Science Fiction Studies
#90 = Volume 30, Part 2 = July 2003
BOOKS IN REVIEW (concluded)
Dominic Pettman. After the Orgy: Toward a Politics of Exhaustion.
SUNY Series in Postmodern Culture. Ed. Joseph Natoli. Albany, NY: State U of New
York P, 2002. xiii + 205 pp. $59.50 hc, $19.95 pbk.
Each of these turn-of-the-twenty-first century books treats apocalypse as a hovering conjecture, an almost atmospheric condition that has left humanity exhausted, with some lucky pockets finding ecstasy in creative, volatile play. In 2003, impending Armageddon may feel less like a pervading cultural hypothesis than a boom and a blare coming from the Middle East. I do not mean to assert that “the end is nigh,” you’ll be relieved to know. Rather, since 9/11/01, and especially since 3/20/03, we have once again entered an era when wide-scale devastation exists more as a daily reality than as a myth of the collective unconscious, as it does in these two books. Willy-nilly, the war in Iraq will affect my writing of this review; I will try to correct for the injustice of hindsight.
Dominic Pettman gleans his title from Jean Baudrillard’s great one-liner: “In the midst of the orgy, a man whispers into a woman’s ear: ‘What are you doing after the orgy?’” His subject is the fin-de-siécle phenomenon of “libidinal millenarianism,” and he visits three centuries in exploring his idea. Pettman asks us to note the merging of lust (eros) and the death-drive (thanatos) that animates those who are convinced that their lives have come “after the orgy” and just prior to annihilation. Looking at the Marquis de Sade (writing in the 1790s), J.K. Huysmans (writing in the 1890s), and late twentieth-century figures including J.G. Ballard, David Cronenberg, and Neal Stephenson, Pettman traces what he calls “the Dionysian red thread” that zigs and zags throughout our cultural conversation, perhaps emerging most brightly when a century, or millennium, turns. As he argues in his conclusion, “Dionysian rhetoric, which traditionally has been viewed as apocalyptic, smuggles in certain ideas antagonistic to historical closure,” ideas that prove fruitful in a time of “exhaustion” (179). He suggests that a rebellious, erotic, amoral, but transformative energy can manifest itself in decadent expressions that are typically deemed nihilistic, enervated, and therefore beyond use, certainly beyond the “politics” of his title. Pettman puts more store in these carnivalesque eruptions of a death-wise rapture than he does either in “Apollonian” rationality or utopian schema that depend, he argues, on problematic premises such as transcendence, repression, and liberation. Unsurprisingly, considering science fiction’s explorations of the relationship between people and machines, the book offers readings of sf narratives including the films Cherry 2000 (1987), Strange Days (1995), and J.G. Ballard’s car-crash porn novel Crash (1973) and its film version (1996), as well as its cyber-descendant, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). Pettman also considers such subcultural phenomena as millennial cults, raves, the Burning Man Festival, and death fashion. All these popular and alternative cultural artifacts marry technology, eroticism, and the death-drive; in so doing, Pettman argues, they are all driven by the central conundrum of our post-post era.
Despite his engagement with popular culture, Pettman’s conversation here is first and foremost with high theorists. He writes to, of, with, across, and occasionally against philosophers and cultural critics ranging from Friedrich Nietzsche and Georges Bataille to Camille Paglia, Jean Baudrillard, Frank Kermode, Hakim Bey, and Mark Dery. This deep bookishness may be due, in part, to After the Orgy’s genesis as a doctoral thesis; I think that much of what is most vital and original here exists in the cracks between displays of academic rigor that rely too heavily on arguments already sketched by prior scholars. The quirky wit of Pettman’s writing and the vim with which he invites Dionysus to join the fray are sometimes badly hindered by the rococo theoretical apparatus. Terms such as “libidinal millenarianism” and “thanatic asymptote” frustrate; they refer to interesting ideas, but they’re ugly and out of keeping with the stark ecstasies that he addresses. Since he discusses sex’s merging with technology and the libidinal urge to approach death without quite catching it, one wants him out of the library more often, amongst the cultists, neo-pagans, and ravers to whom he gives affectionate, insightful, but too glancing attention.
The most troubling outcropping of this weakness is its abstraction, an engagement with the work of (largely dead) white males that Pettman judges to be required by his topic. After the Orgy hovers too far above the blood, sweat, semen, and tears that it invokes. For instance, he writes about eros throughout the book, but manages to do so while writing around and over the topic of gender, and also while treating the misogyny of Huysmans with more tolerance than the “liberal humanism” of Strange Days. In the Introduction, he points out that the Holocaust and AIDS will have to function as “structuring absences” in his text (21). In any study, “comprehensive” inclusion is neither possible nor desirable; still, these and other absences have the effect of making annihilation seem more a sexy conceit than something that happens to bodies (and to lives), usually without consent and often with violence. When Pettman looks at the 1960s, for instance, for signs of its own “thanatic” drive, he discusses the impact of the Pill and the Bomb on the counterculture. No matter how precariously, they functioned as social forces of prophylaxis at the time: eggs and atomic bombs were corralled potentialities during this era, and their abstract impact is what interests Pettman. It’s a fascinating chapter, but his failure to address the bodies that were on the line during the same era in astonishingly visceral ways (in Vietnam, Chicago, Memphis) is typical of the choice he makes in favor of abstraction throughout the book. I don’t think that Pettman would have had to reach far to diversify the dialogue to which he listens for signs of “the goat in the machine” (31). The voices of Monique Wittig, Kathy Acker, David Wojnarowicz, and Samuel R. Delany, for instance, would all have been relevant additions to the overly homogenous “lineage” traced by Pettman. He remarks at one point that “millenarian fantasies have always nourished those with the least to lose and the most to gain: the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized and the exploited” (176). And yet it is these trickster-apocalypticians who are largely missing in Pettman’s exploration.
In Fantasies of Fetishism: From Decadence to the Post-Human, Amanda Fernbach works from some of the same assumptions as Pettman. She, too, sees our culture as “plagued by narratives of lack such as postmodern cultural exhaustion and the loss of meaning caused by shifting ideas about identity” (35). Like Pettman, she turns to the legacy of the fin-de-siècle decadents for insight into our millennial moment: Fantasies of Fetishism includes readings of Huysmans’s A Rebours (Against Nature) (1884), Cherry 2000, Strange Days, and Crash. Yet Fernbach is more ready than Pettman to embrace utopian formulae. She places her brightest hopes for our “post-humanity” in the creative disregard for identity constraints one sometimes sees at play in science fiction, postmodern primitives, body modifiers, geekgirls, S&M clubs and commercial dungeons, and the experimentation of the decadents.
Fernbach’s project in this lavishly illustrated book is to revisit the Freudian or “classical” theory of fetishism—not to refute it but to claim its partiality. She wants to offer a more capacious model; Fernbach feels that “fetishisms proliferate” in this era marked by lack, and that they do not all address the dislocations of modernity with the fearful, rigid disavowal that drives the fetishist for Freud. (Briefly, Freud argued that the fetishist does not move successfully through the Oedipal phase. He compulsively eroticizes whichever object he has seized upon [feet, fur, etc.] as a way of both commemorating and disavowing the “fact” that he is too scared to acknowledge: his mother has no phallus, and therefore must have been castrated, and therefore the same risk may befall him—the little boy of long ago, turned fetishist adult. As posited by psychoanalytic theory, these are the logical workings of cause-and-effect in a very small child too young and too startled to handle the reality of gender difference, and they go on to determine the sexuality of the adult to come.) Fernbach argues that human sexuality is more variegated than this monolithic model suggests. One obvious example among those she sets out: female fetishism is an oxymoron for Freud, whose denial of women’s desire and capacity for fantasy requires a rewrite.
Fernbach introduces two new terms to augment the classical model. “Matrix,” or pre-oedipal fetishism, is driven by the yearning for dissolution that Bataille discusses and that Pettman too takes on, though the quest seems somehow braver in Pettman’s account than in Fernbach’s. Reading Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) as one of her prime texts—an early version of her discussion appeared in SFS 81.2 (July 2000)—she argues that cyberspace is coded as feminine. The console cowboy who would ride its wide-open spaces engages in a matrix fetish, seeking immersion in a maternal space that will allow him a vitalizing rebirth, new options in a safe place. “Decadent fetishism” Fernbach celebrates as transformative, experimental, and driven by a readiness to disrupt and play with categories of identity. Power hierarchies, gender distinctions, and the boundaries between human and machine are all fruitfully traversed by the decadent fetishist, who emerges as the star of Fernbach’s exploration. She finds him or her in innovative S&M clubs such as London’s Torture Garden, among the “New Flesh” body artists (such as Orlan and Stelarc) who experiment with post-humanity, among technopagans, postmodern primitives, geekgirl technofeminists, and even in the commercial dungeon (especially among the professional dominatrixes there). She defines decadent fetishism first through her look at the “cultural cross-dressing” fad that took Europe by storm in the wake of Ballet Russe’s production of Scheherazade in 1910. Willing to forgive the fad’s root in a prurient romanticization of a colonialized Orient, Fernbach argues that by costuming themselves as a gender-bending cultural Other, lesbians, gay men, and some middle-class female heterosexuals found a venue for sexual and personal expression and experimentation that tweaked and challenged conventional Western norms.
Fernbach feels that an embrace of decadent fetishisms can lead to “new opportunities for mutating normative subjectivities and breaking down culturally dominant gender codes” (172). Such opportunities should certainly be seized, but one force complicating their emergence, to which she pays scant attention, is the role of late consumer capitalism—itself exquisitely able to “morph,” appropriate, and subvert alternative practices until those practices, too, become stories that are at heart about the transfer of capital. It is not true that the exchange of a dollar (or $250 in the case of a dungeon visit) eradicates all other significance in an experience that includes it; Fernbach errs too far in the other direction, however. Her own drive toward a post-human utopia where power is a force to be played with and “differences” can “proliferate” leads her to underestimate the insidious role of commodification in the postmodern era. Our experiences of sexuality, technology, power relations, and even identity are all radically emergent from the economic context in which we operate; capitalism is clearly central to such phenomena as Orientalist fashion and commercial dungeons. Her failure to address this problem weakens and occasionally trivializes Fernbach’s argument.
Fernbach’s utopian play is also constrained by repetitive, ungainly writing. She clings to a remarkably limited vocabulary that consists of the limited terms and characters that she establishes in her first chapter; she moves by rote through these terms again and again. Her categorization of each novel, movie or sub-cultural practice as either “classical,” “pre-oedipal,” “magic,” or “decadent” fetishism is in and of itself not adequately gripping to carry a book-length investigation, and her overuse of the Freudian scenario at the heart of “classical fetishism” becomes tedious in a work that seeks to redefine and revalue fetishism.
That said, my hat is off to Fernbach for the following. In her discussion of the Heaven’s Gate suicides (also treated by Pettman), she writes that “a disembodied pre-oedipal form of technofetishism, especially when combined with a magical fetishism that worships the powers of a higher technological order to grant immortality, can have ramifications that ultimately close down future possibilities” (118). Instructed by Fernbach’s approach, we may take this passage as an apt diagnosis of the Bush administration’s “pre-oedipal” quest to make the whole world an American “matrix,” and to trick death through a techno-war that will supposedly inflict murder “at no cost.” The war itself is giving the lie to the Bush/Rumsfeld fantasy, but its fetishistic power persists, and could indeed “close down future possibilities.” Despite their differences, Fernbach and Pettman would both prefer to dance with Dionysus than seek immortality—and so would I.
—Simone Weil Davis, Long Island University, C.W. Post Center
Beth E. Kolko, Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert B. Rodman, eds. Race in Cyberspace. New York: Routledge, 2000. vii + 248 pp. $22.95 pbk.
“There is no race. There is no gender. There is no age. There are no infirmities. There are only minds. Utopia? No, Internet.”
This voice-over from the (in)famous mid-1990s MCI television commercial, “Anthem,” becomes a refrain among the twelve essays that constitute Race and Cyberspace. Although not quite a dystopian treatment of the Internet, the volume as a whole is conceived as a contribution to the growing body of scholarship that challenges such uncritical celebrations of cyberspace as a zone free of racism, sexism, and other modes of oppression. Editors Beth Kolko, Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert Rodman justify their particular focus on race—as opposed to gender, age, “infirmities,” etc.—by pointing out that while substantial work already exists on gender and cyberspace, race has by contrast been largely unexamined. Whiteness, as a result, has too often become the default setting of the Internet, not just for programmers and users but for technoculture scholars as well.
If Race in Cyberspace seems designed to destabilize the widespread assumption that “online environments facilitate fragmentation of identity” (and here the editors allude not just to Internet commercials but also to the influential work of such scholars as Mark Poster, Allucquère Rosanne Stone, and Sherry Turkle), the contributors do nonetheless consistently approach both race and cyberspace from a social constructionist perspective (5). “Just as cyberspace is not a place (as Gertrude Stein might say, there is no there there) but rather a locus around which coalesce a hypertext of texts, modes of social interaction, commercial interests, and other discursive and imaging practices, so too race needs to be understood as a category created through social discourse and performance,” the editors write in a helpful introduction (10). Most of the subsequent essays provide specific case studies that illuminate various facets of this broadly poststructuralist framework. Among the topics covered are the racial subtext of Internet advertising; technical and ideological constraints on the construction of racialized subjects online via MOOS, MUDS, listservs, community websites, computer action games, and avatars; representations of race and cyberspace in recent popular film; emerging challenges to the linguistic hegemony of English on the Internet; and how racial inequalities online—the so-called “digital divide”—emerged in the US during the 1980s as a result of educational policies that did not meet the needs of students in minority communities with respect to fundamental problems such as computer access.
Although the logic underwriting the collection’s organization is less than clear, the essays intersect in thought-provoking ways. In her opening essay on cybernetic tourism, for example, Nakamura discusses several late-1990s Internet advertisements in an effort to understand the contradiction whereby the ideal of the Internet as “a democracy founded upon disembodiment and uncontaminated by physical difference” itself paradoxically necessitates the constant parading of difference. “Diversity is displayed as a sign of what the product will eradicate,” as Nakamura succinctly puts it (17). Beth Kolko’s concluding essay tackles the same contradiction from an opposing, and more hands-on, perspective. Frustrated by the proliferation of virtual worlds that provide no options for users to configure their identities in terms of race, Kolko describes her efforts “to create a text-based virtual world [called “MOOScape”] that incorporates an @race property” (226). Among the vexed questions that arise for Kolko and her collaborators is whether users should be offered a group of preset options for marking racial identifications or whether doing so would prematurely foreclose possibilities for appropriating the Internet to enable new ways of conceptualizing race entirely. Similarly, in an essay on the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV), David Silver demonstrates how the highly touted “wired” community of Blacksburg, Virginia, has effectively precluded the systematic expression of racial difference online: “Although the designers of the BEV allot online space for communities revolving around Blacksburg art, sports, and religion, they route around communities based on the more volatile issues of race, gender, and sexuality” (143). Meanwhile, in their respective essays on neo-Confederate websites and the use of the Internet in Hawaiian language revitalization, Tara McPherson and Mark Warschauer demonstrate how the Internet is being appropriated to construct (politically divergent) subcultural identities, and they also draw out the implications of Silver’s insight that place, like race, matters in cyberspace. Perhaps there is a there there after all.
Among the volume’s many strengths is the fact that, in it, “race” does not become interchangeable with “black,” as has too often been the case in other domains of commentary about US culture. Thus, while David Crane convincingly argues for the ways that blackness becomes a signifier of the “real” in such films as Virtuosity (1995) and Strange Days (1995), elsewhere in the collection race is articulated in other ways. Here one thinks of Jennifer González’s discussion of how cybercitizenship is racially encoded via avatars on the websites UNDINA and Bodies@INC; Jeffrey Chow’s study of the racist subject position imposed on users of the computer game Shadow Warrior; Rajani Sudan’s analysis of the connection between US/Japanese economic competition and computer-generated imaging techniques in the film Rising Sun (1993); Jonathan Sterne’s explicit concern in his essay on computers and schools to resist the tendency of his source material to use “‘black’ [as] a placeholder for ‘race’” (197); and Joe Lockard’s discussion of how the Internet “reenunciates the languages of power that have dominated the economic existence of entire nonwhite continents,” which in turn means that it “amplifies and reproduces the modern history of capital” (179).
Given such manifest strengths—and there are more in this volume than I have space to enumerate—one hesitates to complain. But I will note that in its ambitious willingness to venture some big claims about cyberspace such as the one cited above, Lockard’s essay draws the reader’s attention toward something that is otherwise missing from the volume: an explication of overarching frameworks beyond a social-constructionist approach to race that might encourage the reader in her or his efforts to fit these disparate essays together into a larger whole. Having offered the disclaimer that the collection “only begins to scratch the surface of possible work on” race and cyberspace, the editors mention the need for studies focused on “the racial demographics of the cyber-workforce,” as well as for further inquiry into “patterns of distribution of computer technology and networks across the globe, and how the inequities in those patterns serve to keep the Internet a predominantly white environment” (11). In response I can only agree that such work will indeed be a valuable contribution to the field. In the end, Race in Cyberspace is more attuned to the processes through which race is performed online by privileged consumers of cyberspace than to the processes through which cyberspace has itself been produced by, and has in turn helped reproduce, a racialized global division of labor. Without wishing to devalue the importance of the former undertaking, I also hope that this fine collection will fulfill the editors’ stated goal of opening up “a space where a larger, more extended, and more inclusive conversation about race and cyberspace can take place” (11).
—Doris Witt, University of Iowa
Patrick Lucanio and Gary Coville. Smokin’ Rockets: The Romance of Technology in American Film, Radio and Television, 1945-1962.Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002. vii + 260 pp. $35.00 pbk.
If we need another book on US popular culture, then the announced topics and purposes of Smokin’ Rockets are good choices for that book. Technology in the media during the “long” 1950s is worthy of re-analysis, and the “B” films and radio and television of the period are good places to begin re-analysis. Rocket’s purpose is alternatively announced as seeing “the 1950s for what the decade actually was, and … how science and popular art came together in that period of anxiety to offer alternatives to Armageddon” (24), which is a grandiose but worthy goal, especially in another time of anxiety. And, alternative to that purpose, it would be highly valuable to tell “the story of America’s attempt to sort out the meaning and direction of the future as told through countless radio, television, and film presentations during a 30-year period ... generally considered to be the golden ages of film, radio and television”—i.e., 1932-1962 (4).
The core problem with Smokin’ Rockets is indicated in the conflicts among those statements: Rockets is unclear on what time period it covers and what its point might be. Rockets is an editing job, rewrite, and rigorous copy-editing away from being a book; and no one should give McFarland and Company $35 for a draft in serious need of editing for organization, word usage, consistency, and, occasionally, fact-checking.
And here most of my readers can, as in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, “Turne over the leef and chese another tale,” i.e., move on to another review; but a few should continue, since parts of Smokin’ Rockets can be useful to those desiring an introduction to some works important for understanding sf in the 1950s and following. If you don’t need more background, skip Rockets.
If you do, you should know that Rockets has an Introduction, seven chapters surveying Hugo Gernsback in the early years of the twentieth century through Ziv Television’s Men Into Space in 1959; an Epilogue on the 1960s as mostly “an unfortunate footnote to the story that went before it” (195); an annotated Appendix of selected radio and television shows, including some excellent ones; a lightly-annotated Select Filmography; a Bibliography; and an Index.
Chapter 1 begins with Jacob Bronowski on the public’s suspicion of science, a clarification of the book’s audience (prosperous), and yet another statement of the authors’ intention. Lucanio and Coville will look at the “conflict between science and the public” through examination of “the popular entertainment of the 1950s” (here 1945 to 1965). The conflict is mediated by domesticated technology, for Americans may not understand the science behind refrigeration or television, but “who doesn’t possess a refrigerator and at least one television set?” (5). The chapter then speeds on to cover the high points of atomic science from Democritus to Heinz Haber’s work for Disney Corporation on “Our Friend the Atom,” January 23, 1957 (a discussion useful for students of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven , with its villain, Dr. William Haber). The next topic is “flying saucers” and a final section bracketing the 1950s with, first, the argument over the 1960s New Wave and then a discussion of 1930s Hugo Gernsbackian science fiction in print (Philip Francis Nowlan’s Anthony Rogers stories), comics, and film, stressing not Buck Rogers but Flash Gordon. I suggest skipping Rocket’s contribution to “The War of the Words” over New Wave (25-33), perhaps reading instead Gary Westfahl’s introduction to The Mechanics of Wonder (1998). When Lucanio and Coville get to “the Flash Gordon construct” in sf films of the 1930s, their discussion gets more specific, and better (41).
Chapter 2 starts with the “Red Menace” of the 1950s and then skips back to the fascist menace of 1938 and the “War of the Worlds” broadcast by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre. Lucanio and Coville do an excellent close reading of Welles’s “War of the Worlds,” locating it within the political context of 1938 and the developing conventions of the radio newscast—plus making insightful suggestions on Welles as illusionist (44-63). Then comes a usefully provocative assertion of how, “[t]o a remarkable extent,” 1950s US media “were able to generate and foster” a new “skepticism through employing narratives of science fiction to raise serious questions in the context of seemingly frivolous and inoffensive fantasies” (66). Their primary example is Arch Oboler’s “Rocket from Manhattan,” a highly serious nuclear-apocalypse story first broadcast shortly after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Chapter 5 deals with the UFO phenomenon in American history and popular arts and features good discussions of Graham Doar’s “The Outer Limit” (1949) and its radio adaptations; The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) as film and as a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation (Jan. 4, 1954); and a fine discussion of a Fibber McGee & Molly episode (March 28, 1950) in which the hare-brained Fibber discounts “flying saucers” while sensible Molly keeps an open mind. Chapter 6 introduces the issue of the cozy relationship between “Capitalism and technology” and the even cozier relationship between “Capitalism and television” (106). Lucanio and Coville do not find a total television wasteland, though, but cover the excellent Johns Hopkins Science Review (1948-1952) and its handling of atomic energy, the birth of a baby, “demonstrating to women viewers how to examine themselves for breast cancer” (111), and biological warfare research (April 3, 1951, 112). Chapter 5 looks at the initial phases of real-world high atmosphere and then space exploration and how space themes were handled in television series such as Captain Video (1949-55) and Tom Corbett (1950-52), scientifically serious films such as Destination Moon (1950), adult “techno-dramas” such as Breaking the Sound Barrier (1952), and such “techno-military” and downright “propagandistic” works as Strategic Air Command (1955). Interestingly, paeans to the B-52 concentrated their plots on “‘the men, and the women who wait for them’” of SAC (124), while their images romance the machines. And then the 1960s displaced “the military drama with fervently anti-war and anti-American films” (138)—with the “anti-American” part probably news to most of the people involved with anti-war films. Techno-space dramas, in Rocket’s narrative, died because “by 1965, space travel was simply commonplace”—which is probably news to NASA veterans (139).
Chapter 6 begins with a somewhat sanitized discussion of the Disney World “Man in Space” (1955, 1957) series with Wernher von Braun, skips back to Walt Disney’s 1943 film Victory Through Air Power, moves on to the space race between the USA and USSR, and then goes to Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now show on the polio vaccine (April 12, 1955), apparently to demonstrate 1950s television’s dealing with “science for the critical masses, the people of a democracy who make things happen” (151, emphasis in original), and to segue into praise for television of the 1950s as “diverse,” with “something for every taste and every need” (152, emphasis in original)—unlike these our degenerate days after the 1960s. The praise, however, beyond 1960s bashing, is a concession before getting to the “abomination” of TV as a commercial medium (156). Which brings Lucanio and Coville to their nicely done analysis of Arch Obler’s film, The Twonky (1953), an effective satire on television (155-67).
Chapter 7 looks at the domestication of the images of science and the scientist and their eventual celebration in 1950s US popular culture. Lucanio and Coville usefully go back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), with its mad scientist Rotwang, and Die Frau im Mond (1928), which laid the “groundwork for transforming the scientist” into a dedicated “team player” and good guy (172). Rockets emphasizes in this transformation Wernher von Braun, whom Lucanio and Coville see as both an embodiment of the “Frankenstein scientist experimenting for the sake of experimentation” (and, I’ll add, setting off high explosives in London) in his work on the Nazi rocket program (174-76), and, in his Disneyfied image, a hero of space exploration (176). Featured in this section is a series of film scientists played as kindly, “wise old men,” most importantly Frank Baxter’s Dr. Research in The Bell System Science Series on television, which began with Frank Capra’s Our Mr. Sun (November 19, 1956, 180-85). Younger scientists were domesticated in theatrical films of the period, and after Sputnik in 1957, thinking of science as evil would be, for a while, both passé and unpatriotic (186-94).
The Epilogue takes us to the real-world race to the moon, climaxing with the moon landing of 1969. “It seemed for a brief time that whatever science fiction writers could prophesize, the scientists could make literal before our astonished eyes. But when the killing started,” in Vietnam and the US in the 1960s, “our naive illusions died as well,” leaving us only, Lucanio and Coville believe, “fantasy worlds represented by perverse [sic] realms as those found in Star Trek and Star Wars,” replacing “that sense of wonder” that found its best expression in the 1950s (203).
Well—maybe. A well-researched, well-written contribution to the rehabilitation of the 1950s would be a useful book. Smokin’ Rockets is a bit too superficial and much too sloppily written to be that book.
—Richard D. Erlich, Miami University of Ohio
Helene Meyers. Femicidal Fears: Narratives of the Female Gothic Experience. Albany, NY: SUNY P, 2001. xii + 211 pp. $19.95 pbk.
There’s a vaguely depressing trend in analyses of gothic fiction toward fast-track considerations of the contemporary rewriting of the genre generally to arrive at considerations of “us.” The gothic thus functions only as a thin generic veneer, laminating an otherwise realist narrative account of “our” anxieties. Witness, for example, Anne Rice’s impassioned prefatorial caution appended to the video release of Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire—“Remember, this movie is not about vampires. It’s about us”—or Nina Auerbach’s book, Our Vampires, Ourselves (1995). While recent historical and cultural readings of the gothic have enriched our understanding of the genre immensely, the trend toward sloughing off the very thing that constitutes the pleasures of these texts, in the interest of exposing allegories of contemporary selfhood, is a bit dispiriting. Like the hapless interviewer at the end of Rice’s novel who begs for a chance to experience “passion” and “longing”—the “things that millions of us won’t ever taste” in the course of a dull “human life”—many of us find the gothic seductive precisely because it offers something more than mere recapitulations of the vicissitudes of the quotidian.
Happily, in Femicidal Fears, Helene Meyers does not quite fall into the trap of reducing the contemporary female gothic to an unadulterated story of the trials and dangers attending contemporary female selfhood. But neither does she quite avoid the pitfalls along the way. Interleaving interpretations of female gothic fiction with the real-world proof that we live in a “femicidal culture”—with the Montreal massacre in 1989; with Charles Stuart’s murder of his wife, Carol, in 1989; with the apprehension of the Yorkshire Ripper in 1981—Meyers constructs an argument for understandable female victimology and an implicit argument for the treatment of literary texts as, in the end, more mimetic than gothic. The project of the book is ambitious: it is an attempt both to resolve what is, finally, an insoluble divide between cultural essentialist feminism and poststructuralist gender studies, and, at the same time, to interpret the work of certain female writers in order to make claims for their ideological positioning within that debate. Focussing on Edna O’Brien’s Casualties of Peace (1966) and I Hardly Knew You (1978), Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing (1974), Angela Carter’s Honeybuzzard (1966; a.k.a. Shadow Dance), Muriel Spark’s Driver’s Seat (1970), Diane Johnson’s The Shadow Knows (1974), Joyce Carol Oates’s Soul/Mate (1989), and Margaret Atwood’s Bodily Harm (1981), Meyers argues that these writers “adopted and adapted the tropes of an already gendered literary tradition to address the sexual politics of their own time” (19). That the confirmation of such a “gendered literary tradition,” consolidated through a polemic with Leslie Fiedler’s claims for nineteenth-century American male writers in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960) is not particularly convincing is, perhaps, beside the point; Ellen Moers made the case rather well in Literary Women (1977), even though she, too, was largely describing an earlier century. That Meyers defines the gothic loosely as the “encounter with otherness ... the transgression of boundaries ... [and] the fear that is born of such encounters and transgressions” (20) is also slightly beside the point, because her justification for her choices of texts rests on a tacit tautology: women are victimized in real life, the gothic articulates female victimization, and thus novels of female victimization are, by definition, gothic novels. More to the point, however, is Meyers’s insistence that O’Brien, Bainbridge, Carter, Spark, Johnson, Oates, and Atwood actively “address the sexual politics of their own time” (19).
Meyers is at her most convincing when she examines the earlier writers historically. She contends that O’Brien’s Casualties of Peace and Bainbridge’s The Bottle-Factory Outing ultimately support the cultural essentialist feminism articulated by the likes of Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly—critics whose own writing, Meyers rightly points out, is heavily infused with the rhetoric of gothic melodrama—because they represent women in a “seemingly permanent state of victimization and paralyzing paranoia” (57). Carter and Spark, even while they trouble the codified and gendered roles of victim and victimizer and thus do not succumb to the fatalism of O’Brien and Bainbridge, nevertheless “refuse to be gender skeptics” (85). In O’Brien’s later I Hardly Knew You (1978) and Johnson’s The Shadow Knows (1974), Meyers finds that both writers affirm that female paranoia is entirely justified, a “necessary self-defense strategy” (111) against the real persecution delineated by cultural feminists.
When Meyers moves to a consideration of the influence of postfeminist gender
skepticism on the work of Oates and Atwood, however, her argument becomes more
shaky. And this is, I think, because neither Oates nor Atwood is actually
offering a coherent critique of postfeminism, even if their protagonists do
“view the Gothic world as passé” (130) or do temporarily “refuse to subscribe to
a myth of female powerlessness” (149). Whatever Oates’s Dorothea Deverell and
Atwood’s Rennie Wilford say about themselves, and whatever their apparent
initial strengths, their authors present them finally as quasi-gothic heroines,
struggling to come to terms with their own helplessness in the face of masculine
aggression. Meyers is determined to make Oates and Atwood speak to the dangers
of postfeminism. This has less to do with their texts and more to do with her
only vaguely-acknowledged debts to Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance
(1982) and Feminism without Women (1991), whose examination of the
contemporary female gothic in the former and exposure of the antifeminist
complicities of “postfeminism” in the latter seem to provide the critical
template for Meyers’s project as a whole. But Modleski does not try to reconcile
her earlier view of the superior pleasures of vicarious victimization with her
later perception of the hijacking of feminism in the service of reinforcing a
barely reinflected status quo. As Ann Snitow argues in “A Gender Diary” (in
Conflicts in Feminism, eds. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller [New York:
Routledge, 1990]: 9-43)—a work that Meyers refers to but does not really contend
with—no such theoretical reconciliation is possible outside the ad hoc decisions
made around political feminist action.
—Nicola Nixon, Concordia University
Marie-Laure Ryan, ed. Cyberspace Textuality: Computer Technology and Literary Theory. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999. vii + 285 pp. $44.95 hc; $19.95 pbk.
Although this is not a very recent publication, and although it is not
directly related to science fiction, this is a very good collection to which I’d
like to call belated attention. It will be of interest to anyone interested in
the transformations in textuality that are one result of the computer and
Internet revolutions; like everything else, texts are changing too, and it’s
worth thinking about some of the ways in which they are changing, as well as
about some of the ways in which they remain—in spite of their new and sexy
This is one of those collections that, while not centrally concerned with science fiction, is nevertheless directly the result of the science-fictionalization of the contemporary world in the context of cyberculture. While, for example, the index has no entry for “science fiction,” there is a lengthy entry for “William Gibson”; while there is no entry for “cyberpunk,” there is a lengthy entry for “cyberspace.” The pieces collected here are more relevant to students of literary science fiction than to those whose focus is on film and/or media, because the aim here is to examine the transmutation of the codex book, in the context of contemporary electronic technologies, into a variety of cyber-products, most notably hypertext. Even more significantly, the aim here is to examine the various theoretical constructions and the attendent ideological contents that are currently constructing our present understandings of how computerized textuality works, what the roles are of texts, readers, writers, and interfaces in the new configurations of reading and writing made possible through electronic technologies.
Ryan provides an excellent introductory essay that serves to contextualize the articles collected here. She points out that “[t]he literature on recent developments in electronic technology and their impact on textuality has generally gravitated around three poles: prophecies of salvation ... ; prophecies of doom ...; and Luddite calls to resistance” (15). The purpose of Cyberspace Textuality, however, “is not to pass judgment on the desirability of the electronization of the word, but to usher in a new phase of cybertext criticism” (6). While it may be too much to say that the essays collected here are uniformly successful in how they approach this very ambitious project, they certainly succeed, on the whole, in suggesting some of the significant changes that are taking place at the interface between texts and technologies, and in suggesting some of the ways in which we can usefully think about the proliferation of textualities being generated by that interface.
José Luis Sanz. Starring T. Rex!: Dinosaur Mythology and Popular Culture. Trans. Philip Mason. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2002. xiv + 153 pp. $42.95 hc; $17.95 pbk.
José Luis Sanz is Professor of Paleontology at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. He is the author of six previous books and over 130 technical articles, presumably all on matters paleontological. He has named four new genera of dinosaurs and three primitive birds. On the evidence of this book, he should stick to what he knows best.
Starring T. Rex! can be seen as an addition to that body of work—including Richard Gid Powers’s G-Men: Hoover’s FBI in American Popular Culture (1983), Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott’s Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero (1987), Stephen Knight’s Robin Hood (1994), Cynthia Erb’s Tracking King Kong: A Hollywood Icon in World Culture (1998), and Will Brooker’s Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon (2000)—that traces the developments of a character or character type through its changing cultural and historical contexts. Personally, and almost without exception, I have found such books rather disappointing: strong enough on anecdote and incident to be readable, they tend to be so short on analysis as to make one regret the time spent reading them. In this respect, at least, Starring T. Rex! could be taken as exemplary, were it not for the fact that the historical thread is so underdeveloped.
The book is divided into two sections. The first eight chapters are purportedly “dedicated to the study of the historical process that has generated the current complex mythology of the dinosaurs”; the following eighteen chapters to “analyzing the structure of the myth” (xiii). Starting with Robert Plot’s description and illustration of a fragment of a femur (possibly belonging to a Megalosaurus) in his Natural History of Oxfordshire (1677), Sanz traces the development of dinosaurology and the changing conceptions of the nature of dinosaurs through to the “dinomania” accompanying the film Jurassic Park (1993). Intertwined with this narrative is a brief introduction to popular and fictional accounts of dinosaurs, how they related to contemporaneous scientific positions and debates, and their impact on the popular imagination. The texts to which Sanz refers include Rodolphe Toepffer’s Voyages et Aventures du Docteur Festus (1833); Verne’s Voyage au Centre de la Terre (1864); Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912); Lilian Brown’s novelizations of her husband Barnum Brown’s paleontological adventures, I Married a Dinosaur (1950) and Bring ‘Em Back Petrified (1956); L. Sprague de Camp’s “A Gun for Dinosaur” (1956); Poul Anderson’s “Wildcat” (1958); and George Gaylord Simpson’s The Dechronization of Sam Magruder (1996). He also includes films like Gertie the Dinosaur (1914-15), The Dinosaur and the Missing Link (1915), The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918), Felix the Cat Trifles with Time (1925), and The Lost World (1925); the public rivalry of fossil hunters Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh; Sinclair Oil’s advertising and promotional campaigns; and so on, in numerous and often intriguing snippets. If these eight chapters had been more fully researched and then developed into a coherent argument, and the other eighteen chapters jettisoned, a much stronger and considerably more interesting volume would have resulted.
The second part of Starring T. Rex! begins by sketching in an anatomy of fictions in which humans and dinosaurs encounter each other in “prehistoric cinema; the myth of the lost world; dinosaurs that are frozen or in suspended animation; time travel; dinosaurs of the future (reappearance); exodinosaurs (appearance on other planets); and the new frontiers of science (genetic engineering)” (50). Subsequent chapters group together fiction about the extinction of the dinosaurs, cryptozoological marvels, intelligent dinosaurs, the coexistence of humans and dinosaurs, conflicts between humans and dinosaurs, and terror of dinosaurs. Other chapters discuss the changing appearance of dinosaurs in popular fiction and art; dinosaurs in Japanese kaiju eiga movies; the relationship between dinosaurs and dragons; and the living habits of dinosaurs and how they treat their eggs and their young. Beyond offering a potentially useful typology of a fairly broad range of dinosaur stories (with some obvious omissions, such as Harry Harrison’s West of Eden trilogy [1984-88]), this part of the book has little to offer beyond brief and sometimes repetitive plot synopses. Moreover, the absence of a standard scholarly apparatus leaves any reader inspired to develop this field at square one in terms of tracking down sources. (I am unaware of a bibliography of dinosaur fiction, but for dinosaur movies, Mark F. Berry and Donald Lessem’s The Dinosaur Filmography  is extremely useful.)
Which is not to say that Starring T. Rex! is not without its moments of interest, albeit unintentionally. In discussing the reconstruction of dinosaurs by the Victorians Richard Owen and B. Waterhouse Hawkins, Sanz draws attention to the debate around whether their designs arose from observations in comparative anatomy or from a desire to “attack the transformist ideas of Lamarckism” (4). In his account of the Henry Fairfield Osborn/Roy Chapman Andrews expeditions to the Gobi Desert between 1922 and 1930, whose discoveries included Protoceratops and Oviraptor, Sanz observes that the actual purpose of the expeditions was to find evidence of a “superior ‘Aryan’ race. Black ethnic groups were regressive, races that had degenerated from the original human beings. For this reason, there was no need to search for the fossil remains of the first humans in Africa” (24). From such passages, it is clear that Sanz is aware of the ideological and other pressures on the development of his science. This makes chapter eight, “Dinomania,” all the more breathtaking. Having already indicated the wealth of stories that seem to manifest a desire for the coexistence of humans and dinosaurs, this chapter starts with observations about the rapid expansion of dinomania in the wake of Jurassic Park; it then notes that the public fascination with all things dinosaur has resulted in dinosaurology being considerably better funded than any other branch of palaeontology. Sanz points to the note of caution sounded by some paleontologists [who] believe that the feedback may even have ramifications in the purely scientific sphere, in the sense that popular opinion may end up conditioning scientific hypotheses. Some years ago, the U.S. paleontologist Larry Martin ... suggested that the reason for the general acceptance of the dinosaur origins of birds by scientists was the result of their popularity. (48)
So we have a situation in which the hypothesis that birds evolved from dinosaurs
(and if that’s not a story about the coexistence of humans and dinosaurs, I
don’t know what is) has proven popular among the public, thus improving the
funding of dinosaurology and potentially at least exerting ideological and other
pressures on the development of the field. How does Sanz respond?
And for the next hundred pages, instead of “dinosaurs” and “birds” we have “non-avian dinosaurs” and “avian dinosaurs.”
Starring T. Rex!, with its 60 black-and-white photographs, some of which are adequately reproduced, would probably appeal to any reasonably intelligent twelve-year old interested in dinosaurs, yet it is difficult to imagine the Indiana University Press’s sales team is suited to targeting such a market.
—Mark Bould, Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College
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