Science Fiction Studies

#32 = Volume 11, Part 1 = March 1984



Yves Chevrier

Blade Runner; or, The Sociology of Anticipation

Abstract.--The novelty of Blade Runner (1982) does not reside in its technical aspects but in its visual perspective. In his latest film, Ridley Scott gives us something almost unique in SF cinema (though it is adumbrated--barely--in Kubrick's 2001 and in the galactic barroom scene in Lucas's Star Wars): a vision of a complete social milieu. What is original to Blade Runner as a contribution to SF film is the establishing of a unified field of vision which takes in the social.

Scott's achievement is in a way comparable to the opening of vedute--of "windows" evincing a spatial oneness and continuity in Renaissance and Neoclassical (portrait) painting. But in contrast to the Classical scheme of hierarchical, or vertical--and hence maximum--order, Blade Runner follows the principle of minimal ordering, or horizontal representation, in exhibiting society. This sorts well with the "grass-roots realism" that Scott evidently has a penchant for. He shows us the sad and sordid Los Angeles of 2019, a world which in its nearly medieval disorder resembles present-day Hong Kong and also, in its juxtaposition of a swarming and ghettoized "human zoo" with the skyscraper existence of a managerial elite, some modern American megalopolis. At the same time, he allows us to infer, through references to the still-virgin North, to the blade runner's bonsai and statues, and so forth, that right next to--or rather, above--this world of Cola or Hammett, as it were, is that of Proust or Fitzgerald.

Blade Runner's visual revolutionariness is confined to what it represents, without extending to how it does so. Moreover, the film falters, almost fatally, when it comes to dealing with the political dimension of its vision of society. In showing the social, Scott neglects the traditional concern of SF cinema (though also something which keeps it in the throes of utopian totalitarianism): the staging of power (and power struggles). Rather than discovering a narrative vehicle adequate for conveying a psycho-political awareness commensurate with his novel depiction of the social, Scott regresses to the formulas of the thriller or detective fiction and offers, particularly in the person of the blade runner, a comic-strip stereotype rather than a psychologically plausible human being. If SF is to realize its potential as a new film genre, the kind of social view that Blade Runner affords is not enough: what is needed is a director with Tolstoy's abilities, and a film with the ambition of War and Peace.

Carl Freedman

Towards a Theory of Paranoia: The Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick

Abstract.--This essay has a twofold aim: to outline a theory of paranoia, and to demonstrate the relevance of this theory to SF in general and to the work of Philip K. Dick in particular. Freud's various remarks on paranoia--most notably in his reading of Schreber--suggest that paranoia operates by a ruthlessly hermeneutic logic. The paranoiac interprets all worldly phenomena as aspects of a symmetrical and expressive totality at the center of which stands the "I" of the paranoiac himself Jacques Lacan accepts this model but adds two important revisions. First, he demonstrates that paranoia is not merely a disease but is in crucial ways paradigmatic of "normal" human psychic development. Second, he attempts to historicize the basic categories of psychoanalysis and to show that the Freudian subject and the subject of the capitalist epoch are inextricably related. If, then, paranoia is in a sense the normative subjectivity of capitalist society, it must be asked what there is in capitalism that demands constant hermeneutic. Two answers present themselves, especially in the context of 20th-century consumerist or monopoly capitalism: on the economic level, the commodity; on the political level, conspiracy. Marx himself, in the theory of commodity fetishism, identifies the commodity as a mystifying signifier that demands interpretation. Conspiracy has never been rigorously theorized, but it is at least provisionally plausible to regard it as a structural feature of political life under American monopoly capitalism.

It is a commonplace that Dick is a paranoid writer in the sense that his protagonists are generally paranoiac anti-heroes. What has been less widely noted is the precision and consistency with which he represents the objects of paranoid worrying and hermeneutic as commodities and signs of conspiracy. Here I offer many examples drawn from a variety of Dick's texts, especially emphasizing the degree to which he literalizes the kind of metaphoric structure that Marx employs in theorizing commodity fetishism. Though Dick may be pre-eminent in this regard, there is, however, a generally privileged relationship between SF and paranoiac ideology, both in the estranging assumptions of SF and in certain literary tendencies of the genre toward totalization and logical coherence. I conclude with a reading of Ubik, wherein the connection of paranoia with commodities and conspiracies is perhaps most fully worked out, but which also may suggest a critique of paranoia and a demonstration of its ideological limits.


David Ketterer

The Last Inspirational Gasp of James Blish: The Breath of Brahma

Abstract.--In the last year and a half of his life James Blish conceived an SF novel entitled The Breath of Brahma, on which he collaborated with Josephine Saxton. On the basis of two letters, outline material, and notes and drafts of three-plus chapters in Saxton's possession, we can reconstruct the development from story idea to novel and also much of the plot of what would have been an ambitious and highly original novel, with an eight-chapter structure reflecting "the eight great philosophical questions. "

Cecile Lindsay

The Topography of (Science) Fiction: Claude Ollier's Life on Epsilon.

Abstract.--The eight volumes of Claude Ollier's fictional cycle, Jeu d'enfant, were published between 1958 and 1975 and together comprise an active meditation on the nature and function of fiction. La vie sur Epsilon (1972), the fifth book in the series, moves the cycle to a distant planet and becomes a "science" of fiction which seeks self-consciousness of its own laws and mechanisms.

On a planet of sand and snow, four stranded astronauts attempt to save themselves by discovering the laws which govern this unknown world (of Epsilon). Their investigations take the form of a blindly random journey in a vast book, as the strange topography of Epsilon becomes also a typography which confounds and disquiets O., the leader of the expedition. What frightens him is the terrifying femininity of this text/planet. In part virgin, in part master-code, the planet refuses to let itself be "read"

Robert Shelton

The Mars Begotten Men of Olaf Stapledon and H.G. Wells

Abstract.--The careers of Wells and Stapledon intersect most clearly in their Martians. Stapledon's portrayal of the human-Martian confrontation in Last and First Men (LFM, 1930) can be traced back to Wells's seminal invasion tale, The War of the Worlds (WW, 1898), and forward to Wells's own Star-Begotten (SB, 1937). Specifically, in LFM Stapledon disrupts the Wellsian power hierarchy (of Martian over man over microbe) by turning his Martians into invading microbes. The disruption leads away from the estranged hostilities of WW toward a union of man and Martian in LFM and SB. In LFM that union is obviously dialectical In fact, the confrontation between the Second Men and the Martians should be seen as a realization in fiction of Stapledon's two basic dialectical triads--the Saint, the Skeptic, and the Revolutionary, and moral zeal, disillusion, and ecstasy: the saintly, disillusioned Second Men must overcome themselves and the zealous revolutionaries, the Martians, in order to survive. Typically, Wells's last Martian novel, SB, is more discursive and less diagrammatic than LFM In SB, human characters talk and talk about the possibility of our species being improved by a "sort of inter-planetary tutor." (And in the course of these discussions Wells even mentions Olaf Stapledon and LFM by name.)

Both writers use their Martians as foils in the epistemological dilemma of knowing the Other. In WW, we know very little about the aliens, and that only through their actions. Conversely, in LFM we know almost everything there is to know about the invaders. The dilemma in LFM, then, is figuring out how the Second Men and the Martians will come to know each other. Our positions as readers--informed in LFM, confused in WW--sharply distinguish the experiences of the two texts. Nonetheless, in both tales, seeking knowledge of the Other brings unexpected knowledge of the Self.  In SB, however, the only real knowledge sought is also the only real knowledge given: self-knowledge comes first. There the Martians are only an idea--and an ideal

Bülent Somay

Towards an Open-Ended Utopia

Abstract.--Within the SF genre, utopianism has enjoyed periodic recurrences, the most recent of which resulted from the protest movements of the 1960s and early '70s. Some of the works of utopian fiction from those years--Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia (1977) for example--follow the model of the classical utopia in concentrating on a utopian locus and identifying it with the utopian horizon: they simply--and often imperfectly--depict the "good place" as a state of being. Other utopists, however, have experimented with a revolutionary possibility. In The Dispossessed (1974), for instance, utopia does not exist as a static entity that the reader is told about or shown around with a view to obtaining his or her assent, but instead is implied as an "absent paradigm" which the reader is called upon to reconstruct so as to participate in the process of becoming that is the utopian, or (in Ernst Bloch's sense) the hopeful, essence of the fiction. Samuel Delany makes similar demands upon his readers in Triton (1976), which, however, stands in dialectical opposition to Ursula Le Guin's masterpiece insofar as the pluralism of his concept of heterotopia raises radical questions about the theoretical feasibility even of the kind of single utopian horizon that Anarres, as Shevek comes to see it, points towards. Delany's and Le Guin's achievements can best be appreciated if we approach them coming from Ecotopia, Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975), and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)--fictions which, in that order, will serve to illustrate the transition from the doctrinaire, or dogmatic, utopian text to the open-ended one that culminates in Triton and The Dispossessed.

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