Science Fiction Studies

#94 = Volume 31, Part 3 = November 2004

In Memoriam to the Gentle Resistance Fighter.

Amy Scholder and Dennis Cooper, eds. Essential Acker: The Selected Writings of Kathy Acker. Intro. Jeanette Winterson. New York: Grove, 2002. xiv + 335 pp. $15.00 pbk.

So much has been written and said about Kathy Acker that adding something new, especially about a collection of selected writings, all of which appeared elsewhere and most (if not all) are still in print, is probably next to impossible. Instead, given the venue where this review appears, a major academic science- fiction periodical, one is tempted to consider whether and why Acker should be read by the journal’s usual audience.

This question is easy to answer. Yes, she should. Her writing has been called postmodern, punk, porn, and subversive, and anyone who has read her work will know immediately that all these labels faithfully describe her creation and, at the same time, leave out much else that is there. Her death from breast cancer in 1997 coincided with the deaths of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, two other countercultural icons, and so marked the end of an era in American writing. I suspect, however, that Acker’s literary and extra-literary fame has largely eluded broader science-fiction circles. Some sf literati may know her for her pla(y)giarism of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) in her Empire of the Senseless (1988)—this is the section that many people have probably read second-hand anyway in McHale’s Constructing Postmodernism (1992). Yet, despite this continuing low profile in the world of sf and her apparent un-science-fictionality, I think Kathy Acker is terribly important, topical, and relevant for all open-minded readers of science fiction.

Here comes another question—why. The most obvious reason is that for all her writing life Kathy Acker was a fantasist. Even a cursory tour of her oeuvre reveals an astonishing wealth of familiar elements. The cyborg-like figure of Abhor in Empire of the Senseless, the cannibalization of Gibson’s classic, alternative histories (of sorts) in The Adult Life of Toulouse (1978) or Don Quixote (1986), voodoo in Kathy Goes to Haiti (1990), or identity switching—all will appear familiar to someone who has read the literature of the fantastic. Acker’s characters almost always inhabit and circulate through surreal landscapes that, even when overlapping with actual geographies of our world, are permeated with dreamlike strangeness and vagueness. Naturally, all these fantastic elements are heavily filtered through Acker’s own obsessive imagination in which sexuality and the body reign supreme, and the social and political bias toward male and other authority is easily recognizable.

There is, however, another reason why Acker’s fiction (which is only very arbitrarily different from her non-fiction) can be—and should be—of interest to a science-fiction readership. Her writing has always been predicated on the same notions that we would like to believe underscore all good science fiction. As a writer and a person of lived experience (and in this case the borderline is again meandering and blurry, thus perhaps explaining the lack of fiction/non-fiction divide), she was wholly and passionately devoted to the project of crossing borders into uncharted territories. How sf is that? As an outsider, she was formidably intellectual and rigorous in her explorations. Her fiction is a tool for the construction of an alternative reality that, while not perfect by any standard, points the way toward a slightly better world. Acker could be very brutal in her portrayals of degradation, suffering, and desire but also very utopian and idealistic in her belief in the transformative potential of writing and reaching out to readers. She was a gentle resistance fighter with a great anger and a great heart.

You can see and read and feel all of this in Essential Acker. The volume contains twenty-three excerpts from her novels and short stories as well as several works that appeared as stand-alone chapbooks or occasional pieces. Having read the majority of her fiction, I must say that these selections have been chosen splendidly and give a great sense of what her writing in general and her individual works in particular are like—not an easy task with writing that can be described as oceanic and non-linear. If any collection will win over new converts for Acker, this one will. A high point of the book is Jeanette Winterson’s “Introduction”—very personal, very affectionate, and very touching. Together with Acker’s pieces, it conjures up the image of the writer as not only an angry rebel, literary pirate, and outsider, but as a woman who cared very deeply about her world and other people and was often disappointed with what she saw around her. An open-minded reading of Essential Acker is bound to change mis- or pre-conceptions about this disturbing and powerful writer.

—Pawel Frelik,Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, Lublin, Poland

Sputnik Science Fiction.

Matthias Schwarz. Die Erfindung des Kosmos[The Invention of the Cosmos]. Berliner Slawistische Arbeiten 22. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2003. 195 pp. $35.95 pbk.

This case study explores the connections among the perception of the cosmos, cultural-political traditions, and scientific fantasy in the Soviet Union after the launch of the first Sputnik. This event came as a shock for Americans and provided an impetus to the Russians, since it was the first time they had surpassed the US in technology. One of the results was the rise of Russian science fiction as a popular genre during the thaw period, immediately after the Stalin era.

Matthias Schwartz concentrates mostly on the four popular science magazines with the highest circulation: Znanie—sila (Knowledge is power), Technika—Molodezhi (Technology for young people), Nauka i zizn’ (Science and Life), “Vokrug sveta” (Around the World), and the influential magazine Yunost’ (Youth); and he examines not only the sf published in them, but also the popular science features such as articles, reports, interviews, letter columns, discussions, comic strips, caricatures, sketches, and reviews.

The launching of Sputnik caused a wave of enthusiasm for all things cosmic that soon gave way to disenchantment when it become obvious that this first step into space was far from a “conquest of space.” The heroes of this cosmic story were cosmonaut Juriy Gagarin and the Russian pioneer of rocketry Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who famously said that the Earth is the cradle of mankind, but that man couldn’t spend his whole life in a cradle. The step into space is the fulfillment of an old dream, but with the exploration of space an interest in a number of allied sciences also arises, and these interests are mirrored in the science fiction of the period: rocket technology, space travel, the theories of relativity and quantum physics (including journeys into the spacetime continuum), extraterrestrial intelligent life, cybernetic robots serving as helpers and companions in the conquest of space. There is also an interest in telepathy and pre-astronautics, and questions about whether cosmonauts from outer space visited the earth and left traces as “gods” (the Tunguskan meteor of 1908 is often interpreted as a visitation by aliens, as in the 1951 Polish novel Astronauci by Stanislaw Lem). Other science fiction deals with the abominable snowman and with lost cultures such as the mythical Atlantis. Ivan Efremov’s big novel Andromeda (1957) provides, for the first time since 1931, the wide-sweeping panorama of a communist society, in violation of the doctrines of socialist realism that demanded a concentration on the near future. Descriptions of a harmonious future society soon give way to descriptions of societies in conflict, with little reference to communism.

Readers’ interest soon shifted to visits from other stars and to time travel, with stories located in a far future, distanced from contemporary communist constellations. Imagination soon got the better of “scientific plausibility,” even as Soviet critics bemoaned a lack of imagination in the authors. Critics such as Rafail Nudelman diagnosed a shift to analytic fantasy in the better works, which were interested less in heroes and more in the delineation of thinking processes, in thought experiments, and in the drama of ideas. The authors imagine possible situations in order to show “the dialectics of nature and the dialectics of cognition” (129). This means a rejection of socialist realism and a concentration on outer space and the far future as “the other place” where all kinds of marvels are explained in a quasi-scientific manner. Besides the discovery of alien realms, peoples, and cultures in outer space, there is also a tendency to revive old myths in the cosmic plots. For the period after 1957, Schwartz concludes:

The adventures in space replace the production of inner and outer enemies, and the dreams in the realm of the fantastic compensate for the disillusionment that the wishful dreams tethered to socialist reality had undergone. This compensatory function of sf, in a cosmic chronotopos increasingly distanced from the concrete conditions of Soviet society and technological/scientific developments, allowed the discussion of questions and problems of Soviet reality, and was most likely the reason why fantasy became ever more popular, even after the death of Gagarin and the American moon landing. (180)

Schwartz only rarely provides analyses of specific stories. He primarily considers the general cultural and social environment in which Soviet sf developed after 1957, and he gives much information about publication forms, circulation, and authors. As far as I can tell, the author investigates a broad enough range of materials to justify his conclusions. A few misspellings of names of translated non-Russian authors (such as Lejnster for Leinster or Chobana for the Rumanian Ion Hobana) suggest that the author is not familiar with sf outside his topic, but he knows his Russian sources well. Schwartz’s central thesis is perhaps that real space travel, far from a real conquest of space and soon ending in disillusion, inspired the invention of a fantastic cosmos that went far beyond the limitations set by socialist realism, and included a great interest in aliens and alien societies in a cosmos far from everyday realities. Authors could go back in time to revive mythic patterns of superhuman heroes. Yet science fiction also offered the possibility of discussing hidden and unacknowledged problems of Soviet life in an estranged form, thus adding to the fascination of cosmic themes. Like other genres of popular fiction, sf resorted to clichés that offered a regressive solution to conflicts, fears, and yearnings, and this ready potential of identification contributed to its wide appeal.

— Franz Rottensteiner, Vienna

An Author of Forgotten Gems.

Kenneth W. Vickers. T.S. Stribling: A Life of the Tennessee Novelist. Knoxville, TN.: U Tennessee P, 2004. xii + 353 pp. $38.00 hc.

Thomas Sigismund (or Hughes) Stribling (1881-1965) was one of the pioneers in novels of Southern social realism, particularly in the area of race relations. His Reconstruction novel, The Store, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1933. He has also been considered an influence in the Harlem Renaissance. In the detective story, Stribling enlarged the scope of a sometimes frozen form. Forgotten for two generations, he is now undergoing serious study, notably in this excellent biography.

For our purposes, Stribling was the author of three outstanding science-fiction nouvelles that appeared in Adventure magazine in the 1920s. “The Green Splotches” (January 3, 1920) described an alien visit, parodying the scientific point of view; “The Web of the Sun” (January 30, 1922) is a lost-race story, but also an examination of ethics, the nature of religion, population control, and crude commercialism; “Christ in Chicago” (April 8, 1926) sets up a dystopia ruthlessly operated by the medical profession, perhaps in the twenty-first century. All differ from the Munsey science fiction or the somewhat later Gernsback science fiction in being heavily and amusingly satirical rather than adventure- or gadget-minded. They are arguably the best American science fiction of their day. Stribling’s last novel, These Bars of Flesh (Doubleday Doran, 1938), which is indebted to the course Stribling taught at Columbia University in 1935-36, manages to combine fantastic psychical research with jibes at American politics.

In this first biography of Stribling, Vickers has done an excellent job in retrieving much of the ephemeral material in Stribling’s life: hitherto unknown correspondence, obscure publications, failed motion-picture productions, unfortunate business ventures in Harlem, lectures at Columbia University, and much else, including a couple of unpublished works that Vickers calls science fiction.

If one is interested in Stribling, this book is indispensable, but it should be supplemented with Stribling’s autobiography, Laughing Stock (Saint Luke’s Press, 1982), which often supplies details and points to minor incidents that Vickers simply mentions.

—Everett F. Bleiler, Interlaken, NY

Occult Gambling with Loaded Bones.

Sheree R. Thomas, ed. Dark Matter: Reading the Bones.Warner/Aspect, 2004. ix + 400 pp. $25.95 hc.

The 2000 publication of Sheree R. Thomas’s Dark Matter anthology has proven to be significant in a number of ways. Perhaps most importantly, the book has brought critical attention to existing and emerging writers of color in science fiction, as well as delineating a clear and urgent demand for scholarship on this body of writing in the speculative genre. Despite Thomas’s critical achievement, she has not been idly resting. Instead, she has produced a second Dark Matter volume in 2004, in what I hope will be an ongoing series. The collection, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, has a similar format to its predecessor, with both fiction and essay sections, but it is remarkably different in its theme and focus. Thomas focuses on occult practices across the African Diaspora as the governing framework for the volume’s 27 stories and essays. The first volume served as an excellent introduction to speculative fiction by people of color, while the second illuminates a specific topic—manifestations of divination or the supernatural. In some respects, Thomas’s theme is similar to the 2003 collection Mojo: Conjure Stories, edited by Nalo Hopkinson, although Hopkinson includes several stories by white writers such as Andy Duncan, Neil Gaiman, and Barbara Hambly.

The purpose of Thomas’s volume is to display black visions of change that engage the future as well as the past. Some of these manifestations include techno-tricksters, supernatural creatures, conjurers, and gods. Many stories embody oral traditions, retooled legends, and contemporary controversies such as reparations for slavery. Included are tales of time travel, eroticism, fantasy, high and low technologies, and inner city conflicts. Myth and reality collide, revealing how black writers play a vital role in the ongoing development of speculative fiction by suggesting that without acceptance or, at the very least, tolerance of difference, the future is bleak if not nonexistent. As in the first volume, Thomas assembles an impressive collection of both emerging talent and established stars of the speculative genre, from such unknowns as Tyehimba Jess and Cherene Sherrard, to rising stars like Nalo Hopkinson, to writers at the very pinnacle of speculative fiction like Samuel R. Delany; writers outside the sf tradition such as Walter Mosley and W.E.B. DuBois are also thrown into the mix. The 348 pages of the fiction section contain 23 stories and a novel excerpt, most of which are very strong. Of these 24 narratives, 19 were written after 2000 and 16 of these were composed in 2004, thus displaying the increasing contribution of black writers to speculative fiction. The original anthology would have been stronger if it had been arranged chronologically to show the development of black sf. Recognizing that weakness, Thomas uses a chronological arrangement here so readers have the chance to roll the bones of fate and prophesy, beginning with supernatural accounts of the past and ending with a story of a distant technological future where time travel is possible and human diversity is waning.

The fiction section starts with Ihsan Bracy’s 1998 retelling of “Ibo-Landing,” an African American legend, about a group of Africans who survived the middle passage and walked over the waves of the Atlantic Ocean back to Africa. This story is followed by Cherene Sherrard’s 2004 story “The Quality of Sand,” concerning a black female pirate captain and her djinn companion who roam the south Atlantic disrupting the slave trade by sinking slavers and rescuing their human cargo. Racial tensions are explored with the 1920 DuBois story “Jesus Christ in Texas,” in which the Messiah appears in the segregated south, goes largely unrecognized by whites as a stranger with mulatto blood, and witnesses a lynching. Likewise, Jill Robinson’s 2004 “BLACKout” satirically considers reparations for slavery and its impact on the African American community, revealing both interracial and intra-racial discrimination as the government stringently decides who qualifies as a black citizen. Tyehimba Jess humorously engages the trickster paradigm in “Voodoo Vincent and the Astrostoriograms” (2004), in which a homeless man in Chicago is gifted with divination, and spectacularly rises and falls from fame and fortune in the local black community. More traditional sf, such as Walter Mosley’s child prodigy narrative set in the near future, “Whispers in the Dark” (2001); Nisi Shawl’s terraforming tale, “Maggies” (2004); and Kalamu ya Salaam’s far-future time-travel story, “Trance” (2004) close out the fiction section. This section would have been strengthened by the inclusion of Octavia Butler’s 2003 story, “The Book of Martha,” about a black woman given the chance by God to save humanity by making one important change in the world; that story would have made a good fit with Thomas’s theme and structure.

The essay section at the end of the volume is simply too brief at 35 pages, though it does offer three valuable essays concerning the impact of race on the speculative genre. Further, the essays that Thomas includes do not accurately display the critical work being done. Of the three essays, Jewelle Gomez’s 2004 transcription, “The Second Law of Thermodynamics,” is perhaps the most important. It is transcript of a panel discussion among Delany, Butler, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, William Hudson (a documentary film-maker), and Gomez herself at the first conference of black speculative fiction writers held in 1997 at Clark Atlanta University. The discussion involved how these writers envisioned the significance of black people actively participating in writing speculative fiction, the inevitability of change, and social responsibility, among other issues. The second essay, “Her Pen Could Fly: Remembering Virginia Hamilton,” written by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu in 2004, is an homage to the late black writer Virginia Hamilton, whose fantastic children’s stories filled with monsters and magic featured African American characters and themes. The final essay of the anthology, Carol Cooper’s “Celebrating the Alien: The Politics of Race and Species in the Juveniles of Andre Norton” (2004), is a similar tribute to the influence of Andre Norton and her use of Native American and nonhuman protagonists on faraway planets and parallel Earths. The anthology ends with comprehensive notes about each of the contributors. Much of the current critical work focuses on “Afro-futurism” and “Astro-futurism,” or on the ongoing argument between black and white scholars on the perceived dearth of black readers, writers, and critics of sf. The anthology would greatly benefit from essays on these topics and on newer ones such as technologically-derived ethnicities (technicities) and meta-slavery tales.

Her selection of stories and her eye for emerging talent clearly demonstrate that Thomas is a gifted editor who will, I hope, continue to produce Dark Matter volumes on other evocative themes in speculative fiction such as imprisonment and crime, meta-slavery, technicities, ethnoscapes, contagion, and counterfactual time narratives. Readers expecting a volume as comprehensive as the first anthology will briefly struggle with Dark Matter: Reading the Bones because of its “occult” theme, not always construed as science fictional. The depth and breadth of the occult, however, offer something beyond the mere introduction of black sf, fantasy, folklore, erotica, and horror, by providing an intimate view of the worth of spirituality to black culture. Discerning readers will appreciate this insight into creeds and spirituality in the African diaspora. For that reason, this second collection is quite possibly superior and is highly recommended to scholars and teachers of race in the fantastic. A toss of these loaded bones will provide a substantial windfall of valuable reflection.

—Isiah Lavender, III, University of Central Arkansas

Racing Delany.

Jeffrey Allen Tucker. A Sense of Wonder: Samuel R. Delany, Race, Identity, and Difference. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2004. xiv + 344 pp. $70:00 hc; $24.95 pbk.

Since Samuel Delany is, by long odds, the finest and most sophisticated critic ever to emerge from the ranks of sf practitioners, it is appropriate that his own work has attracted more intelligent criticism than that of almost any other writer of science fiction. Yet not since 1984 (when Seth McEvoy’s Samuel R. Delany was published) have we had an entire single-authored book about Delany. The intervening two decades have witnessed not only a good deal of important new work by Delany himself but also many excellent critical essays and chapters about him—and, in addition, a number of pertinent developments in literary and cultural theory and, more specifically, in the understanding of science fiction, of gay writing, and of the African American tradition. A new full-length consideration of Delany’s career to date is thus overdue; and Jeffrey Tucker’s lengthy, well-researched A Sense of Wonder: Samuel R. Delany, Race, Identity, and Difference fulfills the need pretty well.

Tucker’s first chapter attempts, somewhat clumsily, to establish an intellectual framework for understanding Delany. Addressing recent work in cultural theory and especially the theory of race, Tucker begins by noting Delany’s affinity with the new philosophical universalism that has largely displaced the identity politics and “postmodern tribalism” (Ross Posnock’s phrase) that flourished during the Reagan years and immediately after. Whereas this older (and mainly white) postmodernism was concerned with particularity—to the extent, indeed, that, as Posnock has skillfully argued, its noisy occupation with “hybrids, cyborgs, mestiza consciousness, creolization, and the transnational” usually amounted to “just another turn of the essentialist screw” (qtd. in Tucker 12)—the new universalists like Paul Gilroy and Kwamé Anthony Appiah (and one might add the late Edward Said) have tended to stress political liberation and global democracy above questions of identity, authenticity, and “subject position.” They have especially emphasized the extent to which the discourse of race and racist discourse have historically been inseparable. I think that Delany’s allegiances are clearly to this universalism and that, indeed, he is among the most distinguished contributors to it. At some points Tucker seems to agree, and he shrewdly reminds us that black American intellectuals, at least from W.E.B. DuBois (and, I would add, Langston Hughes) onwards, have often been more cosmopolitan than their white counterparts. But Tucker also distances himself from thinkers like Appiah and Gilroy in order to emphasize what they do not, however, really deny: namely, that a provisional, multiplex, thoroughly politicized concept of identity (including racial identity) may yet have legitimate functions, in reading Delany and otherwise, and that ideas of race can sometimes be useful in antiracist praxis.

Tucker thus constructs Delany primarily as an African-American writer. But he is a good enough anti-essentialist not only to admit but to insist that “Delany’s race is a field that overlaps, intersects, and is contiguous with his other identities” (48). He is particularly sensitive to Delany’s identities as a gay male writer and as a writer of science fiction. On the latter point, indeed, Tucker echoes Gilroy and Delany himself in insisting that there is a special affinity between science fiction and African-American culture. A people so massively and cruelly oppressed by actually existing socio-political arrangements has a particular need for the images of alternative worlds that science fiction is uniquely equipped to supply. Accordingly, though sf was a practically all-white field when Delany entered it in the early 1960s, and though the academic Black Studies establishment has been shamefully slow to recognize Delany’s achievement, the current excitement generated by “Afro-futurism” and the race-conscious attention finally being paid not only to Delany but also to Octavia Butler, Steven Barnes, Nalo Hopkinson, and other black sf writers reflect the fulfillment of a promise long implicit. Delany remains the towering figure in this fulfillment. With regard to the nexus between race and science fiction, as with regard to much else, Delany has been ahead of everybody else all along.

Tucker’s approach to Delany’s work does not, however, confine itself to sf. After the first chapter (which, in addition to its general theoretical concerns, deals interestingly with early sf novels like Babel-17 [1966], Empire Star [1966], The Einstein Intersection [1967], and Nova [1968]), the remaining five are each devoted to a detailed reading of one important Delany text: Dhalgren (1975), the author’s longest, most popular, and perhaps most critically respected work of science fiction; the sword-and-sorcery Nevèrÿon sequence (1979-87), which operates somewhere on the borders of sf; The Motion of Light in Water (1988), Delany’s only formal autobiography among a number of autobiographical works; the novella Atlantis: Model 1924 (1995), a highly experimental work of historical realism; and The Mad Man (1994), a “pornotopic fantasy” in the author’s own designation. Clearly, Tucker has not attempted to provide a complete survey of Delany’s major works; if he had, one would expect chapters on Trouble on Triton (1976), on Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), and on Delany’s voluminous criticism (though Tucker pays much attention to the latter en passant). Instead, his design seems to be to cast the generic net as widely as possible and to show how race operates in five texts as different from one another as any in the Delany canon.

He succeeds well. There is no space here to engage Tucker’s readings at anything like the length they deserve. Suffice it to say that he thoroughly demonstrates how race provides one indispensable perspective for a good understanding of Delany’s writings. Thus, for instance, though Tucker is not the first to notice the extent to which Dhalgren is a novel of African-American urban life, he pursues this theme in greater and more illuminating detail than most previous readers have supplied. In his extensive reading of the Nevèrÿon series, Tucker uses contemporary accounts of and historical scholarship on chattel slavery in the American South in order to help demonstrate how this vast work, while by no means an allegory of American slavery, is deeply engaged with the “peculiar institution” in which the author’s ancestors lived; and Tucker also shows how the racial dimension of the series intersects with its economic, semiotic, and sexual concerns. Approaching The Motion of Light in Water, Tucker concedes that in many ways the theme of race seems overshadowed here by that of gay male sexuality; unlike the classic black American autobiography from Frederick Douglass onwards, Delany’s story does not deal primarily with its author’s struggles against white racism. But Tucker skillfully shows that the volume often dramatizes not only the crossing of racial with sexual identities but also the special complexities of Delany’s experience as a light-skinned black, so light that strangers (who play a major role in his sexual adventures) do not usually recognize him on sight as African-American. Tucker rightly takes Atlantis: Model 1924 as a brilliantly original inflection of the “migration narrative,” that is, a story rooted in the mass movement, during the early twentieth century, of African-Americans from the rural (or at least provincial) South to the metropolises of the North; and he convincingly shows that this novella provides perhaps Delany’s most complex meditation on the contradictions and ineluctability of racial identity. Finally, Tucker reads The Mad Man as a kind of race-conscious anti-AIDS activism, the race-consciousness appropriate because of the disproportionate toll that AIDS has taken on the black American community. He also draws some interesting connections between this text and not only the Nevèrÿon sequence (especially The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals in Flight from Nevèrÿon [1985]) but also some of Delany’s much earlier sf.

Of course, A Sense of Wonder is not flawless. A long book so crammed with detail is almost certain to contain a few factual errors, and in this volume there is at least one quite significant slip. In his discussion of The Mad Man, Tucker calls the protagonist John Marr “a self-described ‘snow queen’” (244), that is, a black man who is primarily or exclusively attracted to white men. But Marr (who has sex with more than half a dozen other black men during the course of the novel) is nothing of the sort; Tucker is probably thinking of Marr’s friend Pheldon. Since the operation of race within gay male culture is one of the central concerns of The Mad Man, this is not a trivial mistake to make about the novel’s main character.

Then too, one can note more general matters to which Tucker might have profitably devoted more attention than he does. For example, he greatly understates the importance of psychoanalysis for Delany, at one point suggesting that the Nevèrÿon books contain “nods” (144) to the thought of Jacques Lacan. Actually, Lacanian psychoanalysis is crucial to the series (as Delany himself has clearly indicated) and only somewhat less important, I believe, to other works in the Delany canon. Tucker devotes more attention to Delany’s Marxism, and nicely demonstrates some of the rigorous and elegant ways in which the Nevèrÿon series engages the Marxist analysis of society. Yet I think that Delany’s Marxism, so closely allied to his universalism, is also more important than Tucker seems to grasp; and it is only by giving due weight to this aspect of Delany’s intellectual personality that one can appreciate his role as one of the few recent African-American authors of major importance (Amiri Baraka is another) to restore the dimension of economic radicalism that was integral to the older African-American tradition of DuBois, Paul Robeson, and the younger Richard Wright. Yet another facet of Delany’s mind that Tucker tends to overlook is his involvement with the whole tradition of Romantic and post-Romantic lyricism; this line of English poetry and prose has been of intense interest to Delany since his teenage years, and without some attention to it one cannot fully account for the pyrotechnical brilliance of Delany’s own style—style itself, however, is a matter to which Tucker generally gives short shrift.

But no book can do everything, and to acknowledge Tucker’s shortcomings is not to belittle his efforts but simply to note some of the areas in which further Delany scholarship needs to be done. It is likely we will see a good deal of new work on Delany during the next several years, and for all of it A Sense of Wonder will be a valuable resource.

—Carl Freedman, Louisiana State University

Verne on Stage.

Jules Verne. Journey Through the Impossible. Trans. Edward Baxter. Ed. Jean-Michel Margot. Artwork Roger Leyonmark. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2003. 181pp. $21.00 hc.

I have been remiss in not mentioning earlier this excellent little book, the first English translation of an 1882 play by Jules Verne that shows him at his most whimsically science-fictional. It features on-stage journeys to the center of the Earth, beneath the seas to Atlantis, and through outer space to the planet Altor. The cast of characters in Journey recycles a host of recognizable Vernian heroes such as Professor Lidenbrock, Captain Nemo, Impey Barbicane and J.T. Maston, and Doctor Ox, among others. The main protagonist of the play is the son of Captain Hatteras who is seeking to “surpass what has been done by the heroes whose names are written in these books, to go beyond the frontiers they could not cross” (42)—i.e., to go beyond the extraordinary to the impossible. Concisely translated from the French by veteran Verne translator Edward Baxter, this delightful play is triply rare: very few of Verne’s theater works are available in English; Journey is the only one to incorporate bits and pieces from his most celebrated early sf novels; and the original French script of Journey had been lost for nearly a century when, in 1978, a hand-written copy was finally discovered in the French government archives.

Although he quickly became famous for the scientific novels of his Voyages Extraordinaires, theater was Verne’s true passion. He began his writing career as a playwright in the 1850s and several of his plays were performed at the Théâtre Historique, the Théâtre Lyrique, and the Bouffes-Parisiennes long before his historic 1862 encounter with publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel. And, not surprisingly, once he had become an internationally best-selling author, Verne again returned to the theater, teaming up with Adolphe d’Ennery to adapt a few of his novels to the stage. As explained in the introduction by Jean-Michel Margot, president of the North American Jules Verne Society (the organization sponsoring the publication of this book):

The success [of these plays] was striking.... Around the World in Eighty Days—a lavish production with Indians, Hindus, elephants, serpents, trains, and shipwrecks—ran for 415 successive performances from November 7, 1874 to December 20, 1875. Encouraged by this success, Verne reissued Children of Captain Grant in 1878 and Michel Strogoff in 1880. (14)

Verne penned Journey Through the Impossible next; it opened at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin on November 25, 1882 and then ran for 97 performances. Incidentally, contrary to what one might suppose, Verne became wealthy not from the royalties he earned from his published novels, but rather from his share of the gate of these very popular plays adapted from his novels—much like authors today who get rich by negotiating lucrative deals for the television and cinema rights to their books.

In addition to Margot’s expert introduction, Leyonmark’s fine illustrations (which recall in style the nineteenth-century woodcuts of Verne’s original editions), and twenty pages of notes on the text, this book also includes two press reviews of Journey Through the Impossible, one written by a Parisian reviewer that was published in French on November 25, 1882, and the other (anonymous) that appeared in English in The New York Times on December 19, 1882. The first characterized the play as “very lavish ... very beautiful and very elegant” but then went on—rather perplexingly—to complain that “it lacks imagination, novelty, and ingenuity” (148). The second reviewer described the play as “a salmagundi, pretty nearly headless and tailless, yet which must be acknowledged to be a triumph of stage carpentry, scene-painting, and costumery” (136). Both reviewers predicted that Journey would probably be very successful at the box office because of its visual appeal—in similar fashion to movie reviewers today who explain the success of many contemporary sf films as being mostly due to their eye-popping special effects.

The North American Jules Verne Society, in sponsoring the development and publication of this book, explained that its principal purpose was to make a substantial contribution to Verne scholarship. It has certainly done so. Highly recommended.—ABE

Posthuman Karma.

Ann Weinstone. Avatar Bodies: A Tantra for Posthumanism.Electronic Mediations Volume 10. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2004. xii + 222 pp. $49.95 hc; $17.95 pbk.

Ann Weinstone’s Avatar Bodies is a difficult book to situate or describe since it is a genre unto itself. The text combines philosophy, fiction, literary criticism, correspondence, and autobiography to construct Weinstone’s argument about how posthumanist theory should develop, and about the value of her method—her Tantra—for embracing a new posthumanist subjectivity. Perhaps it can most usefully be compared to N. Katherine Hayles’s Writing Machines (2002), a work that also performs its theorizing through a mixture of fictional and non-fictional discourses, and personal and theoretical accounts. Weinstone’s book, however, is ultimately more abstract than Hayles’s, and less directly connected to questions of literary forms and interpretation. Avatar Bodies is a book about how we might live posthumanism rather than one about how we might theorize it or understand textual representations of it. While the book is well versed in posthumanist theory, it does not seem to provide the sort of analysis that is useful for the study of science fiction.

The starting point for Avatar Bodies is Weinstone’s contention that contemporary posthumanist theory has focused too narrowly on questions of the other as animal, machine, or alien and not sufficiently on relations among humans. Weinstone argues that contemporary ethics have developed in response to the genocide of World War II, a historical moment that has produced in us a suspicion of totalizing logics that erase rather than respect difference. As a consequence of this fear, we have theorized human-human relations as “a locus of an unbridgeable ontological and epistemological gap” (4) in which respect for absolute alterity is a defence against violence. Weinstone believes that such a vision of ethics and alterity is inherently limiting and isolating, and she wants instead to develop a new kind of posthumanism, one that “will not be required to obey the injunction that ethics arise only from the respective maintenance of an irremediable gap between self and others” (7).

Avatar Bodies presents its theory of posthumanism through a combination of theoretical argument, fictional meditation, and spiritual instruction. The main theoretical framework comes from the combined perspectives of Derrida and Deleuze; both ultimately fail, Weinstone argues, by retaining too much emphasis on the isolated individual and thus unwittingly reintroducing some of the limitations of humanism. Weinstone’s posthumanism is a philosophy that necessarily provides a political critique of the humanist subject and the Western metaphysics that have taken this subject as their center. Thus, for her, posthumanism is a theory primarily about new ethical and social relationships among subjects. She fears that existing posthumanist concepts of ethics center solely on “the multiplication of individual capacities via technologies of the self” and thus fail “to become an ethics of responsibility” (13). Ultimately, her goal is to outline the relationship she perceives between the implications of posthumanist theory and the spiritual practices of Tantric Buddhism. Weinstone wants to retain what she sees as positive aspects of humanism (expansion of the capacities of the human) but to detach such capacities from “a logic of exemption and elitism” and rearticulate them in “a milieu that recognizes the ethicopolitical necessity of differentiation, of incoherency, of incompletion, of play, and of modes expressivity [sic] based, not on capitulation or accommodation, but on delight” (20).

Weinstone thus has three strands of theory that she wants to weave (her term, a tantric one) together in this work: posthumanist subjectivity, an ethics of responsibility, and Tantric spirituality. It is her insistence upon the necessity of this third strand that I find problematic in the book. While the religious perspective that Weinstone offers is what makes her work original and unique, I still found myself questioning the value of this aspect of her work, wondering what it really added to the discussion. The careful tracing through of arguments from a variety of philosophers—Derrida, Deleuze, Badiou, Levinas, and Agamben—did not seem sufficiently enhanced by the addition of the Tantric material.

Weinstone argues that Tantra shares the following characteristics with posthumanism: 1) acceptance of the material, phenomenal world as a real, not illusory, manifestation of consciousness and power; 2) a commitment to nonexclusivity of caste, class, and gender; 3) the belief that the human body is a valuable tool in seeking liberation; and 4) the insistence that enjoyment and liberation are not mutually exclusive. These four points provide the basis for her explication of both posthumanism and Tantra in the remainder of the book, but, given that she is able to find all of these characteristics within the philosophy without needing to turn to spirituality, I was left wondering why she diluted what was a strong, theoretical book with seemingly less noteworthy religious comparison. Part of the difficulty here seems to be whether one should understand Tantra as a figurative way of thinking through posthumanism and ethics or whether one should take her theory more literally as a religious practice. Weinstone seems to take the religious practice aspect of her work very seriously indeed, and perhaps the reason that I found the Tantra material largely irrelevant was because I found her argument about spiritual practice to be the least compelling part of her work.

Spiritually, Tantra is concerned with the blurring of the boundaries between self and other, body and world, such that while the two do not become one (and thus collapse difference) the demarcation between the two remains undecidable. This is the posthuman subject Weinstone argues for, the self as a “zone of relationality” (40). In Tantra, the categories of self and other are “rendered undecidable, are suspended, but not dismissed” (41) and this zone of undecidability is what she calls the avatar body. Weinstone then argues for an ethics of avatar bodies, an ethics about openness and the refusal to set the self apart from the other rather than an ethics rooted in alterity and respect for the irreducibility of the other as other. In the final analysis, the purpose of this book is to argue for the spiritual practice of this ethics as a way of being posthuman. Weinstone defines Tantra as “a written scripture, usually in dialogic form and comprised largely of instructions for practice” (153) and then connects it to a newer form of written communication. Avatar Bodies concludes with a long discussion of email as a posthuman communication and with instructions for a specific practice of email as a posthumanist Tantric devotion, an avatar ethics.

Weinstone points out that email has been under-theorized in the literature on computer-mediated communications despite the fact that it forms the bulk of most people’s electronic interactions. Her analysis of email concludes that it is a mode of interaction that expands the capacities of the human and also draws attention to the undecidability of boundaries between self and other. The evidence for this claim—the lynchpin in her analogy between avatar subjectivity and email exchange—is mainly that the possibility to forward text or otherwise recontextualize “speech” during email exchanges renders obsolete the idea that “I” wrote some parts of the exchange and “you” wrote others, thereby undermining the boundary between self and other. Thus, her spiritual practice of Tantric posthumanism is the daily, diaristic writing of email to strangers. She argues that this practice will contribute to an ethics of love and openness as every letter is a gift that “renders us vulnerable to misreading, to nonresponse, to the nonreciprocal,” producing avatar subjects through “the way your words and my flesh, your desires and my sense of self interleaf so that I am always in a suspended state of belonging/belonging to” (207). I have no doubt that Weinstone is sincere in her argument; she even provides her own email address to all readers of the book, and many of her chapters are reproductions of correspondence she has engaged in while working on this book and performing this Tantra.

I find Avatar Bodies at its least convincing at this point, however, because it falls into unhelpful religious abstraction that does little to illuminate the important philosophical questions the work began with. More importantly for the readers of this review, Avatar Bodies offers little for the study of science fiction. Weinstone’s discussions of posthumanism and ethics are cogent and compelling, although perhaps biased a bit more toward a purely theoretical and philosophical discussion of these issues (in short, heavy on the Deleuze and desiring machines but lighter on theorists such as Hayles, Haraway, and Bukatman, who develop their analyses via close and careful readings of fictional texts). In general, Avatar Bodies very smoothly discusses posthuman models of subjectivity and community—such as Maturana and Varela’s theory of autopoiesis—but offers almost nothing in the way of concrete examples in science fiction or other literature. She does briefly discuss the hive image in Neuromancer (1984) as an example of insect subjectivity, but Avatar Bodies has far more to say about the orchid and the wasp in A Thousand Plateaus (1981) than it does about cyberpunk.

The most extended discussion of science fiction in the book is a reading of Lem’s Solaris (1970). Weinstone sees the novel as a fantasy of the (humanist) transcendent male subject that shows the bankruptcy of this way of conceptualizing one’s subjectivity. She suggests that Rheya (as chaotic, fluid, female entity) exists in opposition to Kelvin’s humanist notions of the saving power of heterosexual love, and that her freedom comes from her willingness to hold herself open to multiplicity. This argument thus makes use of Lem’s novel for illustrating a point she wants to make about avatar bodies as subjects who are open to the other; the argument does little, however, to further an understanding of the novel and it ignores the essential heart of Lem’s text—that the alien is irreducibly other—a perspective that is precisely the opposite of the point Weinstone desires to make about alterity. This example is representative of Weinstone’s extremely limited use of science fiction within Avatar Bodies. This is not a work of literary criticism, and thus its concerns are not with engaging the texts in all their complexity, but rather with using them as a sort of decorative flourish for the theoretical argument.

It is perhaps unfair to criticize a book too harshly for failing to be something that it never set out to be, but there are problems with Avatar Bodies as a work of theory as well. Weinstone’s book is clearly very theoretically informed, but I found its style to be frustrating and confusing at times. Weinstone often provides a string of quotations from other sources without elaboration, useful for helping one see connections among a number of theorists, but less convincing as a technique for making an argument. The mixing of modes (theoretical analysis, correspondence, fiction) is consistent with Weinstone’s theoretical investments. She argues the book “is also a performance, a provocation, a conversation, and an indulgence that hopes to enact its most urgent assertions and provide, through taking pleasurable risks, a set of strategies for allowing pleasure to more explicitly enter into one of the scenes of relation that is most dear to it: the scene of academic writing” (41). At times, however, I found the pleasures Weinstone felt in the text and its spiritual practice to overwhelm the academic argument, leaving me confused rather than enlightened.

The book is also weak on the typical scholarly apparatus found in an academic work: documentation of sources, footnotes, and the like. Weinstone also sees this absence of structural framework as part of the book’s Tantric practice. She points out that the book itself tries to emulate the blurring of self and other, and the elimination of typical marginal text such as footnotes or references is intended to create “a sensation of immersion, a mild hypoxia that comes from breathing another’s exhalations without rest” and allowing “the words of others to intersect with [hers] without the requisite doses of qualifying interpretation” (168). Again, while this sentiment is consistent with Weinstone’s theoretical and ethical preoccupations, and one has to admire the attempt to merge theory and practice, the book would benefit from a bit more “qualifying interpretation” at times, particularly when making its case for the necessity of Tantra within posthumanist ethics.

Avatar Bodies is a thoughtful book, one that engages with important questions of ethics and subjectivity in the 21st century with rigor and theoretical depth. In the final analysis, however, the book does not compel me to accept its premise that a spiritual practice of Tantra adds anything to posthumanism. Ultimately, the book is far too religious and not sufficiently analytical, and is of quite limited use to sf scholars, given its minimal engagement with textual analysis.

—Sherryl Vint, St. Francis Xavier University

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