Science Fiction Studies

#89 = Volume 30, Part 1 = March 2003


Julia Witwer, Ed. Reading Baudrillard. Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia UP, 2000. 102 pp. $18.95 hc.

Elisabeth Kraus and Carolin Auer, eds. Simulacrum America: The USA and the Popular Media. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2000. 271 pp. $65.00 hc.

M.W. Smith. Reading Simulacra: Fatal Theories for Postmodernity. SUNY Series in Postmodern Culture. New York: State U of New York P, 2001. 151 pp. $16.95 pbk.

The whole problem is one of abandoning critical thought, which is the very essence of our theoretical culture, but which belongs to a past history, a past life.—Baudrillard, Impossible Exchange (2001) 17

How should we read Jean Baudrillard? This is the real problem at the heart of two recent books that utilize the work of the French postmodernist: Elizabeth Kraus and Carolin Auer’s anthology Simulacrum America: The USA and the Popular Media and M.W. Smith’s Reading Simulacra: Fatal Theories for Postmodernity. Both provide possible answers to this question as they mobilize Baudrillard’s theories of simulation to analyze popular culture, postmodernism, and sf. It is perhaps Baudrillard himself, however, who provides the most challenging answer to the question of how he should be read. In one of his most recent works, The Vital Illusion, he abandons the traditional methods and vocabularies of theory. Indeed, his work now seems closer to what might best be understood as social science fiction. Approaching Baudrillard as social sf creates a number of problems for both theory and sf, however, and it is these problems that have kept critics from attempting a more radical re-invention of his work.

The post-structuralist vogue of the 1980s has largely disappeared, and it seems as if we are not quite living in a panic culture after all. Indeed, the more sober voices of less radical Marxists and cultural critics have had a great deal of success in co-opting the vocabularies of Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze, and Baudrillard, assimilating them into any number of more practical approaches and concrete explorations of postmodern culture. Of all the post-structuralists, it is Baudrillard who has been most closely associated with the triangulation of postmodernism, popular culture, and sf, and it is also Baudrillard who is seen as the most provocative. He is often caricatured as little more than a sophomoric nihilist, celebrating his own celebrity status, grossly misreading culture, and generally trying to live up to the worst excesses and absurdities associated with the discourses of postmodernism. Nonetheless, critics still find that Baudrillard’s work provides constructive approaches to the problems of our media, and his arguments continue to animate the work of critics from Marxists such as Douglas Kellner to cultural critics such as Lynn Spigel. In many respects, it is something like this more sober Baudrillard that we find in Simulacrum America: The USA and the Popular Media.

Edited by Elisabeth Kraus and Carolin Auer, Simulacrum America consists of seventeen essays originally presented as papers at the annual conference of the Austrian Association for American Studies in 1997. Though these essays cover topics from nineteenth-century literature to contemporary cinema, postmodern fiction and sf nonetheless remain at the heart of the collection, the former represented by a selection of five essays entitled “Simulacra in Literature: History and Human Identity” and the latter in a selection of five essays grouped under the title “Simulation in Science Fiction: Cyberspace, Cyborgs, and Cybernetic Discourse.” With so many essays, the quality tends to be somewhat uneven. Still, as I hope to show, even the less accomplished essays say a great deal about the ways in which we read Baudrillard. The collection has an ambitious introduction, and Kraus and Auer are acutely aware of both the problems and possibilities associated with the work of Baudrillard. After offering a brief survey of Baudrillard’s theory of simulation, they make the following observation:

Critics and theorists from a wide variety of disciplines, such as Fredric Jameson, Donna Haraway, and Larry McCaffery, agree with Baudrillard that science fiction has become the pre-eminent literary genre of the postmodern era, since it has long anticipated and fictionally explored the drastic transformations that technology, including the fields of information/simulation technology and bioengineering, have wrought on Western post-industrial society. Science fiction’s wealth of futuristic themes and topoi including powerful icons of cyberspace, Artificial Intelligence, and border crossings of all kinds, as well as its simulations of limitless alternative utopian, dystopian, and heterotopian realities, gave important impulses to mainstream fiction and cultural analysts in general. In fact, as Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., argues in his essay “The SF of Theory: Baudrillard and Haraway,” science fiction has ceased to be a genre of fiction per se, and become instead a mode of awareness about the world. (5)

In some sense, Kraus and Auer promise more than they deliver. While they cite Csicsery-Ronay’s essay (SFS #55, 18:3 [Nov. 1991]: 387-404), this introduction, and unhappily the collection as a whole, do little to develop the new understanding of sf or theory that Csicsery-Ronay suggests. Indeed, the real flaw of this collection is that Baudrillard’s work is simply applied as a critical theory of the world, when it is precisely the distance implied by the critical operation that Baudrillard’s work calls into question.

This is not to say that there are not some strong essays about post-modernism and sf in the book. Rüdiger Kunow’s essay, “Simulation as Sub-Text: Fiction Writing in the Face of Media Representations of American History,” provides an excellent survey of both canonical and postmodern literary texts, demonstrating throughout that these historical fictions are less “reconstructions of the past than demonstrations of the power of that past in the present” (34). Alen Vitas offers a compelling reading of cyberpunk in his contribution, “Warp 9 to Hyperreality: Information Velocity and the End of the Space Age.” Working through cyberpunk classics and popular films such as Star Wars, Vitas argues that “Mediaspace now replaces outer space, and consequently, simulations of kinesis and information velocity now replace the earlier fascination with physical speed” (125). Herbert Shu-Shun Chan explores the metaphor of space in Neuromancer and Babylon 5, suggesting along with Vitas that we need to rethink the relationship of cyberpunk to the more traditional themes of space opera. In keeping with the cyberpunk focus, Elisabeth Kraus offers a detailed survey and analysis of Pat Cadigan’s work, and Louis J. Kern offers an exploration of the nostalgia for fully human bodies that animates much cyborg fiction and film. For sf scholars, these essays constitute the real interest of this book. The rest of the collection covers an amazing amount of ground, but the contributions vary widely in subject matter and quality.

Nonetheless, almost all the essays at least gesture towards Baudrillard’s theory of simulation, and many more take his theory of simulation as their basic critical position. For a collection that takes Baudrillard’s theory of simulation as part of its very subject, there is surprisingly little nuanced reading of his work, and the collection as a whole seems to reflect a wider problem in our current reception of Baudrillard’s work. In short, the basic move that animates most of these essays is to elucidate the premise of Baudrillard’s theory of simulation, and then claim that this or that text functions in accord with it. For instance, Arno Heller’s reading of Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) claims that “Gladney’s confrontation with Mink can be interpreted as his coming to terms with an America that Jean Baudrillard has so persuasively depicted as a system of simulations in the endless stream of meaningless signs and images” (45). The conclusion is that somehow DeLillo offers a kind of proof for Baudrillard. There is no sense that DeLillo might help us somehow better understand, or better yet reinvent, Baudrillard, or vice-versa. Far more problematically, such applications of Baudrillardian theory treat his work as if it were an objective description of our world, an option that Baudrillard problematizes by putting his own work in the realm of hyperreal simulation itself. In short, despite the promise of the introduction, there is almost no attempt to reinvent Baudrillard here, as social sf or anything else, and this is the case with all the essays that use his work. Furthermore, Michael Stockinger’s essay on DeLillo and Baudrillard goes on to claim that “the submergence of the reader in a narrative usually produces a more mind-baffling effect than the consumption of a theoretical essay. The skillful ‘suspension of disbelief’ demands more imaginative, creative, and therefore illusionary potential on behalf of the writer as well as the reader” (62). Such a statement leaves one to wonder if this contributor has actually read Baudrillard. It is not, however, as if less-than-innovative approaches to Baudrillard or post-structuralism in general are hard to find. Indeed, what this collection reveals more than anything is our dire need to stop the “critical application” and instead reinvent our entire approach to Baudrillard.

Though not precisely an attempt to reinvent Baudrillard, M.W. Smith’s Reading Simulacra: Fatal Theories for Postmodernity provides a far more interesting and useful approach to his work. In its first four chapters, Reading Simulacra offers a broad survey of postmodern theory through an investigation of Baudrillard’s major positions, using these to bring together a number of thinkers, including Nietzsche, Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, and most importantly Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Smith proposes a “bi-focal” approach to reading Baudrillard, arguing that to take him at his word and admit that we live in a world of total simulation is to abandon all hope of a critical or active engagement with the world. To rescue us from this bind, Smith proposes that we attend closely to the work of Deleuze and Guattari. According to Smith:

The difference in subjective and objective strategies notwithstanding, Deleuze and Guattari might yet find a place in the hyperreal topography of Baudrillard. The distinguishing factor setting them apart is that the latter sees this societal leveling of images (simulation) as producing an undimensional subjectivity that is fatal, whereas the former looks toward simulation’s “mutational aptitude” and the potential for “becoming” that it allows. (8)

Though Smith never dwells on this, what is clear is that theory, be it Baudrillard’s concept of simulation or Deleuze and Guattari’s of becoming, is never a matter of mimetic texts that somehow faithfully represent the world in any realistic sense. Indeed, for Smith such an approach guarantees a fatal exchange that would trap us in the worst kind of Baudrillardian nightmare. Though Smith doesn’t propose sf as one of the perspectives through which he is reading Baudrillard, he does put it on the same plane. Again, working through the bind in Baudrillard’s theory of simulation, and looking for a way out, Smith offers the following analogy:

In other words, is it possible to “will,” in a Nietzschian spirit, beyond these fatal strategies in life-affirming ways (Baudrillard’s apprehension, Kroker’s invitation)? Or is humanity moving ever faster to the cyber-call of William Gibson’s Neuromancer; toward a state of symbiosis with the machine, which issues in the end of lived experiences for human beings and the entry into a simulated, virtual or cybernetic world of existence? (18)

Though he doesn’t call attention to the fact, what is most striking here is that both cyberpunk fiction and Baudrillard’s theory offer descriptions of the world that are equally plausible, equally worth thinking about. Insofar as we read cyberpunk as social sf, should we not also read Baudrillard and other theorists as in some way part of the same fantastic discourse? Smith certainly doesn’t explore this possibility, but his book does suggest the plausibility of such reading strategies. Rather than turning to sf or the fantastic to find new strategies of reading, however, Smith turns to Nietzsche, Arthur Kroker, and the history of philosophy:

[W]e “will to will” as a condition of existence in the nihilistic cycle of consuming the signs of consumption provided by a recombinant culture: “Nietzsche’s ‘pessimism’ (which is really the method of ‘perspectival’ understanding) becomes an entirely realistic strategy for exploring postmodern experience. And this event, the interpretation of advanced capitalist society under the sign of nihilism, is the basic condition for human emancipation as well as for the recovery of the tragic sense of critical theory.” (Kroker, qtd 62-63)

While Smith thus offers an affirmative reading of post-structuralist and postmodern theory, it is not a particularly original or daring reinvention. Nonetheless, his book serves as an excellent overview of Baudrillard’s writing, and would be especially useful to students new to such work. Though not surprising, his attempt to synthesize Baudrillard and Deleuze and Guattari is suggestive, and for those new to Deleuze and Guattari, Smith also provides an excellent and usable introduction to their notoriously idiosyncratic and difficult concepts.

The second half of Reading Simulacra offers applied readings of the usual postmodern suspects: Kathy Acker, Oliver Stone, and O.J. Simpson, as well as Baudrillard’s America (1988) and the novelist Clarence Major’s My Amputations (1986). These chapters vary widely in scope and quality when compared to the solid theoretical discussions earlier in the book. Smith offers a detailed and compelling reading of Acker’s two best known and most accessible novels, Blood and Guts in High School (1984) and Don Quixote (1986). He offers the typical Baudrillardian reading of Acker’s work: “the fatal motions of postmodernity in ‘humanity’ and ‘sexuality’ are possessed and tattooed with patriarchial images” (86). However, he goes on to offer simultaneously “a Deleuzian strategy for reading her works [that] offers a schizophrenic line of flight through desire and language to escape the coding of our molar selves in contemporary culture” (87). This strategy is particularly fitting with Acker’s novels, and Smith manages to engage in just the kind of affirmative bi-focal reading that his introduction promised.

Fatal Theories ends quite oddly, however. After building all the apparatus for affirmative readings of the ways in which Deleuze and Guattari might help us renegotiate Baudrillard’s world of simulation, Smith offers a final reading of the O.J. Simpson trial and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994). Smith offers his analysis of Stone’s film as a critique of a world that actually produced the O.J. trial, and in the end the trial and the film merge together. However, there is no sense that Stone or the trial could offer us moments of Deleuzian becoming. Instead, Smith says on the final page of his book that “what viewers take away at the conclusion of this movie [Natural Born Killers] is the ‘Evil Demon of Images’ that Jean Baudrillard refers to in a book by the same title” (128). So much for a new and affirmative approach to Baudrillard and postmodernism. Instead, it seems that Smith says what we knew all along: Acker’s work is so obsessed with stereotypes and extremes that it offers amazing possibilities for becoming and critique, while newstainment television and Oliver Stone are so reactive and heavy-handed that even Deleuze wouldn’t be able to figure them out.

Whatever their merits or flaws, both these books dealing with Baudrillard’s theory of simulation reveal that Baudrillard is still his own best and most inventive reader. True to form, Baudrillard’s Vital Illusion offers nothing new. Indeed, his latest work might be best understood as readings or applications of his earlier books, simply offering us simulations of his earlier work on the critique of value, the nature of images, technologies of communication, and the problems of postmodernism. In The Vital Illusion, he presents three essays: “The Final Solution: Cloning Beyond the Human and Inhuman,” “The Millennium, or the Suspense of the Year 2000,” and “The Murder of the Real.” As the editors tell us, each was originally presented as part of the Wellek Library Lectures in Critical Theory at the University of California, Irvine, in 1999.

In his other recent book, Impossible Exchange (2001), Jean Baudrillard states that for postmodernism, “The whole problem is one of abandoning critical thought, which is the very essence of our theoretical culture, but which belongs to a past history, a past life” (London: Verso, 2001, 17). It is just this problem that Baudrillard has devoted his energies to, and we might well interpret his career over the past decade, or at least since the publication of America, as a movement further and further away from the limits and languages of criticism. Baudrillard seems to be more successful in his attempts to do this than almost anyone else, as his detractors constantly remind anyone who is willing to listen. For Marxists such as Terry Eagleton, Baudrillard’s denunciation of critical theory is nothing less than selling out to the worst kinds of designer capitalism. And while such critics as Douglas Kellner and M.W. Smith try to find new ways to read Baudrillard that will rescue his theory of simulation for the purposes of critique, Baudrillard himself seems to flee from such capture more with each new work. Indeed, it is difficult to read Baudrillard as a theorist anymore, and The Vital Illusion confirms that Baudrillard is no longer interested in working through traditional critical vocabularies.

Baudrillard begins his first essay with the following caveat: “The question concerning cloning is the question of immortality. We all want immortality. It is our ultimate fantasy, a fantasy that is also at work in all of our modern sciences and technologies—at work, for example, in the deep freeze of cryonic suspension and in cloning in all its manifestations” (3). Making such pronouncements, Baudrillard’s most recent work feels like sf, or at least as if he were something like a character himself in a postmodern novel or film, perhaps someone like Dr. Brian O’Blivion in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1982). However, Baudrillard’s own attitude towards sf is complex. In Simulacra and Simulation (1994), he argues that “the good old imaginary of science fiction is dead ... [and] something else is in the process of emerging (not only in fiction but in theory as well)” (Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1994, 121). Yet the essays in The Vital Illusion seem to work on some of the most traditional sf models, taking recent technological advances such as cloning and imagining how they may in fact affect us in the very near future. Indeed, Baudrillard goes on to write about the technology of cloning, projecting the technology into a perfect future that it has yet to achieve: “from this moment on it is possible to ask if we are still dealing with human beings. Is a species that succeeds in synthesizing its own immortality, and that seeks to transform itself into pure information, still particularly a human species?” (16). That anyone has yet to succeed in synthesizing immortality is, for Baudrillard, of no real concern. As in much sf, Baudrillard does an amazing job of identifying those technological and social issues bound up with our anxieties, and he plays out the worst-case scenario in a kind of dystopian vision.

Baudrillard is certainly not the only critic to chafe at the limits and logical binds of theoretical language. Indeed, in one of the more interesting efforts to engage postmodern discourse as something other than a discourse of critical theory, Steven Shaviro’s Doom Patrols (1997) attempts to operate in accord with its subtitle A Theoretical Fiction about Postmodernism. For Shaviro, Doom Patrols “is a theoretical fiction about postmodernism. A theoretical fiction, because I treat discursive ideas and arguments in a way analogous to how a novelist treats characters and events” (New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1997, i). While Shaviro’s explanation sounds radical, his work stays much closer to traditional models and languages of criticism than his introduction promises. Baudrillard, without the benefit of being quite so self-conscious about it, seems to go beyond even the pretense of an analogy to fiction, instead simply writing work that really is fiction. What strikes one most about Baudrillard’s recent work is that he has almost entirely abandoned the technical vocabularies of criticism, even when he engages traditional theoretical problems.

Over ten years ago, SFS devoted an entire issue to sf and postmodernism (18.3 [Nov. 1991]: 305-464). In his contribution, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., was particularly concerned with Baudrillard’s critique of sf, noting that “once the referent becomes a readout of the sign, and existence a readout of control models, theory’s condition of possibility has been absorbed in the operational program” (391). Here we see Baudrillard’s objection to the objective posture of most criticism, but the same critique applies to sf itself: “What Baudrillard considers the traditional charms of science fiction—projection, extrapolation, excessive ‘pantography’—become impossible, because space no longer offers a scene for overcoming fundamental differences” (391). Just as theory can no longer stand back from the world it purports to describe, sf no longer has the literal or metaphoric space to imagine a future. In short, “SF disappears into its own presence” (392). Ten years later, however, it seems that these positions are themselves the social sf of Baudrillard’s work. In essence, like any good sf writer, Baudrillard asks us to imagine a world. In his new essay “The Murder of the Real,” this is “a world where everything that exists only as idea, dream, fantasy, utopia will be eradicated, because it will be immediately realized, operationalized ... a perfect world, expurgated of every illusion” (66-67).

To read Baudrillard’s work as social sf is to rethink the space in which he works. Indeed, isn’t it precisely Baudrillard’s theory of simulation that is itself the most traditional sf aspect of his work? For Baudrillard, sf and theory have no room to move, for both are now simply part of a dead critical discourse. Yet although Baudrillard gives a convincing account of some aspects of our postmodern world, few readers are ultimately persuaded to accept the totality of his claims, especially his most radical idea that we adopt the fatal strategy of the object. The problem is that we either apply Baudrillard as a critical theorist or dismiss him as a lunatic nihilist, while he still seems to be attempting to redefine himself as an sf author. Could Baudrillard become more useful and relevant if we reinvent him through the perspectives of sf, and could sf criticism be in part transformed through Baudrillard? This seems to be the promise of his most recent work, and the challenge that he has given to contemporary critics who go on to apply his work.

—David Banash, University of Iowa

Revisiting Mercier’s L’An 2440.

Riikka Forsström. Possible Worlds: The Idea of Happiness in the Utopian Vision of Louis-Sébastien Mercier. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 2002.<>. 329 pp. €27 pbk.

Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s 1771 uchronia L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante: Rêve s’il en fut jamais (The year 2440: a dream if there ever was one, first published in English—perplexingly—as Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred in 1772) was an important milestone in the evolution of science fiction. According to Paul Alkon in his Origins of Futuristic Fiction (Athens, GA: U of Georgia Press, 1987), Mercier’s L’An 2440 was the first utopia to be set in future time, initiating “a new paradigm for utopian literature not only by setting action in a specific future chronologically connected to our past and present but even more crucially by characterizing that future as one belonging to progress” (127). It was one of the eighteenth century’s most successful books, with over 60,000 copies in print in several languages, and the first utopian novel published in North America (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned copies). It was also one of the century’s most controversial: first published anonymously in Amsterdam, L’An 2440 was promptly banned in both France and Spain as dangerous, subversive propaganda.

Considering its importance in the history of speculative fiction—as well as an artifact of pre-Revolutionary French political thought—it is surprising that there exist almost no contemporary studies of L’An 2440. Apart from Alkon’s excellent volume, most others seem to date from the 1970s: Henry Majewski’s The Preromantic Imagination of Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1971), Raymond Trousson’s now-classic Voyages aux nulle part (1975), and passing references in Frank and Fritzie Manuel’s Utopian Thought in the Western World (1979) and I.F. Clarke’s The Pattern of Expectation 1644-2001 (1979), for example.

Forsström’s Possible Worlds attempts to fill this lacuna in utopian criticism, and it does so in admirable fashion. Completed as a thesis at the University of Turku, Finland (ostensibly in 2001), the scholarship evident in Possible Worlds is both comprehensive and up-to-date. It begins with an Introduction that clearly defines its objectives as well as the methods and sources used. The author states that the main goal of the book is to explore the utopian novel as a representation of happiness through the vision conveyed by Mercier’s L’An 2440.... What is Mercier’s image of an ideal society, and what are the components which he views as contributing to the increase of human happiness or tending to diminish it? How does Mercier explain the process of transformation from the society of the eighteenth century to the ideal state of 2440? (12)

The ensuing ten chapters—all heavily footnoted—present a broad and multi-faceted analysis of L’An 2440. Among other topics, they include a biographical portrait of Mercier himself and an overview of his work’s place in the history of utopian writing, a discussion of the urban landscape of this ideal Paris of the future, its political and social structure (in comparison/contrast to those of Mercier’s own time), the role played by “natural religion” and material prosperity in the happiness of its citizens, and the work’s surprisingly patriarchal attitudes about the rights of women.

I found this latter chapter to be especially fascinating because Mercier’s portrayal of women in L’An 2440 seems to contradict his otherwise very progressive and emancipatory views about human rights. In Mercier’s utopia, marriages are based on love, dowries have been abolished, and divorce is now legal. Women’s prime (indeed, exclusive) role in this society, however, is to be good wives and mothers. Totally subordinate to their husbands, these idealized women are not only maternal, faithful, obedient, and loving but also paragons of virtue and the guardians of public morality. “Liberated” from the need to work outside the home, Mercier’s women are “free” to devote themselves exclusively to the task for which God and Nature created them: to bear children, to care for their husbands, and to incarnate “family values.”

These extremely conservative (and pre-bourgeois) notions of the proper role of women in society are partly the result of Mercier’s essentialist belief that women in eighteenth-century France had wandered too far from their “natural” selves, creating a dangerous “disharmony” in the balance of power between men and women.

In his imaginary world of the twenty-fifth century, this “disharmony” of sexual power, which Mercier found so alarming in his contemporary society, has been reversed.... In his imagined utopian community, patriarchal power knows no limits. The demand for equality of spouses was in Mercier’s opinion a grave error. As he saw it, there are biological reasons, which can be drawn directly from “nature,” supporting this argument ... [that] woman cannot under any circumstances be a rival with man; subordination is thus a “law of nature”....

[Mercier’s ideas] illustrate the general dependence of eighteenth-century writers on natural-law theorists of the preceding century, such as Bodin or Grotius, who had argued that the husband should be the sovereign within the domestic commonwealth. (140-41)

Mercier’s opinion seems to be that women can be truly happy only if their place in society is fully congruent with their “biology”—i.e., as wives and mothers. In this aspect at least, Mercier’s very forward-looking L’An 2440 is an ideological throwback. Despite its very progressive ideas about many of society’s institutions (including marriage), its reactionary vision of women’s rights must rank it as among the most anti-feminist utopias ever written.

On the other hand, when viewed historically, Mercier’s L’An 2440 arguably represents a kind of “missing link” between the utopian tradition and early extrapolative science fiction, or—in Alkon’s words—between “gratuitous” and “investigative” modes of fictional speculation (125). Mercier’s uchronia was not just an exercise in idyllic wish-fulfillment; it was a concrete blueprint for social change based on the ideals of the eighteenth-century philosophes. As such, it exemplified the idea of “progress” at a time when this new notion—that the future could and would be radically different from (and better than) the past—was just beginning to become widespread in the Western popular imagination. As Forsström’s Possible Worlds points out in its conclusion, Mercier’s L’An 2440 is an important work in this historical context because it straddles two very different worlds—in its fictional narrative (past/future), in its utopian discourse (static/dynamic), and in its historical status as a political and cultural artifact (pre-Revolution/post-Revolution).

In sum, despite the occasional infelicities of its style—it is unclear if this edition was a translation into English of an original Finnish text—and the inevitable typographical errors here and there, Riikka Forsström’s Possible Worlds: The Idea of Happiness in the Utopian Vision of Louis-Sébastien Mercier constitutes a valuable addition to sf scholarship. It is the best study available on Mercier’s L’An 2440, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the utopian roots of modern sf.—ABE

The Critical Pertinence of SF.

Martin Jones. Psychedelic Decadence: Sex Drugs Low-Art in Sixties & Seventies Britain.Manchester: Headpress/Critical Vision, 2001. 170 pp. $19.95 pbk.

Ruth Mayer. Artificial Africas: Colonial Images in the Times of Globalization. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth/UP New England, 2002. viii + 370 pp. $24.95 pbk.

Though they have little else in common, these two books combine to show just how much science fiction texts and contexts have entered into the common frame of reference of contemporary critics. Martin Jones’s Psychedelic Decadence, a scattershot and impressionistic romp through “Swinging London,” features a chapter on New Wave sf—in particular, the work of J.G. Ballard—while Ruth Mayer’s Artificial Africas, a systematic and scholarly study of how Africa has figured in the Western imagination, treats a range of sf and proto-sf materials, from lost-world romances to cyberpunk. For all their differences in approach (and value), they show that literary and cultural critics focusing on specific themes or historical periods now no longer automatically ignore the genre when carving out their terrain of investigation.

Despite its footnotes and index, Psychedelic Decadence is clearly not intended as a scholarly work; rather, it is a nostalgic and highly personal tour of key British icons and venues of the 1960s and 70s, from Emma Peel and David Bowie to biker-gang paperbacks and Hammer vampire movies. At its best, it is energetic and engaging; at its worst, it is bathetic and sophomorically salacious. Jones’s prose style is offhandedly breezy, as if he could not care less whether his readers are as intrigued as he is by Brian Ferry’s hair or Ingrid Pitt’s cleavage. The chapter on Ballard, however, adopts a soberer tone as it attempts to grapple with this most contentedly suburban of Sixties rebels, this “man in the white suit” who looks like nothing so much as “a renegade maths teacher” (46), yet whose work marks him out as “[m]ore radical than the psychedelic crowd around him” (56). Jones’s discussion of Ballard as a member of the New Worlds cohort—those “adventurous writers” who “drew attention to the dead-end naval [sic] explorations of ‘serious’ literature” while at the same time striking “a path away from the rocketship pulp that H.G. Wells had unwittingly unleashed” (47)—adds nothing to the extant critical literature on the subject; and his analyses of the author’s novels—chiefly those of the 1970s such as Crash (1973) and Concrete Island (1973)—are generally thin and insipid. But there are moments of insight, as when Jones speaks of Ballard’s recurring portraits of “high-income professionals…: psychiatrists, doctors and media producers” (48) whose confrontations with entropic dissolution serve to “remind them that their hi-fi systems and modish mini-bars are no protection from the breakdown of society” (52). There is also an entertaining aside on Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius books, though curiously no mention at all of his voluminous sword-and-sorcery, which would seem so much a part of the lushly decadent milieu Jones seeks to evoke. Ultimately, Psychedelic Decadence offers no more than a few hours’ mild diversion—largely in the form of its wonderfully juicy and well-chosen illustrations.

Artificial Africas is another matter entirely. Though rather schematically organized around a contrast between “African Adventures” (“classical genres and stock figures of colonial meaning making and their contemporary reiterations” [18]) and “Alternative Africas” (works that “set out to display the structures of imperial meaning making, systematically dissecting the framework of exoticization” built into “its representational and conceptual conventions” [19]), the book offers a series of rich and powerful readings of a wide array of literary and filmic texts, from H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes (1914) to the Young Indiana Jones TV series (1992) and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997). While Mayer’s discussion of Burroughs is somewhat disappointing—contributing little to previous analyses, such as Eric Cheyfitz’s in The Poetics of Imperialism (Oxford, 1991)—her treatment of more recent “speculative” texts, ranging from Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) to Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net (1988), is exhilaratingly fresh and insightful. Mayer considers Sterling’s novel, alongside Michael Crichton’s Congo (1980), as a “cyberfiction” about Africa, one that highlights an emerging global system mixing traditional “primitive” cultures and “high-tech futurism”; in this new paradigm, “mythical and technological imageries converge, so that modernity and magic turn out to be far from mutually exclusive concepts” (267). Mayer shows herself, in this discussion, to be quite familiar with the fictive and critical discourse of cyberpunk—indeed, she has written several essays on the subject, most of them in German (she is a Professor of American Studies at the University of Hannover) in the journal Hyperkultur—though her larger knowledge of sf is unclear (she mentions Octavia Butler’s Kindred [1979] in passing, but doesn’t cite other substantial sf visions of Africa, such as J.G. Ballard’s The Day of Creation [1987] or Mike Resnick’s Kenya series). All in all, though, this book provides an excellent examination—and critique—of the “logic of stereotyping” (17) that has informed the West’s imaginative engagement with Africa, and it is highly recommended to scholars of contemporary literature and postcolonial studies.—RL

New Studies in Science Fiction Cinema.

David Kalat. The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse: A Study of the Twelve Films and Five Novels.McFarland, 2001. x + 305 pp. $49.95 hc.

Mark C. Glassy. The Biology of Science Fiction Cinema. McFarland, 2001. viii + 296 pp. $39.95 hc.

A film version of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler appeared in 1922, directed by Fritz Lang with a screenplay by Thea Von Harbou, almost simultaneously with journalist Norbert Jacques’s publication of his novel of the same title. Thus, before he even had a chance to establish himself as a memorable literary character, Jacques’s Mabuse was usurped by his filmic doppelgänger. Lang put his indelible stamp on the character of Mabuse in a film that influenced many European filmmakers and inspired a whole film series with eleven sequels and remakes. Lang established the framework of Mabuse as an anonymous criminal mastermind who uses disguises and mind control to accomplish his goal of world domination. While all subsequent Mabuse films followed Lang’s blueprint, the meaning of Mabuse morphed with each successive sequel, as Mabuse became a representative Man of his time. German audiences in 1922 perceived Lang’s film as a realistic portrayal of the situation in the corrupt, inflation-ridden, and riot-plagued Weimar Republic. Just as the first Mabuse film reflected fears in post-World War I Germany, audiences could read the second Mabuse film in 1933 (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) as expressing concerns about the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. In later sequels and remakes, Mabuse would transform into a Cold War version revealing West German fears of Communism. In even later films, he (she in one case) emerged as a media mogul bent on controlling society through the ever-present mass media. Mabuse’s meaning shifted for each new generation of European filmmakers, each of whom saw in Mabuse an embodiment of the contemporary threats facing Germany.

The novelty of David Kalat’s entertaining and enlightening book is not only to map these changing meanings of Mabuse, but to establish that Mabuse as a character is inherently set up to accommodate these meanings. For example, Kalat goes to great lengths to show the fallacy in Lang’s claims that he designed the 1933 film as an anti-Nazi film. He shows that Lang probably created the Mabuse/Hitler scenario in later years to avoid the stigma of being considered pro-Nazi by Hollywood producers. Kalat convincingly argues that it does not matter that Mabuse was not a direct representation of Hitler the person; rather it is more important to see that Mabuse was a very powerful representation of Hitler the type. In Kalat’s analysis, the value of Mabuse is that he could be anybody, making the character malleable enough to represent the evil of Man for each new generation. In fact, what separates Mabuse from other supervillains, such as Fu Manchu or Professor Moriarty, is that after the first film Mabuse is never actually Mabuse. The original Mabuse character died halfway through the second film and each subsequent Mabuse merely takes up the moniker. That anyone can take on the mantle of “Mabuse,” even a woman in one case, makes him even more sinister. How can we fight an evil that keeps resurfacing and will not die? To destroy Fu Manchu is to destroy evil; to destroy Mabuse is to give rise to a new Mabuse.

One of the major strengths of Kalat’s book is the thoroughness of the research. Kalat corrects various myths that have grown up around the films and the filmmakers. Although this thoroughness is an asset, it does lead to the major problem of the book: length. He spends far too much time on topics that are only tangentially related to the Mabuse books and films. For example, he makes a compelling case that each film’s director was an “outcast” like Mabuse, but the lengthy biographies of these directors get tedious and pull the focus away from the films themselves. His arguments about the artistic merits of sequels and remakes also seem misplaced. This discussion of sequels and remakes was the only time I questioned his academic integrity, as he does have a financial stake in the DVD sales for several of the Mabuse sequels mentioned in the book. I must point out, however, that he is as harsh towards the two films he has the rights to as he is with any of the other sequels. Finally, the book suffers from repetition in many places. I found it strange to see the same arguments and stories repeated in several chapters, sometimes with almost word for word repetition of sentences.

Another problem is Kalat’s tendency to overstate Mabuse’s general importance to cinema. Although the character appeared in 12 films from 1922 to 1989, he is not well known outside Germany. Film distributors in America actually removed the name Mabuse from most film titles. One of the films (Scream and Scream Again [1969]) had no connection to Mabuse until its German distributor changed the title to capitalize on Mabuse’s familiarity in that country. In many ways, however, Mabuse’s German specificity, both culturally and filmically, makes him a more interesting character than such internationally recognized film villains as Fu Manchu. This is why, despite those problems, I highly recommend the book as a worthwhile read for any student of science fiction film’s relationship to cultural studies.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of biologist Mark Glassy’s The Biology of Science Fiction Cinema. Glassy’s book is in the same vein as other recent books that examine “The Real Science” of some fictional enterprise. In recent years there have been “The Real Science of …” books about Star Trek (several books actually), The X-Files, Star Wars, The X-Men, and Jurassic Park. There are also several generalized books on how to use science fiction films to teach science, such as Dubeck et al.’s Fantastic Voyages: Learning Science Through Science Fiction Films (AIP, 1994) and Lambourne et al.’s Close Encounters?: Science and Science Fiction (Adam Hilger, 1990). Rather than take on the expository styles of these previous works, however, Glassy’s book is written as a reference work summarizing over 75 films. For each of these films, he systematically provides an overview of the plot, of what science worked and what did not, and of what science in the film could actually happen.

While it may be a useful reference book, who is this reference book for? Popular science fans are likely to get bored with the repetitiveness of the book’s format. Sf scholars will question whether such intense scrutiny of scientific accuracy is a worthwhile exercise. Obviously, the science in Monogram’s B-movie The Ape Man (1943) will be out of date when compared to the current state of scientific knowledge, and inaccurate science was probably the least of the film-makers’ concerns as they were constrained by a minuscule budget and deadlines while pumping out a quickie shocker. Such extensive analysis of scientific verisimilitude does not add anything to our comprehension of sf cinema or the cultural significance of these films. That the science in a film like Island of Lost Souls (1933) is absurd by today’s standards does not detract from the film’s value in understanding the place of horror/science fiction in early 1930s cinema, film adaptations of H.G. Wells’s novels, or American attitudes towards science in the 1930s. In the end, the only audience well served by this book is biology teachers who use science fiction films in their classrooms as a teaching aid. For this population, The Biology of Science Fiction Cinema will be very useful and could work as a good supplementary biology textbook

—David A. Kirby, Cornell University

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