anthology on the basis of Canadian content (another preoccupation of mainstream
Canadian culture). It is not that what they write about is not interesting or thought
provoking, as when, for instance, Phyllis Gottlieb produces a historic listing of the
genesis of American science fiction describing its origins and listing its most prominent
historical figures; it is just that the subtitle of the book-- Canadian Science
Fiction and Fantasy Literature--might lure a buyer into thinking that this book
contains a series of essays on Canadian science fiction and not on the history of American
science fiction. Of course, Canadian writers expressing their views about science fiction
in general is of paramount importance but maybe the book should have a different subtitle.
This brings us back to an eternal question: is it possible to write about Canadian
science fiction in isolation from American science fiction? The answer is a tentative No.
Within the Canadian sphere, Phyllis Gottlieb in her essay "The Alien at the
Feast" writes incorrectly that French-speaking Canadian authors developed their
science-fiction ideas from French themes (from France). Reading other essays by
French-speaking writers makes it abundantly clear that this is not the case and that,
contrary to her statement, the dependence on the French market is negligible, except for a
couple of authors such as Elisabeth Vornarburg and Jean-Louis Trudel who have published in
the French paperback market. Their presence on French shelves, however, is ephemeral, as I
was able to judge from a recent visit.
It is true, as Stéphane Nicot explains, that French science fiction magazines do
reserve some space for articles on French Canadian science fiction but this only reaches a
minute proportion of the French reading public. It is obvious that English-speaking
writers and critics have a limited or insufficient awareness of French-Canadian science
fiction, although they are interested in their French-Canadian brethren while Québec and
French-Canadian writers express very limited interest in them since none of them actually
mention any English-Canadian writers in their essays. In fact, Quebec magazines like imagine...
and Solaris do write about individual English-Canadian science-fiction writers
but do not attempt to analyze their work within the context of English-Canadian science
David Ketterer is the one exception with his pioneering work on both streams of
Canadian science fiction, Canadian Science-Fiction and Fantasy. Curiously enough,
he is virtually absent from all essays and references (his book was on show at the
exhibition but omitted from the list of works displayed at the exhibition attached at the
end of the book).
This does not mean that this is not an important work; it is in reality a good concept
but slightly ill-conceived, in view of the limited space given to all the contributors.
This being said, when one considers all the hurdles that still exist in the realm of
Canadian science fiction, Out of this World does tackle all the important issues:
publishing Canadian science fiction in Canada, the dependence on the US market, the
magazine market (especially in Québec with "equal time" given to the two rival
magazines), science fiction for the young, among other subjects, and including an essay on
science fiction in Canadian pop music.
At times it even appears to be quite conventional in its emphasis on political
correctness, an intellectual attitude which has become a facile approach to complex
issues. Many women writers write essays about either science fiction written by other
women or about being a female science-fiction writer, with the notable exception of
Bouchard's essay on "the female utopia in Canada." It does stress the fact that
women writers are intensely eager to write science fiction on different terms from their
male counterparts, treating subjects and using structures that would otherwise be ignored.
However, it leaves little room for these female writers' views on science fiction in
general. In this respect, female Canadian science-fiction writers might not be very
different from a big part of Canadian science-fiction writing: namely, that many reviewers
seem to agree that Canadian science fiction tends to concentrate on soft science fiction
themes as opposed to hardware and gimmicky science fiction which is the mainstay of
traditional science fiction in America and elsewhere.
By giving space to so many different, and at times conflicting voices, Out of this
World manages to convey an image of the vitality of Canadian science fiction in the
process of expansion beyond the fringes of fanzines and fan-clubs.
Some authors do try to connect modern Canadian science fiction with 19th century works
in a need to give credentials to a literature often perceived as being no more than an
entertainment genre. Others, maybe wisely, only mention historical science fiction in
passing and focus instead on contemporary Canadian science fiction, which makes Canadian
science fiction no longer appear to be merely an esoteric challenge but an ongoing fixture
of the Canadian literary scene.
And in common with so-called mainstream Canadian literature this book does reflect the
glories and the miseries of Canadian science fiction or what it is to create, nurture, and
be sustained by your own culture next to an economic and cultural giant. While the United
States has managed to turn science fiction into a grassroots folk culture, Canada is still
looking for an approach sufficiently uncertain, apprehensive, and lacking self-assertion
to reflect Canada's view of itself.
For those with Internet access, the whole exhibition that has inspired the book is
available at <http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/events/sci-fi/fsci-fi.htm>.
-- Henry Leperlier, Université
SF&F Critics on Mainstream
Alienne R. Becker, ed. Visions of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fifteenth
International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Greenwood
Press (800-225-5800), 1996. xi+205. $55.00.
The previous volumes in what we may call the IAFA yearbooks have been discussed in
by various reviewers, all of them, as I recall, somewhat frustrated by the miscellanous
nature of the collections and the varying quality of the essays (e.g., see Gary Westfahl's
"21.7% Interesting," #71:168-70). What intrigues me most about the present
collection are the essays on Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and
Katherine Anne Porter's "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" (1939), together with an essay
by Brian Aldiss on Hamlet. Aldiss's amusing essay, "If Only Hamlet's Uncle
Had Been a Nicer Guy," offers a plausible interpretation of the play but, though
itself a fantasy, makes no case for Hamlet's being fantasy, which can also be
said of the essays by Catherine Merrill and Joan Frederick.
Merrill characterizes Miss Lonelyhearts as "sublime grotesque,"
which is fair enough, but nothing happens in the story that (to use Delany's definition of
fantasy) could not have happened--indeed nothing is done that would be especially
astonishing in the milieu depicted. Young would-be authors supporting themselves with
newspaper work, drinking heavily and behaving outrageously, were common in the fiction of
the time, and readers would also have been prepared for the farcical events of Miss
Lonelyhearts by such plays/films as The Front Page and Gentlemen of the
"Pale Horse, Pale Rider" is a grimly realistic story of a young woman's
waking and dreaming experiences during a time of war and plague. If the dreams
are fantastic, they are also realistic, being such as you or I might experience under the
same circumstances. Much of Frederick's space is devoted to the idea that Porter's fiction
has not been fully appreciated and that the great influenza pandemic of 1918 has been
little dealt with in fiction and was soon generally forgotten by the American people. As
for the pandemic, I have heard or seen references to it all my life, but perhaps one can
say it is now famous for being forgotten: Merrill lists three books on the subject,
published in 1974, 1978, and 1989, the last entitled America's Forgotten Pandemic.
Though Robert Penn Warren (one of Porter's good friends) is quoted on the supposed neglect
of Porter's fiction--"[It] has never found the public its distinction merits"
(26)--I am not persuaded that Porter has been neglected. In the 1930s and '40s she was
widely regarded as our best short-story writer; her stories were once omnipresent in
college anthologies, and the Collected Stories (1965) is still in print, the
paperback edition being now in its 11th printing. If the stories no longer appear in
college texts, having been displaced by current favorites, that is due to our relentless
drive for the new: it seems likely that only Poe, Hawthorne, and perhaps Faulkner will
have a permanent place in college anthologies.
SFS has frequently been chided (that same relentless drive) for devoting too much of
its space to pre-genre or non-genre sf. Of the 22 essays in Visions of Fantasy,
only three are devoted to genre sf and none to genre fantasy. Perhaps the book is thus all
the more interesting.
Post-Bodied and Post-Human Forms of
Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows, eds.
Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of
Technological Embodiment. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1995.
$13.95 trade pb.
Simultaneously published as a special issue of the journal Body & Society,
Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment offers
further evidence that cyberpunk sf has now crossed over into the terrain of mainstream
critical inquiry, especially studies devoted to the relation between the human body and
electronic technologies, between cybernetic theory and popular culture, and between the
prospects for political resistance and the evolving socioeconomic forms of contemporary
capitalism. Of the fourteen essays gathered in this volume, whose general purpose
(according to the editors' introduction) is to study how "developments in technology
point towards the possibilities of post-bodied and post-human forms of existence"
(2), nine make fairly detailed reference to cyberpunk texts, while two others examine
recent "cyborg cinema." Thus, while not explicitly concerned with issues of
genre, contemporary sf literature and film is a major focus of attention, providing not
only a series of examples to support the various arguments but also, for many of these
critics, a privileged discourse articulating the evolving norms of postmodern
technoculture. This approach is not new, of course; it merely builds on the perspectives
found in Larry McCaffery's Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and
Postmodern Fiction (Duke, 1991), Scott Bukatman's Terminal Identity: The Virtual
Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (Duke, 1993), and Mark Dery's Flame Wars:
The Discourse of Cyberculture (Duke, 1994), among others. But it does offer further
proof that cyberpunk has reached a plateau of critical legitimacy very few historical
forms of sf have achieved. This is not an unproblematic good, but it is a fact.
While some of the writers in Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk do fall prey to
the more unfortunate aspects of this mainstream canonization, the book as a whole is
generally worthwhile. While the work of William Gibson, predictably, receives the lion's
share of attention, this does not totally preclude serious discussion of other talents,
both major and minor (e.g. Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker, Richard Kadrey) as
well as of important genre precursors of the cyberpunk movement such as Philip K. Dick and
J.G. Ballard. The range of texts surveyed is still comparatively small, but at least it
goes beyond an endless homage to Neuromancer. Moreover, many of the writers show
familiarity with both the academic and fan-based coverage of cyberpunk, citing articles in
specialized venues such as Science-Fiction Studies and Interzone, though few of
them seem aware of the larger discourse of sf criticism, and more than one of them has
recourse to the grating solecism "sci-fi." Worst of all, most of the essays
either tacitly or overtly endorse the view that cyberpunk marks an epochal literary
confrontation with technology, ignoring its roots in previous genre movements (save for
the work of occasional geniuses like Dick or Ballard). This naive critical avant-gardism
will doubtless be profoundly irritating to anyone who knows the field in depth.
Of course, the book's main concern is not to trace how cyberpunk builds upon or refines
recurrent themes in sf literature, but rather to map its contiguity with the contemporary
situation of "technological embodiment" as expressed in a range of discourses
and cultural formations, from information theory to trends in medical research to popular
attitudes towards the "computer revolution." This interdisciplinary focus is the
main strength of the volume, which gathers the work not only of scholars of literature but
also of communications, sociology, philosophy, film and media, history, public policy, and
cultural geography. While a series of central issues clearly emerge as one reads through
the collection, it must be said that the various perspectives mobilized do not entirely
cohere, and the editors' introduction provides little in the way of a synoptic overview.
But as a mosaic of fragments on the theme of cyberculture, the book is generally
The introduction does attempt to sketch the basic assumptions of the book's tripartite
title. Briefly, cyberspace, especially in its Gibsonian version, is important because, as
an imaginative fusion of the internet and virtual reality (VR), it offers a locus for
extrapolating the emergence and evolution of various kinds of cyberbodies, from
personality constructs to Artificial Intelligences. Cyberpunk thus becomes a kind of
"social theory" providing, in displaced fictional form, "viable
characterizations of our contemporary world" of proliferating computer-based visions
and lifestyles (9). The editors stress, however, that their attention to cyberbodies
extends beyond siliconic representations to encompass "the aesthetic manipulation of
the body's surface through cosmetic surgery, muscle grafts and animal or human
transplants" as well as "alternatives to...organic functions, such as biochip
implants, upgraded senses and prosthetic additions" (11). For the editors, and for
most of the essayists, the figure of the cyborg, in its popular as well as its specialized
guises, comes to crystallize this range of "posthuman" possibility.
Appropriately enough, then, the first essay, David Tomas's "Feedback and
Cybernetics: Reimaging the Body in the Age of the Cyborg," provides a compelling
genealogy of modern human-machine hybrids by outlining Norbert Wiener's theories of
cybernetic automation and their cultural legacy. A meticulous and wide-ranging discussion,
it is also the best piece in the volume. It is followed by Sadie Plant's "The Future
Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics," which introduces the book's central focus on
gender issues in an interesting, though theoretically half-baked, defense of
"cybernetic feminism." The essay is on solid ground when discussing the
biography of Ada Lovelace, the first "computer" programmer, whose career working
with Victorian inventor Charles Babbage figured prominently in Gibson and Sterling's
"steampunk" novel The Difference Engine (which Plant treats). For
Plant, Ada was a proto- feminist whose alliance with technology was enabling in her
structured patriarchal context. While this seems to me a suggestive line of argument,
Plant unfortunately abandons its historical specificity, launching into a speculative
metaphysics of cyberspace as "the virtual materiality of the feminine" (60) that
I found muddled and unconvincing. Those with greater sympathy towards poststructuralist
feminism would perhaps view her discussion more favorably.
The volume then moves into a series of debates about the cultural significance of
information technologies. Michael Heim's essay on "The Design of Virtual
Reality" defends the projection VR system developed by the Electronic Visualization
Lab at the University of Illinois-Chicago, which induces an effect of "apperceptive
immersion" (73), over conventional head-mounted displays, which tend to promote a
less interactive environment. Heim offers much useful information, but his discussion is
deformed by an earnest, California-speak evangelism in favor of Tai Chi and biorhythms.
Mark Poster's "Postmodern Virtualities" likewise gives evidence of special
pleading, this time for postmodernist theory as the only adequate model for apprehending
the immense cultural shift portended by information technologies; his argument is clear
and efficient, but adds little to existing treatments of the topic, including the author's
own The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context (Polity, 1990).
Deborah Lupton's "The Embodied Computer User" canvasses the effects of the
integration of computers into everyday life, focusing on the anthropomorphic metaphors
that emerge to describe the technology, and on the symbiotic relationship that evolves
between it and its users. Her discussion is rooted in common-sense perspectives, perhaps
of necessity; however, I cannot help but feel that her conclusions are as a result
ultimately rather banal.
Nigel Clark's "Rear-View Mirrorshades: The Recursive Generation of the
Cyberbody," which follows, is at once more ambitious and more confusing. Basically,
it involves an extended riff on Marshall McLuhan's famous observation that the content (as
opposed to the form) of a new technology is previous technology; hence, Clark's emphasis
on the "recursive" logic that purportedly structures how cyberbodies are
envisioned, each advance in representational possibility inaugurated by technology leading
to "the resurrection of the referential form of the body from the previous
generation" (116). Thus, for example, the "futuristic" landscape of
cyberpunk, ostensibly based on an extrapolation of computer technology, actually reflects
the aesthetic styles and social modalities of older visual media such as television:
"a hyperactive sampling of broadcast bits ... the material fallout of mediated
trends, fashions and product lines" (122). The cyberbodies evoked are mutable,
gestural, "receptive surfaces for the images projected by the media" (123),
encoding the "burden of a corporeality brought up to the speed of the fashion
industry" (127). At the same time, however, Clark wants to argue for the emergence,
in dialectical counterpoint to these retro revivals, of the genuinely novel in culture,
"some movement into unfamiliar or undemarcated terrain" (116) that indicates the
radical character of technological innovation. Unfortunately, the general drift of his
argument is so firmly to stress a recursive logic that he never really convinced me true
change and development were occurring. Apparently, this essay is a fragment of an
unpublished booklength manuscript on the growth of "visual culture in the 20th
century" (133), and perhaps Clark's argument would be more congenially encountered in
unabridged form. I would certainly look forward to reading it.
The next essay, Kevin Robins's "Cyberspace and the World We Live In," is a
neo-Luddite rant, and in the context of the volume's otherwise generally celebratory tone,
it's rather bracing. I agree completely with Robins that prophesies of cyberspatial utopia
need to be more attentive to "their discursive status and significance in the world
we presently inhabit" (136), attending more responsibly to the emplacement of
information technologies like VR in a social regime based on differential relations of
power. Even so, I think Robins's treatment of the subject is more narrowly dogmatic than
it need be, and I'm surprised he doesn't offer more specific evidence of
cyber-culpability, such as the prevalence of sweatshop production in the microelectronics
industry, instead of the vague and fairly schoolmarmish attacks he trots out. For readers
interested in a more comprehensive and detailed recent indictment, I would direct them to
James Brook's and Iain A. Boal's anthology Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and
Politics of Information (City Lights, 1995).
The two essays that follow focus on film. Samantha Holland's "Descartes Goes to
Hollywood" considers the gender implications of the mind-body dualism at work in
"contemporary cyborg cinema," and Alison Landsberg's "Prosthetic
Memory" investigates how synthetic or simulated memories impact upon characters'
perceptions of self-identity in Total Recall (1990) and Blade Runner
(1982). Both essays are very engaging, and Holland's is exceptionally impressive in its
range of reference, focusing on Eve of Destruction (1990) and the Terminator
(1984, 1991) and Robocop (1987, 1990, 1991) films, but making mention as well of
more marginal titles such as RoboC.H.I.C. (1989) and Cherry 2000 (1988).
Holland's synthetic reading of the gender dynamics of these films--especially how they
evoke a "transcendental masculinity" that surpasses biological gender, thus
shoring up a patriarchal regime threatened by technological encroachment--is heavily
dependent upon Claudia Springer's coverage of similar terrain (in material that eventually
found its way into her Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age
[Texas, 1996]). Moreover, I am not convinced that the epistemological apparatus of
Cartesianism is absolutely essential to the structure of Holland's argument. Still, she
writes forcefully and well, and she knows these movies intimately. Hers is perhaps the
most effective feminist arraignment of contemporary cyberculture in the book. Landsberg's
essay, by contrast, is too schematic, and in my view too fundamentally hopeful about the
implications of implanted memories; I cannot agree, for example, with her assertion that
"whether...actions are made possible by prosthetic memories or memories based on
lived experience makes little difference" (183). Obviously, it makes a great
difference if those memories were implanted, as they are in both movies she discusses, by
invidious forces for nefarious reasons.
The volume reaches is nadir with Nick Land's "Meat (or How to Kill Oedipus in
Cyberspace)." Clearly, the editors felt compelled to include a sample of that genre
of cyberdrool that conflates poststructuralist theory and prose poetry, a form pioneered
by Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio, and Arthur Kroker. It is unfortunate they didn't
solicit a contribution from one of that triumvirate, who are at least entertainingly
pompous, instead of this third-rate knockoff, with its risible imitations of William
Burroughs: "Arriving reprocessed from inexistence at phase-transition into Hell or
the future, you slide an interlock-pin into its sub-cortical socket, shifting to the other
side of the screen (coma-zoned infotech undeath). Pandemonium scrolls out in silence.
Decayed pixel-dust drifts into grey dunes" (194). Etcetera ad nauseum.
Land's essay does at least prefigure an emotional response towards the effects of
cyborgization--nervous ecstasy mingled with revulsion--that inflects two of the remaining
four essays in the book. Vivian Sobchack's "Beating the Meat/Surviving the Text, or
How to Get Out of This Century Alive" and Robert Rawdon Wilson's
"Cyber(body)parts: Prosthetic Consciousness" are very different in their ways,
but both include fascinatingly strange meditations on their authors' real or imagined
prosthetic enhancements. Sobchack's discussion, which explicitly takes up where her
November 1991 SFS response to Baudrillard's reading of J.G. Ballard's Crash
(1973) left off, details her own experiences with a prosthetic leg. The result is a
brilliant mix of phenomenological theory, moral polemic, erotic reverie, and
self-lacerating irony that I could not do justice to if I tried--though I must remark the
(likely unintentional) echoes of K.W. Jeter's scathing novel Dr. Adder (1984),
with its vision of sexy cyborg amputees. Wilson's essay is equally idiosyncratic, though
it apparently emerges from his ongoing study of the cultural significance of the emotion
of disgust. His conclusion that the prospects of cyborgization disturb us because the
process threatens the mythic integrity of our bodies is finally more conventional than his
detailed speculation, along the way, about the potential benefits of penile implants and
augmentations: "my penis will have been lengthened (by cutting the suspensory
ligaments that join it to the pubic bone) and thickened (by the liposuction of fat from my
buttocks or abdomen) and I will seem, to my own mind at least, irresistibly bionic"
(240). Wilson is a Shakespeare scholar who can cite Dr. Who and Star
Trek--The Next Generation chapter and verse; altogether a very peculiar person.
Anne Balsamo's "Forms of Technological Embodiment: Reading the Body in Cyborg
Culture" is essentially a distillation of her Technologies of the Gendered Body:
Reading Cyborg Women (Duke, 1996). A careful and intelligent (if overly diagrammatic)
study of the social "system of differentiation [that] determines the status and
position of material bodies" (234), through the mediation of technology and
especially in relation to the categories of gender and race, it is hardly worth reading if
one has already perused her book, but if not it provides a thoughtful precis. By contrast,
Kevin McCarron's "Corpses, Animals, Machines and Mannequins: The Body and
Cyberpunk" is a conceptually thin coda, again invoking Cartesian themes in a
comparative discussion of the work of William Gibson and Marge Piercy. The essay adds
little to the critical literature on cyberpunk (and seems cognizant only of the essays
gathered in George Slusser's and Tom Shippey's Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future
of Narrative [Georgia UP, 1992]), but scholars interested in approaches to Piercy's
utopian novel He, She, and It (1991; a.k.a. Body of Glass) might find
something useful here.
In sum, Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk is an entertaining but uneven study
of its subject. Certainly it excels another more narrowly conceived SAGE anthology, Steven
G. Jones's Cybersociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community (1995),
but it falls short of covering the range of cultural phenomena canvassed in Dery's Flame
Wars and Andrew Ross and Constance Penley's Technoculture (Minnesota UP,
1991). And it isn't a patch on McCaffery's Storming the Reality Studio which,
despite its essentially literary bias, remains still the best study of contemporary
--Robert Latham, University
With a Postscript.
Peter Kemp. H.G.
Wells and the Culminating Ape. 1982. 2nd edition with new Preface and
Postscript. St. Martin's Press (800-221-7945), 1996. ix+232. $17.95 paper.
This is a highly amusing book on Wells's personal foibles but one of dubious values for
Wellsian scholars. As David Hughes, reviewing the original edition, said in SFS #32, March
The trouble is because Wells's compulsions were lifelong and because Kemp is a
collector and curator of compulsions, he ransacks Wells's writings of every period and
genre, along with his life and letters, without pause or discrimination. ... Kemp's
order...makes mincemeat of chronology (as for dates, those are in his bibliography) while
he omits page citations from his barrage of quick quotes. How does one guess (does Kemp
care?) whether what is served up with such relish exemplifies Wells at his best or worst?
Two recent books on Wells received such devastating reviews in TLS (at least
one was by Kemp himself) that I decided not to have them reviewed in SFS: Michael Coren's The
Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H.G. Wells (1993), said to portray Wells as
a monster, and Michael Foot's H.G.: The History of Mr. Wells (1995), said to
portray him as a saint. Kemp's Postscript is a brief survey of recent books on Wells in
which he classifies the authors as besmirchers or whitewashers. Having been scornful of
Coren's "Wobbly scholarship--factual errors, scrambled chronology, solecisms and a
very partial-seeming acquaintance with his subject's work" (215) and similarly
scornful of Foot's and Stover's in TLS reviews, Kemp, who ignores scholarly
procedures in the book proper, does some reckless quoting and charging in the Postscript:
The New Republicans who govern the World State "will not hesitate to kill" to
prevent sub-standard groups from reproducing. As a variant on this, A Modern Utopia
advocates a lifelong internment of sterilised undesireables--"idiots . . . lunatics .
. . drunkards . . . drug-takers . . . persons tainted with certain foul and transmissable
diseases . . . violent people and those who will not respect the property of others,
thieves and cheats"--on remote concentration-camp islands patrolled by gunboats.
(216-17; Kemp's ellipses)
It is not groups that the new republicans of Anticipations would not hesitate
to kill, nor substandard people in general: it is individuals guilty of a carefully
specified crime. Kemp ignores the tentatives and contingencies of Wells's speculations in Anticipations
and the "shot-silk" technique of A Modern Utopia, which is
tentativeness itself. Wells anticipates that before the end of the century
medical science will be able to determine whether certain diseases will necessarily be
transmitted to one's offspring and so anticipates that "the procreation of
children who, by the circumstances of their parentage, must be diseased bodily or
mentally" will be made a capital offense (NY 1902, 324, Wells's italics). On the
planet Utopia, however, no offenses, not even murder, would be capital:
"Lives that statesmanship has permitted, errors it has not foreseen, must not be
punished by death.... Crime and bad lives are the measure of a State's failure, all crime
in the end is the crime of the community" (London 1905, ß5.2:144). And there would
be no workhouses administered by "zealous half-educated people in a state of panic at
the quite imaginary `Rapid Multiplication of the Unfit'" (London 1905, ß5.2:142-43):
"The State would provide these things [training, employment, health care, old-age
pensions, etc.] for its citizen as though it was his right to require them; he would
receive as a share-holder in the common enterprise and not with any insult of
charity" (ß5.1:140-41). There would be no harsh prisons or snake-pit insane asylums.
Those adjudged insane or as having a necessarily transmissible disease and those convicted
of crime a third time or of drunkenness or misdemeanor a seventh time would be exiled to
islands to live, not in Kemp's "concentration camps," but, with some exceptions,
in self-governing communities: "The insane, of course, will demand care and control,
but there is no reason why the islands of the hopeless drunkards, for example, should not
each have a virtual autonomy, have at most a Resident and a guard" (ß5.2:145), and
not "sterilised," as Kemp would have it, though in some cases sexually
segregated, as in present-day prisons (ß5.2:144). The islands would indeed be patrolled
by boats ("gunboats" is Kemp's term, not Wells's), for there can be no such
thing as a prison with no provisions for preventing escapes. In sum, the administration of
justice in Wells's modern utopia would be much more humane than in the England of his day
or the USA of ours.
After four and a half pages in which he seems to sympathize entirely with the view that
Wells was a moral monster, Kemp cites a book by John Carey that in one chapter
"collects a devastating dossier of Wells's proposed agenda" and then in the next
"display[s] how Wells simultaneously harbored sentiments that are the reverse of this
clutch of antipathies and ugly doctrines" (218). After noting Carey's statement that
Wells's legacy, "taken as a whole" is "pernicious and dangerous," Kemp
if his work is looked at in its totality, his legacy seems no more pernicious and
dangerous than it is innocuous and tame.... What he bequeathed to the posterity his
imagination strained forward to envisage is a body of work, at its best, of extraor-dinary
power, uniqueness and range.... Irrepressible vitality, poetry, wit, candour, blazing
inventiveness and urgent engagement with mankind's predicaments and prospects make him not
the totalitarian bigot of his besmirchers nor the impeccable socialist hero of his
whitewashers but a prodigiously--if sometimes monstrously-- idiosyncratic genius. (219-20)
Two points. First, Carey's reversals might seem less contradictory if critics paid
attention to Wells's "shot-silk" methods of composition. Second, if we are going
to judge a man's life and thought, it seems to me that we should concentrate on his latter
years and give him credit for abandoning the prejudices of his earlier years. The
Work, Wealth, and Happiness of Mankind (1932), which sums up Wells's social and
political thought, is thoroughly liberal, as is all of his non-fiction written in the
following years. Liberal, though not pluralist. The antisemitism with which many have
charged him (including Kemp) would be better termed anti-Judaism. In The Fate of Homo
Sapiens (London 1939) Wells details his desire for "a world, scientifically
administered, free, a world-wide civilization open to everyone, where there will be
neither Jew nor Gentile, bond nor free" (ß12:133-34). To this end he surveys the
"existing forces" that hold humanity on the road to destruction and prevent it
from taking the road to utopia: Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Nazism,
Totalitarianism, the British oligarchy, Shintoism, the Chinese New Life movement,
Imperialism, Communism, the American mentality. To be sure, Wells thought the Jews were
the most obdurate of peoples in rejecting assimilation, but there is nothing in the book
to indicate any animosity against Jews as individuals or to advocate forced assimilation
for Jews, Protestants, Americans, or anyone. This, in reason's name, is not antisemitism.
And that pluralism is today's liberal cant does not mean that yesterday's melting-pot
liberals were wicked people.
Sean French, The
Terminator. BFI Film Classics. Indiana UP (800-842-6796), 1996. 72
pages, illus. $9.95.[The volumes in the British Film Institute Film
Classics series, of which French's The Terminator is representative, are availabe
from Indiana University Press, Mail Order Department, 601 North Morton Street,
Bloomington, IN 47804-3797 at $9.95 each plus $3.00 postage for one book and $1.00 each
additional book. Other volumes in the series include Christopher Frayling's Things to
Come and Alberto Manguel's Bride of Frankenstein.--RDM.]
James Cameron is currently a beneficiary of the most lucrative production deal ever
given to a movie director. Yet whatever freedom he is given, whatever power he goes on to
achieve, he will never be able to recapture the creative opportunity he had when he made The
Sean French's presentation of James Cameron's The Terminator is a very
attractive and useful short book which, unlike many other longer "the making of"
volumes (e.g., Paul Sammon's 400+ page 1996 Future Noir: The Making of Blade
Runner), is short on anecdote and long on analysis and context. It does not follow
chronologically the film making process, but in a series of brief chapters, the author
examines the components of the film's success which French attributes almost entirely to
the skills of the writer/director James Cameron. This was a film apparently doomed to
fail, or at least one envisaged by its producers as an inexpensive sf exploitation film,
"the sort of project that seems to have been developed without even the intention of
being any good."
The film's producers at Orion could scarcely have anticipated much from its
writer-director. James Cameron had worked in various technical capacities for Roger Corman
and had confirmed his lack of promise at the helm of a disastrous cheapo sequel to Joe
Dante's Piranha (1978). His Terminator storyline was
largely culled from time-travel ideas that had already been explored in TV science fiction
shows like The Outer Limits.... The film's star was an Austrian muscleman...who
had already become a laughing-stock because of his inability to act and his ineradicable
accent. . . . The action was heavily dependent on visual effects, yet the film was
initially budgeted at a minuscule $4 million (less than the special effects budget alone
for the same year's Ghostbusters) and raised to $6.5 million only with the
greatest reluctance. (6-7)
So how did Cameron overcome these inadequacies? French's explanation lies in Cameron's
almost total control (since the studio was not concerned about such a small amount of
money) and the experience he had gained working for Roger Corman.
[There] he gained a basic technical grasp of every aspect of modern film-making from
operating the camera to the most arcane details of special effects. He could write a
script and he could storyboard a scene. When he came to make his own films, he had a
knowledge of everybody's job that gave him more than nominal authority. (13)
It was this experience that allowed him to make a series of astute practical decisions
and judgements, which included: the film's feel and look, stemming from his borrowings
from 50s sf, as well as from later films like Westworld and Mad Max, a
visual feel which he had developed while doing the special effects for Escape from New
York; his ability to take advantage of what were perceived as Schwarzenegger's
weaknesses (making him in the process a star), namely the stressing of his impassiveness:
Schwarzenegger's "poise and stillness [made] his accent and his inability to act
irrelevant" (34); Cameron's "efficiency of construction"--not only his
experience which allowed him to transfer economically the script to story-boards (and then
to film), but as well the careful utilization of his meagre special effects budget on just
two scenes: the opening futuristic battle sequence, and the appearance of the burned
cyborg at the end as it emerges from the flames. (Incidentally, French points out that
Cameron's first notion of the film was a visual one, that of a robot walking out of a
fire). French argues that even the studio's decision not to spend money on publicity
worked in its favor. Finally, following from his work with Corman (and from a careful
watching of Halloween):
Cameron was the first to see [that] the covert identification of the audience with the
terminator really was fun.... the film allowed the audience to have it both ways. They
want Reese and Sarah to get away, but the also have the chance to root for the bad
While this short explanatory essay does not include an "interpretation" per
se, it does include a brief chapter "Defending The Terminator" in which
French deftly shows, in Cameron's words, how the film could appeal both to a 12- year-old
sf fan and to "a 45-year-old Stanford English prof [who] would think [it] had some
sort of socio-political significance" (Cameron cited by French 47), including the
playful suggestion that this Stanford English professor "might point out that the
film is a feminist subversion of what had been a quintessentially male genre" (47);
and French goes on to point out Cameron's liking for strong female leads ("All of his
films, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies, feature weak, neurotic men and
strong women," 48). Finally the book includes all the pertinent technical facts as
well as a discussion of Terminator 2.
--Peter Fitting, University
Apologiae for Genre SF.
Brian Stableford. Outside
the Human Aquarium: Masters of Science Fiction. The Milford Series:
Popular Writers of Today #32. 1981 (as Masters of Science Fiction: Essays on Six
Science Fiction Writers). 2d ed., revised and expanded. Borgo Press, 1995. 152p. $29
cloth, $19 paper (credit-card orders 909-884-5813).
Brian Stableford. Opening
Minds: Essays on Fantastic Literature. I.O. Evans Studies in the
Philosophy and Criticism of Literature #14. Borgo Press, 1995. 144p. $29 cloth, $19 paper
(credit-card orders 909-884-5813).
In 1985 Brian Stableford stopped me in my tracks. Having a few years before written a
large number of brief reviews on the sf "classics" that had been reprinted in
the Hyperion, Arno, Gregg, and Garland series, I had been gathering materials and making
notes for a series of notes on "Books That Should Be Reprinted." The appearance
in that year of Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (in which Stableford
discussed most of the books I had in mind and said of them much the same thing I would
have said) rendered my project redundant. In the preface to Algebraic Fantasies and
Realistic Romances (1995; see SFS 22:293, #66, July 1995), Stableford writes that he
has been called "the world's foremost expert on books nobody has ever read by authors
nobody has ever heard of" (5). Such a title, with respect to sf, was one that in 1985
I still aspired to, but, seeing myself outclassed, I turned away to other things.
Stableford seems to know everything I know and much that I do not, not only from his
training in biology and sociology but also from reading in areas I have merely skirted. He
is, for example, able to put Clark Ashton Smith's work into its proper context, having
read and thought profoundly on the French decadents and having even looked up and read
such now obscure American poets as George Sterling and Edwin Markham. The result is an
essay, "Outside the Human Aquarium: The Fantastic Imagination of Clark Ashton
Smith" (Outside 76-98), much more rewarding than the rather plodding
Starmont Reader's Guide to Smith by Steve Behrens (see SFS 18:455-56, #55, Nov 1991).
Having in reaction reread some of Smith's short stories, I am still not persuaded that
they deserve Stableford's accolades, but that is an argument for another time.
One's response to reading is often a mixture of fascination and irritation. I am not
much disturbed by philosophical or political views with which I disagree, as long as those
views seem to result from honest reasoning. What troubles me is sentimentalism and
melodrama; that is, unexamined moral sentiments and attitudes which assume that the reader
will, e.g., share the righteousness felt by mighty heroes in killing wicked villains or
will be thrilled (one's blood running cold) by graphic horrors or (one's heart beating
faster) by violent action depicted in detail. When irritation mixes with fascination, my
critical tendency is to dwell on the story's faults; Stableford's is to dwell on its
strengths while acknowledging its weaknesses, and so he often makes me feel I have missed
something. For genre sf he is one of the best critics we have.
Six of the ten essays in Outside the Human Aquarium: Masters of Science Fiction
are concerned with the lives, careers, and work of writers widely acknowledged as masters
of the craft of science fiction: Vonnegut, Malzberg, Silverberg, Dick, Sturgeon, and
Weinbaum. They contain some shrewd observations--e.g., that Vonnegut's rejection of the
label "sf writer" is justified by there being "a unity in his novels that
makes them all a coherent whole irrespective of the fact that some use ideas derive from
SF's characteristic vocabulary while some do not" (18)--but do not reach any
unexpected conclusions. Four, including the one on Clark Ashton Smith, deal with writers
for whom the critical reaction has been mixed if not wholly adverse.
In "Utopia--and Afterwards: Socioeconomic Speculation in the SF of Mack
Reynolds" Stableford grants that Reynolds often "pander[ed] to the demand for
routine melodrama that controls the lower strata of the SF," but still claims
(justifiably I think) that "his better books offer plenty of food for thought, and
deserve more attention in academic circles than they have so far received" (75).
"Gernsback's Pessimist: the Futurisitic Fantasies of David H. Keller" concludes
that since Keller's style is "excruciatingly crude," his sf is "Perhaps
...only of antiquarian interest, and certainly requires to be read with an understanding
of historical context" but even so "it was both striking and challenging in its
day, and the Gernsback magazines would have been much poorer without it" (116).
The first installment of Edmond Hamilton's first story about the Interstellar Patrol,
"Crashing Suns," appeared in the August 1928 Weird Tales, and the
impression it made on my 12-year-old mind was even greater than that made by the first
installment of The Skylark of Space, which appeared the same month in Amazing
Stories--greater because its patriotic sentiments, its glorying in the greatness of
one's people, tugged at my heart strings, and because it evoked more vividly the
megalomania at the heart of a childish sense of wonder. I was much less impressed,
presumably because they were less sentimental, by the numerous "world wrecker"
stories that made Hamilton famous in the '20s and '30s among the readers of Amazing,
Wonder, and Astounding. These were typically monster-machine stories: i.e.,
stories in which our enemies have in their world a machine that will, when they pull the
lever, destroy our world, but since we (our heroes) are able to reach their world and slip
and/or fight our way across it until we have reached the machine, it is their
world that is destroyed when we pull the lever.
"Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett: An Appreciation" deals primarily with
the stories collected in The Best of Edmond Hamilton (1977; edited by Leigh
Brackett) and The Best of Leigh Brackett (1977; edited by Edmond Hamilton). Since
Stableford does not mention the Intertsellar Patrol and only alludes to world wrecking,
the Hamilton he depicts is one I barely recognize. Even so, this essay is one of his best,
especially in its discussion of the changing intellectual ambience, which is summarized as
Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett do not belong to the science fiction of today. Their
work forms part of a tradition now virtually extinct. This is largely because we live in a
different period of history. In the twenties and thirties Hamilton's literary strategies
were effective, because there was at that time a large audience whose scientific and
science-fictional naiveté was undefiled. There is no such audience today, because even
those people who are just beginning to read SF in their teens have already been
familiarized with most of the ideas that were new and mind-expanding to the similar
generation of 1926. The mythology of SF has slowly permeated the cultural atmosphere.
Similarly, the kind of childhood fantasy from which Brackett's work is one important stage
removed no longer has the dominance over present-day juvenile literary experience that it
once had. Despite these facts, the best stories of Edmond Hamilton and the best stories of
Leigh Brackett do have a certain timelessness. They will not appear on the same wide scale
even to today's emergent SF community, but there will always be something they have to
offer to a particular type of reader: the reader who does find it possible to achieve [for
Hamilton] that momentary hesitation which allows a wild idea to sting his imagination; or
the reader who has found himself quite entranced by the allure of ultra-exotic dreams [as
The conclusion then reached is one that I can understand though hardly endorse:
Because this is so it is not necessary to justify an interest in these two writers by
considering their work as period pieces. They can both be recommended as good and special
writers. (Outside 17)
Concentrating on Hamilton's short stories, Stableford no more than alludes to the bulk
of Hamilton's work, which consists of novelettes and novels. Viewing Hamilton's work as a
whole, I can only think of him as a professional hack who occasionally attempted serious
work in short stories, with indifferent results. It is also true that Stableford never so
much as mentions Brackett's most famous novel, The Long Tomorrow (1955); his not
doing so is understandable, for that fine sober, serious, realistic work is unique in her
sf opus and quite irrelevant to Stableford's appreciation of her exotic romances.
Opening Minds contains nine thematic essays. The first, "SF: The Nature
of the Medium" is an application of the theories of Marshall McLuhan to sf. Although
Stableford's more recent essays on the nature of sf--e.g., "How Should a Science
Fiction Story End," NYRSF, February 1995, which won him the SFRA Pioneer
Award--have shown him to be perhaps our best theoretician, this early (1974) attempt at sf
theory would in my opinion have best been left uncollected. "Future Wars,
1890-1950" is a valuable supplement to I.F. Clarke's Voices Prophesying War.
The other essays, taken together, provide valuable background knowledge for reading
verious kinds of sf. The longest, "The Mythology of Man-Made Catastrophe" one of
the best thematic studies I have ever read. "Opening Minds," with its contrast
of Wells and Jarry, and "William Wilson's Prospectus for Science Fiction, 1851"
illuminate the history and theory of sf, as do "Science Fiction and the Mythology of
Progress," "The Concept of Mind in Science Fiction," "The Plausibility
of the Impossible," "Marxism, Science Fiction, and the Poverty of
Stableford's essays (as opposed to the hundreds of entries he has contributed to
encyclopedias), hitherto scattered in various journals, are being gathered into a number
of volumes published by Borgo Press. It is to be hoped that they will eventually be
unified (not merely gathered) into the major work on science fiction that Stableford is
uniquely qualified to write.
Dracula in Academe.
Bram Stoker. Dracula. Ed. Maud Ellmann. Oxford UP, 1996,
xxxii+389. $6.95 paper.
Dracula. Ed. Nina Auerbach and
David J. Skal. Norton Critical Editions. W.W. Norton, 1997. xiii+492. $9.95, paper.
As Bram Stoker's Dracula marks its one hundredth anniversary this year,
readers may expect to see a variety of new vampire-related scholarly works, fiction
collections, cd-roms, and "new-and-improved" editions of this classic Gothic
novel on bookstore shelves. Since Dracula's recent academic canonization, the
domain of scholarly editions has become an especially lucrative market: thousands of new
students in a wide variety of Gothic and Victorian literature courses are consuming Dracula
annually. It is no longer correct to classify this Victorian novel as underread (something
which was done, rather suprisingly, in the 1996 publication, The New Nineteenth
Century: Feminist Readings of Underread Victorian Fiction, edited by Barbara Leah
Harman and Susan Meyer, Garland Publishing, New York).
Two important new editions of Dracula have been published recently by Oxford
University Press and W.W. Norton and Company. As no corrected editions succeeded it, both
follow Stoker's 1897 authoritative first edition. While the Norton Critical Edition by
Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal has been long-awaited and is, in fact, new--this is the
first Norton edition of Stoker's novel--the Oxford edition prepared by Cambridge
University professor Maud Ellmann replaces that by A.N. Wilson from 1983.
Looking to the latter edition, it would seem that, apart from capitalizing on the
centennial anniversary (an event which is noted on the back cover), Oxford may have
considered A.N. Wilson's work to be somewhat outdated. Indeed, since the appearance of
Wilson's edition, Stoker's novel has gained much scholarly attention in the form of dozens
of articles and critical works. In illuminating how Dracula brilliantly
incorporated many of the central debates of its era--debates about such wide-ranging
issues as racial and imperial decline, hypnosis, the proto-feminist New Woman, large-scale
immigration, and homosexuality--these analyses have called some of Wilson's rather
derogatory remarks about Dracula and its author into question.
Among other comments, Wilson described Stoker as "something of a lecher" whom
"no one in their right mind would think of as 'a great writer.'" On the heels of
his claim that Dracula was written "merely to scare," Wilson deduced,
with the aid of some highly debatable criteria, that Dracula was "not a
great work of literature" but a "second-rate classic" because it could be
transferred to the silver screen without anything being lost. In fact, Wilson comments,
"much is gained, for we can actually see the bat's-wing cloak spreading before our
eyes, hear the howling of the wolves in some Ealing studio, watch the simulated fangs
being sunk into the throat of the lovely actress, and get all the effects for which
Stoker's prose was shoved into service." Among other cinematic renditions, Coppola's
1992 adaptation, Bram Stoker's Dracula, disproves Wilson's contentious assertion.
It remains safe to say, as Orson Welles did in a famous interview with Peter Bogdanovitch,
that although "Dracula would make a marvelous movie, nobody has ever made
Bypassing the controversial debate about the success of Dracula's transmission
to celluloid, it is curious to note that Wilson's remarks about the caliber and nature of
the author's writing as being "of a powerful, workaday sensationalist kind"
remain basically undisputed. Ironically, while Wilson was willing to categorize Dracula
as a classic text (albeit "second-rate") whose "manner is entirely suited
to the matter," both of these new editions deem Stoker's adventure/"invasion
scare" novel a consummate 1890's "potboiler" that failed to make him famous
in his day. Curiously, this potboiler failed to accomplish its usual primary objective
which is to make money for its author. It was left to twentieth-century filmmakers and
book publishers to tap Dracula's lucrative potential.
In terms of editorial notes, Ellmann's work stands head-and-shoulders above Wilson's
1983 edition. As opposed to 15 scanty footnotes in the latter text, Ellmann provides 11
pages of informative textual notes that help to explain a wide variety of cultural and
historical allusions. Stoker's detailed research for Dracula in areas such as
Transylvanian history and folklore, and his incredible knowledge of everything from
Shakespeare's plays (Stoker's boss Henry Irving was regarded by many as the best
Shakespearean actor of his day) to British regional dialects and medical terminology
require astute notation, especially for today's student readers. What is particularly
agreeable is that Ellmann resists the inclination to direct her readers' interpretation of
Stoker's work. The reasons behind Ellmann's ideological openness are made clear in her
introductory comments where she foregrounds Dracula's own multifaceted
ideological significance. According to Ellmann's litany of meanings, "Dracula has
been interpreted as a figure for perversion, menstruation, venereal disease, female
sexuality, male homosexuality, feudal aristocracy, monopoly capitalism, the proletariat,
the Jew, the primal father, the Antichrist, and the typewriter." As she sees it, the
Count does signify all of these things.
With further regard to Ellmann's introduction, one would be hard-pressed to find a more
engaging and concise outline of both the elements subtending Dracula's production
and the changing face of Dracula scholarship over the past one hundred years.
Although, like Wilson, Ellmann is extremely impressed with Dracula's intense mythic
power--it is here, she argues, that Dracula's success lies--she adheres to James
B. Twitchell's view in his 1981 publication, The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire
in Romantic Literature, that "Dracula's claim on our attention is not
its artistic merit." She mercilessly calls Stoker a "cack-handed narrator"
whose novel lacks "development of character, complexity of thought, [and] choiceness
of expression." If this statement was not problematic enough, Ellmann caps things off
with the claim that Dracula "wouldn't be so good if it weren't so very
Ellmann unfortunately fails to clarify this last statement, leaving the reader with a
couple of perplexing questions: Why did she choose to edit a "very bad" novel?
More pertinently, how exactly did such a bad book accomplish mythic resonance? A narrative
must be successful on some level if it is to achieve such mythopoeic power. There must
have been something Stoker actually managed to get right in his writing of Dracula.
Putting these queries aside, Ellmann's updated edition is an ideal college text as it is
reasonably priced, has good detailed notes, and an informative introduction.
Turning to the Norton Critical Edition by Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal, the reader
enters more ideologically-charged terrain. This becomes apparent in the volume's brief
four-page preface where several of Dracula's preoccupations are outlined,
concluding with an extended segment on Stoker's attitude towards homosexuality. On the
basis of what appears to be no evidence at all, the editors argue that Stoker "may,
in freer days [before his marriage to Florence Balcombe] have been involved in the
homosexual community later ostracized in [Oscar] Wilde's person."
Before examining this problematic key-note, let it first be said that there is much
that is very good in this edition. Auerbach and Skal maintain the well-deserved reputation
of Norton Critical Editions as wonderful student texts that combine an annotated edition
of a literary text with other significant documents ranging from a cross-section of
reviews of the work to excerpts from sources crucial to its composition. Apart from a well
chosen selection of reviews of this novel by Stoker's contemporaries, two other sections
particularly stand out. "Contexts" provides pertinent background material such
as significant excerpts from Stoker's Working Papers for Dracula, and valuable
excerpts from Emily Gerard's Transylvanian Superstitions, from which Stoker
derived much of his folkloric and anthropological information. With one exception, the
section of recent criticism, which includes excerpts from seven of the most significant
contributions to the domain of Dracula studies, is also very well selected. The
approaches here range from Marxist (Franco Moretti) and feminist (Phyllis Roth), to
historicist (Stephen Arata) and psychoanalytic (Carol Senf). All of which brings me to the
single exception. There is an unfortunate tendency in this edition towards foregrounding Dracula's
homoerotic "connections." This particular slant is clear in the notes where, for
example, the reader is informed that "the word 'strange' in late Victorian England
was often suffused with homoerotic undercurrents" (it is curious to note that
scholars in the same period have noted that the word "strange" was often charged
with anti-Semitic undertones). Further, two of the seven recent critical excerpts feature
essays on homoeroticism. While it would be patently incorrect to claim that this aspect of
Dracula is non-existent, it is certainly minor at best. Although several of its
ideas are debatable, Christopher Craft's 1984 essay "'Kiss Me with Those Red Lips':
Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker's Dracula," was the first significant
contribution of this type in the field of Dracula studies. It is rightly included
here as it has now become staple reading.
Talia Schaffer's 1994 essay, "'A Wilde Desire Took Me': The Homoerotic History of Dracula,"
however, essentially covers the same terrain from a more psychobiographical perspective.
Working from the highly speculative and unsupported premise that "Dracula
explores Stoker's fear and anxiety as a closeted homosexual man during Oscar Wilde's
trial," Schaffer's essay is an example of what I consider to be flawed scholarship in
this field. As it is also fairly redundant as it treats the homoerotic issue, it should
have been replaced by one of several noteworthy essays considering the
science-versus-faith question, an extremely pertinent theme in Dracula. Indeed,
the lack of such an essay here is a glaring omission.
All of this being said, the Norton Critical Edition is exceptionally well annotated by
two noteworthy scholars who know the domain of Dracula studies from both the pop
culture and academic perspectives. Their decision to include a section on the Dramatic and
Film Variations of Dracula renders this edition more amenable to a wide variety
of courses. At the extremely reasonable price of $9.95, this edition is the preferable
option for more intensive and/or graduate courses.
--Carol Margaret Davison, Concordia University.
Pamela Sargent. Nebula
Awards 31. Harcourt Brace & Co., 1997. xv+ 334. $26.00 cloth,
$13.00 paper. Includes the 1995 award-winners for novella (Elizabeth Hand's "Last
Summer at Mars Hill"), novelette (Ursula K. Le Guin's "Solitude"), short
story (Esther M. Friesner's "Death and the Librarian"), plus a six-participant
symposium on the year in sf and fantasy, memorial tributes to John Brunner and Roger
Zelazny, who died in 1995), a note on tributes to the life-work of A.E. van Vogt, who
received the 1995 Grand Master Award, together with his 1950 story, "Enchanted
Phyllis Eisenstein, ed. Spec-Lit No. 1. Columbia College Fiction
Writing Department (Attn. Spec-Lit Fulfillment, 600 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL
60605), 1997. 175pp. $6.95 ppd. A collection of stories by students and teachers of sf
writing at Columbia College Chicago. The 16 stories include one each by Algis Budrys and
Robin Wilson, ed. Paragons: Twelve Master Science-Fiction Writers Ply Their Craft.
1996. St Martin's Press (800-221-7945), 1997. xiii+368. $14.95 paper. This collection in
which the author of each story discusses the problems involved in writing it was reviewed
in SFS #70 (November 1996). It is now available as a trade paperback, as is its famous
forerunner, Wilson's 1973 anthology, Those Who Can: A Science Fiction Reader,
reprinted 1996 by St Martin's at $13.95.
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