- Carol McGuirk. Angela's Ashes (Angela Carter, Shaking a Leg: Collected Writings; Aidan Day, Angela Carter: The Rational Glass; Sarah Gamble, Angela Carter: Writing from the Front Line; Linden Peach, Angela Carter; and Lindsey Tucker, Critical Essays on Angela Carter.)
- Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. The Global Province (James Gunn, ed., Around the World: The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 6, and Franz Rottensteiner, ed., View from Another Shore: European Science Fiction.)
- David N. Samuelson. Frankenstein Unwound (Jon Turney, Frankenstein's Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture, and David J. Skal. Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture.)
BOOKS IN REVIEW
Shaking a Leg: Collected Writings.
Penguin (fax: 212-366-2679), 1997. xiv + 641 pp. $15.95 paper.
Angela Carter: The Rational Glass.
Manchester UP, 1998. 224 pp. $79.95 cloth. Dist. in the US by St. Martin's (800-221-7945).
Angela Carter: Writing from the Front Line.
Edinburgh UP, 1997. vii + 200 pp. $22 paper. Dist. in U.S. by Columbia UP (fax: 212-316-9422).
Macmillan Modern Novelists Series. St. Martin's (800-221-7945), 1998. x + 183 pp. $35 cloth.
Critical Essays on Angela Carter.
G.K. Hall (800-223-2336), 1998. ix + 256 pp. $49 cloth.
Poor old Irish.... Keeled over at the Dream premiere, outside Grauman's Chinese.... "Don't worry," they said, carting him out of the way of the stars, "it's only a writer."--Angela Carter, Wise Children
Angela Carter's fiction is by turns grotesque (The Passion of New Eve ) and beguiling ("The Kitchen Child" ), affably forthcoming (Wise Children ) and ascetically opaque (The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman ). She introduces us to honky-tonk angels such as Fevvers in Nights at the Circus (1984) and to historical monsters such as Lizzie Borden and Charles Baudelaire in the stories collected in Black Venus (1985; US title Saints and Strangers ). She has been read as sympatico and as off-putting, as a feminist and as a misogynist. The four recent critical studies under review here suggest, in fact, that Angela Carter is, like other major writers who have lived and learned, nearly impossible to summarize. But eight years after her death, it is time to begin to try.
All these books follow well-marked but narrow paths through Carter's sometimes exuberant, sometimes foreboding imaginary landscapes. Collectively, they suggest a lack of consensus on Carter, a certain cluelessness. Is she best approached through her ideas or through her images--i.e., her by turns gothic and festive representations of the body? Is she a philosopher or a gadfly? Is she tragic or comic, postmodern or surreal or realistic? Are we being invited to a lustily transgressive carnival or a grim and decadent masquerade? Did Carter write fantasy, historical fiction, science fiction, feminist polemic, or anti-feminist polemic? The answer is Yes.
Yet, as mentioned, the studies under review explore a limited range among these myriad options. To Aidan Day, Carter is preeminently a rationalist; to Sarah Gamble, she is a feminist interested in dramatizating the liminal. To Linden Peach, a scholar in Britain who specializes in US fiction, Carter is an English writer strongly influenced by American culture, especially the criticism of Leslie Fiedler. Lindsey Tucker's volume, a miscellany of reprinted essays, flings the door wide to a variety of challenging readings and promising approaches, but Tucker offers little guidance on how these (in some cases mutually exclusive) interpretations might be synthesized into an overview.
Two of these books lay claim to being the first full-length work of criticism on Angela Carter. All were published between September 1997 (Gamble) and November 1998 (Tucker), and all to some degree have an air of being rushed into print. (The two published in the US, for instance, might have proofed their copyright pages. Carter was born in 1940 and died in 1992. Peach's copyright page gives Carter no death date [1940- ], while Tucker's not only provides no death date but is off on the date of birth [1951- ]. Tucker's first name is spelled "Lindsey" on the title page, "Lindsay" on the cover.)
With the exception of Tucker's substantial edition of reprinted scholarly essays, these books are physically and intellectually slight. Tucker's emphasizes Carter's fairy tales and short fiction and includes no chapter on Love (1971) or Wise Children; the other three focus on providing simple chronological or thematic surveys of Carter's novels. All are accessibly written and full of praise for this magical writer. To a greater or lesser degree, however, all fail to do justice either to Carter's complex and controversial sexual ideology or (more important still) to her extraordinary literary inventiveness. They offer little assistance even in understanding the issues that underlie Carter's mixed critical and academic reception (for she has been both praised and damned). No single book can provide a total guide to any writer; but taken as a group, these four early assessments provide a flimsy basis for further study.
Linden Peach's book modestly describes itself as a critical biography for general readers, but its sophistication and coherence make it the most generally useful of the four. On Carter's selection of a male protagonist as first-person narrator of the tricky The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman, for instance, Peach is sensible and insightful:
Desiderio is the author of a narrative which, as [Sally] Robinson (1991) says, "enlists an array of misogynist sentiment and fantasy".... However, here Carter as a female author is appropriating a male consciousness to expose how women are trapped, like the woman reader of this novel, in a male imaginary. Moreover, the narrative technique of ventriloquism--a female author speaking in a male voice--is employed to create not just pornography but an especially sadistic version of it. Hence as a parody of pornography, Desiderio's account positions the (male) reader as voyeur but does not necessarily guarantee a voyeuristic, pleasure position. (111)
The use of a male first-person narrator, actually quite characteristic of speculative fiction by women during the 1960s and early 1970s (another example is Ursula K. Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness ), is an important factor in interpreting Dr. Hoffman. Yet only the books of Peach and Tucker (whose volume reprints the excellent excerpt from Robinson's Engendering the Subject [SUNY Press] that Peach is quoting from above) address this matter of Carter's early "ventriloquism."
Peach is perhaps too insistent on Carter's debt to Leslie Fiedler's discussion of Euro-American Gothicism in Love and Death in the American Novel (Criterion, 1960): he makes a strong case, but overlooks equally probable influences; Carter didn't stop reading (or thinking) in 1965. The psychoanalytic theories of Melanie Klein also loom a little large. At a minimum the works by Klein that Peach paraphrases should have been specifically identified. (There is no Works Cited section in Peach's volume, and the Bibliography lists only Penguin's Selected Melanie Klein : Klein's theories are described without citation of a single article or book title.) Despite the minimal documentation, however, this gracefully written account of Carter's development as a novelist rings true overall. A Toni Morrison scholar, Peach knows the discourse on myth and folklore, adding an interesting dimension to his reading of Carter. This slender book remains a sketch, though, not an in-depth portrait.
Lindsey Tucker's volume of reprinted articles is, as noted, in size and intellectual scope much the most substantial of these four. But no attempt is made in the introduction to synthesize the contents of the volume--to pull together the disparate elements of Carter's achievement addressed piecemeal in the reprinted essays. For, while strong on the matters they do address, Tucker's authors proceed from such different assumptions about Carter (her genres and her fictional practices) that the sum of this book is quite difficult to total. In equally good essays, for instance, Elaine Jordan argues that Carter is interested in ideas--"I want to consider Carter's fiction as literary criticism" (39)--while Jean Wyatt argues that Carter is interested mainly in provocation: "the image of woman's castration serves Carter's own polemical purposes as a metaphor for the painful curtailment of a woman's erotic potential" (60). Sylvia Bryant argues a further possibility: Carter's enterprise is inherently didactic, teaching the limits of traditional fairy tales (94).
Tucker's introduction does provide a lucid chronological survey of Carter's writings, but it focuses mainly on Carter commentators not represented in the volume, including Salman Rushdie, Lorna Sage, Linda Hutcheon, and Claire Kahane. A rationale for the reprinted articles also was needed--some account of how they fit together and why they were selected. Though especially important with a writer whose critical heritage, as Tucker says, is "only at the beginning" (20), all such rationales are merely implied. Salman Rushdie's praise of The Bloody Chamber (1979) as Carter's "masterwork," for instance, seems quoted (5) as support for a decision to devote three separate chapters to single fairy tales (Sylvia Bryant on "Beauty and the Beast," Robin Ann Sheets on "The Bloody Chamber," and Harriet Kramer Linkin on "The Erl-King"); a fourth chapter on short fiction is provided by Jill Matus, writing on the brilliant "Black Venus," one of Carter's best neo-documentary tales. The ghost of a rationale for including three essays on Nights at the Circus seems provided by Tucker's early statement that the heroine of that novel is Carter's "most memorable protagonist" (1). While these are fine essays devoted to a wonderful novel, the three chapters on Nights take up space that might have gone to other novels equally good. Tucker has (again implicitly) drawn negative conclusions about most of Carter's early novels--only The Magic Toyshop (1967) and Heroes and Villains (1969) are much considered here. And it is difficult to understand what case is being silently made against Wise Children, for, apart from three pages of plot summary in the introduction and two passing references in the chapters that follow, Carter's luminous final novel has been effectively "disappeared." If no essay substantial enough for reprinting has appeared in the six years since Wise Children was published, a new essay should have been commissioned.
In privileging Carter's revisionary fairy tales, Tucker shortchanges the novels and nonfiction. And, though even her smallest stories are often gems, to read Carter as a miniaturist wrongs her high ambitions. There is some impression created by this volume that easy tasks are being preferred to more difficult ones: for instance, the volume offers only four pages of sustained discussion of The Sadeian Woman (1979)--framing an excellent article by Robin Ann Sheets that nonetheless is preoccupied less with analysis of the work itself than with feminist critiques of it and application of its views on pornography to the short story "The Bloody Chamber." Tucker sometimes seems, in fact, to be tiptoeing around controversial issues. The introduction's brief discussion of The Sadeian Woman, for instance, cites the British subtitle (An Exercise in Cultural History) rather than the US one (And the Ideology of Pornography). And The Passion of New Eveis mischaracterized by Tucker--perhaps her training as a James Joyce scholar leads her astray--as "strongly comedic" (14). Fortunately, the volume reprints a more complex reading: Nicoletta Vallorani's elegant "The Body of the City" (printed originally in SFS 21.3 : 365-79).
Tucker's volume for Hall sheds a floodlight on Carter the spinner of tales, leaving Carter the magnificent provocateur somewhat in shadow. By contrast, the light cast by both Aidan Day's and Sarah Gamble's books is steady but feeble. Though not wholly without merit, these two are the weakest in this group. Day's account of Carter often offers inaccurate or misleading general background in support of a potentially provocative thesis: Carter, says Day, has no deep interest in fantasy or the surreal; she sets up fantastic scenarios solely to stage a subversion of myth. Carter is preeminently a rationalist: hence the book's subtitle. This thesis is far from untenable, but it is argued by assertion and broad (often selective) plot paraphrase and so is not very persuasive. In order to read the dazzling and disturbing The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman as "rationalist," for instance, Day must accept Desiderio, Carter's ventriloquized first-person narrator, not only as reliable but as a kind of hero; he must himself rationalize Desiderio's ultimate murders: "It is humanity that Desiderio thinks of when he finally kills both Hoffman and his daughter Albertina" (87).
Day occasionally digresses--e.g., a long discussion of John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman (68-75) introduced as a contrast to Dr. Hoffman. Day suggests that Fowles is postmodern (a term that Day tends to use as if synonymous with "morally repugnant") and that Carter is emphatically not, despite the mosiac of overlapping "realities" in this novel. Day's argument for Carter's "rationalism" is throughout based on Carter's presumed rejection of the postmodern. "One doesn't have to be an old traditionalist," Day muses, "to be disconcerted by some extreme postmodern positions. It would, for example, be disconcerting to think that the arguments of a racist have as much authority as those of an anti-racist. One might as well say that the Nazis were as 'right' as their opponents.... One doesn't have to be an old traditionalist to be disconcerted at the thought of having to think such things" (83). This is the worst of Day's book: while these issues have their relevance to analysis of Carter's fiction, Day is fatally superficial. These are not matters to be clarified by free association.
There is a curiously "potted" quality to many of Day's summaries--a problem because this book, like Peach's, relies heavily on paraphrase. In the introduction, in order to prove that Carter is not writing fantasy, Day quotes two brief passages from Todorov's structuralist
study of the fantastic, concluding that "Carter's work does not satisfy Todorov's criteria" (6). That this might mean that Todorov's criteria need adjustment does not seem to occur to Day, for he then moves on to an equally rapid and tendentious mini-analysis of Rosemary Jackson (6-7).
Another example of Day's impoverished summaries: in discussing "Beulah," the essentialist and subterranean desert "paradise" of "Mother" and her minions in the dystopian The Passion of New Eve, Day, linking Carter to William Blake, defines "Beulah" as a "matriarchal city," relying on a single source that defines Blake's Beulah as a feminine space (113). But it's dangerous to base readings of Blake on a single critic, even one as good as Harold Bloom. Northrop Frye explains Beulah as the earthly paradise or place of threefold vision, where followers of religion "must choose between the Word and the World" (53). Blake's Beulah is congruent with John Bunyan's in The Pilgrim's Progress (1678)--a pastoral and lovely eutopia traversed by Hopeful and Christian just before they swim through the river of death and are admitted to the Heavenly City. Bunyan's positioning of Beulah as a final, pleasant space-of-the-body before the transition to pure spirit is pertinent to Carter, I would argue, in showing how rich and layered (not unilateral and pat) her allusions are. Carter hasn't given Mother's "feminine" space merely a name denoting femininity. If Beulah is traditionally the earthly paradise of sexuality (Blake) and the body (Bunyan), then the grotesque surgical and paramilitary regime of "Mother" in Carter emerges as darkly ironic, in fact as savagely satiric, a conclusion Vallorani also draws in her essay for the Tucker volume (183).
Day might also (in touring literary Beulahs) have looked at the Book of Isaiah, source both for Blake and Bunyan. In the Old Testament, Beulah is introduced in Isaiah's prophecy of Israel restored: "Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzibah, and thy land Beulah: for the Lord delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married. For as a young man marrieth a virgin, so shall thy sons marry thee: and as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall God rejoice over thee" (62: 4-5). Considering that in The Passion of New Eve Beulah is a space constructed under the vast southwestern desert in which Carter's initially male narrator Evelyn is castrated and then refashioned into a fertile Eve (part of a planned though never completed transformation that will allow "Mother" eventually to impregnate Eve with the sperm of her former self), this Bible passage suggests a further layer in Carter's multivalent ironies. Carter lifts from the Bible (evidently) the desert, the bride, the groom, the trope of captivity, and the utopian view of a new birth (new society). But she does so utterly to subvert her source. To use a phrase that Carter liked, there's nothing sacred here, and "marriage" is no modality of effortless fertility and procreation, no "natural" metaphor. Day's thesis about Carter's rationalism leads to an allegorical reading: Beulah=woman; Desiderio (desire)=empirical skepticism. This approach cheats Carter of much of her contradictory richness. She is more complex (in fact, more literary) than any A=A formulation.
If Day's study drives its "rationalist" thesis straight through Carter's oeuvre like a lumbering Humvee, Sarah Gamble is so committed to recording the countless instances of "marginalization" in Carter that she has little time for progressing to more advanced critical analysis. In Gamble's view, Carter
was primarily concerned with maintaining a skeptical, interrogatory position on the periphery of dominant cultural attitudes and conventions. I think there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that Carter regarded such a position as an extremely empowering one, and her construction of both herself as writing subject and what she wrote as "marginal" was crucial to the progression of her career. By "marginal" in this context, I mean that she regarded herself as operating from the edge of consensus views of any kind. (3-4)
True enough--in fact, self-evident.
Gamble's focus on the marginal distracts her from reading Carter's fiction. Between pages 3-10 of her introduction, she frames her book's entire approach and argument without referring to a single specific work of fiction or a single character by name. Gamble relies instead on other critics' generalizations about Carter and on brief quotations of letters and journalism, cited as if absolutely reliable in establishing Carter's intentions and writerly practices. Gamble's book has its eye on classroom use, being "aimed primarily at a student audience who wish to gain some knowledge of Carter's career and the dominant themes and concerns within her work as a whole" (3). But there is a mist of the unspecific surrounding definition of these "dominant themes," a tendency to maladroit description: "The Sadeian Woman, however, is the final, most explicit, indication of the alteration in Carter's literary focus in her fiction of the seventies. Now, her perspective is focused below the surface, below skin itself, to find the meat beneath" (103). Speaking of meat, to her credit Gamble is not squeamish, addressing The Sadeian Woman at length and arguing a sensible point: Carter is not blindly following de Sade
in this book but reconstructing or reaccentuating his assertions for her own feminist purposes (102).
The flaw in Gamble's book is that she is simply not at home with the textured nuances of literature. Introducing her discussion of Wise Children, Gamble writes that "Carter's final novel ... reiterates the invitation extended by Nights at the Circus to enter the world of the narrative and accept the characters as real people with lives beyond the confines of the text" (169). But what reader is so naive as to close Nights at the Circus unaware that Carter has invited readers to contest Fevvers's claims to authenticity? Fevvers may be miraculous (a girl born with wings) or she may be a fraud: either way, she is constructed, imaginary. In any case, such a trite summary of that romp of a novel--John Bayley has called Fevvers "a sort of jolly feminine Tom Jones" (11)--will scarcely invite students to read further. Gamble is sound, if uninspired, on the issues of gender Carter addresses. But she cannot read (or does not care about) Carter's texts as inventions, as fictions.
"I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode," Carter quotably quips in "Notes from the Front Line" (1983), from which Gamble takes her subtitle. "Notes" is also reprinted as the first chapter in Tucker. I would suggest that if Carter's by turns playful and violent appropriations of canonical literature are ever to be better understood, her critics had better acquire expertise not only on new wine but on old bottles. For none of these critics has evoked Carter's intertextual richness, her joyous, dark, edgy, sly literary echoes. Gamble and Day sedulously avoid advanced literary analysis ("this book is not about [Carter's] ... style of writing" [Day 2]). And while Peach and the authors gathered in Tucker do often mention her allusiveness, they document it only intermittently.
No critic here has explored Carter's echoes of Charles Dickens, from Great Expectations (1861) in Wise Children ("What larks!" is a motif in both novels) to Little Dorrit (1855-57). None has noted that "The Lucky Chances," name of Dora's and Nora's sister act in Wise Children, echoes The Lucky Chance (1686), an enjoyably raunchy comedy by Aphra Behn, a woman writer who (like Carter) shocked the puritans of her day. Investigation of such intertextual references will not generate a simple passkey to Carter, of course; but it might offer clues to critics seeking to get beyond plot summary and the cataloguing of themes. It might suggest how deeply read Carter was in the highbrow canon she so often ransacked for intellectual finery. Carter most likely read with some appreciation, for instance, Behn's profane self-defense in the preface to The Lucky Chance (rebutting charges that her humor was unfeminine and coarse): "Had the plays I have writ come forth under any man's name, and never known to have been mine, I appeal to all unbiased judges of sense, if they had not said that person had made as many good comedies, as any one man that has writ in our age; but a devil on't, the woman damns the poet" (190). Carter must have liked Behn's valiant parting shot, too: "I value fame as much as if I had been born a hero" (191). The frequent insistence (as in Gamble) on Carter's "writing from the margin" can be in some ways misleading. Like Behn, Carter was a successful author and public figure, holding her own in a notably competitive sphere. In any case, while sometimes quite hostile to literary forebears--she is not kind to F. Scott Fitzgerald/William Faulkner ("Irish") in Wise Children, for example, nor to the prophet Isaiah--quite often, Carter's literary echoes pay homage to those predecessors (like Behn and Dickens) whom she viewed as kindred spirits.
Sarah Gamble begins her book with a familiar story: in 1992-93, the year following Carter's death, the British Academy received forty proposals for funded research into her fiction--more than for the entire eighteenth century (1). A fuller exploration of Carter's critical reception was in order if the matter was to be mentioned at all: were the projects, for instance, in literary studies or one of the other fields that Carter's work drew from and influenced-- folklore, women's studies, sf, cultural studies, even film studies and children's literature? In fact, the academic literary reception of Carter was always (and continues to be) mixed. As Salman Rushdie wrote in an obituary: "I repeat: Angela Carter was a great writer. I repeat this because in spite of her world-wide reputation, here in Britain she never quite had her due" (5). As I have noted elsewhere, Carter, whose early fiction won two major awards, was never short-listed for the Booker Prize after its founding in 1969--and yet think of the novels by Carter that saw print between 1969 and her death in 1992. Never to be named even as a finalist was a decisive snub from her peers: a committee of writers selects the Booker shortlist (see McGuirk 939-940). Indeed, in the US today, such major works as The Passion of New Eve have been out of print for years, though Virago keeps the book available in Britain. The Passion of New Eve--with Heroes and Villains (1969), among Carter's most science-fictional novels--may in fact present special problems for American readers. In an apocalyptic US, breezily stereotyped "Blacks" are depicted as uniformly urban and militarized; such major characters as Leilah are also described, at least initially, in terms of racial clichés. Carter, I think, was emulating, with mixed results, Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren (1975), another mythopoeic meditation on cities, sexuality, and difference. But I wonder if the racial stereotypes asserted/resisted in this novel may not be even more of a difficulty in marketing it for US consumption than Carter's satiric vision of gender and sexuality.
The English critic John Bayley mused on whether Carter had ever received her "due" in a mixed review of Wise Children that appeared a month after Rushdie's New York Times obituary. While offering a lengthy, warm appreciation of Carter's neglected fifth novel Love (1971), Bayley largely rejects Carter's later and more speculative work:
A room of one's own, or a bloody chamber? The new role model for women may seem to deny them the literary gift of privacy. But it is sad that so gifted a writer as Angela Carter, who died of cancer in February at the early age of fifty-one, will not be continuing to explore and define her new worlds in fiction.... [T]hey say that wise children know their fathers, and she certainly knew hers, while rejecting any concept of patriarchy. Jane Austen and the Virginia Woolf of Orlando and The Waves would have recognized her as one of themselves and been greatly interested by her books, although they might have missed in them the privacy ... the more secret style of independence, which they valued as much as good writing, and which is the supreme gift to us of their novels. Carter's achievement shows us how a certain style of good writing has politicized itself today, constituting itself as the literary branch of militant orthodoxy. (11)
Bayley's concluding comments are patronizing as a description of Angela Carter, but they may apply to some of the Carter critics under review here.
The question remains: how might criticism of Carter constitute itself beyond an orthodox litany of themes suitable for the correct classroom? For one thing, criticism could cherish equally Carter's rebellion and her constructiveness, acknowledging her scandalous heterodoxy, which is on ample display in the one true dazzler among these volumes. Shaking a Leg, a new collection of the author's reviews and occasional writings, ranges from theory (reviews of Barthes, Bataille) to travel (some brilliant meditations on Japan), and from cooking and popular fashion to "The Art of Horrorzines." She was equally at home with French New Wave cinema (essays on Godard and Bertolucci) and British New Wave sf (reviews of Ballard and Moorcock).
"What can put you off Grace Paley's stories," Carter says in a 1980 review of Paley's The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) reprinted in Shaking a Leg, "is their charm. [Yet] ... the charm turns out to be a stalking horse, a method of persuasion, the self-conscious defensive/protective mechanism characteristic of all exploited groups, a composite of Jewish charm, Black charm, Irish charm, Hispanic charm, female charm. It is part of the apparatus of the tragic sense of life" (516-519). In that leap that so few writers would make--that swift progression from sentimental "charm" to gender/ethnic identity-politics to "the apparatus of the tragic sense of life"--we see Carter's customary acrobatic swoop from the surface (charm) to the heights (the tragic sense). When her critics can themselves convey or perhaps to some degree acquire this risky talent for flying with superb confidence across categories, we may finally get a body of scholarship worthy of Angela Carter.
Bayley, John. "Fighting for the Crown." New York Review of Books (April 23, 1992): 9-11.
Behn, Aphra. "The Rover" and Other Plays, ed. Jane Spencer. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.
Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1947.
McGuirk, Carol. "Drabble to Carter: Fiction by Women, 1962-1992." In The Columbia History of the British Novel, eds. John Richetti et al. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 939-960.
Rushdie, Salman. "Angela Carter, 1940-92: A Very Good Wizard, a Very Dear Friend." New York Times Book Review (March 8, 1992): 5.
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.
The Global Province
James Gunn, ed.
Around the World: The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 6.
White Wolf (800-454-9653), 1998. 656 pp. $14.99 paper.
Franz Rottensteiner, ed.
View from Another Shore: European Science Fiction.
Liverpool UP (fax: 0151-794-2235), 1998. xvi + 256 pp. ,22.50 cloth; ,11.95 paper.
In sf, as in US culture generally, the 1970s and early 1980s were a period of heroic, aggressive internationalism. The Baby Boom had reached college, and the Civil Rights and anti-war movements inspired in them an almost romantic solidarity with other cultures. Publishers felt that not only European but Latin American and even Japanese and African literature had markets. In sf, too, there was a mini-translation boom. Macmillan was committed to publishing several Soviet sf novels, and it seemed that the whole Strugatsky oeuvre might soon appear in English. Seabury, and later Avon, published Lem as though he were the Polish Borges. As the new branch of sophisticated sf inaugurated by the British New Wave became established in the US, it appeared that literary sf from Europe and the USSR would come to share in its glory.
But even then there were troubling lacunae. Where were Japanese and Chinese sf, which we knew existed but seldom saw in translation? Was there no sf in the Third World? Anthologies of Japanese and Chinese sf did finally appear in English, but they are the last such gatherings listed by James Gunn in his introduction to the new global sf volume of The Road to Science Fiction. The past ten years have seen a drastic decline in US publication of "foreign" sf, and looking back from 1989, there hadn't actually been that much non-Anglo sf published in English after all. Aside from the Strugatskys, Lem, and the Macmillan Soviets, what was the tally? In terms of novels (by then the main medium for sf), a few by Gérard Klein, another few by Michel Jeury and Pierre Boulle and Robert Merle, a handful by Wolfgang Jeschke and Herbert Franke, one by Sakyo Komatsu (abridged), Kobo Abé's Inter Ice Age 4 (1959; US 1970), and perhaps a few others. Some classics were re-translated (Verne,
Čapek, Zamyatin, Bulgakov) or appeared for the first time from university presses (Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Alexander Bogdanov). But that was it.
The state of the art in 1999 is wretched. Almost all the international anthologies and stand-alone novels are out of print and/or inaccessible. Gunn's volume 6 of The Road to Science Fiction, entitled Around the World, and Franz Rottensteiner's reissue of View from Another Shore, originally published in 1973, are recent attempts to keep non-Anglo voices alive in English. Each book has its virtues, but ultimately each merely underscores how completely Anglo sf has consolidated its dominance over the genre.
Gunn's anthology is an interesting addition to his big project of collecting exemplary stories from every period, and now every major region, of sf. Its superlatively classy cover displays a list of some of the most illustrious writers ever associated with sf: Abé, Borges, Calvino,
Čapek, Carlos Fuentes, E.T.A. Hoffman (sic), Kafka, Lem, García Márquez, the Strugatskys, Verne, Ye Yonglie. The selections inside are arranged according to regions: France (Verne, Albert Robida, J.-H. Rosny Aîné, Boris Vian, Philippe Curval, and Gérard Klein, with Elisabeth Vonarburg representing Québec), Germany (Hoffmann, Kurd Lasswitz, Kafka, Herbert W. Franke, Wolfgang Jeschke, Erik Simon), Scandinavia and Finland (Svend Åge Madsen, Sam J. Lundwall), Eastern Europe (Capek, Lem, Josef Nesvadba, Alexandr Kramer, Ovid S. Crohmalniceanu), Russia (the Strugatskys, Kirill Bulychev), Italy (Dino Buzzati, Tommaso Landolfi, Italo Calvino), Spain and Latin America (Teresa Inglés, Borges, García Márquez, Fuentes), India (Laxman Londhe), China (Zheng Wenguang, Ye Yonglie), and Japan (Abé, Komatsu, Tetsu Yano)--with an appended biographical mini-essay by Elisabeth Vonarburg. Obviously, it is an impressive gathering, but the ultimate effect is of a well-intentioned mélange of pre-, proto-, para-, and pulp sf that has little theoretical or practical coherence.
But what should the purpose of an anthology of "international sf" be? Should it show that other, more literary traditions produce works of science fictional beauty? Should it show that "foreign" writers write sf distinctive of their language-cultures? Should it show that sf is a global phenomenon, that the pulp formulae travel everywhere, and that Sturgeon's Law is universal? How should one define "international sf" when the most popular and prolific forms come from a single culture, and the rest of the globe constitutes the periphery?
Whatever criterion an editor might use, the sad fact is that non-Anglo sf does not sell. Gunn offers cogent reasons for this commercial failure; the main one, curiously enough, cuts across his gallant intention "to recognize other traditions and, by bringing them together into a kind of gestalt of foreign SF, to provide a corrective to the illusion that all SF is American" (10). The problem is that Gunn's overall conception of the field seems almost calculated to justify true fans' distaste for "foreign" sf, since the "truth" is it's not really sf at all.
In every volume of The Road to Science Fiction, Gunn offers a most elegant definition of the genre. Sf for him "deals with the effects of change on people in the real world as it can be projected into the past, the future, or to distant places. It often concerns itself with scientific or technological change, and it usually involves matters whose importance is greater than the individual or the community; often civilization or the race itself is in danger" (16). For sf the world is knowable; human existence is an evolutionary outcome; and, armed with that knowledge, human beings are capable of influencing their further evolution. These qualities explain, to Gunn's mind, the great aesthetic and cognitive differences between sf and "mainstream" literature--or, as it eventually becomes, literature itself. "Mainstream" literature is preoccupied with the present, and concentrates on social interaction as if "the only important ... aspect of existence is the way in which people relate to each other" (20). In the course of his argument, Gunn imperceptibly elides his definition of sf with "American" sf--with its characteristic pragmatism and problem-solving--and his sketch of "mainstream" literature with European, and ultimately all non-Anglo, sf. The latter are "other" than US core-sf because they have been tied to the "literary" tradition rather than the pulp tradition that constitutes the distinctive formative environment of US sf. Non-US literature of the "serious" kind was congenial to the fantastic of all types, even sf, and so sf in more traditional literary cultures could not free itself from the constraints of archaic values that dominated traditional literature. Gunn cites good historical reasons for this (uneven development, the social fallout of the great wars, etc.)--but the fact remains that sf outside the US has been unable to develop those qualities that define "real" sf. It is more prone to social concreteness, to present-centeredness, to stylistic affectation reflecting psychological or literary complexity, and to a fatalism in the face of history. Though Gunn does not want to state it, the conclusion is clear: the American sf fan cannot enjoy that "foreign stuff" because it isn't the real thing.
And of course he may be right. Most of his selections certainly do nothing to refute this idea. By choosing to organize the stories exclusively by region, Gunn avoids confronting the fact that most of his examples require a broader definition of sf--as, say, a class of fantasy writing that uses scientific ideas and fictive inventions for a myriad of metaphorical purposes, and of which the problem-solving heroism of the American pulps and Soviet socialist-futurism is a mere subset. Gunn could have chosen only sf texts consistent with his theory; instead, he collects several fine examples of literary fantasy that clearly elude narrow generic boundaries. Some writers, such as Borges, García Márquez, Kafka, Abé, and even Calvino, might be considered writers of anti-sf--rational fantasists who reject and deprecate the moral and aesthetic conventions of Gunn's problem-solving genre. There are also some examples of inventive, original sf by anyone's definition (such as Curval's "An Alien Behind the Wine Bottle," Jeschke's "Loitering at Death's Door," and Tetsu Yano's lovely, lyrical "The Legend of the Paper Spaceship"). Organizing by regions and countries is merely a convenience--Gunn does not consider how the languages of national literatures might affect sf, and literatures for him run together as a sort of monolithic pre-scientific institution. So the only thing that national divisions can reflect in his scheme is a vague sense of "history." Accordingly, the historical examples--Verne, Robida, Lasswitz, Rosny Aîné, Hoffmann--might be useful, but only if they are placed specifically in the context of historical antecedents of sf. Moreover, such a collection would have to include more texts of obvious historical (as opposed to literary) significance: e.g., works by Konstantin Tsiolkovksy, Alexander Bogdanov, Alexei Tolstoy, Maurice Renard, Stanislaw Witkiewicz, Imre Madách, etc.
RTSF 6 does not purport to be a purely historical anthology, nor even a theoretically consistent one. Still, "gestalts" don't just happen; they emerge from history and theory. As a result, Gunn's anthology is a grab bag of texts with different relations to both sf and "the world," selected to fill certain niches--nation, generic history, literary status--that do not really complement one another. In the end, Gunn never does provide a rationale for why these stories, and not others, should have been included.
Perhaps even more distressing than this theoretical confusion, the bibliographic apparatus (limited to an "Acknowledgments" page) is a mess. Sometimes translation dates are given, but not original publication dates; sometimes original publication venues are given, sometimes not; publication sites are absent altogether. Occasionally some of this information is supplied in the introductory comments before each selection, more usually not. In some cases, no information at all is provided about the translations (e.g., the selections from Verne, Robida, and Kafka). The edition from which Gunn has culled the translation of Hoffmann's "The Sandman" is given, but not the name of the translator. Because of this bibliographic chaos, it is also unclear how many of the selections were translated specifically for this volume. I can guess that all the entries "reprinted by permission of the author" and lacking English publication dates were commissioned (but what about Kafka's "The Hunter Gracchus," which is not listed at all in the "Acknowledgments"? Could Gunn have actually commissioned a new translation of this canonical Kafka story without mentioning it?). Another clue is that these particular stories (by Franke, Jeschke, Simon, Madsen, Nesvadba, Crohmalniceanu, and, yes, Kafka) were all "adapted by James Gunn"--though there is no explanation of what this "adaptation" entailed.
Elisabeth Vonarburg's short biographical appendix, "US, SF and Us," details her creative journey from an initial exposure to sf via the French Fleuve Noir series, through her increasingly fraught relationship with Anglo sf, complicated by her emigration to Québec. It is a rich and interesting story, but Vonarburg's ideas are surprisingly confused. For Vonarburg, sf, like science itself, "transcends cultural barriers"--partly because these barriers are breaking down under global Americanization, but also because the genre has a universal thesaurus of concerns and themes. She rejects the notion that authors or works of sf can have "cultural specificity" (654); yet on the next page, she speaks of the "fundamental originality and uniqueness of each writer's voice in her or his own language" (655). Language--how different languages and literary norms can define the boundaries of what a culture is used to imagining, and the challenge of making sense against those norms--is the factor that does not come up in Gunn's speculations, or for that matter in Vonarburg's. She does make it clear that all non-Anglo sf writers must adopt a complex attitude, working both with and against the dominant Anglo tradition. Yet she is very sketchy about how French and French-Canadian writers specifically work within fraught cultural traditions. The main problem, it seems to me, in Gunn's--and the US sf establishment's--approach to the question of non-Anglo sf is that they do not think very deeply about language and how it may affect thought. This is a perfectly understandable (if lamentable) attitude on the part of the new lingua franca, Satellite English, as it drives other tongues to extinction.
Franz Rottensteiner is well aware of this anglophone juggernaut. In his revised introduction to an old collection, Rottensteiner updates the condition of European sf since the fall of the Soviet order. The once-dignified (and subsidized) Eastern European alternatives to US models have been swept away by the tidal wave of inexpensive translations of American pulps. Publishers there (as here) know that there is no money in the native product, and the object of desire is whatever works in the US market. But if Rottensteiner's goal in 1999 is the same as it was in 1973 when this anthology originally appeared--i.e., to demonstrate the quality and vitality of European alternative-sf--it is poorly served indeed by republishing essentially the same selection of stories as in the original edition. Only a single story has been added, Wolfgang Jeschke's 1986 tale "The Land of Osiris"--significantly, one of the volume's finest selections. What other recent gems did Rottensteiner see fit not to include? It makes little sense that one of the leading editors and anthologists of European sf should not have found equally good or better stories written during the past twenty-five years. Far from demonstrating vitality, the book seems to say that European sf remains frozen in a sort of Golden Age. The stories are generally of much higher quality than those in Gunn's volume, but they do not represent a living tradition of European sf.
More bothersome than the apparent nonchalance of Rottensteiner's (non-) selection of stories is his introduction. After providing a solid explanation of sf's changed social situation in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism, the piece degenerates into a nearly ad hominem attack on Stanislaw Lem. The 1973 introduction had praised Lem highly (Rottensteiner was Lem's agent at the time for the anglophone regions), but now this praise has been replaced by scorn, perhaps reflecting the bitter controversy that has divided the two men in recent years. Rottensteiner blasts Lem on so many fronts that a reader coming to the subject for the first time would be simply clueless. What's the sense of expending several valuable pages trashing a writer whose reputation as a major artist few can contest, a reputation few have done more to build than Rottensteiner himself? Nothing in Lem's art has changed, no matter how grave his personal flaws may be, or how misanthropic and misogynistic his world-view. Nor does it make much sense to offer the Strugatskys as virtuous countermodels--especially since there are no Strugatsky stories in the collection.
Even with its rancorous introduction, its limited scope, and its anachronistic selections, View from Another Shore is still a better read than Gunn's anthology; but it does nothing to establish whether current European sf is a vital and evolving body of literature. Indeed, both anthologies show us only this: that there was once a branch of scientific-rational fantasy that national writers pursued in their own way, without anxiety about the power of American sf to control the world's science-fictional imagination as its political economy dominates the nations. But the real question of the moment is: how are the world's scientific fantasists responding to metropolitan American sf (diffused through the multinational film industry in the "international style" of sf-spectacle production) as it saturates once-national public cultures? What we really need to know is the state of the art in the global provinces, right now. On this crucial question, Gunn and Rottensteiner are mum.
David N. Samuelson
Frankenstein's Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture.
Yale UP (203-432-0964), 1998. x + 276 pp. $30 cloth.
David J. Skal.
Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture.
Norton (212-354-5500), 1998. 358 pp. $29.95 cloth.
History has found Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), Mary Shelley's overdetermined opus, foresightful in ways the author could never have imagined. She could not, of course, have known what biological researchers would invent or discover in centuries to follow; indeed, we have no reason to believe she intended to "predict" anything at all, other than her fear that Western scientists would ignore the consequences of their quest for knowledge. The impact of her cautionary tale is so widespread, however, that its elements are immediately recognized in and beyond literature and film; allusions to her creatures (both the scientist and his monster) prompt institutional guardians of biology to take reasonable precautions against such risks as can be anticipated. Biology, innately more personal than physics, is also more subject to fantasies of panacea and disaster. Even today, the fear of Frankenstein provides a psychological obstacle to be overcome by public relations experts, as we see once again in the international trade flap over genetically engineered foodstuffs.
These two volumes of "cultural criticism" detail the propagation of the Frankenstein myth over two centuries of popular culture. Jon Turney, former science editor of the Times Education Supplement and now senior lecturer in science communication at University College London, examines film, fiction, and advertisements as well as news stories in the mass media. Also using some literary sf, David J. Skal draws his evidence more from film and electronic media. Both books address the overarching "sf imagination" that shapes the popular reception of scientific breakthroughs and technological developments.
Both authors connect sf to the human fascination with biomedical innovations of varying plausibility, and both books address commercialization and hype--selling if not keeping promises. Both follow a rough chronological order, suggesting development if not evolution of themes that mix and match. Turney's task is the more sober one, charting a trail of broken dreams in which sf sometimes prompts and usually memorializes "real-world" events. Skal's more garrulous book includes gossip about the movie business, its technology, its makers, and its appetite for what sells, tied to journalistic and social science reports. For him, the Frankenstein complex covers all kinds of "mad science"--both real and imaginary research of a threatening nature. Differing in argumentative method and overall credibility, the two books complement each other, showing the wide range and reach of science-fictional concepts.
Frankenstein's Footsteps surveys how public images of biological science over the past two centuries have been keyed to Frankenstein, "the governing myth of modern biology" (3). Like the myth itself, Turney
describes the public's ambivalence toward developments that affect images of
bodily integrity and human propagation. Discussing Shelley's novel, he cites its
predecessor myths and the state of biological knowledge in her time, with which
she had acquaintance through her father and her husband. Unlike Goethe's Faust,
a legitimate contender as a symbol of Western over-reaching, Shelley's Frankenstein looks forward to biological research, rather than backward to magic and superstition. Recognizing that her novel can be interpreted in many ways, Turney believes all readings should include "a creation myth based on science as a substitute for God, a surprisingly realistic composite picture of contemporary science, and a refracted image of the dark side of science, and especially medicine, practiced at the time" (23). Despite some negative reviews, the book saw several reprintings in Mary's lifetime, as well as theatrical stagings that emphasized gothic elements far more than she had. Its afterlife included many plays in the nineteenth century and films in the twentieth, even before James Whale's 1931 adaptation turned the story into big business. If none of these remakes respected the artistic integrity of the novel, they did maintain the elements of science and the quest for creation, even up to Mel Brooks's spoof, Young Frankenstein (1974), and Kenneth Branagh's mistitled Victorian update, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994).
According to Turney, as the public emblem of biology progressed from the skull to the petri dish to the DNA print (progressively more abstract and distant from public access), the image of the biological scientist fragmented. The medical doctor maintained a comforting connection with the magician, healer, confessor, and friend; the biologist grew to be seen as cold, unfeeling, manipulative, and interested in knowledge for its own sake (Wells's Moreau is the extreme version). Claiming animals could not feel pain, Descartes had given license to vivisection, a cause célèbre in the nineteenth century; eugenics and Social Darwinism were also promoted in the name of biological materialism. By 1836, Andrew Crosse had made specious claims for the "creation of life" by electricity, and others followed. Paralleling lurid press reports, the tales of Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Moreau--along with fictions by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, and others--perpetuated a problematic image of the biologist. Two Rockefeller Institute researchers after the turn of the century lent plausibility to such views. Jacques Loeb's chemical fertilization of sea urchins was routinely called artificial creation, something he did little to discourage. Alexis Carrell was not the first to preserve cells from a chicken heart in the lab, but a Nobel Prize drew attention to the claim that he kept a "heart in a jar." Skeptical and sensational journalists duly reported these claims with references to Frankenstein, playing upon public fears.
As molecular biology actually got started, British thinkers produced a remarkable series of "nonfiction" documents concerning its potential, notably J.B.S. Haldane's Daedalus, or Science and the Future (1924) and Bertrand Russell's Icarus; or, The Future of Science (1924), which Brian Stableford has identified as important texts in The Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (St. Martin's, 1985). Their speculations triggered a more influential reaction from Aldous Huxley, whose Brave New World (1932) gave a broad reading audience a summing-up of--and a reaction to--biologists' speculations during the 1920s. Building on
Čapek's R.U.R. (1920) and Lord Birkenhead's The World in 2030 A.D. (1930), Huxley's book may have been criticized as art but it swiftly entered into the popular lexicon and iconography. His forecasts of cloning and psychopharmacology complicated the popular image of biology but made it no less ambivalent. On a less elevated level, pulp fiction and especially film recycled Huxley, Faust, and Frankenstein, spreading ignorant concern with "mutations" in the wake of the atomic bomb.
The idea of a "Biological Revolution," both technological and political, got underway in the 1960s, as molecular testing of mechanistic principles finally became possible, a decade after DNA's structure was unraveled. Already an sf staple, genetic engineering, organ transplants, and kidney dialysis were popularized through coverage in such nonfiction magazines as Life. Gordon Rattray Taylor's The Biological Time-Bomb
(1968), the most popular non-fiction book on the subject, reiterated gothic
readings of potential developments, highlighting fears of the loss of personal control over one's body and the dissolution of the traditional human image. The birth of the first "test-tube baby" in 1978, however, was the turning point in Britain, defusing the widespread outrage over in vitro fertilization, as audiences came to sympathize with the child's parents and the utter normality of her birth. In arguments over recombinant DNA experiments, the Frankenstein myth was driven further underground. The debate turned on technical rather than moral factors--i.e., whether gene-splicing was safe and could be contained, rather than whether it was an abomination to be banished from the laboratory, if not the planet. Wider awareness of modern biology has tended to mute the myth, Turney concludes, shifting the Frankenstein theme into the fields of Artificial Life and the cyborg (areas excluded from his history). The traditional fear of the unknown remains and the myths are still retold, but audiences are better educated and today's debates are more self-evidently between competing "futuristic fictions" (217).
Science fiction plays two important roles in Frankenstein's Footsteps. Sf and proto-sf texts punctuated the myth's development, while "nonfiction" (some of it scantily based in fact) borrowed the trappings of fiction to communicate an image inevitably distorted by racy iconic and storytelling elements. Turney shows more than a nodding awareness of sf, citing texts by Brian Aldiss, John Brunner, Louis Charbonneau, Edmond Hamilton, Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Julian Huxley, Pamela Sargent, Nat Schachner, and "John Taine" (a.k.a. Eric Temple Bell), as well as scholarship by I.F. Clarke, John Clute, H. Bruce Franklin, Mark Hillegas, Frank McConnell, Patrick Parrinder, and Brian Stableford. But his coverage of the field is obviously limited. He cannot, of course, be faulted for not producing a comprehensive survey of sf with biological themes, when his main concern is with well-known authors whose work lined up with popular media coverage to help shape the attitudes of general audiences. Lacking the recognition of Frankenstein, Brave New World, or even Jurassic Park (1993), most genre sf is probably a very poor index of popular sentiment.
If Turney is sanguine about the Frankenstein myth, David J. Skal is anything but sanguinary in Screams of Reason. Eschewing scholarly rationality, he goes for the emotional underbelly, showing the myth as not contained within a rational discourse. If Turney sees (or wants to see) the myth waning in its effects on public consciousness, Skal sees (or wants to see) its expansion on the unconscious level. Riffing freely, he mixes personal memoir with persistent digressions (on Einstein, the Rosenbergs, and the Unabomber, for example), covering some of Turney's territory, but with a different animus. A clockwork woman outside a funhouse introduces the book, its author, and the issue of soulless materialism, and the text throughout exudes an earnest moral fervor.
Like Turney, Skal traces the history of the Frankenstein story, but he is after bigger game, deconstructing Western civilization or whatever is left after science transforms it. To demonstrate the modern age's obsession with mad science, he parallels symbolic readings of stories and films with minimally supported generalizations about culture. Quoting out of context Barry N. Malzberg's statement that sf is "hostile to ideas," Skal discounts any significant distinctions between it, surrealism, and horror, as aesthetic forms reflecting cultural malaise. He acknowledges that outré visions may not compel rational belief, but says they indicate cultural acceptance of the "mad science" all around us, from the electrical experiments of Nikola Tesla (the archetype of the mad scientist) and the Strategic Defense Initiative to the pacemaker and the modem that permits Stephen Hawking to "talk." In their early days, even the telephone and the cinema had a "mad" side to them, paralleling the visions and disembodied voices of occult experience or schizophrenia. Treating on the same level alien abductions, artificial body parts, and cannibalistic doctors, Skal makes them all symbolize legitimate fears about what science is doing to "us."
Introduced via a discussion of the Heaven's Gate cult and R.U.R.,
Frankenstein is presented as a modern "creation myth," originating "in the nineteenth century Romantic rebellion against scientific rationalism" (33). Based on Mary Shelley's sources and her later modifications to the novel, Skal depicts her as virtually a blank slate on which the myth wrote itself, as a futile warning against ethical radicalism and the breaching of sexual and scientific limits. The "problematic" scientist of nineteenth-century writers yielded in the twentieth century to an evocation of "wizards" such as Edison; and popular film offered up various versions of The Golem and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as Metropolis (1926) and countless incarnations of Frankenstein. A sometime writer of sf, author of four previous books on gothic cinema, and co-editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Dracula (1997), Skal is in his element describing minutiae about actors and directors, makeup and film rights; he rhapsodizes over Melies' mixture of magic and science and the iconography of Fritz Lang (Rotwang's laboratory, artificial hand, and female robot). Recording the spate of Frankenstein sequels and imitators--in a discussion loosely tied to Brave New World, Hitler, the World's Fair of 1939, and World War II--the book moves on to mutations, aliens and UFOs, cyborgs, and apocalypse. The 1950s' Promethean monster was atomic energy, reflected in movie monsters and secluded mad scientists, but also in the election of Dwight Eisenhower over the more intellectual Adlai Stevenson, and in movie ads prominently displaying women's breasts as "the technological teat" (179). Paralleling the Rosenbergs with fantasies of alien invaders is a stretch, but less so than restricting to a specific time period both the hoary practice of hyping films and books (even sf magazines) with a false promise of sexual titillation and the long history of anti-intellectualism in American culture.
Ostensibly sequential in time, the final four chapters in fact range over the last century and more. In them, the "morality" of mad science seems more pressing, as Skal shows a greater concern with what is actually happening in the world rather than with artistic expressions of it. Taking his cue from a rash of flying saucer sightings in the 1970s (including his own) and tales of alien abduction from John Grant Fuller's The Interrupted Journey (1966) to The X-Files, Skal defines them as a "shadowy projection of the technology-obsessed self" (201), and pursues them in selected episodes of The Twilight Zone, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and other popular texts. If abducting aliens represent a critique of intrusive science, on a more mundane level today's "faceless" medicine also projects an "alien" quality to people longing to be healed; and popular culture, anticipating and extending the Nazi perversion of medicine, has spawned an endless series of horror films depicting demonic doctors. Unlike Turney's view of physicians as healers, Skal sees them, at least in terms of recent cinematic portrayals, as vampires, cannibals, traffickers in body parts, and authority figures claiming godhood. Plagues in contemporary films, moreover, borrow from or relate to the history of AIDS, the world's "first postmodern disease" (261), for which research and treatment have been driven largely by patients and politics. The many avatars of Frankenstein may now have yielded to the bizarre fantasies of David Cronenberg.
Labeling total separation of brain from body as the "maddest science of them all," Skal depicts Stephen Hawking with his physical disabilities and disembodied voice as the public face of the cyborg. Further refining his initial vision of the carnival lady, Skal cites Hoffmann's "The Sandman" (1816), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Bernard Wolfe's Limbo (1952), William Hjortsberg's Gray Matters (1971), and dozens of other texts as fictions depicting the separation of mind from body and creation from the womb. Tying scientific creation as depicted in film to mortification of the flesh, Skal sees the exaggerated brains of scientists and their creations' stiff movements as evidence of the repression of their softer "feminine" sides, as well as of "natural" biological creation. Real science is usually boring, Skal concludes, and the mad scientist caricature ironically emphasizes the humanity of its practitioners, bringing passion, drama, and catharsis to bear as necessary correctives to science's assault on the self. Real science is dangerous, too, not just because it is misunderstood by outsiders, but because of its exclusive claims to knowledge, which media reporting largely underwrites. Popular culture contextualizes for the masses science's atheistic materialism and hubris, its denigration of other methods of knowing, its fraudulent claims to perfection, and its modern-day mysticism, in indirect attempts to make sense of the power and primacy of science in the modern world.
Skal's scattershot use of "evidence" points up an endemic problem of cultural criticism: where to stop or draw the line. His style is racy and his argument rarely straightforward, sliding from point to point by adventitious links, such as coincidences in time, name, and imagery. His reasoning is often tenuous and his evidence stretched too far, ignoring or tacitly discounting countervailing examples and longstanding cultural resonances in pursuit of momentary connections. Psychological readings of texts (including films and even history) are always suspect, since subjective reality can neither be proven nor disproven, and like many studies of popular culture, Skal's often infers the attitudes of audiences from sheer numbers. It is tempting to dismiss Screams of Reason on the basis of its sloppy thinking and organization, but its loose arrangement and one-size-fits-all paranoia virtually embody the author's thesis that mad science is everywhere and cannot be contained within rational parameters. Erratic and undisciplined Skal's method may be, but it puts into interesting perspective our blasé acceptance of outlandish things that actually happen.
Neither the best nor the worst examples of cultural criticism, both books display its advantages and disadvantages. Were science fiction limited to overtly fictional literature since 1926, they would be peripheral indeed. Neither author engages in literary criticism per se, since overtly aesthetic concerns are largely irrelevant to their arguments and traditional literary genres (poetry, fiction, drama) only part of their field of study. As cultural critics, they mark nearly everything linked to the Frankenstein "mythos" as "text," to be read in terms of the rules and themes and self-reflexiveness that mark communication in general. Both show a postmodern fascination with the communication process as well, and how familiar images shape production as well as reception of information. In this context, it is science fiction literature that is on the periphery as just one of many cultural indices. I'm not sure what we can say about interrelations between science fiction and the real world, however, if history and science are themselves viewed as science fictions. The Frankenstein myth has the reality of neither, nor of the verbal productions we call literature; but its persistent presence is undeniable, even if neither author fully under-stands its scope. As efforts to explain its reach, I can recommend both books with reservations. Read them as pieces of a larger puzzle and correctives of each other's excesses. For a reasoned commentary on the interplay of sf and biology, read Turney. For a wild ride over similar territory, with few rules or limits, surf Skal.