Science Fiction Studies

#83 = Volume 28, Part 1 = March 2001


Discretion and Common Sense.

Gwyneth Jones. Deconstructing the Starships: Science, Fiction and Reality. Liverpool UP,1999. vii + 221 pp. £27.50 hc; £11.95 pbk.

Gwyneth Jones is one of the two or three most important writers of the current sf boom in the UK, and a highly regarded exponent of recent feminist sf. Deconstructing the Starships collects articles, papers, and reviews she has produced between 1986 and 1997. From the evidence in this book, it is clear she is also one of the most reflective and readable sf critics working today.

Jones is a fiction writer first, and her criticism is mainly occasional. DtS is divided into three sections, each ostensibly in a different critical medium. The first, "All Science is Description," includes four pieces commissioned by various institutions, from British Telecom to the C.S. Lewis Society, between 1986 and 1994. "Science, Fiction and Reality" follows with papers delivered over the next three years at various low-key British sf conferences. The final section gathers Jones’s reviews from Foundation, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and SF Eye, journals all known for freewheeling criticism by practicing writers. The papers and essays are presented in chronological order, as are the reviews, so the message seems to be that DtS is a record of the development of an important writer’s marginal commentary.

Nothing in the titles or the order would lead one to think that Jones or Liverpool University Press considers the work particularly noteworthy as theory or social commentary. The essays all have the kind of titles expected from writers—"The Lady and the Scientists," "My Crazy Uncles: C.S. Lewis and Tolkien as Writers for Children," "Sex: The Brains of Female Hyena Twins," "Aliens in the Fourth Dimension"—that promise imaginative farfetching, in which disciplined argument is not required. Even the book’s wryly cute cover seems to say so: stenciled over a starscape is a simple instructional diagram for gluing together one of those plastic Revell or Aurora models of a toy spaceship, as if to say, herein the visions of sf are revealed to be toy constructions in a real cosmos. There is little effort made to present Jones as a feminist critic, let alone a major one, or an admired sf personality. A sort of discreet British diffidence pervades the project; not even the lengthy back-cover blurb refers to Jones as anything more than "a practicing SF writer." Perhaps Liverpool UP expects its prospective buyers to know exactly who Gwyneth Jones is and what she has written. Still, I find it puzzling why this valuable book seems intended to float in the critical void, like the unassembled toy model on its cover.

The modesty is misplaced. These essays deserve much wider exposure and enthusiasm. To begin with, the divisions are uninspired, and misleading, since the various writings are much more closely linked than they appear. Although it makes some sense to isolate the reviews, Jones often uses the form as an occasion for more comprehensive essays. Indeed, some of the reviews complement the essays/papers so neatly that by arranging all the pieces together in chronological order, perhaps with a comprehensive conclusion, DtS would be revealed overtly to be what it is now only implicitly: a valuable critical history of recent feminist sf equal to Jenny Wolmark’s Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism, and Postmodernism (U Iowa P, 1994) and Sarah Lefanu’s In the Chinks in the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (Women’s Press, 1988).

The title, too, misleads. Jones does not strive to be an original theorist, and her references to deconstruction are only occasional and somewhat idiosyncratic. She takes positions that are not unfamiliar to most students of sf criticism: that sf is not about the future, but the present; that sf is a paradoxical genre, combining techniques of realism ("deep décor"), game-like translations of sf displacements into their real-world analogues, and a tactical "mixture of convention, sleight of hand and cynical trickery, with a ‘best-by’ date that makes the whole thing absurd stamped all the way through" (16); that sf "is the only fiction about the present, everything else is historical romance" (vii); that sf is a jerry-built mishmash of confidence-tricks, and also a "precious conduit between the human world and the strange cosmos we inhabit" (21). The 1987 essay "Getting Rid of the Brand Names" elegantly describes the genre, without any pedantic allusiveness to the dominant theories, yet representing them fully. Sf writers are nowadays routinely expected to provide some definition or justification for their chosen form. Jones’s is exemplary, but it is in no way original. What is original is Jones’s indirect and discreet reconstruction of contemporary sf from the perspective of feminism—a construction so discreet that it becomes evident only when all the pieces of the mosaic have been put in place.

I have to confess that I have always found Jones’s style puzzlingly cool and restrained for an sf writer. Maybe it’s a British thing. Never pushing a sentence beyond its point, rarely reveling in the materiality of her words or the twist of her metaphors, she has little use for the sublime. It is evident that she is versed in technical-scientific and critical language, but she prefers not to use it. Ursula Le Guin writes for concreteness. Samuel Delany writes for intellectual display. John Clute writes for the pleasurable excess. Jones, it seems, writes only for the mot juste. Even when she conjures up intimate moments from her past—reading to her young son, or her own reading as a sickly child (in the fine critical memoir on Lewis and Tolkien)—she has the markedly British voice of a highly educated, analytical, philo-scientific reasoner, quick with the wry aside and the parenthetical insight. A blurb for Eleanor Arnason’s Ring of Swords (1993) calls it a mingling of Star Trek and Jane Austen. I’m not sure that’s accurate for Arnason’s masterpiece (I have a hard time imagining Jane Austen writing about homosexual wookies in any universe), but something like it may work for Jones. Or perhaps, rather than Austen, try the Woolf of A Room of One’s Own (1929) for the same restrained, ironic address to a university-educated audience deeply invested in masculine values, reserving for herself the right to demolish any sacred icon of the hegemonic order, but unwilling to get in anyone’s face.

Similarly, it was not obvious to me before reading DtS why Jones should be considered a particularly feminist writer. The central novum of her major work, the Aleutian trilogy—White Queen (1991), North Wind (1994), and Phoenix Café (1996)—are humanoid extraterrestrial operators who arrive on earth to do a little real-estate dealing, who are granted, much to their surprise, fearful dominance by a human species into whose myths of alien superiority they have dropped unawares. The situation could have been howlingly comic or satirical, if Jones had not constructed the aliens as complex subjects, with physiology, social intercourse, and culture radically different from human beings’. Humans and aliens find each other irresistibly interesting and incomprehensible. Their relationships lead to grotesque adaptations on almost every level of existence. All the interlocking dualities that form human culture—male/female, master/servant, organism/technology, empathy/scientific rationality, mind/body— must be re-skewed to understand the Aleutians, and the Aleutians’ own sacred categories have to be revised in turn. True, at the time of the Aleutians’ arrival, humans are engaged in a global gender war; but this is not a matter of biological men against women, but rather a conflict of ideologies. In short, the scene is hardly the sort of focused tendentious drama one expects from political fiction. The feminism of the Aleutian novels used to strike me as more the common-sense of a woman surveying the state of contemporary gender relations than a polemically heightened elaboration of principles.

For me, consequently, the most important essay of DtS is the literally central "Aliens in the Fourth Dimension," in which Jones explains the ideas that led to the Aleutians. As Jones tells it, her aliens emerged from a rigorous process of association and transformation of ideas. Beginning with a parallel between colonial adventure and the battle of the sexes, Jones decided to construct aliens who would be colonial victors while embodying the characteristics usually associated with subject peoples.

I planned to give my alien conquerors the characteristics, all the supposed deficits that Europeans came to see in their subject races in darkest Africa and the mystic East—"animal" nature, irrationality, intuition; mechanical incompetence, indifference to time, helpless aversion to theory and measurement; and I planned to have them win the territorial battle this time. It was no coincidence, for my purposes, that the same list of qualities or deficiencies—a nature closer to the animal, intuitive communication skills and all the rest of it—were and still are routinely awarded to women, the defeated natives, supplanted rulers of men, in cultures north and south, east and west, white and non-white, the human world over. (110)

In the process, Jones created physical and cultural manifestations of the putative character essences—i.e., she experimented with beings who truly do have the essential and inviolable species differences attributed to half of the human race (aversion to spoken language and non-organic technologies, collective consciousness, romantic desire for fusion, etc.). Given this systematic construction of alterity, it is striking that even these creatures of essential difference manifest the mixed motives, ethical confusion, and ambivalent drive to mix with the other that humans do. The self-other relation, in terms of gender, culture, or even species, is never simple, never resolved. Negotiations must continue always.

This point of view pervades all of Jones’s writings in DtS. As Jones sees it, the sf of the ‘80s and ‘90s has reached a critical juncture, best represented by the respective trajectories of cyberpunk and feminist sf. Several essays and reviews take on the subject of cyberpunk. "Fools: The Neuroscience of Cyberspace" begins as a tracing of the historical relationship between computational technology in the real world and its representation in sf. Jones makes her approach down two paths. She describes, on the one hand, Gerald Edelson’s "Neural Darwinism," the Theory of Neuronal Group Selection that uses the model of population dynamics for the development of complex neural pathways and associations, and, on the other hand, the science fictional appropriation of neuroscience into the social mythology of c-punk. In the latter, particularly in the work of Gibson, Jones describes the transformation of cyberspace from "that sparse and chilling Cartesian space" into "a kind of electronically generated Narnia" (83). The culmination of this dual trajectory is Pat Cadigan’s movement into the interior, applying the decentering implications of neuroscience’s demolition of the ego-subject to the most personal ideas of identity and diversity. Although in Cadigan, according to Jones, the mind of cyberspace is still male,

yet the dissolution of the paranoid Overmind model in Synners, the constantly disrupted and recovered boundaries of the self and not-self in Fools, seem inescapably a political, and even a feminist progress, reflecting the decentered modes of thought—ecologies, evolutions, diversities; populations instead of individuals, groups instead of single interests, which are infiltrating all our current models of the world. (89)

Jones is more kind to cyberpunk than most feminist critics. Her defense of Cadigan as a feminist writer may not be unusual, but she is also unusually sympathetic to Gibson, in whom she detects a "closet softie" (in her review "Virtual Light: A Shocking Dose of Comfort and Joy from William Gibson"). Jones is the only other critic, in my experience, who sees what I consider one of Gibson’s dominant positive traits as a writer: his sense of pity for his characters, and grief for the ruined world they must inhabit. By extension, in "Trouble: Living in the Machine," Jones interprets the hatred of and disgust for "the meat" that occurs so often in cyberpunk writing in terms of a desperate pity: "In the cyberpunk future, which is so uncomfortably slight an extrapolation from our present, maybe we have to choose to hate the living world, starting with its most intimate manifestation, our own living bodies. It would be too painful otherwise, to watch the creature die" (94).

A pattern develops. On the one hand, there is the ethical collapse of the adolescent, technophile male universe, typified by Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel Snow Crash (roasted in a hilarious review, "The Boys Want to Be With the Boys: Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash"), as that world evolves into a world-machine. On the other hand, there are the pangs of a feminist sf enmeshed in problems of its own. Jones traces the history of the latter in several of the reviews and essays in DtS. In an early essay from 1987, "The Lady and the Scientists," Jones is at her most polemical, directing her criticism mainly against the "the cant of gender nationalism ... revenge fantasies, and fifth columnist disinformation" (31) that comes to dominate feminist theory in the ‘80s. She defends the work of Russ, Atwood, Charnas, Tiptree, and Le Guin for their recognition of the obstacles real women face in the world; yet even they are found wanting for siding with those who believe that human nature cannot change. For Jones, feminist sf must represent a world in which women can take responsibility for changing the future; consequently they must imagine a future in which "testosterone drives have been ... substantially demoted" (33), but where the genders can live together.

This argument appears again and again in different forms throughout DtS in closer studies of feminist writers. Jones uses reviews of Sheri S. Tepper’s work to demolish simplistic gender essentialism. In a complementary (and much more respectful) review of Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Furies (1995), Jones demolishes the opposite fatalism, that gender differences make no difference when it comes to human violence and revenge-drives. In the concluding review-essay "No Man’s Land: Feminised Landscapes in the Utopian Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin," Jones traces the whole dialectic of feminist sf through Le Guin’s oeuvre: from the view of women’s inherent positivity, in the early novels and Always Coming Home (1985), to the antithetical/complementary representation of women in a male culture as having no role but to do the domestic work (e.g., Takver in The Dispossessed [1975]), to their disappearance altogether in scientific romance (in The Left Hand of Darkness [1969]), where their role is absorbed into the landscape. In Le Guin’s story "Sur" (1982), however, Jones finds an inspiring opening. The account of an imaginary Antarctic exploration by a team of women that discovers the pole and yet refuses to publicize it gives Jones a model for feminist sf: the construction of an open imaginary space, a "No Man’s Land, which means to create more mind, means going into the Ice and leaving the soft south behind" (208). This No Man’s Land of "Sur"’s Ice, "an empty place on the map," is Jones’s objective correlative for sf’s feminist project, and its deep connection with deconstruction, the philosophy of the empty space.

Despite this desire for an Anti-Sur, it is hard to imagine Jones, especially the Jones of DtS, separating female protagonists into an empty zone, even for a brief expedition. Jones’s writing, critical awareness, and feminism are all nurtured by direct engagement with whatever the given orthodoxy wishes to exclude. Her conception of deconstruction is, ultimately, not of a mise-en- abîme, but of a superabundance of meaning:

Deconstruction is, if essentialist terminology cannot be ignored, a markedly feminine activity of curiosity, greed, gossip, insatiable pursuit of secret details; the reckless, inquisitive adventure of Pandora or Bluebeard’s last bride. Its project is to bring us more, not less, from any text or any genre template: more information, more implications, more possibilities; to expand consciousness, not to limit it. Viewed in these terms, science fiction comes out well, capable of sustaining any critical audit, and of containing all transformations and explorations: even to the farthest distant pole of feminist revolution. (130)

For all its inherent discretion, this volume offers a bracing vision of the field.

ICR


Detonating the Boundaries.

Camille Bacon-Smith. Science Fiction Culture. U Pennsylvania P, 2000. 317 pp. $49.95 cloth; $24.95 paper.

A non-native speaker of English who knows nothing about science fiction accompanied me when I attended the 2000 Nebula Awards ceremony in New York City. Much to my chagrin, we were both equally estranged from the emcee’s arcane jokes. My position as outsider in regard to this humor underscored that I, as an sf critic, was essentially Other in relation to the community of sf writers. Takayuki Tatsumi and Mari Kotani, two of Japan’s most influential sf critics, exemplify how this schism between critics and writers (and fans) can be fruitfully breached: when I asked this married couple how they had met, they informed me that their initial encounters occurred within fan culture. These scholars/fans enact Bacon-Smith’s description of the science fiction community as a "literary world that explodes the boundaries that scholars have put on roles or position-taking" (3). As a scholar positioned outside non-academic sf culture, I find it obvious that this particular boundary needs to be exploded. Science Fiction Culture is a wonderful detonation device.

Bacon-Smith’s book, a milestone work that brings sf studies into conversation with cultural studies, is a much-needed resource that can generate increased understanding between sf scholars and diverse sf community members. Bacon-Smith’s intention is to explain "how power is negotiated in the postmodern society that includes the producers and consumers both of the popular culture products on which the society is based and a geographically realizable landscape for playing out its social matrix" (3). Why shouldn’t sf scholars concern themselves with the producers and consumers of the literature as well as with the social matrix that constitues the myriad aspects of the sf community located outside the university’s geographical landscape? Science Fiction Culture functions as a guide for initiating this concern; it helps the sf professoriate take one small step towards a close encounter with sf fan conventions. Part I, "Creating the Landscape," discusses how sf community members reconfigure mainstream institutions in order to create "a mobile geography" (3). Part II, "New Groups Change the Face of the Genres," explains how previously marginalized groups have transformed the sf community after achieving power within it. Part III, "It All Comes Together in the Fiction," explores the new consumer community’s influence upon the market for science fiction.

Science fiction fans are often told to "get a life." But Bacon-Smith’s argument coincides with what the Kotani/Tatsumi marriage so patently exemplifies: sf fandom is a life. Fandom as mobile geography is a place within which people marry, spend their childhoods, and conduct business. Hence, fandom provides scholars with an excellent vantage point from which to examine connections between literature and experience; fandom, as Bacon-Smith implies, is the sf studies/cultural studies landscape par excellence. This intersection has much to teach scholars as well as fans; for example, as the only holder of an advanced degree in folklore participating on a Magicon fairy tale panel consisting of female fantasy writers, Bacon-Smith says she became "aware that the explanations these panelists gave of the folklore process were more important for the understanding they offer of the way the writers make meaning in their work than my technical discussion of the folkloristic theory could be" (41). One of the strengths of Bacon-Smith’s book is the many interviews with sf community members she includes; she enables the generators of sf theory to hear what sf writers, editors, and readers have to say.

I was particularly intrigued by Bacon-Smith’s comments about women, comments that provided an opportunity for me to redirect my customary attention from female sf characters to the reality of the sf community’s female members. Indeed, Bacon-Smith suggests that these women’s lives are analogous to those of feminist sf protagonists. Joanna Russ’s Jael, for example, would certainly feel at home in a world where "[d]uring the 1970s and early ’80s, women stormed the fortress, demanding a place in all aspects of science fiction life, and the men in place repelled the invaders with all the tools at their command" (95). Cleverly linking fictional text with real-world context, Bacon-Smith subtitles a relevant section outlining this gender struggle, "When It Changed" (104). In both literature and life, "science fiction and fantasy held out both hope and an alternative" (105); in the best postmodern tradition, text and community incorporated the marginal, alien Other.

Bacon-Smith’s book can help sf critics interested in the question "[w]hat does postmodern culture look like?" (1) open their eyes to the non-academic sf community. In other words, the "different ways that fans construct a sense of place in which to enact community" (29) should be a world less removed from sf critics’ (and mainstream literary critics’) cultural landscape than it currently is. Science Fiction Culture is an important work that bridges the divide separating these worlds. Both curmudgeonly sf critics and the multiply-pierced, purple-haired "new cybergothic young" (3) can come away from this book thinking they have something to say to and learn from each other. All sf community members can benefit from familiarizing themselves with Bacon-Smith’s efforts to document "twenty years of conflict and context, of striving and growing in all the tangled and complex aspects of the science fiction culture" (265). Bacon-Smith adroitly accomplishes her stated objective: "to present a book about how popular culture happens: ... How we realize a life around the cultural products we are handed" (265). In the process, she also provides an excellent update to older historical studies of sf fandom such as Sam Moscowitz’s The Immortal Storm (Atlanta SF Press, 1954) and Harry Warner’s All Our Yesterdays (Advent, 1969).

Marleen Barr, Montclair State University


A Conceptual Prehistory of the Morph.

Kurt Lancaster. Warlocks and Warpdrive: Contemporary Fantasy Entertainments with Interactive and Virtual Environments. McFarland, 1999. xii + 186 pp. $32.50 hc.

Vivian Sobchack, ed. Meta-Morphing: Visual Transformation and the Culture of Quick-Change. U Minnesota P, 2000. xxiii + 286 pp. $18.95 pbk.

Performance, transformations and metamorphoses, interactive and virtual environments, and role-playing games are now regularly allied with sf. These two new books explore such phenomena in relation to a wide variety of media presentations: theater, film, television, vaudeville, New Age music, and even advertising. While Vivian Sobchack’s collection of essays Meta-Morphing confines itself to situating the current rise of digital morphing in a history of transformations associated with magic shows, quick-change, shadowgraphy, and chapeaugraphy (the use of felt to shape a variety of hats), Kurt Lancaster’s Warlocks and Warpdrive explores the movement of performance into a variety of modes of audience participation—including role-playing games and virtual environments—that achieve specific imaginative, physical, or social fantasies (such as, in Lancaster’s grand conclusion, Ronald Reagan’s appropriation of Star Wars [1977] for his Strategic Defense Initiative).

Both books clearly demonstrate that all these phenomena must be situated in remote as well as recent history. Lancaster, under the influence of experimental dramatist Richard Schechner and the late anthropologist Victor Turner, ranges from ancient Greek drama to the modern world, with glimpses at medieval and Renaissance folk traditions, adopting Turner’s principle that: "the fire of meaning breaks out from rubbing together the hard and soft firesticks of the past (usually embodied in traditional images, forms and meaning) and the present of social and individual experience" (45-46). The essays in Meta-Morphing include such contextualizing accounts as a short history of morphing techniques, a historical-theoretical examination of morphing and the performance of self, and the background of morphing in the tesseract and n-dimensional geometry. This historical perspective is crucial since both books discuss phenomena clearly embedded in the history of art, literature, and communication: before exploring the significance of what is uniquely modern in these phenomena, a problem with which both books wrestle, it is necessary to examine their origins and scope.

Lancaster divides his work into three parts based on differing modes of fantasy: imaginative fantasies, physical fantasies, and social fantasies. The first part explores fantasies that require the use of visualization, such as Michael Stearns’s music depicting an aural encounter with a UFO or live-action, role-playing adventures and card games like Magic: The Gathering. The second section examines sites that either physically exist or appear on a computer monitor: computer games, interactive cd-rom movies, theme park rides, and immersive museums. The third part explores how people use fantasies such as Star Trek fandom or the Heaven’s Gate cult to build communities, concluding with Reagan’s vision of Pax Americana from the trope of Star Wars. Ranging over a large body of material, Lancaster’s analyses, which are well articulated, prove to be engaging and fascinating; and they are documented with references to a wide range of theoretical observations, from Johann Huizinga’s anatomy of homo ludens, to Jean Baudrillard’s discussions of simulacra, to theorizations of virtual reality and hypermedia by the likes of Gregory Ulmer, Michael Heim, Brenda Laurel, and Sherry Turkle.

Vivian Sobchack’s collection of essays is much more narrowly focused on exploring one specific set of techniques—morphing, particularly digital morphing, but with a wide range of metaphorical associations including metamorphoses, shape-shifting, and mutations, and featuring such historical offshoots as the quick-change routines of nineteenth-century vaudeville (as described in an essay by Matthew Solomon) and modern modes of transformation such as the recording of the surgical alterations of French performance artist Orlan (as analyzed by Victoria Duckett). The essays in this collection are divided into three parts: Metamorphosis, Magic and Mythology; Transformation, Technology and Narrative; and Morphing, Identity and Spectatorship. The first part contains, in addition to Solomon’s essay, Norman Klein’s "Animation and Animorphs: A Brief Disappearing Act" (illustrated by Max Fleischer cartoons such as Betty Boop), and two essays that explore the rich mythology of metamorphosis in Mesoamerican and classical culture respectively, relating it to the mythological potential of digital morphing while lamenting its misuse in the interests of commerce and promotion.

The second part is more technical in orientation, containing Mark Wolf’s "A Brief History of Morphing," Kevin Fisher’s "Tracing the Tesseract: A Conceptual Prehistory of the Morph," Sobchack’s own theoretical contribution, and Roger Beebe’s exposition "After Arnold: Narratives of the Posthuman Cinema"—which, grounded in The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), argues that morphing has transformed the action film so as to move it beyond an emphasis on character (and stars) into posthuman terrain. The third part consists of Joseph Gabolindo’s essay on "masochism and masculinity" in Forrest Gump (1994), Victoria Duckett’s discussion of Orlan, Scott Bukatman’s well-developed theoretical and historical exploration of morphing as "a slippery masquerade of self" that elides and represses history in the guise of "regenerative self-criticism," and Angela Ndalianis’s treatment of a multimedia theme park called Terminator 2:#D Battle across Time.

It is this closing essay that most immediately connects with Lancaster’s interest in interactive and virtual fantasies, since Ndalianis relates the hyperbolic and technically amazing display of "hyperreal constructions" to the convergence of media through digitalization, linking theater, film, and computer graphics to create a fantastic environment in which the audience acts as well as being spectators. Furthermore, Ndalianis stresses the importance of sf film, especially the FX-laden work of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, in popularizing this demand for interactive fantasy. It is her particular contribution to Meta-Morphing to articulate most clearly how the participational environment of the theme park revels in the appreciation of technological effects resulting from digitalization and convergence, and her concluding words are in many ways a summary of the world explored in Meta-Morphing:

The game is one that flaunts film’s capacity for making a reality out of an illusion—and it leaves us in a state of awe before cinema’s ability to present us sensorially with these hyperreal constructions that invite us to embrace them in such real terms while asking us to be amazed at the methods of their construction. Illusion metamorphoses into reality, and reality into illusion. Magic morphs to science, and science to magic. The result? Entertainment forms that are at once magically scientific and scientifically magical. (266).

Both Meta-Morphing and Warlocks and Warpdrive are significant contributions to a most necessary project that is suggested in the subtitle of Kevin Fisher’s discussion of the tesseract—a conceptual prehistory of the morph. But it is a project that, as Fisher, Bukatman, and Ndalianis realize, must extend beyond the morph to a conceptual prehistory of the digitalization of the poetic. Works such as these provide major insights into the interconnections arising from media convergence, but they suffer at times from the lack of a fully contextualized and theorized overview of the aesthetic phenomenon that is occurring. There is, for example, a reluctance on the part of Kurt Lancaster and most of the essayists in Meta-Morphing to look at the close conjunction between the rise of the techno-scientific ground for virtuality, interactivity, and digital transformation, and the development of literary and artistic modernism from the period of Poe and Baudelaire that coincided with the beginnings of telegraphy, electrification, and photo-chemistry—not to mention the parallel coming of age of sf literature.

Indeed, in neither of these books is there a substantial consideration of the parallels between the history of science fiction and the history of media convergence. Except for sf media productions and theme parks (often deployed in a highly selective manner), there is virtually no mention of specific sf writers except for Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick. While Stanislaw Lem’s writings, particularly Solaris (1961), would have been important in terms of their dense investigations of themes of mutation and morphing, they are no more a presence in these volumes than is Kubrick’s 2001 (1969). Karel Čapek’s introduction of the term robot and the mutations occurring in his War with the Newts (1936) certainly had implications for "morphing" that might have provided significant modernist counterweights to the postmodern delirium of Terminator 2, and the sf literature of "game-playing" stemming partly from Herman Hesse’s mysticism might also have had some relevance. Yet on these subjects, both volumes are oddly silent.

The major modernist figure to make an appearance in either book is Marcel Duchamp, who while very significant as a precursor of these later performances arising from the convergence of media, is only one aspect of the considerable significance of the avant-garde and radical-modernist artists and poets to such a prehistory. (Admittedly, Sergei Eisenstein frequently appears in Meta-morphing, but largely in his role as a film theorist.) Sobchack herself is one exception to my stricture in that her essay "‘At the Still Point of the Turning World’: Meta-morphing and Meta-Stasis" treats the Bergsonianism of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943) in its analysis of the phenomenological and historical meaning of the digital. Also, Scott Bukatman, in "Taking Shape: Performance and the Morphing of Self," engages modernism through Proust, Bergson, Barthesian poststructuralism, and the McLuhanesque perspectives of Gilbert Seldes. Yet in the main, both books seem reluctant to grapple with key figures in the history of modernist art and literature who have not only obvious but central connections to their respective themes. James Joyce, for example, who had an impact not only on high but on popular literature in his movement towards performative audience participation and towards mutation and morphing through his experiments with language, is never mentioned in either work. Yet the figure of the "morphing" Greek sea god, Proteus, who was central to Joyce’s conception of the poet, is. Joyce’s vision of the "proteiform graph," in which the reader is invited to participate in the creation of meaning by playing with the multiple transformations embedded in his word-play with speech, print, etymology, and allusion, deserved at least a mention as a major aesthetic precursor of morphing strategies. Also curious is the near-complete absence of reference to modernist media theorist Walter Benjamin (I noted only one brief citation in the opening essay of Meta-Morphing).

But then there is also little mention of the entire spectrum of modernist art, architecture, and poetics, and their encounter with technology and science that on the creative side had significant contributions to make to the convergence of media. Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus, Paul Klee, the Constructivists, and in their aftermath people like Laszlo Moholgy-Nagy and Gyorgy Kepes are central to the development of an aesthetics of morphing and interactive virtuality. The growing body of scholarship linking art and technology in the modernist period ought to lead theorists of morphing beyond the world of the newer art forms and their popular output (particularly film) into a confrontation with the central significance of the modernist arts and their successors in contributing to the shape that the technologization and ultimately the digitalization of performances—spectatorial and participational—took.

Due to this lack of a thorough aesthetic prehistory of digitalization and its impact on interactive media, there are many missed opportunities in both volumes. Lancaster, for example, alludes to Expo ’67’s Kino-Automat as a forerunner of interactive film, but he clearly is not aware that many other environmental and multimedia exhibitions at Expo ’67 had elements of participational interaction, nor does he see this as an aspect interfolded with the technologizing of the arts arising out of that long line of international expositions beginning with The Crystal Palace through the famous Paris Expositions down to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, which included many such activities. In a similar way the numerous insights of sf writers into the dynamics of physico-social transformation do not appear in key articles in Meta-Morphing, nor does Lancaster make use of them in his analysis of the emerging preoccupation with "virtual fantasies." As a result of their omissions, both Lancaster’s book and a number of the essays in Sobchack’s, despite their frequently high accomplishment, implicitly indicate the need to incorporate a greater understanding of the role of sf, the visual and auditory arts, and radical modernist literature in charting the rise of interactivity, digital manipulation, and the convergence of media from the mid-nineteenth century to the inception of the twenty-first.

—Donald F. Theall, Trent University


Polysemic Criticism.

Elyce Rae Helford, ed. Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television. Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. vii + 273 pp. $65 hc; $22.95 pbk.

In her introduction to this collection of eleven essays on contemporary fantasy television, Helford writes that Fantasy Girls "aims to provide ample critical food for thought for scholars, teachers, students, and fans invested in reading the ‘trivial’ spaces of entertainment television with an eye on understanding the powerful political ways in which media culture affects our daily lives and worldviews" (9). Does it deliver? Well, to borrow a phrase whose dominance in this collection signals a lamentable trend in the field of popular cultural studies, yes and no.

Loosely organized into three more or less arbitrary sections, the book’s critical approach seems at times to be dominated by what Helford, in her own essay, calls "polysemy," defined here as "the availability of a text for multiple interpretations" (36). The term derives from linguistic theory, where it describes a word’s capacity to carry two or more distinct meanings, yet it seems to have devolved, in the field of textual analysis, into a justificatory label for texts that simultaneously proffer and negate given political standpoints. Despite attempts made in this collection to situate "polysemic" as a deconstructive term that describes the complexities and contradictions of a text, the general trend of usage is in fact radically anti-deconstructive because it validates, rather than challenges, the text’s claim to coherent meaning. Take, for instance, Sarah Projansky and Leah Vande Berg’s chapter on Sabrina, The Teenage Witch. Although the authors do a thorough, intelligent, and entertaining job of describing how Sabrina, a show that at first appears to self-consciously espouse feminist values, does in fact ultimately refuse a feminist perspective in favor of the quasi-political, commodified standpoint of postfeminist "girl power," the piece ultimately hedges its own ideological bets, thus reinscribing the very polysemic tendency that it purports to critique. The authors conclude that "while the popular discourses on Sabrina celebrate girl power, our analysis suggests that the series’ more powerful ideological work is the revelation of the role that popularized feminism plays in maintaining rather than undermining gender, race and class hierarchies" (36; emphasis in original). This conclusion seems reasonably straightforward until we reach the following paragraph, in which the authors retract their conclusion—or rather, retract the very possibility of coherent critique: "Ultimately, we read Sabrina’s escapes from containment as co-opted multiculturalism and seductive consumerism, and therefore as antifeminist. Of course, our interpretation of the series should be understood as one potential interpretation of Sabrina, just as our readings of feminism and containment are two contradictory but mutually existing potential interpretations of the series" (36). Well, which is it? If a text comfortably accommodates both feminist and antifeminist interpretations, isn’t it by definition antifeminist? Why are banality and apoliticism being cast by feminist scholars as valid textual imperatives?

Nicole Matthews and Farah Mendlesohn’s "The Cartesian Novum of Third Rock From the Sun" does a more satisfactory job of addressing the political problem posed by polysemy; in this chapter, the fact of Third Rock’s ultimate containment of feminism forms part of the basis for critique. Matthews and Mendlesohn demonstrate how the show’s "Cartesian novum," its paradigmatic play on the split between the alien mind and the human body, tends to reinscribe the gendered and hierarchized (male/superior, female/inferior) version of the mind/body binary. A second, overlapping project of this chapter is the problematization of polysemy: "the creators of Third Rock are also peddling an ambiguous message about the nature of gender. This ambiguity might seem to allow for polysemous, or multiple readings, of this show and points to the care with which the researcher needs to approach programs that might appear at first to be feminist in rhetoric and theme" (41-42). The authors of this chapter go on to demonstrate how, despite Third Rock’s potential to interrogate essentialist notions of sex/gender identity, it ultimately exploits such notions. The authors pay careful attention to scenes and episodes that would seem at first glance to question traditional constructions of sex/gender, but depend for their payoff laughs on the reinscription of sexist values. In the conclusion, Third Rock is defined as a polysemic text, but polysemy is called into question rather than upheld as a viable textual imperative: "potential feminist interpretations are being undercut both by the show’s inconsistent ideology—its continual flirtation between the ideas that gender is innate and that it is culturally constructed—and its inability to move beyond the objectification and humiliation of the female body as its primary source of humor" (58).

Likewise, Linda Badley’s chapter, "Scully Hits the Glass Ceiling: Post-modernism, Postfeminism, Posthumanism, and The X-Files," offers an exhaustive critique of the show’s heavily compromised version of feminism. This article does an excellent job of critiquing the program’s postfeminist ideology: "while the series deconstructs television stereotypes, it remains indifferent to the issues that it raises or the ideologies it appropriates. In The X-Files, all markers—whether of gender, race, nationality, species, or mortality—are unstable and relative" (69). Although this article provides intelligent readings of the show and its media-generated personalities, Badley’s attempt to contextualize the show’s ideological ambiguity as the consequence of a critical cultural convergence of "post"-isms is more confusing than enlightening. Helford’s own "Feminism, Queer Studies, and the Sexual Politics of Xena: Warrior Princess" is an important piece, for not only does it provide an illuminating discussion of how popular cultural texts construct sex/gender identities, but it also situates and problematizes polysemy in an articulate and intelligent manner. Helford explores not only how but why putatively feminist fantasy shows are ideologically ambiguous. Noting that Xena inspires a wide variety of opposing critical claims, Helford demonstrates that "the ambiguousness of X:WP has enabled it to achieve remarkable economic success and popularity" (141). Furthermore, she contextualizes and ultimately rejects the usefulness of the "subtextual" or "polysemic" imperative, noting that "polysemy is a highly problematic basis for political struggle" (142). Helford provides a useful materialist history of television’s treatment of feminist and queer themes, and shows how Xena ultimately hedges its ideological bets in order to ensure broad viewer popularity. She concludes that "I am not convinced television can give us truly progressive feminist or queer visions, but I am certain it must do better than this before we praise it so highly" (158). No "yes and no" here: Helford provides a refreshingly unequivocal critique of polysemy, insisting that degraded or so-called subtextual versions of feminist and queer representation are insidiously acting to make viewers more comfortable with ideological ambiguity.

Kent Ono’s discussion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and neocolonial power relations promises to be more illuminating than it actually is. Ono does a good job of demonstrating how people of color are routinely marginalized on the program, both through being brutalized and through being held up to a normative white bourgeois landscape and found lacking. Ono’s claim that his reading of the show is a "resistant" one that "do[es] not seem to be recommended overtly or encouraged by the text" (163), however, should function as a warning to readers who like their text and their critical framework to have more than a glancing relationship with each other. For example, it is far from self-evident to me that Buffy’s visual coding of darkness and light as good and evil has anything to do with neocolonial power relations. Furthermore, Ono makes a series of grandiose claims about his scholarly approach at the outset of the article, claims that, to give the author credit, nobody could possibly hope to fulfill, at least not through a single short piece (e.g., "I would like to mention that my scholarly approach seeks social justice and affirms liberation struggles" [169]). Hanley E. Kanar’s article "No Ramps in Space" suffers from a similar disjunction between text and critical framework: discussion of the relationship between disability studies and the text of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is basically limited to an analysis of a single episode of the show. Finally, of praiseworthy note in this mixed collection are Marleen Barr’s delightful treatment of the Disney Channel’s recent multicultural version of Cinderella (Barr achieves what Ono merely attempts in terms of reading the significance of "color coding" in a televisual text) and Robin Robert’s solid treatment of "Science, Race, and Gender in Star Trek: Voyager."

Alcena Rogan, Louisiana State University


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