#127 = Volume 42, Part 3 = November 2015
Animation, Modernism, and the Science Fiction Imagination
Abstract. This essay surveys a curious absence in accounts of science fiction’s cinematic development—the numerous examples of sf-themed animation during the 1920s and 1930s. In this formative period when sf was finding a scant place in live-action cinema, with much of its appearance limited to serials, the sf imagination established a vigorous presence in the work of the period’s key animation studios, all of which produced cartoons on the subjects that were then populating the new pulp magazines—space travel, alien encounters, robots, fantastic inventions. Seen from the vantage point of a “conservative modernism,” these cartoons both reflected and critiqued science and technology’s presence in and influence on modern life, in the process affording the emerging sf genre a most appropriate and fertile ground in the decades before World War II.
Animation, Modernism, and the Science Fiction Imagination
Abstract. In John Wyndham’s breakthrough novel The Day of the Triffids (1951), the dissolution of the modern nation-state as a result of mass blindness is used as a springboard to explore a range of social and cultural anxieties and political concerns of the postwar world. In this postapocalyptic landscape, the narrative leads the reader through descriptions of successive methods of social organization, questioning the assumptions and values of each type. The novel is also notable for Wyndham’s questioning of the underlying scientific ideas, including competing theories of evolution and genetic mutation, of the mid-twentieth century. Through analysis of the three published versions of the novel’s text and archival material, I consider the development of Wyndham’s Wellsian style, his apocalyptic narrative structure, his political ideas, and his understanding of evolutionary theories.
“Those Clunky Things You Have to Carry Around”: Textual Materiality in Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End
Abstract. This article analyzes textual materiality in Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, a 2006 sf novel set in the near future. The theoretical impetus for the analysis is provided by N. Katherine Hayles’s investigation of “the contemporary pressure toward dematerial-ization” caused by the growing popularity of digital machines and the science of cybernetics, which, apart from influencing our understanding of the idea of the human, affects also our perception of textual embodiment. As a result, the materiality of books starts to be regarded as something expendable, an old-fashioned kind of interface with no meaning whatsoever. Disgreeing with this view of books, Hayles argues that textual materiality is one of their essential characteristics, as the physical form plays an important role in the cultural chain of these texts’ production, assimilation, and influence. Taking into account works by Hayles and other writers dealing with book history, editing, archival science, and the digital revolution in general, the article proceeds to analyze, first, the conflict over digitization of an academic library as depicted in Vinge’s novel, and second, the creative crisis that the main character—a poet—experiences as a result. Ultimately, it is argued, the relationship among author, text, and reader, as presented in the novel, illuminates debates about textual materiality taking place in contemporary digital-humanities scholarship.
Minority and Becoming-Minor in Octavia Butler’s Fledgling
Abstract. Scholarship on the works of Octavia Butler has followed contemporary developments of identity politics and rhetorics of difference. Compelling readings of Butler exist from the perspectives of critical race theory, Afrofuturism, black feminism, queer theory, and most recently disability studies. This article argues that these readings based in the rhetorics of empowering identification risk neglecting the concept of minority explored in much of Butler’s writing. Leading with the example of her final published novel, Fledgling (2007), this article clarifies Butler’s conception of minority as an ongoing, dynamic process of becoming rather than a static mode of identification. This reading makes use of Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology of becoming-minor to emphasize the disinterest of Butler’s emergent minorities in majoritarian political ontologies. In the final analysis, this article positions Butler as a kind of philosopher-novelist of change, less concerned with the contemporary identification and enfranchisement of minorities than with the health of humankind’s potential for future becomings-minor.
“Stutter-Stop Flash-Bulb Strange”: GMOs and the Aesthetics of Scale in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl
Abstract. This article raises questions about the aesthetics of scale as they appear relative to genetically modified organisms in science fiction and especially in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009). Bacigalupi makes the unusual choice of representing GMOs largely through science-fictional tropes of automatism rather than the grotesque. Because of this choice, The Windup Girl inventively enables readers to relate to the very small spatial scales and the long temporal scales at which the genome and its effects are most visible. The article suggests that science fiction has particular flexibility with the aesthetics of scale, particularly where technoscientific phenomena have profound consequences that take place at nonhuman scales.
The Political Imagination in Liu Cixin’s Critical Utopia: China 2185
Abstract. This article focuses on contemporary Chinese science fiction, specifically the political elements in Liu Cixin’s (b.1963) critical utopian novel China 2185 [Zhongguo 2185], written in 1989 against the social and political background of China in the 1980s. I analyze China 2185 at the “iconic level,” at the “discrete level,” and at the level of “generic form,” in the framework of Tom Moylan’s study of the critical utopian novel. I also relate this novel to other contemporary Chinese sf narratives, as well as to Liu’s other works. The critical utopia in the novel is part of the political vision and practice that Liu shares with contemporary Chinese intellectuals of the late 1980s that reject the domination of one party and of authoritarian rule, and that call for a democratic system in China. The novel foresees important issues in post-socialist China such as the consequences of the aging of the population and subsequent gerontocracy, and the impact of digital information resources and the Internet on China’s political system. Liu amplifies both sociopolitical problems and the potential for change in mainland China and conjures forth an imaginary future transformation in order to create a critical distance from the present.
Prefiguring Egypt’s Arab Spring: Allegory and Allusion
in Amad Khalid Tawfiq’s Utopia
Abstract. This paper examines Amad Khālid Tawfīq’s 2008 novel Yūtūbiyā [Utopia] in light of the many literary allusions made by one of its narrators. The novel throws two problematic and unappealing but consistent and vivid characters together in the dystopia that is Cairo in 2020 after the end of the petroleum economy. Tawfīq’s Egypt represents a cognitively plausible extrapolation from current conditions—class inequality, corruption, and brutality. We can learn to read Utopia less as the tale of two psychologically realistic characters and more as the tale of class differences in an extrapolation from Egyptian society. This opens up to us an understanding of the indictment of Egypt’s intellectual class that lies underneath the surface narrative. Utopia reflects upon the conditions that in a few years would lead to the street protests of 2011-12; it also shows, well before the fact, that such protests would only lead to further consolidation of power by the authoritarian regime.
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