Science Fiction Studies
#89 = Volume 29, Part 3 = November 2002
Rob Latham. Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption.Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2002. x + 321pp. $50 hc; $22 pbk.
Rob Latham’s book does that rather brilliant thing that happens only too rarely with criticism: it tells you something you kind of thought you already knew yet could never, not in a million years, have articulated for yourself. Of course it’s obvious to me now that there is a dialectical link between the pervasive presence in contemporary American culture of Gothic vampires and science-fictional cyborgs. Of course these figures are ambivalent condensations of much of the discourse about the problem of youth in America over the last three decades. But of course I would never have hoped to understand the potential explanatory power or range of these tropes without Latham’s densely argued yet perspicacious readings. The coherence of the central thesis allows the book to travel across an impressive diversity of economic theory, critical and cultural commentary, as well as Gothic, sf, and mainstream fiction and film in a way that lends the argument growing authority and depth. In my view, it is a fine example of how to do cultural studies.
For the core thesis of his book, Latham extracts the vampire-cyborg dialectic from the famous passage in Karl Marx’s Capital (1867), where Marx examines the way the machine extracts the labor of the worker, animating its dead mechanism with leeched life. As Marx puts it, and as Latham quotes the famous passage, capital is “dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” (3). Where many critics have been content merely to register the system of vampiric metaphors in Capital, turning Marx from a boring political economist into a passingly interesting Gothicist, Latham retains the focus on the economic meanings of this passage. The machine takes on the life of the worker, feeding on alienated labor to produce surplus value, but the worker becomes a prosthetic element of the machine, tied into capitalist accumulation but also given access to potentially huge liberatory technological power. The vampire is always accompanied by the cyborg: it is, as Latham says, a dialectical image of “unprecedented technical progress and primitive, inhuman exploitation” (4).
To this reading of Marx, Latham adds two further turns of the screw. First, he suggests that because both the vampire and the cyborg can articulate utopian and dystopian possibilities, each has figured significantly in popular-cultural expression during the passage of economic transformation from Fordist to post-Fordist modes of accumulation in post-war America. Sections of the book are therefore given over to examining theories of economic change (particularly theories of disorganized capitalism and flexible accumulation developed in the 1980s), and the historical proposal that the structural crisis of the 1970s was a significant passage of conversion from mass production to mass consumption. Cultural articulations of The System that increasingly invades private life and the home, and turns leisure into the work of dutiful cultural consumption, inevitably favor metaphors of vampirism. Latham’s second turn, though, is to suggest that this economic logic insistently circles around ideas of youth. Youth might have been the ideal for the assembly-lines of Fordist America—young workers are flexible, responsive, efficient. But the consumer society fetishizes youth even further. The young are the ideal consumers, given their rapid cycles of faddish consumption; the advertising central to consumer society itself promises everyone the prospect of eternal youth; capitalist economies are dominated by “a pervasive ideology of youthfulness” (30), celebrating novelty, change, and permanent product revolution. The last two meanings of “consuming youth,” Latham argues, abstract youthfulness and turn it into a kind of prosthesis. Cultural expression here features both idealizations and demonizations of kids as the wave of the future—techno-heads, hackers, and cyberpunks who have begun to merge with the machine in ways that seriously disturb their elders.
After the introduction has expounded this dialectic, the book offers three chapters on the vampire and three on the cyborg. These chapters, it should be said, sometimes focus on the vampiric and prosthetic in highly abstract or metaphorical ways. Readers expecting a survey of the vampire and cyborg in post-war American culture will be somewhat surprised—productively, it is to be hoped—by the lateral moves the argument can make. An illustration of this will demonstrate what I mean. Chapter One takes the shopping mall as an exemplary instance of the kind of pure or saturated environment of consumption that has emerged as a significant economic and cultural formation in America since the 1950s. Latham examines the critical discourse around the mall in leftist cultural criticism (end-point of totalitarian system of consumption, or space for pleasurable and subversive play with identity?), reads S. P Somtow’s sf satire Mallworld, (1981), and then moves into an analysis of the alarmist rhetoric of conservative commentaries on the loss of childhood by a consumer logic that persistently binds children into the capitalist system. The mall-rat becomes the locus of ambivalent feelings in this regard. The vid-kids of the early 1980s seem dangerously absorbed by arcade machines—possible cyborgs, they cause anxiety but also mark out the cutting-edge of a machine-human co-evolution in the language of such texts as J.C. Herz’s Joystick Nation (1997). The final move of the chapter is to read these utopian arguments dialectically against the mall-rats that feature in Somtow’s novel Vampire Junction (1984) and Joel Schumacher’s film, The Lost Boys (1987). This multi-disciplinary mode of argument is entirely typical of each chapter, and means that the book can process apparently discontinuous materials: queer theory, the homoeroticism of Andy Warhol and Calvin Klein ads, and the cyborg-like David Bowie as vampire in The Hunger (1983) in Chapter Three; post-industrialization, the journalistic obsession with youthful sunrise computer industries, and the fiction of Douglas Coupland in Chapter Four. The clarity of Latham’s central thesis always ensures these strands pull into shape, and the last reading of the book offers up the uncanny instantiation of his overall argument: Richard Calder’s trilogy (Dead Girls, Dead Boys, Dead Things, issued together in 1998) invites us to meet those hybrid figures, cyborg vampires.
This is a rigorous Marxist approach to cultural studies—but the rigor is located, to the great advantage of the book, in its dialectical thinking. This not only allows a creative binding together of opposites (if there is any award out there for fabulous chapter titles, then surely Chapter Two’s “The Yuppie-Slacker Dialectic” wins this year without contest). It also enables Latham to conduct an ongoing critique of approaches to reading culture in a hyperconsumerist postmodern world. Latham is suspicious of what he terms the “left puritanism” of Frankfurt School-inspired theory, as exemplified in Adorno’s contempt for popular music, in which contemporary society is the apotheosis of consumer dupedom—that airhead youth constitutes the final loss of any agency or resistance: youth as zombies, servants to the master Vampire, passive prosthetic attachments to the accumulative machine, etc. But he has little time, either, for that phase of cultural studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s that began to argue that consumption was alive with subversive and critical agency, a development that emerged from Britain and was undoubtedly related to a triumphant decade of Thatcherite free market economics (although not cited by Latham, the Australian cultural studies critic Meaghan Morris once wrote a despairing essay on this particular banality in cultural studies, speculating that there might be a diskette with the “subversive consumption” argument pre-prepared for use by British critics [“Banality in Cultural Studies,” in Patricia Mellencamp, Logics of Television, Indiana UP, 1990, 193-221]). The dialectical move is to see these extremes as responses to the same moment, and to try to sublate them into a higher mode of critical understanding. Consuming Youth is replete with moments that undertake this dialectical move: the utopian and libertarian advocates of the information superhighway are read in relation to the most pessimistic left puritans regarding the virtualization of humanity. The figure of the hacker appears in both libertarian and subversive models of agency, and as the inadvertent edge of increasing totalitarian control as the hacker ethic is swallowed by corporations and electronic security agencies. Dialectical thinking makes Latham’s study look consistently more in control than many of the writers in these typically over-heated debates about contemporary technological culture. It also announces, although never explicitly, that Fredric Jameson’s view that the “cultural logic of late capitalism” abolishes any critical distance or possibility of critique is no longer necessarily held by leftist cultural studies. Latham consistently seeks distance and perspective. The method is sound, but this search for distance may also explain why there are notably fewer examples of readings from the late 1990s. I’ll say more about this below.
Any reservations I have emerge from the very method I’ve been praising. This is, I hope, a suitably dialectical response. The book does occasionally fall into chastising texts for failing to conform to Latham’s Marxist stance. He expresses disappointment that Vampire Junction and The Lost Boys fail to “foresee a situation in which youth might actually come to control the means of production and distribution of the culture they consume so avidly” (68). Later, Coupland’s Microserfs is told off for being not properly dialectical, and “merely studiedly ambivalent” (173). To be fair, on both occasions Latham acknowledges that this is an inappropriate test to apply to a cultural text (69, 178). Indeed it is, but this prescriptive ought is something that continues to dog leftist sf criticism. I’m never quite sure if a Godard-style radical intervention (twenty minutes, say, of Maoist doctrine delivered direct to camera by Kiefer Sutherland?) is really what critics want or think possible from such popular texts. It seems to deny the very work of interpretation and criticism that any act of reading undertakes, and is a peculiar kind of momentary lapse into a narcissistic demand that texts perfectly reflect critical method.
Perhaps this demand comes from another aspect of a critical assumption I have some doubts about. Latham seems to offer very little mediation between the economic base and the cultural superstructure in this approach. This is undoubtedly a consequence of the kind of economic hyper-capitalism being examined—the spaces of culture become less and less autonomous from the flow of capitalism. Jameson’s reading of postmodernist culture exemplifies this American position: the first footnote to Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) famously abandons all mediation and proposes that cyberpunk is “the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself”(419). A location in the British tradition probably makes me want to be more cautious than this. Raymond Williams, after all, insisted that critics think carefully about the complex mediations between economic mode and cultural expression. In that spirit, I was hoping that Latham would have more to say about the way in which the conventions of genre help to mediate the interaction of the vampire, the cyborg, and consumer society. There is curiously little on this: sf and gothic texts are largely treated as isolated instances rather than generic products. This might have produced more nuanced readings in Chapter Two, for example, on George Romero’s film Martin (1977) and Anne Rice’s breakthrough novel, Interview with the Vampire (1976). This chapter sets up the wonderful “slacker-yuppie dialectic”—a dialectical mode of reading images of youth culture that is a brilliant and crisply expressed insight. Latham is entirely right, I think, in seeing Martin as a very significant film for showing how the vampire figure condenses disaffection and collapse in a newly post-industrial landscape. However, I’m not especially convinced that Rice’s text fits so neatly into presenting a yuppie figure of the new middle class. A reading attuned to genre might be more interested in how the Gothic allows for incoherent articulations of fear about the resurgence of aristocratic tyranny. The decadent Europeanized New Orleans seems to be a particularly telling locale in the case of Anne Rice—and it is certainly true that the British contributions to the vampire cycle since the 1980s, in works such as Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula (1992), have been responding to the peculiar combination of international high-finance and ancient aristocratic privileges of the City of London, unashamedly entrenched by successive conservative and social democratic governments. In other words, questions of genre raised here might have finessed the mobility of the class-identification of the vampire.
My last point is to reflect a little more on the notably lesser coverage of texts from the late 1990s. I was disappointed, for instance, in not having this sharp intellect focused on the phenomenal success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel. Both television series are surrounded by commercial ephemera of action-figures, game-cards, board games, huge advertising budgets, and plots that often ruthlessly exploit youth concerns. At the same time these texts—often populated by cyborg vampires and vampiric cyborgs—do include some nascent critique of institutional and corporate power (the university in Buffy; the legal profession in Angel; ideas of the family in both) amidst the teenage angst. The important test of any critical mechanism is whether it can encourage cultural readings beyond its own pages. The Latham method could undoubtedly break into the rich contradictions of such texts, and I look forward to others pursuing these kinds of readings.
The more serious speculation about the minimal presence of late 90s texts, though, might concern the economic paradigm that underpins much of Latham’s argument. The nature of the transition to post-Fordist flexible accumulation was hotly disputed in the late 1980s and early 1990s—I can fondly remember reading the latest articles on batch production and niche marketing in the pages of Marxism Today, vaguely worrying if left-wing journals should really look so well designed and snappily presented and be spending quite so much time interviewing right-wing politicians (one of the ironies of Marxism Today, some now hold, is that it became the place where a coherent ideology of New Right Thatcherism was first articulated). With Marxism Today long gone, are these debates so important in the wake of the formation of the World Trade Organization in 1995? Theories of globalization have dominated economic and cultural theory in the wake of this epochal moment; the question of labor rights and the proletarianization of the Third World have become markedly more dominant. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s book Empire (Harvard UP, 2000) has become the radical textbook of choice, a newly committed and utopian book that shakes off the weary cynicism of Jean Baudrillard and his postmodernist ilk. There is an interesting ambivalence around the nature of youth, too, since 1995. Following the September 1999 protests at the Seattle meeting of the WTO, youth protesters have been located either as evidence of a new investment in the democratic public sphere or as nihilistic anarchists, lurking in the global system and organizing with uncanny ease through the Internet. I detect a similar sense of post-national or globalized concerns in recent cyborg-vampire texts. Blade II (2002), for instance, notably moved the scene of action from the American city of the first film to Eastern Europe, the test-bed since the fall of the Berlin Wall for hyper-capitalist experiment.
Of course Latham cannot reasonably be expected to incorporate every vampire or cyborg text in his book, especially such very recent ones. And of course, it goes without saying that I could not be thinking in just this way about such texts without reading through the filter of Latham’s work. Perhaps the only objection, then, is that the book comes to an end before it can process these developments. This is surely a good place to leave the reader—wanting more, and providing the matrix of ideas that helps readers begin to conceive what that “more” might look like.
—Roger Luckhurst, University of London
Sleuthing C.S. Lewis: More Light in the Shadowlands.
Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 2001. xvi + 416 pp. $23 pbk.
Kathryn Lindskoog, the author of several books about Lewis, is something of a cultist, and she is known not only for her fanatical devotion to Lewis but even more for her scathing attacks on other Lewis scholars, such as A.N. Wilson, Lewis’s most perceptive biographer, and—her favorite target—Walter Hooper, Lewis’s literary executor and the editor of many posthumous collections of Lewis’s work. In her latest effort, Sleuthing C.S. Lewis, Lindskoog continues her campaign to establish that Hooper and his colleagues at the Lewis estate have conspired to perpetrate numerous tricks and falsifications, most notably the forgery of The Dark Tower, an unfinished and entirely nugatory sequel to Out of the Silent Planet that Hooper published in 1977 as Lewis’s work. Lindskoog’s charge has not been accepted by most serious scholars, and I myself find her arguments to be generally weak and implausible. Still, it cannot be denied that she has a readable style, knows Lewis’s writings well, and has done immensely detailed research into his career, so that even readers unsympathetic to her main project may find all sorts of interesting tidbits along the way. Perhaps the most striking thing her book proves is that, as Wilson pointed out a dozen years ago, many of those religiously devoted to Lewis’s memory seem to loathe one another with uncommon bitterness. This does not strike me as a good advertisement for Christian love, but I doubt that my opinion on such matters will carry much weight with the faithful.
The Imaginative World of C.S. Lewis by Mineko Honda is a much more seriously critical work. Writing from within the surprisingly large and lively world of Japanese Lewis studies, Honda is not a cultist; unlike Lindskoog (and for that matter unlike Hooper), she can recognize flaws as well as strong points within the vast corpus of Lewis’s writing. Yet she too is a kind of disciple, though one who seems less attracted by Lewis’s Christianity than by his more general philosophical belief in the unalterable solidity of objective reality. This is indeed an important and infrequently discussed component of Lewis’s outlook; though Honda herself does not pursue this train of thought, it helps to explain why the world-view with which Lewis felt the greatest affinity (next to Christianity, of course) seems to have been atheist or agnostic materialism of the nineteenth-century positivistic sort. For this viewpoint, so memorably represented by the virtuous unbeliever MacPhee in That Hideous Strength (1945), is indeed, like Christianity, a firmly objectivist philosophical realism. Honda’s central argument is that Lewis’s objectivism is conveyed more by imaginative than by strictly logical means and that in both principle and practice he regards the imagination as a supremely valid way to participate in reality.
In this light, Honda offers a too brief examination of Lewis’s expository defenses of Christianity such as The Problem of Pain (1940), Miracles (1947), and Mere Christianity (1952). She helps us to see (without ever quite putting it this way) that the considerable force of these works derives less from their actual arguments—which, upon examination, often turn out to be logically flimsy, as even a number of Lewis’s fellow Christians have noticed—than from the immense imaginative, rhetorical power with which Lewis’s case for Christianity is expressed. But Honda’s main attention is applied to two works of fiction: The Great Divorce (1945), a neo-Dantean allegory of the afterlife that, though not strictly sf, employs several sf techniques (as Lewis explicitly points out) and should be placed somewhere in the suburbs of the genre; and Till We Have Faces (1956), a reworking of the story of Cupid and Psyche that many (including Lewis himself) have regarded as his best single fictional work. The later book is by far the more powerful, for in The Great Divorce, despite its genuine verve and interest, the story is often disfigured by undigested polemic of the sort that Dante himself nearly always avoids. Of course I do not mean that polemic is a genre intrinsically inferior to story-telling, but merely that Lewis himself was far less gifted as a polemicist than as a story-teller. In Till We Have Faces—which is not simply the retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth that the book’s subtitle (“A Myth Retold”) promises but a deeply original refashioning of it into something qualitatively different from the tale Lewis found in The Golden Ass of Lucius Apuleius—the didactic Christian purpose is thoroughly integrated into the narrative itself, and emerges as all the more effective for never being explicitly mentioned. The sparingly but brilliantly glimpsed Psyche is represented as living before the birth of Jesus, and is a classic instance of the anima naturaliter Christiana; while her physically ugly sister Orual, the narrator and protagonist of the novel (and a character who does not even exist in Apuleius), is Lewis’s most fully realized fictional character in whom virtuous and vicious impulses contend. Her salvation—the triumph within her of love over jealousy and possessiveness—provides what is probably the most memorable example in all of Lewis’s work of the imaginative concretization of that objective reality which, for the Christian, is ultimately to be identified with nothing less than Heaven itself.
In tracing the expression of Lewis’s objectivism through several of his fictional and nonfictional works, Honda proves herself far from a brilliant critic and a few times even stumbles into embarrassing errors (the oddest being an evident confusion of Roland Barthes with Karl Barth). But her book is a serious and generally worthwhile attempt to explicate certain conjunctions between thought and imagination in the work of an unusually versatile author; and readers of this journal, whatever their particular interest in C.S. Lewis, might reflect that the conjunction of thought and imagination is after all the central formal problem for science fiction as a whole.
—Carl Freedman, Louisiana State University
Michele Pierson. Special Effects: Still in Search of Wonder. Film and Culture Series. Ed. John Belton. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. 231 pp. $49.50 hc, $18.50 pbk.
Books examining movie special effects are nothing new, but in this age of effects-driven films, one can always welcome a new and serious study of this part of the film industry. Michele Pierson’s Special Effects: Still in Search of Wonder is a worthwhile, interesting study of, in particular, the world of CGI (computer-generated imagery) in recent sf films. Early in the work, Pierson examines the relationship between and similarities of nineeenth-century scientific demonstrations and popular magic shows, both of which relied heavily on “special effects.” She then shows how the “culture of appreciation”—her term for those with an interest in how the effects were created—evolved shortly thereafter, with reviews of these public shows published in journals such as Scientific American. The study contends that these fans were, and in great measure continue to be, predominantly young males.
Pierson’s point is well taken, that this specialized audience not only continues but flourishes in the present. She looks at fan magazines such as Photon and Cinefantastique, which either have published or (in the case of the latter) still publish detailed accounts of how CGI and other sf film special effects are created. Further proof of current interest in effects creation, Pierson points out, may be seen in the number of television documentaries on the subject and the similar “extras” on DVD releases.
Later in the volume, Pierson discusses how the new media technologies are affecting the ways Hollywood produces, distributes, and even exhibits its latest products. In this discussion, she notes the relationship (and symbiosis, it seems) between computer/video games and sf cinema in films such as Mortal Kombat (1995). The author touches on how this relationship seems to be resulting in a blend of sf/martial arts films: for example, The Matrix (1999) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2002). Furthermore, recent films such as The Fifth Element (1997) and Dark City (1997) represent a sort of second wave in which the CGI effects are only occasionally brought into focus and are not the films’ raison d’être.
Pierson’s study is an impressive work of scholarship, containing 30 pages of endnotes and 25 pages of bibliography. And when it discusses CGI effects, it is both scholarly and interesting. Pierson presents a brief but fascinating discussion of Hollywood’s past effects techniques, including 3-D, stop motion (à la Ray Harryhausen), and other visual wonders of the 1950s. However, the author is also prone to making statements such as “All SF film from the 50’s is ... remembered as the same” when she discusses current audience reaction to the older films. This is not at all so: as a fan/student/teacher myself, I find a clear difference between the way I recall the varying quality of special effects in 50s sf films. Forbidden Planet (1956) is in the same ballpark as 1957’s chintzy Attack of the Crab Monster? I don’t think so.
Besides the targeted academic community, one wonders for whom this volume was intended. The fans who comprise Pierson’s culture of appreciation may find this book far too theoretical. They may also be distracted by Pierson’s lengthy, tangential discussions of Wired magazine. That audience—the fan base of sf/fx films—might be disappointed in this book, since the majority of them are far more interested in how the effects are created than in why.
—Allen C. Kupfer, Nassau Community College
Andy Sawyer and David Seed, eds. Speaking Science Fiction: Dialogues and Interpretations.Liverpool, UK: Liverpool UP, 2000. 248 pp. $ 49.95 hc.
Academic conferences frequently provide participants with the opportunity to present their current research—a tendency that is only encouraged by deliberately vague and open-ended conference titles. The resultant polyphony of topics, approaches, and angles may have advantages, but it also detracts from any sense of shared interests and, in extreme cases, may create an impression of the lack of any common ground. At first, one might think that this was the case with the 1996 Liverpool conference on “Speaking Science Fiction.” After all, the activity in question can be understood in many ways and invites virtually any angle of interpretation. Even a cursory inspection of the essays culled in the post-conference volume, however, reveals an astonishing homogeneity—there is a great deal of signal here and hardly any noise. A celebration of the rescue of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection, the conference brought together sf scholars from, one would wish to say, all over the world. In fact, among the 18 contributions to the volume, only two are by non-Anglophone critics (the exceptions are Czech and Portuguese), a situation that in equal measure reflects the degree to which sf scholarship has taken root in various countries and simple conference demographics.
While diverse and multi-focal, Speaking Science Fiction sustains its topicality and thematic cohesiveness amazingly well. Whether this is a result of the tight abstract control before the conference or of the selection process of assembling the book I do not know; but given the breadth of the central topic the conference organizers/editors deserve more than ample praise for their disciplined approach as well as for gathering so many eminent names in sf scholarship.
It is not clear what key was applied in the arrangement of the contributions, but one way to orient oneself in the volume is to look at it as a collection of several themed groups. Five clusters can be distinguished. The first consists of introductions—the plural is intentional, as there are three pieces that by virtue of their positioning and comprehensive character deserve that name. Brian Aldiss’s “Speaking Science Fiction: Introduction” is the most general, spanning the terrain from his own literary career to the content of the volume it opens. Following it is Andy Sawyer’s “Who Speaks Science Fiction?”—a more detailed piece that also maps the main foci of the book. The last of the introductions, David Seed’s “Science Fiction Dialogues,” concentrates on the subject of speaking. Drawing broadly on Barthes’s and Kristeva’s belief in the necessity of intertextuality and specifically on the idea of Broderick’s sf megatext, Seed suggests that the very act of writing and reading sf is an act of dialogue. A few examples follow, but his declaration is amply exemplified by virtually all contributions to Speaking Science Fiction.
The second group of essays comprises three writerly pieces—each of them deliciously different. In the poetic “Speaking of Homeplace, Speaking from Someplace,” Candas Jane Dorsey writes about the making of landscapes of imagination. Josef Nesvadba’s “Speaking Science Fiction—Out of Anxiety?” is, in turn, a jocose trip down memory lane and behind the Iron Curtain while it was still up—a trip only too familiar for anyone born there and possibly somewhat absurdist for anyone lucky enough to have been born on the bright side. Finally, in “Aliens in the Fourth Dimension,” Gwyneth Jones retraces the creation of her aliens in the Aleutian novels, including the use of speech and silence in the cycle.
Then, inevitably, there is a sizeable cluster of fairly theoretical essays with a group of essays devoted to gender and feminism. The majority of the contributions here are skillful if not inspired interrogations of the volume’s theme. The most topical and theoretical is Danièle Chatelain’s and George Slusser’s “Convention and Displacement: Narrator, Narratee, and Virtual Reader in Science Fiction,” in which the authors systematically chart the narratology of various types of fantastic literature and extrapolative fiction. “Freefall in Inner Space: From Crash to Crash Technology” by Simon Sellars tracks the links between sf and real life, while José Manuel Mota’s “Science Fiction as Language: Postmodernism and Mainstream: Some Reflections” is a fairly predictable but solid de/re-tour of the titular topics. The strongest of this group is, to my mind, Roger Luckhurst’s “Vicissitudes of the Voice: Speaking Science Fiction”—an essay that splendidly balances philosophical reflection on the act of speaking in sf with a close reading of J.G. Ballard’s and Octavia Butler’s short stories. The discussion of gender in this cluster of essays is diverse, ranging from the conceptions and misconceptions of feminine involvement and presence in sf (Helen Merrick’s “‘Fantastic Dialogues’: Critical Stories about Feminism and Science Fiction”) to historical and cultural criticism of the pulps (Brian Attebery’s “Science Fiction and the Gender of Knowledge”) to close(r) readings of individual texts (Bronwen Calvert’s and Sue Walsh’s “Speaking the Body: The Embodiment of ‘Feminist’ Cyberpunk” and Nickianne Moody’s “Aphasia and Mother Tongue: Themes of Language Creation and Silence in Women’s Science Fiction”).
The last group of articles considers individual texts, with two of three chapters rather surprisingly devoted to the work of one author, Jack Womack. Veronica Hollinger compares his construction of the subject in Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1993) with that of Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange (1962), while Andrew M. Butler casts a broader net over the entire Dryco series, its chronology and sequencing. The last of the three—Farah Mendlesohn’s “Corporatism and the Corporate Ethos in Robert Heinlein’s ‘The Roads Must Roll’”—is the most loosely connected with the subject of speaking, but constitutes a piece of rigorous scholarship: the story is set against the broader historical spirit of the period when it was written. The volume’s tentative four-part division is rounded out with Ross Farnell’s essay on the “posthuman” performance artist Stelarc as one speaking science fiction. I find the link between the agenda of the volume and this essay somewhat tenuous, although Stelarc does fit into a number of concepts present in contemporary science fiction.
Much of the strength of Speaking Science Fiction lies in the essays’ silent dialogue with each other. Besides the two Womack-related papers, there are other links among the essays. For example, Helen Merrick’s “‘Fantastic Dialogues’: Critical Stories about Feminism and Science Fiction” and Brian Attebery’s “Science Fiction and the Gender of Knowledge” both consider female representation and participation in early sf, mostly agreeing but not always. In a sense, Merrick’s assertion that both feminist and non-feminist histories of sf are arbitrary constructions with hidden agendas provides a gloss and a perspective from which to read Attebery’s essay. Another example of ongoing exchanges at work in the volume is seen in the recurrent topos of aphasia.
Speaking Science Fiction: Dialogues and Interpretations does not claim to be an exhaustive study, but one topic that I find conspicuously absent is that of truly spoken sf—whether on the radio, in the form of interviews with writers, or otherwise. During the last SFRA conference in New Lanark, Scotland Elizabeth Anne Hull noted that the wealth of archival sound recordings pertaining to sf still awaits its chronicler. Naturally, since conference proceedings are a document of an event rather than a thematic monograph, the editors and the writers cannot be faulted for the absence of essays on this particular subject. On the other hand, if the volume is going to guide future scholars (which it will, on the strength of the majority of contributions), this and other unexplored directions may be pointers to those interested in the many languages of sf.
—Pawel Frelik, Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, Lublin, Poland
Lee Server. Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers. New York: Checkmark, 2002. xvi + 304 pp. $19.95 pbk.
This book’s title is a misnomer: far from encyclopedic, it is a patchy biographical guide to some 200 “pulp pioneers and mass-market masters” (as the cover blurb has it). Server’s two previous pop-critical studies, Danger Is My Business: The Illustrated History of the Fabulous Pulp Magazines (Chronicle, 1993) and Over My Dead Body: The Sensational Age of the American Paperback (Chronicle, 1994), were image-packed confections, with the author’s amiable—and generally reliable—historical narratives functioning essentially as extended captions. His new book, much less lavishly produced, provides coverage of a “representative sampling” of “the good, the bad, and the sometimes worse” writers of pulp fiction (xvi). While one might wish for a fuller account of Server’s “sampling” process—especially since the result is so haphazard—and for a more rigorous explanation of his notion of “pulp” writing (which he identifies broadly as mass-produced “formula” stories aimed at “common” readers and “intended to excite, astonish, or arouse” [xi]), it seems churlish to chide the book for its scholarly failings since it is so obviously geared not for critics but for fans. Moreover, anyone with a taste for pulp materials is likely to appreciate Server’s extensive knowledge of the subject, his lively style, and his eye for telling detail—not to mention his obvious and unapologetic fondness for the most flagrant generic trash.
Judging by the authors Server has elected to include and by the relative lengths and tones of the various entries, he is primarily interested in the hard-boiled crime tradition, the output of pulp magazines such as Black Mask and paperback-original imprints such as Fawcett Gold Medal. Server’s coverage of science fiction is somewhat skewed by this focus, as many of the sf writers he treats—Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Fredric Brown, Jack Vance—also produced work for these venues. He is fascinated by prolific hacks who churned out reams of copy in multiple genres, such as Lester Dent and Norvell Page (authors of the Doc Savage and Spider series, respectively), which probably explains the presence of John Jakes and Curt Siodmak (but not the absence of L. Ron Hubbard). There is decent coverage of the sort of proto-sf adventures featured in the Munsey magazines (by Edgar Rice Burroughs, A. Merritt, Talbot Mundy), and the Weird Tales circle is well represented (Edmond Hamilton, Robert E. Howard, Carl Jacobi, H.P. Lovecraft, C.L. Moore, H. Warner Munn, Seabury Quinn, Clark Ashton Smith). But the exclusively sf pulps are poorly served by only a handful of entries: Isaac Asimov, E.E. Smith, Theodore Sturgeon, Jack Williamson. The extremely obscure Clare Winger Harris is here, but not Robert Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, or Clifford Simak. And the explosion of trashy sf digests in the late 1950s is ignored entirely, creating the false impression that the pulps turned into paperbacks with no transitional stages; as a result, a number of interesting talents—such as Robert Silverberg, probably the last of the crank-’em-out sf pulpsters in spirit—get no mention in the book.
Server’s introduction is too short to provide an effective guide to the range of materials the book features, but to compensate for this problem he has embedded small histories of relevant pulp genres, magazines, publishing houses, and editors in individual author entries (e.g., the discussion of “Doc” Smith contains background on Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories). While the index does give some access to this scattered information, a true encyclopedia would have gathered it more usefully into separate entries linked to the author bios; at times, the supplementary aid of Server’s previous pulp histories is required in order to navigate the cluster of individual careers assembled here. And finally, the lists of publications that culminate the entries are very unhelpfully sorted by title rather than by date, making it difficult to identify temporal gaps in author output (many of these figures, as Server notes, suffered periods of severe writer’s block as a result of the accumulated pressures of long-term, rapid-fire production).
Despite its blunders and blind spots, however, this is ultimately an engaging and worthwhile book, filled with vivid insights into the allures and perils of professional hackwork. Server is admirably alert to the ways that economic necessity and imaginative drive can sometimes dovetail to produce strange and remarkable careers—such as the “explosion of crazed imagination” (45) that propelled E.R. Burroughs or paperback-original author David Goodis’s “painfully personal set of obsessions worked out in the most anonymous of forums” (124). Server has also communicated directly with several of these authors, larding his entries with their sometimes nostalgic, sometimes acerbic, observations. And he has unearthed a number of wonderful photographs, such as a strikingly self-assured teenage Leigh Brackett attired in swashbuckler’s gear. These and other images—Walter Gibson, author of the Shadow series, typing “so furiously that his fingers bled” (117); crime writer Bruno Fischer, blind at the end of his life, longingly stroking the keys of his battered typewriter—linger in the mind, adding up to a compelling collective portrait of the pulp writer’s life.—RL
Errol Vieth. Screening Science: Contexts, Texts, and Science in Fifties Science Fiction Film. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow, 2001. xix + 262 pp. $55 hc
In his epilogue, Vieth clearly defines his goal: “The task for this book was to establish the credentials of science fiction films as legitimate cultural artifacts.... Although science fiction films purport to be about both science and fiction, they are about society and the present” (212). Vieth, a senior lecturer in the School of Contemporary Communications at Central Queensland University, Australia, employs an unusual structure to arrive at his goal. He circles around his topic, beginning with a generalized discussion of genre and the classification of sf as a genre, then moving to a definition of the cultural and historical contexts of the 1950s, specifically in America, and finally shifting to a close examination of science and scientists both in the culture and in the representations provided by sf film.
Vieth states in his preface that “because of its theoretical nature,” his
first chapter “might not be of interest to the general reader” (xii). In spite
of its length and extensive references to writers and critics, however, this
chapter is crucial in giving an overview of the unending discussion of what
science fiction is and arrives at some clear and essential statements that
provide a foundation for the chapters that follow. He defines science fiction as
“the popular discourse about science and humanity, about human values juxtaposed
against knowledge, about the nature of knowledge” (10), and concludes that
“classifying science fiction as ‘what if,’ as consequence, is fitting, because
there would seem to be few times in the history of the planet where ‘what if’
became an important discourse. ‘What if’ can only be asked within a paradigm of
The book cites various writers, directors, critics, and statistical surveys to give validity to its central thesis about the reflective, directive, and informative role of the sf film in this period. Interspersed with the above (which might appear to provide good reason for Vieth’s concern about the general reader) is a plethora of useful and effective references to specific films, ranging from On the Beach to The Giant Gila Monster, both released in 1959.
The second and concluding section of the book discusses science as a practice and as a set of beliefs. Vieth defines science as, in part, “the fulcrum for change” (149), and in his examination of this aspect of scientific activity, proposes that the changes wrought by science are, by and large, liberating—in technology, in society (as in the shifting roles of women, which he uses as an illustrative model), and in our self-definition as humans. In keeping with his initial purpose, he provides close analysis of specific films—The Thing (1951), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Invaders from Mars (1953)—demonstrating that their concern with actual scientific possibility, with complex character dynamics, and with social problems and solutions makes the films “legitimate cultural artifacts.”
This reader can enthusiastically endorse Screening Science’s success in establishing the validity of that central argument. With its abundance of scholarly and popular references—beautifully indexed and documented—it rewards its reader with a clear and cogent statement about the importance of, and the accessibility of, fifties sf film. In addition, the book inspires the reader (well, this one, for sure) to delve into the dusty shelves of local video stores and re-view many of the referenced films. It’s comforting to be able to engage in scholarly analysis—because of this book’s careful scholarship—while involved in an activity normally practiced by a mindless couch potato. Vieth has trained a different light on these films, from the oft-examined The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to the oft-dismissed The Crawling Eye (1958), and the result is both entertaining and thought-provoking.
—Marian Parish, Nassau Community College
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