Science Fiction Studies

#93 = Volume 31, Part 2 = July 2004


J. Joseph Miller.

The Greatest Good for Humanity: Isaac Asimov’s Future History and Utilitarian Calculation Problems

Abstract. -- This paper addresses some of the connections between Isaac Asimov’s future history and utilitarian moral theory. Utilitarianism has long been plagued by a set of practical problems that render the act of calculating utilities problematic. Because one of the central themes of Asimov’s future history is a utilitarian drive toward the greatest good for humanity, these same calculation problems create a hurdle for Asimov. I argue here that several of the major developments in Asimov’s future history can be read as a series of attempts to produce a better solution to utilitarian calculation problems.

Umberto Rossi.

The Game of the Rat: A.E. Van Vogt’s 800-Word Rule and P.K. Dick’s The Game-Players of Titan

Abstract. -- Notwithstanding the huge bibliography of secondary literature on P.K. Dick and his oeuvre, there are very few articles or books that focus on single works by this very well-known writer. This essay is an attempt to undertake a step-by-step analysis of the plot of one of Dick’s “minor” novels, The Game-Players of Titan (1963), in order to examine how a Dickian text really works. The text is read by locating the moments where Dick has interrupted the narrative flow by inserting genre shunts that shift the story from one genre or subgenre to another, and/or from one specific fictional reality to another. The use of these shunts is one of Dick’s distinctive textual strategies, also demonstrated in, for example, his short story “Small Town” (1954). This strategy is the main element in what Thomas M. Disch has called the Game of the Rat—i.e., Dick’s bewildering ability abruptly to change the narrative rules of his fictions and thus to repeatedly thwart the expectations of his readers. This game is not a naive device that allows a hack writer to propel his plot when the action is lagging (Van Vogt’s 800-word rule); rather, it is a skillful textual strategy that allows Dick to build complex maze-like texts that challenge our mindsets and question various aspects of postmodern (or late modern) societies. Thus Dick’s Game of the Rat may cast light on his own fiction, as well as on other larger (and just as rigged) games of virtual economy and politics.

Christopher Palmer

Mona Lisa Overdrive and the Prosthetic

Abstract. -- As William Gibson’s Matrix Trilogy appeared, relations between the hard-boiled element and mystic events in cyberspace became increasingly strained, and the treatment of relations between subjects and objects more ambivalent and conflicted. Since Neuromancer, Gibson has turned increasingly to waiflike and vulnerable characters, and he has dramatized a conflict between the subject’s vulnerability to control and invasion, and the subject’s need for prostheses—people or things that mediate our relation to the world and enable us to cope with, for instance, loss. This essay surveys the protagonists of Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) in the light of the concept of the prosthetic. The survey is inconclusive: Gibson proliferates images of prostheses in an exploratory fashion. With Slick Henry, however, one of a series of artists in Gibson’s fiction, certain concepts of D.W. Winnicott’s—transitional object and the play space—are more useful. The essay concludes by considering how Slick’s constructions, autonomous rather than prosthetic, figure in the ending of the novel, where relations between the hard-boiled and the religious are otherwise driving Mona Lisa Overdrive into a cul-de-sac.

Samuel Gerald Collins

Scientifically Valid and Artistically True: Chad Oliver, Anthropology, and Anthropological SF

Abstract. -- Chad Oliver (1928-1993) is one of several writers credited with developing the subgenre of anthropological science fiction. Unlike other sf authors identified as members of this group, such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Oliver was also a practicing anthropologist, serving as chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas for almost two decades, with research interests in Native Americans and pastoralism in Kenya. Although Oliver saw his twin vocations as interrelated, anthropology and sf made for uneasy bedfellows over the course of his career. This essay surveys Oliver’s work, from his first published story in 1948 until his death, by examining historical shifts in the fields of anthropology and science fiction that are reflected in his writings. Just as Oliver moved from Golden Age themes of heroic technocrats to the critical ironies of sf’s New Wave, so did his anthropological thinking change from abstract models of ecological functionalism and ethnocentric evolutionism in the 1950s to more engaged, self-reflexive work in political economy and interpretive ethnography during the 1960s and 1970s. In the final analysis, “anthropological science fiction” figures in Oliver’s writings less as a stable method than as a series of shifting critical questions.

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