Science Fiction Studies

#123 = Volume 41, Part 2 = July 2014


Rob Latham

Introduction to SFS Symposium: SF Media(tions)

The fourth SFS Symposium was held on 11 April 2013, in conjunction with the combined Eaton/SFRA Conference, at the Mission Inn hotel and spa in Riverside, California. The topic was “SF Media(tions),” and the three speakers—Mark Bould, Vivian Sobchack, and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay —addressed cutting-edge issues in scholarship on sf film: the cognitive status of spectacle, the eclipse of sf in favor of fantasy, and the role of the alien/robotic “gaze.” As with previous symposia speeches, these were designed to be meditative and/or provocative, and the lively Q&A that followed the presentations indicates that they hit their mark perfectly.

The next SFS Symposium will be held on 15 October 2015, as a kickoff for the next Eaton Conference. The topic of the conference is “Designing the Past, Designing the Future,” and the Symposium topic will be “Retrofuturism,” featuring Arthur B. Evans, Rachel Haywood Ferreira, and Paweł Frelik. Proceedings from that event will be published in a future issue of SFS.

I would like to thank the speakers who have made these Symposia so lively and enlightening. I would also like to thank the co-directors of the 2013 Eaton Conference, Melissa Conway and Sherryl Vint, for their amazing efficiency and unfailing collegiality. The staff of the Special Collections Department in UCR’s Rivera Library—especially Sarah Allison and Julie Ree—deserve special mention for their incredibly diligent and energetic engagement. Finally, I would like to thank my SFS coeditors for their enthusiastic support for these Symposia over the past six years, as well as for their great generosity and wisdom in providing advice and counsel. I owe them more than I can ever repay.

Mark Bould

Of Eight Oscillations and Several Messages Carved in Flesh: Spectacle, Spectatorship, Cognition, and Affect in Dredd and Looper

Abstract. Both popular and academic criticism tend to decry sf cinema’s commitment to spectacle and special effects as intellectually stultifying and thus politically narcotizing. This article challenges the class politics of taste and the crude models of interpolation underpinning such claims, questioning the ease with which many critics separate matters of cognition from matters of affect. It examines in detail three sequences from the mainstream, small-to-medium budget sf movies Dredd (2012) and Looper (2012). The climactic set piece from Dredd demonstrates the contradictory but entangled array of unstable subject positions opened up by cinematic spectacle. A sequence from Looper, which includes the most complicated special effects shot in the movie, shows how effects work can affect the viewer while simultaneously elaborating narrative/ world-building information that demands a cognitive response. A second sequence from Looper works in a similar way, ingeniously prompting the viewer to draw on intertextual knowledge to comprehend a shot that conveys complex narrative information and that ultimately refuses the specific special effect it has led the viewer to anticipate.

Vivian Sobchack

“Sci Why? On the Decline of a Film Genre In the Age of Technological Wizardry

Abstract. This essay speculates about the generic ascendancy of fantasy in American popular movies and television series since the millennium—and the correspondent disenchantment and decline (although not disappearance) of science fiction. This shift to fantasy in American culture seems the result of a number of discrete but coincident cultural phenomena: major advances in CGI technology and changes in film industry economic strategies; the inappropriateness of postmodern irony after 9/11 and the ongoing (and highly visible) catastrophes to follow (wars, climate change and its disastrous consequences, global financial collapse, mass shootings, political gridlock); the perceived failure of science and “rational” thought to solve major problems; and, most important, the impact of digital technology and consumer electronics on our daily lives—and our modes of cognition. The essay argues that all of these phenomena have encouraged (and in the case of digital technology, enabled) the rise of a form of associational logic known as magical thinking—and fantasy film and television as its primary mode of expression. The development of this argument draws upon quantitative and qualitative data about the shifting popularity of sf and fantasy film and television from 2000 through 2013, as well as anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski’s 1925 essay “Magic, Science and Religion” and more contemporary social science research on magical thinking.

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay

The Eye of Gort

Abstract. Robert Wise’s 1951 sf film The Day the Earth Stood Still is an anomalous classic. Klaatu appears to play the role of a noble masculine hero, supplementing the lack of positive phallic power in postwar America, acting as an extraterrestrial godfather to a bereft son and a potential partner for a bereft human woman, Helen Benson. He is instead a mediator between the more powerful phallic agent, Gort, and Helen as the carrier of a world-saving message. The film transcends conventional Hollywood tropes of romance, replacing erotic seduction with investment in trust. It does this by converting the technique of eyeline matches and reciprocal gazes characteristic of erotic melodrama into tropes of mutual ethical exploration and trust. The revolutionary contribution of the film is to include the gaze of the planet-destroying robot into this solicitation of trust.

Amy J. Ransom

The First Last Man: Cousin de Grainville's Le Dernier Homme

Abstract. This essay considers a little-known early sf novel by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville, Le Dernier homme [The Last Man, 1805]. It reviews the literature on this text, describes it for unfamiliar readers, and analyzes its early implementation of a number of sf tropes, situating it as the foundational text of what might be considered a subgenre of sf: the Last Man narrative.

Justin Prystash

Sexual Futures: Feminism and Speculative Fiction in the Fin de Siècle

Abstract. “Sexual Futures” examines the will to proleptic knowledge in fin-de-siècle evolutionary science and speculative fiction. This desire to map the future, which characterizes many texts of the time and even some modern scholarship, often merely reiterates present arrangements of sex, gender, and sexuality, but it also functions to shuffle, subvert, or transcend contemporary understandings of biological and sexual forms, especially when an author draws on the feminist strand that runs through Victorian evolutionary theory. By analyzing a range of mostly non-canonical texts, including works by Ménie Muriel Dowie, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Herbert Spencer, Frances Swiney, Eliza Burt Gamble, Julius Vogel, Walter Besant, and William Henry Hudson, this essay reveals the potential for speculative science and fiction to deform sex beyond the recognizable, reorienting our understanding of the political function of the future.

Adam Glaz

Rorschach, We Have a Problem! The Linguistics of First Contact in Watts's Blindsight and Lem's His Master's Voice

Abstract. In Peter Watts’s Blindsight, a super-intelligent but non-conscious artifact calling itself Rorschach imitates human speech and thus fakes linguistic communication with people. I question the validity of this idea and use Stanisław Lem’s His Master’s Voice as a counter-example. Problems with “Rorschach-as-fake-speaker” are discussed in the light of findings in linguistics, with the overarching argument that Rorschach would need to obtain access to the semantic and symbolic sphere of language for this to be possible. I maintain that a being without consciousness cannot do this.

James Pulizzi

Language After Humans: On the Disembodied Language of Joseph McElroy's Plus

Abstract. The publication of Joseph McElroy’s Plus comes as the printed word must make room for letters encoded as signals (electrical, electro-magnetic, etc.) and transmitted via digital and analog apparatuses—for only those apparatuses can convert the imperceptible transmissions into signals our eyes and ears can detect. McElroy tries to make those encoded symbols visible in Plus and awkwardly knows he cannot. The failure is in part a recognition—whether conscious or unconscious— that human and nonhuman bodies are one part of a circuit with media technologies (or technical media, as Friedrich Kittler calls them) that make language possible. Indeed, a circuit from which human bodies are excluded would not need languages understood as such, that is, human speech and logographic writing. With the loss of those human languages goes the need for cause-and-effect narratives.

Jacob Emery

A Clone Playing Craps Will Never Abolish Chance: Randomness and Fatality in Vladimir Sorokin's Clone Fictions

Abstract. This essay uses the theme of a clone playing a game of chance as a point of entry into a narrative mode that treats characters as interchangeable ciphers in relation to a transcendent plot. For example, in John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977), one clone heroine is killed and another, functionally identical, clone heroine takes her place. This narrative mode is the aesthetic counterpart to a critique of individualist humanism. Where discourses that emanate from unique subjects making free choices will tend to conceal or mystify forces beyond conscious control, the conceit of a plot operating independently of the characters that fulfill its functions suggests an effort to represent the impersonal course of history as, to use Louis Althusser’s phrase, a “process without a subject.” The motif of the gambling clone crystallizes a cluster of issues surrounding narrative fatality and reproductive normativity that this essay examines in a range of Western texts before addressing their synthesis in the work of contemporary Russian author Vladimir Sorokin.

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