#103 = Volume 34, Part 2 = July
BOOKS IN REVIEW
SF from the “Better” Germany.
Sonja Fritzsche. Science Fiction Literature in East Germany. East German Studies/DDR-Studien 15. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. 333 pp. $ 64.95 pbk.
The German Democratic Republic was founded with the pretension that it was the “better Germany,” a more just state than the capitalist German Federal Republic (GFR). The division of Germany led also to the development of two kinds of sf. Whereas sf in the West was greatly influenced by Anglophone sf, the wissenschaftliche Phantastik [“scientific fantasy,” a translation of the Russian nauchnaia fantastika] of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) followed, more or less, the Soviet pattern. But the old writers had been brought up reading Hans Dominik and other German writers, discussed by Fritzsche in her chapter on “German Science Fiction Before 1949.” They had experienced the Second World War and continued the old tradition, with the personnel ideologically changed: the villains were now agents of capitalist countries bent on sabotaging the socialist countries and spying on them. The problem was how to reconcile sf with Socialist Realism. Popular literature was held in little regard, and the fight against Schmutz und Schund (filth and trash), which had already begun in Wilhelminian Germany, continued during the Nazi era, and was virulent in the German Federal Republic, was also a dominant attitude in the GDR. How to write a truly socialist popular fiction became a problem. The most prominent victim of the GFR’s campaign was Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (1972), which was initially banned, because it was misconstrued as furthering National Socialist ideology. Some held that science fiction should be concerned only with the near future and realistic developments, and these only after the launch of the Sputnik made space travel and journeys to other worlds accepted as a realistic proposal.
Fritzsche thoroughly explores the shifting social realities, the changes in intellectual climate, and their influence on sf. Utopia, for instance, was considered pre-scientific and at odds with the scientific development of society because in the GDR the development of the future was governed by the “laws” of scientific Marxism. The role of literature, especially popular literature, was conceived to be educational, to steep the readers in socialist thought and to strengthen their socialist convictions. Much of this sort of sf seems utterly naïve to Western readers, with characters discussing problems arising from differences in their understanding of socialist humanism. Characters seem highly artificial and dull because of their often unbearable superhuman goodness.
But censorship, sometimes ideologically encrusted, sometimes more liberal, was not totally harmful. While a regimented humanism may not move or convince readers, censorship sharpens the wits of authors, and it can foster subtlety. When everything can be said openly, it may also be said crudely; where some things are forbidden, authors will try to outwit the censors. Thus, GDR readers, even those not especially interested in sf, gained a special pleasure from discovering in descriptions of alien societies on other planets allusions to GDR reality. Surprisingly in such a drab society, humorous and satirical works flourished, following the pattern of Stanisław Lem’s Star Diaries (1957), translated as early as 1961 in the GDR; writers such as Gerhard Branstner specialized in satire, and Gert Prokop made fun in his parodic stories of a wildly exaggerated super-capitalist American ghetto in a dominant socialist world.
Fritzsche traces the general developments, but her work concentrates on close and careful interpretations of three important novels of GDR sf. Eberhardt Del Antonio’s Die Heimkehr der Vorfahren [Return of the Forefathers] (1966) attempts to describe realistically a utopian socialist society of the future. Johanna and Günter Braun’s Unheimliche Erscheinungsformen auf Omega XI [Uncanny Manifestations on Omega XI] (1966), an ambiguous utopia that combined ecological concerns with a satire of bureaucracy, political figures, and day-to-day life, helped readers “to comprehend and relativize their own situation” (215). It also created a critical space that enabled the Brauns to criticize capitalism as well as Marxism-Leninism in the current East German form. Angela and Karlheinz Steinmüller’s Der Traummeister [The Dream Master] (1990), published only after the end of the GDR, but conceived and written in the East German context, is a complex and thoughtful novel that makes use of a utopian dream technology to create an endangered ambiguous utopia.
Fritzsche diagnoses an “East German New Wave” during the years 1971-1980, when the intellectual climate became more liberal for a time. Undoubtedly, GDR sf writers enjoyed somewhat greater freedom than “serious” writers, but it was a fool’s freedom, since the genre was not taken seriously, and thus they were permitted things that more literary writers would not have gotten away with. Some mainstream writers such as Christa Wolf, Günter Kunert, or even the grand dame of East German literature, Anna Seghers, penned a few sf tales. In the decades from 1970-1990, GDR sf was clearly superior to its West German counterpart, not least due to the emergence of new talent that turned to sf. The Brauns came from mainstream literature, creating their own brand of humorous and satirical sf, honed on the romanticism of E.T.A. Hoffmann, whom they greatly admired. Others, especially the Steinmüllers, Erik Simon, and Bernd Ulbrich, came from the natural sciences and technology and, as scientists, were used to undogmatic thinking. These writers penned stories that made sense on a scientific and a metaphorical level. They had models in other writers from socialist countries, especially Lem and the Strugatskys, and they also knew American sf through Russian translations or contacts with the West. And by that time, editors and some of the people engaged in supervising sf were fans of the genre and wished to help authors.
The GDR perished as a state in 1989, an event that was also catastrophic for sf writers, since, paradoxically, their market shrank in the larger population. In the GDR, although book production was limited due to paper shortages and the number of sf titles was small, print-runs were high, although never high enough to satisfy the demand. In the GDR, an sf writer could live quite comfortably from only a handful of books that were reprinted regularly; a West German writer would have to write—and sell!—a dozen or so books every year. With the collapse, the old GDR publishers either ceased to exist or were bought by West German publishing houses, and most authors found themselves without publishers. Nevertheless, a few authors went on to write and to self-publish. Erik Simon became a busy translator and sometime editor, and Karlheinz Steinmüller became a much-sought-after futurologist and speaker.
The GDR no longer exists, but her sf culture produced a number of novels and short stories that will last, and Sonja Fritzsche’s book, a slightly revised version of her PhD thesis of 2001, Alternate Worlds, Alternate Visions: Cultural Politics and Socialist Critique in East German Science Fiction (U Minnesota), makes clear the attraction of writers such as Johanna and Günter Braun or Angela and Karlheinz Steinmüller, while also giving shape to the environment in which they wrote, an environment that will strike many Western readers as very strange indeed. Fritzsche provides a competent overview of GDR sf for English-language readers, but the book also stands up to comparison with the major German studies by Horst Heidtmann (Utopisch-phantastische Literatur in der DDR [Utopian-Fantastic Literature in the GDR], 1982), Angela and Karlheinz Steinmüller (Vorgriff auf das lichte Morgen [Anticipation of the Bright Tomorrow], 1995), and Karsten Kruschel (Spielwelten zwischen Wunschbild und Warnbild [Playful Worlds Oscillating Between Wishful and Warning Images], 1995).—Franz Rottensteiner, Vienna
Patricia Melzer. Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought. Austin: U Texas P, 2006. x + 325 pp. $24.95 pbk.
Patricia Melzer’s Alien Constructions is an important study that situates recent feminist sf in the context of current theoretical debates about gender. The book is especially notable for its lucid and exhaustive surveys of feminist and gender theory of the last forty years.
A brief Introduction reviews definitions of sf as the literature of cognitive estrangement and thus apt for feminist exploration and theorizing. It sums up the history of sf since the New Wave encouraged increased experimentation, and it suggests the importance of early feminist and role-reversal fictions (lesbian utopias and matriarchal cultures). Melzer’s goal is to explore the intersections of feminist theory and sf since these early experiments.
In Part I, “Difference, Identity, and Colonial Experience in Feminist Science Fiction,” Melzer devotes two chapters to how Octavia Butler’s “narratives echo issues in feminist postmodern theories,” especially issues of “identity and difference” (30). As in recent theory, Butler sees identity as negotiated rather than stable. By placing sf concepts from Butler’s novels Survivor (1978) and Dawn (1987) in the context of postcolonial and critical race theory, Chapter 1 explores two main strategies of resistance in Butler’s novels: survival and the recreation of cultural myths. Melzer argues that Butler’s narratives deconstruct academic theories of difference and problematize romantic views of postmodern identity. Butler’s characters, Melzer suggests, rearticulate and so undermine colonial discourses: the Oankali of the Xenogenesis series (1987-1989), for example, may be said to colonize humans, and the humans of Butler’s award-winning short story “Bloodchild” (1984), head for the stars in order to colonize a planet, only to find themselves colonized by the aliens they meet. There is no heroic individualism in Butler, Melzer maintains, but only survival by adaptation.
Chapter 2 locates Butler’s representations of identity within current feminist theory: as in current theory, Butler sees subjects as historically situated and represents identity as built on difference, not sameness; Butler offers multiple and shifting concepts of self to resist the binaries of Western mind/body and male/female dualism. In the Xenogenesis series, “Bloodchild,” and other Butler fictions, miscegenation is a main theme and Butler foregrounds fear of difference, working through it rather than erasing it. She uses sf concepts, principally aliens, to destabilize the categories of difference (male/female, gay/straight, black/white): the Oankali have three, not two, sexes, and Butler’s romances almost always cross color lines—it is not easy being green in Survivor. As readers can see from this much simplified summary, Melzer’s study spends more time on theory than on narrative, and, as a result, is challenging to read. Her encapsulations of current critical concepts, however, make the effort worthwhile.
Part II, “Technologies and Gender in Science Fiction Film,” focuses on sf film (Alien Resurrection  and The Matrix ) and representations of the body’s ambiguous relationship to cyborg technologies and posthuman subjectivities. Chapter 3 examines Alien Resurrection in particular, and all the movies in this series in general, as expressing fears and anxieties about the Other and how to control it. Melzer argues that the boundary crossing represented in Alien Resurrection is central to posthuman conceptions of identity, and she deploys a satisfying range of theory to define these conceptions. Through the three “female” aliens—Ripley the construct, Call the cyborg, and the Alien Queen—Melzer suggests that Alien Resurrection aligns difference based on race, gender, and sexuality to threaten a stable masculine sense of self, the threat heightened by the setting of huge ship and huge factory-laboratory symbolizing global (universal?) capitalism. Rather than the male cyborg representing fears of the body as armored weapon, the female cyborgs represent threatening, aggressive sexuality.
Chapter 4 records Melzer’s disappointment that The Matrix hints at “potentially progressive construction of collective political agency” and fluid identity, only to retreat to conservative individualism (150-51). In this film, the virtual world is not fantastic, but like ours, and so the special effects let us know what the characters do not—that their world is virtual, their bodies tucked away to be drained for energy by the machine despots. The Matrix is thus linked to cyberpunk in the heroic depiction of technology rather than muscle, but not in the fantasy of escape from the body—the intact body represents the conservative humanist autonomous subject, not the posthuman concept of concern for embodiment. The benefit of Melzer’s approach may be seen in her brilliant conclusion that, while the “splinter” in Neo’s mind that doubts his reality represents the rational individual and places identity within traditional humanist discourse from the perspective of The Matrix, from a feminist perspective it would have offered an awareness of one’s position in social relationships, a raising of consciousness that could have been represented by Neo’s initiation into the Resistance.
Part III, “Posthuman Embodiment: Deviant Bodies, Desire, and Feminist Politics,” explores the limits of our dual sex/gender system and applies theories of transgressive and transgender identities to recent feminist sf by Octavia Butler and Melissa Scott. Chapter 5 employs transgender theory to argue that Richard Calder’s Dead Girls (1998), a novel about young girls who turn into automatons and infect men sexually, comes close to being a feminist work (!) that challenges the categories defining what is human. Here Melzer’s interpretation goes seriously awry, when she suggests that Calder’s depiction of the Human Front as fascist opponents of the doll girls is an authentic satire of the Religious Right (instead of a displacement of our righteous anger against a patently misogynist fantasy onto historical fascism).
Chapter 6 surveys queer theory and transgender concepts to argue that gender is not a continuum but a multi-dimensional field in current feminist sf. While Melzer inaccurately critiques Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) as a male model of androgyny, she offers fascinating readings of Butler’s Wild Seed (1980) and Imago (1989) as depicting “transgressive gender performativity” (225). Just as rockets in sf symbolize phallic technology, the shape-shifters of contemporary sf, Melzer argues, symbolize “androgynous identities outside of the gender binary” (227; emphasis in original). Butler’s depiction of Doro and Anyanwu in Wild Seed, changing bodies but possessing stable gender identities, destabilizes both constructionist and essentialist claims about the nature of gender. The ooloi of Imago, especially the construct ooloi who change shape themselves (with the genetic help of human cancer cells), reconfigure the binary system through transgressive sexual exchange. Thus, Melzer argues, in sexual pairing that involves a black human woman, an Asian human man, an Oankali male and female, and an ooloi, Butler’s feminist critique of heterosexism does not abandon the components of gender and race. Melzer finishes this chapter by reading Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man (1995) as acknowledging intersexuality, juxtaposing the two-sex, heterosexual system of the backward colonial outpost Hara (where all the herms have to choose whether to live the rest of their lives as male or female) with the five-sex, nine-sexual-preference system of the Concordian Federation. Told from both Haran and Concordian points of view, the novel follows the struggles of the odd-bodied Haran Raven to loosen the definitions of his society’s gender and sex categories, and ends with full-blown political resistance. At the same time, as Melzer argues, the novel also depicts both sex/gender systems as repressive.
While Melzer’s knowledge of the last fifty years of feminist theory is prodigious, her coverage of the forty years of feminist sf criticism is not generous. For example, the note that follows her claim that “The relationship between technology and identity has been widely discussed in ... science fiction narratives” (149) does not refer us to a list of sf novels and critical studies, but explains why she treats The Matrix as sf. When she does cite sf critics, she frequently fails to summarize their positions (i.e., 265 n. 2). Even though Melzer claims to be following Donna Haraway in considering sf texts as producers of theory, unlike Haraway, Melzer privileges theory and presents sf as a follower, instead of a producer, of theory. This seems to me to underestimate the contribution of Butler’s and Scott’s fiction to the feminist discussion of gender, sexuality, and identity. Scott’s Shadow Man, for example, precedes the three feminist science studies that Melzer names as challenging the two-sexed system as natural. Nevertheless, Melzer’s summaries and analysis of current theory are cogent and extremely productive, and if you already know the sf well enough, you will find her conclusions extraordinarily insightful.—Jane Donawerth, University of Maryland
Feast or Famine.
Gavin Miller. Alasdair Gray: The Fiction of Communion. Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature, vol. 4. New York: Rodopi, 2005. 144 pp. $39 pbk.
In 1981, one of the most extraordinary works of contemporary British literature appeared from a then relatively small Edinburgh publisher, Canongate. Lanark: A Life in 4 Books by Alasdair Gray had been in progress for more than 20 years, and one chapter had been the runner-up in a short-story competition in 1958. Nor was Gray entirely unknown; he was a modestly successful painter and his plays had been performed on radio and television during the 1960s and 1970s. But the impact of Lanark was as if it had burst upon the scene from nowhere. In his mid-forties, Gray was suddenly the new writer to watch: the benchmark for British postmodernism, the inspiration for a new blending of mainstream and fantastic literature, the model for exciting new possibilities in book design, and, above all, the harbinger of a renaissance in Scottish literature. It is this last that has perhaps stuck to Gray most tenaciously, though it is at best a dubious accolade.
Gray has always been an enthusiastic supporter of other Scottish writers such as James Kelman, Liz Lochhead, Agnes Owens, and Chris Boyce. He produced a collection of stories with Kelman and Owens (Lean Tales, 1985), published Boyce in his short-lived Dog and Bone Press (Blooding Mister Naylor, 1990), and acknowledged Kelman, Lochhead, and Boyce among the “plagiarisms” listed in the Epilogue of Lanark. Nevertheless, it is questionable how much of the Scottish renaissance could, or should, be laid at his door. In Belfast in the 1960s, Philip Hobsbaum was at the center of the resurgence of Ulster poetry then occurring; in the 1970s he moved to Glasgow University where he began in similar manner to gather Scottish writers around him. Among those associated with Hobsbaum at this time were Gray, Kelman, Boyce, and Lochhead, all of whom began to publish at around the same time. If any one individual is to be saddled with responsibility for the Scottish renaissance, therefore, Hobsbaum’s claim seems rather stronger than Gray’s. Though the attention generated by Lanark did help to establish Canongate as an outlet for new Scottish writers, their biggest commercial success would come some years later with Life of Pi (2002) by the Canadian author Yann Martel. And while Gray may have awakened some publishers to the commercial possibilities of a later generation of Scottish writers, such as A.L. Kennedy and Iain Banks, none of these writers have shown any evidence that Gray might be considered a literary influence. For all his passionate Scottish nationalism (he wrote a pamphlet, Why Scots Should Rule Scotland, in 1992, a political position that has spilled over into such fictions as A History Maker  and many of the stories in The Ends of Our Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories ), his work actually stands at something of a tangent to Scottish literature, with or without its renaissance of the 1980s and 1990s.
Nevertheless, no survey of contemporary Scottish writing would be complete without acknowledging Gray, and the critical attention he has received tends to focus on placing him within a Scottish context. Gavin Miller, who has already written extensively on Scottish literature and writers, continues that tradition in this monograph. He does so primarily by emphasizing the connections between the ideas contained in Lanark and the theories of the Glaswegian psychologist R.D. Laing and, to a lesser extent, earlier Scottish social anthropologists such as J.G. Frazer and W. Robertson Smith. This aspect of Miller’s book is fascinating and convincing. Crucial to the character of Scottishness Miller extracts from these writers is the idea of communion, not in a religious sense but in a social sense typified by the communal meal. Applying this notion to Gray’s work (inevitably, Miller concentrates on Lanark, though he also gives reasonable consideration to 1982 Janine  and Something Leather ), Miller points out that the tragedy of Gray’s characters is that they are isolated from communion, often through the malign influence of an abusive father. Only by entering into the communion of family life, what Gray has described as “an unexpected collision … with a woman” (qtd12), can they achieve redemption. The “dragonhide” of Lanark, which makes the skin of the victim rigid and unfeeling, represents this rejection of communion and also makes concrete an idea found in Laing. For Lanark himself, the only cure for his dragonhide lies in the love of Rima, whom he drives away, and in feelings of tenderness for his son, Sandy (Miller makes no mention of the fact that Sandy is a contraction of Alexander, the name of Gray’s own father). Significantly, Thaw, in the two central chapters of Lanark, is presented as a follower of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess (1952), chasing artistic creativity at the expense of family life. The consequence of this choice, seen in the Unthank chapters, makes Lanark an indictment of the rigidity of Graves’s modernism as much as it is an attack on the rigidity of Scottish Calvinism.
So far so good, and Miller is careful to draw examples from earlier Scottish writers to show that this quest for family communion is a common element in Scottish literature. The congruence of Gray’s ideas with those of Laing seems too striking to ignore. Certainly, Laing’s moment of fame came just at that point in the 1960s and 1970s when Lanark was taking shape, and it is entirely reasonable to assume that Gray would be familiar with and sympathetic to Laing’s ideas, although Laing does not feature among the “plagiarisms” in Lanark, while Jung, for instance, does. Still, it is possible to read the generally cold and often brutal fathers in Lanark, 1982 Janine, and The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985) as part of an ongoing critique of the masculine austerity of Calvinist tradition, counterpointed by the more welcoming and attractive feminine societies glimpsed, for instance, in A History Maker and Poor Things (1992), without putting quite so much emphasis on Laing.
While Miller is eager to place Gray firmly within a tradition of Scottish literature and ideas, it is curious that he makes absolutely no mention of the Scottish author who has had the most obvious influence on Gray’s writing, Robert Louis Stevenson. Gray used Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde (1886) as the starting point for Poor Things and had earlier completed, seamlessly, one of Stevenson’s unfinished stories. But then, Poor Things receives very little attention in this book; less, in fact, than is given to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969). The three pages of discussion are at least more than is devoted, in total, to McGrotty and Ludmilla (1990), Ten Tales Tall and True (1993), Mavis Belfrage (1996), and The Ends of Our Tethers (2003), while the first of Gray’s two books of poetry, Old Negatives (1989), does not even make it into the bibliography. It is a critical approach that gives unwarranted support to John Sutherland’s snide comment about “the curious diminuendo in Alasdair Gray’s career” (qtd 11), as if all that really deserves attention is to be found in Lanark and in those portions of 1982 Janine and Something Leather that echo the concerns of Lanark. This is far from the truth. The later works are often slighter and in several instances more rushed (several, including The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985), McGrotty and Ludmilla, and Mavis Belfrage, were developed from earlier plays); nevertheless, the communal feminine counterpoint to Calvinism comes out more clearly in the later works, while the nationalist politics are more overtly stated, so that a full and balanced account of Gray’s ideas can only be achieved by reading the early works against the later.
Even so, to give Miller his due, he has now successfully linked Gray with Scottish ideas in psychology and anthropology as propounded by Laing and Robertson Smith and others, and he has placed him (somewhat less securely) within a tradition of Scottish literature. It is where Miller takes us next that he loses me, for he is determined to deny any suggestion that Gray’s work is postmodernist. I have no great belief that there is any such thing as a purely postmodern fiction, but there are undeniably numerous tropes and characteristics commonly identified with postmodernism. Among these are the blending of genres, breaking the frame, and denial of any hierarchical relationship between author and reader. Such devices are found throughout Gray’s fiction: notably, the integration of text and design; the employment of science fiction, travel narrative, mainstream fiction, and so forth within the same work; the nesting of narratives within narratives or the counterpointing of contrasting accounts of the same events; the interjection of an authorial voice; the breaking of the frame implicit in the list of plagiarisms in Lanark. Gray clearly uses the tools of postmodernism in his work, and to deny this is counterintuitive. But Miller can only get away with this argument by depending on a very limited understanding of what postmodernism is, an understanding that leads Miller to argue that Slaughterhouse-Five is similarly not postmodern.
In place of postmodernism, Miller proposes that Gray should be read as a Sartrean existentialist, a position he presents as being a natural development from Laingean psychology. I have no difficulty in accepting that there are existential ideas in Lanark (though I think they are less obvious in the later novels and stories that do not receive such close attention here), and I am also persuaded by the way Miller draws existentialism out of Laing’s work. Yet I do not see that existentialism must necessarily exclude postmodernism, and I am uneasy at the way Miller so easily abandons Scottishness as a theme at this point.
This monograph is a useful addition to our critical understanding of Alasdair Gray, principally because of the way it links his work with the ideas of R.D. Laing, but there is still a long way to go in examining the role of Scottish politics and culture in developing Gray’s unique voice. And it would be nice if such critical attention could give a more balanced view of the books Gray has produced since Lanark.—Paul Kincaid, London
A Detailed Dissection.
Donald E. Morse, ed. Anatomy of Science Fiction. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars P, 2006. xii + 199 pp. $59.99 hc.
I spent the first year of my undergraduate studies as a pre-med major. What I remember most fondly about that period of my life was the university dissection lab, where freshmen were sometimes allowed to work alongside medical students, peeling skin off corpses and isolating various organs for further study under bright lights. We even got to play catch with preserved brains one day—an activity that turned out to be both estranging and instructive, as it gave us an intimate feel for both the marvelous variety of individual bodies and the equally marvelous similarity among those organisms that comprise the greater body of humanity as a whole. But the dissection lab turned out to be the only thing I enjoyed about that year, and so I quickly exchanged the world of human bodies for that of literary and cultural ones.
Reading the essays collected in Donald E. Morse’s Anatomy of Science Fiction made me nostalgic for the university dissection lab all over again. Collectively speaking, the authors featured in this anthology do a fine job peeling the skin off that body of storytelling we call sf to examine specific texts and traditions under the bright light of critical and cultural theory. Some authors even do the analytic equivalent of tossing brains at readers, encouraging us to feel the weight and texture of these texts and traditions in surprising new ways. In doing so, Morse and his colleagues remind us how the unique body of sf articulates with greater bodies of literary and cultural praxis as well.
As Morse notes in his prefatory remarks, the authors featured in this collection enhance our thinking about what constitutes the body of sf by exploring “American science fiction with a complementary examination of British science plays, East German subversive science fiction, and Hungarian pseudotranslation” (xii). All but two of these essays were originally published in the Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, with some appearing simultaneously in JFA: Journal for the Fantastic in the Arts. Of the remaining two, one was first presented as the plenary lecture for the 2003 Biennial Conference of the Hungarian Association of American Studies and the other is reprinted from The Undying Fire: The Official Journal of the H.G. Wells Society. This volume is unique, then, because it includes original work by both Anglophone sf scholars who will be well known to Western readers and their central European counterparts, who “often see events and prominent people very differently than Western theorists” and who thus enhance our thinking about what constitutes the bodies of both sf and sf studies itself (6).
Wherever the hail comes from, the authors included in Morse’s volume use one of three analytic toolkits in their dissections of sf: cultural studies of science and technology, formalist critique, or literary history. As I noted in a previous SFS review, critical works predicated on the combined insights of science and technology-oriented cultural studies are surprisingly rare, given the similar interests of scholars working in these two disciplines. And so I was delighted to see that half the authors included in Anatomy consider the close connections among science, society, and sf. This project begins on a strong note with Kevin Alexander Boon’s examination of sf as a literary genre that has evolved in tandem with Western society’s changing ideas about the necessary relations of religion and science. It continues with Morse’s detailed survey of 1950s American sf as dramatizing postwar hopes and fears about atomic technologies and Kálmán Matolcsy’s compelling examination of Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Cantos (1990-1998) as elaborating on the theories of biological and machine evolution that have proliferated over the past 150 years. Although they differ drastically in scope and subject matter, all three of these essays should inspire readers to think about the exciting new insights that they, too, might generate by incorporating cultural studies of science and technology into their own work on sf.
While Boon, Morse, and Matolcsy focus primarily on print sf’s representations of science and society, Nicholas Ruddick and Brian Attebery consider how representations of science and society themselves change when sf migrates across genres and media. Ruddick provocatively maps the science fictional attempt to “apply humane ethics to a scientifically-conceived” and indifferent universe from its early instantiation in the scientific romances of H.G. Wells to its near dissolution in sci-fi film and recent rebirth in modern science drama (110). Meanwhile, Attebery explores how new scientific ideas about the diversity of sex and gender relations are typically elaborated upon in print sf, erased in Hollywood sci-fi, and then reinstantiated in both print and media sf fandom. For Ruddick and Attebery, then, the reluctance (or perhaps inability) of mass-media producers to sustain the critical edge of either science or print sf is mitigated by the aesthetic activities of what we might call the newest members of an expanded sf community. Both authors invite us to think carefully and critically about the different ways this community might continue to evolve in the future.
The second group of authors featured in Morse’s Anatomy shines the bright light of formalist critique on sf to interrogate received critical notions of sf, especially as it is treated within the larger literary establishment. For example, Károly Pintér makes a persuasive case for H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905) as a metafiction that combines the prophetic urge of nineteenth-century utopian fiction with the empirically-based irony characteristic of much twentieth- century sf. In doing so, he complicates conventional scholarly wisdom regarding the disappearance of utopian writing in modern times. Meanwhile, Tamás Bényei reads Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (1973) as a critical fiction predicated on seemingly incompatible models of pulp and elite sf to gently mock conservative ideas about “good” and “bad” literature. I thoroughly enjoyed both these essays because they did the critical equivalent of tossing brains to me. I admit that I have never been very interested in either Wells’s or Vonnegut’s work, but after reading these chapters I have a newfound appreciation for the texture and heft of both. I expect other readers will feel similarly about other chapters in this anthology as well.
For Pintér and Bényei, authors working in transitional generic moments best capture the social energy and aesthetic innovation of sf. But other critics included in this volume turn their attention to authors who revise sf tradition itself to capture the truly strange and estranging nature of life in a technology-saturated world. In her reading of the Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-1989), Éva Federmayer situates Octavia E. Butler within a vibrant tradition of feminist authors who use sf to refuse masculinist ideas about the dissolution of the postmodern subject and represent modern people as creative agents within complex and sometimes contradictory technocultural networks. In a similar vein, Amy Novak argues that William Gibson refuses anxiety about the dissolution of memory in a spectacularized society by using the technologically- produced “semiotic ghosts” of Neuromancer (1984) as narrative agents who prompt their human counterparts to remember history in meaningful ways. While both Federmayer and Novak present readers with impressively detailed dissections of recent sf, I was particularly struck by their refusal to treat sf as a mere demonstration of literary or cultural theory. Instead, both critics use the sharp tools of formal analysis to show how sf authors push back against and actively contribute to the ongoing development of contemporary theory itself.
At the beginning of Anatomy Morse promises that the authors featured in his collection will shed new light on sf and sf studies because they have ties to geographical regions and literary traditions outside those usually studied by Western scholars. This promise is fulfilled particularly well by the two concluding essays in the volume. Usch Kiausche’s chapter on the rise and fall of East German sf between 1949 and 1989 is particularly important in this respect because it introduces readers to modes of sf writing that all but vanished along with the Berlin Wall. In doing so, Kiausche reminds us both that sf truly is a global genre and that Western readers must be prepared to embrace a wide variety of sf storytelling practices outside those to which they are accustomed. Morse himself introduces readers to one of these practices in his concluding essay for the volume: the phenomenon of pseudo-translation, which allowed Hungarian publishers to build markets for sf during the fall of Communism by passing off homegrown fiction as the product of American authors. It is a fascinating story with an equally fascinating conclusion that I will not detail here; critical anthologies rarely keep readers guessing until the very end and so I do not want to spoil the surprise.
I do, however, want to return to the analogy with which I began this review and note that like most of the bodies I saw during my time in the dissection lab, Anatomy of Science Fiction does have its blemishes. Perhaps the most surprising one is the extent to which the authors featured here treat the body of sf itself as being primarily white and male. To be fair, Kiausche mentions two married writing teams in his discussion of East German sf authors, and both Attebery and Federmayer address issues of sexual orientation, race, and gender in their chapters. As Federmayer points out in a footnote to her argument, however, “women’s share in the genre seems to be as good as non-existent … [for] Hungarian critics” (106). This aporia is largely reproduced in the current volume—and in fact, it is exacerbated in some ways by the fact that Federmayer’s essay on just one author, Octavia E. Butler, is forced into the awkward position of representing nearly all the speculative fiction that women—not to mention people of color—have produced over the past century. This problematizes Morse’s introductory claim that Central European sf scholars shed new light on sf; in this respect at least, they simply reproduce commonplace assumptions about sf as a genre for “boys and their toys,” as a feminist friend once put it to me. Of course, no one anthology can be all things to all people, and given the otherwise fine quality of the intellectual work presented here, I am willing to conclude that perhaps we simply need a sequel to the current volume.
Having said that, another less easily forgiven flaw mars Anatomy as well: the physical presentation of the book itself. Page margins are almost non-existent, which will annoy readers who like to record their impressions of an argument in some proximity to that argument, and the cramped font is headache inducing. There are also a surprising number of typographic errors throughout the collection—I counted three in the first three pages of the introduction alone, and found myself stymied at later points by references to humans who “Cupertino with aliens” (102) and the messiah “Jesse in the New Testament” (157). I am reasonably certain that “Jesse” is actually meant to be “Jesus,” but I still do not know how the name of a city in California became a verb—twice in the same essay, no less. I have heard that Cambridge Scholars Publishing is something of a vanity press for European academics, but a quick Internet search reveals that CSP generally sends manuscripts out for peer review and that distinguished scholars with prominent institutional affiliations publish with the press. This makes the situation of Anatomy even more frustrating as it suggests one of two things. Either the CSP staff decided that they did not need to put much effort into a volume that would only be read by sf scholars or, more depressingly, that they have neither the funds nor the inclination to polish any of their publications at all.
Despite the reservations I have outlined above, I strongly recommend Anatomy of Science Fiction for three reasons. First, as Morse himself rightly notes, even in an increasingly global scholarly community we do not encounter much critical work by non-Anglophone scholars, especially on non-Anglophone sf. I expect this will change in the coming decades, but for now anthologies such as this one are truly pioneering efforts. Second, while many of the authors included here are conservative in the Western texts and traditions they address, they do so with great brio and have much to teach readers who are new to sf studies. Third and finally, all of the essays in this volume are outstanding examples of sf scholarship that use theory to illuminate sf while also using sf to complicate readers’ understanding of theory. In my experience, that is something that happens too seldom in sf studies, and that alone makes Anatomy of Science Fiction worth reading.—Lisa Yaszek, Georgia Institute of Technology
The Nightmare of Culture.
Annalee Newitz. Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2006. 224 pp. $21.95 pbk.
In this avant-pop book of cultural and literary criticism, the core argument that capitalism is an instrument of zombification, schizophrenia, and ultraviolence immediately brings to mind George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.Released in 1978, the film is a touchstone of late-capitalist critique that calls attention to the escalating effects of mall culture on the American psyche and allegorizes the brutally mechanized experience of postmodern consumer life. Virtually the same critique is made by the more recent dark romantic comedy Shaun of the Dead (2004), although here the mall materializes as a pub. Newitz does not mention either film, but her project has similar protocols, contending that identity, selfhood, desire, and the body have been ravaged and freakified by socioeconomic claws. She repeatedly equates the monsters of capitalism with death and fantasy in theses interspersed throughout her introduction: “capitalist monsters embody the contradictions of a culture where making a living often feels like dying” (2); “capitalism creates monsters who want to kill you” (3); “Capitalism, as its monsters tell us more or less explicitly, makes us pretend that we’re dead in order to live” (6); “Capitalist monsters are the fantasy outcome of social constructivism in a class-stratified world. Their tales demonstrate why identity constructed under capitalism is a nightmare” (10). Above all, however, Pretend We’re Dead is “an extended meditation on how works about monsters represent economic crisis” (12).
Contingent upon these theses is the issue of performativity. Newitz exercises a conventional postmodern logic that dictates, among other things, that reality is an illusion, that we are inhibited by a heated anthropologism, and that the self is a pathologically mediatized actor. Pretend We’re Dead, then, is a philosophical exploration of the theater of identity. Many studies have operated under the same aegis and employed the same methodology of reading culture and society through the lens of speculative literature and film. Notable are Scott Bukatman’s Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (1993), Judith Halberstam’s Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995), and Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1993), the latter of which seems to have considerably influenced Pretend We’re Dead. Unlike the authors of these texts, however, Newitz does not limit her scope to one particular genre or theoretical modality. She addresses gender, race, and class in equal measures as they emerge in multiple genres and subgenres (e.g., drama, comedy, action, suspense, classics, science fiction, horror, fantasy, cult, exploitation, pulp), and she has a special penchant for B-movies and other marginalized texts—the more marginalized, in fact (and the bloodier), the better.
Thus, Newitz’s study, while extremely lucid and reliably shrewd, is fragmented, disrupted, collaged, violent, an assemblage of “body parts” from select time periods. The book is itself a salient metaphor for its own subject matter. This kind of self-reflexive capitalist-critique-as-Frankenstein-monster is not new, of course. We can trace it back to Deleuze and Guattari’s anti-capitalist schizosophies and Marshall McLuhan’s media ecologies of the 1960s and 1970s. We can revert further to the Frankfurt School, namely Benjamin’s work on the Arcades Project in the 1920s and 1930s. Nonetheless, Newitz’s writing is fresh, clever, and fun, exhibiting a jouissance in its navigation of gruesomely dark and often goofy territory.
Each of the five chapters in Pretend We’re Dead centers on a different type of monster: serial killers, mad doctors, zombies, robots, and mass media (in order of appearance). The final chapter, subtitled “Monsters of the Culture Industry,” invokes Horkheimer and Adorno’s famous essay on the mass production of culture and displays the guiding theme of the preceding chapters: “Pop culture, as these narratives make clear, is crawling with fiends and psychotics; the media is both a monstrosity and a manufacturer of monsters. What we see in capitalist monster stories about mass media are the fears aroused by an information economy where the act of storytelling itself has been co-opted by the marketplace” (152). To elaborate on this theme, Newitz refers to a wealth of texts, including novels (Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust , F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon , Bud Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? ), theory (Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment , Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography , Mike Davis’s The Ecology of Fear ), television shows (The Brady Bunch [1969-74], The Partridge Family [1970-74], Rosanne [1988-97]), and especially films (Sunset Boulevard , The Bad and the Beautiful , Logan’s Run , Videodrome , The Last Starfighter , Pleasantville , The Truman Show , Galaxy Quest ,the Scream [1996-2000] and Matrix trilogies [1999-2003]). She references texts with the same voracity in every chapter, sometimes obliquely, sometimes in greater detail, and she “take[s] it for granted that pop culture stories are worth analyzing” (5).
One monster that Pretend We’re Dead does not account for is the extraterrestrials as portrayed in, say, Alien (1979) or They Live (1988), both movies in which ETs are linked to capitalism. Initially this seems like a crucial omission. As Newitz explains, however, “the monsters I examine here are all made monstrous, rather than born monstrous” (9). With the exception of characters such as Thomas Jerome Newton, who, in the film version of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), slowly turns into a passive monster, aliens represented in literature and film are not typically pathologized by technocapitalist media and economic forces; their malevolence (or benevolence) is an “off-world” formation.
The monsters under scrutiny in Pretend We’re Dead fall into three overarching categories: mental, bodily, and narrative monstrosities, accounting for the different ways that capitalism inscribes subjects. This matter of inscription is the axis of Newitz’s line of reasoning. Beginning with the late nineteenth century, she tracks the performance/production of American minds and bodies by way of the stories those minds and bodies articulate in the realms of fantasy and desire. Put differently, Newitz is concerned not only with how media culture exacerbates our desire for fantasy, but with why the mediatized eruptions of our desires in fantasy are so violent, and why we take more and more pleasure in that violence. To this end, she views gender, race, and sexuality under the umbrella of class—the ultimate manufacturer of the cult of personality in post-Civil War America.
For the most part, Newitz does not posit agency from the specter of capitalist monsters. She comes closest in the final pages, alluding (consciously?) to William S. Burroughs’s ideas of culture as disease, illness, and word/image virus. “The media are a virus lodged inside us. We cannot escape infection, only pass it on” (182). She acknowledges the air of cynicism and despair in these words and ends on an optimistic note that echoes her opening theses:
Of course a social system which repeatedly populates our imagination with murderous creatures is nothing to be welcomed. But with each new monster narrative comes a warning, a hope.... And perhaps, one day, our monster stories will not express the grief of a nation whose people pretend to be dead in order to live. (183)
I wanted a more developed commentary on how a sense of hope can spring from an increased collective joy in increasingly more violent and nihilistic monster stories. The sustained proliferation of these narratives is a cogent mark of our hunger for them. But perhaps excess has its limits. Whatever the case, Pretend We’re Dead is a convincing, accessible work that will interest everyone from academics and media analysts who like offbeat criticism to horror lovers who like to watch zombies eat brains.—D. Harlan Wilson, Wright State University-Lake Campus
Under Polish Eyes: J.G. Ballard Reconsidered.
Dominika Oramus. Grave New World: The Decline of the West in the Fiction of J.G. Ballard. Warsaw: U of Warsaw P, 2007. 279 pp. Pbk. Can be ordered from <dominika.oramus@ neostrada.pl>.
James Graham Ballard seems to be the sf writer most loved by academicians: four book-length critical essays have been devoted to his oeuvre, and there are very few authors in the field who have been honored that way. This latest installment of Ballard’s academic canonization is possibly more striking than the previous three, as they (Roger Luckhurst’s 1997 The Angle Between Two Walls, Michel Delville’s 1998 J.G. Ballard, and Andrzej Gasiorek’s 2005 homonymous monograph) were all published in Ballard’s own country, while Grave New World has been published by the University of Warsaw in Poland. The author, Dominika Oramus, teaches contemporary British fiction there, and has written another monograph on Ballard (The Voices of Disaster: J.G. Ballard and the Disaster Story Tradition in England, 2005), plus a book in Polish on sf, Stacja Kontroli chaosu: Postacie i zjawiska wspólczesnej fantastyki [A Chaos Control Station: Contemporary Science Fiction: Writers and Subgenres] (2004), and a book-length essay on Angela Carter, not to mention several articles on sf authors.
So there are all the makings of an important contribution to the growing secondary bibliography on J.G. Ballard, though one cannot avoid wondering whether a new monograph on Ballard can really add something—after just two years—to Gasiorek’s exhaustive and meticulously researched essay. The reviewer’s opinion is that Oramus’s Grave New World does offer a remarkable added value in terms of hermeneutical penetration, notwithstanding its defects.
Before describing the few weaknesses and the many strong points of Oramus’s book, one should make a distinction. Gasiorek’s J.G. Ballard aims at introducing the figure of Ballard by exploring his works and the secondary bibliography on the British writer without a general interpretive hypothesis on his oeuvre: its prospective readers are evidently (though not only) university students who may need to put Ballard’s single works in the context of his imaginative world. In contrast, Oramus has a very strong interpretive hypothesis: reading “Ballard's fiction (and some of his non-fiction) as a record of the gradual internal degeneration of Western civilization in the second half of the twentieth century” (8). This is what the pun on Huxley hints at: the Grave New World is our world, seen by Ballard, according to Oramus, as dying because “growing increasingly hostile to individuals and erecting a cult of violence” (8). All in all, though potentially useful for students, Oramus’s monograph seems aimed more at Ballard scholars, and also, as we shall see, at scholars of British literature in general.
I have said that there are a few weaknesses in the essay. Actually I should say that there are three major shortcomings. The first is that the book badly needs a careful copy-editing: it has been printed in a non-English-speaking country and this shows, though Oramus availed herself of an American editor, Philip Earl Steele, a historian currently teaching at the University of Warsaw. The editing by a native speaker did not prevent typos, plus some slips that are almost self-evident. For example, Oramus tells us that Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (one of her and Ballard’s key sources of inspiration) was “written during World War II” (108), but a few pages later she says that Freud’s essay was published in 1929 (actually the correct publication year is 1930). There are small inaccuracies also when she quotes the titles of some works by Ballard, such as “Theatre of War” (1977), which is mentioned as “The Theatre of War.” There are also a number of awkward sentences, such as this: “[Jim] is proud to be coping on his own and bored by the scenes of death and mutilation, ones simply too numerous to impress” (93).
It should be added that there are a few terminological inaccuracies: for example, Oramus defines sociological science fiction as depicting “an usually small and isolated society whose members are being manipulated and kept in ignorance as far as the outside world is concerned” (106n). For those who find it difficult to reconcile this definition with the works of sociological sf authors of the 1950s such as Pohl and Kornbluth, we should explain that Oramus is referring to such Polish sf writers as Janusz Zajdel and Ermund Wnuk-Lipiński. Oramus seems to be unaware that the phrase “sociological sf” has generally been used by critics and historians of the genre to define a specific decade of US sf, and that a book written in English which aims at an international audience should allow for this. (Here we are not promoting any form of US-centrism; surely Polish sociological sf could be a very interesting discovery for us Western scholars. Yet Oramus’s terminological choice should have been more careful.) This small defect is arguably connected to a greater one—that is, the absence of Ray Bradbury, an author Ballard has always admired and whose influence (especially when one thinks of The Martian Chronicles ) on Ballard's Vermilion Sands cycle (1971) (and probably not only there) is undeniable, but apparently ignored by Oramus. This is the second weakness of the essay: Oramus only partially explores the ties between Ballard and the sf tradition, privileging the British models (e.g., H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley) over the US ones.
The third weakness is to be found especially in the first chapter of the book, “Grave New World.” Here Oramus devotes herself to tracing an intellectual genealogy of the Shepperton visionary, which unfortunately sounds a bit too much like an attempt to justify Ballard’s importance to a resistant local academic scene. Oramus sets forth several theorists as Ballard’s “gurus”: Gibbon, Toynbee, Spengler, Freud, Jung, Laing, Baudrillard, Debord, McLuhan, Fukuyama, and Huntingdon. Some of these figures are believable sources of ideas that Ballard has repeatedly woven into his narrative fabric: nobody can deny the importance of Jung and Freud to Ballard, and Oramus has the great merit of explaining how those founders of psychoanalysis have influenced him (for example, the obsession with timelessness in Ballard is brought back to Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents ). Had Oramus simply used the ideas of Spengler and Toynbee, for instance, to underpin her reading one would not object, but she does not sufficiently support some of these purported influences with textual evidence. Oramus boldly states that “the characters of early disaster stories Ballard wrote in the late fifties and early sixties read Spengler’s The Decline of the West  and are fascinated by his determinism in describing the inevitable end of every social structure” (46). Actually, Spengler and Toynbee are only mentioned in a single story, “The Voices of Time” (1960), where they are mentioned only once by a single character, and do not reappear in Ballard’s fiction, nor are they a widespread presence in his interviews or nonfiction. Other unsupported statements occur in this chapter, such as the footnote where Oramus says that “critics usually claim that Ballard is influenced by the poetic diction of Lautréamont” (62), but does not identify those critics, nor does she bother to quote from Isidore Lucien Ducasse, a.k.a. Comte de Lautréamont, to show us how the proto-surrealist poet’s “poetic diction” influenced the British novelist. All in all, the “Grave New World” chapter is the weakest in the book, and does not add much to our knowledge of Ballard and his fictional worlds. Besides, one cannot escape the feeling that Oramus missed some figures who really influenced Ballard, such as Bradbury, or T.S. Eliot, whose Waste Land (1922)is important both to The Drowned World (1962) and The Drought (1965). An analysis of Ballard’s brilliant recycling of Eliot’s apocalyptic imagery might have strengthened Oramus’s main argument.
The added value of the book can instead mostly be found in the Introduction (especially in its second section, “J.G. Ballard’s Auto-Creation” [25-36]), and above all in the five long chapters that follow the theoretical introduction: “Battlefields,” “Cityscapes,” “Mediascapes,” “Mindscapes,” and “Wastelands.” These are the 187 pages (out of about 280) that make Grave New World absolutely worth reading and inspiring for JGB scholars to come.
“Battlefields” deals with Ballard’s war fiction, his works directly or indirectly related to WWII and the war that never happened (or has not happened yet), WWIII: the two imaginary memoirs Empire of the Sun (1984)and The Kindness of Women (1991), some parts of The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), and the short stories “The Terminal Beach” (1964), “The Dead Time” (1977), “The Killing Ground” (1969), “Theatre of War” (1977), and “War Fever” (1989). Oramus’s thesis is that “World War II is the true intellectual and spiritual beginning of [Ballard’s] output” (82), and this is an idea to which we can wholeheartedly subscribe. Besides, it is postmodernist fiction itself that was born in that war: consider such seminal texts as Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962),and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), just to remain on the science-fictional turf. No wonder then that a great postmodernist who started from sf (and later, just like Vonnegut, forsook it) acknowledges his historical matrix. Moreover, this apocalyptic starting point fits the apocalyptic tone of the essay perfectly.
In “Cityscapes” Oramus explores those texts that deal with metropolitan space: the novels High-Rise (1975), Crash (1973), and Concrete Island (1974), and the short stories “The Concentration City”(1957), “The Largest Theme Park in the World”(1989), and “The Ultimate City”(1976). Those works substantiate the thesis that “the affluent, turn-of-the-millennium Western culture ... is primarily an urban phenomenon” (110). I would like to point out Oramus’s reading of Concrete Island, which considers the text as the delirium of the protagonist’s dying brain, so that Maitland represents an extreme form of unreliable narrator.
The subsequent chapter, “Mediascapes,” is devoted to those works in which the media dominate. Obviously Oramus is aware that the media are omni-present in Ballard, but she chooses some texts as more representative than others: the novels Hello America (1981), Rushing to Paradise (1994), The Day of Creation (1987), Running Wild (1988), parts of The Atrocity Exhibition, and the two short stories “The Subliminal Man”(1962) and “The Air Disaster”(1975). One might wonder why The Day of Creation was included in this section only, as the novel might be easily read as a variation on the narrative device already used in Concrete Island, but the basic thesis orienting the readings in this chapter is that “TV and other audiovisual media in Ballard’s fiction not only give people models to follow, but they also shape the way people perceive reality” (148), and there is no doubt that The Day of Creation is set in a (probably deliberately bogus) Africa built with media materials and based on how a media-shaped mind perceives reality (whatever may go under that name nowadays).
“Mindscapes” deals with the apocalyptic sf novels of the 1960s: The Wind from Nowhere (1961), The Drowned World, The Drought (which Oramus reads in such an innovative way as to redeem it from its current status as minor work), The Crystal World (1966),and its embryo, the short story “The Illuminated Man”(1964), plus parts of The Atrocity Exhibition. Far from reading the early sf works by Ballard as apprentice works (or ignoring them), Oramus considers these novels as showing “the inner landscape of contemporary people living in the constraints of [Grave New World’s] cityscapes and media culture” (191).
The last section, “Wastelands,” deals primarily with Ballard’s more recent productions: Rushing to Paradise, Running Wild, Millennium People (2003), Super-Cannes (2000), and Cocaine Nights (1996), plus a novel of the 1970s, The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), and the short story “A Guide to Virtual Death”(1992). Here Oramus explores “realms of decadence” where “the prevailing feeling of an approaching end makes people indulge in diverse fantasies, the communication landscape enslaves them and the environment is hostile to mental health” (230). These waste lands are the world we live in now, in 2008; and Oramus’s willingness to offer a panoramic reading of Ballard’s oeuvre that allows for his latest developments can be appreciated by her inserting an appendix discussing Ballard’s latest achievement, the 2006 novel Kingdom Come.
Oramus’s readings of the texts are generally very productive and sometimes illuminating. But it is the way she groups the novels and short stories that is fascinating and thought-provoking. Rather than using chronological order or conventional genre borderlines (between novels and short fiction, between sf and crime fiction, between autobiography and novelistic invention), the Polish scholar has detected five major issues in Ballard’s output and coherently uses them as coordinates of a penta-dimensional charting of a most complex fictional space. This is an intellectual effort that deserves attention and should be acknowledged by Ballard scholars in the next decades, its shortcomings notwithstanding. It is to be hoped that some university press may consider publishing a revised version.—Umberto Rossi, Rome
Edgar Allan Poe. Eureka. 1848. Ed. Stuart Levine and Susan F. Levine. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2004. xxxiv + 191 pp. $35.00 hc.
Some readers may feel it is anachronistic or simply out of place to review Edgar Allan Poe’s classic cosmogony Eureka in an issue of SFS in the twenty-first century. But I am happy to be reviewing Stuart and Susan Levine’s recent edition of this magnum opus of antebellum literature now, for no collected works of Poe—neither James Harrison’s nor Thomas Ollive Mabbott’s nor Burton R. Pollin’s—have succeeded in compiling the definitive text of Eureka. That is the text originally published in 1848, one year after the passing of Poe’s beloved wife Virginia, and one year prior to the death of this legendary genius of Romantic literature. For a long time it has been hard for us to read the full text of Eureka; what we think we have read and admired as Poe’s greatest prose poem has been an incomplete version. Hence the need for Stuart and Susan Levine’s thoroughly edited and eruditely annotated Eureka, which most Poe scholars believe will be the definitive edition for future Poe scholarship. In editing this definitive edition of Eureka, the Levines have had access to notes and annotations painstakingly made by their great precursors Mabbott and Pollin, and they have produced a work that supplements and updates the earlier editions. (I hope the Levines will be ambitious enough to tackle the complete works in the near future.)
When I began studying Poe in 1979 as an MA student at Sophia University in Tokyo, the most important guideposts already included the Levines’ work—especially their skillfully co-edited anthology The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (1976), and Stuart Levine’s major literary-critical work Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman (1972). The Levines’ introduction and annotations showed a generation of Poe scholars how to reread Poe not only textually but also historically, while Stuart Levine’s redefinition of Poe primarily as a genuine editor gave us insightful suggestions and provided the inspiration to redraw the existing and limited portrait of Poe as an alcoholic madman in the attic. Without this work I certainly could not have completed my own PhD dissertation on the disfiguration of genres in Poe’s literature in 1987.
The general propositions of Poe’s Eureka are very simple: “In the Original Unity of the First Thing lies the Secondary Cause of All Things, with the Germ of their inevitable Annihilation”(57); “So rigorously is this the case—so thoroughly demonstrable is it that Attraction and Repulsion are the sole properties through which we perceive the Universe—in other words, by which Matter is manifested to Mind—that, for all merely augmentative purposes, we are fully justified in assuming that Matter exists only as Attraction and Repulsion—that Attraction and Repulsion are [M]atter”(28; emphasis in original); “God—the material and spiritual God—now exists solely in the diffused Matter and Spirit of the Universe; … the regathering of this diffused Matter and Spirit will be but the re-constitution of the purely Spiritual and Individual God” (104; emphasis in original). The author does not try to follow the hardcore conventions of the scientific research paper. Instead, he relies on the science-fictional device of quoting a remarkable letter sent from the year of 2848, which the speaker tells us “appears to have been found corked in a bottle and floating on the Mare Tenebrarum—an ocean well described by the Nubian geographer, Ptolemy Hephestion, but little frequented in modern days unless by the Transcendentalists and some other divers for crotchets” (9).
Reading the above passage, readers might recall not only Poe’s theoretical essays but his famous short stories such as “MS in a Bottle” (1833), “A Descent into the Maelstrom” (1841), and “Eleonora” (1841). For the mysterious term “Mare Tenebrarum,” the “Nubian Geographer’s” name for the Atlantic, the Levines aptly refer us to John Bryant’s New System; or, An Analysis of Ancient Mythology (1774-76) as Poe’s source (119), but they point out that although Bryant does mention “Ptolemy Hephaestion,” he identifies Geographia Nubiensis’s author al Idrisi as the Nubian geographer. The Levines here confirm what they advanced in their earlier annotations to “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” reprinted in The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe thirty years ago: Poe’s error is deliberate (59). What interests me here is that, in developing their theory propounded in their 1976 anthology, the Levines illuminate and even appreciate Bryant’s style. “Though Bryant’s Mythology was unconvincing, it was immensely learned and remains fascinating,” they write. “His [Poe’s] ambivalence toward Bryant, who seemed to him both imaginatively intriguing and funny, is important for understanding Poe’s attitude toward Eureka” (133). We might see this new edition of Eureka as a literary laboratory, where the Levines further develop Poe’s connection to Bryant.
In the same way, the editors unveil Poe’s misreading of the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (15):
Newton deduced it [the fact of gravitation] from the laws of Kepler. Kepler admitted that these laws he guessed—these laws whose investigation disclosed to the greatest of British astronomers that principle, the basis of all (existing) physical principle, in going behind which we enter at once the nebulous kingdom of Metaphysics. Yes!—these vital laws Kepler guessed—that is to say, he imagined them. (15; emphasis in original)
The annotators give us an inspiring commentary on this logic:
Tycho’s death freed Kepler to use a new model with the sun at the center and elliptical orbits. Kepler got his model to work but had no physical understanding of why it worked. Newton would provide the basis for a theoretical account of why Kepler’s model worked. So the statement in Eureka is not quite right. Kepler worked for years to find the laws; there was no inspired guessing of a theory because he produced no theory, although no science historian would deny that the model, his visualization, might well have resulted from the combination, deduction, and subliminal association that Poe describes. (127)
Poe’s misreading of Kepler here is probably deliberate, but what is its source? Apparently, as Poe developed his own literary and scientific theory he was forced to transgress the theoretical limits he himself had set up much earlier, by creatively misreading and violating the principles of his earlier poetics. For instance, he once boasted that in composing the famous 1845 masterpiece “The Raven” that “no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem” (“The Philosophy of Composition”). But Eureka seems to put an emphasis on intuition:
In commencing the former journey I could only say that, with an irresistible Intuition, I felt Simplicity to have been the characteristic of the original action of God:—in ending the latter I can only declare that, with an irresistible Intuition, I perceive Unity to have been the source of the observed phaenomena of the Newtonian Gravity. (34-35)
What is more, in 1842, in his second review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1842), Poe made a generic distinction between the poem and the tale, arguing that the former describes Beauty, while the latter deals with Truth. Nonetheless, in 1848 he produced this new form of prose poem. As the Levines point out, this very form contradicts Poe’s earlier definition of poetry, for he said emphatically and repeatedly, in “The Philosophy of Composition” and elsewhere, that a long poem cannot exist, since no reader can remain for long in the state of high elevation of soul that is the nature of true poetic response. I agree with the editors that “if his entitling Eureka a poem is inconsistent with such statements in his criticism, the criticism itself is sometimes contradictory, too” (xvi).
Although the poet himself seems to emphasize consistency in the text of Eureka, he ends up ironically performing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notoriously scathing attack on this rationale: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds” (“Self-Reliance”). It is safe to say that with Eureka—an intellectual weapon capable of fusing poetics with cosmogony—Poe attempted to out-Emerson Emerson, the then-dominant philosopher of American Transcendentalism. Hence Poe’s splendid punch line: “We know absolutely nothing of the nature or essence of God—in order to comprehend what he is, we should have to be God ourselves” (21).
It is also notable that in this book the editors portray Poe not only as a literary genius but also a Romantic prophet of modern and postmodern science. For instance, Poe states:
That every work of Divine conception must coexist and coexpire with its particular design, seems to me especially obvious; and I make no doubt that, on perceiving the final globe of globes to be objectless, the majority of my readers will be satisfied with my “therefore it cannot continue to exist.” (101; emphasis in original)
Poe elaborates on his theory about Attraction and Repulsion and concludes: “In sinking into Unity, it will sink at once into that Nothingness which, to all finite perception, Unity must be—into that Material nihility from which alone we can conceive it to have been evoked—to have been created by the Volition of God” (103). At this point, the sensible editors note Poe’s prediction of today’s “Big Bang” theory as well as the “black hole” theory.
The book also includes as an appendix “Poe’s Postscript to a Letter about the Lecture ‘Eureka’” (1848), which Poe composed as a response to his Maine correspondent George W. Eveleth, but whose ideas Poe came up with before writing Eureka. The poet did not include this text even as an addition to the prose poem, because, as the Levines explain, “while in Eureka the scientific speculation is usually based on sound synthesis of current knowledge, in the postscript it is not” (107). Indeed, here Poe provides us with the image of the planets having become “flaming suns—from an accumulation of their own Sun’s caloric, reaching from centre to circumference, which shall, in the lonesome latter days, melt all the elements and dissipate the solid foundations out as a scroll! (Please substitute the idea for that in ‘Conversation of Eiros and Charmion’)” (110; emphasis in original). This statement even prefigures Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two (1982, filmed 1984) and Sakyô Komatsu’s Sayonara Jupiter [Bye Bye Jupiter] (1980-83, filmed 1984), both of which feature the spectacle of transforming the gas giant Jupiter into a second sun, providing both additional solar energy for Earth and making the outer worlds fit for colonization.
It is only natural that in his steampunk masterpiece The Hollow Earth (1990), the cutting-edge postmodern sf writer Rudy Rucker made use of wormhole theory to beautifully intermingle Poe’s cosmogony as expressed in Eureka with Poe’s hollow earth theory as suggested in his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). Poe’s obsession with concentric structure in our reality is clear: “all is Life—Life—Life within Life—the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine” (106). Recognizing that obsession, it is not difficult to suppose that Poe did not clearly distinguish between his contemporary cosmogony and hollow earth theory, both of which represent the image of worlds within worlds without center, or with multiple centers like a Swiss cheese. (For more details about hollow earth theory, see Peter Fitting, ed., Subterranean Worlds: a Critical Anthology .) The Levines, in this example of their fine scholarship, enable us to re-commence our voyage into the center of Eureka.—Takayuki Tatsumi, Keio University
Which Way Out of Inner Space?
Paolo Prezzavento, ed. La città e la violenza. I mondi urbani e post-urbani di James G. Ballard [The City and Violence: The Urban and Post-urban Worlds of James G. Ballard]. Ascoli Piceno: Otium, 2007. 144 pp. €15,00 pbk.
Despite all the critics’ efforts to locate J.G. Ballard’s fiction either inside or outside sf, the issue has been solved by positing the undecidability and in-betweenness of Ballard’s work within the literary scene. It is a common impression that since his controversial debut in sf magazines in the mid-1950s Ballard has gradually detached himself from the genre.
This is one of the main points that almost all the essays and contributions collected in the present volume take into account in order to throw new light on the role of Ballard’s fiction in our society. In particular, this book brings into sharp focus the possible implications of Ballard’s representations of violence and cityscape for contemporary Italy. As is confirmed also by the translations into Italian of his novels since the early 1960s, Ballard’s work has been arousing the interest of Italian scholars and readers not necessarily belonging to the academic or sf milieu. Such an interest and its varied nature are reflected in these proceedings of a conference on J.G. Ballard held in Ascoli Piceno, Italy in October of 2005.
In his Introduction to the book, in fact, the editor Paolo Prezzavento stresses the interdisciplinary character of this event, which gathered together humanities scholars as well as architects, sociologists, and mass media experts. This is because a literary approach would be incomplete for an author he describes as “un vero e proprio sismografo della nostra epoca postmoderna” [a real seismograph of our postmodern era] (15). He argues also that Ballard’s narrative has envisaged the strong link between architecture and violence that characterizes our post-9/11 globalized world. From the psychotropic houses of Vermillion Sands (1971) to the high-tech enclaves of his latest novels, he has been more and more concerned with the themes of boredom as lifestyle, psychopathology, and meaningless violence and its spectacularization by the media.
Similarly, in her Preface, Diana Di Loreto, chair of the local section of the national environmental league Legambiente, considers Ballard’s blunt scepticism towards environmental associations and animal activists as a warning signal. She places Ballard’s disaster series of the 1960s, High-Rise (1975) and Rushing To Paradise (1994), in the same epistemological lineage as Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). In her view, these novels share a similar disillusioned—and I would also say ironic—eye, along with an ability to unmask the double-faced aspects of reality: “dietro i nobili ideali a volte ... si nascondono perversioni inconfessabili” [sometimes the best of intents hide the most perverse designs] (11).
In addition to the Preface and Introduction, the volume presents nine contributions exploring the Ballardian topic of violence and the city from different points of view. Three essays are written by architecture scholars—Umberto Cao, Pippo Ciorra, and Massimo Ilardi—each of them briefly explaining why architects find Ballard’s fictional settings so fascinating. Cao maintains that Ballard has translated into narrative terms the architectural discourse on the evolution of the metropolis into a rigidly enclosed and protectively compartmentalized space. The architecture of places is so standardized that they have lost their original identities, if not their functions. Ciorra examines the opposition between nostalgia for the past and enthusiasm for a more and more technologized present. He shows how the massive urbanization of the Mediterranean coasts is leading to a new lifestyle that is half nomadic and half stable, both theme park and reality, just as Ballard depicts it in his short story “The Largest Theme Park in the World” (1989). Ilardi, for his part, compares Ballard’s idea of inner space with such contemporary architectural sites as shopping malls and housing estates, where people feel at once protected and imprisoned.
Violence arises out of the clash between a life full of every comfort and the feeling of being controlled by technology. By exploring this theory and working from Ballard’s statement that “the landscape in which we live is saturated with sex and violence” (qtd 49), video-artist Massimo Cittadini had made an interactive portrait of the writer, which he briefly describes in the volume and which is accessible at <www.mutoto.org/webcamlabs.htm>.
In the literary part of the proceedings, Antonio Caronia points out the transition in Ballard’s work from a strongly inward-focused narrative to the concern for mass behavior and sociological issues overtly expressed since the publication of Rushing To Paradise. Gino Scatasta discusses the theme of apocalypse by drawing some interesting analogies between Ballard’s fiction and pornographic literature, while Marco De Angelis’s contribution is an experimental and auto-referential piece of writing à la the Ballard of The Atrocity Exhibition (1970). Domenico Gallo highlights those elements that distinguish Ballard’s work from sf and concludes that he is the only writer who uses the narrative modes of sf while disregarding its faith in scientific, technological, and social progress.
Finally, Umberto Rossi looks at some of Ballard’s short stories of failed space journeys—“The Cage of Sand,” (1962), “The Dead Astronaut,” (1968), “Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown” (1970), “Memories of the Space Age” (1982), and “A Question of Re-Entry” (1963). He illustrates how the complex dynamics of sensationalism and sacredness are to be found in both Ballard’s fiction and the media spectacularization of space disasters such as the destruction of Apollo 1 in 1967 or the Shuttle Columbia in 2003. Obviously, this is no accidental overlap but accounts for Ballard’s growing interest in political and social issues rather than in the individual psyche. As this volume clearly demonstrates, Ballard began his career with an inquiry into inner space but has always been looking for a way out of it.—Valentina Polcini, University of Exeter
Patrick B. Sharp. Savage Perils: Racial Frontiers and Nuclear Apocalypse in American Culture. Norman, OK: U Oklahoma P, 2007. xiii + 270 pp. $34.95 hc.
A key challenge for contemporary sf studies is the increasing recognition of science as embedded in social and economic relations, rather than as some pure and continually self-refining practice abstracted from the everyday stuff of life. Savage Perils joins such recent books as Roger Luckhurst’s The Invention of Telepathy (2002) and Martin Willis’s Mesmerists, Monsters and Machines: Science Fiction and the Cultures of Science in the Nineteenth Century (2006) in tracing the impact of science as a set of powerful, contingent, and conflicted discourses. It takes as its focus the imbrication of nineteenth-century biology and anthropology with dominant notions of white supremacism, and their legacy throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries, although it is primarily focused on the period between the 1850s and the 1950s.
The first section of the book traces Darwin’s often-contradictory thinking on race, which was used to reinforce notions of American exceptionalism as well as to generate early sf, but it begins with Josiah Nutt and George R. Gliddon’s Types of Mankind (1851), a best-selling volume that built on the work of scientists such as Samuel George Morton and Louis Agassiz to argue that the different races were actually different species falling into a natural hierarchy. Although polygenism never succeeded in supplanting monogenism (which claimed a common origin, but subsequent hierarchical developments, for the races), it helped justify Western imperialism as well as the myth of American exceptionalism: having left behind the taint of European overcivilization/ overurbanization/decadence, Aryan/Germanic/Nordic/white blood could be refined in the American wilderness through the conquest of pre-technological, non-white savages. In 1871, Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man challenged both monogenist and polygenist traditions, but was nonetheless structured by ideologies of progress and development that did nothing to counter potent discourses around racial difference. Sharp cites as compelling evidence of Darwin’s ambiguous position a passage in which he seems to accept that there is a connection between brain size and higher mental faculties, then is sceptical of how this could be quantified, and then favorably presents craniological evidence about the skull capacity of different races. Furthermore, Darwin’s narrative of human evolution was undoubtedly shaped by the industrial era in which he lived, emphasizing as it does the invention and use of tools, tracing, as Sharp says, “how human physiology was intimately tied up with technology instead of asking if this was the case” (44; emphases in original). Finally, in comments on Western expansionism, Darwin not only implied that conflict between distinct human groups was natural and inevitable, but also equated the victorious groups in such conflicts with intellect, technology, and civilization, thus supporting a hierarchy of racialized difference. Articulated into an American context, these ideas gelled with such advocates of genocidal war as Theodore Roosevelt, of racial segregation as Woodrow Wilson, and of American exceptionalism as Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner’s role in the professionalization of history as an academic discipline, alongside the impact of his paper “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893), helped to perpetuate the whitewashing of the two racially-motivated mass murders upon which the US was founded.
The first section of Savage Perils ends, though, with a demonstration of the impact of Darwinian ideas on British future-war fiction, examining Sir George Tomkyns Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking” (1871) and H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) and The World Set Free (1914), and it is here that certain nagging concerns with Sharp’s argument begin to crystallize. While it is (arguably) not too problematic to conflate Wells with the omniscient narrator who begins The World Set Free (following Darwin’s narrative of evolution and progress, it describes the emergence of humans as fire-makers and tool-users), Sharp’s treatment of literary texts proves rather more dubious when he equates a character’s position (Professor Rufus’s speech about mastering the energy of radiation to transcend the struggle for existence) with that of Wells himself. Another more substantial and increasingly pronounced problem is that Darwin seems to become utterly responsible for the racist ideologies he inhabited, the locus of blame for every myth of progress and racial hierarchy. This is presumably an unintended consequence of the author’s decision to use “Darwinist” as a kind of shorthand for all such notions, but in a time in which US public education is held hostage to religious fundamentalism in the shape of (oxy)moronic Creation Science, one is surely obliged to express more carefully the necessary critique of the person whose name is, for many, synonymous with evolutionary theory. Furthermore, Sharp treats Darwin as an exceptional figure, always in the ascendant, giving no hint of the eclipse of Darwinism after his death in 1882, or of rival nineteenth-century theories of evolution (such as those developed by Lamarck or Spencer; Spencer laid the groundwork for a Social Darwinism that singularly failed to understand the difference between “survival of the fittest” and Darwin’s “natural selection”), or of the influence of Max Nordau’s theories of degeneracy, and so on.
The second part of Savage Perils begins with the work spearheaded by anthropologist Franz Boas in the late nineteenth century to dethrone the notions of racial hierarchy and progress that dominated scientific and popular narratives about different cultures, and to replace biological determinism with an emphasis on the role of environment and culture. This did little, however, to alter the thinking of authors such as Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs, who depict genocide as an acceptable form of conflict resolution in, respectively, “The Unparalleled Invasion” (1910) and At the Earth’s Core (1914) (Sharp’s discussion of Burroughs focuses on the John Carter novels). From London, Sharp turns to a range of US “yellow peril” narratives (Roy Norton’s The Vanishing Fleets , John Giesy’s All For His Country , and Philip Francis Nowlan’s “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” ), as well as real-world statements by William Randolph Hearst and General John L. DeWitt. He considers the debates that led to the internment of Japanese-Americans in WW2 against the recommendations of the FBI and Office of Naval Intelligence, when German- and Italian-Americans faced no such racially-motivated penalties. Such depictions of the Japanese had a clear impact on and role in media coverage of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sharp demonstrates how photographs and accounts tended to focus on infrastructure rather than victims, and recounts how the official US denials of radiation sickness were gradually exposed as fraudulent. In his most detailed and sustained treatment of a literary text, he examines John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946) for traces of the nightmarish, desolate modern city articulated in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Unfortunately, he does not reach any conclusion beyond noting shared patterns of imagery, and, curiously, does not even mention Hersey’s own anti-racist novel, White Lotus (1965), which problematically uses a “yellow peril” narrative of invasion, abduction, and enslavement to argue for the civil rights of African Americans.
Throughout this section, further concerns emerge. First, Sharp’s treatment of texts remains rather superficial, and this is compounded by the occasional “fact” that sounds good but is just not true (e.g., the description of The Birth of a Nation  as “the first commercially successful feature film” ) and partial representations of important historical moments (e.g., the failure even to mention the massive protests over and boycotts of Griffith’s film, which did not receive the easy ride it is often “remembered” as having had). Second, sentences such as “The overt hostility toward Japanese news sources [on the aftermath of the atom bombs] in the American press reflected the anger and racism that still flowed unabated through media accounts of the war in the Pacific” (131) take no account of official pressures on the media and also tend to personalize racism as an emotive response rather than locate it in social, institutional, and economic structures and practices.
The final part of Savage Perils looks at a variety of future-war narratives dating from between 1945 and 1959, and ranging from US strategic planning statements and their popular expositions—the Time article “The 36-Hour War” (1945), Will Jenkins’s The Murder of the U.S.A. (1946), Leonard Engel and Emanuel S. Pillar’s The World Aflame: The Russian-American War of 1950 (1947)—to Civil Defense publications and sf texts, including Ray Bradbury’s “The Million Year Picnic” (1946), Stuart Cloete’s “The Blast” (1947), Poul Anderson and F.N. Waldrop’s “Tomorrow’s Children” (1947), Judith Merril’s “That Only a Mother” (1948) and Shadow on the Hearth (1950), Wilson Tucker’s The Long, Loud Silence (1952), Philip Wylie’s Tomorrow! (1954), Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959). Unfortunately, this rather familiar sf roster does not extend to Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold (1965), which would have brought into sharp focus the interrelation between American apocalyptic discourses and their racial (and sexual) imaginary, thus ensuring that the book ended with a bang rather than, as it does, with something of a whimper.
It is in this final section, which should be of most obvious interest to the readers of SFS, that the central failing of Savage Perils becomes clear. It is a wide-ranging, synoptic book. It usefully brings together fields that should be conjoined, and for this we should be grateful to the author. But it often gets too caught up in details to remember to elaborate an overall argument. It is never less than interesting, and it is eminently readable, but all the time I was waiting for something more. While this book, Sharp’s first, never quite delivers, I look forward with interest to his next one.—Mark Bould, University of the West of England
Useful Reference Works from an English Writer.
Brian Stableford. Historical Dictionary of Fantasy Literature. Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts 5. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow P, 2005. lxvi + 499 pp. $87 hc.
_______. The A to Z of Science Fiction Literature. A to Z Guides 10. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow P, 2005. xlix + 441 pp. $42 pbk.
The A to Z of Science Fiction Literature (AZSFL) is the revised paperback version of Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Literature (Scarecrow, 2004); in its first edition it was volume 1 in the series Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. It no longer appears as a uniform companion to the Historical Dictionary of Fantasy Literature (HDFL). There is no indication how far the science fiction book has been revised, nor why the publisher has chosen to move it from one series to another. It is one of a number of indications that Stableford has not been well served by his publisher.
I should perhaps start by saying that I have known the author for nearly a quarter of a century, and for a decade we were near-neighbors (and also that the scholar to whom the author makes very frequent reference in HDFL, Dr Mendlesohn, is—in Stableford’s words—my “long-time collaborator”: AZSFL 304). I am familiar enough with Stableford’s words to know when I am not reading them.
It must be the publisher, for instance, who has copy-edited out any mention of English writers of science fiction. An almost total genocide has been committed against the English (I am irritated; I am English). The only two writers in these volumes who actually manage to escape this carnage are two Williams, Blake and Shakespeare, who are both credited as being English. Otherwise the English do not exist. Chaucer has become a British writer, ludicrously (since he wrote three centuries before Britain came into existence as a political entity); likewise Bunyan and Milton. Tolkien has become a British writer (which we know would have annoyed him intensely). There are, however, Scottish writers in these books, and Welsh writers, and even, amazingly, one Orcadian (George Mackay Brown): none of these qualify as British for some reason. There are Irish writers too (though some haziness about whether they should sometimes be “Anglo-Irish”); but George Bernard Shaw (who retained his Irish accent until his dying day) is described as British. If Irish writers come from north of the Irish border they are “British, born in Ulster”: there is no such ethnicity as Northern Irish. Luckily, most of these writers are Protestants, who might accept “British”; calling a Northern Irish Catholic writer “British, born in Ulster” might cause serious trouble. Angela Carter is, apparently, a British writer who became an important “English fabulator” (HDFL 63): did she immigrate from Britain to England, perhaps, at some stage in her career? (People in these books invariably immigrate from a country, rather than emigrate from it, an appalling solecism that Stableford could never have committed.) I shall not start querying the numerous constructions such as “Crawford, F. Marion, Italian-born US writer,” though it does seem to me that being born to two U.S. citizens in Italy does not mean that you were born an Italian. This is all a mess, and Scarecrow should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
In most other ways there is a very great deal to commend in these books. They follow the same pattern: a chronology, from 1726 (Swift) to 2003 in AZSFL and from the eighth century BC (Homer) to 2004 in HDFL; a long introduction (22 pages in AZSFL and 30 pages in HDFL) discussing the shape and content of the genre; the dictionary itself, which mostly lists authors, but also themes and some other topics of importance (Science Fiction Studies itself: AZSFL 305); and an extensive and well-organized bibliography (32 pages for AZSFL and 49 pages in HDFL). Every reader of SFS ought to have the Clute/Nicholls and the Clute/Grant encyclopedias, but both the Stableford volumes are useful additional reference works to have sitting next to them (as will be the forthcoming companion volume to which Stableford makes cross-reference, Clute’s Historical Dictionary of Horror Literature). They are very much more up-to-date, particularly HDFL (given the quantity of fantasy that has been published in recent years). There are the occasional slips, some of which may even be Stableford’s fault, such as spelling Susanna Clarke’s first name as Susannah, or Kate Forsyth’s surname as Forsythe, or thinking that Edward James gave up the editorship of Foundation in 2003, rather than 2001. But mostly both books seem to be accurate, and are certainly highly usable tools. Both the bibliographies, in particular, would be invaluable for anyone starting out to study these genres, while the introductory essays are as perceptive and sensible as one would expect from someone whose deep knowledge and understanding of the field has been so amply demonstrated in his many other critical works.
Owners of the Clute encyclopedias would find it particularly interesting to look up Stableford’s discussion of the various critical terms that Clute used (and sometimes created). He prefers Benford’s “mosaic novel” over “fix-up”; he adopts the term “chimerical” to refer to works that borrow from other, antithetical genres; he distinguishes these from “ambiguous” and “hybrid” texts; he argues for Scholes’s “metafiction” over Clute’s “recursive”; he makes considerable use of Farah Mendlesohn’s terms (first sketched out in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts in 2002 and elaborated in a forthcoming book from Wesleyan) “intrusive,” “immersive,” and “portal.” Stableford describes the Clute/Grant volume on fantasy as “the closest thing to a definitive text the genre currently has” (HDFL xxxix). But his own books, particularly HDFL, do a valuable job in building on what Clute has done and helping us to give shape and meaning to these increasingly unwieldy genres.—Edward James, University College Dublin
Dispiriting Star Wars Exegesis.
Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Jon Shelton Lawrence, eds. Finding the Force of the Star Wars Franchise: Fans, Merchandise and Critics. Popular Culture, Everyday Life 14. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. ix + 308 pp. $29.95 pbk.
Carl Silvio and Tony M. Vinci, eds. Culture, Identities and Technology in the Star Wars Films: Essays on the Two Trilogies. Cultural Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy 3. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2007. vi + 237 pp. $35 pbk.
Two more books of critical essays on the Star Wars series (1977-2005) to add to the already considerable pile of critical exegesis on Lucas’s universe: here we have Finding the Force, edited by Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Jon Shelton Lawrence, a selection of essays on the movies and their cultural context pitched more at the general fan; and here also Culture, Identities and Technology in the Star Wars Films, edited by Carl Silvio and Tony M. Vinci, a more obviously academic title.
Of the two, Finding the Force is much the weaker, in part because of the two it is by far the more starry-eyed about Star Wars, George Lucas, and its own self-selected topic. John Shelton Lawrence opens his introductory essay “Spectacle, Merchandise, and Influence” with the hyperbolic sentence “the Star Wars franchise stands as film history’s greatest commercial and cultural success” (3), perhaps because the sentence “the Star Wars franchise has enjoyed notable though not superlative commercial and cultural success,” though more accurate, has less rhetorical punch. Or perhaps Lawrence actually believes, as many of his contributors certainly do, that Star Wars is a filmic text elevated above all others in terms of cultural impact. “One strains to imagine how any other franchise could surpass this commercial everywhereness of Star Wars,” says Lawrence, who has not put himself to even the fairly mild strain of imagining the commercial everywhereness of the Harry Potter (2001-07), Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-07), Lord of the Rings (2001-03), or Spiderman (2002-07) films, film franchises that barely get a passing mention in Finding the Force (1; emphasis in original). This narrowness of focus, in a collection specifically about the “franchising” phenomenon, weakens the whole.
There are other weaknesses. Some of the essays in the Finding the Force collection focus on the film texts themselves; others contextualize the films by exploring reception, fan culture, and merchandise. The second type of essays are the more interesting, if only because the former inevitably work through ground that has been pretty thoroughly covered already. This might not be such a problem if these essays had more bite.
Lawrence’s chapter 2, “Campbell, Lucas and the Monomyth,” rehearses the films’ indebtedness to the plodding Jung-lite of Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949), but needs a much wider and more nuanced understanding of “myth” to work as a meaningful critical intervention. Michelle Kinnucan’s essay, “Pedagogy of (the) Force,” locates the films’ success in their “affirmation of widespread, profound assumptions about the supposed virtues and necessity of violence and war” (69), assumptions Kinnucan evidently does not share, although her analysis might have benefited from a more forcefully expressed disapproval. Stephen P. McVeigh’s “The Galactic Way of Warfare” sets out, in his own words, “to deconstruct the Star Wars trilogies as commentaries on the American experience of war from the 1970s” (35). But McVeigh does not understand the same thing by “deconstruction” as I do, for his essay is as uninterested in Derrida or de Man as it is in aporia, trace, or différance; instead it takes Lucas and his texts at face value, and asserts that he “has … perfectly articulated the trauma suffered by this American self-concept as a result of the defeat in Vietnam” (43). I remain unconvinced.
One of the weakest essays in the book is Jonathan Bowen and Rachel Wagner’s “Hokey Religions and Ancient Weapons,” a clumsily conceived list of parallels between the films and various religions that just grates, from its gushing opening—“The Star Wars films are well known for breathtaking special effects and aesthetic beauty, but there is also a spiritual reason behind their appeal” (75)—to the strange biblical citation with which the Works Cited page ends—“Samuel, Book of. The Holy Bible” (93). Bowen and Wagner buy uncritically into the notion that the films articulate a genuine spiritual “search for balance,” and the essay busies itself listing a number of “parallels” between the films and religious tradition. These parallels are either risible (“Just as Jesus could perform miracles, so Anakin performs miraculous feats, such as successfully racing pods on Tatooine” ) or else strangely forced (“the Tao Te Ching says of the Way, ‘Those who grab hold of it lose it,’ a statement also useful in describing power in the Star Wars galaxy” ).
Philip Simpson’s “Thawing the Ice Princess” traces in rather lubricious detail the representation of Leia and Amidala in the service of the thesis that the films waver between giving them agency as hero-figures and limiting them as sex-objects. Indeed, Simpson dwells on this latter strategy, detailing it with a titillated attentiveness; one example: “she plunges into filthy water ... [making] her breasts even more noticeable as the wet fabric clings to them” (118). More nuanced is Roger Kaufman’s comprehensive queer-theory reading of the same-sex bonds elaborated in the two trilogies, “The Creative Promise of Homosexual Love,” although it is to a certain extent hijacked by a complicated schema of “mutual,” “primary,” “transmissive,” “exploitative,” and nine other categories of same-sex relationship through which every character is parsed. Matthew Kapell’s attack on the biological determinism of the films (“Eugenics, Racism, and the Jedi Gene Pool”) is essentially shooting fish in a barrel. Better is Stephanie Wilhelm’s postcolonial take on the two trilogies, an essay that makes many good points and of which the worst that can be said is that it trades in a slightly old-fashioned version of postcolonial theory; there are not many contemporary postcolonial scholars as comfortable with Said’s Orientalism (“his seminal text,” Wilhelm calls it, revealing a vocabulary still haunted by a gender essentialism even if it is aware of the ideological tensions of colonial power).
Those of the collection’s essays that accumulate data from the world of fandom at least give the reader new information, and are a little better. Jennifer Porter, in “‘I Am A Jedi,’” presents a fascinating set of examples of people assimilating Lucas’s Jedi to their own, or established, religious practice. Three essays, by Jess Horsley, John Panton, and Lincoln Geraghty, grouped together in the section “Playtoys and Collecting,” detail the bewildering proliferation of licensed merchandising and toys. Of these essays, the Horsley is a slight, disposable memoir of personal obsession; but the Panton piece contains interesting interviews with two generations of children, and Geraghty’s is a canny meditation on the semiology of Star Wars toys. But these do not constitute a large enough proportion of the volume as a whole to redeem it.
The essays in Culture, Identities and Technology in the Star Wars Films cover similar ground to those in Finding the Force, but with a more professional (by which I mean, university-academic) tone and accordingly less gaucheness. Something is gained by this approach, I think, although something is lost as well, for the essays are sometimes dry enough to be positively dull. But the fact that the authors have a much deeper understanding of the critical and theoretical contexts of the questions they raise means that their readings are much cannier, more persuasive and illuminating.
The essays are divided among three categories: “Cultural Contexts,” “Identity Politics,” and “Technology and the Public Imagination.” The last category contains some of the best work: Kevin Wetmore’s “‘Your Father’s Lightsaber’: The Fetishization of Objects Between the Trilogies,” a deft account of the fetishistic aspect of lightsabers, that manages to orient Freudian, Marxist, and anthropological understandings of the “fetish” without losing focus. Wetmore suggests, without entirely following through, that it is imaginary technology itself that focuses the fetishistic desire (the Millennium Falcon, he notes, is “better known that many of the secondary characters” ), although I was not entirely convinced. “Objects are routinely ignored in non-genre films,” he insists. “No one seeks to have a replica of the bat used in Field of Dreams or the couch in American Pie” (186). Perhaps not, but might that not be because these objects lack specifically distinguishing qualities?
Graham Lyons’s and Janice Morris’s “The Emperor’s New Clones; or, Digitization and Walter Benjamin in the Star Wars Universe” reads the films’ evident fascination with cloning and mass reproduction via Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), that cultural-studies workhorse. But what might have been a by-the-numbers exercise actually achieves remarkable insight and a number of interesting points are made. In particular Lyons and Morris do not limit themselves, as do most of the contributors to Finding the Force, to the content of the movies; they are alive to the formal significance—for instance, the way that DVD releases inflect and alter the way the movies signify. Dan North’s amiable essay on Jar Jar Binks, “Kill Binks: Why the World Hated Its First Digital Actor,” is not above quoting headlines from The Onion and sieving the bile from hundreds of anti-Binks fansites, but it rather misses its point. To call Binks “an entirely digital character, the first of his kind” (157) is to ignore, for instance, the early Pixar cartoons. If North wants to argue that it is Binks’s own technical-artificial idiom that made him so hateful to so many fans, then he needs to be clearer as to why a digital idiom is worse than, say, painted celluloid. As it stands, the essay ignores the two most obvious points about Binks: that he is hateful because he is (on the level of representation) racist, and (on the level of film content) an idiot.
Perhaps that seems too obvious a point to make; but the three essays in the “Identity Politics” section take “obvious” positions—on the limitations of the films as far as race and gender are concerned—and spin excellent critical responses from them. Christopher Deis’s “May the Force (Not) Be With You” is a sensitive and spot-on analysis of the ways race signifies in Lucas’s universe, which finds things to praise as well as things to bury. Diana Dominguez’s “Feminism and the Force” is a thorough, intelligent, and expert feminist reading of the films. Veronica Wilson’s discussion of “gender, sexuality, and moral agency” (134) in the films (“Seduced by the Dark Side of the Force”) puts Lucas in the dock for “both implied and overt misogyny” as well as the films’ “ultimately patriarchal and homophobic resolutions to the political and personal crises central to its essential plot” (135), although she concludes that, despite all this, fans’ and critics’ “resistant, critical meaning-making” can rework the malign ideological force of the texts into something more “egalitarian” (150).
John Lyden’s “Apocalyptic Determinism and Star Wars” is an ambitious, perhaps over-ambitious, attempt to locate the films in the traditions of American apocalypticism. Similarly wide-ranging is Carl Silvio’s “The Star Wars Trilogies and Global Capitalism,” which reads the original trilogy as “both a reflection of and an attempt imaginarily to resolve the contradictions inherent in the experience of late capitalism” (67). Where the prequel trilogy appears to “launch a critique of the dehumanizing effects of capital,” it in fact “harmlessly directs its opposition against a form of capitalism”—the “Trade Federation” —“that no longer exists for the most part” (70). It is a well-judged essay, even if it feels overcompressed, particularly with respect to the theoretical context for its discussion. “The comments,” Silvio says, “of Žižek, Freud, and Marx on the subject are certainly up for debate and interpretation,” but he says no more (63).Tony Vinci’s “The Fall of the Rebellion; or, Defiant and Obedient Heroes in a Galaxy Far, Far Away: Individualism and Intertextuality in the Star Wars Trilogies” takes the palm for longest essay title, although the essay itself makes a relatively straightforward point about the radical conservatism inherent in, and the contradictory nature of, the films’ construction of the category “hero.”
Overall, reading these two collections was a strangely dispiriting experience; a great deal of labor has been expended, much ink pressed onto many pages, and the net result is a handful of insights new to me, and a few attractive critical perspectives on these over-familiar cinematic texts. There must be a more efficient method of critical exegesis.—Adam Roberts, Royal Holloway, University of London
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