Science Fiction Studies

#96 = Volume 32, Part 2 = July 2005

Evolution by Intelligent Design.

Mike Ashley and Robert A.W. Lowndes. The Gernsback Days: A Study of the Evolution of Modern Science Fiction from 1911 to 1926. Holicong, PA: Wildside, 2004 . 499 pp. $29.95 pbk

For those who briefly scan the beginnings of reviews without reading them in their entireties, a few key points should immediately be conveyed about Mike Ashley and Robert A. W. Lowndes’s The Gernsback Days. This book is an invaluable compendium of information, absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in studying the early development of the science fiction genre. It is, and will likely remain, the definitive study of its subject. The facts that its primary author lacks an academic background, and that the book is being published by a print-on-demand company rather than a university press, constitute powerful indictments of academic science fiction scholarship and its sometimes questionable priorities.

This volume, however, should be more accurately described as two separate books—one indispensable, the other superfluous—that might have been creatively published in the dos-à-dos format of the old Ace doubles. One is Mike Ashley’s The Gernsback Days, a project which, as described in Ashley’s introduction, was originally completed in the early 1990s and endured long delays with two projected publishers before finally finding a home with Wildside Press. The other is Robert A. W. Lowndes’s Yesterday ‘s Worlds of Tomorrow, an informal survey of stories in the science fiction magazines from 1926 to 1936 which, during the 1980s, became attached to Ashley’s project. (Also included is a brief article by Charles D. Hornig, former editor of Gernsback ‘s Wonder Stories, so one could even argue that the book has three authors.)

Lowndes’s book is less important for two reasons. First, as Ashley himself acknowledges, the stories from the science fiction magazines that he selectively discusses were subsequently much more thoroughly and authoritatively dealt with in E.F. Bleiler and Richard Bleiler’s Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years (Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1998). Still, some readers might maintain that Lowndes’s approach, with its relative brevity and chronological, year-by-year format, provides a better overview of early pulp science fiction than the Bleilers’ format of grouping stories by authors, and Lowndes will also occasionally glance at the science fiction being published in other magazines of the era, like Weird Tales and Argosy, which the Bleilers exclude from their survey.

But there is a second problem: I simply do not trust Lowndes’s judgments as I did the Bleilers’. I am not confident that Lowndes is always choosing the best or most significant stories to discuss, and I do not always find the way in which he epitomizes each year’s trends in science fiction to be persuasive. Granted, my knowledge of the material is far less extensive than that of the Bleilers and Lowndes, since I have not examined every issue of every science fiction magazine they describe, but when they do discuss stories and issues with which I am familiar, I find myself usually agreeing with the Bleilers’ opinions but less frequently agreeing with Lowndes’s opinions. In particular, I fear that Lowndes is inclined to be overly generous in his evaluations, a disservice to readers who are looking for the era’s few genuine masterpieces and who need honest assessments of a story’s quality before they bother to seek it out. Consider his description of Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “Valley of Dreams” (1934), which Lowndes calls an “excellent continuation” (368) of Weinbaum’s earlier “A Martian Odyssey” (1934). The Bleilers more accurately conclude that the story is “Lacking the originality-interest of the first story” (482).

Ashley’s book commands more attention because it tells, in greater detail, the story previously presented in Ashley’s The History of the Science Fiction Magazines, Volume 1 (1974), decisively debunking the standard, simplified accounts of Hugo Gernsback’s career and instead providing a fuller, more nuanced, and exhaustively researched narrative. Gernsback’s involvement with science fiction began with his own novel Ralph 124C 41+, serialized in his practical science magazine Modern Electrics in 1911 and 1912; he then primarily relied upon stories from other writers to serve as regular features in Modern Electrics and his other science magazines. For the most part, these were inconsequential vignettes about eccentric inventors and their elaborately described inventions. Still, they were popular enough with readers to inspire Gernsback to consider publishing an all-science fiction magazine. He experimented with a special “Scientific Fiction” issue of his science magazine Science and Invention in 1923, hesitated for a while, and finally launched Amazing Stories in 1926.

Here, the story becomes more interesting: while Gernsback continued to prefer stories that emphasized scientific explanations and detailed descriptions of posited inventions, readers wanted to see more involving, action-packed fiction. Gradually, Gernsback altered his preferences to match readers’ demands, writing announcements, articles, and personal letters to writers that stressed the importance of vivid characters and colorful adventure in science fiction. After losing control of Amazing Stories due to bankruptcy in 1929, he was aided in his efforts to improve the literary quality of science fiction by the first managing editor of his new magazine Wonder Stories, David Lasser, who energetically worked to achieve better stories before political disagreements with Gernsback led to his unfortunate firing and replacement by a less talented editor, the adolescent Charles D. Hornig. Gernsback attempted to carry on as the Great Depression deepened, but increasingly intractable financial problems led him to sell Wonder Stories in 1936 to concentrate on other, more profitable enterprises. To support and enrich his story, Ashley includes extensive quotations not only from Gernsback’s magazines but also from hitherto undocumented promotional materials and personal correspondence. In addition to Hornig’s reminiscences, appendices to the volume include detailed listings of all science fiction stories and related articles published in Gernsback’s magazines and a helpful “Selective Bibliography” of secondary resources.

Drawing upon all available records, Ashley proves beyond doubt that, despite reports to the contrary, Gernsback in fact had an active interest in science fiction throughout the years of his greatest influence. He also confronts, in a balanced and well-documented manner, the major criticism directed at Gernsback: that he was stingy and negligent in paying authors. Ashley acknowledges that Gernsback freely spent money to enjoy the better things in life and that in the 1920s he invested too heavily in radio projects and the infant medium of television, inevitably leading to grave financial problems. While discussing all of the well-publicized complaints of certain writers, however, Ashley also shows that some of his writers, at least some of the time, were in fact paid promptly and paid reasonably well. The problem, Ashley concludes, is not that Gernsback was penurious or conniving by nature, but that he consistently mismanaged his own finances and was too stubborn to admit when he had made a mistake.

As one would expect in anything written by Ashley, the errors in The Gernsback Days are rare and inconsequential. An early reference to Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea gives its date of publication as 1873 (30), when in fact this is the date of this 1870 book’s first American translation (as the book itself later acknowledges). Ashley provides the standard, and slightly inaccurate, version of Brian W. Aldiss’s memorable comment in the 1961 “Introduction” to Penguin Science Fiction: “science fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts” (45). What Aldiss actually wrote: “Science fiction—the fact needs emphasizing—is no more written for scientists and technologists than ghost stories were written for ghosts.” To state simply that Gernsback “arranged the hardcover publication of his novel Ralph 124C 41+” (69) in 1925 is not entirely accurate since, as I have documented elsewhere, Gernsback in fact extensively revised and expanded the original 1911-1912 novel. And, inevitably, there are scattered problems of proofreading, none meriting any attention.

When future scholars return to this era, they will undoubtedly seek to re-interpret the birth and development of the science fiction genre—perhaps fruitfully, because as I have suggested elsewhere, Ashley may not be the best person to provide the big picture of the big subjects he tackles. But those critics will always have to rely upon Ashley’s data—indefatigably ferreted out and invariably presented with impeccable accuracy and clarity. Along with his four-volume history of the science fiction magazines (1974-1978), Ashley’s The Gernsback Days thus will forever constitute required reading for historians and scholars of science fiction, and the academic science fiction community should therefore consider itself very lucky to have had Mike Ashley around.

Gary Westfahl, University of California, Riverside

Measuring Sf.

Damien Broderick. x, y, z, t: dimensions of science fiction. Evans Studies in the Philosophy and Criticism of Literature # 20. Holicong, PA: Borgo/Wildside, 2004 <>. 264 pp. $17.95 pbk.

As a critic, Damien Broderick likes lonely grandstands. His appreciation of science fiction is at its sharpest when he has managed to find an unfrequented part of the arena where he can cheer like crazy as if everyone else is missing the real action. He is most exuberant when he has identified one overwhelming metaphor: postmodernism in Reading by Starlight (1995), the singularity in The Spike (2001), and the megatext all over the place. OK, sometimes he makes such an elaborate show of his appreciation that we end up watching the audience rather than the action, but at least it gives him something fresh and iconoclastic to say, and he hits the target often enough for these extravagant display rituals to be worth the entrance fee.

This new collection, however, feels as if he hasn’t wandered quite far enough from the familiar. There are too many knowing references to the singularity, and especially to the megatext, for it to be really fresh. We’ve heard these mighty cheers before, and though he is, as ever, extraordinarily enthusiastic about the work he likes and extraordinarily cutting about what he doesn’t, the effect is strangely muted. Broderick isn’t doing his job if he doesn’t grab our lapels and raise our hackles all at the same time, but here where, as the title suggests, he is engaged in a rather pedestrian measuring out of the spatial and temporal dimensions of science fiction, he does not outrage or excite anywhere near enough.

Part of the problem lies in the structure of the book. It is made up largely of reviews written for a variety of outlets ranging from The New York Review of Science Fiction to Melbourne’s newspaper The Age. The range of sources suggests that some of these reviews would have been long, others short, some would have been written for a knowledgeable audience and others for a general public who may have little or no interest in science fiction. But it is impossible to tell which is which because the reviews have largely been clamped together to form supposedly theme-driven “chapters” and, except curiously in the case of the last two essays in the book, there is no indication of sources. There is nothing overtly wrong with this technique, except that the coverage of the different “themes” tends to be dictated more by the books he has happened to review than the actual subject. Thus, while presumably exploring the “t” of science fiction (which dimension is which is never made entirely clear), he has a chapter on “dinosaurs,” the stars of the so-called Golden Age who have cast such a long shadow over the genre. But the chapter is unbalanced. His comments on Asimov and Heinlein cover weak and atypical works from the ends of their careers: Asimov “plodding ... through the gooey itinerary” of Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain (1987; 42), for instance, or Heinlein trying “for the post of Voltaire of the vulgar” in Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984; 59). These sorry late works make a suitable platform for Broderick to cry out, in the impassioned way that makes us stand and cheer him: “Isn’t science fiction the literature of change, of innovation, of shock and dislocation? How can it be that seminal ideas 30 or even 60 years old continued [sic] to propel books and their authors or surrogates to fame and wealth?” (43). Meanwhile, presumably due to the exigencies of reviewing, he features a far broader and more representative survey of Clarke’s career, lamenting his late sequelitis but also and justly applauding his “climb into the unspeakable mysteries of the heart of reason” (52), identified by Broderick as a feature of Clarke’s work from Childhood’s End (1953) to The Fountains of Paradise (1979).

In another chapter that supposedly examines the ways in which science fiction writers have dealt with matters of ontology, he begins with Ian Watson, moves on to Philip K. Dick, takes an unconvincing side trip into Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series (1971-1983), then returns to Watson. It is typical of Broderick to concentrate here on Watson, an unnervingly prolific writer who, perhaps for that reason, has not generally had the critical attention he deserves. When he describes Watson’s attack on Sufism—this is not my reading of Watson, but then, one does not expect Broderick to endorse one’s familiar perspectives—as “arabesqued from the outset with flaming darts of Chomskyan linguistics, high-energy physics, advanced molecular biology, the cosmology of black holes and Big Bang, all tied together in a nervy style replete with recondite puns” (70), it is as if Broderick is writing about himself. What Broderick does not say is that Watson, too, can be by turns exhilarating and wearying. By contrast Dick, object of more critical examination than just about anyone else in the genre, is passed over in less than a page, and Broderick does not devote that much more to Farmer, before returning breathlessly to Watson. “[T]o a far greater extent than Philip Dick was able to manage, Watson from the outset blended the undergrowth of the human imagination with a fastidious attention to complex intellectual nutrients,” Broderick admonishes us (74), before name-checking Barthes and Chekhov, Tsiolkovsky and Jane Austen in yet another encomium to the fecund bard. When one considers how little Watson, Dick, and Farmer have in common, in either subject matter or approach, and when one further considers how many significant science fiction writers who have dealt interestingly with issues of ontology are not even mentioned here, this chapter can be seen as a bundling together of disparate reviews rather than a serious examination of an interesting topic. But then, that isn’t the point. Ontology here is just a peg upon which to hang Broderick’s enthusiasm for Watson; Dick and Farmer have been tucked into the mix to justify the subject rather than to support it.

Some of these theme chapters are better than others. The two opening chapters, an autobiographical laying out of his wares and an account of his encounter with the “gaudy, erotic poetry” (32) of Samuel R. Delany, tend to set aside analysis for straightforward enthusiasm, and are all the better for it. But even Broderick can’t keep up the effort of finding the vague themes that can usefully link short pieces together, so in the second half of the book the supposedly thematic structure is abandoned and he simply presents a series of longer reviews. Some of these are interesting, if typically idiosyncratic: reviews of novels that have had, justified or not, little impact on the field such as Jamil Nasir’s Distance Haze (2000), or which are just plain bad, such as Robert Grossbach’s A Shortage of Engineers (2001), actually tell us very little about the state of science fiction, or indeed about anything much except Broderick’s individual and sometimes eccentric tastes and interests. I was, however, very taken with his perspective on John Clute’s Appleseed (2002), at least in part for the way he illuminates the novel by adopting Clute’s clotted and often otiose use of language: “Science aspires to the condition of deicide. Technology aspires to the condition of theogenesis. Science fiction aspires to the condition of theophany” (188). All nonsense, of course, but stirring stuff nonetheless. In fact, the two reviews that actually manage to tell us most about science fiction have a more historical perspective: Robert Silverberg’s Science Fiction 101 (originally published as Worlds of Wonder, 1988) and an omnibus of three space-travel novels by A.E. Van Vogt, Barry Malzberg, and Poul Anderson. It is as if these two reviews give him the space and the excuse to simply talk about science fiction rather than to expatiate upon its current state.

Going back to my running complaint about this book, that it is more the result of happenstance than intent, I turn for further evidence to the index. There you will find more references to Greg Egan than anybody else with the exception of Brian Aldiss. Egan is clearly a touchstone for Broderick’s view of science fiction, a key to measuring and perhaps even defining the “megatext.” Yet not one of the pieces gathered here actually examines any of Egan’s work, not even the essay on Australian science fiction that concludes the book. It is as if the intended heart of this work has been somehow forgotten along the way.

All of which can be taken as suggesting that this is a disappointing book, and certainly a flimsier work than one might have expected. Nevertheless, it does not necessarily follow that this is a bad or even a negligible collection. At his worst, Broderick is an irritating, self-indulgent, and self-referential writer; at his best he is enthusiastic, vivid, and acute. And there are many moments in this book when he is at his best. There is a superb chapter on boundaries, looking at those writers, from Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. Le Guin to M. John Harrison and John Crowley, who have trod the borderlands among science fiction, fantasy, and mainstream. His analysis, that “[t]raditional literatures tell us: this is how things are ... [sf] ... takes change in its stride ... [while] ... mass-market fantasy tales retreat instead to a neverland” (94), is precisely the sort of sweeping but vivid account we have come to expect from Broderick. He covers so much in this chapter—Sterling, Gibson, and Jack Womack rub shoulders with Victor Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke, and Greg Bear—that you long for him to slow down, give us a little more depth to go with the breadth, expand what he has to say. It is interesting, possibly important, but like so much else in this book he takes it at a rush so you are left breathless, wondering, impressed, but uncertain.

But of course Broderick wouldn’t be Broderick if he took it slowly. He raises the hares, although somebody else may take on the more pedantic labor of chasing them down. So when he’s on form he leaves you excited, eager to know more, refreshed by his invigorating take-no-prisoners rush at the genre. When, in no more than eight pages, he can take you from Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas (1985) to James Morrow to Martin Amis and Kingsley Amis, to Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and finally to Whitley Streiber, there are not many ways to react except with a gasp. Later you may pause to wonder if this really did amount to anything even remotely resembling a coherent idea, but at the time you’re along for the ride and there’s no point in doing anything but whooping it up and saying yes, this is the way to take science fiction, in one great, cluttered, mind-scrambling dash.

Paul Kincaid, Administrator of the Arthur C. Clarke Award

Allan Conrad Christensen, ed. The Subverting Vision of Bulwer Lytton: Bicentenary Reflections. Newark, DE: U of Delaware P, 2004. 258 pp. $49.50 hc.

The present volume contains seventeen papers, most of which were delivered at a conference at the University of London in July 2000. The central theme is a concept that the editor believes underlies Bulwer’s work, “a unifying coherence [that] ... emerges particularly in repeated patterns of antitheses or subversion” (9). This is not quite Hegelian, since the concept of synthesis is less prominent than that of replacement.

Papers examine Bulwer’s major works in terms of social context, with, in addition, two papers on Rosina, Bulwer’s estranged wife. Rosina, whose literary life was devoted to attacking Bulwer in fiction, is studied more in terms of women’s rights in Victorian England than in the usual approach of psychopathology.

Two articles touch on Bulwer’s fantastic fiction. “Writing and Unwriting in The Caxtons, ‘My Novel,’ and A Strange Story” by Christensen and “Bulwer Lytton and Imperial Gothic: Defending the Empire in The Coming Race” by Lillian Nayder. Christensen is concerned with the struggle between protagonist Fenwick’s rationalism and the non-rational world, in terms of a magnum opus that Fenwick is writing, and Nayder is mostly interested in the concept of colonialism and American “manifest destiny.” Nayder brings in a comparison with Dracula (1897) that is somewhat stretched.

Bulwer was the literary barometer of Victorian literature, though not a great writer, and the present volume presents much interesting material. But since only about a dozen pages are devoted to Bulwer’s fantastic fiction, the book is of limited value to readers of SFS.

Everett F. Bleiler, author of The Guide to Supernatural Fiction

An Attempt to Fill the Gap.

Sandra Grayson. Visions of the Third Millennium: Black Science Fiction Novelists Write the Future. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, Inc., 2003. POB 1892. x 132 pp. $21.95.

As an African-American who writes, reads, and critiques science-fiction and fantasy from Xena to Gabrielle, and from Harry Potter (1998) to Ghost in the Shell (1996), I am incredibly happy that Sandra Grayson has published Visions of the Third Millennium. I agree with Sheree Thomas’s call for more scholarship on African American science fiction in her 2000 anthology, Dark Matter. Despite some recent contributions in Extrapolation, Locus, and elsewhere, there is a lack of substantial criticism on blacks in science fiction and fantasy, particularly in book form. According to Ronald Dorris’s foreword, Sandra Grayson’s book might actually fill that gap by articulating “the importance of black science fiction authors ... to scholarship, to critiques of slavery, and to our lives today, tomorrow, and forever” (x). Unfortunately, Grayson’s text does not reach these goals. While Grayson shows how “writers of African descent ... use science fiction to analyze race and gender, myth and language” (1), she does not follow through fully in her logic. For instance, in her introduction she states she will “highlight biographical information” about her authors to “provide an overview of linkages between artists of African descent and science fiction” (5), but except for Nalo Hopkinson, she does not explain connections between the included the birth dates and educational backgrounds of her authors and their work. How exactly do Burton’s scholarship at the University of Southern California and Steven Barnes’s Hypnotherapist certificate from the Transformative Arts Institute relate to science fiction? Although she successfully shows how these writers re-imagine American slavery, Jim Crow law, and African myth, her analysis is stinted by her heavy focus on Butler and her failure to fully compare these neo-slave narratives, such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), to the slave narratives they derive from, such as Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861).

The entire book is unbalanced. Chapters Two through Five of Visions all discuss novels by Butler, including the Earthseed (1993 +), Patternist (1976-1984) and Xenogenesis (1987-1989) series, as well as the historical fantasy Kindred, leaving only three chapters of analysis on the other six writers: Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, LeVar Burton, Samuel Delany, Steven Barnes, and Charles Saunders. While Grayson successfully demonstrates how Butler incorporates historical events and terminology from the African Diaspora. including Kindred’s cookhouse community and Earthseed’s use of Mande principles, in the first half of the book, she allots little space to the remaining works. As a result, the depth of her analysis in Vision’s second half is restricted to heavy summary or very brief discussion. In Chapter Eight, “Envisioning Future, Contemplating Past: Journeys in Far Beyond the Stars and Firedance,” she spends seven pages discussing Steven Barnes’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel, Far Beyond the Stars (1998), but only four paragraphs discussing Firedance (1993). She nicely links Firedance to the DS9 novel and points out Firedance’s usage of African ideologies through the protagonist’s encounter with the Ibandi, “an invented people” who “symbolize a return to” Africa (100). The rest of this short discussion merely re-tells Knight’s Ibandi education, without relating that education to the larger African tradition.

I also wish Grayson’s analysis had been deeper. Although the topic of duality recurs in a majority of Butler’s novels, Grayson never fully discusses it or its relation to early slave narratives in the African Diaspora. Considering how nineteenth-century slave fiction used the mixed race/mulatto figure, such as Sappho Clark in Pauline Hopkins’s Contending Forces (1900), to appeal to multi-racial audiences, why do so many of the authors in Grayson’s twentieth-century texts use hybrids, including Butler’s alien half-breed Lilith in Xenogenesis and Due’s part-immortal, part-human character Jessica in My Soul to Keep (1997)? Might Grayson imply through these writers that the future will require the genetic or ideological mixing of multiple cultures to survive? Also, how does the topic of family in Butler and Due (Olamina’s dissolved relationship with her daughter, the immortal power Jessica shares with her daughter) relate to the fractured African family of the Middle Passage?

This failure to probe more deeply in her analysis continues in Chapter Five, “Past, Present, Future Intersections: An Exploration of Kindred,” where she focuses on Kindred, Butler’s historical fantasy novel about Dana, a modern-day African American woman transported to the antebellum South. Although Grayson includes a list of “African American historical novels and films about slavery” from “1853 to the present” (60), she does not thoroughly compare any of these texts to Kindred. Grayson briefly compares Dana’s cookhouse schoolhouse in Kindred to Harriet Jacobs’s own efforts to teach her fellow slaves as discussed in her 1861 autobiography. Considering how Grayson emphasizes Butler’s heavy research and use of slave narratives, it would have been nice if Visions had compared Kindred to an actual slave narrative more comprehensively. Did Butler recreate the rhetorical structure and experiences of Jacobs and other slave women in Kindred? Also, what is the difference between historical fantasy like Kindred and other neo-slave narratives such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1988), since they both speculatively re-imagine the slave experience?

Finally, Grayson does not thoroughly discuss the topic of gender until Chapter Six, “Black Women and Activism in Novels by Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, and LeVar Burton,” when she highlights how the “activism” of Due’s characters “signifies a vision of Black women uninterrupted by notions of women as passive and powerless” (73) and briefly mentions how Mami Gros-Jeanne’s healing powers in Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (1998) parallel those of Butler’s Anyanwu in Wild Seed (7 [1980] ). Unfortunately, she does not thoroughly compare Due’s, Hopkinson’s, Burton’s, and Saunders’s characters to Butler’s female protagonists. Is there a reason that all these writers use strong female characters of African descent? Does this reflect the role of the African-American woman in contemporary society? If so, Grayson does not fully explicate it.

If Grayson had selected a few novels rather than attempting to survey over fifteen texts in 115 pages or if she had expanded her discussion of the five writers to 300 pages, this would have been a more successful book. Perhaps she could have focused on Butler alone, since Butler takes up half the text already. Another rich area for exploration would have been how racial Othering can transform a fictive text into science fiction, something that Sheree Thompson briefly discusses in Dark Matters. Since Grayson focuses on the “metaphorical and literal journeys” of her writers’ characters “through Africa” (113), it would have been helpful if she referred to more African myths (actual ones, not imagined ones) and if she (or her editor) had caught proofreading mistakes such as “twenthieth century novels” (61) and “The Slave’s Narrative” (120). I would have also liked to see her acknowledge some of the 66 articles written on Butler from 1982 to 2001 and the 120 articles on Delany from 1970 to 2001 in the MLA database. Instead, she uses only three critical pieces on Delany and Butler, two of which were published in the 1980s. Although Grayson shows how these writers of African descent incorporate race into their narratives throughout the body of this book, she doesn’t show why they use race beyond her introduction. The four-paragraph conclusion of this 115-page book primarily focuses on the novels’ sub-theme of social change. The final two sentences of the final paragraph state that as long as the “color-line” continues “to plague North America, ... science fiction writers of African descent” (115) continue to write about it. But why is it so important to have African American writers rewriting racial events? Why can’t other writers like Kathryn Kurtz or Diane Duane tackle that task? As an African American in the science fiction and fantasy community, I know what that answer is for me, but what is it for Grayson?
Grayson has a strong teaching and publication background in African American cinema and literature, as represented by her 2000 book Symbolizing the Past: Reading Sankofa, Daughters of the Dust, and Eve's Bayou as Histories, and her 2003 article “Black Women and American Slavery: Forms of Resistance,” published in Sharpened Edge: Women of Color, Resistance, and Writing, but this strong background is not evident in Visions. Grayson is single-minded in showing how these writers incorporate the African Diaspora into their texts but she neglects to demonstrate how the writers relate to one another or to other African and African American writers. A discussion of rhetorical strategies would have been another welcome addition. I hope my discussion of the present volume’s weaknesses will inspire Grayson and other scholars to further and deeper scholarship.

—Anita Nicholson, Cornell University

Niche TV.

Sara Gwenllian-Jones and Roberta E. Pearson, eds. Cult Television. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2004. xx + 242 pp. $22.95 pbk.

In their introduction to Cult Television, editors Sara Gwenllian-Jones and Roberta E. Pearson note that “cult series usually—though not exclusively— belong to one or another of the fantastic genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, or speculative fiction” (xii). This is appropriate enough, given that defining “cult” seems almost as difficult as defining any of the categories of the fantastic. After acknowledging that “‘cult’ is often loosely applied” to television shows that meet one or more of a broad list of criteria—including being “considered offbeat or edgy,” drawing “a niche audience,” and “having nostalgic appeal” (ix), the editors offer a detailed discussion of the signal qualities of cult television, which they summarize as “[s]eriality, textual density, and, perhaps most especially, the nonlinearity of multiple time frames and settings that create [a] potentially large metatext” (xvii). This last quality is especially important with reference to what the editors and several of the book’s contributors seem to regard as the key characteristic of cult television: the degree to which it invites fan devotion in the form of both promotion (web pages and other word-of-mouth) and participation (conventions, fan fiction).

The editors caution, however, that meaningful discussion of cult television must consider “the full circuit of communication, that is, texts, production/distribution, and audiences, rather than ... an overvaluation of any one or two of these three factors” (x). Citing an essay by Jimmie Reeves, Mark Rodgers, and Michael Epstein, Gwenllian-Jones and Pearson note the importance to cult television of the rise of cable and VCRs, and the increasing willingness of television networks to be content with niche, rather than mass, audiences (xii-xiii). They also contrast the relative commercial failure of Twin Peaks (1990-1991), whose narrative was essentially dependent on a single murder mystery, with the unquestioned success of The X-Files (1993-2002), which offered fans both self-contained episodes and “an endlessly deferred resolution to the overarching puzzle,” while exploring “a variety of subcultures and subcultural discourses” (xv).

This broad scope of inquiry is reflected in the book’s twelve essays, which, although divided evenly (four apiece) under the general headings of “Cult,” “Fictions,” and “Fans,” offer a wide variety of perspectives even within their respective categories. In the “Cult” section, Philippe Le Guern’s “Toward a Constructivist Approach to Media Cults” (translated by Richard Crangle) considers, from a more intensely theoretical perspective, many of the same issues raised by the editors in their introduction, and concludes that the concept of “cult” may be impossible to pin down: “to a certain extent ‘cult’ is a social construct that constructs socially.... The question is therefore less one of knowing what ‘cult’ is ... than one of bringing to light the uses that are made of it” (19-20). Mark Jancovich and Nathan Hunt address issues of description and definition in “The Mainstream, Distinction, and Cult TV” by focusing on the degree to which “cult fandom ... draws on the terms and strategies of legitimate culture” (28) and shares with the formal aesthetics of “high” culture an opposition to “mainstream” aesthetics. Thus, “fandom and the academy have always been deeply interconnected as fans try to legitimate themselves in terms of the academy and new generations of academics establish themselves through the act of aesthetic transgression” (41). Petra Kuppers sounds a similar theme in her essay “Quality Science Fiction: Babylon 5’s Metatextual Universe,” noting the degree to which B5 invokes the standards of, and invites comparison to, “quality” literature, from the invocation of the originary genius of “core creator” J. Michael Straczynski to the presence of legendary writer Harlan Ellison as creative consultant to the episodes themselves, in which “reflective references to layeredness, writing process, and symbolism multiply and signal ‘privileged moments’ for the viewer to store away and reflect on later” (42). Issues of quality also inform co-editor Roberta E. Pearson’s essay “‘Bright Particular Star’: Patrick Stewart, Jean-Luc Picard, and Cult Television,” which argues that actor Patrick Stewart has avoided being solely defined by his role as Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), and has in fact enjoyed a successful post-Star Trek career in a variety of roles. This success, according to Pearson, was helped along by specific markers such as Stewart’s British accent, his well-known experience as a Shakespearean actor, and his unconventional sex appeal—at least two of which are arguably appeals to “quality.”

The first essay in the “Fictions” section, co-editor Gwenllian-Jones’s “Virtual Reality and Cult Television,” discusses how cult television shows create deeply immersive environments, “vast and/or dense with detail” and “augmented by officially produced secondary texts” such as novelizations and comics and “fan-produced tertiary texts” such as fan fiction (87). The author then suggests that such shows can be categorized in four “broad narrative formats”: “travelogue” (in which the protagonists are constantly moving from one landscape to another; e.g., Xena: Warrior Princess [1995-2001]), “nodal” (in which the action is largely confined to a single location; e.g., Babylon 5 [1993-1998]), “portal,” in which the characters travel from a fixed point but return to it (e.g., Buffy the Vampire Slayer [1997-2001]), and “combination” (e.g., the original Star Trek [1966-1971], which combined travelogue and nodal, or The X-Files, which combined travelogue and portal). David A. Black’s “Charactor; or, the Strange Case of Uma Peel,” like Pearson’s essay on Patrick Stewart, considers the extraordinary degree to which television conflates characters with the actors who portray them, focusing on Avengers (1961-1991) fans’ near-unanimous hostility toward Uma Thurman’s portrayal of Emma Peel in the film based on the television series (1998). Karen Blackstein’s “Flexing Those Anthropological Muscles: X-Files, Cult TV, and the Representation of Race and Ethnicity” and Mary Hammond’s “Monsters and Metaphors: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Old World” are the only two essays in the book to offer close readings of specific shows, with Blackstein providing a detailed analysis of the successes and failures—more of the latter than the former, the author argues—of The X-Files’ attempts to dramatize issues of race, ethnicity, and otherness, and Hammond making an equally detailed argument that Buffy chronicles a process of maturation from “a local, endangered, but disengaged American adolescence” to “a globally aware and morally forearmed but distinctly liberal young adulthood” (148).

The essays in the final section on “Fans” offer perhaps the greatest variety of perspectives in the book. Alan McGee’s “How to Tell the Difference between Production and Consumption: A Case Study in Dr. Who Fandom” rejects the binary model stated in its title and, citing “the tendencies within fandom to professionalism that stretch all the way up to the production of the broadcast television programs themselves” (172), argues that “the distinction between the cultural production of fans and that of television producers is not nearly so distinct” as we might think (171). While McGee insists that fans are more “producers” than they are given credit for, Toby Miller, in “Trainspotting The Avengers,” rejects the idea of fan activity being in any way equal to the creative and corporate control of the actual “producers” of the show and argues further than the fans’ devotion “replicates the very forms of quality discourse that were supposedly toppled by anti-canonical cultural studies” (195). Jeffrey Sconce takes the issue of audience several steps further as he describes, in “Star Trek, Heaven’s Gate, and Textual Transcendence,” how the Heaven’s Gate cult, thirty-nine of whose members committed mass suicide in 1997, drew inspiration from Star Trek, and the degree to which this tragic event is (or is not) a comment on the dangers of fan obsession. The book concludes with Eva Vieth’s “A Kind of German Star Trek: Raumpatrouille Orion and the Life of a Cult TV Series,” an overview of a German show that debuted at the same time as Star Trek, ran for only seven episodes (1966), but nonetheless managed to spawn a cult following, although one that at present is rapidly aging and not showing signs of recruiting a “next generation.”

Any collection that is more concerned with variety than consistency runs the risk of satisfying nobody, and I cannot imagine the reader who would be equally satisfied with all of the essays in Cult Television. The editors’ introduction certainly contains many arguable points, such as their dismissal of non-fantastic television from cult status, in part because of the questionable assertion that only the television of the fantastic affords the opportunity for “nonlinear narratives ... encompassing multiple time frames” (xii). This may be a difference in definition; while I would cite The West Wing (1999-present) as a television show that employs multiple time frames, the editors insist on the fundamentally “linear structure” of that show and other “realist” television shows. Nonetheless, it would have been interesting to have included, if only for the sake of contrast, an essay on a realist television show. (A Google search on the terms “CSI,” “fan,” and “fiction” produces about 168,000 hits, by the way.) There is also the ongoing argument as to which shows merit discussion and which do not. I trust it’s not American provincialism that leads me to question including two essays on The Avengers and none on Twin Peaks, and not nostalgia alone that makes me wonder at the lack of even a mention of Dark Shadows (1966-1971).

Although the book lacks an index, counting numbers of pages and references would probably lead to the conclusion that, for all the variety of opinion and perspective, there is at least one consensus among these dozen essays: when it comes to cult television, there is Star Trek in its various incarnations, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and maybe The Avengers, and then there’s everything else. No coincidence, perhaps, that the essays on Star Trek, X-Files, and Buffy were, to my mind, the most engaging and convincing in the book, although I also greatly appreciated Toby Miller’s admirably cranky Avengers essay and found Eva Vieth’s essay on the German TV show Raumpatrouille Orion immensely interesting. Others will undoubtedly find greater value in different selections. All in all, Cult Television is a very useful book that is taking a serious topic—how television shows work as both art and commerce—very seriously indeed. Since the book was completed, a whole new round of “cult” tv shows have appeared in the US alone: Firefly (2002), Deadwood (2004-present), and Lost (2004-present) being the most prominent examples. I hope there will be more books like Cult Television, because there is certainly much more to discuss.

—F. Brett Cox, Norwich University

Varieties of the Weird Tale.

S.T. Joshi. The Evolution of the Weird Tale. New York: Hippocampus Press, 2004. 216pp. $15.00 pbk.

Although best-known as critic and biographer of H.P. Lovecraft—cf. H.P. Lovecraft: A Life (1996)—S.T. Joshi’s engagement with the horror genre has been extensive and profound. In addition to founding and editing Lovecraft Studies (1986-present) and Studies in Weird Fiction (1986-present), two of the premier small-press journals for the study of horror fiction, Joshi has been active as a practical critic of the genre, reviewing current horror novels and assaying the efforts of horror writers present and past. Perhaps Joshi’s most significant achievement to that end has been a pair of overviews of the horror field: The Weird Tale (1990), which considers the development of horror through the work of a half-dozen late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century foundational writers; and The Modern Weird Tale ( 2001), which carries the concerns of the earlier volume into a consideration of the horror narrative from roughly the mid-point of the twentieth century through to its last decade. To these we might add his volume, Ramsey Campbell and Modern Horror Fiction ( 2001), which expands Joshi’s ideas—first put forth in The Modern Weird Tale—about the man he considers the greatest living horror writer.

Joshi’s new book, The Evolution of the Weird Tale, is an adjunct to these three volumes. The book collects essays on eighteen different writers originally written for a variety of reasons—book reviews, introductions to story collections, critical assessments—which have been revised for their publication together. The volume is divided into four sections: “Some Americans of the Golden Age;” “Some Englishmen of the Golden Age;” “H.P. Lovecraft and His Influence;” and “Contemporaries.” The first two sections treat four writers each, as does the third section; the fourth section addresses six writers. The contents cover roughly a one-hundred-year span, from the final decades of the nineteenth century to the closing decade of the twentieth. The book is organized according to a rough historical division: as Joshi acknowledges, he accepts Philip Van Doren Stern’s designation of the years from 1880-1940 as the Golden Age of horror fiction. What has come since that sixty year span Joshi considers a Silver Age, a period marked by an overall decline in the genre’s quality.

In the book’s introduction, Joshi identifies his debt to Lovecraft’s landmark study, Supernatural Horror in Literature (1939), and attributes part of his inspiration in writing this volume to a desire to expand discussion of some of the writers Lovecraft was unable to treat at length. Hastening to add that he is not concerned with those writers’ influence on Lovecraft, Joshi identifies his purpose: it is part of a process of canon formation. His intent is to read thoroughly the works of individual writers in order to arrive at an understanding of their oeuvres, and then to judge those oeuvres in relation to the larger body of horror fiction. Joshi makes no secret of the evaluative intent of his work, though he acknowledges that there is room for disagreement with his assessments; indeed, he points out that such disagreement may help to engender further discussion.

The opening section, “Some Americans of the Golden Age,” features short essays on W.C. Morrow, Robert Chambers, F. Marion Crawford, and Edward Lucas White. Overall, this is the weakest section of the book, which is unfortunate, given that it is the first: the essays tend too much toward the summary and the tentative. The second section, “Some Englishmen of the Golden Age,” features somewhat more substantial essays on Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Rudyard Kipling, E.F. Benson, and L.P. Hartley. If the essays in this section tend toward brevity, that is compensated for by the incisiveness of their observations.

With the book’s third section, “H.P. Lovecaft and His Influence,” Joshi at last hits his stride, and the book picks up markedly. The section begins with the book’s longest essay, “H.P. Lovecraft: The Fiction of Materialism,” which offers a concise statement of Joshi’s views on Lovecraft. It is no exaggeration to say that Lovecraft stands at the center of Joshi’s conception of the horror story, both as theorist and practitioner. After Lovecraft, Joshi proceeds to examine the relationship between Lovecraft and three of the writers most closely associated with him: Frank Belknap Long, Robert Bloch, and Fritz Leiber. Joshi’s discussion of Bloch and Lovecraft is one of the book’s high points; it is far-ranging, subtle, and specific.

The book’s fourth section addresses Rod Serling, L.P. Davies, Les Daniels, Dennis Etchison, David J. Schow, and Poppy Z. Brite. These essays bring the book to a strong finish: one feels a real sense of engagement in this section, no doubt because the writers Joshi considers are either still living or, in the case of Serling, of continuing influence.

In many ways, The Evolution of the Weird Tale offers a good introduction to Joshi’s critical concerns, and to the strengths and weaknesses of his particular critical approach. On the one hand, the broad sweep of the volume gives us a sense of the sheer number of writers who have tried their hands at the horror story and the different approaches they have employed; the result of this is to encourage our appreciation of horror as a varied, dynamic genre with a long history and an intriguing present. Joshi’s typical approach to individual writers—reading as much of their work as possible in order to understand the writer’s preoccupations; relating that body of work to the larger body of horror literature—is a traditional one; at its best, it conveys to the reader a strong sense of a given writer. When his summary of a writer’s works is combined with perceptive observations, Joshi’s approach encourages one to seek out that writer and (re)read him or her; the essays on Kipling, Benson, Hartley, Bloch, Daniels, and Schow are particularly strong examples of this. In the process of considering specific writers, Joshi also provides fine discussion of individual stories and novels: his treatments of several of Hartley’s ghost stories, Bloch’s later Lovecraftian fiction, Serling’s short stories, Daniels’s vampire novels, and Schow’s The Shaft (1990) all provide fine examples of his critical abilities.

In addition, the essay on Lovecraft provides a solid introduction to Joshi’s understanding of the writer. Taken as a whole, his essays on Lovecraft and those writers he immediately influenced give a real sense of a community of writers engaged in a common project; indeed, his discussion of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Bloch’s relationship sets the standard for any future considerations of this topic. Lovecraft and his circle would make a fine subject for a much longer study, one I hope Joshi will consider writing.

On the other hand, Joshi does tend to skimp on analysis more than one would like. As we have seen, he is eminently capable of fine and perceptive readings, but he tends to lapse into assertion at the expense of argument more than he should. This is not a lapse, I think, that can be excused by an appeal to the book’s evaluative intent; indeed, given such an intent, the necessity for careful analysis is all the more pressing. A number of essays in this book began as introductions to collections of stories by the individual writers, and though Joshi’s introduction to this volume states that he has revised them for this collection, the essays on Morrow, Chambers, White, and Quiller-Couch, in particular, still have too much of the feel of introductions: too many of the specific qualities that make each writer worth our time are passed over.

If there is an overarching criticism one might make about The Evolution of the Weird Tale, it is that, when all is said and done, the book says comparatively little about how the horror story has developed. It sounds strange to say of a critic as forceful and opinionated as Joshi, but a number of the essays are too tentative—especially when it comes to estimating the influence of the writers he considers—and there is a certain hesitancy about the book as a whole: a central argument about the development of the horror story never comes into clear focus. Although a number of interesting possibilities are suggested along the way, the book does not sufficiently fulfill the promise of its title and bring us closer to understanding how the horror story has changed over the last century or so. It would have been more accurate to call this book Varieties of the Weird Tale.

Taken in that way, as an exploration of the various iterations of the horror story we have seen over the last hundred-plus years, Joshi’s book is one of the more stimulating volumes to have appeared in recent memory. The ambition of its range is admirable. Joshi deserves credit for daring to raise his gaze to try to take in the wider scope of horror fiction. Even the least successful of the essays in the volume stir interest in the writers they address, while the most successful may well spur revivals of the writers they describe. This volume may do for other critics what Joshi credits Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature as having done for him: namely, inspire them to investigate the writers it considers at still greater length and depth. If it does so, then its effect will be considerable.

—John Langan, CUNY Graduate Center

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