BOOKS IN REVIEW
Mark L. Brake and Neil Hook. Different Engines: How Science Drives Fiction and Fiction Drives Science. London: Macmillan, 2008. iv + 265 pp. $24.95 hc.
With a nod to Charles Babbage, Professor Mark L. Brake and Reverend Neil Hook (as the cover carefully discriminates) set out to explore the relationship between science and sf. The book itself is divided into seven “ages,” each afforded its own chapter: the Age of Discovery, the Mechanical Age, the Astounding Age, the Atomic Age, the New Age, the Computer Age, and the Age of Biology. The subtitle of the book presumably encapsulates Brake and Hook’s central argument: science drives sf, and sf drives science.
As the reader motors through the various ages, it becomes clear that the book also proposes several other ideas, two of which warrant mention. First, Brake and Hook are taken with the notion that sf is a continuous phenomenon with—roughly speaking—a 400-year history. Works such as Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1634) and Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone (1638) are read neither as prototypical nor precursory, but rather as part and parcel of the sf genre. This is not an altogether original tack, but when coupled with an explication of generic function, a simultaneous argument that deconstructs the boundaries of the genre—or at the very least, renders them vastly more inclusive—causes strange tensions.
In addition to evoking the famous adding machine, Different Engines eponymously suggests The Difference Engine (1990), the steampunk potboiler co-authored by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. This, I would wager, is no accident, for Brake and Hook appear to harbor a parallel agenda. “Gibson and Sterling together collaborated in thinking the unthinkable, and created an alternative vision of the past to reflect the reality of the present and define the possibilities of the future,” Brake and Hook note (183). “[B]ehind the science fictional veneer,” they continue, “Gibson and Sterling are trying to make a serious point. They are pushing back the boundaries of cyberspace and the Computer Age. Instead of locating the matrix in the late twentieth century in totality, they are incarnating it earlier” (185). So too are Brake and Hook; they cherry-pick the past, pushing back the boundaries of sf to build an alternative vision of the genre that reflects the reality of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By no means, however, have they thought the unthinkable: their “science fiction” is a reasonable and readable—if unsurprising—account of the interplay between science and fiction.
Brake and Hook also offer up the notion that sf serves as something of a public-relations wing for the scientific community, driving public opinion, preparing the public for challenging ideas, and so forth. This, ostensibly, is one of the ways fiction drives science: by paving the public road. Whether it be Camille Flammarion’s Recits de L’Infini (1873), which “led the way for the public acceptance of the cosmic perspective of modern science” (64), or Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), which “played a pivotal role in redefining sexual mores” in the 1960s (149), sf has a long history of influencing public perception. This may be the book’s most interesting “big idea,” and genuinely so. (Less interesting, perhaps, are their tales of sf influencing science. H.G. Wells may have included atomic weaponry in his novel The World Set Free , but can we really claim that this “led non-stop to the launch of the Manhattan Project”? .) Ultimately, however, the investigation into sf’s cultural influence is but one component of the broader argument, and those interested in the way sf has shaped the public discourse may find that Different Engines has pulled up a bit short.
Brake and Hook negotiate the difficulties of joint authorship by writing separate sections of the book individually, and with surprising success. The prefatory material warns readers “that Chapters 1, 2, and 4 were written by Mark Brake; Chapters 3, 5, and 6 by Neil Hook” (iv). While their prose styles differ, the effect is not so great as to be jarring. The professor favors clipped sentences and cannot resist the odd editorial remark, while the reverend is a bit more judicious and verbose. Given the compelling narrative arc of the book, however, readers who overlook the notice are unlikely to notice the division of labor.
From seventeenth-century speculative fiction to twenty-first-century Hollywood films, Brake and Hook take an inclusive approach to sf, arguing not only that “astounding developments in both science and its fiction [drive] each other forward” (71), but also that “[t]he novum cannot be understood without inventing stories through which we are better able to comprehend” (23; emphasis in original).—Justin St.Clair, University of South Alabama
What We Don’t Know Won’t Hurt Us.
Jason Colavito. Knowing Fear: Science, Knowledge, and the Development of the Horror Genre. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008. vi + 458pp. $35.00 pbk.
Colavito’s study aims to consider, through its discussion of a variety of media forms, developments in the field of horror since the emergence of Gothic literature in the late eighteenth century. His thesis centers on what he designates as the horror genre’s “overarching concern: the role of knowledge, often manifested as ‘science,’ ‘technology,’ or ‘wisdom’” (3). This is an intriguing idea since, as he notes, science is so fundamental in Western society that it can be seen as “the way we understand our world” (6). Although primarily concerned with horror, the book also has much to offer sf studies, given the various phases in the history of the two genres where their subject matter and themes intersect.
The introduction establishes seven historically-defined and chronological, yet overlapping, key periods in horror history: Gothic Horror, Biological Horror (linked to the emergence of the life sciences), and Spiritualist Horror (with its emphasis on haunting) take the analysis up to the early years of the twentieth century. Categories of Cosmic Horror and Psycho-Atomic Horror chart the genre’s reactions to scientific developments in terms of Einsteinian physics and the rise of the atomic age. The eras of Body Horror and Horror of Helplessness, encompassing trends such as the slasher film and the rise of torture porn, explore society’s loss of faith in absolute truths and serve to bring this critical overview up to the present day. These phases then form the basis for seven parts, each of which is divided neatly into three chapters on the respective subjects of “Science and Society,” “Literary Development,” and “Horror in the Arts.” In this way, Colavito seeks to establish changing socio-historical contexts in relation to science and technology, discuss and analyze those key horror texts to which they have given rise, and then consider other forms in which horror has found expression, such as stage shows, art, comics, role-playing and video games, and websites.
Some of the chapters necessarily focus on areas of more interest to sf scholars than others. The chapters on Cosmic Horror (Part Four, c.1895-c.1945) see a more pronounced engagement with sf in their discussion of an era when horror fictions became bound up with society’s increasing preoccupation with science, both its positive potential and its potential for harm. Authors of weird fiction, including Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, as well as Lovecraft and his legacy of the Cthulhu Mythos, are thus explored here, for example. A discussion of the mad scientist as horror archetype follows in these chapters through a consideration of cinematic depictions of the infamous and influential Doctors Frankenstein and Moreau.
Part Five, on Psycho-Atomic Horror (c.1940-c.1975), divides the focus on science into two main areas: one that favors an exploration of psychology over the more traditional horror focus on the supernatural and one that “[weds] the outline of the monster narrative to science fiction, using the era’s scientific advances, especially nuclear science, as an instrument of terror” (225). Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959), “a novel that provides its own psychosexual analysis, no additional work required,” is naturally included as one of the former types of fiction in this period (253).The context of the atomic age is considered with reference to phenomena such as the UFO craze and 1950s alien-invasion films, including fiction from authors such as Robert Heinlein, William Golding, Frederik Pohl, and Richard Matheson. Here Colavito draws on Christopher Toumey’s work on distinguishing sf from science-horror, pointing to Stephen King’s suggestion that sf of this period was essentially horror fiction that “masqueraded as science fiction, mystery, and crime stories because society wanted to pretend that horror had been tamed” (256).
The prescribed framework imposed by applying the same chapter formula to each horror era seems strained at times; while undoubtedly a useful concept, it does not apply equally well under all circumstances. Although useful as a general tool for widening out the cultural and historical context, the attempt to cover so much material is quite an ambitious goal—especially given the long time period the book encompasses—and some important texts and events are touched upon but not explored fully. Given the author’s apparent goal of covering as many texts as possible, such omissions seem inevitable, and the book sometimes sacrifices depth for quantity.
Although broad in scope, however, this is an accessible and thought-provoking book that usefully considers representations of science in literary and mediated forms of horror. As well as the full references included throughout, the bibliographies provide resources for further study on science, pseudoscience, and representation, although sf criticism is (perhaps understandably) absent. Overall, however, the book engages with other existing scholarship, including that on science in the cinema, and usefully sets an agenda for debate in charting the changing societal and fictional emphases in horror fiction through time and cultural change.—Rebecca Janicker, University of Nottingham
The Politics of SF.
Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox, eds. New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction. Columbia: U South Carolina P, 2008. xii +376 pp. $44.95 hc. '
New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction follows in the tracks of a 1997 collection, Political Science Fiction, compiled by the same editors (reviewed in SFS #73 [Nov. 1997]). This time we are given 22 essays by a broader range of specialists, by no means only limited to literary critics, and the broad theme of the volume is to explore the relation between individuals and systems or structures. The keynote is set by Peter R. Bergethon, the director of the Neuroscience Interdisciplinary and Modelling Centre at Boston University, in the opening essay, which addresses the shifting connections between sf and the biological sciences. The word “boundaries” in the volume’s title might really have been replaced with “relations,” since this makes up the major thrust of most essays. For example, Bruce L. Lockwood’s account of new or altered forms of humanity in Greg Egan’s and Greg Bear’s novels, and an unusual comparison by Carter Kaplan of William Blake and Michael Moorcock produce interesting insights into mythography. Even when the focus of an essay falls on an individual work, it is situated within a productive context. Mark Decker manages this successfully with a discussion of Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909), in which Max Nordau’s fears of the degeneration associated with modernity are shown to inform the narrative. Taking more contemporary material, Thomas Michaud examines the ideology of free access to information in cyberpunk fiction, concluding that there is a paradox within the treatment of this issue by William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and others: although a radical liberty of information is in a sense available, the field is nevertheless dominated by a form of hyper-capitalism independent of any individual state.
In any compilation we look for signs of enterprise in the range of writers covered, and it is refreshing to see Judith Merril’s revisions of motherhood being explained by Lisa Yaszek. Even more important are essays dealing with African-American sf, a notoriously under-worked area. Here Wanda Raiford shifts the terms of discussing Asimov’s robot stories, too often set by Asimov himself, on to social terms, reading the robots as “substitute blacks,” and thereby returning the term “robot” to its original meaning of “worker.” This investigation of the socio-dynamics of robot stories can be related to Sandy Rankin’s discussion of Walter Mosley, an author better known for his detective fiction. She argues that Mosley’s 2001 collection of sf stories, Futureland, shows a greater awareness of society than does cyberpunk fiction, which she takes to task for its ahistoricity and escapism. Although this view does not form a major part of the argument—it primarily serves as a springboard for Mosley—it blurs together the purposes and dreams of the main characters with the ironies of the narratives as a whole. Nonetheless, the essay argues that Mosley retains a faith in the utopian dream, however much its realization is thwarted by circumstances. These reversals lead Rankin to describe Futureland as an “allegorical anti-cyberpunk parody” (326). Adopting the term proposed by Henry Louis Gates, we could say that Mosley “signifies” on cyberpunk, partly adopting and partly subverting its practices.
Although this collection is broken up into three sections—on the “New Man,” the nation, and individual writers—there is considerable overlap. The book is none the worse for that, especially as individual essays frequently move from the general or contextual to specific writers. Darko Suvin, for example, gradually turns his survey of militarism in US sf on to the figure of Heinlein, who is seen as too complex for a simple conservative label. Suvin then broadens out his essay to explain how Joe Haldeman and Ursula K. Le Guin alike reject a linear model of progress. Suvin keeps his focus well within the sf genre. Doug Davis situates the more marginal military thrillers of Tom Clancy within the tradition of Cold War extrapolation and subsequent narratives of terrorist attack. Clancy’s work has been famously adapted into film, of course, and the visual media take up a sizeable proportion of this collection. We have two essays on Star Trek (1966-), Lincoln Geraghty’s on the nationalistic coloring to the series since 9/11 and Paul Christopher Manuel’s on the polarities of the early episodes: good vs. evil, logic vs. emotion, etc. Battleship Galactica (2003-) is presented by Woody Goulart and Wesley Y. Joe as challenging the viewer’s comfort zones and presumptions about civilized behavior, as well as giving prominence to the “sexual control of males by aggressive females” (191). Lastly, Fred Erisman shows the 2002 television series Firefly to be based significantly on John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), sharing the latter’s skepticism towards civilization.
Whatever individual writer is being discussed, the author’s work is always considered in a broader, sociopolitical light. We have Dennis Wilson Wise’s social analysis of Stephen R. Donaldson’s fiction, Sandor Klapcsik’s shifting concepts of history in Dick’s sf, and Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and James Heilman’s treatments of the Other in Iain Banks’s writing. The last of these is a particularly useful account in proposing a model of rather smug liberalism in Banks’s Culture, against which various forms of the Other are pitted along a power scale from weakness to superiority. Two final pairs should be noted. A general discussion of Brazilian sf by M. Elizabeth Ginway draws a contrast between Anglo-American treatments of cyborgs and implants as liberating and their Brazilian counterparts, where such processes are read through the lens of violence to the individual body or the body politic. Roberto Causo then describes Paulo Ramos’s The Other Side of Protocol (1985) as a postmodern work of metafiction, drawing comparisons with John Fowles and others to underpin its evocation of uncertainty. Finally, two essays do impressive jobs of describing the political sophistication of China Miéville’s novels. In the first, Carl Freedman considers how Miéville applies Marxism in the account of revolution in Iron Council (2004), drawing analogies with the Paris Commune. Second, Henry Farrell explains Miéville’s “socialist surrealism” in his New Crobuzon novels, arguing that they characteristically center around a “tension between the romantic imagination and the grubby realities of power and of material accumulation” (280).
Overall, the essays in this lively and varied collection confirm the late Thomas Disch’s assertion that sf has penetrated every aspect of contemporary life. In a playful coda, Marleen Barr describes Condoleezza Rice as an sf figure, semi-clone of George W. Bush. Barr’s essay reflects a general aim of the collection to connect sf with developments in contemporary life. This volume is more than a sequel to Political Science Fiction, although it does address subsequent fiction and film. It offers a more varied and detailed series of examples of the sort of political analyses that reveal often implicit but fascinating dimensions to contemporary sf.—David Seed, Liverpool University
Test-driving Feminist SF.
Judith A. Little, ed. Feminist Philosophy and Science Fiction: Utopias and Dystopias. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007. 411 pp. $27.98 pbk.
This book is a teaching anthology, and I am in the lucky position of test-driving it in a course on feminist sf, along with Justine Larbalestier’s Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (2006; reviewed in SFS #101 [Mar. 2007]). Both volumes have many strengths and a few weaknesses and, of course, I find myself supplementing with other stories and critical work. The stories in Feminist Philosophy and Science Fiction are very well chosen, but the editorial material is less so. Inevitably, my ideal text for a course in feminist sf remains unbuilt, but Little’s volume is a solid vehicle that handles pretty well.
The book begins with an Introduction and is followed by two large subsections, “Human Nature and Reality” and “Dystopias and Utopias.” Within the subsections are seventeen short stories and six excerpts from four novels. The introduction, the large subsections, and the short stories all conclude with discussion questions as well, and the text closes with a list of “Recommended Reading.” The book’s earliest story is C.L. Moore’s “No Woman Born” from 1944 and its latest is Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Elizabeth Complex” from 1996, with the overwhelming number of stories coming from the 1970s, which was, after all, a boom time for feminist sf. Given the text’s publication date, however, I would have liked to see a few representatives from the new century.
Little’s introduction is fairly short at seventeen pages, and does a good job of briefly sketching the outlines of her proposed themes. First she defines utopia and dystopia, with stress on feminist versions of these types, emphasizing the connections between utopias and dystopias and the authors and societies that produce them. Next she tackles “Philosophical Theories of Ethics, ” beginning by listing Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics,” which she uses to illustrate Kant’s deontological theory of ethics and Mills’s utilitarianism. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1981) serves as an example to problematize these ethical stances, while she uses Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1994) and Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) to illustrate Aristotle’s virtue ethics and the feminist ethics of care. Then she moves on to “Political Theories,” covering libertarian and egalitarian (especially Marxist) theories, considering specific feminist approaches. Although she begins with a quotation from Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain (1993), she does not draw on examples in the body of this section. The section concludes with the acknowledgment that “No single perspective exemplifies feminism” and the inspiring claim that “Because the science fiction stories presented here challenge traditional beliefs about sex and gender, they kindle feminist deliberation by animating the experience, status, fears, and aspirations of women” (29). The Introduction ends with a brief description of the organization of the book and a series of rather dry discussion questions of the “briefly describe” and “give an example” sort: these are more review questions than stimuli to actual discussion. While I am impressed by the clarity of the ideas presented in such brief form, I would like to have seen an overview of the feminist movement—perhaps a discussion of the “three waves,” for instance.
Part I, “Human Nature and Reality,” begins with another, even shorter, introduction that sketches the views of Rosseau and Wollstonecraft, then outlines liberal and Marxist feminisms. It includes a relatively long discussion of Sheri S. Tepper’s Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (1996) as an example of radical feminist themes, not an ideal choice given Tepper’s emphasis on heterosexual normativity. A brief discussion of the anthology’s individual stories follows. I found this introductory material somewhat unconvincing and not particularly helpful, partly because it seems so detached from the points of the main Introduction. I was not clear about the relevance of the heading “Human Nature and Reality” to the book’s general theme, either. The stories follow this introduction, divided into further subsections: “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” with Moore’s “No Woman Born”; “What Are Women and Men Really Like?,” including Merril’s “Survival Ship” (1961), Carol Emshwiller’s “Abominable” (1980), an excerpt from Leona Gam’s novel The Y Chromosome (1990), and Fowler’s “The Elizabeth Complex” (1996); “How Significant Is the Reproductive Difference?” with Octavia E. Butler’s “Bloodchild (1984); “The Concepts of ‘Woman’ and ‘Nature’” with Vonda N. McIntyre’s “Of Mist, and Grass,and Sand” (1973), and Pat Murphy’s “His Vegetable Wife” (1986); and “Why Is Language Important?” with Butler’s “Speech Sounds” (1983). The many subsections are more distraction than help, especially since there is no connection between them and the larger issues outlined in the main Introduction of the book. Further, why do some subsections contain only one story while others contain several? Nevertheless, it is difficult to argue with Little’s taste. Most of the stories are major examples of feminist sf, and Fowler’s story is a surprising but successful addition to the canon; only the excerpt, from a book I do not know, seems weak in comparison.
Part II is called “Dystopias and Utopias,” which is another sign of the trouble caused by the divisions of the book. Given the book’s subtitle, Utopias and Dystopias, would we not expect all of the stories to involve ideas of utopia and dystopia? This part is divided not only into sections (“Dystopias: The Worst of All Possible Worlds,” “Separatist Utopias: Worlds of Difference,” and “Androgynous Utopias: Worlds of Equality’), but also in the first two sections, into subsections as well. Enough already. And I feel compelled to point out that, if the divisions are meant to form an outline of the book’s shape, they violate all sorts of principles of outlining, such as parallelism and balance. Again, the sections and subsections serve little purpose; again, the connections among stories, sections, and the philosophical material in the main Introduction are not made. But again, Little’s taste in fiction transcends these problems. Never mind the sections this time; here are the stories she includes: “For the Sake of Grace” by Suzette Haden Elgin (1969); “Pairpuppets” by Manuel van Loggem (1976); “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light” (1976) by, as Little puts it in the table of contents, “Alice B. Sheldon, whose best-known pseudonym was ‘James Tiptree Jr.,’ [who] wrote this story as ‘Racoona Sheldon’”; “Wives” (1979) by Lisa Tuttle; “Fears” (1976) by Pamela Sargent; “When It Changed” (1972) by Joanna Russ; “X: A Fabulous Child’s Story” (1972) by Lois Gould; “Interlocking Pieces” (1984) by Molly Gloss; and “Options” (1979) by John Varley. The Sheldon and Russ stories are the most obvious choices, those by Elgin, Tuttle, and Varley perhaps less so, but all are very welcome. Sargent’s is an important voice not included enough in feminist anthologies, and “Fears” is very strong. Gloss’s story is characteristically elegant, Gould’s an unexpected and previously unknown delight, and van Loggem’s, although icky, thought-provoking.
Little also includes three excerpts from Russ’s The Female Man (1975), one from Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Furies (1994), and one from Marian Zimmer Bradley’s The Shattered Chain (1976). I generally find excerpts frustrating, and these were no exception. Charnas has some good short stories (“Boobs”  comes to mind), while an excerpt from her powerful Holdfast series (1974-99) is barely a teaser. The excerpt from Bradley’s The Shattered Chain is the “Oath of the Free Amazons,” and, at about a page and a half, hardly worth including, while including three excerpts from Russ’s novel only demonstrates that The Female Man is both very important and too important to merely excerpt. The space would have been better filled with twenty-first century stories, but I think all those sections and subsections may have steered Little into some tight spots.
Still, this anthology fills an important gap in the literature. I was happy to find it when I decided to teach the course. Larbalestier’s collection has a chronological array of fine stories, including early pulp stories, each accompanied by a critical article, and has much to recommend it, but it contains only eleven stories and, because of the nature of the project, some of the selections are idiosyncratic. I am also supplementing my reading list with some stories from Connie Willis and Sheila Williams’s A Woman’s Liberation: A Choice of Futures by and about Women (2001), partly because it contains a story by Ursula K. Le Guin, who is missing from both Little’s book and Larbalestier’s. Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder anthologies, published from 1975 to 1995, are very good but difficult to find, and, of course, they do not include new-century work. Little’s choices are, of all these anthologies, the best suited to a course meant to introduce students to the range of feminist sf. Although it is not the perfect vehicle for my course, one might say of it: runs good, body needs work.—Joan Gordon, SFS
Playing the Field.
David Mead and Pawel Frelik, eds. Playing the Universe: Games and Gaming in Science Fiction. Lublin: Wydawnictwo U Marii Curie-Sklodowskiej, 2007. 266 pp. $10.40; 31,5 zł pbk.
Playing the Universe is an eclectic assembly of essays loosely connected by a shared concern for games and gaming within science fiction. The volume’s four sections divide the nineteen pieces by subject medium. Nine of the essays focus on literary texts, just three on film, five look at gaming itself, and two occupy the “Intermedia” section. The essays range in scope from close readings of primary texts such as Robert O’Connor’s “Strategy in Philip K. Dick’s The Game Players of Titan,” through author studies such as Gavin Miller’s “Beyond Make-Believe: Play in the Science Fiction of Iain (M.) Banks,” on to genre-spanning overviews such as Oscar De Los Santos and Tom Morrissey’s “SF Plays Dice with the Universe: Investigating the Rules of the Game in Science and Science Fiction,” and finally to wide-ranging theoretical syntheses such as Jean Lauer and Shelley Rodrigo’s “Resident Franchise: Theorizing the SF Genre, Conglomerations, and the Future of Synergy.”
Given the essays’ diversity, it should not be surprising to learn that many began as presentations at the 2005 Science Fiction Research Association conference. For good or ill, the volume reads much the way that attending such a conference feels. Many of the essays still seem as though they were written to be read aloud. Randy Clark’s “Sports Satire in Walter R. Brooks’s Freddy the Pig Novels” is one of these. Clark does what good conference presenters should do: constructs a clear, focused, and engaging piece that provides enough context for an audience unfamiliar with the subject texts still to be able to follow the argument. The strengths of an oral presentation, however, can seem like weaknesses in a published paper, where the lack of critical apparatus, in this case reference to scholarship about satire in children’s literature, though it helps streamline the presentation, can make the published essay seem undertheorized.
A few of the essays seem out of place. D. Bruno Starrs’s essay on quidditch in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (1997-2007) and their film adaptations (2001-) makes interesting points about how the game is used as a “leveler” of characters within the narratives, but it requires a generously inclusive definition to see this as sf. Similarly, Michael Nitsche’s “From Faerie Tale to Adventure Game” takes excellent advantage of print’s ability to provide visuals to show his reader elements of his computer-game subject text, but is linked to the other essays in the collection by its focus on game, not its interest in sf.
The volume’s structure is effective in bringing order to a disparate collection. Though the primary organizing principle is medium, and the collection moves through various media in chronological sequence from literature, to film, to (mostly computer) games, to intermedia texts, the progression also moves toward increasingly theoretical works. The literature-based essays, comprising nearly half the volume, focus mostly on single works or individual authors. Two of the three “film” essays (one is about television), Rebecca Janicker and Lincoln Geraghty’s “Playing Hard to Get: Game-Playing and the Search for Humanity in Star Trek and Red Dwarf” and Fred Mason’s “Returning to the Coliseum: Science Fiction Visions of Future Sports,” are comparative studies. The section on gaming includes some of the volume’s most engaging theoretical pieces, including David Boreham’s “Inaesthetia: Science Fiction and Computer Games” and Laurie Johnson’s “Speculations on the Emergence of a Cultural Practice.” Finally, both of the pieces in the “Intermedia” section, the Lauer and Rodrigo essay and Loren Eason’s “First Person Plural: Ender’s Game, Broken Angels, and Video Game Subjectivity” take ambitious looks at what the contemporary erosion of media boundaries might imply.
While the individual essays have obvious value for scholars pursuing lines of research about particular authors, texts, or media, such an eclectic collection raises the question “who needs it?” For whom, and for what reason, would this collection be most valuable? Of course, anyone studying the role of games in sf would find plenty of intriguing ideas and solid scholarship to work with here, but this volume’s perhaps hidden value lies in its clear ties to its origin in the 2005 SFRA conference. It encapsulates lessons that scholars entering the field need to learn about the breadth of approaches within sf scholarship and about the path conference presentations can take to publication. Thus the volume has value both for what it says about games and gaming in science fiction and for what it says about the range of sf scholarship.
As the editors themselves acknowledge in their introduction, there is much work left to be done on the relationships among sf, games, and gaming. This volume likely embodies a critical tipping point, as the study of the representation of games within sf literature gives way to increasing study of the representation of science fiction within games.—Craig Jacobsen, Mesa Community College
A Gift for the Dictionary Wonk.
Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. Ed. Jeff Prucher. Intro. Gene Wolfe. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. xxxi + 342 pp. $29.95.
I confess at the outset that I am something of a dictionary wonk. Perusing just the bookshelf closest to me in my office, I see Gaskell’s Dictionary of all Scriptures and Myths (1969; the “all” in the title makes this book a contender for most pretentious title ever), the Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists (1971), Oskar Seyffert’s Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1959), Andrews’s Concise Dictionary of American History (1962), Pei and Gaynor’s Liberal Arts Dictionary (1952; rescued recently from my library’s de-accession cart), the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Engineering (1994), Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary (1966; in terms of mass and specific gravity, possibly the biggest tome in the room), Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (1968), Volumes 7 and 8 (Etymologie and Synonym-Wörterbuch) of Der Groβe Duden (1964), a Cassell’s French Dictionary (1962), and Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1970), which happens to be right next to The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1959). Scattered among the stacks are surely other dictionaries, but these are all situated within arm’s reach of my desk, indicating that they fall into the privileged twenty percent of my books that I use eighty percent of the time.
Thanks to Jeff Prucher, a new title has nudged its way onto these shelves, though only time will tell whether it should remain so close at hand. Prucher’s Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction claims on the inside flap of its dust jacket to be “a window to the entire field of the genre’s literature, through the words invented and passed along by science fiction’s most talented writers.” Already I like the metaphor implied in this blurb, no doubt penned by the author himself: the window is located somewhere high up on the ivory tower and surrounding it is “the entire field” of science fiction. Ordinarily we think of a dictionary offering a more microscopic view of things, moving from the broad field of knowledge in which we often wander aimlessly to a small room in the ivory tower where the vocabulary is tightly circumscribed. In other words, one usually thinks of a dictionary as a door leading from the outside to the inside, from the milieu of broad categories to the narrow alleyways of the sub-domain. To a certain degree, this is so, and precisely why a dictionary is helpful. Using its lens, we can focus on terms we do not yet grasp, and see them bracketed off in the light of their presumably inherent meaning.
And yet I love a good dictionary for its concomitant capacity to do just the opposite—to send me on a tangent, a wild goose chase, down an alley I had not even known about. I think this is what whoever wrote the dust jacket blurb meant to suggest: the true value of a book such as The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction is not that it will clarify for you, for example, what “grok” means, but that in the course of your search for such clarification, you are quite likely to discover an sf book or story mentioned that you have not read, in search of which you will immediately log onto Ebay or Abebooks.com or fill out one of those Interlibrary Loan forms.
Brave New Words has already garnered some impressive awards, including a 2007 Hugo Award for Best Related Book and an Outstanding Reference Source Citation for 2007 from the American Library Association. As a single-field specialized dictionary, this book will no doubt become a standard reference work for academics working in sf, and it should help outsiders puzzling to make sense of the arcane argot that sf fans so frequently invoke. Its major strength, in fact, lies in its exposition of this specific sub-domain of sf terminology, or what is called in one of the sidebars “fanspeak” (96). One of the generic distinctions of sf is its efflorescence into a definitive subculture marked by a seemingly infinite number of conventions or “cons,” which have in turn fostered an entire meta-discourse on the phenomenon of sf. I am not sure that mystery fans can boast the same sort of proliferation. Perhaps Prucher’s book should in this sense be considered a “meta-meta” work, since he treats terminology that refers to the way sf fans use terminology they have invented to discuss non-literate aspects of sf culture. Consider, for example, “Fafiate,” which is a verb referring to quitting “one’s involvement in science fiction fandom because of outside obligations or responsibilities” (56). Here is a word that has nothing whatsoever to do with sf, except that it refers to a possible behavior pattern of sf fans. The side bar Prucher devotes to “fanspeak” comments on the way the terms are coined and used, which adds one more remove (perhaps making my review here a “meta-cubed” commentary).
Prucher’s entries are concise and straightforward. Many of the more useful entries—that is to say, words that by now have some currency outside the field of sf—are words that can already be found in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), where they often enjoy a more comprehensive entry, including more chronology, more thorough definitions, and—the most glaring omission from Prucher’s volume—etymologies. I know of no serious lexicon junky who would not acknowledge an obsession with etymology as one of the major risk factors for a diction addiction, and I am astounded to find no enabling trace of it in this highly specialized work. I should think readers would want to see, after the entry for “mutant,” for example, the helpful hint the OED offers: from “classical Latin mūtant-, mūtāns, present participle of mūtāre to change.” Even a well-worn sf word such as “impervium” (which first appeared in Astounding in 1943) betrays its Latin origins, and learning that fact from a dictionary might help students connect sf, which purports to be about the future, to the historical past from which it springs. On top of that, an etymology provides a kind of literary pedigree that enhances verisimilitude, that cornerstone of good literature—even in the genre of sf. I distrust any novel that feels the need to invent a new vocabulary from whole cloth, and I am especially contemptuous of a work that does so without providing a hint at where the words came from. Both Frank Herbert in Dune (1965) and Tolkien in the Lord of the Rings (1955) at least recognize the inherent value of providing a backstory for the words they coin.
Prucher’s entry for “biopunk” indicates that the word is a neologism combining “biology” with “cyberpunk,” but it would be helpful for students to know that “bios” means “life” in Greek and, more importantly, that “cyber” comes from a Greek work referring to steering or governing, and that it is related to the Latin gubernare, whence we get “governor.” When you put “cyber” with “punk,” then, you really have a word worth thinking about.
I was nonplussed as well to find some words omitted that I would have thought would be the bread and butter of an sf dictionary: “cavorite,” for example, from H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1901). Prucher anticipates this problem in his introduction, cautioning readers that he is looking for words that appear in “multiple fictional universes” (xvi); “cavorite,” alas, is limited to the fictional universe of only one novel. (The same is true for “dilithium”—the crystal mineral on Star Trek (1966-) that allows hyperspeed travel— “hyperspeed,” by the way, is included in this dictionary: “speed that is faster than the speed of light” ). But Prucher rightly points out in his introduction that “to construct a dictionary that includes the name of every device or concept that ever appeared in a science fiction story would verge on madness, since most stories contain at least one neologism or new usage of a word” (xv).
On the larger plus side are the ten sidebars Prucher scatters through the text—general overviews of some specific sub-domain of “sf talk” that do a fine job of introducing even casual readers to some sense of how pervasive the terminology of sf has become. Among the categories Prucher treats are Expletives and Profanity, Fanspeak, Robots, Time Travel, and Star Trek. One wishes he had developed this device more extensively—one can imagine similar sidebars, for example, on “filk music” or “pseudo-science.” Another praiseworthy feature of this text is the extensive bibliography at the back—sixty pages of sf works listed, including primary and secondary texts—making an excellent checklist for fledgling sf scholars. Prucher also includes a long list of pseudonyms and the authors using them—also of great help in a field of literary giants often known only by their pen names.
All in all, Brave New Words is an engaging and useful book to have at hand and a worthy addition to your shelf of sf reference works.—Aaron Parrett, University of Great Falls
“Too Much Paranoias.”
Christian Strowa. Things Don’t Like Me: Paranoia, McCarthyism and Colonialism in the Novels of Philip K. Dick. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2008. 97 pp. €15,00 pbk.
There have undoubtedly been fads in Philip K. Dick scholarship. First came the age of Marxist readings, both orthodox and heretical, in the 1970s; then came Baudrillard and we had the time of postmodernist interpretations; then came the posthuman approach, when cyborgs replaced simulacra. No wonder that we now have a postcolonial reading of Dick’s science fiction, as that seems to be the current vogue. Since the secondary literature on Dick is rich in articles and short essays, but poor in book-length monographs, this contribution by a young German scholar should be highly welcome. Moreover, the name of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the subheading of Things Don’t Like Me suggests a historicist approach—whether new or traditional—that would also be welcome, since a reading of Dick’s oeuvre against its historical background is missing from PKD studies.
Dick was born in 1928, the year before the Wall Street Crash and the beginning of the Depression, was a teenager during WWII, started his career as a professional writer in 1952, the year when the election of President Eisenhower sanctioned the end of the Rooseveltian era and McCarthyism reached its climax, lived through the Cold War of the 1950s and the “Years of Discord” from 1961 to 1974, witnessed the ebbing away of the countercultural generation, and saw the rise of Reaganism in the early 1980s. In other words, his life spanned crucial years in the history of the United States, possibly the most crucial, when the US turned into a global superpower and its culture started exerting a powerful influence all over the world. It is therefore difficult to think that his works were impervious to the momentous events sweeping his country and the rest of the world from 1928 to 1982. Though the title of Strowa’s essay does not promise an overall survey of the historical elements in Dick’s fiction, tackling the issue of McCarthyism seems a promising start.
After a very brief Introduction, the second chapter of Things Don’t Like Me, whose title is “Paranoia,” is also promising. Strowa first examines the issues of “Paranoia in Psychology,” summarizing the discussion of individual and group paranoia in Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung. Next is “Paranoia in American Politics: McCarthysm,” a brief overview of the political background of the early 1950s and the McCarthy Hearings, plus a concise discussion of David Riesman’s concept of the other-directed individual, sociologically relevant to an understanding of US society in that decade. Last but definitely not least, “Paranoid Postmodernism” deals with the metaphorical uses of the concepts of paranoia and schizophrenia, as in Richard Hofstadter’s idea of a “paranoid style in American politics” (29) or the popularization of paranoid thinking via The X-Files (1993-2002).
The third and longest chapter of the book, “Colonial Paranoia in Philip K. Dick,” begins with two paragraphs, “Paranoia in Art” (devoted to Salvador Dalì’s use of the concept of paranoia) and “Science-Fiction and Colonialism” (summarizing the importance of colonial/postcolonial theories for an interpretation of sf), briefly dealing with H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898), Spielberg’s movie version of the novel (2005), Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996), and Star Trek (1966-). These paragraphs might have been more appropriate in the previous chapter, because they too are preparatory to the reading of Dick’s fiction.
At last, the reading of Dick’s texts begins with a short paragraph on “Paranoid Writing and Philip K. Dick.” Stowa compares a famous scene in PKD’s novel Ubik (1969) to a passage in a Russian novel, Envy (1927) by Yuri Olesha, and to the writings of Franz Kafka, as examples of paranoid writing. Finally, we have four sections (more than 50 pages long in total) where most of Strowa’s interpretive effort is carried out: “The Fear of Infiltration: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” “Invasion of the Mind: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch,” “Schizophrenia and Breakdown: Martian Time-Slip,” and “Counter-factual History: The Man in the High Castle.”
It is here that the disappointment prevails. Obviously a critic is free to choose what works to analyze, but since paranoia (both psychological and political) and McCarthyism are key concepts in Strowa’s intellectual endeavor, one might have expected that he would devote some pages to Time Out of Joint (1959)—a novel that Strowa knows but only mentions in a footnote (27)—because that is the text where Dick focused in the most original way on the issue of individual versus collective paranoia, criticized the Cold War and the Eisenhower era, denounced the intolerance and the authoritarian aspects of McCarthyism, and managed to do all that by brilliantly using the tools of sf (though it might be argued that Time Out of Joint can also be read as a realistic novel depicting a case of paranoid delusion). One might also challenge Strowa’s decision to ignore such novels as Eye in the Sky (1957), The World Jones Made (1956), and The Man Who Japed (1956), which were strongly influenced by the conservative atmosphere of the 1950s, articulating a criticism of the McCarthyite witch-hunting and the regimented US society of that decade. Yet these three novels are considered minor works, so their absence is not as large a fault as the omission of Time Out of Joint, which has already been brilliantly analyzed by Fredric Jameson in his groundbreaking 1989 essay “Nostalgia for the Present,” subsequently reprinted in his Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). Jameson’s analysis, however, is missing from the bibliography of Things Don’t Like Me.
We might also wonder why Strowa omitted three other novels by Dick in which the issue of paranoia is pivotal: A Scanner Darkly (1977), Radio Free Albemuth (1985), and VALIS(1981). Here paranoia can be seen as the narrative engine itself, and they are better examples of paranoid writing than Martian Time-Slip (1964), where autism, embodied in the key character of Manfred, is the dominating psychiatric metaphor. VALIS is a particularly glaring omission, mentioned only fleetingly for its “Gnostic beliefs” (60). Strowa discusses, instead, four famous novels of the 1960s, avoiding those works that Dick had written in the decade when McCarthyism and political paranoia were strongest (the 1950s) or in the decades heavily conditioned by a conservative backlash (the 1970s and, to a larger extent, the 1980s). The repressive climate of the 1970s, especially concerning the drug scene, lends itself to paranoid narratives, and that is what A Scanner Darkly is about. One might argue that, after choosing psychiatric and political paranoia, plus McCarthyist intolerance (or its derivatives), as his interpretive keys, Strowa carefully avoids the works Dick wrote in the years that were most heavily influenced by those historical forces. This decision weakens his critical effort.
The four novels that Strowa analyzes—Martian Time-Slip, The Man in the High Castle (1962), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964), and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1969)—are probably the most heavily studied, commented upon, and interpreted novels Dick wrote. This explains why, while reading Strowa’s analyses of the four texts, I often had a feeling of déjà-vu: many of his remarks are correct and appropriate but most of his conclusions have already been reached by previous critics (not all of them acknowledged). Moreover, Strowa’s argument often loses sight of paranoia and McCarthyism and follows other interpretive trails, not always very original ones.
Nonetheless, this book has some value, not in its discussion of paranoia or the evil deeds of Senator McCarthy, but in its application of the critical tools of postcolonial criticism to the works of Philip K. Dick. This application is especially promising in Martian Time-Slip (cf. especially Strowa’s section 3.4.3, “Progress and Regress”), where the presence of the alien Bleekmen allows a reading of Mars as a colonial setting. It also works well when applied to The Man in the High Castle, with the Japanese in the role of colonizers and the Americans as colonized (cf. section 3.5.1, “Reverse Colonialism”). It is more problematic, but equally promising, for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, where the category of mimicry is persuasively applied to the runaway androids (cf. section 3.2.3, “Mimicry”). Strowa is not the first to attempt a postcolonial reading of Dick’s fiction: Cassie Carter adopts the same approach in her article “The Metacolonization of Dick’s The Man in the High Castle: Mimicry, Parasitism, and Americanism in the PSA” (SFS 22.3 #67 [Nov. 1995]), but Carter works on a single novel, while Strowa uses much of the postcolonial toolbox on several works. It should be added that the author of Things Don’t Like Me does not mention Carter in his bibliography.
All in all, this essay reads like a graduate thesis that has been published without careful editing and necessary strengthening. It would be unfair to put all the blame on the author, whose enthusiasm and good will are laudable. The lack of professional editing shows in some unhappy sentences such as “Science Fiction was regarded meaningless adolescent pulp” (43), but this is something often found in books in English printed in non-English speaking countries; a more serious consequence is the series of factual inaccuracies that fill the essay. Some of them are simple typos, such as the name of a character in Martian Time-Slip, Otto Zitte, whose surname is misspelled as “Ziste” (73); or the title of the novel-in-the-novel written by one of the characters of The Man in the High Castle, i.e. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which Strowa twice mentions as The Grasshopper Lies Silent (83-84). There are problems also with the wider context of US literature. In the Introduction we are told that “it was arguably not until the 1990s, with authors like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo ... that paranoia became a central part of Western pop-culture” (9). This is an arguable statement indeed, as Pynchon’s poetics of paranoia is already well developed in his 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49 and reaches a Dickian intensity in his 1973 masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow—well before the 1990s.
These are minor mistakes, but other inaccuracies are more serious: for example, we are told that Dick was addicted to LSD for a long time (61), while all biographic sources clearly state that Dick tried LSD (possibly only once), but was plagued by addiction to amphetamines. Here Strowa relies on Emmanuel Carrère’s book I Am Alive and You Are Dead (1991) as if it were a biography, while PKD scholars know the only reliable (and official) biography is Lawrence Sutin’s Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (1989). Carrère’s I Am Alive and You Are Dead, on the other hand, is a brilliant avant-pop novel whose protagonist is Philip K. Dick; its plot follows Dick’s life quite loosely, so that fact and fiction are mixed on every page. Unfortunately Strowa does not seem to have used Sutin’s biography, as it is not mentioned in his bibliography.
Sometimes Strowa does not even take advantage of the texts he has quoted in his book, such as Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future (2005). When Strowa says, discussing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, that in Dick’s maze of shifting realities “the only thing that remains really is the Cartesian cogito” (48; emphasis in original), he seems unaware of an essay by Jameson included in Archaeologies, “History and Salvation in Philip K. Dick,” in which the American critic hypothesizes an “android cogito” in Dick’s fiction, whose bewildering motto is “I think, therefore I am an android” (374). Had Strowa taken into account Jameson’s brilliant insight, he might have realized that Dickian characters, often affected by a form of metaphysical paranoia, are not even sure that they really exist, as we can see in the short story “The Electric Ant” (1969).
It may be that the real problem of the book is that its author tries to follow too many interpretive paths: psychiatric and political paranoia, US history, postcolonial studies. It is almost impossible to read exhaustively such complex texts as those Strowa selected in less than 100 pages using four different approaches (psychoanalytical, psycho-political, historicist, postcolonial) requiring four different critical toolboxes. To quote Devo, we have “too much paranoias” here, and not enough scholarly experience. This is a problem that the author of Things Don’t Love Me may solve, however, if he persists in his research on Dick’s sf, because—to paraphrase the Rolling Stones—time is on his side.—Umberto Rossi, Rome
Wolfe in the Fold.
Peter Wright, ed. Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe on Writing/Writers on Wolfe. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2007. xiv +256 pp. £50 hc; £19.95 pbk.
We begin with deception, or rather, to avoid any implication of agency, we begin with something that is deceptive (which seems appropriate when dealing with Gene Wolfe). The subtitle of this book falls a long way short of telling us what is contained within.
Not so long ago, the Science Fiction Foundation produced Parietal Games: Critical Writings by and about M. John Harrison (ed. Mark Bould and Michelle Reid, 2005), which combined M. John Harrison’s criticism with a handful of critical essays about Harrison. Whether it was or not, the book felt like a botched job, two separate works jammed inelegantly together. The subtitle of the volume now under review, “Wolfe on Writing/Writers on Wolfe,” suggests something similar here. But in fact this book is not even as coherent as that.
Yes, we get a handful of pieces (I would hesitate to call any but a couple of them essays) that fit the rubric “Wolfe on Writing.” I will come to these later. But nothing in this book fits the description “Writers on Wolfe.” Instead, the majority of the book (189 of the 248 pages of text) consists of a series of interviews with Wolfe covering practically his entire career. The earliest, conducted by Malcolm Edwards, first appeared in Vector in 1973; the most recent appears to be a collective interview by Nick Gevers, Michael Andre-Driussi, and James B. Jordan for the website Infinity Plus in 2003. (I say “appears” since two of the interviews have copyright dates of 2007, though they were clearly conducted much earlier and were first published elsewhere.)
The perennial problem with any of Wolfe’s fictions is how far to trust the narrator. We must necessarily apply the same distrust to Wolfe himself. One of his early stories, “The Mountains are Mice,” was rejected by Frederik Pohl, who was then editing Galaxy. Wolfe had an alphabetical list of venues and, as soon as the story came back to him, he posted it off to the next magazine on the list. This happened to be If, also edited by Pohl, which Wolfe did not know. Pohl replied: “thank you for letting me see the rewrite,” and bought the story, although Wolfe had in fact done no revisions (it was originally published as “Mountains Like Mice” ). This polished anecdote is, I presume, true, simply because it is repeated, almost word for word, in a number of the interviews reprinted here. Similarly, we can be pretty sure that Wolfe rates Patrick O’Leary, World Fantasy Award-winning author of The Gift (1998) and The Impossible Bird (2002), highly as a writer because he tells three different interviewers that this is the case. The value of either of these facts in any critical appreciation of Wolfe is, however, open to question.
More revealing insights are less easy to come by, because we see time and again that Wolfe has a habit of teasing his interviewers, of avoiding answering some questions directly, and, particularly in a couple of the later interviews, becoming so testy and short tempered that at any moment you expect him to tell the interviewer to go away and stop pestering him. Even when he seems to be revealing himself, therefore, we remain uncertain how much is a tease.
It is not just the same anecdotes, well practiced as some of them clearly are, that come out again and again in the course of the book. The topics that people ask Wolfe about have a similar familiarity. In the early interviews we keep returning to “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” (1972), “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” (1970) and its confrères, and one or two other of the stories that first made his name. From the 1980s onwards, however, the main topic of conversation is invariably The Book of the New Sun (1980-83) and its offshoots. There are, in the more recent interviews, mentions of the Latro novels (1986, 1989, 2006); Free Live Free (1984), There Are Doors (1988), and once or twice, Castleview (1990) rate an aside, but no one pays serious attention to these books. Pandora by Holly Hollander (1990) does not even rate a mention in any of these interviews. So it is clear what the interviewers consider important in Wolfe’s work. This is a pity, since there are revealing things to be explored in Operation Ares (1970) and Castleview and, yes, Pandora by Holly Hollander, that could add to a fuller appreciation of The Book of the New Sun if only some interviewer cared to pursue the point more carefully.
But repetition does not really amount to insight. We learn some things here that will be of interest to the scholar, but what we learn in interview A is very often what we learn also in interview B. This is not to criticize the interviewers, since each interview was conducted in isolation, with particular publications and audiences in mind. It is only when we see them brought together like this that we can recognize how much repetition there is, and how little depth, particularly when the interviewers venture away from the relatively safe ground of “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” or The Book of the New Sun. For instance, although Wolfe is not a natural or a fluent humorist (his most recent novel, An Evil Guest , is ample evidence of that point), nevertheless it is useful to consider such novels as Free Live Free or There Are Doors as attempts at comedies. There Are Doors, in particular, is clearly a riff on some of the work of Thorne Smith. Yet none of the interviewers who touch on these books treats them as anything other than deadly serious, which frankly makes the books appear much more clumsy than, in fact, they are.
Having said this, there are two interviews here that really do attempt to engage with Wolfe in fresh and demanding ways and so extract from him responses that suggest Wolfe also is thinking anew about his work. The interview by Brendan Baber is one of the shortest in the book and the only interview that eschews all discussion of Wolfe’s own work. Baber probes, quite gently, into what Wolfe thinks is the nature of science fiction. But the probing results in, for instance, this description of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974): “It was about the college professor who’s married to a college professor, only science fiction, and this planet is Russia and this planet is the United States. When I read it I was so disappointed” (134). It is a response, I think, that says far more about Wolfe than it does about Le Guin. From here the conversation takes Wolfe and Baber onto such issues as the difference between the materialistic and materialism— “Materialism is one of those things that’s so barren you can’t do much with it” (135)—which, without actually directly addressing the issue, casts a sharp light on the spiritual impulse behind Wolfe’s work.
For a far more thorough discussion of that, we turn to the interview by James B. Jordan. Jordan was writing for an evangelical Christian publication, a conservative Protestant audience. Though their particular versions of Christianity may differ, there is more that unites the two men than separates them, and Wolfe consequently provides a thorough and fascinating discussion of the Catholicism that underlies his writing, and in particular how it shapes his character Severian. This, in turn, leads into a discussion of the way Wolfe’s political opinions have informed his books (“I was much more a doctrinaire conservative when I was a good deal younger” ), and also of his views on evolution (“though I think that Darwin was right, I don’t think that Darwin had the whole answer” ). But always the discussion comes back to Catholicism and the way that belief underpins everything in The Book of the New Sun (“the idea there is that of the torturer coming between the victim and God and casting a shadow” ). All but the first of the fourteen interviews in this book were conducted after the publication of The Shadow of the Torturer, and all, therefore, to some extent revolve around The Book of the New Sun , The Book of the Long Sun (1993-96), and The Book of the Short Sun (1999-2001), yet I learned more about the sequence, understood more about what Wolfe was doing with the books, from this one interview than from all the others combined.
One of the thirteen pieces by Wolfe casts a similarly revealing light. “Books in The Book of the New Sun,” reprinted from Plan[e]t Engineering (1984), examines the four books that Severian takes from the library for Thecla near the beginning of The Shadow of the Torturer (1980). We learn very little about these books in the novel (one is neither described nor named), but by expanding on the scant clues he provided, Wolfe gives us a detailed description of the politics, social structure, even the ecology of Urth. From a passing reference he opens up the book in ways that all too many readers would miss.
The other pieces he has contributed here, most apparently written for this volume, alas do not come anywhere close to that essay in terms of interest or value. Most are no more than a page or two long, such as “Wolfe’s Rules: What You Must Do To Be A Writer,” which does no more than reiterate (without credit) Robert Heinlein’s oft-quoted advice on how to be a writer. There are attempts at humor (“How to be a Writer’s Family”), which are no more successful than his attempts at humor in fiction. “What Do They Mean, SF?” does little more that reiterate, emphatically, views about the nature of science fiction that are explicit in several of the interviews. We gather that he likes what he terms “science fantasy,” that he sees writing more as a craft than an art in that its qualities are the result of hard work and attention to detail, that he gets exasperated by anyone who cannot drive the language properly (“The Handbook of Permissive English”), and that he is not much more tolerant of reviewers (“Wolfe’s Inalienable Truths About Reviewing”). But in truth most that is here has the feel of providing bulk rather than substance. Other than the essay on books, only two other pieces really come close to the length and depth that might warrant the term “essay”: “Libraries on the Superhighway—Rest Stop or Roadkill?,” which suggests that Wolfe is conservative in more ways than just political, and “A Fantasist Reads the Bible and its Critics,” which has some interesting things to say but in truth delivers rather less than it promises.
Gene Wolfe is a fascinating and infuriating writer whose oblique style, complexity of tone, playfulness of manner, and insistence that we read more between the lines than in practically any other sf novelist means that his work demands and repays endless close investigation. As such, critics are going to seize gleefully on any fragment of a clue they might happen upon, and there are many nuggets to be dug out of this book. The book is, inevitably, going to prove valuable; yet at the end you cannot help feeling that, like that final essay, it delivers much less than it promises.—Paul Kincaid, independent scholar
Lisa Yaszek. Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction. Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 2008. xii + 234 pp. $22.95 pbk.
In the wake of the first wave of feminist sf criticism in the 1980s and 1990s (Marleen Barr, Sarah Lefanu, Jenny Wolmark), which combined theoretical argumentation with readings of a select corpus of authors (Russ, Le Guin, Tiptree, Charnas, Tepper, Atwood, Butler), in recent years a second wave has emerged that is at once more empirically-oriented, drawn to archival and historical research, and more concerned with excavating a broad foundation for women’s sf rather than enshrining a feminist canon. Justine Larbalestier’s The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction (Wesleyan, 2002) and now Lisa Yaszek’s Galactic Suburbia have valuably shown that a serious discourse on gender conflict and relationships—spurred by a diverse array of female authors, editors, and fans—had evolved within the genre well before the advent of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and the emergence of overtly feminist sf in the 1970s. The result has not been to overturn the insights of the first-wave critics but to give them further depth and dimension—and, in some cases, to fill in their blindspots and amend their occasional overstatements. I think it’s fair to say that, thanks to these two generations of feminist scholars (who also include Jane Donawerth, Robin Roberts, Veronica Hollinger, and Anne Balsamo), we now have a very rich sense of the scope and complexity of women’s sf writing over the course of the twentieth century.
Galactic Suburbia, as its title implies, focuses on the immediate postwar period, when suburban enclaves were springing up across the US, fostering an ethos of familial togetherness and a consequent enshrinement of married domesticity as the highest aspiration for women. Yet while Yaszek does not shrink from criticizing this socio-ideological system and the constraining effects of what Betty Friedan famously dubbed its “feminine mystique,” she is also alert to the complexities and contradictions that rendered this regime far from monolithic. As she shows, despite the supposedly universal delegation of middle-class women to the confines of split-level hearth and home, professional occupations were not entirely closed to them, as the burgeoning of groups such as the Society for Women Engineers demonstrated; even macho NASA, in the wake of Sputnik, briefly initiated a Women in Space Early (WISE) program (Yaszek cites testimony to Congress by Edward Teller that women were better suited for space exploration because “they weigh less and have more sense” [qtd 160]). Moreover, “mere” homemakers were inextricably involved in the public sphere, not only in their economically crucial roles as consumers and adepts of high-tech household gadgetry, but often in more activist capacities, as peace and anti-nuclear advocates, proponents of consumer protections, and supporters of the nascent civil rights movement. Yaszek very effectively sketches this complicated background, drawing deeply on women’s social and cultural history as well as histories of science and technology; indeed, the book is as much an examination of women’s roles in relation to postwar technoculture as it is of sf per se.
But of course it is, most fundamentally, a contribution to the study of American sf of the 1950s and early 1960s—a cogent and penetrating assessment of that critically neglected period sandwiched between the Golden Age of the 1940s and the New Wave of the later 1960s and 1970s. Think of it as a companion volume to David Seed’s American Science Fiction and the Cold War (Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999), showing how that era’s animating concerns played out not in stories of superpower conflict and political conspiracy but in seemingly smaller-scale, yet no less socially trenchant, tales of domestic combat and crisis. Yaszek’s overall goal, as she puts it in her Introduction, is to “situat[e] postwar women’s SF writing in relation to the technoscientific, social, and moral orders that emerged after World War II” (6), especially those linking gender roles with suburban norms and values. Four well-conceived chapters are structured around specific occupations, one fairly obvious in terms of the decade’s putative ideals (chapter two, on “Homemakers”), others affirming the diversity of women’s public personae during the period (chapters three and four, on “Activists” and “Scientists”). Each chapter opens with an overview of relevant issues and contexts relating to the topic, then proceeds to a series of supple and neatly interleaved close readings of stories and novels by a remarkably varied cohort of women sf authors.
Chapter one, on “Writers,” examines the multifarious careers of three characteristic 1950s figures—Judith Merril, Shirley Jackson, and Alice Eleanor Jones, each of whom forged a body of work that fused sf with other literary forms, from the romance to supernatural horror. While the presence of Merril is unsurprising—indeed, she has emerged as something of a heroine for the second wave of feminist sf scholars, celebrated as the first true female professional in the field (Larbalestier’s critical anthology Daughters of Earth is named in homage of a 1952 Merril novella that Yaszek also discusses at length [35-40])—the inclusion of Jackson and Jones displays the depth of Yaszek’s research. While some readers may remember how influential Jackson’s modest output of sf stories (e.g., “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts” ) was at the time, and certainly many will know her more famous mainstream efforts (e.g., The Haunting of Hill House ), few will recall Jones, who in 1955 made a splash in the genre with five works of short fiction, much praised by F&SF editor Anthony Boucher, before abandoning sf for the more lucrative turf of the women’s magazines. Yaszek effectively highlights the points of connection and transit among these various popular forms, arguing for a fruitful cross-pollination that opened sf up to female-centered issues and perspectives, “including debates over the nature of women’s work in the home” (65). The interrogation of postwar domestic ideology, with its attendant gender prescriptions, was in fact facilitated by this genre switching, by Jackson’s “seamless transitions between reality and fantasy and the different epistemologies that attach to different orders of being” (53) as much as by Jones’s “import[ation of] the thematic concerns and literary techniques of offbeat magazine fiction into science-fictional landscapes” (48). While one might have wished for a richer evocation of the complex publishing milieu that permitted these crossbreedings, Yaszek conveys a strong sense of the range of options open to women writers during the 1950s, whether they merely dabbled in sf or, as with Merril, made it their central preoccupation.
The coverage in each of the book’s chapters displays this same balance of well-known and obscure names, and one is consistently impressed by how deeply Yaszek has read into what is a very extensive archive (the 1950s being boom years for both magazine and paperback sf). Yaszek discusses in great detail the work of celebrated authors such as Anne McCaffrey, Katherine MacLean, Carol Emshwiller, Kit Reed, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, but also significant 1950s talents now in danger of lapsing into obscurity such as Margaret St. Clair, Zenna Henderson, Mildred Clingerman, Doris Pitkin Buck, and Rosel George Brown, as well as more fugitive figures notable for their isolated snapshots of the terrain of galactic suburbia—e.g., Garen Drussaï, Ann Warren Griffith, Helen Reid Chase (and this is just a partial accounting). Indeed, the only absence I found puzzling was Kate Wilhelm, whose stories of the late 1950s and early 1960s—gathered in The Mile-Long Spaceship (1963) and The Downstairs Room (1968)—often connect with the themes canvassed in the volume. Moreover, Yaszek affirms the centrality of women in other sectors of the genre, uncovering magazine science articles by the likes of June Lurie, Mildred Murdoch, and Rita Glantzman, as well as letter-column contributions on scientific topics from Alma McCormick and Sylvia Jacobs; and she briefly discusses Virginia Kidd’s career as “the first female literary agent in speculative fiction” (198). Again, there was only one omission that puzzled me: Yaszek does not address Cele Goldsmith’s brilliant tenure as editor of Amazing and Fantastic during the late 1950s and early 1960s, where she was responsible for discovering Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, and Thomas M. Disch, thus helping to seed the New Wave in the United States.
Considered all in all, however, Galactic Suburbia is a virtually comprehensive, unfailingly erudite, and consistently illuminating anatomy of American women’s sf of the immediate postwar decades. Yaszek’s focus on domestic ideologies and their distorted reflection within the genre lends her discussion a real coherence even as she ranges over a host of seemingly disparate topics and texts. The chapter on “Homemakers,” for example, shows how sf’s characteristic themes of alien beings and futuristic mass-media were adapted and deployed by women writers as subtle allegories for their own evolving roles as caretakers and consumers learning to negotiate a complex and rapidly expanding technosocial landscape. In a way, the book serves to re-center sf criticism, moving attention away from public-sector Big Science projects (nuclear power, space exploration) and their representation in sf to the more private consumer technologies of the postwar home environment—which have, in fact, become more central to the field in the wake of cyberpunk’s fetishization of the personal computer during the 1980s. Galactic Suburbia shows that 1950s women writers had already boldly gone into that intimate technocultural frontier, grappling with the enticing possibilities and alienating demands of the proliferating machine world we all now inescapably inhabit.—Rob Latham, SFS