Science Fiction Studies

 

#91 = Volume 30, Part 3 = November 2003


BOOKS IN REVIEW

Hybrids Between Mundane and Maligned.

Peter Brigg. The Span of Mainstream and Science Fiction: A Critical Study of a New Literary Genre. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002. viii + 212pp. $32.00 pbk.

When Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood’s new novel, appeared late this spring, the paper of record ran two reviews, both written by essayists with an antipathy for sf. The review by Sven Birkerts is already infamous: “I am going to stick my neck out and just say it: science fiction will never be Literature with a capital ‘L,’ and this is because it inevitably proceeds from premise rather than character. It sacrifices moral and psychological nuance in favor of more conceptual matters, and elevates scenario over sensibility.… Are there exceptions to my categorical pronouncement? Probably, but I don’t think enough of them to overturn it” (The New York Times Book Review: May 18, 2003: 12). The second review, from Michiko Kakutani, followed two days later and made more-or-less the same points, declaring Atwood’s novel a “lame piece of sci-fi humbug” and her people “cardboardy” (E9). Both reviewers argued that because sf privileges cognition over character it produces bad writing though writers who use phrases such as “this is because” and “cardboardy” ought to reflect on their own house before again throwing stones.) And in a series of events that recalls what happened when The Handmaid’s Tale received the Arthur C. Clarke award from the British Science Fiction Foundation, Atwood hasn’t helped her case by giving rambling, marginally incoherent promotional interviews insisting that her sf isn’t science fiction; it’s serious fiction best called “speculative,” though she steadfastly avoids any serious interrogation that might help reviewers understand genre in less stereotypical, less “cardboardy” ways.

Indeed, while each year considerable ink spills over the Genre Wars, more novels appear that apparently fit neither the mundane mainstream nor the maligned margin. In fact, many of the best novels of the last 30 or 40 years seem generic alloys. The most recent attempt to map out such narrative hybridity comes from Peter Brigg, currently President of the Science Fiction Research Association and an associate professor at the University of Guelph. Brigg is the author of two earlier books, both from Starmont House. His new book attempts to define and survey that increasingly large corpus of titles that “span” or bridge the gap between sf and mainstream fiction.

The book is divided into three groups of two chapters each. Sandwiched in between a twenty-page introduction and a very brief conclusion is what Brigg calls “a sort of second book within a book” (1): four chapters in pairs. The first pair offers extended discussions of Doris Lessing and Thomas Pynchon. Two additional chapters survey mainstream writers leaning toward sf, and sf writers leaning toward the mainstream; most of this prose summarizes plot and character and theme. In the first group are Gordimer, Updike, Durrell, DeLillo, Golding, Ackroyd, Atwood, Burgess, Piercy, Hoban, and Vonnegut; in the second, Christopher Priest, Le Guin, Dick, Ballard, Delany, and Russ. While occasionally cross-referencing other texts for contrast, Brigg’s commentary provides more or less self-contained remarks on one novel, followed by remarks on the next, until there remain no more titles on the list and the chapter ends. Other than the appeal to survey representative samples -- “I shall briefly examine some of the span works by these authors, aiming not for an exhaustive analysis but rather to demonstrate tests of criteria” (176) -- Brigg offers no rationale concerning selections and omissions. Why Lawrence Durrell or Paul Theroux or John Fowles, but not, for example, Richard Powers? However wonderful Durrell and Fowles and the others may be, Powers is an astonishing omission for a 2002 book on fiction spanning the gap between mainstream and sf.

But like Atwood, Brigg isn’t much interested in opening new scholarly territory, and so the bulk of the book repeats definitions, plots, and themes, something seen most vividly in the two frame chapters. While the introduction and conclusion comprise only twelve percent of the book’s bulk, they set out both the theoretical background and pose the book’s central claim, the criteria against which the survey texts will be matched. More taxonomic than theoretical, the choppy, fragmented introduction gives very brief accounts of Brigg’s central terms -- genre, span, sf -- as well as identifying how Wells and Huxley laid the foundation for the contemporary phenomenon of a narrative hybrid blending authentic scientific concern with capital L literature. Brigg hopes “to realign” the discourse of the Genre Wars, which might end with our acknowledgement of a new third genre or middle ground (15) that will “challenge … the imaginations of readers” (190). When Brigg does provide something more than the descriptive or the trite, these claims also feel all too familiar: the problem for sf-oriented span concerns “subtlety of characterization” (20), while that for mainstream-oriented span concerns “management of the novum [that] may not be entirely guided by cognitive logic” (20).

Designating both distance and connection, the term “span” itself nicely suggests generic “confluence” (6), and Brigg considers it against alternatives such as Sterling’s slipstream, Scholes’ structural fabulation, speculative fiction, transfiction, or metafiction. Brigg sees the border between sf and its mainstream other as most visible and most violated in postmodernism, and most of the fiction he discusses has clear affinities with the postmodern. Brigg avoids any sustained scholarly or theoretical reflection, despite a tremendous theoretical opportunity, since genres are governed by a circular hermeneutic and a double articulation. Genre definitions are post-hoc abstractions distilled from use, and since literature continually changes, so too the definitions; but genres are also normative constructions that guide, even determine, future use. Marked by both centripetal (unifying, orthodox) and centrifugal (divergent, heterodox) forces, genres are both written by and write their audiences. Rather than open any theoretical conundrums, however, Brigg’s introduction simply bridges the gap between the book’s cover and the first pair of close readings. These extended chapters on Lessing and Pynchon comprise the book’s central strength. Each is a fine, compact, richly detailed account of span by two of contemporary literature’s most canonical authors; these are exceedingly clear discussions with an equally clear enthusiasm for great fiction. While neither chapter makes any novel contribution to the secondary scholarship, both will be excellent choices for students approaching either Lessing or Pynchon for the first time.

The book’s other strengths will be found in the details, such as the intelligent consideration of metonymic structures in span (139-46). Strangely, many of the most engaging comments go un- or underdeveloped: “But it is clearly a characteristic of much span fiction to challenge and undercut its own embellished novum” (173); “The narratives of Vonnegut’s plots are exoskeletal” (163); “with the middle ground’s integration of technology into fiction, the [scientific] change is important for its effects on [character] rather than for itself” (169). Perhaps such matters aren’t developed because Brigg conceptualizes the book as an expository project, not an argumentative or scholarly one. (An easy contrast here would be to Damien Broderick’s Transrealist Fiction: Writing in the Slipstream of Science [2000], a book that aggressively situates itself in relation to other scholarly arguments; Brigg does not mention Broderick’s book, even though it addresses the same topic.) Perhaps such matters aren’t pursued aggressively because Brigg is himself a gentle and generous man, someone not given to attacking other views.

Sadly, I cannot be generous about the book’s prose, which lacks any sparkle whatsoever, as if the target audience were the undergraduate textbook market. Simple points are repeated time and again in a commonsense but pedestrian way: “For writers, genre expectations outline their field of endeavor, but in establishing that frame they also open up the possibility of creative transgression. Genres move, shift, and change, and that creative jostling is immensely rewarding for writer and reader alike. But there comes a time where new genres are needed because certain kinds of transgression create bodies of texts in an identifiable new form. Then genre becomes an issue to be resolved in the identification of a new genre, a hybrid whose outlines will enhance the reading practice of such texts” (189). This passage, a full paragraph from the concluding three-page chapter, nicely represents the general quality of the prose: abstract, repetitious, and lazy.

Even when supplying concrete points, both the thinking and the expression remain fuzzy. Here’s lazy thinking: “Darko Suvin’s ideas about the novum function with a vengeance in most dystopian fiction” (134). Here’s lazy expression: “Yet they are more ‘true’ (note my quotation marks) than any other part of the text, so they immediately problematize the rest of it” (112). One reason the writing remains so lax concerns verb selection. I chose several pages at random, then examined the verbs: more than half were “to be,” and the rest remained simple, usually linked to unnecessary prepositional phrases, relative pronouns, or infinitives (“seems that he wants to verify,” “What I want to consider is how”). Quotidian, static verbs do make the prose clear, but they also drain the book of any possible pleasure for the reader.

The Span of Mainstream and Science Fiction will be a wonderful book, however, for beginning undergraduates and advanced secondary school students: the sentences are admirably clear, there is no technical argot, and the summaries of definitions, plots, and themes can be understood without any previous reading in the scholarly literature. Were the book half as expensive I might well order it as a supplemental title for survey courses in sf or an introduction to fiction; sadly, the $32 cover price probably restricts the book’s market to undergraduate libraries.

-- Neil Easterbrook, Texas Christian University


Tripping Down the Totalitarian Path with PKD.

Philip K. Dick. The Man Who Japed. 1956. New York: Vintage, 2002. 168 pp. $11 pbk.

─────. The Zap Gun. 1965. New York: Vintage, 2002. 252 pp. $12.95 pbk.

─────. Counter-Clock World. 1967. New York: Vintage, 2002. 218 pp. $11 pbk.

Alarmed by the totalitarian path down which President Bush and John Ashcroft seem determined to lead this country, Hendrik Hertzberg used Philip K. Dick as a point of reference recently in his “Talk of the Town” column in The New Yorker (December 9, 2002: 45-48). He started by suggesting that, compared to Dick, Orwell and Huxley are merely quaint: “no literary divinator gets it righter than the sci-fi pulp master Philip K. Dick … inspirer of some of Hollywood’s spookiest dystopias, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report” (45).

Those familiar with Dick’s fiction can appreciate the insightful precision of Hertzberg’s remarks -- as early as 1956, Dick had anticipated much of the institutionalized intrigue and the obsession with surveillance that seems to mark the Junior Bush Administration. In novels such as The Man Who Japed (1956) and The Zap Gun (1967), Dick unveils a future in which the major corporations that effectively control the world have seamlessly merged with the government agencies whose domains they have usurped. Certainly this vision had been presented before, but Dick gave it a definitively postmodern twist, long before postmodernism had become a captious academic practice. And long before such novelists as Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace were writing paranoid epics about infinitely far-reaching conspiracies of power, Dick was spinning out eminently readable and smart sf tales that were just as witty and full of word-play.

In fact, as Hertzberg and many other critics have indicated, Dick’s novels are “systems novels” that explore power and its strategies of proliferation. In The Man Who Japed, our protagonist is a reflective and philosophical propagandist for a sector of the civil service engaged in “Morec,” or “Moral Reclamation.” In the aftermath of the usual series of world wars, human society in 2114 is obsessed with policing morality and scrutinizing behavior. Part of Dick’s theme seems to be that subjecting human beings to such panoptic schemes may in fact achieve a kind of social stability, but only at the cost of the quirky elements of our personalities that make us human -- our sense of humor, for example. Hence, The Man Who Japed is the brief saga of a philosophically-minded practical joker who challenges overwhelming state control through a series of “japes,” or capers whose frivolity and irreverence challenge and ultimately dismantle the State’s obsession with moral rectitude.

The Man Who Japed is less somber than most Dick novels, in that the emphasis on humor alleviates the otherwise usual dark tension one encounters in his dystopian books. The Zap Gun (1965) operates in a similar vein, though the strategy is more subtle. Here we encounter the classic fare of the sf novel: an alien invasion of earth that can only be thwarted through the unexpected conflation of technology and the drug-induced precognitive powers of the protagonist. Dick is at his satirical best here, using what looks like some kind of scientifically-influenced political jargon to refer to the populace at large as “pursaps” (read: poor saps). We also encounter a villainous doctor named Todt (“death,” in German), and a canon of weaponry named after the saints (“Type IV Julian the Apostate Satellite”). In a sense, Dick’s Zap Gun is a precocious novel, even for the 1960s: its plot turns on information revealed in a popular comic book, psychotropic and hallucinogenic drugs play a major role, and its overt anti-war message would have surely been inspired by our growing involvement in Vietnam.

Counter-Clock World (1968) also bears the stamp of the tumultuous decade in which it was written: Malcolm X’s assassination is an important motif, LSD is used as a mind control weapon, and the citizens of Dick’s future habitually imbibe a strange drug called “sogum” through pipes. Counter-Clock World anticipates Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (1991) in that chronology is reversed: because of an unanticipated phenomenon known as the Hobart Phase, the dead are coming back to life, people greet each other with “Goodbye,” and references to eating are avoided in polite conversation. Grownups revert to childhood, and infants eventually must seek out an available womb to which to return. The process isn’t complete until the embryo separates back into sperm and egg through the sex act -- an interesting reversal of the biological urge.

The central crisis of the novel concerns the scheduled resurrection of a holy man called the Anarch Peak, of whom various religious interest groups would like to gain custody once he’s revived. The novel is intensely theological, revisiting many of the themes of the medieval era: hair-splitting philosophical debates about the nature of God, the role of the church, and eschatology, to name a few. Dick prefaces each chapter with an epigraph from a philosopher such as Augustine, Erigena, Bonaventura, or Aquinas.

Though the blurb on the cover of The Zap Gun (drawn from a review in The Village Voice) suggests that Dick was “a poor-man’s Pynchon,” the formula seems woefully inverted. If anything, Pynchon is a more widely celebrated follower of Philip K. Dick. Perhaps the fact that his novels are now being published by Vintage/Random House is an indication that Philip K. Dick is finally becoming recognized as a writer whose science fiction involves the complexity, depth, and linguistic craftsmanship of our best twentieth-century writers.

-- Aaron Parrett, University of Great Falls


Young Readers in Utopia.

Carrie Hintz and Elaine Ostry, eds. Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults. New York: Routledge, 2002. xi + 244pp. $95 hc.

Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children will have a permanent place on my bookshelf. Very well edited, its essays are complementary, wide ranging, thought provoking, and all in all a very fine contribution to studies of children’s fiction generally, and to studies of children’s fantasy and science fiction more specifically, though it is not, despite its title, a major contribution to utopian studies.

One can use a number of approaches to restricting the boundaries of utopia. One of my favorites is Suvin’s contention that authors should believe in the worlds they create, that there should be a campaigning edge to the fiction. Very few of the authors discussed in the volume believe in this way, although inevitably there is greater coalescence of interest in the dystopic futures presented; and as Maureen F. Moran points out in her essay “Educating Desire,” “utopian fiction is potentially at odds with the educational emphasis in children’s literature on patterns of moral, social and emotional behavior that, at least in part, accord with and legitimize certain dominant ideologies” (140). Given this view, Hintz and Ostry have opted instead for a more catch-all approach. Utopias, in the context of the book, will be those societies that are considered better than ours, dystopias those that are thought worse. I think this is rather stretching the definition, and it opens out the book to pastorals such as Brian Jacques’s REDWALL series (1986-95), which, on the basis of Holly V. Blackford’s very thorough chapter, is actually about the destruction of a utopian feudalism in favor of early modern proto-capitalism.

If we do focus on the theme of utopia as most of us would perceive it -- the construction of the good place -- then there are three outstanding essays. Fred Erismen’s discussion of American boys’ series books and the ways in which air travel and the airplane were conceived as opening up new possibilities for the human race, a world in which all could communicate, and in which peace and plenty would reign, is marred only by the author’s assumption that we all know the names he is discussing. I became a little uncertain at times as to which were fictional characters and which were real heroes of the air. The essay is a study of a utopian community -- in much the same way that early fandom has been posited as a utopian community -- as much as it is of a utopian literature.

The second essay of note is Sara Gadeken’s “Sarah Fielding’s Childhood Utopia.” The Governess, or Little Female Academy (1749) is both the first English children’s novel and a precursor to Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall (1762). On the basis of Gadeken’s article it is also quite clearly a precursor to Anita Fairlie Bruce’s Dimsie stories (1921-41), and Elinor M. Brent Dyer’s Chalet School series (1923-1970), neither of which I had previously considered as utopian, but which clearly validate Gadeken’s argument. Gadeken argues that Fielding is constructing within the pages of The Governess not simply a model of female behavior, but a model society that is a direct attack on the ideas of John Locke. Instead of a moral code based on absolutes, on competition, and on often conflicting demands (boys are instructed not to lie, but also not to tattle), Gadeken argues that Fielding creates a code based on community and -- crucially -- public approbation. This is a utopia based on the assumption that all behave well, that all have good morals, and that therefore the treatment meted out to others can always be judged by what one knows one would do oneself. The greatest sin is to betray the community -- lying is one such sin -- or to raise oneself up in competition. Gadeken describes here the emergence of bourgeois net-curtain-twitching suburbia, and its benefit is that women, who are weak, withdraw themselves from battles they cannot win while taking strength from that willing resignation. As Gadeken points out, the price to be paid is that the greatest punishment is exclusion from the community. Those who cannot conform forfeit its protection.

This has long been the hidden price of the utopia. Carrie Hintz’s discussion of Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s Green-Sky Trilogy (1975-77) extends the argument, for Snyder’s is a utopia built on the suffering of others. Like many utopias, it is characterized by whom it excludes and why, and by the labeling of the outside as “barbaric.” In this sequence, we are clearly presented with analogy fiction: it doesn’t take much of a stretch of imagination to see that the Green Sky inhabitants are white Americans, reworking their founding myth to exclude many who helped build their nation, and forced to realize that if their world is to stand any chance of survival then it must incorporate the dispossessed. Hintz teases out the politics of Snyder’s world, and the ways in which it allows adolescents to be the catalysts of change, but she misses an opportunity to explore the effect of change. Although Hintz points to comparisons with the unification of Germany and the difficulties of uniting different economic systems, the idea that the future is a utopian project, perhaps more interesting than the idea of the stasis of the flawed utopia, goes unexplored, which is a shame; utopia as process is an under-considered area of study.

Although few of the other texts considered here would fit any of the usual definitions of utopia (the societies are mostly nostalgic rewritings of the past), it would be fair to describe all of the texts as politically aspirational: they are authoritarian literatures that aim to imbue children with ideals or fears that may help them to shape the future. Catherine Frank’s “Tinklers and Time Machines: Time Travel in the Social Fantasy,” in considering the work of Nesbitt and Wells, considers two utopianists who actually produced very little utopian fiction for children. Nesbitt’s fiction is predominantly reformist: as Frank points out, it is full of utopian sentiments, but with a very paternalist approach to achieving greater equality. Alice Jenkins directs us to the nostalgic pastoralism of much British children’s fiction, a rather conservative radicalism that would have us all living in William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) and which, I feel, rather better explains the ubiquity of steam trains in the fiction she cites than any metaphor about the liminality of steam (all the writers she cites apart from Rowling would have grown up with steam trains, while steam trains are only one element of Rowling’s determined recreation of pre-1980s England). Holly V. Blackford offers a coruscating dissection of Jacques’s Redwall series, reminding us that utopianism is equivalent to weakness in the eyes of many, and as Hintz also argued, may be a cover for exploitation and an insidiously nasty social determinism.

Social determinism is, naturally, more obvious in the dystopias, but Rebecca Carol NoŽl Totaro discusses ably how suffering is frequently used to test young adults to see if they are worthy of entering utopia, and Monica Hughes offers a similar theme. Ironically, both these writers posit as a marker of utopia the very communitarian tests that Fielding was constructing in The Governess (1749). But as Kay Sambell argues, constructing dystopia for children conflicts with the desire to inspire and to grant hope -- Hughes argues that one should never turn off the light -- and one consequence is that many dystopias for children are consolatory, constructed so that the disaster can never be final.

The book concludes with a very valuable annotated bibliography of children’s utopian and dystopian fiction based on the very broad definition that Hintz and Ostry have chosen. Obviously one looks for one’s favorite authors, and equally obviously, not all are there (although Nesbitt’s absence from this section, and from the index, is a bit puzzling), but one suspects that a complete list might dominate the book.

Reading the essays together, one is struck by certain issues. Moran, in her essay on Tanith Lee, is correct: there is a real conflict between educating children into what is needed for life, and convincing them that there is something better. The attempt to do the latter takes us back to Fielding’s The Governess, inadvertently creating an alternative world that young people may inhabit while declaring themselves too pure for the real one. Second, there is a marked absence of technological utopias for children. This isn’t a petty matter: one of the distinctions between sf and “futuristic thrillers” is the attitude to science and technology. The “futuristic thriller” is essentially suspicious, regarding technology as dangerous, overriding the individual and individual agency, and this seems to be the standard underpinning of both the utopias and the dystopias discussed here. Sf may regard choices as dangerous, but generally assumes that tools are subject to politics. Of all the utopianists discussed here, only Nesbitt seems to have posited a technological utopia, and only Hughes appears to have seen technology as subservient to choice. If we do wish to use utopian literature to inspire children, what exactly are we inspiring them to think?

-- Farah Mendlesohn, Middlesex University


Those Foreign Devils.

Kenneth Mackay. The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asian Invasion of Australia. 1895. Ed. Andrew Enstice and Janeen Webb. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2003. xxxiv + 350 pp. $60.00 hc; $22.95 pbk.

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, narratives appeared that imagined geopolitical disruption, accompanied by wars and invasions. Some of the authors, such as Kenneth Mackay in his novel The Yellow Wave, produced serious speculations -- however wrapped up in melodrama -- about their societies’ vulnerability to political, demographic, and militarist pressures. Given their concern with the future, narratives such as The Yellow Wave were at least a kind of quasi-science fiction, though they did not always imagine new technology or new techniques of warfare.

One of the first examples of these tales of future war and invasion, certainly the most influential, was George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871), which was provoked by Bismark’s crushing victory in the Franco-Prussian war. In The Battle of Dorking, Britain is invaded by German military forces. Chesney also inspired writers of more straightforwardly science-fictional narratives, such as H.G. Wells, when he depicted the Martian invasion of rural Britain in The War of the Worlds (1898). Writers in other countries produced similar work, since each nation and geographic region had its own fears, hidden or not so hidden, of military vulnerability. In the Australian context, vent was given to fears of invasion by the populous Asian countries to the north, especially China and Japan.

Racial antipathy between Australia’s European colonists, who first entered the Australian continent in the 1780s, and the later Chinese arrivals can be dated back to rivalry on the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s. As early as 1856, fifteen years before The Battle of Dorking was published, an article appeared in the Melbourne Punch purporting to describe the centenary anniversary of a Mongolian dynasty in the state of Victoria. The first fictional narratives expressing fears of invasion and conquest by imperialist Asian nations seem to have been published in the 1870s and 1880s; these include The Battle of Mordialloc (1888; Mordialloc is now a suburb of Melbourne). Such narratives have appeared ever since, among them The Coloured Conquest (1894) by “Rata” (Thomas Roydhouse), The Australian Crisis (1909) by C.H. Kirmess, Celestalia: A Fantasy A.D. 1975 (1933) by A.J. Pullar, Fool’s Harvest (1939) by Erle Cox, The Invasion (1968) by John Hay, and a series of enormously successful young-adult novels, commencing with Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993), by John Marsden.

Given Australia’s experience in World War Two, in which it was actually bombed by Japanese forces, the fears of attack from Asia were not, in all cases, simply expressions of paranoia and racial revulsion. Nonetheless, there is a striking element of cultural xenophobia and even clear-cut racism in many Australian novels of Asian invasion. This is especially apparent in those published around the turn of the twentieth century. That element makes it difficult for contemporary readers to turn to these novels with pleasure. However plausible, well-constructed, and even suspenseful a novel such as The Yellow Wave might be, the attitude expressed about the populations to Australia’s north is thoroughly distasteful.

The Yellow Wave, originally published in the UK in 1895, is undoubtedly one of the most important of the novels of racial invasion from this period. It depicts an invasion of Australia carried out by a huge Chinese (often referred to as “Mongol”) army under Russian leadership. By the time the invasion goes ahead, Britain has been distracted by a separate attack on India, and the poorly-equipped Australians are left to fend for themselves.

This is not simply a war novel, though the warning to Mackay’s readership in the Australian colonies is clear enough: the colonies are a white enclave isolated in a potentially hostile part of the world, and they must prepare to fight for their territorial integrity. The main source of interest and suspense is found in the book’s melodramatic handling of a romance between two main characters, Philip Orloff and Heather Cameron. Early in the novel, Heather comes under the control of a sinister hypnotist, whom Philip kills after a heated exchange of words. Philip has to flee and create a new life and identity, else be tried for murder. And so it goes from there. The burning question throughout is not so much whether the Australians will prevail against the invaders (which is unclear, even at the end). We are more concerned with how Philip, who has become a military leader in the service of Russia and is given command of the invasion of Australia, will ever be able to sort out his relationship with the melodramatically idealized Heather.
At this level, the book is entertaining enough, though the resolution of the romantic plot seems like a cop-out by contemporary standards, and much of the dialogue would be almost incomprehensible without the detailed endnotes provided by Enstice and Webb. Even for an Australian reader, the bush slang that many of the characters speak is almost like a foreign language.

Why republish such works? Unlike The War of the Worlds (1898), which appeared only a few years later, The Yellow Wave can no longer be read with unalloyed enjoyment, or with a sense that it still has some wisdom to offer us. We inevitably feel superior to writers such as Mackay, with their ingrained, unexamined sense of cultural and racial supremacy. Any pleasure we extract from their narratives is tinged with guilt and taken on the sly.

In fact, the racism present in The Yellow Wave is not as central, and seldom as virulent, as might be imagined. It is peripheral to much that holds our interest, especially the relationship between Philip and Heather. Still, it is always there, at least in the background, and it is sometimes expressed brutally. While Mackay gives credit to the fighting capacities, courage, and discipline of the Asian soldiers, they are as generic and dispensable as the stormtroopers in a Star Wars movie. Only one Chinese character, Commissioner Wang, is individualized, and he is presented totally without sympathy. He is cruel, unscrupulous, decadent, effeminate. In several passages we are meant to applaud as the white Australians are shown to be more than a match, one-on-one, for the invaders: “once again the white man at his best, and hand-to-hand with the Asiatic, triumphed over odds” (284). Certain passages simply demonize the Asians:

Behind him raced a yelling horde, some bearing trophies ..., others with human heads dangling from their stirrups. Splashed with blood and drunk with slaughter, on they came, their broad, squat features, tangled elf locks, gleaming eyes, and shark-like jaws, combining to make up a picture worthy of the hell they were sent to create. (210)

In brief, The Yellow Wave is now of purely historical interest. Still, we should be thankful to Enstice and Webb for putting together this scholarly edition for us. They have not only given us the text of an important novel of its kind, back in print, but have also provided the benefit of their scholarship about Mackay himself, and the literary and historical context, in a well-written twenty-page introduction -- plus the extensive endnotes that I have already mentioned. The book’s ready availability will make it easier for scholars to study the work of the time and its cultural significance.

Enstice and Webb have also provided a useful bibliography for those who wish to explore the relevant literature further. One surprising omission, however, is Blackford, Ikin, and McMullen’s Strange Constellations: A History of Australian Science Fiction (1999), which is basic reading in this area. It contains one of the most extensive published accounts of the Australian quasi-sf of the time, including the Asian invasion stories. That personal cavil aside, the editors have done a superb job. This scholarly edition of The Yellow Wave is for a specialized audience, but we should be glad that Mackay’s novel is back in print, and that our experience of reading it is supported by sound, meticulous scholarship.

 -- Russell Blackford, Monash University


An Introduction to Sf in Spanish.

Yolanda Molina-Gavilán. Ciencia Ficción En Español: Una Mitología Moderna Ante El Cambio. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2002. x + 228 pp. $109.95 hc.

To initiate the exploration of a new territory is far more difficult than writing the travelbook afterwards. Sf written in Spanish can be an arduous terrain to explore indeed -- usually relegated to obscure magazines and fanzines, rarely collected in widely available volumes, critically misunderstood, and the recipient of a great deal of scorn as a subliterature. Spanish (referring to the language, not the country) sf is a vast, dark, submerged continent. Ciencia Ficción En Español: Una Mitología Moderna Ante El Cambio [Science Fiction in Spanish: A Modern Mythology Facing Change] by Yolanda Molina-Gavilán is a brave and ambitious, perhaps too ambitious, attempt to rectify that situation. It builds a largely successful theoretical map to help us to understand sf written in Spanish. In keeping with the geographical metaphor, it is a rough and initial sketch of the terrain rather than a detailed map of every hill and grove. That aim is explicit: “Este libro se centrará en el análisis de varias novelas y cuentos, con la esperanza de que los mejores ejemplos poéticos, fílmicos y gráficos del género en español sean convenientemente estudiados en ensayos venideros” [This book will focus on the analysis of several novels and short stories, hoping that the best poetic, film, and graphic examples of the genre in Spanish will be adequately studied in future essays] (2).The book is an initial attempt to cast light on some of the best examples of sf written in Spanish, leaving it to later explorers to write deeper accounts of those same works.

The task that Molina-Gavilán has set for herself is not easy. Since sf in Spanish is difficult to study, it is always tempting to select a few mainstream authors, like Borges or Cortázar, call them sf authors, and write accordingly. Ciencia Ficción en Español avoids that awful fate; the works discussed here are clearly sf and any sf reader would readily identify them as such, though they are probably the easiest specimens of sf to find in a bookstore. Mining magazines and fanzines is left to some other patient explorer.

As an introductory book, written for those scholars of Spanish literature willing to try sf, Ciencia Ficción en Español starts with a section devoted to science fiction as a genre -- covering themes such as the shaky status of sf in the world of high culture, the nature of Spanish sf (is there such a thing as Spanish sf or are we dealing with a set of national literatures written in the same language? This question is disappointingly answered with a Vorlon-like “yes”). Interestingly enough, and refreshingly I may add, it does not propose a new definition of sf, or any definition, for that matter. Actually, the author rounds up the usual suspects -- Todorov, Suvin, Scholes, Aldiss, including the Spaniard Cidoncha -- and presents their definitions after declaring: “No entraremos aquí en una discusión teórica que intente delimitar de manera precisa el concepto de ciencia ficción como género” [We won’t go into a theoretical discussion trying to define precisely the concept of science fiction as a genre] (33). Such a lack of interest in a precise definition might seem strange to English scholars but may reflect a different bias in Spanish literary studies -- a Spanish critic may not shy away from studying an sf work, but may want to know if that work is really worthy of literary attention. Maybe that’s why after presenting definition after definition the author opts for linking sf to mythology, a somewhat hazardous binding that weakens some parts of the book. Sf is presented as a multifaceted, complex, modern, and deep genre (45-46), but to study Spanish sf -- acknowledging that it can deal with several cultural, historical, and social issues like pollution or political corruptionshe chooses to describe it as a translation of myths into modern scientific language, with sf bridging a gap between past explanations (myth) and present explanations (science).

Fortunately, the section devoted to myth and sf does not really map myth onto sf. Rather, it uses the word myth in a very loose way and discusses how sf may rework, subvert, or discuss specific “myths.” It’s an interesting approach but far from convincing. When considering Angélica Gorodischer’s “La sensatez del círculo” [The rationality of the circle] (1979), do we have to accept the sf cliché of never-ending progress as a myth? Isn’t Gorodischer just exchanging one cliché for another one: that savages are somehow more advanced than civilized people? Is copying the structure of an epic poem in Tomas Salvador’s La nave [The Ship] (1959) tantamount to using a myth?

On occasion, the strategy of linking sf with myth serves Molina-Gavilán well. Religion is an obvious theme in sf written in Spanish, and the word “Dios” [God] is easy to spot in the works of almost any Spanish-speaking sf writer. It also works well in her brilliant discussion of Madagalena Mouján Otaño’s “Gu Ta Gutarrak” (1970), presenting it as a subversion of a mythic past that was never real. But sometimes it fails, clouding the real nature of the work. Rafael Marín Trechera’s Mundo de dioses [World of Gods] (1991) may be seen as a working of several religious myths into an sf narrative, but actually it is a superhero comic book full of references to Superman, Batman, and other creatures (it began as a comic and was reworked into a novel when the original project folded). The novel may be dressed in the clothing of religious references, but it is actually a written comic deeply imbued by the conventions of that genremaybe still mythic but twice removed. (Rafael Marín is a famous writer for the comics, having created some series mixing the superhero tradition with the recent history of Spain. He even managed to write in English for the famous comic-book series Fantastic Four.)

More rewarding are the sections devoted to ideology and sf. The Spanish-speaking countries have traditionally been subject to a complex social background limiting the liberties of women and to some social regimes limiting the liberties of everybody, so naturally those ideological and social concerns find their way into sf narratives. The first part of the section discusses the scarcity of women writing sf and how sf serves as a liberating literature. It may be a tired subject in the English world but is still important in Spanish sf. The use of sf themes to think about gender, sexuality, and non-male perceptions of the world is quite rightly stressed. Molina-Gavilán examines works by four female sf writers -- Angélica Gorodischer, Daína Chaviano, Rosa Montero, and Elia Barcelóand it is obvious that she is on stable footing with her claim that Rosa Montero’s Temblor [Tremor] (1990) is an sf novel.

The section devoted to ideology points out that Spanish sf is usually opposed to progress and looks firmly to a better past. Much Spanish sf tends to be pessimistic even when it deals with a possibly desirable social transformation -- for instance, leaving behind a dictatorship to embrace democracy. But another interesting situation is pointed out at the end of the section on ideology: the differences in attitudes between female and male writers. The woman writers tend to view the future as a better place of liberation and change, while male writers view the future as a threatening and awful place.This is inevitable when a group sees itself in a superior position and so resents every attempt at change -- Ciencia Ficción en Español shows that characteristic as far more marked in sf written in Spanish than in English-language sf.

The last section of the book is the most fascinating, devoted to language and sf. Spanish is a grammatically more difficult language than English and writing the deliberately paradoxical sentences of sf is a difficult endeavor -- I know this from experience: my one short story, “El día que hicimos la Transición” [The Day We Went Through the Transition], written with Ricard de la Casa, is presented as an example in the text. Even something as simple as creating new wordseither conjuring them anew or combining old onescan turn into a hopeless task. Spanish is not as permissive as English, and neologizing is not a task to tackle lightly. In that regard, Molina-Gavilán points out that reading sf is hard, requiring a deep knowledge not only of the conventions of the genre but of the idiom in which the genre is written as well. The author discusses several mechanisms to create new words, presenting several examples, but they are not entirely unique to the Spanish language.

Ciencia Ficción en Español concludes with an exposition of the main ideas of the book. That exposition offers the minimal framework needed to understand Spanish sf, listing those characteristics -- a preference for soft sciences, an emphasis on religious influences -- that would warrant the effort of studying Spanish sf as a concrete entity. Using a quote from Miquel Barceló, Molina-Gavilán exhorts her colleagues to read sf written in Spanish:

El desafío que se presentaba a los primeros escritores hispanos que se interesaron en la ciencia ficción no estribaba en superar supuestas etapas de imitación de modelos extranjeros, sino en desarrollar su técnica y su imaginación hasta producir obras del género de calidad, obras que hablaran de sí mismos y de la percepción de su entorno, siempre dentro de las convenciones del género que el lector ya había asimilado. Este libro quiere dejar constancia de que muchos de nuestros escritores (¡y escritoras!) ya lo han logrado y el género se ha ganado un espacio dentro del marco de la narrativa en español. Para terminar, nada mejor que repetir las palabras de Miquel Barceló: “La ciencia ficción me ha parecido siempre esencial para configurar mentes abiertas, dotadas de un gran relativismo cultural. Posiblemente sea una de las mejores preparaciones para vivir en el mundo de cambio vertiginoso de nuestros días”.... Sirva esta reflexión para instar a la lectura de nuestros propios autores de ciencia ficción, que tanto tienen que decirnos sobre nuestra lucha ante los retos del cambio. [The challenge facing the first Hispanic writers interested in science fiction wasn’t to overcome purported phases of imitation of foreign models, but rather to develop their skills and imagination to the point of producing quality genre works, works that would speak about themselves and their perception of their own environment, always moving inside the convention of the genre learned by the reader. This book wants to reflect that many of our writers (and woman writers!) have succeeded and that the genre has won its own space in the framework of the narrative in Spanish. To recap, nothing is better than the words of Miquel Barceló: “I have always thought of science fiction as essential to create open minds, imbued with a great sense of cultural relativism. It may be one of the best ways to prepare yourself to live in our world of dizzy change”.... May this idea encourage us to read our own science fiction authors, who have so much to tell us about our struggle against the challenges of change.] (195)

Finally, the main weakness of Ciencia Ficción en Español is that it tries to cover too much territory. But that is understandable. The lack of a rich critical tradition invites one to write a volume covering every possible corner, but the cost is great -- at least one section is only a tantalizing glimpse into a fascinating problem.The book’s main success consists in presenting the study of sf to the Spanish-speaking world. Ciencia Ficción en Español is primarily written to point out several interesting research projects into Spanish sf, naming them, offering a minimal theoretical background -- a risky proposition with such a small sample of works to rely on -- listing a basic bibliography, and discussing several important works of Spanish sf. Given its aims, it is a good introductory volume. 

-- Pedro Jorge Romero, A Coruña, Spain


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