Science Fiction Studies

#97 = Volume 32, Part 3 = November 2005

The Post/Human Alien.

Neil Badmington. Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within. New York: Routledge, 2004. ix + 203 pp. $105. hc; $34.95 pbk.

Neil Badmington is editor of the very useful Posthumanism anthology (Palgrave 2000), a collection of essays and articles by a range of influential theorists, including Roland Barthes, Frantz Fanon, Louis Althusser, Jean Baudrillard, and Donna Haraway. His present study owes a lot to the theoretical and cultural contexts of the earlier collection which so amply demonstrated the range of stimulating thought that has grown up around this particular post. And, as Badmington’s current focus on aliens suggests, this is a post that is certainly of interest to students of science fiction. Compared to the overall excellence of Posthumanism, Alien Chic lacks a certain depth and complexity—perhaps because of its focus on what is, arguably, a pretty kitschy corner of popular culture—but it is nevertheless worthwhile reading in its own right. (Other studies of posthumanism with particular relevance to science fiction include Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston’s edited collection, Posthuman Bodies [Indiana UP, 1995; reviewed in SFS 23.2]; N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman: Viritual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics [Chicago UP, 1999; reviewed in SFS 26.2]; Elaine L. Graham’s Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture [Manchester UP, 2002; reviewed in SFS 31.1]; and Chris Hables Gray’s Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman Age [Routledge, 2002; reviewed in SFS 31.3].)

As its title suggests, Alien Chic ranges over a plethora of contemporary representations of the figure of the alien as a way to map developments in what might be called the posthumanism of popular culture (Badmington’s source material includes films, pop-culture artifacts such as alien bongs, and alien-abduction narratives). Why aliens? Because, as Badmington points out, they are everywhere in Anglo-American pop culture, and because they have things to tell us about how we see ourselves and about how we construct our others—our not-selves”—here at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Badmington introduces his study by remarking on the transformation of the alien since the 1950s, and he theorizes this transformation—which turns out to be, after all, only partial and always in process—in terms of late-twentieth-century crises in humanist thought. In his construction, this is not simply a cultural shift from humanism to posthumanism, but a complex dialectical movement that takes place within the terms through which the alien was originally introduced: human/inhuman, us/them, real/fake. Not for nothing does Badmington refer his readers at the outset to director Don Siegal’s cinematic exercise in alien paranoia, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

Badmington’s theoretical consideration—which he develops and then proceeds to problematize—is that this changing evaluation of the alien is the result of what Derrida has referred to as a Crisis of versus. The breakdown between all things human and all things alien, in other words, might be associated with current pressures on humanism and current responses from the directions of posthumanism. Finally, however, Badmington finds in this apparent breakdown sufficient evidence of earlier binarisms such that any simple movement from humanism to posthumanism is too inadequate an explanation. He concludes by finding traces of its own deconstruction even in the most confident humanism, arguing convincingly that Humanism is always becoming posthumanism” (12).

Some readers will be relieved—and others may be disappointed—that Badmington’s survey of all things alien does not include any discussions of Star Trek (1966-2005), The X-Files (1993-2002), or the Alien films (1979, 1986, 1992, 1997), all of which have already attracted substantial academic consideration (see my review of Gallardo and Smith’s Alien Woman elsewhere in this section). Instead, he opens with a consideration of the changing nature of the alien in Mars/invasion films, taking readers from Orson Welles’s 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds to the very different treatment of Mars and aliens in recent films such as Tim Burton’s manically comic Mars Attacks! (1996). His second chapter opens with a clearly articulated overview of relevant theoretical challenges to the philosophical traditions of Western humanism by figures such as Barthes, Althusser, Derrida, and Foucault, and then moves on to a consideration of films such as Independence Day (1996) and Starship Troopers (1997), exemplary of the ongoing hostility to the alien that not even Steven Spielberg’s E.T: The Extraterrestrial (1982) was able to overcome.

Badmington’s third chapter offers a detailed study of alien-abduction narratives, one of the more disturbing expressions of our contemporary love/hate relationship with the alien. Following this, he combines attention to a range of alien artifacts with a more developed theorization of posthumanism, emphasizing the contributions especially of Lyotard and Derrida to theoretical constructions that avoid oversimplifying the complex interactions of post and humanism. To hate the Other or to love the Other: both positions are grounded in the binary oppositions of conventional humanism. At the same time, difference and otherness inhabit the very discourses of humanism, as is suggested by the revisionary reading that Badmington offers of Seigal’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the concluding pages of Alien Chic. For Badmington, humanism itself is always already invaded by the trace of the inhuman (157).VH

Comic Relief.

Tim DeForest. Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics, and Radio: How Technology Changed Popular Fiction in America. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004. vi + 229 pp. $39.00 pbk.

Tim DeForest’s informal history of pulp fiction, comic books, and radio programs is a delightful expedition through the kitschy annals of Americana and a work of dilettante scholarship that’s refreshing in spite of itself. DeForest’s style, like the material he’s evaluating, is something academics and highbrow intellectuals are trained to look down on with contempt, but DeForest wields his hyperbole with panache. Consider, for example, his over-the-top assessment of Rick Marschall’s book on comic-strip artists: anyone who hasn’t read it, he says, “should be taken outside and shot” (2). When was the last time you encountered that much critical bravado in a literary study? DeForest’s unabashed opinions echo from every page, and his charm as a curmudgeon balances out his tired old argument about how television has ruined radio and comic books. In any case, the reader gets the clear idea that in place of a compelling thesis, he’s proud to have substituted nostalgia for a bygone era which, it may be worth mentioning, was long gone by the time he was born in 1960.

Not that DeForest is intentionally thumbing his nose at academics. It’s rather that he’s adopted the ballsy pizzazz of the pulps and comic books and radio shows themselves and coupled that with his own enthusiasm for melodrama to invigorate what could have been just another dull academic book on a marginal genre. DeForest organizes his information in the same way that a comic-book artist arranges his panels—more to keep the narrative flowing than to marshal evidence for an argument. Between quasi-academic-sounding chapters with obligatory colon-ized titles such as “Weird Tales: Things that Bump You in the Night” and “Shadows, Spiders, and Flying Aces: The Single-Character Pulps,” DeForest inserts a record of his own reveries on the genre, giving those chapters titles that sound as if they were lifted straight from the script for an episode of The Shadow: “Unpleasant Interlude,” for example, or “Assigning Blame. “Unpleasant Interlude” addresses the ubiquitous racism in the pulps with good-natured equivocation: “it’s fair to remember that racist attitudes were reflections of the times,” he writes, “and I think it’s okay to still read and enjoy [Edgar Rice] Burroughs or [Philip] Nowlan” (90). One senses that DeForest feels a certain measure of guilt for liking such chauvinist stuff, but, like an embarrassed postmodern defending a taste for Heidegger, he’s unwilling to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The sexist misogyny of Weird Menace and Weird Tales (pulps that routinely featured graphic descriptions of raped and tortured women), however, is apparently less forgivable: “when someone starts treating women as pieces of meat that must suffer to give men pleasure, even in strictly a fictional context, then a moral line in the sand has definitely been crossed” (91). To find one sin less offensive than the other is an odd dodge, but de gustibus non est disputandum.

Like a golden-age comic book, DeForest doesn’t get bogged down in such intellectual mud. He’s merely telling a story about storytelling. He blithely argues, for example, that the literary progression leading to the pulps went something like this: storytelling started 6,000 years ago in Egypt with “Tales of the Magicians.” In 1719 we get Robinson Crusoe, in the nineteenth century we get The Leatherstocking Tales (1823-1827), and in 1883 comes Treasure Island. Of course this isn’t an entirely tidy progression, because the dime novels that paved the way for the pulps were first published in the 1860s, but no matter. The reader will be mystified enough by DeForest’s choice of benchmarks: why these particular literary works? Meanwhile, archaeologists and literary scholars will be quite surprised to learn that DeForest has discovered a work of literature one thousand years older than The Epic of Gilgamesh. One gets the sense that DeForest may have relied more on his collection of Classics Illustrated for his literary history than on his Norton Anthology. Again, these are the sorts of details that may annoy academicians, but they have a compelling sort of entertainment value: I must confess that I couldn’t stop turning pages to see what zinger I would encounter next.

Meanwhile, the book is an astounding compendium of the essential works in the canon of an often-dismissed literature, even if it owes more to Carl Barks for its method than to Edmund Wilson. DeForest clearly loves his material and provides vivid encapsulations of various tales, and he does a stellar job of capturing the vivid energy exuded by the old pulps and radio shows. While his assertion that reading pulps or listening to the radio required more imagination than is required by today’s movies or television may contain a mustard seed of truth, it seems obvious that what everyone was really after were the images: the pulps, for example, are more memorable for their covers than their content, and even kids who have never heard a single broadcast episode of The Shadow recognize the noir graphics of the magazine ads and posters that advertised the show. Both the rise of the comic book and the popularity of film versions of pulp heroes like Tarzan and Doc Savage seem to prove that such imagistic presentation of the narrative was the goal all along—if anything, the printed word held the imagination back.

For many people, the pulp and radio characters (Tarzan, for example) really only came to life with their appearances on celluloid. Who even remembers that Dragnet and Gunsmoke, for example, were long-running radio programs before television got hold of them?

DeForest is impressive when he catalogues the material and provides snappy summaries of his favorite episodes, but he comes off as merely a crank when he tries to persuade the reader that television is fundamentally evil because it replaced radio and stunted the development of the comic book. “Inherently lazy media” is his dismissive epithet for television and the movies, and his assessment of the visual experience seems embarrassingly naïve: “Television [and movies] provide us with everything,” he writes. “Each of us sees exactly the same thing, and there’s no requirement to think or feel” (202). Apparently DeForest hasn’t seen Zapruder’s JFK film, or Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), or the video of the Rodney King beating, nor perused the overwhelming body of scholarship on any one of those films that suggests that in fact we bring just as much to the hermeneutic table when we sit down to watch TV as we do when we flip open a book. DeForest writes that “the tendency of people zoning out while watching tv” is “well-documented,” but so what? People used to level the same charges against medieval monks “zoning out” over their illuminated manuscripts. I see just as many zombies hunched over books in the library as I do hanging out in the student lounge watching tv. In fact, reading a book might be more dangerously prone to producing a “zoned-out” teenager, because it’s inherently anti-social: at least you can watch a movie or tv in the shared company of others.

If you can overlook the author’s peevish and Luddite contempt for modernity and its movies and media, you’re in for an otherwise captivating survey of a literature that most scholars look down on with official disdain. DeForest’s histrionic language and hipshot social commentary will amuse you as much as the subject matter he treats, but his reactionary performance as a historian belongs more to the 1950s than to the twenty-first century.

—Aaron Parrett, University of Great Falls

Tips for Lost Students.

Arthur Conan Doyle. The Lost World. 1912. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004. xv + 215 pp. $5.95 pbk.

Four men find dinosaurs. Men bond. Men find primitive” men who are not very different from civilized” men. Men take dinosaur back to England. Men shake up staid scientific community and become heroes. Yawn. Who cares about a bunch of dumb, dead dinosaurs?” a typical community-college student might ask. As they explore The Lost World out of historical context, these English Composition 101 students may also protest the hideous political incorrectness of the work—its racism, sexism, and imperialism.

And in his brief introduction, Allen Grove, who is an associate professor of English at Alfred University, succinctly details these topics as well as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s political views—which were grounded in a commitment to justice and to country. Grove also touches upon works inspired by Conan Doyle such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Land That Time Forgot (1924).

Even taken in context, unfortunately, the action-adventure of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World seems, by now, somewhat trite and this is made worse by generic descriptions of the setting. The later chapters, 6 through 16—that is, the majority of the work—deal primarily with the adventures of Professor George E. Challenger, journalist Ned Malone, and company in an untouched part of South America. The descriptive elements, however, do not stack up to, say, the logs of journalist Sir Henry Morton Stanley (Through the Dark Continent, 1878; In Darkest Africa, 1890). Comparisons between The Lost World and Stanley’s works, however, would make meaningful lesson plans. Each work, for instance, includes an act of betrayal by Native People, those who carried Stanley’s supplies and those who carried Challenger’s.

But all is not lost, as The Lost World has much undiscovered fare as far as lesson plans are concerned. In this novel getting there is all the fun; more alluring than the sf adventure is the adventure of thinking, the skillful way in which Conan Doyle blurs the boundary between science fiction and science fact. He teaches readers the art of argumentation, a lost world among students today—that is, the lost art of patiently piecing together evidence. Through a Socratic give-and-take with Malone, Challenger shows how to think critically (the lost world of lifelong learning skills). Note the subtle opening of reasonable doubt that Challenger elicits (as Conan Doyle begins his boundary-blurring magic, to make science fiction science fact ):”You are aware—or probably, in this half-educated age, you are not aware—that the country round some parts of the Amazon is still only partially explored, and that a great number of tributaries, some of them entirely unchartered, run into the main river” (27). With one word—“partially”—and then another—unchartered”—we begin our journey into the possible. And for nine pages thereafter, Challenger plays Sherlock Holmes, exploring every angle, proving and disproving theories, until Malone must conclude that there is, in fact, a genuine lost world with at least one living dinosaur.

Noticing elements of humor would also reinvigorate our reading of the work. Comedy today is informed by overly raw language and situations (one observer’s opinion), mostly casting wit aside. Enter the first five chapters of The Lost World, an (occasional) triumph of brain over brawn.

Professor Challenger, our lead hero, can easily match the sarcasm and deliberation of John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole—but can also surprise us with his Rumpole-like kindness, such as when Challenger accepted wholeheartedly his wife’s chastisements and smothered her with a kiss, shortly after he ”punished” her by placing her atop a seven-foot-high pedestal (”She who must be obeyed,” as Rumpole would say). Here marks an opportunity to compare gender roles in humor—in context, then and now.

How does Conan Doyle satirize race and culture? The white British Professor Challenger is a delightfully irascible character, certainly matching the invectives of a Basil Fawlty, insulting journalists, academicians, and anyone whom he judges in the least bit self-righteous (guilty by association). But he also makes hideously sweeping generalizations about whole classes of people based on nothing more than a need to vent. Challenger hurls Fawlty-styled insults at Malone, who doubles as narrator, after Challenger exposes the unethical Malone, who lies in order to interview the professor: ‘Round-headed,’” [Challenger] muttered. ‘Brachycephalic, gray-eyed, black-haired, with suggestion of the negroid. Celtic, I presume?’”(26). When does humor go too far and border on hate? When does humor reek of political propaganda? While there is no hint of hate in Challenger as you read on—although there is bitterness, as he later admits to Malone—propaganda is a critical component of lesson plans on humor.

Challenger moments earlier had set up and proven that the unsuspecting Malone was not a student of science, as he claimed, but a lower form of life: a reporter. It proves,” [Challenger] roared, with a sudden blast of fury, that you are the rankest impostor in London—a vile, crawling journalist, who has no more science than he has decency in his composition!” (19-20).

Conan Doyle also endows the good professor with classic slapstick brawling ability to accentuate the professor’s pent-up frustration, as Malone describes it, with typical British understatement:

It was at that moment that he rushed me. It was lucky that I had opened the door, or we should have gone through it. We did a Catherine-wheel together down the passage. Somehow we gathered up a chair upon our way, and bounded on with it towards the street. My mouth was full of his beard … and that infernal chair radiated its legs all round us.… I had seen the two Macs attempt something of the kind at the halls, but it appears to take some practice to do it without hurting oneself. (21)

And Challenger is physically clown-like, squat like a gargoyle, as Conan Doyle attempts to parody everyone of high rank, including the most brilliant scientist in civilized” society. Malone describes his initial shock at seeing Challenger:

His appearance made me gasp. I was prepared for something strange, but not for so overpowering a personality as this. It was his size which took one’s breath away.... His head was enormous, the largest I have ever seen upon a human being. I am sure that his top-hat, had I ventured to don it, would have slipped over me entirely and rested on my shoulders. He had the face and beard which I associate with an Assyrian bull.... The hair was peculiar, plastered down in front in a long, curving wisp over his massive forehead.... [T]wo enormous hands covered with long black hair. This and a bellowing, roaring, rumbling voice. (17-18)

Later, Conan Doyle will use Challenger’s physical appearance as rather heavy-handed satire; Challenger has his physical counterpart among the primitive” lost world people.

Through comedy and cleverness Conan Doyle knocks down elites and re-ignites our sense of trust in the idea that thinking slowly is cool. Perhaps, with that notion, young people will not feel quite so lost and not disappear into the subcultures of music, dress, language, and attitudes that seem to remove them from civilized” society.

Randy Hayman, Nassau Community College

Waiting for Something to Drop.

Samuel R. Delany. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. 20th anniversary edition. Foreword by Carl Freedman. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2004. xiv + 356. $19.95 pbk.

In his 1971 essay, “About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words,” Delany offers a wonderfully camp account of the experience of reading, word by word, the sentence “The red sun is high, the blue low.” The word “The” conjures up in his mind’s eye a four-foot high greyish ellipsoid about a yard away; an instant later, the word “red” prompts it to change color; and then the appearance of “sun” moves the ellipsoid into the sky, changes it into a luminous disc, and modifies its color in accordance with the kind of object the signifier signifies. (But why is it red? Is it dawn? Sunset? Is the sky polluted?) In this argument about the inseparability of style and content, Delany repeatedly hits on the idea of the deferral of meaning—an idea implicit in Saussure and elaborated by Derrida. Thirteen years later, and with considerably greater critical-theoretical sophistication, Delany was still worrying away at the problem of how language—or, at least, how reading—works.

In the interview between Korga and “the man in the wire-filament mask” (3) that opens Stars, there are repeated descriptions of elements of the mask: “The features moved behind pink and green plastic lozenges a-shake on shaking wires.... Lozenge tinkled against lozenge: the man’s head shook” (3); “Either side of a plastic diamond, the mouth’s corners rose. The plastic swung with his breath” (4); “Behind the mask with its plastic shapes a-bob” (5), and so on. Initially, this might be taken as a kind of character-mnemonic, in the same way that Conrad’s Nostromo (1904) repeatedly refers to a character’s silver buttons. But with each recurrence, it becomes increasingly clear that no matter how precise Delany’s words and sentences are, they are also incredibly vague. The character disappears, and one still has no idea what any wire-filament mask, let alone this particular one, looks like. With a lesser writer, one might huff and puff about a failure to visualize, but in Delany one knows to defer judgment. Later, Korga, now Rat Korga, is asked, “Do you mean to tell me you’ve never used one of these before?” (27). He stumbles over a reply, “unsure if the question was about meaning, telling, or use” (27), and at least part of Delany’s project in this novel begins to crystallize.

Stars imagines an interstellar community of over 6,000 worlds, each of which contains as many cultural differences as our own. With such heterogeneity comes an unfathomable degree of complexity in terms of language, customs, and usage, and a lack of socio-politico-cultural centration. There are no universal or totalizing norms. Within this web of worlds, centers are only local phenomena. The ways in which Delany’s characters live and conduct themselves in his novel’s universe are, like Saussure’s signs, arbitrary and conventional; the degree of their arbitrariness is made evident by the array of different conventions practiced by these thousands of cultures and their unnumbered subcultures. As Marq Dyeth’s not infrequent asides remind us, the meaning and significance of a word or gesture or any other such sign varies according to context, and the relevant context is at least as difficult to pin down. Herein lies not only the novel’s accomplishment, but also its failure.

It is possible to imagine a different version of the novel, one that does not succumb to the sf drive to explicate, to pin down. It might look something like Gertrude Stein’s aleatory masterpiece, Tender Buttons (1914), for example. Delany, who has repeatedly, as part of his championing of the paraliterary, distanced himself from the modernist experimentation of the New Wave with which he is sometimes associated, would of course reject pushing so hard against generic norms as to abandon them so entirely. And so instead we get passages like:

Did you see the way she went after that damned rat? I mean I was just up the hallway when she lit into him, man!” (Rat was what you called someone who’d been to the Institute: man was what you called someone who hadn’t.) With a steel pipe! I thought she was gonna kill him!”

It’s working for a woman, man. That’s all. I just never was that comfortable working for a damned bitch.” (Bitch, on that world, was what men called women they were extremely fond of or extremely displeased with when the woman was not there.) It just isn’t right.” (9)

In this instance, the exposition is amusing enough, and serves a useful purpose, coming early enough in the novel to give the reader a clue about the degree of caution with which even the most familiar and colloquial of language must be approached. It is also a fairly effective means of making infodumping suddenly seem just as strange as it actually is, while critiquing sf’s tendency to regard only specialist terminology as language requiring explication. How depressing, then, to have it explained that:

In Arachnia as is it spoken on Nepiy, she” is the pronoun for all sentient individuals of whatever species who have achieved the legal status of woman.” The ancient, dimorphic form he,” once used exclusively for the genderal indication of males (cf. the archaic term man, pl. men), for more than a hundred-twenty years now, has been reserved for the general sexual object of she,” during the period of excitation, regardless of the gender of the woman speaking or the gender of the woman referred to.

Which is to say, on Nepiy he” meant exactly what it did on my own home world or, indeed, here at Kantor, far off it. (73)

Certainly this passage is a not unpleasing satire on extracts from the Encyclopedia Galactica, and the language usage it explains is an intriguing response to Le Guin’s Gethenians, but how much more successful would the novel be, especially in developing its treatment of différance, if the reader had to keep deferring the meaning of shifting pronouns until s/he figured out the system governing their use?

Although such exposition is relatively scarce—when it does occur it often functions to alienate the reader from the scene being described—that it should occur at all seems odd. One of the novel’s finest pieces of comic business comes when it is revealed that Marq and Korga are each other’s perfect erotic object, to seven decimal places in one direction and nine in the other. Their actual encounter magnificently deflates this absurd empiricism:

We lay on the bed; and his hand on my chest was a stone outcrop on uneven giltgorse. His rough hair, with something reddish in it, was the hue of split tolgoth pith. Knees? Mine were much closer to my eyes than his. Stones? Crags? Hills at two distances. His cheek, near my face, was the slope of the Reya’j’as Plateau (north, in R-16), which had been peppered with meteors a million and a half years ago, and among whose craters, thousands of years gone, evelmi once gathered to perform mysteries whose significance even they have forgotten. My own breath against his neck came back to strike my face like a hotwind eroding the prehistorical escarpments of the oest to their characteristic roundness. The line between his arm and my chest was the crevice of some sunken -wr, the near bank, mine, heavy with growth, the far one, his, notably sparse. (197)

Metaphor, neologism, and unconventional tonal shifts work together to demonstrate the inadequacy of language to directly express the world, let alone an intense sexual encounter, while auto-critiquing sf’s invention of signs without referents. But if meaning is so elusive, why let exposition intrude upon invention?

All of which might sound like damn faint praise for one of the most intriguing US sf novels of the 1980s. While Neuromancer, published in the same year, was kicking off all kinds of new things, Stars was capping off the previous, and arguably sf’s most interesting, decade and simultaneously opening up all those questions of difference and identity which would so dominate the 1990s. Or at least, that is what it looks like it would have done if the sequel, The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities had been published in the mid-1980s as originally announced. In a 1990 version of the afterword to Stars, Delany estimated a 1993 publication for Splendor; in the 1990 afterword reprinted in this volume, there is no mention of it (although some have suggested that The Mad Man [1994] is Splendor de-science-fictionalized). On the one hand, one might postulate that by intimately tying the diptych’s project to a particular form of idealist linguistics so clearly of that moment, Delany has come unstuck. Since the mid-1990s at least there has been a growing materialist linguistics, exemplified by the work of David McNally and Chik Collins (building on Voloshinov, Vygotsky, Bakhtin, and Benjamin). The 1990s also saw the making-commonplace and political debilitation of notions of difference and marginalized identities. The idea of potentialities, which Marq points to in the epilogue, has been developed by Deleuze and others. Maybe the sequel has fallen behind the times. Maybe, as critical theory settled in the territory Delany indicated, Stars has made Splendor redundant.

Or maybe the non-appearance of the sequel is a a fine and cunning game, an endless deferral of Stars’s meaning. While we are waiting for the other shoe, Delany is waiting for the penny to drop. Maybe somewhere he is laughing.

Mark Bould, University of the West of England

Cultural History and the Alien Series.

Ximena Gallardo C. and C. Jason Smith. Alien Woman: The Making of Lt. Ellen Ripley. New York: Continuum, 2004. xi + 241 pp. $19.95 pbk.

Few recent sf films—Blade Runner (1982), for one, and perhaps The Terminator (the original 1984 film, but definitely not its 1991 and 2003 sequels)—have stimulated as much good scholarly analysis as the Alien series, which includes Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien3 (1992), and Alien: Resurrection (1997). Arguably, the richness of some of these studies, including this present one, owes a great deal to the ways in which the films are situated at the intersections of science fiction and horror: as the authors of Alien Woman note, the character of the protagonist Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) “combines the survivor of slasher [films] with the heroic astronaut of science fiction” (2). Whatever approach one takes to these films, it is impossible to ignore their obsessive focus on the physical body—especially the female body—the site of so much anxiety and promise in the iconographies of both horror and science fiction.

Not surprisingly, given its gruesome fascination with violent penetrations and explosive births, the original Alien attracted strong psychoanalytically-inflected readings, and it is clear from the discussions in Alien Woman that these approaches continue to be rewarding. The most influential of these readings has been Barbara Creed’s theorization of the monstrous-feminine” in horror film, a study that owes much to Julia Kristeva’s work on abjection and the maternal. For Creed, as for those who rely on her work, the term monstrous-feminine” connotes the specificities of the female monster: As with all other stereotypes of the feminine, from virgin to whore, [the female monster] is defined in terms of her sexuality. The phrase ‘monstrous-feminine’ emphasizes the importance of gender in the construction of her monstrosity” (Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis [Routledge 1993], 3). Of particular relevance to the Alien films, Creed notes that the monstrous-feminine is almost always constructed in the context of her mothering and reproductive functions (Creed 7).

I introduce Creed’s theoretical work here because it provides a crucial support for the analyses developed by Gallardo and Smith. Not surprisingly, their index includes lengthy entries for Abjection,” Body,” Monstrous-feminine,” Motherhood,” Reproduction,” and—the longest entry by far—Woman.” As they argue in their introductory chapter:

the Alien is not only a killing machine but also a relentless reproductive machine.... Inevitably, then, an Alien narrative engages a wide range of female body narratives ... bringing the Otherness of the otherwise repressed and denied female body to the fore.... As males are [also] penetrated, impregnated, and give birth, the distinction between the male body and the female body, upon which our entire culture is based, begins to blur. This is the site of the Alien horror: faced with the Alien, we are all feminized. (7)

One strand of their project, as they describe it, is to explore ”how the conflict between the female protagonist and the monstrous feminine set up in the first film operates throughout the Alien series” (7).

Alien Woman is, as far as I know, the first full-length study of the Alien films and it constructs a usefully coherent overview of the series. Framed by attention to the intersections of women, bodies, reproduction, and otherness, it aims to situate each of the films in the context of the particular understandings of femininity and sexuality in circulation when the films were made. The thread that it follows is the ongoing representation/construction of the female protagonist—thus the book’s subtitle. The authors open by stating, quite correctly, that Without [Second Wave] feminism, there would be no Ripley” (3) and their final chapter on Alien: Resurrection moves the discussion into areas such as posthumanism and queer theory.

While the authors invoke sufficient theoretical material to ground their arguments in a very convincing way, they present their ideas with admirable clarity and directness and they wear their theory lightly. Much of it appears in their endnotes, and these usefully reference a range of material: not only Creed’s work, and Kristeva’s on horror and abjection, but also Bakhtin’s on the grotesque body, Freud’s on the fetish, and Lacan’s on castration anxiety. Some readers may find the lack of detailed development of this theoretical material in the authors’ main text a drawback; others will be pleased at this study’s accessibility.

After a brief contextual introduction, the authors devote one chapter to each of the four films and conclude with a brief Afterword. They approach the first film, Alien, as the first action film in which a woman plays the representative human hero. Their reading of Alien—emphasizing Ripley’s battle with the Alien as the confrontation with a dark physical and psychological mirror of herself”—applies Creed’s concept of the monstrous-feminine as it is figured in spaces such as the derelict spaceship, and as it is materially embodied in the Alien, ”the monstrous Other that is always feminine by the sheer fact that it is not Man” (60).

Gallardo and Smith read the second film, Aliens (1986), as a very Reagan era movie, with ‘our boys’ going into the heart of darkness to rescue civilians from the awful Aliens. Needless to say,” as they add, the mix was highly popular with American audiences” (63). Their chapter on this film contextualizes it within the return to conservatism of the 1980s, noting the suitability of the sinister Company to Reagan-era politics. The third film, Aliens3, in their reading, effects unexpected reversals of many of the terms set up in the previous film—it is introspective rather than action-oriented and bleak where the previous film offers suspense and excitement. Finally, it collapses the dichotomy between Ripley and the Alien,” and openly address[es] the abject status of women covertly posited” in the previous two films (121). Aliens3, the least popular of the four films, ends in Ripley’s Christ-like sacrificial suicide, disappointing audience’s expectations of her ongoing survival as the Final Girl” (a role examined in detail by Carol Clover in her influential reading of slasher films, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film [Princeton UP, 1992]).

In Alien: Resurrection, in the authors’ reading, [t]he body narrative, which served as the centerpiece of the previous three films, seems to have exploded, encompassing the whole of the film” (161). Its protagonist is now a threshold figure, a hybrid of human and alien, a cloned version of the original Ripley genetically imbued with alien DNA: in the frames of this last film, action hero and monstrous-feminine are no longer distinguishable. This new Ripley’s eventual partner is the female android Call (played by Winona Ryder) and the authors offer a convincing reading of the complexly queer-inflected relationship that develops between these posthuman versions of Woman.” It is the Ripley clone and Call who, in the words of the authors, ”ride off into the sunset” at the end of the film, which is also the end of the series: They, it is clear, are the future” (196).

Alien Woman is an intelligent and sophisticated reading of an occasionally intelligent and occasionally sophisticated series of sf/horror films that, over the course of more than two decades of development, function like pop culture barometers. They have a lot to tell us about how gender and sexuality, femininity and motherhood, and monstrosity and normality have been represented to film consumers since the late 1970s. The authors of Alien Woman have produced a substantial history of these representations and have contextualized them within a rewarding set of theoretical models.VH

Contemporary Classic.

William Gibson. Neuromancer. 1984. 20th Anniversary Edition. New York: Ace, 2004. xi + 371 pp. $25.00 hc.

Even after 20 years, the opening sentence of Gibson’s first novel is still stunning: The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” (3). The vivid image jams together two realms of experience that we normally imagine separately—or at least used to before we read Neuromancer (1984). What does an electrical appliance have to do with the sky? And why is the TV turned on but not in use? It’s hard to imagine anyone experiencing that opening and not being curious enough to read on. Gibson’s introduction to this anniversary edition admits, however, that even when he wrote that sentence it was an anachronism; he was remembering the look of TVs from his childhood, black-and-white video-static ... sodium silvery and almost painful” (vii). That’s not the only place where Gibson failed to observe carefully or extrapolate luckily. And yet—the book still works. It doesn’t require the kind of excuses we’re used to making for older sf stories because now we know more about the surface of Mars, about how women and men can relate, or about how computers really work. Neuromancer today feels amazingly fresh, convincing, compelling.

Part of that is due to Gibson’s writing. He has a knack for finding the minimum of sensory detail to suggest a scene; this looks simple until you watch other writers straining to convince readers about how much thought and energy they’ve expended in creating the futures they’re using in their stories. By contrast, Gibson’s prose is laconic, apparently effortless, cool in several senses. His plotting is a small marvel too. Back when I was marking the drafts of freshman research papers, I used to take time out to read detective novels because they reassured me that disparate elements could be woven into a coherent whole. In the case of Neuromancer, it’s not that the plot is easy to follow but that readers are confident that the action is going somewhere. The characters may not be in control, but the author must be. And so he is.

Another reason readers have been willing, as Gibson notes, to compensate for his lapses—shouldering an additional share of the imaginative burden, and allow[ing] whatever they assumed was the color of static to take on the melancholy of the phrase ‘dead channel’” (vi-iii)—has to do with the novel’s theme and the point the action finally reaches. The novel’s second paragraph doesn’t appear to build on the image from the first paragraph, but it does develop the mood of melancholy:

It’s not like I’m using,” Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat. It’s like my body’s developed this massive drug deficiency.” It is a Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke. The Chatsubo was a bar for professional expatriates; you could drink there for a week and never hear two words in Japanese. (3)

Notice how, in addition to the deft scene setting I just mentioned, this passage indicates a possible distinction between being an insider and being an alien. Even more crucially it sets up a tension between conscious control and impersonal manipulation, between using and being used. That’s Case’s dilemma throughout the book. As a cyberspace cowboy, he glories in his freedom; as a pawn of Armitage-Corto-etc., he must do as he’s told. A larger question is how much freedom Case has in the first place, if he can’t ever modify his chosen role or leave it. He’s a cowboy, and that’s all he can be. As his consort Molly excuses herself for impulsive action, that’s just the way I’m wired” (284), a revealing metaphor. These people are products of their culture, constructed to fill unacknowledged but covertly sanctioned social niches.

But it’s oversimplifying the matter to see Gibson’s characters merely as examples of how humans have become meat consumer devices. The street, it’s been said, finds its own uses for technology. Besides being constructs, Case and Molly also are streetwise individuals who have chosen ways of life that may not appeal to readers but that nevertheless give them the satisfaction of controlling some of their lives. They may be in control only in limited ways, on good days when the weather’s right, but they still make some choices. Moreover, they choose to go forward, not back. At the book’s conclusion, Case exhorts 3Jane to give up the code because If you don’t, what’ll change? What’ll ever fucking change for you?... I got no idea what’ll happen if Wintermute wins, but it’ll change something!” (339-40). That echos Wintermute’s earlier rumination that it is moving ahead with its plan although it doesn’t know what the results will be, ”But when this is over, we do it right, I’m gonna be part of something bigger” (269).

As the story plays out, things do change, some characters do wind up bigger, some just reach the limits of their wiring and recoil. And some, like Case at the very end, are reminded that they are part of a larger universe. It may be unknowable, may be unattainable, may even be undesirable, but there’s something more out there than any small bauble we’re tempted to settle for. If the novel doesn’t suggest how Case or Molly could become freer, less-programmed people, that’s a little disappointing, but it’s probably believable, not just a cop-out. After all, there’s only so much humans can do. We recognize the novel’s mixture of resignation and yearning from our own experience. Our students do too, of course. (Gibson’s latest novel, Pattern Recognition [2003] comes to the same conclusion; his heroine exerts herself mightily but winds up relying on the kindness of strangers.)

In all, then, Neuromancer still works because it grapples memorably with a crucial human theme. Jack Womack’s afterword to this edition rather surprisingly focuses on Gibson’s use of the rural past, outgrown traditions, and artifacts. Another look at the book again, however, shows that he’s right. The action is set in alleys littered with junked computers, rooms lined with crumbling, unread books, etc. It’s unfortunately all too relevant today, as we wade sadly through high-tech debris under an empty TV sky.

Joe Sanders, Shade Tree Scholar

In Brief.

David Langford. The Complete Critical Assembly: The Collected White Dwarf and (GM, and GMI) Columns. Holicong, PA: Cosmos Books, 2002 <>. 336 pp. $15.00 pbk.

David Langford. Up Through an Empty House of Stars: Reviews and Essays, 1980-2002. Holicong, PA: Cosmos Books, 2003 <>. 310 pp. $21.95 pbk.

A few years ago, I was sitting across the aisle from David Langford on a flight from London to Melbourne. During that flight he read, from beginning to end, Peter F. Hamilton’s The Naked God; as for myself, distracted by movies, food, conversation, and sleep, I made hardly any inroad into the much slimmer novel I was trying to read. It should be easy to hate the man, not so much for his ability to read so quickly or with such concentration, as for his ability to follow that up by filleting the book so precisely and so succinctly in a sentence or two. A pity he writes so well.

Between 1983 and 1991 David Langford wrote a monthly review column, first for the British games magazine White Dwarf, later for GM and GMI magazines. In the 101 columns collected in The Complete Critical Assembly he covers, at a rough count, 650 books. Most of us (well, I) would struggle to read that many books in the first place, let alone write about them coherently and briefly on a remorseless schedule. But Langford does not just provide the competent plot summary that is all we would normally expect of a capsule review; he also manages to skewer the book with forensic acumen, and be wildly funny at the same time. These are reviews that should be read for fun.

More than that, they constitute an extraordinary social document in the history of British science fiction. Here are publishers and imprints that have long disappeared—Grafton, Granada, Allen and Unwin—and prices we have not seen for far too long—paperbacks at £1.75, hardbacks at £7.95. Add to that sidelong glances at Hugo Awards and long-forgotten conventions and the reviews become a curious exercise in nostalgia. Even some of the books mentioned have that long-forgotten air about them. The rule of the deadline and the immediacy of the monthly column necessitate a bravura coverage of as much bad as good, and make this a constant reminder of all those books that have not stood the test of time. I had all but forgotten the first and only novel by Frederick Dunstan, Habitation One (1984), for instance, which is here aptly described as a wondrous cornucopia of things for young writers to avoid” (48). Whether such a book deserves to be recalled is another matter, but certainly there is a tangled undergrowth of formulaic fantasy and cack-handed science fiction that is part of the ecology of our genre but that is likely to be noticed nowhere else except in such high turn-over columns. It takes the dedication and the wit of a Langford to be able to endure and record the endless repetitions of Piers Anthony, Roger Zelazny, or Arthur C. Clarke and his various collaborators: How did this literary fast-food merchant Gentry get hold of the aging but respected Clarke fiction franchise?” (267). But it is necessary to make our way through this overgrown scrubland in order to identify the tall and noble trees we will go on to remember.

Langford’s wide-ranging scientific knowledge helps him spot the absurdities in even our most respected hard sf writers. Of Charles Sheffield’s Proteus Unbound (1990), for instance: I liked the engineering and kept raising skeptical eyebrows at the psychology. Would you fancy living in space 30 metres from a lethally radiating black hole, merely for the convenience of its tiny gravity? Myself, I’d prefer the relative safety of a penthouse atop Sellafield, but this book’s characters don’t seem bothered” (273). Time and again as I was reading these reviews I would have to stop laughing to remind myself that the woeful scientific knowledge being displayed is coming from authors for whom the science in science fiction is supposed to be the be-all and end-all of their work.

Of course it is easy to hold a bad book up to ridicule, particularly when you only have a few words in which to do the deed. But Langford is also good at pointing out what is worth reading, particularly when they are books that are better than he anticipated (fantasies by Barbara Hambly and Judith Tarr provoke surprised relief), or by his favorites (they are fairly easy to spot: Crowley, Vance, Wolfe). It is perhaps inevitable that a little more space is needed to point out virtues than it is to enumerate vices, so while The Complete Critical Assembly is better (and funnier) on the bad books, Up Through an Empty House of Stars is better (and more interesting) on the good ones. These are longer reviews (in several cases only slightly longer) gathered from such places as Vector, Foundation, SFX, and New York Review of Science Fiction, mixed in with occasional introductions, appreciations, and longer pieces that could be called essays. It is not just extra space, however, that is liberating in this collection. The columns collected in The Complete Critical Assembly were originally written for a gaming audience only tangentially interested in science fiction, let alone in books; Langford had to liberally spice his columns with copious references to Dungeons and Dragons and its ilk in order to retain their interest, and a curious prudery on the part of the magazine editors meant that references to sex or other distasteful activities were severely curtailed. The more liberal regimes that hosted the pieces in Up Through an Empty House of Stars allowed for a generally more balanced (if rather less immediately comic) analysis.

Inevitably, since even Langford must have limits on how many books he can get through in a finite period of time, there is a fair bit of overlap in what is covered (to be honest, he tells us little more about Sheffield’s Proteus Unbound in six paragraphs than he does in two, and the reference to a penthouse at Sellafield is more polished in the shorter review). But what are far more interesting in this collection are the pieces where Langford looks back over the long careers of favorite but often neglected writers. G.K. Chesterton, Ernest Bramah, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Jack Vance, Anthony Boucher, Eric Frank Russell, Bob Shaw, James White, and Cornell Woolrich all get this treatment. They are all well-respected second-rank writers who would occasionally produce work that landed squarely in the top rank. They are writers who enjoyed considerable popularity during their lives (though often among a devoted coterie rather than a wider audience). They had idiosyncracies and mannerisms—Kai Lung’s ever more elaborately fake chinoiserie, Nero Wolfe’s self-indulgence, the overripe prose of Jack Vance, or the studied quietness of James White’s manner. They tended to produce long-running series in which the same character would be faced with usually very artificial intellectual puzzles. And, generally, the same tricks and traits would surface again and again. They are, moreover, writers who lost their places in the critical firmament remarkably quickly—even Bob Shaw, to my mind the best of this particular bunch, rarely gets more than a passing mention in most critical works these days.

I suspect that, precisely because these writers were prolific (and hence often formulaic), most critics do not feel moved to do the reading necessary if they are to be done justice. But Langford has not only done the vast amount of reading necessary, he can patiently record all the repetitions, the idiot plotting, the inconsistent characterization, and still get across a huge affection for the books. It is a rare skill indeed to make me feel that I might someday give Jack Vance another go.

I have not even touched on Langford’s reliability as a reviewer. Many of the books covered here (too many) are works I’ve also reviewed, and I never once found myself shaking my head and thinking he got it wrong. Even where we differ in our liking for a particular book or author, I understand why he responded the way he did. That’s a rare talent in reviews that are often less than 100 words, and essays that are rarely longer than about 3,000 words. Between them, these two books are probably the most entertaining critical works you will read; in addition, they provide a fascinating overview of our complex genre over the last couple of decades. You’ve just got to hate the way he can turn out so many reviews so quickly, so fluently, and so well.

Paul Kincaid, Administrator of the Arthur C. Clarke Award

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