Science Fiction Studies


#99 = Volume 33, Part 2 = July 2006

Aaron Parrett

Slicing Up the Circle of Knowledge

Gary Westfahl, ed. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders. 3 vols. xxvi + 1395 pp. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005. $349.95 hc.

Encyclopedia is an interesting word. The “pedia” part comes from the same word that Werner Jaeger took for the title of his study of ancient Greek liberal education: Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture (1939). As progressive and forward-thinking academics attempt to reinvent higher education for the twenty-first century, they will likely encounter Jaeger’s theories and the word encyclopedia will return to the vocabulary of academia. If so, it will be because the word summarizes the goals of liberal education.

As the primary definition of “encyclopedia,” the Oxford English Dictionary gives “The circle of learning; a general course of instruction.” The word in this sense was first used by Sir Thomas Elyot in his Governour in 1531, in which he wrote that “the circle of doctrine is in one word of greke Encyclopedia.” The word has two additional definitions, the next of which is “A literary work containing extensive information on all branches of knowledge, usually arranged in alphabetical order.” This is the sense of the word employed in the title of Encyclopedia Britannica, for example. Finally, we come to “An elaborate and exhaustive repertory of information on all the branches of some particular art or department of knowledge; esp. one arranged in alphabetical order,” which must be the sense of the word that editor Gary Westfahl and his team had in mind when they compiled The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders.

I say this because there is no way that these three volumes, as handsomely packaged as they are, could stand as “a general course of instruction” in sf and fantasy. They simply leave too much out and include material that reflects idiosyncratic taste rather than an encyclopedic sense of the topic. But then these three volumes don’t meet the expectations set out in the third definition, either—and for a similar reason: in spite of the word “encyclopedia” in the title, these three books offer nothing like “an elaborate and exhaustive repertory of information” on sf and fantasy. If the best defense is a good offense, then Westfahl seizes the opportunity in his preface to de-claw any critics who might take a swipe at the project by issuing this caveat:

I ask reviewers and readers, in offering either praise or criticism, only to consider the enormity of the task that confronted me and the necessary limitations of space and time that constrained me, and that will invariably constrain anyone who undertakes to compile a thoroughgoing reference on the vast and variegated fields of science fiction and fantasy. (xxxvi)

Some may sense that Westfahl’s apology in advance amounts to shirking a duty: is it not antithetical to the very spirit of what an encyclopedia is to say that a “thoroughgoing reference” must be constrained by limitations of space and time? If you admit that you have had to leave a lot out, can you really call it an encyclopedia? Surely those philosophes of the eighteenth century, Diderot and d’Alembert, faced similar “enormity,” but what it meant to them was that the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des Sciences, des Arts, et des Métiers (1751-1765) would take at least fourteen years to compile and that the final product would take up some seventeen volumes—with the promise of supplements to follow. They might have stopped at three and asked critics to be kind because they had bitten off more than they could chew. But encyclopedia means that you have to finish everything on your plate and you can’t merely scrape what you don’t like into the trash. Westfahl announces in the preface, however, that the project was limited in scope by his editorial board, who set the limit at 600 entries (400 on themes, 200 on works). Mark Twain’s famous dictum about school boards, it seems, applies with equal force to editorial boards.

Perhaps it may be viewed as academic quibbling to pick on the Greenwood editors for their choice of title words, but then “encyclopedia” is a genre word, and by now we all know what a compost heap James Frey stirred up when he called a “memoir” what should have been marketed as a “novel.” The fact that Westfahl begs forgiveness ahead of time suggests he knows the encyclopedic bar has been lowered. Nevertheless, to defend an encyclopedia for omissions and oversight because of space and time constraints would be like the Human Genome Project begging off after the first several thousand genes because the whole catalogue would have been just too labor intensive—each genome, after all, contains the equivalent of nine hundred volumes of information: the encyclopedia of the organism, you might say.

But perhaps Westfahl implies an attractive point in his preface: isn’t the idea of a comprehensive encyclopedia merely a Borgesian fantasy? Isn’t encyclopedia a concept doomed, after Derrida, to its own deconstruction? Borges pointed out with fearless literary finesse that the only truly accurate map of any territory would be 1:1 and would lie over it like a second skin, and even then we might be unsure. So doesn’t the concept of encyclopedia as defined by the OED amount to a kind of intellectual hubris? After all, encyclopedias go out of date so fast that when you buy a set of them, you’re promised the yearly “updates” in perpetuum.

The goal of totality may in fact be hubris, but it is in any case more noble than an editorial board thwarting a solid survey of a literary field. For example, a student who perused these volumes would walk away with the sense that Mists of Avalon (1982), Chronicles of Narnia (1950-53), Lord of the Rings (1954-55), and Canticle for Liebowitz (1959) were the four gospels of science fiction and fantasy. They may be important to look at in an overview, but they don’t warrant the attention and repeated citations and references they receive here, and only one of them qualifies as sf. Perhaps that’s the crux of the problem: the ratio of fantasy to sf seems backward. Westfahl suggests that the only “recurring infelicity” committed by his team of entry writers was their tendency to neglect fantasy in favor of sf, in spite of his instruction that the final product was supposed to exhibit an even balance. I fear he tipped the scales the wrong way: fantasy clearly preponderates here.

But whose idea was it to connect these two genres in the first place? Sf involves science, fantasy involves magic—could there be a greater gulf between the two? Sure, the boundaries get blurry, but on general principle, sf has about as much in common with fantasy as the theory of evolution has in common with intelligent design. Any similarities are purely superficial. Fantasy involves dragons and medieval dialogue, and sf invokes spaceships and machine language. Westfahl even draws a similar distinction, admitting that “fantasy generally seeks to adhere to traditions, whereas science fiction—however sporadically and unsuccessfully—strives to break away from traditions” (xxxv). Even if limiting an “exhaustive repertory of information” to 600 entries makes for a more manageable load, hitching one wagon to two different teams is going to make for a difficult delivery. Greenwood ought to have commissioned two projects: an encyclopedia of sf and an encyclopedia of fantasy, and then suggested that they be parked in two different sections of the bookstore or library.

Getting the genre issues cleared up at the outset would have made for a more comprehensible project. This set is more a sampler than an encyclopedia, and it has much more to do with fantasy than with sf. In the entry on “Earth,” for example, why is Tolkien mentioned, but not Arthur C. Clarke? We get no entry on “Syzygy,” but we find entries on “Christianity,” “Christmas,” and “Eschatology.” There is an entry on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), but none on Galatea 2.2 (1995). The television shows X-Files (1993-2002) and Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001) get entries, but not David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-91)? In addition, many of the entries here seem filtered through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)—granted, an interesting book, but more important for investigations of fantasy than sf. To contrast, Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree (1973) and Trillion Year Spree (1986) are seldom mentioned in the surveys or the “bibliographies.” Incidentally, the word “bibliography” seems to be headed for the same sort of evisceration that “encyclopedia” has suffered: whereas bibliography used to mean a list of all known writings on a given topic, it seems now to refer simply to a handful of named works related to the subject, as in this set of volumes, in which each entry has a “bibliography” of eight or ten titles. “Selected bibliography” at least would have been better, but “suggested reading” would have been accurate.

If the conflation of sf with fantasy were not distressing enough, the entry on “Hard Science Fiction” reveals particularly acute taxonomic myopia. As with many of the entries, the so-called “overview” is inscrutable—not only does it make reference to a recent work (Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear [1999]) that isn’t treated at all in the “survey” that follows, but just try to make sense of this sentence: “The government and most of humanity are hesitant to accept what is being revealed by facts as startlingly new about nature” (371). The awkward passive voice aside, can we really state that facts reveal what is new about nature? Or is it that science reveals new facts about nature? In the unhelpfully abbreviated survey that follows, Asimov, Heinlein, Clement, and Campbell are mentioned in one brief paragraph; Larry Niven, Poul Anderson, and Gergory [sic] Benford in another, but not a word about Verne, Stapledon, Clarke, Frank M. Robinson, or Henry Kuttner, or any number of other writers and auteurs who helped create what Gernsback called “scientifiction”—and which Westfahl, in an earlier period of clarity, cited himself in an article in SFS—that is, “the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story” involving “charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision” (342). As a consequence, we hardly get either an “overview” or a “survey” of the category. Equally dismaying is the absence of entries on Astounding or Amazing Stories or Galaxy or any of the other important magazines largely responsible for the development of sf as a distinct genre in the grand pantheon of world literature. Even a general entry on “Pulps” would have contributed an important chapter to “a general course” on sf and its historical evolution. After all, this set contains entries on over fifty films and twenty tv shows (including The Simpsons—though it is worth pointing out that that entry makes no mention of Kang and Kodos, the extraterrestrials who routinely visit Springfield).

Speaking of film, Westfahl made waves on the web by referring to Steven Spielberg in his on-line “encyclopedia” of film as “an insufferably awful director and a pernicious influence on the entire genre.” Perhaps this explains why the sentimental E.T. (1982) is discussed here in the Greenwood encyclopedia but the Indiana Jones trilogy is not, and why we get only tepid reviews of Close Encounters (1977) and A.I. (2001) and nothing on Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) or Minority Report (2002). George Lucas earns an entry for Star Wars (1977), but not for any of the sequels, and not even a reference in passing for THX 1138 (1971). Say what you will about Spielberg and Lucas, but for better or worse, their films will pass into history as every bit important to the sf and fantasy genres as these Greenwood entries: Back to the Future (1985), Field of Dreams (1989), Heaven Can Wait (1978), and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

To be fair, there is plenty here to enjoy and appreciate: Andrew Butler’s entry on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) offers an admirably succinct overview of that film’s importance to sf. It was also a delightful surprise to encounter Maureen Kincaid Speller’s entry on Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), which seems to be slowly gaining the critical audience it deserves. Rick Klaw’s entry on King Kong (1933) nicely summarizes the relevance of the subgenre of monster films, providing an overview of all the Kong sequels and spin-offs (sadly, these books went to print before the appearance of Peter Jackson’s brilliant 2005 remake). Roslynn Haynes’s entry on Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963) offers a nice overview of Vonnegut’s contributions to sf and fantasy, but makes this reader wonder about the absence of a separate entry for Player Piano (1952) or Sirens of Titan (1959). And as a final positive note, the books themselves feature wonderfully illustrated covers reminiscent of old sf comics such as Mystery in Space (1951-1964).

Marcia Bair, librarian at Brigham Young University, announces on her web page that “the Greeks wrote the first encyclopedias because of their concern for a complete or liberal education,” which really gets to the heart of the problem with an encyclopedia that sets its standards too low or has a confused sense of what it is trying to accomplish. The idiosyncratic series of entries here is a symptom of the increasing fragmentation of knowledge, certainly, but it also signals the dissipation of liberal education into an information-driven economy and a hazy, business-oriented model of pedagogy. On the one hand, the metastasizing of knowledge is liberating in the sense that it allows intellectuals to specialize in whatever subgenre of literature they take a shine to—Westfahl et alia can present their version of the intersection between sf and fantasy for example, with 600 entries, running to 1000 pages, using what they identify as 200 seminal works. But many would argue that specialization without solid grounding in a “general course of instruction” is precisely what fosters fragmentation in the first place.

Encyclopedia in the original sense is what Aristotle describes in the eighth book of his Politics as the kind of education befitting a free (liberal) person. Though the postmodernists might insist that a political agenda will always operate in the margins, and that any encyclopedia will betray itself in what it omits, encyclopedia in the original sense is perhaps the most egalitarian enterprise in academia—it genuinely regrets whatever it excludes and does its level best to miss nothing of consequence. Naturally, deciding what is of consequence may amount to little more than a covert exercise in canon formation, but the announced aim is nevertheless a “circle of learning,” and despite its theoretical weaknesses, reflects the foundational model of liberal education. Any “circle of learning,” whether an encyclopedia or core curriculum, that aims for anything less will be inevitably limited in scope.

Bair, Marcia. Webpage. 12 April 2006 <>.
“Encyclopedia,” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 4 April 2006 <>.
Westfahl, Gary. Gary Westfahl’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Film. “Steven Spielberg.” 12 April 2006 <>.
─────. “The Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe Type of Story: Hugo Gernsback’s History of Science Fiction.” SFS 19.3 (November 1992): 340-53.

Graham J. Murphy

Back to the Future: Daniel Rosenburg and Susan Harding’s Histories of the Future

Daniel Rosenburg and Susan Harding, eds. Histories of the Future. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2005. ix + 356 pp. $99.95 hc; $24.95 pbk.

Anyone familiar with William Gibson’s 1981 short story “The Gernsback Continuum” and his 2003 novel Pattern Recognition will be familiar with the critical intentions behind Daniel Rosenburg and Susan Harding’s Histories of the Future. In “The Gernsback Continuum,” Gibson’s narrator is hired by Dialta Downes to photograph the architectural remnants of a future that was imagined by 1930s/40s-era Americans and embodied in the visionary splendor of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories. In spite of its visionary splendor, this is a future that never comes to pass. For Downes, these architectural remnants of an America that never came to be are an “alternate America: a 1980s that never happened. An architecture of broken dreams” (Gibson 5). In his photographic endeavor, the narrator is eventually haunted by spectral visions of this America that never happened, the Gernsback continuum of the title. His friend Kihn explains he is seeing semiotic phantoms that are “bits of deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken on a life of their own” (7). In the end, the narrator’s rejection of the Gernsback continuum suggests that the entire idea of a coherent future that can somehow be imagined or anticipated may be anachronistic. Gibson’s Pattern Recognition provides a similar exploration of this thematic terrain. In that novel, Hubertus Bigend explains to the protagonist Cayce that

[f]ully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. (57) 

The theoretical grounding for Daniel Rosenburg and Susan Harding’s Histories of the Future lies in Gibson’s accounts of the velocity and sheer volatility of the present moment that subsequently mark visions of the future as highly problematic and potentially dated. The editors explicitly acknowledge “The Gernsback Continuum” in their introduction, stating that “[t]oday our futures feel increasingly citational—each is haunted by the ‘semiotic ghosts’ of futures past” (4). Rather than Gibson’s semiotic phantoms, however, Rosenburg and Harding call these citational futures examples of “future-nostalgia” and claim that “[o]ur lives are constructed around knowledges of the future that are as full (and flawed) as our knowledges of the past” (4). And, just as Gibson’s Pattern Recognition problematizes the future in a post-9/11 age, Rosenburg and Harding recognize the patterns of their future nostalgia as equally problematic when it comes to a coherent sense of the future:

An event as big as 9/11, calling on such resources of collective imagination, virtually commands us to consider “The Future” as a singular story and as a singular presence in national and international life. But at the same time, it reminds us how decisively our imagination of futures can change in response to changing times. And it leads us to ask what sorts of cultural work are necessary to make new futures cohere. The problem of futures after 9/11 is not just the problem of deciphering big narratives; it is also the problem of mapping networks of small stories and practices changing with place and time. (7) 

The “future-nostalgia” of Histories of the Future is, then, an attempt to chart the “future” as an increasingly elusive idea that, in a state of constant flux, is “a placeholder, a placebo, a no-place, but it is also a commonplace that we need to investigate in all its cultural and historical density” (9).

Histories of the Future is an anthology that investigates “the relationship between expectation and experience on the level of everyday life” (15), achieving this goal through a mix of graphics-laden essays and transitional interludes. Included in these interludes are a short story by Jonathan Lethem (“Access Fantasy”), a Global Futures card game created by Anna Tsing and Elizabeth Pollman, and a “Timeline of Timelines” that begins with Jewish scholar Jose ben Halafta in the second century AD, moves through such events as the Rule of St. Benedict in 530 AD, the births of Leonardo da Vinci (1500) and Galileo (1608), the publication of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), and the use of the Omega photo-finish camera during the 1948 Olympic Games, to end with the advent of the year 2000. Alternately, the dozen essays cover a broad range of topics: Vicente L. Rafael’s “The Cell Phone and the Crowd: Messianic Politics in the Contemporary Philippines” explores the interrelationship of Filipino cell phones, text messaging, and the People Power II movement to oust Philippine President Joseph Estrada in January 2001; Christopher Newfield’s “The Future of the Old Economy: New Deal Motives in New Economy Investors” explores popular capitalism of the late twentieth/early twenty-first century; and James Hunt’s “All That Is Solid Melts into Sauce: Futurists, Surrealists, and Molded Food” links futurists and surrealists to “quotidian qualities of food” (155). Overall, the essays, graphics, and interludes depict the past, present, and future as increasingly unstable terrains that can perhaps only be gleaned in the patterns they generate.

In this enterprise of pattern recognition, Histories of the Future is an ambitious book and openly acknowledges its broad scope; from that end, the text is a fascinating account of the multiplicity of futures and future nostalgia that mark not only North America but non-Western contexts, including the Philippines and Indonesia. But while there is nothing inherently wrong with the book’s subject matter, there is very little that makes the text a primary source of research for science fiction scholars or subscribers to Science Fiction Studies. For example, Anna Tsing’s analysis of frontier expansion in South Kalimantan, Indonesia (“How to Make Resources in Order to Destroy Them [and Then Save Them?] on the Salvage Frontier”), does not readily lend itself to sf scholarship. Neither do Joseph Macco’s touring of the nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Susan Lepselter’s account of UFOs and the conspiracy-minded denizens of Rachel, Nevada, nor the economics lessons Christopher Newfield learned from his grandfather at the local racetrack, all of which appear in the anthology. Thus, with a few notable exceptions, the essays are predominantly tangential to sf scholarship and would only be useful as supplements to more sf-specific explorations of the temporal collapse of future, present, and past.

Nevertheless, three papers deserve attention. The first is Miryam Sas’s “Subject, City, Machine.” As Sas explains, the neon cityscape and technological velocity of contemporary Tokyo find progenitors in 1920s Japanese Futurism. For Sas, this futurism is embodied in Hirato Renkichi’s 1921 “Manifesto of the Japanese Futurist Movement,” which has been translated by Sas and included as an interlude. As she explains, this manifesto “proclaims a new activity of the human arising or being expelled (hassuru) like exhaust fumes from the swarm of urban life. In a vision that anticipates Fritz Lang’s Metropolis ... Hirato saw the city as a machine with a ‘dynamo-electric’ core” (204). Sas goes on to argue that Hirato, inspired by F.T. Marinetti’s work on futurist art and poetry, attempted to reconcile the tension between the city and the corporeal body but “was unable to overcome or transcend the present body as a persistent site of ambivalence, a contrary force that he pushes at times toward the machine future of Marinetti but at other times toward a fleshy past of promised mortality and decay” (205). In sum, Hirato “implies both a relinquishing of the body to the project of speed and a central necessity of the body that gives itself over to the forward dash of mechanical and creative velocity” (208).

Sas expands her analysis beyond Hirato to Ingaki Taruho’s One Thousand One-Second Tales (1923), a collection of poems wherein “the future is present in the sense that magic happens all the time; but that magic seems to come from some unknown, electrified realm that activates the remnants and consequences of prior encounters” (215). As Sas explains it, Taruho’s poetry embodies narrative bricolage and features “a limited number of elements recombined in continually different patterns or configurations” (217). Furthermore, “Taruho focused on the everyday fragmentation of sensation and experience.... He evoked our necessary failure to grasp the magnitude and awe of the urban machine, as well as the structural impossibility of seeing the already fragmented ‘future’”(219). Overall, Sas’s piece presents Japanese Futurism, an area most likely unfamiliar to Western readers and scholars, in a clear, concise, and theoretically engaging manner that points to possible opportunities in ongoing research. For example, this paper provides a critical resonance for those academics working in such contemporary cultural arenas as anime and manga. In addition, further explorations into Japanese Futurism may contribute to current research into mind/body dualities in technoculture and science fiction, perhaps even offering opportunities to critically contrast Japanese Futurism with the futurism of the Pulp Age and the Golden Age of American sf or the futurism of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

In her analysis, Sas sees Hirato’s futurist visions as focusing on a “world of decay, degeneration, and shadows [that] impinges on, and paradoxically becomes central to, the futurist vision” (209). If decay is a central element of futurism, then Western sf author Philip K. Dick reigns supreme for exploring the degenerations embodied in entropy, kipple, and social disarray. In “Sing Out Ubik,” Pamela Jackson explores Dick’s Ubik (1969) and describes its setting as that of a “world coming apart.... Time seems to have sped up or gone into reverse, and the present-day world is eroding” (174). For Jackson, a challenging aspect of Ubik is attempting to locate the fictional world of the text in relation to the “real” world of both Dick and the reader. For example, she argues that Ubik challenges

our status outside the fiction written by itself: the Ubik ads that introduce each chapter address the reader, not the characters in the novel, insinuating that we might be the half-lifers in need of Ubik’s revitalizing powers. We are only characters to whom Ubik reveals its divinity in the last speech; its final words heard by no one “inside” the novel, go only into our ears (eyes)—a surprise direct encounter with the divine. (181) 

This type of postmodern slippage between the realities of text and reader is typical for an author such as Dick who repeatedly challenges the construction of reality. Thus, Jackson’s reading of Ubik and its uncertainties of reality, the disorder and decay of technologically-mediated worlds, and the alienness of “Ubik” are the strengths of her analysis.

The essay bogs down at times, however, as Jackson positions the Philip K. Dick of the 1970s and 1980s in relation to his earlier 1960s-era novel. Jackson writes that Ubik, if read carefully, “would reveal itself to be no mere cheap futuristic fantasy, but a genuine prophecy of things to come. Eight years later, Dick had a religious experience that led him to read his own novel in just that way” (173). The religious experience is infamous in Dickian lore: a pink beam of light in 1974 induced visions in Dick regarding alien conspiracies, past lives, and political revelations. This moment had a profound impact on his writing, finding expression in the voluminous “Exegesis” and such texts as VALIS (1981) and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982). Jackson’s essay provides snapshots of Dick following the pink beam incident of 1974 and its relationship to the Ubik in Ubik

Instead of seeing Ubik as an imposter god, offering only illusory redemptions and creating fake worlds with its ubiquitous logo, the post-pink-light Dick discovers in the novel the presence of a true, but tricky and trashy, god—one which is not fake but “fake fake,” which mimics the trashy products of the fake half-life world and puts on the trashy voices of advertising but is actually real. He later names this god Zebra, “because it’s blended,” and proposes that it was Zebra that invaded him, and possibly the whole world, in 3-74 (March 1974). (181)

To her credit, Jackson includes Dick’s own assessment of the Ubik in Ubik by using some of his letters, commentaries, and speeches. These primary sources help structure her reading of both Ubik and Dick’s reading of Ubik. For example, she demonstrates Dick’s belief that Ubik is a challenge to linear time as well as a textual prophecy; in Dick’s words, “[i]t’s obvious that the real author of Ubik was Ubik. It is a self-proving novel; i.e., it couldn’t have come into existence unless it were true” (179). At this point, however, Jackson’s structuring of Dick’s arguments regarding the veracity of Ubik as a spiritual entity prophesized in Ubik gets increasingly labyrinthine. By the end of Jackson’s analysis, the literary power of Philip K. Dick tends to be overshadowed by the questions regarding his mental stability. While Dick’s mental state may have always been precarious and continues to be the subject of speculation, his critical impact on sf and the genius behind Ubik and his other works—a genius exemplified in such novels as the Hugo-winning The Man in the High Castle (1962), Time Out of Joint (1959), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974)—does not come through in this analysis. It is quite likely unintentional, but the lasting impression of Jackson’s essay is not a profound reading of Ubik but the image of a potentially broken man whose mental stability had been irrevocably shattered following the mysterious events of 1974.

The final essay potentially relevant to sf scholars, particularly those working in cyberculture, is Daniel Rosenburg’s “Electronic Memory.” The piece is a survey of the computational work of Thodor Holm Nelson, “inventor of the terms ‘hypertext’ and ‘hypermedia,’ apostle of the home computer, Web visionary, self-appointed ‘officer of the future,’ seer of so much that we now take for granted in our experience of the electronic universe” (125). In a manner that is reminiscent of Tofts and McKeich’s Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture (1998) and Tofts, Jonson, and Cavallaro’s Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History (2002), Rosenburg uses Nelson to prefigure hypertext, interrogating its history and debunking some of the hyperbole surrounding this linguistic code. Rosenburg presents Nelson’s argument that hypertexuality is not unique to the computer environment but is a fundamental feature of most written narratives, so that

[a]ccording to Nelson, with the exception of the simplest and most rudimentary examples, all text is run through and through with pointers to other texts and textual places that stand outside the supposed linear sequence and encourage the reader to make explicit or implicit comparisons, mental leaps, and intellectual choices. (129)

Examples Rosenburg uses to support this claim include Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697), Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (1751-1766), and canonical texts by Marcel Proust and James Joyce. Rosenburg sees in Nelson’s theoretical and computational work a valuable tool “in understanding and mapping the terrain of everything that claims to be new by virtue of its nonlinearity” (148). Although Rosenburg’s paper is repetitive at times, the overall thrust of the piece is invaluable for fleshing out the history of cyberculture, and he does an admirable job exploring the “docuverse,” “transclusion,” and an alternative hypertext network named Xanadu that stands apart from the html coding of today’s Internet.

In summary, given the diverse articulations of future nostalgia Histories of the Future wants to explore, the text is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, by not limiting itself to a narrow focus, the book addresses such diverse arenas as text messaging in the Phillippines, Thodor Nelson’s Xanadu network, and the cult behavior of Heaven’s Gate. This highlights the future as a problematic concept in Western and non-Western contexts while grounding it in cultural events both small and large. On the other hand, without a tight focus, the overall effect of Histories of the Future can be somewhat estranging and the anthology becomes a hodge-podge collection that might make it difficult to find a core audience. With the exception of the essays by Miryam Sas, Pamela Jackson, and Daniel Rosenburg, Histories of the Future is of passing interest to those wanting to explore the collapse of temporality and pattern recognitions in sf.

Gibson, William. Pattern Recognition. New York: Putnam, 2003.
─────.“The Gernsback Continuum.” 1981. Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. Ed. Bruce Sterling. New York: Ace, 1986. 1-11.
Tofts, Darren, and Murray McKeich. Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture. North Ryde, Australia.: Interface-21-C, 1998.
Tofts, Darren, Annemarie Jonson, and Alessio Cavallaro, eds. Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002.

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