Science Fiction Studies

#105 = Volume 35, Part 2 = July 2008


Clarifying Dick.

Valerio Massimo De Angelis and Umberto Rossi, eds. Trasmigrazioni, I mondi di Philip K. Dick [Transmigrations: The World of Philip K. Dick]. Firenze (Italia): Le Monnier, 2006. iv + 312 pp. €21.50 pbk.   

This book publishes the “acts” of an important conference on Philip K. Dick held in 2000 at the University of Macerata, in the Marches region of Italy. Following an introduction by Carlo Pagetti that gives an overview of and update on the many modern academic studies devoted to Dick, the volume is divided into three main parts, each offering different but complementary perspectives on Dick and his works.

The first part is the most general. Entitled “The Universe of Philip K. Dick,” it includes seven papers, four of which are from English-language critics whose essays have been translated into Italian (Fredric Jameson, Grace L. Dillon, Tony Wolk, and Darko Suvin). The second part, entitled “Re-readings,” features thirteen papers from Italian critics. Each seeks to offer a new and innovative interpretation of an individual work by Dick. This series of readings is presented in the same chronological order as the author’s publications. The third part, composed of two studies by Peter Fitting and Franco La Folla, focuses on the relationship between Dick and modern cinema. The book also contains an excellent critical bibliography of works in Italian and English about Dick. Although it is called “selective,” it runs to over six pages in length, rivaling the bibliography published in On Philip K. Dick: 40 Articles from Science-Fiction Studies (ed. R.D. Mullen et al., 1992) in terms of the total number of Dickian studies listed.                

The authors in the first part of Trasmigrazioni attempt by various means to make sense of the full spectrum of Dick’s oeuvre. Fredric Jameson discerns three different cycles therein, the first corresponding to Dick’s mainstream novels (1955-1960), the second to his “pure sf” period (1961-1968), and the third to his more religious-oriented works (1973-1981). Making use of Greimasian semiotic theory to deepen his analyses, Jameson demonstrates how Dick’s final works are fundamentally different from his earlier ones.                

In contrast, Darko Suvin interprets Dick’s late works as the result of the author’s attraction to mysticism, where his fiction becomes especially difficult to interpret and sometimes borders on madness. These final writings portray an imaginary world that is both irrational in nature and obsessed with a search for truth; together they form a kind of quest.                

Suvin’s discussions, although proceeding from a somewhat different point of view, dovetail nicely with Carlo Fromenti’s essay on the gnosticism in Dick’s last works. Fromenti also attempts to show how Dick’s earliest texts can be interpreted as “precursors” to his later ones in terms of their implicit gnostic content. In his analyses, he leans heavily on Dick’s autobiographical notes and diaries published in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings (ed. Lawrence Sutin, 1995).                

By contrast with gnostic quests, Tony Wolk’s essay focuses on the role of automatons and androids in Dick’s oeuvre and how they demonstrate the author’s fascination with technology and, in particular, with artificial intelligence. It details Dick’s interest in scientific publications on this topic and his growing penchant for androids (there is a chart on p. 74 describing their evolution in his work). Wolk highlights the many seemingly contradictory aspects in Dick’s attitudes and how they are integrated into his fictional texts.                

Anna Lazari presents a Philip K. Dick who was a commentator and critic of the sf genre itself. She discusses Dick’s ideas about sf since 1953 and how the genre should not be narrowly defined. Dick, in 1974, was already speaking of sf as a kind of “subversive” medium and a “protest against concrete reality.” A few years later, in 1981, he replaced the notion of future in sf with that of “alternative reality”—a fictional present that would open the eyes of the reader to reality. For Dick, the genre of sf would become a kind of philosophical instrument for postulating “possible worlds.”                

The first part of Trasmigrazioni showcases many diverse critical approaches to Dick’s fiction, and they tend to underscore its remarkable heterogeneity. At the heart of his work, however, one finds an author fascinated by questions relating to the nature of reality. He grapples with these questions in multiple ways: by his readings and commentaries on gnosis and sf as a medium, by his novelistic portrayals of artificial forms of life and replicants, and by means of the imaginary societies and fictional characters that he proposes. As Suvin reminds us, these are often “messengers” or bearers of messages coming from elsewhere and giving meaning to a world where meaning seems to have slipped away.                  

The second part of Trasmigrazioni offers a more nuanced and refined follow-up to the broadly globalizing approach of the first part. Thirteen different Dickian works are analyzed, one by one and in order, from Solar Lottery (1953) to The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982).                

Dominico Gallo’s essay begins this section by introducing the reader to the world of Dick’s sf through Solar Lottery, his first published sf novel after a long series of unpublished mainstream works written during the previous decade—novels that, according to Gallo, sought to depict various social upheavals of the late 1940s and early 1950s, such as the beginnings of the Cold War, the paranoia of McCarthyism, and the rise of the era of consumerism. Dick chronicled these changes in our social reality as well as the growing contradiction between the government’s discourse on liberty and the law and the actions of this same government whereby it restricts both. This contradiction served as the basis of Dick’s perception of reality itself, and it would be expressed overtly in Solar Lottery. Despite its ostensibly Van Vogtian narrative structure, Dick’s novel constitutes more than a science-fictional entertainment—it sends a strong political message.                

Maurizio Nati discusses Dick’s 1957 novel Eye in the Sky, in which he develops the theme of personal universes—where each character lives in his/her own world, nearly eclipsing the possibility of interaction with others—despite the artificial conclusion of the novel, in which everything returns to normal. According to Dick himself, this text was the first in a series that would lead to his 1977 A Scanner Darkly. According to Nati, these are novels wherein the “science-fictional pretext” tends to lose its importance—a debatable point.                

Valerio Massimo De Angelis next interprets The Man in The High Castle (1962) from a meta-narrational perspective, proposing that it was above all an experimental text. Three stories are woven together on a base of alternate history, and the I Ching influences different versions of reality while acting as a hidden subtext in the fiction. Like Eye in the Sky, this classic Dickian novel is a literary experiment that questions the “reality of reality.”               

With her analysis of Martian Time-Slip (1964), Nicoletta Vallorani investigates what will become a major Dickian theme: the world of psychosis or, as it is expressed here, autism as metaphor. The hero, Manfred, behaves much like the young Joe described by Bruno Bettelheim in his celebrated book The Empty Fortress (1967). He seems to have all the symptoms of an autistic child—i.e., one who is not mentally handicapped but rather lives in a world that cannot be shared, as if the bridge between the mind and reality had been destroyed. He is turned in upon himself, distant from his family, alone. The family, like society, protects itself. At the outset one finds some adult characters who epitomize reason while Manfred seems to represent its opposite. But as the text unfolds and the adults attempt different strategies to enter into “contact” with Manfred, the boundaries separating these two worlds begin to disintegrate. Manfred assimilates the problems of the others, while his own unique perspective contaminates their society before he takes refuge among the Martian natives.                

Luca Briasco integrates Doctor Bloodmoney (1965) into a series of works that include The Game Players of Titan (1963), The Simulacra (1964), and Now Wait for Last Year (1966) and in so doing reformulates in an original way several classic sf themes. Doctor Bloodmoney is viewed, for example, as the only novel in Dick’s oeuvre where a nuclear holocaust—with all its apocalyptic thematic implications—is featured.                

In his essay, Salvatore Proietti proposes “a heretical reading of the rhetoric of the man-machine interface” in Dick’s works and discusses the figure of the cyborg in the context of American sf. He focuses principally on the novel Ubik (1969) and offers a “lay” interpretation of the voices and discourses of the “half-living,” far from the sacralization of the discourses of power.                

Paolo Prezzavento explores how the narrative of A Scanner Darkly (1977) is constructed around the theme of paranoia. Despite first impressions, this is not a novel about drugs—in particular, the drug “Substance D,” also known as “Slow Death”—but rather drugs’ ability to show the “reality of reality” that is normally perceived only as a “dark mirror.” The investigation carried out by the narcotics agency reveals itself as an attempt by those in power to prevent access to the truth, feeding Agent Fred’s growing sense of paranoia as he finds himself entangled in this plot.                

Gabriele Frasca studies Dick’s final novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), which, in its own way, serves to conclude the religious trilogy of VALIS. This text is interpreted as a kind of message, a credo, where the sf aspect is nearly absent. This is a text that interweaves real facts of the period (such as the death of John Lennon) and the transformations of people whom Dick knew, among them a bishop who appears in the personage of Timothy Archer. The preachings of Barefoot are juxtaposed with the writings of an ancient sect whose scroll fragments are discovered near the Dead Sea. Fictional characters around the narrator Angel Archer successively die, in much the same way as Dick’s friends died around him.                

This (non-exhaustive) series of “re-readings” of Dick in the second part of Trasmigrazioni complements the more “generalist” discussions of the first part. Dick enriched his imaginary world with material from a host of different sources: thematic, philosophical, technical, science-fictional, and mystical. But the goal was always the same: to explore the complex nature of reality.                

Peter Fitting begins the third part of the book with a study of the cinematographic heritage of Philip K. Dick and his influence on modern sf film. In addition to the somewhat paranoiac series The X-Files (1993-2002), cinematic works such as Dark City (1998), The Truman Show (1998), and The Matrix (1999) are discussed. But such films are most often flatly dystopian and binary in nature, lacking the rich ontological ambiguity and political dimension of Dick’s visions.                

Finally,  France La Folla rounds out this third part by analyzing Dickian works that have been adapted to the screen: Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), Screamers (1995), and the French film Confessions d’un barjot (Confessions of a Crazy, 1992). Since the 1990s, one might also add Minority Report (2002) and Paycheck (2004). La Folla discusses the ideological schism that is evident between Dick’s world of the 1960s and the post-1980s world of his movie adaptations —where the social, political, and symbolic context for Dick’s original visions has been dramatically altered.                

Overall, Trasmigrazioni, I mondi di Philip K. Dick is a collection of essays that is rich, sometimes muddled, but very worthwhile in that it offers some quite original perspectives on this important sf author, whose place in the history of American literature has yet to be fully written.—Roger Bozzetto, Université d’Aix-Marseille I

Another Race Dialogue in SF.

Sharon DeGraw. The Subject of Race in American Science Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2007. vii + 230 pp. $110 hc.                

Scholarship on racial issues in science fiction and technoculture has increased in the past ten years. Elisabeth Leonard’s 1997 anthology Into Darkness Peering: Race and Color in the Fantastic was the first text of consequence to undertake a discussion of race in the speculative genre, and the subject has continued to gain in popularity and respect with the publication of such critical works as DeWitt Kilgore’s 2003 Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space, Jeffrey Tucker’s 2004 A Sense of Wonder: Samuel R. Delany, Race, Identity, and Difference, and Patrick Sharp’s 2007 Savage Perils: Racial Frontiers and Nuclear Apocalypse in American Culture. Anthologies such as Race in Cyberspace (ed. Kolko, Nakamura, and Rodman, 2000) and Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life (ed. Nelson, Tu, and Hines, 2001) have opened many avenues of exploration at the intersections of race and technology. Lisa Nakamura’s 2002 study, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet, is an ideal example of these new avenues because she is interested in how race and racism present themselves on the web. Likewise, Martin Kevorkian’s 2006 Color Monitors: The Black Face of Technology in America convincingly argues that the black male body has been unconsciously raced as a natural machine in popular culture.                

Sharon DeGraw’s 2007 study The Subject of Race in American Science Fiction makes a contribution to this ongoing dialogue on race in sf. Her book investigates three pivotal figures in the racial history of sf—Edgar Rice Burroughs, George S. Schuyler, and Samuel R. Delany.                

The first chapter reveals the importance of Burroughs and his Mars books (1912-1942), which promote myths of technological progress, racial science, and the American West. The main premise of the chapter is that white male superiority in America felt threatened by waves of immigration, and that the eugenics movement, which captivated Burroughs’s imagination, is a direct response to that fear. The alien backdrops and scientific foundations of sf made the pulps particularly vulnerable to racial theories posited by anthropology and biology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Burroughs, then, represents the point of convergence between subjective scientific theories of race, generic conventions imposed by editors, and audience expectations in promoting the image of Anglo-American male authority “in the ideology of western progress” (33). Burroughs’s self-reliant hero, John Carter, travels to Mars, conquers the natives, and proclaims the dominance of the Anglo-American male.                

In the second chapter, DeGraw uses George Schuyler and his work as a foil to Burroughs. These two men of different races share a mutual interest in sf and theories of race. Though Schuyler’s place in sf has not been generally acknowledged, he offered radical revisions of the color line in his fiction because he treated race as a myth rather than a fact. The key Schuyler text for DeGraw is Black No More (1931): she argues that it must be read as a satire of America’s fixation on color. She argues that the novel satirizes the assumption that every black person in the US desires to be white. Max Disher, the black protagonist of the novel, undergoes a newly discovered whitening process to achieve his dreams of wealth, political power, and marriage to his blond fantasy girl by playing both races off against each other. Through Max and other characters, Schuyler claims that race is a culturally bankrupt concept. In this context, DeGraw emphasizes the irrational and unscientific functioning of race and racism in the past, present, and, perhaps, future of the US. Seeing Schuyler as the forerunner to black sf writers such as Delany, Octavia Butler, Steven Barnes, and Nalo Hopkinson, DeGraw seeks to place Schuyler’s novels decisively within sf on the strength of their analyses of subjective race theories championed by science.                

The third chapter focuses on Delany’s literary career as the opposite of Schuyler’s in terms of criticism and popularity, gauging the relationship between race and sf in the later half of the twentieth century through Delany’s work. Delany has opened sf for other writers of color by avoiding a collective racial standard of identity. As a departure from mainstream African-American literature, Delany sometimes privileges black characters within apparently race-less story lines, a technique common to sf by Heinlein and Le Guin. DeGraw reasons that Delany’s body of work presents an alternative to the Anglo-centrism of sf while simultaneously defying traditional interpretations of African-American literature. DeGraw demonstrates, through Delany’s novels The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965), Dhalgren (1974), and Trouble on Triton (1976), how his fiction rewrites narrative conventions in both sf and African-American literature by using a fragmented postmodern subjectivity. This chapter ends by suggesting a few contemporary racial issues in sf that go beyond Delany’s work, such as the intersection of ethnicity and technology, the use of Africa, and magical realism. The book concludes with a two-page appendix in the form of a brief timeline of events important to her study.                

The strength of DeGraw’s book lies in its literary critique of racial progress as it is reflected in the development of American sf throughout the twentieth century. Her emphasis on the idea of white male authority as it is explored in Burroughs, Schuyler, and Delany is convincing. One of her most compelling arguments considers the tenacious hold of racism on the mixed marriages presented in the fiction of Burroughs and Schuyler. These interracial couples have to be geographically displaced from America in order to live happily ever after. Nonetheless, DeGraw wastes energy arguing with other critical interpretations instead of developing her own ideas more forcefully. The book also lacks a proper introduction, where she could have engaged with other theories of race in sf, primarily Afrofuturism, before moving on to her own ideas. I find it odd that she does not acknowledge the leading theory of African-American sf, let alone grapple with its implications as other scholars have done. Nearly half the book is devoted to rehashing the importance of Delany’s contribution, hardly a controversial position; but the subject of race is certainly larger than the body of Delany’s work.                

I am not convinced by DeGraw’s cultural theorizing, beginning with the title of the book itself, which suggests an all-inclusive approach to the subject of race when the text concentrates on only three authors. With the exception of the chapter on Burroughs, DeGraw does not break away from the black and white binary in spite of the book’s title, and the book suffers from not having separate chapters on yellow (Asian), red (Native American), and brown (Latino) iterations of the color line to accompany the white (Caucasian) and black (African-American) ones. For example, there are a multitude of Yellow Peril novels at the crossroads of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to explore in addition to the cyberpunk inversion of Yellow Peril in the 1980s. Likewise, she does not grapple substantively with the Noble Savage stereotype in her exploration of Burroughs. Instead she uses the myth of the ever-receding frontier to illustrate the desire for white male supremacy represented by John Carter. In her timeline the first event she lists is the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, yet she does not engage with Asian anxieties prevalent in American society of that era. Why not, then, include other events important to her subject, such as the 1838 Trail of Tears or the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, or the 1963 March on Washington? Her timeline is a good idea, but it is disconnected from her discussions of Burroughs, Schuyler, and Delany. This is a useful book, but it falls short of its potential.—Isiah Lavender, III, University of Central Arkansas

Malzberg’s Bleak Critique.

Barry N. Malzberg. Breakfast in the Ruins: Science Fiction in the Last Millennium. New York: Baen, 2007. 389 pp. $14 pbk.                

This collection of essays, rants, criticism, and profiles by one of sf’s least appreciated masters is a literary event of some magnitude or another, but like many of his mass-market paperback novels in the 1970s and 1980s, it will only be read by the few who find value in Barry N. Malzberg’s bleak and pessimistic vision. I would suggest that any young, hopeful fiction writers who want to break into the field not read Breakfast in the Ruins, but for scholars interested in the history of genre publishing in the past four decades, Malzberg’s is an invaluable insider’s gaze: glum, glib, and gonzo.                

The first half of the book is a reprint of his 1982 essay collection, The Engines of the Night, which was re-issued with new material, in 2001 as an e-book. The nervous energy and dark humor that permeated Malzberg’s novels and short stories also marks his nonfiction. He is a pessimist, but he never fails to point out the absurdity of it all—this business of literature, genre, pulp, and publishing—and he questions why anyone would answer the call to write sf. What purpose does an unappreciated genre serve in the world? As a young writer in college on a Schubert Playwright Fellowship, he never dreamed of writing sf, never gave it a thought—he was submitting his stories to The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, The Kenyon Review, all the high-brow places a serious literary author begins with (or so he was led to believe). He envisioned a life in letters akin to Philip Roth’s or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. When he worked as a reader for the Scott Meredith Agency, he discovered quite a different literary world, and approach, to publishing. There he learned that popular genres such as sf, mystery, westerns, true confessions, and softcore pornography were being written by writers with less talent than his. More as a means of making extra money than of getting published, Malzberg began writing sf as “K.M. O’Donnell” (not to be confused with Kevin M. O’Donnell).                

One essay from The Engines of the Night that has stuck in my mind since I first read it many years ago is “September 1973: What I Did Last Summer,” about contracting and writing a novel, Tactics of Conquest (1974), in four days for a $4,000 advance. As he admits, $4,000 for a mass-market paperback in 1973 was fairly high. Prolific editor Roger Elwood had been hired by Pyramid Books to find twelve original novels in record time, and Elwood knew Malzberg could deliver a quality book fast. “It sure is scary writing a novel on a one-month deadline,” Malzberg admits, “where you can’t fill up the pages with fornication like you can with the other stuff.... It is always easier to rework something already written.... So I decided to expand a twenty-six-hundred-word short story I had written last November called ‘Closed Sicilian’” (127). In Tactics of Conquest two men (who are also engaged in a secret homosexual tryst, fairly progressive for mid-1970s sf), masters at the game of chess, are “playing for the fate of the Universe, with aliens acting as referees” (127). “I have done this thing before,” Malzberg muses:

and dealing with aliens controlling the fate of the universe gave me a warm, comfortable feeling as I sat down at the typewriter on Tuesday afternoon, August 2 or 3 it must have been. “What are you going to do now?” a neighbor had asked me a few minutes before while I was standing outside looking at the trees as if for the last time. “I’m going to write a novel in four days,” I said. “You don’t mean that,” the neighbor said and giggled. I could tell that she thought I was crazy and that didn’t bother me. (127-28)

Such was the life of the pulp paperback writer. I was fascinated by that life—little did I know what a stressful existence such a freelancer experiences: it burns out writers fast, as it did Malzberg, leaving them with dozens of out-of-print and forgotten titles and a lingering question: was it worth it?                

Then there is his description of employment at the Scott Meredith Agency. Malzberg first wrote about this in the introduction to The Best of Barry N. Malzberg (New York: Pocket, 1975). He refers to himself as “the Golden Eagle” because

I became, through means initially coincidental, the fastest, most fluid, the deftest, and the most brilliantly skilled employee that the fee department of a certain major literary agency had ever seen.... I set records the old-timers still talk about. Five novels, eighteen short stories read and commented upon … in a single working day. A thousand pages an hour! Twenty-two short stories rejected in a morning! (xii)

He calls it a “certain major literary agency” there but in Breakfast’s “Tripping with the Alchemist” he admits which agency; the essay is an ode to the good old days of publishing, a eulogy for the pseudonymous Scott Meredith—“Meredith” was a fictional figure that allowed the real Scott and his brother (they were the Feldmans) to operate with perceived freedom.               

The Meredith Agency was notorious for its fees department, which they aggressively marketed to every hopeful writer in the world, with promises of discovery, money, and fame. Since Meredith represented icons—Norman Mailer, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov, for instance—his outfit did not seem to be a scam, and did find the occasional bright and promising client in the slush piles (although Malzberg points out they rejected early efforts by Stephen King, Robert Parker, and Raymond Carver). Readers received a 20% cut of the fees. Norman Spinrad, Lester del Rey, Lawrence Block, Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, James Blish, Donald E. Westlake, Damon Knight, and agent Richard Curtis paid their dues as fee readers there along with Malzberg. They used their acquired experience to sell their books or to become publishers. They learned the rules of the game and realized there was no mysterious secret to it all. Malzberg did not make millions as did some of his colleagues, but for a good decade he made a decent living sitting behind his typewriter. When he burnt out, he went back to the Meredith Agency and remained there until fairly recently, handling the rights and estates of the company’s vast backlist of clients.                

While “Tripping with the Alchemist” is the center of this collection, Malzberg discusses other significant topics, such as the pros and cons of using the first-person in sf, Freud and fantasy; and how Daniel Keyes placed a novelette called “Flowers for Algernon,” a story he could not sell anywhere else without making major changes—changes he refused because he believed in the integrity of his story—with editor Robert P. Mills of F and SF on a commuter train. Malzberg also offers “Some Notes on the Lone Wolf,” another insider’s view of paperback publishing.                

Breakfast wraps up with a number of profiles of various writers, including Gustav Hasford, best known for his novel The Short-Timers (1979) which became the screenplay for the movie Full Metal Jacket (1987). Malzberg focuses on Hasford’s quirky gumshoe yarn, A Gypsy Good Time (1992), which “has done to the private eye novel what one mainstream novelist after another has done to science fiction over the decades” (338). Hasford was a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop and had published a couple of sf stories before Stanley Kubrick decided to make his novel into a movie. Malzberg believes Hasford is a genius but has made an error and wasted his talent for a buck, in attempting a post-Chandler shamus adventure—noting that “‘writing well’ is a curse not only of the graduate school but of the professional writer” (340).               

Malzberg also includes sketches on the careers of Damon Knight, the promising writer turned critic-editor; J.G. Ballard and the controversies surrounding The Atrocity Exhibition (1970; its American publisher refused to publish it with the chapter “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” who at the time was Governor of California); and working for Maurice Girodias when the Olympia Press moved from Paris to New York. (Malzberg’s Screen [1968] and Oracle of a Thousand Hands [1968], published by Olympia, remain cult classics in literary erotica.) He also offers a tribute to Asimov’s life: “[he] was the reason why it still felt like a one-generation field” (333). Indeed, the death of Asimov was a milestone in sf’s history, and the after-effects are still rippling through the field, positive and negative.                

This collection demonstrates that Malzberg has a love/hate relationship with the business of printing books. While he views the industry as a landscape of ruins, he finds enough lasting value to have breakfast there.—Michael Hemmingson, San Diego City College

All about Aliens.

Patricia Monk. Alien Theory: The Alien as Archetype in the Science Fiction Short Story. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow P, 2006. xxxv + 387 pp. $49.95 pbk.                

Ever since Mark Rose published Alien Encounters (1981) I have used his title in my classes as a working definition of sf. Among the many forms of alien reality that we encounter in reading sf—alternate histories, parallel universes, forms of artificial intelligence, and the like—the one my students and I often find most fascinating (and troubling) is the intelligent and sentient extraterrestrial being—in short, the alien. In turn, the most interesting aliens are those that are somehow versions of ourselves and yet utterly unlike us. The Martians in The War of the Worlds (1898) are an example: in their bodily form and mode of communication they are altogether alien, and much of the novel emphasizes the differences between humanity and the Martians. Yet Wells also uses them to represent European colonizers and suggests that as inhabitants of a dying world they represent our future. Another example is the “pod people” of Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955 as The Body Snatchers; rev. 1978), who mimic even the characteristic jokes of the people they have replaced. When the protagonist, Miles Bennell, realizes that a librarian he has known all his life is not who he thought she was—is not human at all—and tells her (it), “I know you.... I know what you are,” he sees “her face going wooden and blank, with an utterly cold and pitiless alienness. There was nothing there, in that gaze, in common with me; a fish in the sea had more kinship with me than this staring thing before me” (New York: Dell, 1978 [rpt. 1981], 129). A fish is at least terrestrial in origin, a product of Earth’s ecology and of an evolutionary process related to our development. Looking at the utterly familiar librarian, Miles sees the utterly unfamiliar, the alien.                

In Alien Theory, Patricia Monk studies the role of the alien in sf short stories in order to account for our fascination. Although she approaches the subject from many angles, she focuses on the alien (or rather the Alien: Monk capitalizes the word when referring to the archetype) as “the archetype of alterity—the OtherSelf” (305). In conceiving or reading about aliens, she argues, we imagine beings who are specific instances of the undefinable or unknown and who for that reason may help us to define or understand ourselves more clearly, not merely because they represent an alternative to human existence but because each of us carries this archetype of alterity within our unconscious mind. Monk uses “archetype” in the Jungian sense and in the introduction she sets forth her case

that the Alien is an archetype—in the strictly Jungian sense of the term—called into existence as an attempt by writers to constellate a figure which encompasses all that relates, as extraterrestrial OtherSelf, to the human Self, and that Jung’s analytical psychology, properly understood, has a substantial advantage for the discussion of this particular science fiction “signature trope.” (xiii-xix)

Sometimes Monk’s prose is rather dense and jargonish:

All aliens invented and described in science fiction are manifestations of a particular archetype that differentiates not merely the Other but the OtherSelf. In psychological terms, alterity occurs when the numinous archetype is potentiated—realized at its fullest, so that the reader is exposed to the numinosity transmitted through the medium of the writer’s consciousness. Otherness occurs when the numinosity is mitigated (muted or flattened) rather than potentiated in the process of realization and transmission through the writer’s consciousness. (xv-xvi)

The Jungian terms may be unavoidable for the sort of analysis set forth in this study, but the heavy reliance on Jung’s theories and distinctions is a problem for readers (like me) who are less familiar with those concepts.                

Often the author sets forth a taxonomy of some aspect of her subject and cites stories that illustrate her classification. Thus the bodies of aliens “may be described as homologous (like, but not identical to, human form), analogous (like some familiar animal or bird or reptile or plant form), heterologous (unlike any specific form), or completely exotic (unclassifiable)” (95; emphases in the original). Over the next 22 pages Monk discusses these classes and gives examples: homologous aliens in Randall Garrett’s “Needler” (1957) and Poul Anderson’s “The Helping Hand” (1950), analogous ones in Garrett’s “The Asses of Balaam” (1961) and Robert Chilson’s “The Hand of Friendship” (1983), heterologous ones in Jack Williamson’s “The Moon Era” (1932) and William Morrison’s “The Sack” (1950), exotic ones in John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” (1938), Anne McCaffrey’s “Velvet Fields” (1973), and Fredric Brown’s “The Waveries” (1945).               

Elsewhere she sets up the categories of first-contact, established-contact, hypothesized-contact, and blind-contact stories (chapter 4); explores various features of alien societies (chapter 5); considers the different literary roles of four types of aliens: bug-eyed monsters (bems), humanoids, little green men, and potentiated aliens (chapter 6); and characterizes almost all human interaction with aliens as amical and hierarchical, or inimical and hierarchical, or amical and nonhierarchical, or inimical and nonhierarchical (chapter 7). The last set of categories is a bravura performance in which Monk gives more than one subset within each class: examples of alien types whose relationship with us is amical-hierarchical, for example, are “the creator, the savior, the guardian/protector, the provider, the tutor, and the mentor” (289; emphasis in original).               

The 47-page bibliography is an accurate index of the vast range of materials on which Patricia Monk has drawn, and her frequent references to discussions of aliens in sf magazine articles and letters to the editor are particularly valuable.                

Indeed, she has performed a service just in her broad survey of the field. In many ways this book is an exhaustive study of the representation of aliens in short science fiction, both in literary and in psychological terms; the major part of her subject that I believe deserves fuller treatment is the political meaning of aliens, which Monk addresses mainly in her discussion of forms of alien government (177-83). It would also have been useful to know precisely why she focuses almost exclusively on short stories, especially those in American sf magazines: she alludes to the differences between novels and stories on occasion but does not say whether the concentration on short fiction is a means of making her materials manageable or whether there are differences between stories and novels that make this focus desirable. All in all, however, Alien Theory is a major study that will prove a useful point of departure for future studies.—Patrick A. McCarthy, University of Miami

Prophet Counter-Prophet.

Tom Moylan and Raffaella Baccolini, eds. Utopia Method Vision: The Use Value of Social Dreaming. Ralahine Utopian Studies 1. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007. 345 pp. $49.95 pbk.

Andrew Milner, Matthew Ryan, and Robert Savage, eds. Imagining the Future: Utopia and Dystopia. Arena Journal New Series 25/26. Melbourne: Arena, 2006. 385 pp. $AU25 + postage pbk.                

The appearance of two volumes with contributions by many of the world’s leading utopian scholars invites reflections on the burgeoning academic discipline of utopian studies, now some thirty-five years old. Utopian studies is a multidisciplinary project involving, in Lucy Sargisson’s words in the first of these books, “such diverse fields as archaeology, philosophy, literary studies, economics, legal studies, architecture, sociology, and politics” (25-26). Its emergence in the 1970s owed much to the inspiration of utopian science fiction, especially the new wave of feminist utopias. In those days Darko Suvin was attempting to reclassify utopia as a sociopolitical subgenre of sf, while Tom Moylan’s pioneering study of texts by Russ, Piercy, Le Guin, and Delany introduced the term “critical utopia.” The Society for Utopian Studies, founded in 1975, had (and doubtless still has) many sf scholars among its members.                

Nevertheless, one’s first reaction to these two books is that utopian and sf studies seem to be growing apart. What the contributors refer to as “Utopian Theory” and “Utopia as Method” take pride of place in both volumes, and textual analysis, almost entirely absent from Utopia Method Vision, is relegated to one of the later sections of Imagining the Future. On this showing it is largely the authority of a single contemporary scholar, Fredric Jameson, that continues to hold the two fields together. Jameson is repeatedly cited in Utopia Method Vision, while Imagining the Future consists of papers given at a symposium at Monash University, Australia, in December 2005 to mark the publication of his Archaeologies of the Future. His own contribution to the Monash volume is exemplary in combining a penetrating analysis of the “antinomies of Utopia” with wide-ranging reference to sf texts.

The title Imagining the Future alludes to Jameson’s 1982 SFS essay “Progress Versus Utopia: Or, Can We Imagine the Future?”—a question to which he gave a resoundingly negative answer. To approach utopias with positive expectations, as potential blueprints for future society, is according to Jameson a simple category mistake, since today’s utopians suffer from the same incapacity as the rest of us to foresee the shape of things to come. Jameson’s point is not merely to stress the fictive status of utopian constructions. He warns against taking them seriously as statements of political goals, denying William Morris’s distinction between utopia as idle “dream” and as possible collectivist “vision.” Utopia for Jameson is useful only when read negatively, as a revelation of the extent of our current political and ideological subjection to global capitalism. This means that our supposed inability to imagine the future is a historical rather than a metaphysical condition, reflecting the cultural impoverishment of what Herbert Marcuse (one of Jameson’s mentors) called our one-dimensional society. The constructive utopian imagination in our time is largely a spent force, and only the most naïve reader could think otherwise.               

Jameson is thus a theorist who (unlike his more orthodox Marxist predecessors) takes utopia seriously, while maintaining that its claims to outline the good society are doomed to failure. His position is paradoxical to say the least, yet few of the contributors to these two volumes seem inclined to question it. There are helpful expositions and clarifications of Jameson’s thought, notably in two essays by Peter Fitting, one in each volume; but nowhere does it receive the degree of critical interrogation found, for example, in Neil Easterbrook’s recent SFS review (34.1 [Mar. 2007]) of Archaeologies. In Imagining the Future, Maria Elisa Cevasco observes that in Jameson’s version of Marxism, utopia and science fiction have the same kind of cognitive function in relation to contemporary society that bourgeois “critical realism” had for Georg Lukács: the difference is that for Jameson there is no plausible aesthetic corollary to “socialist realism,” the form that Lukács saw as heralding the communist future. In other essays, Dougal McNeill hints that there may be Marxist grounds for doubting the “globalization thesis” underlying Jameson’s whole theory of late capitalism and its supposed cultural logic, while Andrew Milner contests the pronounced anti-Orwellian critical bias in the writings of both Jameson and Raymond Williams. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Milner asserts in the course of a rigorous textual and historical analysis, “was written, at least in part, as exactly that inspiration for political resistance Williams and Jameson insist it cannot be” (335).                

Perhaps utopian studies should be concerned with the kinds of inspiration readers have actually drawn from utopias and dystopias, rather than rushing to foreclose possible sources of political resistance, as Jameson’s negative dialectic threatens to do. In Utopia Method Vision: The Use Value of Social Dreaming, Kenneth M. Roemer advocates such a “reader-response” approach, which at least offers numerous possibilities for future research. Whether it can demonstrate the “use value” of utopia—apart from its utility in generating further research grants—is, of course, another matter. The volume’s subtitle betrays an anxiety, particularly among scholars with backgrounds in the social and political sciences, to refute the contemporary equivalents of Henry Fielding’s cynical Whig lord in Amelia (1751) who spoke of “the chimerical system of Plato’s commonwealth, with which we amused ourselves at university” ([London: Bell, 1914, v. 2] 509). Invited to reflect on their own intellectual biography and their formation as utopian scholars, Moylan and Baccolini’s twelve contributors have mixed success in demonstrating that utopianism remains more than an armchair activity.                

These authors who profess what Moylan calls the “utopian vocation” (214) are, it seems, uninvolved either in creating utopian texts or in building “intentional communities” (defined as a group of five or more adults living together to enhance their shared values). A number of essayists in both volumes praise the anti-globalization protests of recent years, but very few of them seem to be personally committed to political activities challenging and seeking to reshape what they almost unanimously refer to as our “dark,” “bleak,” “anti-utopian times.” In Utopia Method Vision only Tom Moylan and Ruth Levitas cite political activism as a shaping force in their own intellectual careers, and Levitas is, I think, the only writer in either collection who explicitly contests Jameson’s view that approaching utopias with positive expectations is pointless. For her, utopianism is both a form of “Imaginary Reconstitution of Society” (the title of her essay) and an essential (though much denied and suppressed) aspect of sociological method.                

For some contributors, early exposure to fervent religious belief must have been a decisive factor. Moylan testifies to the influence of liberation theology on his utopianism, while Lyman Tower Sargent in the same volume refers to his experience as a minister’s son. Vincent Geoghegan, too, argues that there is much more to utopia than the rational thought-experiment to which some would like to reduce it. In what he describes as the contemporary “post-secular” context it is foolish, Geoghegan asserts, to deny that—once all necessary critical qualifications have been made—utopia remains an attempt to envisage the perfect society. To deny this is to risk losing “that element of uncompromising marvelous otherness that is at the heart of genuine transcendence,” with the result that utopia ceases to be inspirational and instead becomes a source of potential embarrassment (77).                

There is (as the foregoing remarks perhaps reveal) a problem in the term “utopia” itself, since few writers are sufficiently rigorous in differentiating between utopia as social vision and utopia as text. (The adjective “critical,” for example, is much more readily applicable to utopias of the latter kind.) Jameson and some of his followers tend to capitalize the word Utopia in some contexts, but this usage is never explained and shows no consistency that I can detect. In general, the contributors to Utopia Method Vision coming from social-science backgrounds tend to be a bit careless about utopian textuality. While a number of individual utopias are subjected to brief content-analyses by Gregory Claeys and Kenneth Roemer, the only sustained textual analysis is Naomi Jacobs’s account of Utopia (1984) by the New York poet Bernadette Mayer, an experimental piece printed in a single edition of 1000 copies. This means that Imagining the Future, a special issue of Arena Journal (and, therefore, a book without an index), is probably the better buy for most SFS readers. There is little overlap between the two volumes, since only Peter Fitting and Lyman Tower Sargent appear in both.                

Apart from the essays already referred to, Imagining the Future includes sf-related contributions by Sargent, Roland Boer, Darren Jorgensen, Jacqueline Dutton, Toby Widdicombe, and others. Sargent offers a bibliographical essay on utopian writings concerning science and technology, while Widdicombe gives a subtle reading of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novels. Dutton suggestively contrasts three versions of the French “nationalistic imaginary” in recent futuristic fiction by Marie Darrieussecq, Michèle Decoust, and Michel Houellebecq. Jorgensen’s account of “The Utopian Imagination of Aboriginalism” contains penetrating comments on Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1992-96) and Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985). Boer, remarkably, finds the shadow of primitive communism in that ultimate epic of ancient “dark times,” the Babylonian Enuma Elish, also known as the Epic of Creation (2000-1000 B.C.). As a final bonne bouche, the volume prints in English translation a little-known 1959 essay by Maurice Blanchot, “The Proper Use of Science Fiction.” Here Blanchot’s stress on “use-value” not only recalls the Moylan-Baccolini volume but reminds us that Jameson’s consideration of utopias also begins with a statement about their proper use. The use to which Blanchot directs us is almost the reverse of Jameson’s, since it stresses the prophetic, apocalyptic function of sf texts.                

Blanchot begins by conceding that sf fails in its literal imaginings of the future, since in it, as he says, “[a]nachronism is constant” (377). What it offers instead is eschatology, a warning “that something will come to pass that is unsurpassable in its extremity: a leap will be made, the end draws near, the limit is there” (378). Blanchot compares sf to the nonfictional works of the biologist Teilhard de Chardin, of which he says that “their ability to stir readers is striking” and “[t]hey very precisely represent one of the modern forms of the prophetic spirit” (381). Given the remarkable following that Fredric Jameson’s cultural criticism now enjoys in academic circles, it is tempting to suggest that he too embodies one of the modern forms of the prophetic spirit. If so, however, he is a prophet who denies the very possibility of prophecy as it has traditionally been understood.—Patrick Parrinder, University of Reading

Dystopia or Disaster?

Francesco Muzzioli. Scritture della catastrofe. Rome, Italy: Meltemi Editore, 2007. 287 pp. €21,50 pbk.                

Translating the title of Francesco Muzzioli’s monograph on dystopia is not an easy task, because the Italian noun “scrittura” may mean both writing and writ. Perhaps the best solution should include a deconstructed term: “writ(ing)s of catastrophe.” The real problem, however, is not the first noun in the title, but the second. Catastrofe obviously means “catastrophe” in English, and might make readers think of a book-length essay on catastrophic fictions. Therefore, what comes to mind are the surrealistic disasters of J.G. Ballard, the Victorian apocalypses of H.G. Wells, or the eco-calamities of John Brunner.               

Yet the title of the first chapter of Scritture della catastrofe is “Perché la distopia”: that is, “why dystopia?” Though Muzzioli is a fellow countryman of mine and lives in Rome, Italy, like me, I have a subtle feeling of cultural disorientation. Are catastrophic and dystopian fictions the same thing? Clute and Nicholls’s The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993) has two separate entries for “Disaster” and “Dystopias”: the former deals with “cataclysm, natural or manmade ... one of the most popular themes in sf” (337),  while the latter focuses on the “image of future societies, pointing fearfully at the way the world is supposedly going in order to provide urgent propaganda for a change in direction” (360). Two rather different things, yet Muzzioli has put them together in his book, and overtly declares “dystopias have mainly developed two thematic traditions: the totalitarian and the catastrophic one” (28; translation mine here and throughout).                

Such a bold coupling may better be understood if we take into account what Muzzioli says with a beguilingly tentative tone in the first chapter of the essay, which should be read as a theoretical introduction: “We could see dystopia as the contemporary form of tragedy. In it man fails at the highest level; he is sacrificed as humankind” (17). Muzzioli’s essay can only be understood if we read it as an attempt to identify today’s equivalent of tragedy in the Western tradition. Since tragedy is a very broad category which has traditionally included very different texts from very different ages and cultures (so that it has been applied to works from Aeschylus’s Oresteia [458 B.C.] to Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy [1925]), its modern equivalent must also cover a very wide literary territory. No wonder then, if in Scritture della catastrofe we find works that have traditionally been considered typical representatives of dystopian fiction (Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four [1949], Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We [1924], Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World [1932], or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale [1985]), but also books that have never been considered as dystopias: H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898), William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1966), Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950), José Saramago’s Blindness (1995), or Guido Morselli’s Dissipatio H.G. [The Dissolution of Mankind] (1977).                

Muzzioli’s very broad and personal definition of dystopia (which eventually seems to include all narratives with a pessimistic approach to modernity and some non-realistic element) turns his monograph into a highly subjective reconnaissance of sf and some non-sf works that deal with dystopia or with more or less ecumenical disasters. Surely this is not a book that adds much to the theory of dystopia (as represented by Tom Moylan’s authoritative Scraps of the Untainted Sky [2000], dutifully quoted by Muzzioli), notwithstanding the fact that the author teaches Literature Theory at the Sapienza University of Rome; rather, it amounts to a rhapsodic series of comments on very different works, many of which belong to the sf field. The author’s attempt to formally define four types of dystopia (ambiguous, allegorical, tragic, humorous), based on a Greimasian semantic scheme (21) à la Jameson is thwarted by the excessive broadness of the corpus of texts that he has included in his own definition of dystopia.                

It is interesting, though, that Muzzioli manages to trace interpretive paths that connect sf classics to such prestigious mainstream authors as Günter Grass, Ahmadou Kourouma, Guido Morselli, José Saramago, Paolo Volponi, or Salman Rushdie (many of whom do not belong to the English-writing world). One cannot escape the feeling that Muzzioli is actually exploring the workings of contemporary non-realistic fiction (be it postmodernist, avant-garde, or magic realist), trying to unify a very heterogeneous corpus of texts from different national literatures and languages under the very broad idea of dystopia as “an inhospitable place like no other, with a horrible climate and relentless instability, a concentrate of cataclysms, a very dangerous place, where one can be the victim of violence at any time” (11). Once again, one might suspect that, in Muzzioli’s critical vocabulary, dystopian equals “pessimistic” or “apocalyptic.”                

The first part of the monograph, “Per una mappa delle immaginazioni del peggio” [For a mapping of the imagination of the worst], is meant to provide a general overview of Muzzioli’s notion of dystopias, divided into twelve short chapters. What is usually meant by the term dystopia in English (that is, the definition I have quoted from Clute and Nicholls’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction) can be found in the sixth chapter, “Il distopico dispotico” [The despotic dystopian]. Another interesting chapter is the fifth, “Prove di apocalisse” [Apocalypse reharsals], which contains a discussion of disaster/catastrophe novels from Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) to P.D. James’s The Children of Men (1992). The ninth chapter, “Le macchinazioni dell’inumano” [The machinations of the inhuman] deals with books depicting global conspiracies, or fictional works where the disaster is caused by (or consists in) late-capitalist globalized economy, e.g., J.G. Ballard’s Super-Cannes (2000) and Millennium People (2003), or Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (2003). The first part also includes two chapters—called “Margini” (Margins) 1 and 2 respectively—that add a further complication to Muzzioli’s often contradictory mapping of dystopia: the first, “Rovina e rinascita dei mondi della fantascienza” [Ruin and rebirth of the sf worlds] tries to define the borderline between sf and dystopia, while the second, “Basta la realtà (magari con qualche piccolo ritocco)” [Reality is enough, (maybe with some small touch-up)] proposes alternate-history fiction as another form of dystopia, focusing on Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night (1937), Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004). “Margini 1” is much less persuasive than “Margini 2” because Muzzioli’s attempt to distinguish dystopia from sf implies a definition of sf that relies heavily on Kingsley Amis’s New Maps of Hell (1960), which actually has not aged very well, while neglecting to take into account more updated and sound theoretical analyses of the field.                

The second part of the monograph is divided into eight chapters, each one discussing a single dystopian text: they are Salman Rushdie’s Grimus (1975), Julio Cortázar’s Apocalisis de Solentiname [Apocalypse in Solentiname] (1977), Paolo Volponi’s Il pianeta irritabile [The Irritable Planet] (1978), Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos (1985), Gunter Grass’s The Rat (1986), José Saramago’s Blindness (1995), Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote (1998), and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (257). A short introductory chapter explains Muzzioli’s criteria for the selection of these texts: he has chosen works coming from different cultures (Asian, South American, European, North American, African), that represent the different varieties of dystopia (those outlined in the first part of the essay). This may be the most interesting part of the book, because Muzzioli proves to be a sensitive and subtle critic when it comes to close reading of literary texts. His interpretation of Saramago’s Blindness (which in a more traditional perspective should be considered a disaster novel) highlights several intriguing aspects of the book, especially the relation between blindness and morality, and links the text to other sf classics that deal with the theme of blindness, such as John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951).                

Also interesting is the choice to deal with Ivorian novelist Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote through a dystopian framework. The novel tells of an archetypal African tyrant à la Bokassa or Idi Amin Dada, and Muzzioli rightly highlights how the figure of the dictator is transformed in Kourouma’s peculiar second-person narrative through the donsomana, a purification ritual. This ritual is meant to help the dictator, Koyaga, face a difficult moment in his career, but the atonement can only be achieved by listing his misdeeds and by anatomizing the nightmarish sociopolitical reality of the nation he ruthlessly controls. African magic and concrete politics mix in this text, allowing us to enter the “alien” African reality in its endless complexities in a way that reminds us of how such “canonical” dystopian authors as Zamyatin and Huxley have imagined outlandish future societies to show readers their own worlds.                

Ultimately, Muzzioli’s ecumenical approach to literature, which is not limited to works from English-writing countries, is a pleasant antidote to the increasingly monolingual scholarship produced in English-speaking academia.—Umberto Rossi, Rome


Luis Ortiz. Emsh/willer: Infinity X Two. New York: Nonstop, 2007. 175 pp. $39.95 hc.                

Practically enough, the first published collections of art by sf and fantasy artists were just portfolios that made reprints of black-and-white magazine illustrations by people such as Virgil Finlay available for fans who wanted to frame or generally cherish them. Later, more elaborate productions that included some color plates began including brief introductory essays or anecdotal comments by the artist. Still later, single-artist books such as Jane Frank’s The Art of Richard Powers (2001) contained not only a selection of art but also a text substantial enough to be worth attention. This is a valuable trend. Though Ortiz’s book concentrates more on biography than on critical analysis, its detailed text and the mass of paintings, drawings, and photos it includes will facilitate further discussion of a major mid-twentieth-century sf artist’s work in context.                

In 2007, Ed Emshwiller, or EMSH as he signed most of his art, became the third artist (after Chesley Bonestell and Frank Kelly Freas) inducted into Seattle’s Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Moreover, although popularity does not necessarily indicate quality, the Hall of Fame’s website notes that EMSH “shared the first Hugo for Best Cover Artist with Hannes Bok in 1953" and won solo Hugos in 1960, 1961, 1962, and 1964. On the other hand, Richard Powers dismisses EMSH and Freas in a 1993 interview, saying that “within the limitations of their talents [they] were quite successful commercial illustrators, but ... really didn’t pretend to be painters” (Jane Frank, The Art of Richard Powers [London: Paper Tiger, 2001], 108). Agreeing with this attitude, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Clute and Nicholls, 1993) allows EMSH’s native talent and admits that he raised the level of competence in sf art but concludes that “little of his sf artwork seems especially memorable, and nobody then or now seems to have bothered to produce a book of his work” (381). Although that last point is now obsolete, the impression remains that EMSH did too much too fast to deserve attention.                

To explain the notion of EMSH’s large body of work blurring together into ubiquitous mediocrity, remember that he was among the first artists who could hope to earn a decent living in sf. To support his family and a house in Levittown, EMSH had to turn out many pieces of commercial work for many markets. He did covers for men’s magazines such as Untamed (“The Singapore Slut and the Sunken Treasure” [November 1959], “Death Orgy of the Doomed Vice Queens” [June 1959], etc.), and for mystery magazines that featured women as victims or vixens. But he was especially fluent in sf, producing hundreds of covers and interior illustrations for sf magazines and for paperback books. As Alex Eisenstein notes in his introduction, EMSH was very good in depicting believable-looking people and machines. Although his male characters tend to look a bit like Ed himself while the women resemble his wife Carol, their movements and expressions are convincing. Their surroundings also look solid and real. In addition, he had a good eye for design, especially for dynamically unbalanced compositions that attract someone casually scanning a newsstand or a rack of paperback books.                

Like other sf artists, EMSH worked within severe physical limits. When he was establishing himself in sf, the pulps were being replaced by digest-size magazines, shrinking the space available for cover art from 7x10 inches to 5.5x7. Cover paintings, moreover, had to leave room for the title of the magazine, additional publication information, and the titles of one or two lead stories. Check page 63 of Ortiz’s book for the cover of the February 1959 The Original Science Fiction Stories to see how the composition of EMSH’s painting was nudged and squeezed. Moreover, once the art was purchased it could be printed backward, trimmed, or otherwise altered on editorial whim; for example, pages 58 and 59 of Emsh/willer contain both an original painting showing lush greenery in the background and the printed F&SF August 1955 cover with arid hills and an alien city. And after publication the art was considered so worthless that it might be thrown away or donated to be raffled or auctioned off at an sf convention.                

None of this made sf art especially inviting for someone interested in creating art; but Emshwiller, like his similarly prolific sf-writing contemporaries Dick, Silverberg, and Ellison, conscientiously employed his skills while developing serious, personal concerns that led in new directions. As an art student, he had learned to render subjects with photographic realism, and much of his commercial art adapted these techniques smoothly to sf subjects. Then it changed. When one notices the style becoming much looser, separate brushstrokes more obvious, it is not a sign of rushed sloppiness but of a discovery. EMSH’s work from this later period is the equivalent of René Magritte’s 1928-29 painting of a pipe, “The Treachery of Images,” on which is written “This Is Not A Pipe.” Well, when you stop to think about it, of course the image is not the object; it is paint on a flat surface—colored ink on paper if we are looking at a printed reproduction. Just so, without saying it in words, EMSH’s work declared that “This is not a face (91), a spaceship (63), a sky (72). You are actively interpreting these shapes and colors; how you see it is your choice. But be aware that you could be making different choices.”                

To appreciate the context in which EMSH was working, consider that his work seldom appeared in John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Astounding. In part this was because EMSH had first appeared in H.L. Gold’s Galaxy, Campbell’s bête noir. More than that, however, Campbell wanted illustrations that did not call attention to their style at the risk of distracting readers from the straightforward storytelling Campbell preferred from his writers. Ortiz quotes instructions JWC once gave to Freas: “Look ... if I could send a camera to Mars, or into your bloodstream, or into the future, I’d use a camera. But you’re all I’ve got. So be a camera, OK?” (80).                

Not everyone in sf showed this reductive attitude toward art. It was about this time that Richard Powers was doing wonderful covers for Ballantine Books showing that sf art could be successfully evocative rather than illustrative, as he created detailed, fluid, impossible objects—realistic treatments of unrealistic subjects. Emshwiller, however, found other ways to get under the surface of experience, shifting his attention from graphic media to cinema. He had been interested in photography for many years; now he began making short experimental films. (I remember a showing of his Thanatopsis [1962] at an sf con in the early 1960s, being fascinated by the dancer spinning in a blur around the seated man, disturbed by the roaring soundtrack, impressed by the flat silence at the end as someone behind me in the audience murmured, “Now I know what it feels like to die.”) Ortiz describes the films’ non-linear shape and prints pages of selected frames, but necessarily fails to share what they were like as moving pictures. He does, however, quote one evocative comment by Thomas M. Disch about Image, Flesh, and Voice (1969), in which verbal passages overlap out-of-sync images: “That Life offers too much data for art ever to be able to order; the movie had persuaded me that it was life—uncooked, uncalculated fact. Later I asked Ed whether he felt the same way, or if he had a constant sense of his own artifices. Could a modern Riefenstahl turn these techniques to sinister purpose? Or, put this way: is there a language, after all, in which it is impossible to lie?” (135-36).                

He does not record Ed’s reply.                

In this—the discovery that art is lies in the service of truth—Carol Emshwiller’s development parallels Ed’s in some important ways. Much of her energy was devoted to being a mother and to coping with being married to Ed, especially her disappointment at his infidelities, but she also had to unlearn the forms of commercial storytelling before she could find her own way as a writer. That story is intertwined with Ed’s, though the kind of heavily-illustrated biography this book is dictates that Carol’s career gets less emphasis. Readers more interested in the evolution of her work, though, will find plenty of valuable information to mull over.                

The same is true of this book as a whole. I wish that it were larger than the 9 x 9 inch standard for this series, that the plates were larger (especially when some are reproduced four to a page), and that the art were arranged chronologically. In the text, I wish Ortiz had resisted the temptation to include quite as much of the data he turned up in research, and that he had unified some paragraphs better around a point. Still, the color reproduction is sharp and the information is there, waiting to be absorbed and used. Alex Eisenstein, who has done much to keep EMSH’s reputation alive, says that Ortiz “has intentions of issuing a revised and somewhat expanded trade paper edition, aimed for late 2009 publication, which will contain more color, add some new art and redesign the book to be less dense and ‘better showcase the art’” (email correspondence). In other words, Ortiz did the best he could at the time and hopes to do better later. So did Ed and Carol Emshwiller. Therefore, after you have recommended that your library buy this edition, perhaps you should look for that revised, expanded edition for yourself. For the Emshwillers really do deserve special attention. Ed’s career, in particular, is interesting as a graphic example of the possibilities of self-discovery carried to the point of self-reinvention. After seeing Thanatopsis, Judith Merril commented that sf art was “probably the only field of illustration that is both popular-commercial and open to experimental art” (121). Like all creators in the real world—including Shakespeare, Trollope, and Gaiman—he worked within a commercial context, stretching those limits as he explored the possibilities of art.—Joe Sanders, Shadetree Scholar

A New Fantastic Journey.

Adam Roberts. The History of Science Fiction. Palgrave Histories of Literature. New York: Palgrave, 2006. xvii + 368 pp. $100 hc.                

Here we have a new history of science fiction. Does it, in fact, offer something new? Some science fiction histories begin with the first pulp-era genre fiction: these include important work by Mike Ashley and Gary Westfahl. Others begin a bit earlier, claiming an origin since the Renaissance: on the whole, these works have been particularly successful, and I am thinking of work by Brian Aldiss, Paul Alkon, and I.F. Clarke, all of whom have written erudite and lively accounts. A few trace science fiction back to ancient times and chief among these is Everett F. Bleiler’s magisterial Science-Fiction, the Early Years (1991), followed by its sequel, in collaboration with Richard J. Bleiler, Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years (1998). These are invaluable works that describe thousands of volumes as well as analyzing and making connections among them. They are meant to be consulted as reference works rather than read cover to cover, however. Roberts’s history is of this last school that traces the origins of science fiction into the distant past. It is certainly a more lively read than the Bleilers’ works, because Roberts has an engagingly wry style that infuses much of the volume, and it can serve as a useful reference work; but it does not approach the Bleilers’ volumes in thoroughness or accuracy. Thus, it is fair to say that Roberts’s history does not offer new information.                

Roberts’s thesis is not entirely startling either. Certainly many have offered the opinion that science fiction has its roots in stories of fantastic voyages—Brian Stableford, in his essay on “The Emergence of Science Fiction, 1516-1914" in the fifth edition of Neil Barron’s Anatomy of Wonder (Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2004), observes that “the two genres most hospitable” to science fiction are the utopia and the fantastic voyage (4). Roberts argues that “the roots of what we now call science fiction are found in the fantastic voyages of the Ancient Greek novel,” and that such stories form “the trunk ... from which the various other modes of SF branch off” (vii). The three major branches he identifies are “journeying through space,” “travels through time,” and “stories about technology,” with utopian fiction as a fourth form that grows alongside these three in a parallel development (vii-viii). Further, and more originally, Roberts claims that “science fiction is determined precisely by the dialectic between ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ ... that emerges out of the seventeenth century” (xi-xii). His theses are laid out in the volume’s Preface.                

The first chapter is a brief discussion of definitions of science fiction, concluding that it would be better served by the label “technology fiction” (18). The second begins Roberts’s survey with what he calls the ancient novel and moves on to the period between A.D. 400-600. Here he first summarizes his definition of science fiction as “that form of the Fantastic that embodies a technical (materialist) ‘enframing,’ as opposed to the religious (supernatural) approach we would today call ‘Fantasy’” (21). Then he commences his descriptive and summarizing project, making connections to his theses.                

This is what he does throughout the remainder of the volume, with chapters on seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth-century sf, on “Science Fiction 1850-1900,” “Jules Verne and H.G. Wells,” “The Early Twentieth Century: High Modernist Science Fiction,” “Early Twentieth Century: The Pulps,” “Golden Age Science Fiction 1940-1960,” “The Impact of New Wave Science Fiction 1960s-1970s, “Science Fiction Screen Media 1960-2000: Hollywood Cinema and Television,” “Prose Science Fiction 1970s-1990s,” “Late Twentieth-Century Science Fiction: Multimedia, Visual Science Fiction and Others,” and a brief “Postscript: Twenty-First-Century Science Fiction.” The book concludes with a “Chronology of Key Titles in Science Fiction and Developments in Science.” Perhaps it is only my years as an editor that cause me to be bothered by the lack of parallelism among the chapter titles. In any case, half the book is spent with sf before its self-identification as a genre in the pulps and half, not surprisingly, is devoted to its life since then. Over fifty pages are devoted to non-print sf.               

The volume has many assets, first of all its fluid and witty style, and second, its devotion to a strong set of theses that serve to unite the broad coverage. It certainly covers a great deal of ground and introduces us to a great many texts. The concluding chronology is both useful and fun: who does not enjoy checking off all the works one has read and arguing with what is missing? As a launch into the study of sf Roberts’s book would be quite helpful.                

It has weaknesses as well. It is not much interested in critical approaches to the genre, for one thing. It is reliant on secondary sources for much of its information about sf and proto-sf texts, with the result that errors sometimes creep in. I noticed several small errors of fact in the description of Henry Neville’s The Isle of Pines (1668), for instance. Not everyone can rise to the Bleilers’ remarkable standard of accuracy, but that challenge is always present. On contemporary works that Roberts has clearly read and thought about, his comments are more precise but not always especially probing, and of course one can argue with the particular authors upon whom he focuses. His chapter on fiction of the 1970s-1990s has subsections on Gene Wolfe, William Gibson, Orson Scott Card, Sheri S. Tepper, and Octavia Butler, excellent choices, but all, curiously, since both Roberts and the publisher are British, American.                

I enjoyed Roberts’s company on this journey through the history of fantastic journeys, and will use it along with Clute and Nicholls’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993) and Barron’s Anatomy of Wonder as quick references, but, for my most serious research adventures, this history will not come along.—JG

Better Left Neglected?

Benjamin Szumskyj, ed. Fritz Leiber: Critical Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008. viii + 207 pp. $35 pbk.               

Over a sixty-year career (he died in 1992), Fritz Leiber not only produced numerous sf classics (e.g., Gather, Darkness! [1943; in book form 1950], The Big Time [1958; in book form 1961]), but also essentially pioneered the genres of sword-and-sorcery (with his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series) and modern horror (with stories like “Smoke Ghost” [1941] and Conjure Wife [1943; in book form 1953]). Yet despite the acclaim he enjoyed from fellow authors and fans—he is one of only two writers (the other being Harlan Ellison) to win lifetime achievement awards from the Science Fiction Writers of America, the World Fantasy Convention, and the Horror Writers of America—he has received almost no serious attention from academic critics. He was cited among several “unjustly neglected” figures in a special section of SFS 20.3 (Nov. 1993), yet in the fifteen years since, the critical silence on his work has been deafening, broken only by the infrequent journal article and a special issue of the fanzine Fantasy Commentator (#57-58, 1992) devoted to his work. Indeed, fan-based enterprises have almost singlehandedly kept Leiber’s flickering flame alive, with Necronomicon Press releasing Bruce Byfield’s exhaustive if uneven Witches of the Mind: A Critical Study of Fritz Leiber in 1991 and specialty presses such as Dark Horse and Wildside recently issuing compendia of his fiction that had fallen into out-of-print obscurity. (To its credit, Orb Books, an imprint of Tor, features The Big Time, Conjure Wife, and Our Lady of Darkness [1977] in a series of classic reprints, but it is the sole mainstream house in the US currently publishing Leiber; his great novels Gather, Darkness! and The Wanderer [1964] are available only in print-on-demand editions.)                

In his introduction to this collection of essays, Benjamin Szumskyj, guest editor of the Fantasy Commentator issue cited above, refers to the paucity of “academically substantial criticism” (7; emphasis in original) on Leiber as “somewhat embarrassing” (7), “mildly appalling” (8), and (in perhaps an overstatement) “a literary crime” (7). Through the eleven new essays gathered in the volume, Szumskyj hopes to “initiate a long-awaited critical acceptance” of Leiber’s achievement among “scholars, particularly within a university environment” (6). His oddly defensive tone is likely explained by the provenance of the essays, most of which have been written by fans or “independent scholars” such as Byfield, Gary William Crawford (founder of Gothic Press), and the indefatigable S.T. Joshi. The main problem with the book—aside from the fact that it has been published by McFarland, which has no scholarly standards to speak of—is not its fannishness, but precisely its aspiration to academic significance, which has resulted in some dubious editorial judgments.                

The worst of these was the decision to lead off with Robert H. Waugh’s “The Word and the Wild: The Problem of Civilization in the Works of Fritz Leiber.” I suspect the reason for this was not merely because it is the longest and most synthetic discussion of Leiber’s oeuvre, but also because it is the only contribution from a tenured professor of English. Alas, it is by far the worst essay in the book—unfocused, meandering, and terribly written. None of the non-academic writers, to their credit, produce sentences such as the following: “There are other aspects of literature with which the novel plays” (28); “Despite the difficulties of their diversity—on a basic level a diversity of biological life that opposes the categories of the Word—a number of students are very important for the novel” (37); “If, then, the hidden places are ambivalent and addiction is deadly, the only defense to anxiety is music, number, and order, brushed with a touch of Pythagorean mysticism” (46). As the Pythagoras reference perhaps suggests, the piece is filled with gratuitous flourishes of erudition: lily-gilding references to Baudelaire, Wagner, Hemingway, etc., that have little to do with the issue at hand—which purports to be a consideration of how opposed impulses toward civilized order and chaotic wildness play out across Leiber’s corpus. Leiber was an extremely sophisticated and learned man, and he deserves better than this rambling, pseudo-academic fiasco.                

The next essay, by John Howard, is thankfully less pretentious, though so modestly purposed as to amount to little more than a note, comparing Leiber’s neo-Gothic masterpiece Our Lady of Darkness with its earlier incarnation, “The Pale Brown Thing” (1977). The contribution from Justin Leiber pretends to probe issues of temporality in his father’s work, but really is just an excuse to spin out arresting anecdotes, my favorite being his tale of riding in an ancient DC-3 in Kenya in 1995 that his father had inspected on the assembly line at an aircraft plant in Santa Monica a half-century before. With Crawford’s “Death, Rebirth, and Existentialism in Fritz Leiber,” we are sadly back to pseudo-academic posturing: a potted summary of Heidegger and Sartre, culled from a secondary source, precedes a tedious listing of death images in various novels and stories. Davide Mana’s “Thank God They’re on Our Side (I Think): The Cat as Alien in Fritz Leiber’s Fiction,” is entertaining if ultimately lightweight; Mana, a professional paleontologist who “specializ[es] in statistical analysis of dead populations” (195) and moonlights as a fantasy critic for a small magazine in Italy, clearly knows his limitations—no citations of Pythagoras or Heidegger, just a relatively engaging reading of several feline characters in three stories from the 1950s and 1960s.                

We are now halfway through the book, and if the editor’s rationale was to make a strong case for Leiber’s historical importance by offering complex critical analyses of his work, he would appear to have fumbled his charge. Happily, the next three essays—by John Langan, Joshi, and Byfield—almost salvage the enterprise, though not quite. Langan, a Ph.D. student in English at CUNY, provides the first genuinely theoretical interpretation, reading Leiber’s masterful vampire story “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” (1949) through the lens of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). The eponymous Girl, an advertisement model whose photos contain all the allure of commodified desire, embodies, in Langan’s words, a “longing for a sexual experience so intense and complete as to be annihilating” (107); it is a solid, if ultimately somewhat mechanical, analysis. Joshi’s “Science and Superstition: Fritz Leiber’s Modernization of the Gothic” retreads familiar ground—e.g., the treatment of Leiber’s debt to Lovecraft in Joshi’s The Evolution of the Weird Tale (2004)—but expands the discussion to consider how Leiber updated Gothic techniques for modern contexts in his great horror novels and stories of the 1940s. Unsurprisingly, this is the piece that has the firmest command of the history of fantastic literature, which Leiber knew intimately and drew upon with shrewdness and flair. Byfield’s contribution has the advantage of originality, examining Leiber’s obscure and scattered poetry in relation to the “defense of eccentricity” (142) that ostensibly animates the author’s fiction; although it is a thoughtful essay, it becomes a bit too consumed at times with biographical sidelights.                

This triad of chapters forms the high point of the book, with the final three essays descending once again into trivia and pretension. S.C. Bryce’s analysis of “themes of social power and control” (150) in the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series makes a number of shallow observations about the political underpinnings of Leiber’s thought without ever excavating its roots in classic anarchist and Marxist writings. Leiber knew these traditions intimately (as his 1969 novel A Specter is Haunting Texas makes plain), yet Bryce barely scratches the theoretical surface when addressing Leiber’s depictions of class hierarchy or ideological domination. Henrik Harksen’s essay on the “Lovecraft-Leiberian Connection” is hardly more than a gloss on Joshi’s earlier work, breaking no new ground. Finally, editor Szumskyj’s essay “He Wrote in the Valley of the Shadow of Death: Deconstructing Gather, Darkness!” has, despite its subtitle, nothing to do with deconstruction and much, as its title implies, to do with Bibilical themes in Leiber’s novel. Alas, Leiber’s skeptical, heterodox perspective is flattened into a neat devotional reading: a devout Christian, Szumskyj worries more over theological questions—“whether Jesus was God incarnated as flesh … or was the human son of Mary by divine intervention of God” (185; emphasis in original)—than he does over specifically literary-critical ones.                

I certainly agree with the editor that Fritz Leiber was a major writer of sf, fantasy, and horror whose career has been woefully neglected by academic critics. But Fritz Leiber: Critical Essays is not, alas, the book that is going to rectify this oversight. Instead, it is likely to convince serious critics that Leiber studies is the province largely of passionate tyros and posturing autodidacts, causing them to steer further clear of the terrain in future. Which would be a shame.—RL

Calling All Nightmares.

Heather Urbanski. Plagues, Apocalypses and Bug-Eyed Monsters: How Speculative Fiction Shows Us Our Nightmares. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007. viii + 255 pp. $35.00 pbk.     

Heather Urbanski’s Plagues, Apocalypses and Bug-Eyed Monsters proposes a theory about one function of speculative fiction: that it reveals American cultural anxieties and offers up cautionary tales about the future course of human civilization. Urbanski presents a Nightmares Model that attempts to describe broad trends of these cultural anxieties as expressed through speculative fiction. The book also attempts to locate sf in a social context of public discourse, tracing  how the genre has left an “indelible mark on society” (7) and on the way cultural anxieties and fears are expressed.                

Urbanski develops the Nightmares Model to account for what she sees as speculative fiction’s tendency (or capacity) to tell cautionary tales. She believes that sf expresses our deepest fears about the future and presents “hopeful warnings” (10) that will guide society in alternate directions. The Nightmares Model includes three general categories of nightmares, broken into subcategories: the first is Science and Technology (subcategorized into Nuclear War, Information Technology, and Biology); the second is Power (broken down into Individual Power and State Power); and the third is the Unknown (which includes Monsters, Aliens, and “Other” Beings, and Progress). One basic goal of the text is “to define the [Nightmare Model] categories,” rather than “the texts themselves” (19). Thus Plagues touches on a multitude of examples, prose as well as cinema and television, rather than delving into specifics of particular texts or conducting close readings. This approach is both the strength and the weakness of the study.                

Indeed, the resulting discussion covers a vast amount of material. It examines texts from the early nineteenth century almost to the present, and not just prose, but film and television instances as well—for example The X Files (1993-2002), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), The Twilight Zone (1959–1964), The Terminator (1984), all six Star Wars films (1977, 1980, 1983, 1999, 2002, and 2005) , and many more. This style of inquiry makes Plagues a good resource for anyone seeking instances of texts about topics appearing within any of the Nightmare categories. And indeed, the Nightmare Model is well supported in each of the three sections, as is the notion that sf communicates anxieties about the future. The discussion of Monsters, Aliens, and Other Beings, for example, looks at H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (1895), Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985), Nancy Kress’ Nothing Human (2003), the films ET: The Extraterrestrial (1982)and Independence Day (1996), many episodes of Star Trek (1966-1969; 1987-1994; 1993-1999; 1995-2001; 2001-2005) and myriad others to establish that the recurring themes of invasion, abduction, and world domination, as well as human mutation, reflect real concerns that flourish in the modern age.  

One weakness of this approach—focusing on texts manifesting the nightmare themes—is that it invites reductiveness and generalization. Texts here are analyzed for how they may bolster Urbanksi’s model, rather than for their cautionary function (or for other discursive work or social commentary they do simultaneously). Urbanski does warn us early on that “readers should keep in mind that I often needed to reduce the examples to brief, sometimes one sentence, summaries, paring the stories down to essential elements for the sake of discussion” (19); and indeed this is the guiding structure for the chapters that explore the Nightmares subcategories. These chapters are meticulously researched, but discussion of individual texts tends to skim over the top, looking at the basic anxieties expressed rather than examining in a nuanced fashion how these anxieties manifest themselves in a text. This creates a catalogue of instances of each Nightmare and therefore a sometimes dull read. Each of the three major Nightmares sections could have benefitted from a close reading of one text—there is a missed opportunity here to demonstrate how the thesis may be applied to texts in a more considered way, and perhaps position the model in relation to other critical approaches as well. Nonetheless, each of the general Nightmares, and the cautionary function of sf overall, is well established in the course of the discussion.                

The chapter that best analyzes the implications of its nightmare is Chapter 6, which looks at nightmares of the Power of the State. Before delving into such texts as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), the TV series Babylon 5 (1994-1998), and films such as Metropolis (1927), the chapter lays the groundwork by explaining how dystopias function as cautionary tales (drawing a distinction between cautionary and social-commentary functions of sf); examining the historical shift from emphasis on utopias to dystopias after WWII; considering the inherent optimism of dystopias; and above all discussing at length elements that make up “nightmare societies” and modes of control by which the power of the state may be maintained. In this latter conversation, Urbanski traces four modes of control in Power of the State nightmares: technological/mechanical, informational, psychological, and biological (114). All of this makes for a rich discussion when it comes time to address print and cinema/TV instances of State Power nightmares.                

Another of the book’s primary projects is to examine how cautionary images from speculative fiction work their way into public discourse. Urbanski argues that “The rhetorical circle closes when the images created by the genre to reflect our nightmares work their way back through public consciousness into our discourse” (6), suggesting that sf’s cautionary function not only taps into our fears, but provides tropes and images through which we can express our fears over and over within a broader cultural conversation. A chapter at the end of each of the three major Nightmare sections traces how specific sf tropes have been used in public discourse as part of a “rhetorical symbiosis between culture and cautionary tales” (76). Godzilla and Dr. Strangelove are invoked to express fear about situations in which something seems to be out of control, such as in the threat of nuclear war or irresponsible/destructive big business. One cited newspaper headline proclaims, “George W. Bush in Dr. Strangedeal, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Friend’s Bomb!” (76). Darth Vadar “represents the personification of evil and/or the enforcer for an evil, totalitarian regime” and has been applied in the media, to such figures as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House (133). Vadar also shows up in instances that require an “imposing, intimidating figure,” as in the report of Massachusetts state police at a Democratic National Convention who “‘doffed their black Darth Vadar riot gear of helmets, padded vests, and shin protectors’” (133). The phrase “resistance is futile,” uttered by the Borg in Star Trek,reflects anxiety about loss of our way of life, showing up in relation to the onslaught of technology media for instance (199) (but also humorously, in relation to commercial goods such as Girl Scout cookies [201]).                

In general, these discussions (Chapters 4, 7, and 10) of the intersections of sf tropes and public discourse are among the most dynamic of the text. On the one hand, the last section (Chapter 10) in particular sometimes overgeneralizes or remains vague about the way the sf trope signals cultural anxiety, rather than assessing the specific ways a phrase points to a variety of nuanced meanings (for instance, “resistance is futile,” when used in conjunction with campaign-finance laws, points not just to vague “cultural fears that the world will shift right out from under us” (194), but also specifically to the anger at the “inevitability” a wealthy candidate’s running affords). On the other hand, the tracking of a “rhetorical symbiosis” between sf and popular discourse makes a strong case for both the cautionary function of sf and for the power sf tropes carry to encapsulate and communicate cultural anxieties.                

Urbanski sees a preventative function in these sf cautionary tales and suggests sf has a traceable impact on the course of human, or at least American, society (5): speculative fiction allows problems society encounters to be “easier to handle” (9). She suggests that sf “has become an integral part of a culture forced to deal with ... rapid, life-altering social and technological changes” (9). In this sense, Urbanski extends the project implicated in Darko Suvin’s notion of cognitive estrangement, and which Brian Attebery sees as wonder in the case of fantasy (in Strategies of Fantasy [Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1992],16). The result of wonder, or estrangement, is to make us see the world with new eyes, rendering the familiar strange. Urbanski suggests with Plagues that the cautionary function of sf allows terrible futures to seem possible, and that sf shifts nightmarish, incredible futures into the realm of the credible, the familiar.                

While the text’s purpose is explicitly not to explore social or political critical discourse in sf, but rather to investigate its cautionary function, the discussion becomes a bit myopic at times, skimming over nuance to bolster the big picture; the occasional close reading would have off-set this issue. Still, it is clear that Urbanski is not suggesting that the cautionary function of sf is its only function, granting as she does that “speculative fiction is a dynamic, complex genre that could never be described in only one way” (13). This exploration of the cautionary function of sf and how sf tropes are used as shorthand in public discourse is indeed productive, and this would be an accessible text for newer students of sf. The Nightmares Model is suggestive and ultimately illuminating. As an expansion of the discussion about the functions of speculative fiction and a contemplation of how sf is used in public discourse, Plagues is an insightful addition to sf scholarship.—Darja Malcolm-Clarke, Indiana University

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