#109 = Volume 36, Part 3 = November
BOOKS IN REVIEW
Calm, Clinical, Direct.
J.G. Ballard. Miracles of Life, Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography. London: Fourth Estate, 2008. 278 pp. £14.99 hc.
J.G. Ballard died on 19 April 2009 of an inoperable cancer that had spread from his prostate to his ribs and spine—a diagnosis he details in the final chapter of Miracles of Life with the calm, clinical directness typical of the author. He credits his doctor, a renowned cancer specialist, with giving him the courage to tackle the writing of his autobiography, support for which we can all be grateful since this is an eloquent and moving chronicle. Little here qualifies as new information, however: his novels Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991) had already laid out the basic narrative of Ballard’s fraught childhood in Shanghai, including his two-year internment by the Japanese during WWII and his postwar life in Britain as a medical student, RAF trainee pilot, widowed father, and celebrated writer of sf and avant-garde fictions.
But those works were artistic inventions that took occasional liberties with the facts in order to produce compelling and carefully crafted stories. Empire of the Sun, for example, is one of the most brilliant treatments of the figure of the war orphan in contemporary literature, yet a large measure of its impact would have been blunted if Ballard had not decided to edit his parents out of his account of his years of confinement in Lunghua Camp. While the novel was “firmly based on true experiences,” as he testifies, “some of the events described are imaginary” (250)—and part of the pleasure of reading Miracles of Life is ferreting out the various changes and inconsistencies. Many of the scenes described in Empire of the Sun are included here in their full vividness: the beggars dying on the Shanghai sidewalks while the wealthy Europeans drive past in their gleaming Packards, the youthful Jim bicycling through the war-ravaged streets, the casual brutality of Japanese soldiers beating Chinese peasants, the Lunghua prisoners consuming weevils to keep up their protein intake, American fighter planes swooping over the camp amidst exploding flak from anti-aircraft guns mounted on a pagoda, and so on. Other deeply affecting scenes—such as Jim watching teenage kamikaze pilots prepare to depart for battle or witnessing from afar the flash of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki—are absent, but one understands (and is grateful for) the aesthetic license that led Ballard to include them in the novel. Still, it is amazing how much of that extraordinary work was rooted in real events, as Miracles of Life makes plain; it is evidence of just how formative these early experiences were on the author that almost half this autobiography is devoted to his first fifteen years of life.
Has any other sf writer had a more tortuous, action-packed childhood? Most likely not, and as Ballard stresses, his early exposure to radically disruptive events—such as the sudden collapse of colonial power in Asia, with its attendant overturning of national and racial hierarchies that had seemed firmly settled—made him particularly attuned to the waves of change sweeping through the twentieth century that sf was uniquely suited to confront and express. Yet Ballard’s personal encounter with the genre was oblique and late in coming; earlier influences included Modernist literature, film noir, Surrealist art, and psychoanalysis—“foreign” phenomena he avidly devoured in the early 1950s as he sought to “save myself from the suffocations of English life” (132). Seeming to provide “an escape route, a secret corridor into a more real and more meaningful world” (134), these materials fired his mind but led only to abortive attempts at creative writing, “‘experimental’ short stories, which usually proved the experiment had failed” (131). Things changed for the better when, during a six-month stint of flight training in Saskatchewan, Ballard discovered American magazine sf, especially the new digests Galaxy and F&SF. Here was a fiction that boldly engaged the contemporary world of “television, advertising and the American media landscape” in a style that was “often as elliptical and ambiguous as Kafka” (166). Soon, under the encouraging hand of John Carnell, editor of New Worlds and Science Fantasy, he was publishing his own strange and haunting sf stories, “looking for the pathology that underlay the consumer society, the TV landscape and the nuclear arms race, a vast untouched continent of fictional possibility” (167). Yet oddly, he was for some time unable to break through into the American market, where a “fierce orthodoxy ruled, and any attempt to enlarge the scope of traditional science fiction was regarded as conspiratorial and underhand” (179).
There is a curious elision here that Ballard never teases out himself: why were the US magazines so welcoming to the “comic infernos” of Pohl, Sheckley, and Kornbluth yet dismissive of his own similarly themed efforts? Blaming this merely on American narrow-mindedness, as he does, is hardly an adequate explanation, especially given that US book editors such as Judith Merril and Damon Knight proved quite open to Ballard’s work, Merril giving him his initial stateside publication in her reprint series World Best S-F while Knight, at Berkley Books, contracted for his first novels and story collections in the early 1960s. This collusion between American and British sf rebels, which eventually led to the transatlantic eruption of the New Wave, is invisible in Ballard’s account. Indeed, despite praising the “huge vitality” of modern sf and defending it as “the true literature of the twentieth century” (189, 194), Ballard mentions no sf writers by name: the only genre figures he even acknowledges are Carnell and Michael Moorcock, both in their capacity as editors of New Worlds.
In other words, sf historians looking for insider information on the complex contours of the emerging New Wave are bound to be disappointed by Miracles of Life. At the same time, Old Guard fans who have always argued that Ballard is not really an sf writer at all will find much ammunition here: indeed, he seems to align himself more with visual artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, who drew eclectically on sf imagery, rather than with specifically literary talents in or outside of the genre. The contempt he expresses for the sf establishment—gutless, incestuous, and “emotionally tied to the status quo” (192)—is as nothing beside the scorn he heaps on small-press poets and mainstream novelists, many of whom he claims would not survive without Arts Council funding and most of whom “were still locked into a literary sensibility that would have been out of date in the 1920s” (222). He admits to being much more comfortable with doctors, scientists, and other professionals—such as his good friend Christopher Evans, who became the Science Editor for New Worlds and the distant model for Vaughn, the “hoodlum scientist” in Crash (1972)—and more comfortable reading the “invisible literature” that fills their wastebaskets (“handouts, brochures, research papers and annual reports from university labs and psychiatric institutions” ) than the Booker Prize short-list.
Miracles of Life is fairly comprehensive up through the writing of The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and Crash, notorious works of willful excess designed to illustrate Ballard’s conviction that human beings “had far darker imaginations than we liked to believe” (238). From that point onwards, the book leaps rapidly through the decades, with two brisk chapters devoted to the writing and filming of Empire of the Sun and Ballard’s subsequent return to Shanghai and Lunghua in 1991, where he movingly searched “for my younger self, the boy in the Cathedral School cap and blazer who had played hide-and-seek with [his] friends half a century earlier” (268). Since the book closes with the acknowledgement of an imminent medical death sentence, it is possible that Ballard simply ran out of time and energy before he could fill in the remaining gaps. More likely, however, his last four decades involved a working out of obsessional patterns formed quite early in life, and so it seemed perhaps redundant to rehearse the inspiration for his many later works (which include eight novels published after Empire, none mentioned here). It is also true that Ballard’s adult life, despite some dabblings on the fringes of the 1960s counterculture, was considerably more sedate and sedentary than his feverish, deracinated childhood: he lived until his death in the modest suburban home in Shepperton he bought with his wife Mary in the early 1960s, where he brought up his three children alone following her shocking sudden death. Much of his daily life consisted of domestic routines too mundane to chronicle—though Ballard is justifiably proud of his bemused, tolerant parenting, the warm happy chaos of home life that provided the ideal emotional support for his imagination’s wild flights. We can all, sf fans or not, be grateful that he found such a nurturing space, since it made possible a body of work that ranks with the very best that science fiction—not to mention postwar world literature—has produced.
Incidentally, a brief footnote to that estimable ouevre appeared in The New Yorker on 11 May 2009, a month after Ballard’s death. Entitled “The Autobiography of J.G.B.,” it is a gentle apocalyptic fantasy in which the protagonist awakes in a world mysteriously emptied of all life save for the birds in the London Zoo. Yet despite being abruptly abandoned and isolated, he stays upbeat, making “preparations for survival” by gathering a stockpile of food and weapons; comfortably ensconced in his Shepperton home, he amiably feeds the birds and resolutely prepares “to begin his true work.” The story is classic Ballard, lyrical and haunting, reminding us that, though he has now left us, his stoic spirit soldiers on in some quiet suburb of the mind that he has made all his own.—Rob Latham, SFS
The Unease of Modern Life.
Jo Collins and John Jervis, eds. Uncanny Modernity: Cultural Theories, Modern Anxieties. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. viii + 234 pp. $69.95 hc.
Uncanny Modernity is a collection of essays that aims to read aspects of contemporary experience in the framework of the Freudian uncanny: that is, as at once familiar and disturbingly disorienting. Freud’s 1919 paper on the uncanny, a key text upon which many of these essays rely, describes it as a kind of haunting from the past, whether individual (the return of the repressed) or communal (the return of primitive beliefs). Although only tangentially concerned with science fiction (which is, after all, a genre more oriented to the future), the collection as a whole—which includes the editors’ introduction and eleven essays by a wide-ranging group of contributors—provides a substantial framework within which to undertake some serious reflection on the potential representation of uncanny experience within sf’s story-worlds. In fictions by writers such as Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard, for example, we have ample evidence of how intensely the uncanny can haunt science-fictional worlds. Sf’s potential for providing experiences of defamiliarization suggests one potential direction in which the genre can open out to the uncanny. In this context, it is worth noting that two of the early sf pulp magazines were titled Uncanny Tales.
Following Freud, the editors of Uncanny Modernity describe the uncanny as “an experience of disorientation, where the world in which we live suddenly seems strange, alienating or threatening” (1). They argue that modern experiences of the uncanny suggest “a fundamental indecision, an obscurity or uncertainty, at the heart of our ontology, our sense of time, place, and history, both personal and cultural” (2; emphasis in original). All the essays that they have collected in various ways address experiences of the uncanny associated with our lives in modernity, including “the ‘technological uncanny,’ the suggestion that photo, film and phone have all been resources through which the uncanny presence of a disturbing otherness is revealed” (1). While the aim of Uncanny Modernity is to explore the uncanny as “a certain sensibility” (2) or experience of the modern, the editors also note some of the uncanny features particular to postmodernity, often associated as it is with simulation and hyperreality.
Most of this collection is well worth reading. I found particularly interesting Jervis’s “Uncanny Presences,” a lengthy discussion of visuality, the image, presence, and representation, that also provides a substantial (re)introduction to the history and typology of the modern uncanny—such as “the ‘mechanical’ uncanny of dolls and automata, where representation becomes reproduction, nature becomes artefact, and the result hints at ‘unnatural’ life” (13). Tom Gunning’s “Uncanny Reflections, Modern Illusions: Sighting the Modern Optical Uncanny” is of particular interest for its commentary on the “magical” aspects of visual technologies. Roger Luckhurst’s “The Uncanny After Freud: The Contemporary Trauma Subject and the Fiction of Stephen King” addresses questions of the subject, examining “the rewriting of the self” (131) that seems to occur during experiences of “recovered memory” and tracing “the modern link between trauma and the uncanny” (132) in King’s fiction. In addition, Michael Saler’s “Profane Illuminations, Delicate and Mysterious Flames: Mass Culture and Uncanny Gnosis” includes a discussion of Dick’s science fiction (read in the company of André Breton and Umberto Eco). For all three, Saler argues, “uncanny experiences ... challenge consensual reality and suggest that other possibilities are accessible to reasoned reflection” (184).
As I suggested above, Uncanny Modernity is only indirectly relevant to sf. In its indirection, however, there are some fine insights to be gained about the uncanny experiences of our lives in post/modernity and about sf’s potential for narrating those experiences. Given the high price of this collection, which is not so far available in softcover, I recommend that readers in a position to do so consider ordering this collection for their college and university libraries.—Veronica Hollinger, SFS
What All the Fuss Is About: WisCon 2007.
L. Timmel Duchamp and Eileen Gunn, eds. The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 2: Provocative Essays on Feminism, Race, Revolution, and the Future. Seattle: Aqueduct Press, 2008. x + 199 pp. $17.50 pbk.
This volume is not held together by its content, which is even wider ranging than for most cons with academic components. Contributors include academics, writers, fans, politicos, and undergraduates. Contributions range from some outstanding academic essays, to interesting reflections by writers, to a workshop on responding to misogyny or racism in writing workshops, to a blog. The volume is held together, though, by the short and whimsical introduction by Duchamp and Gunn, by the beginning and ending dialogues between the two guest of honor writers, and by interspersed reflections on WisCon 2007, the thirty-first feminist sf convention, and predictions for what will take place at WisCon 2018. Still, the volume would have been improved greatly by adding a good index.
I shall begin with the threads that hold the volume together, then review the high points. The guests of honor, Laurie J. Marks, and her editor and also a writer, Kelly Link, interview each other about fantasy writing to open the volume and conduct a dialogue on sf to close it. In the beginning interview, Marks explains that her Logic series (2002-07) explores the problem of human violence, especially questioning the romanticization of resistance. Link is especially insightful on the way the hero grapples with a developing power for the first time in the genre of young-adult fantasy. Writers might be interested in their description of the process of revising and editing, here in Marks’s words: “When you’re editing, it only affects the particular piece you’re working on, but when you’re revising, if you change something it changes everything” (10). Scholars will be interested in Link’s description of “communal writing,” sf writers sitting in a cafe and writing in parallel; she cites herself, Shelley Jackson, Holly Black, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Karen Joy Fowler (11). At the end of the volume, in an epistolary exchange conducted by email, Link and Marks leave analysis behind and give us pure pleasure, ruminating on the nature of writing, but also on their friendship and the nature of friendship in general. Here are two good quotations from that exchange. In a sentence only a lover of science fiction could have written, Marks tells us, “I think novels need a higher coherence quotient because they have more entropy” (191). On the nature of writing, Link adds, “I want the story to have enough momentum so that at the moment of ending, it’s as if the reader has been hurtling along, picking up enough speed as she goes that she keeps on going past the point where the story ends” (192).
Throughout the volume, conference participants offer reminiscences of WisCon 2007 and predictions for WisCon 2018. Mark Rich, Nisi Shawl, Susan Simensky Bietila, Rosalyn Berne, and Jacqueline A. Gross comment on their 2007 experiences, reflecting on the logistics and the values of the conference. W. J. Hardman, Nicola Griffith, Nora Jemison, Kate Schaefer, Elizabeth Bear, Lawrence Schimel, and Joan Haran predict that WisCon 2018 will still be considering current issues: water scarcity, inequality, racism, same-sex rights, and methods of negotiation between peoples that do not involve force.
The heart of the volume is the record of the “Romance of Revolution” panel chaired by Paul Kincaid and including Duchamp, Chris Nakashima-Brown, and Lyn Paleo. K. Joyce Tsai, who was sent to report on the panel, became so infuriated by the Western focus that she simply copied her blog rant for the volume. The editors then struggle with how to tell the whole story of the panel. They settle for a transcript and further essays by Nakashima-Brown and Duchamp. This event, the problem it creates, and the editors’ solution are the heart of the volume because they repeat with depth and commitment the struggle of feminists to find just ways to talk about politics and speculative literature.
Other sections of the volume fruitfully address speculative writing and teaching. Tom La Farge reports on a panel on the “multimindedness” of animals, suggesting a kind of collective intelligence that sf might explore. Naamen Gobert Tilahun critiques a panel on first contacts, reflecting on the requirement for feminists to see themselves as both colonizer and colonized. Reflecting that a writing voice is always a performance, L. Timmel Duchamp provides a brilliant essay on gender of the author, the relation to audience, and the resulting effects on the sf of Ursula K. Le Guin, Eileen Gunn, and James Tiptree, Jr. Finally, there is a long and wonderful section on “How to Deal with Racist and Sexist Material in Workshops,” covering both workshop leaders’ and participants’ perspectives, with comments by Rachel Swirsky, Nora Khan, Ericka Crouse, Anna Schwind, Maria Deira, Jenny Zhang, Stephanie Denise Brown, Nisi Shawl, K. Tempest Bradford, Richard Jeffrey Newman, Sue Lange, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Eugie Foster, Alyx Dellamonica, Ross Wagner, and Katherine Sparrow.
I would recommend this volume for anyone who has attended WisCon, for scholars and readers interested in the nature of conventions as a forum, for general readers interested in the liberatory end of sf, and for libraries that emphasize popular culture. While I have never been to WisCon, this volume makes me want to come see what all the fuss is about.—Jane Donawerth, University of Maryland
No Breakthroughs, but One Good Essay.
James Holden and Simon King. Conceptual Breakthrough: Star/Alien. Ashby, Leicestershire, UK: InkerMen Press, 2007. xii + 137 pp. ₤9.95 pbk.
The opening pages of this slim volume do not inspire much interest or confidence. The problem is not just some incidental silliness (e.g., one author’s proclaiming himself to have “spent many happy years on the planet Tralfamadore” [v]) but, more important, the central claim announced in the title and reiterated in the authors’ Introduction. One tends to mistrust a work that explicitly claims to be making a “conceptual breakthrough” in its field; and this mistrust is reinforced when, as here, the field is one—sf criticism—of which, as the Introduction suggests and as the main texts and the bibliographies appear to confirm, the authors know relatively little.
Of the two essays that follow the Introduction, one—“Alien,” by Simon King (the Tralfamadorian)—justifies such initial dubiousness. At one point King suggests his central thesis to be that the alien in sf generally turns out to be not so very alien after all: that aliens are in fact “all too familiar” (78; emphasis in original). This seems a potentially fruitful idea. Unfortunately, King does not keep it in view consistently enough to actualize what potential it may have. His disorganized essay meanders from one topic to another, managing along the way to offer a few mildly interesting comments on the sf of Iain M. Banks, Larry Niven, James Blish, and H.G. Wells (on the last of whom King is actually quite good), but never really presenting a coherent literary-critical argument. What we do get, instead, is an astonishingly regressive metaphysical argument, one heavily influenced by Michael Bakunin: essentially, a protest, from the viewpoint of nineteenth-century organicist humanism, against modern abstraction as typified by science or pornography. Of course, even those of us who feel confident that today both pornography and science have far more to offer than any sort of neo-romantic organicism must be willing to consider a truly rigorous argument for the latter, irretrievably exhausted though it may appear to be. But there is little rigor or cognitive substance in King’s own argument. He assumes, for example, that irrationalism is the protest of the individual subject, completely ignoring the fact that irrationalist movements invariably aim to annihilate individual autonomy. He also—and perhaps worst of all—calmly equates science with a nineteenth-century Gradgrindian cult of “fact”: a view that never held much philosophical water and that seems merely ridiculous after a century of quantum mechanics and Einsteinian relativity. A critic adrift in such confusions should be more modest about claiming to have achieved a “conceptual breakthrough.”
The other essay in the volume, James Holden’s “Star,” offers no conceptual breakthroughs either. But it does achieve some excellent literary criticism: largely because, unlike King’s piece, it pursues and substantiates a coherent thesis in a clear, interesting, convincing way. After a preliminary glance at Wordsworth’s neglected (but quite pertinent) poem “Star-Gazers” (1806), Holden begins his main argument by considering Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956)—which not only is one of the most widely praised modern sf novels but also whose very title conveys, as Holden points out, one of the frequent impulses of much science fiction. Through a detailed reading of Bester’s novel (one of the most attentive yet offered), Holden persuasively maintains that “rather than being the destination, the stars in Bester’s text are often what the French philosopher Jacques Derrida would call an adestination—a point that it is always possible not to reach” (17; emphasis in original). The concept of the adestination (which Holden takes from “Le Facteur de la Vérité” , Derrida’s famous deconstruction of Lacan’s reading of Edgar Allan Poe) becomes the central methodological category of Holden’s essay. Operating very much in the main tradition of Anglophone Derridean criticism from Paul de Man onwards, Holden strives to show that literature (in this case mainly, though not exclusively, sf literature) tends to perform self-deconstructions, that is, to enact rhetorically the conundrums and aporetic paradoxes that have been philosophically formulated by Derrida. He demonstrates that the stars turn out to be more an adestination than anyone’s actual destination not only in Bester but also in sf by Arthur C. Clarke, Samuel Delany, H.G. Wells, and Edmond Hamilton. His readings of individual texts are invariably interesting, and his overall case is convincingly made.
Delany is surely the central figure for Holden’s argument, more so than Holden himself makes completely clear. Holden might, for instance, have noted Delany’s frequent expressions of personal interest in and overt use of Derrida, whom Delany, evidently alone among sf authors, was seriously reading well before the French theorist became fashionable in academic English studies. But Holden does devote more space to Delany than to any other author, reserving his main stress for Empire Star (1966), but also offering useful comments on Babel-17 (1966), Nova (1968), Dhalgren (1975), and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984). Empire Star has never, I think, attracted as much attention as it deserves (perhaps because of the greater fame of the exactly contemporary and Nebula-winning Babel-17), so Holden’s careful reading of this superb short novel is especially welcome. Largely (though not solely) through his consideration of Empire Star, Holden shows not only that the stars in sf are frequently a Derridean adestination, but also that sf may even enact a Derridean deconstruction of the binary opposition between star and humanity: “If, in some of the texts I have discussed, the stars can actually be found inside Man, then in others Man seems to be located in the stars” (65).
“Star” is not flawless. Perhaps the worst specific slip is a reference to Descartes as “the German philosopher” (29); and I suspect that Holden might have come closer to making an actual breakthrough in sf criticism if he had commanded greater knowledge of the field (not a personal complaint: I am one of the few sf critics who is cited and referenced). But “Star” is a fine essay, and makes the volume worth buying.—Carl Freedman, Louisiana State University
Filming the Racial Terrain in Science Fiction.
Adilifu Nama. Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film. Austin: U of Texas P, 2008. ix + 200pp. $55 hc; $24.95 pbk.
The common sense about science fiction is that it either avoids or transcends race. Skeptical commentators such as Thulani Davis have assigned to the genre an unwillingness to imagine anything but mono-racial futures structured by the absence of racial difference. In recent years, however, an ever-growing cadre of scholarship has challenged this view, bringing to light the medium’s deep investment in producing both topical critiques of contemporary racial mores and extrapolations of racialized futures. In Black Space, Adilifu Nama does for sf cinema what Jeffrey Allen Tucker, Michael Pounds, Daniel Bernardi, and others have done for sf literature. He brings to his project a well-informed and panoramic view of twentieth-century science-fiction film. This gives tremendous authority to his readings of individual films and allows him to put them into productive dialogue with his own argument about the pitfalls and potentials of the form.
Nama is careful to locate his study within a racial terrain that goes beyond the black/white opposition that defines US racial discourse. His central objective, however, is to track how cinematic science fiction has mirrored American racial attitudes and challenged them along the lines of the black/white divide. His basic proposal is that despite sf’s reputation for projecting a hegemonic whiteness, blackness is an absence that is also always present in the genre. In this light sf film does more than simply ape the mores of an ascendant racial class: it also functions as a mirror to racial fantasies, anxieties, and even wish fulfillment. It does this sometimes directly and at other times through allegory. Nama offers a series of contrarian readings of sf films that argue for their importance in evaluating current racial attitudes. His desire is to produce the racial readings that no one else will. What he discovers is cause both for chagrin and for celebration. He presents sf cinema as a flexible instrument that can passively reflect the investments of a racist culture but that also produces narratives that mount a liberal critique of racialist investments. Under this rubric Nama’s readings of particular films make his case. When Worlds Collide (1951) presents a space future founded on the segregationist practices of the late 1940s. The Time Machine (1960) reflects the end of Jim Crow through its particular engagement of race and class. And James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) represents the triumph of an integrationist ethic while broadcasting the anxieties spurred by Latino immigration (109). These interpretations treat sf film as an important expression of American cultural history.
What should be of particular interest to scholars and connoisseurs of sf film is Nama’s treatment of films often overlooked or dismissed. He offers, for example, a spirited defense of Marco Brambilla’s Demolition Man (1993) as important not only for its expression of the racial hysteria that followed the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles but also for its projection (through Wesley Snipes’s character) of a racial hybridity that challenges the “strict black-and-white binary construction of American race relations” (91). Nama also does an excellent job of resuscitating Norman Jewison’s Rollerball (1975). This work prompts us to revise our usual notions about science-fiction film history.
The social conventions of cinematic production of sf films make it inevitable that Nama’s work is focused on motion pictures produced by white Hollywood filmmakers. Bringing forward the presence and contributions of African American actors within that system, however, is an important product of his research. This often means that he has to go into the background of a film, uncovering the pivotal role of minor characters and situations. His incisive treatment of Roscoe Lee Browne’s voicing of the robot Box in Logan’s Run (1976) is an example (25).
More recent sf films allow Nama to analyze what happens when African American actors, such as Angela Bassett and Eddie Murphy, take the lead. Black Space marks a transition in which blackness has emerged from the thicket of visual masking and metaphor characterized by films such as Enemy Mine (1985) and Predator (1987). He notes that it is Will Smith who has become the first black A-list star of sf cinema (though a case could be made for Samuel L. Jackson) and who has changed how blackness is represented in Hollywood sf. The transformation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) into a vehicle capitalizing on Smith’s stardom makes Nama’s point.
Unfortunately, Will Smith’s I Am Legend (2007) post-dates the composition of Black Space. Therefore, Nama cannot comment on the weird synergy between Smith’s portrayal of Robert Neville and Charlton Heston’s characterization in The Omega Man, the 1971 adaptation of the same story. Nama notes that Heston’s outing emphasizes the value of white male martyrdom to the cause of racial purity. Smith’s revision gives us a black male martyrdom with another message of racial salvation. The ethic of heroic masculinity is the same but does it lead us in a similar direction racially? Nama’s linking of Heston’s last man to a white racist survivalism implies that it does not. So where we are being led? I have my suspicions, but I am more curious as to how Nama would extend his analysis on this point.
Black Space opens up how we think about race in science-fiction cinema. Nama demonstrates a solid understanding of genre conventions, of the potentials and limitations of the form. His interpretations are serious engagements that, in some instances (his analysis of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later ), for example) rise to elegance. He also provides convincing evidence that interest in race requires attention to those differences that condition it as a site of social/cultural meaning. Nama’s valuable chapter on class does a nice job of putting his social analysis in motion. Through John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), for instance, he argues that sf cinema can be a progressive force in “American race and class relations” (122).
There is, however, a major problem with Black Space that its author recognizes and over which he has no control. While African American writers have made significant contributions to literary science fiction, that success has not translated into independent or robust accomplishments in cinema. Nama notes that “two of the most self-consciously black SF films in American cinema, Space Is the Place (1974) and The Brother from Another Planet (1984), were directed and for the most part produced by white men” (154). Outside Will Smith’s efforts as actor and producer—in Hancock (2008) and I, Robot (2004)—sf films authored within the Hollywood system by African Americans are either risible (Eddie Murphy’s efforts) or non-existent. So Nama’s figuring of a black space in sf film cannot include distinguished or at least interesting work in the genre by African American filmmakers. This is unfortunate, but it is hardly Mr. Nama’s fault.
There was not space, given the book’s parameters, to mention writer-director Kevin Willmott, an African American filmmaker producing serious, thought-provoking science fictions. His films in this line, C.S.A.: Confederate States of America (2004) and Bunker Hill (2008), operate outside of the special-effects-laden, action-adventure ethic that has made sf a dominant Hollywood genre. As a result, his work circulates in the independent channels fostered by film festivals, public libraries, and college campuses. Willmott uses sf cinema’s rarely exploited capacity to represent complex social issues in a way that captivates and provokes. In it the black space that Nama opens gains dimension, expressing the historical reality of race and its imbrication in American life with refreshing directness. It is through examining work like this that Nama’s questions and approaches provide us with a way forward.—De Witt Douglas Kilgore, Indiana University
A Vital SF Resource.
Brian Stableford. Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2006. xxv + 729 pp. $170 hc.
Brian Stableford is a remarkably prolific writer. A quick count, no doubt already outdated as I write this, includes over 60 novels, 7 collections of stories, 23 translations, 5 anthologies, and 19 non-fiction works. When one considers that he is not much older than the number of novels he has written, and that none of this takes into account the extensive contributions he made to the Clute and Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993), for example, it seems impossible to imagine, at least for a very slow worker such as myself. Admittedly, his recent Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction (2004) and Historical Dictionary of Fantasy Literature (2005), both published by Scarecrow Press, were disappointing, but, according to the Brian Stableford Web Site, they were disappointing to him as well. Nevertheless, most of his work is solid and a remarkable amount of it is important. Beyond his fiction, his The Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (1985) is an example of his best analytical work. I believe that the massive tome under review here, Science Fact and Science Fiction, is also an example of his best work and that it will prove to be a necessity, albeit an expensive one, for any library, public or personal, that strives for a strong collection on science fiction.
This volume does not bow to visual appeal—it is a dreary grey with blue lettering, designed to slip in among the other reference works at the library. Blessedly, the pages are sturdy and, although printed in two columns, the typeface is of a decent size. This is a workhorse of a volume and my copy will be used as such. The book’s subject matter, proclaimed in the introduction’s first paragraph, is “the connections between science and fiction” (xvii). Gesturing back to C.P. Snow’s two cultures, Stableford goes on to say: “If it is desirable to construct and maintain bridges between the cultures of science and fiction, then a volume like Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia will hopefully constitute a significant bridge in itself as well as mapping the existing ones, and might be of use in building more” (xviii). The introduction goes on to outline the relationship between science and literature and Stableford’s rationale for selection of subjects and authors to be discussed. It establishes the book’s tone, appropriately cool and neutral, but with a distinctive voice that manages a certain elegance and wryness of expression, so that the introduction and the entries seem fair-minded, scholarly, but not dry. For example, in the introduction’s brief discussion of the term “science fiction,” Stableford makes the point that it “emerged as a labeled genre at exactly the moment in history at which the last vestiges of intellectual communion between scientific and literary men were in the process of being severed, resulting in the emergence, in C.P. Snow’s famous formulation, of ‘the two cultures’” (xxi).
The volume is organized with, first, an alphabetical list of entries (230 in all), followed by a thematic list broken down usefully into “Celestial Bodies and Phenomena,” “Celestial Bodies and Phenomena: Solar System,” “Concepts” (the largest category), “Genres,” “Leading Figures: Authors,” “Leading Figures: Characters” (just two entries: Faust and Frankenstein), “Leading Figures: Philosophers,” “Leading Figures: Scientists/Authors,” “Pseudoscience,” “Sciences,” “Scientific Models and Theories,” “Scientific Models and Theories: Elements,” “Social Sciences,” and “Technology.” Then comes the introduction which, at 7 pages, seemed too brief, 575 pages of entries, a densely-packed 11-page bibliography, and a thorough index.
Although Stableford has done postgraduate work in biology, he is not himself a scientist. Nonetheless, he has considered the use of science in science fiction before, notably in the 1982 volume written with David Langford and Peter Nicholls, The Science in Science Fiction. Here he does so with what seems to me, not at all a scientist, care and precision. Lacking Stableford’s remarkable energy, I could not bring myself to read every word of this book, but I read a great many of the entries, following the trail left by his use of asterisks next to words that had related entries. For instance, reading the entry on biology led me to other entries on Aristotle, zoology, botany, microbiology, the microscope, chemistry, life, palaeontology, evolution, monsters, nature, J.B.S. Haldane, biotechnology, Frankenstein, horror, H.G. Wells, scientific romance, Julian Huxley, mutations, exobiology, genetics, genetic engineering, and cloning. A shorter entry, on eugenics, led to another series of entries: evolution, Darwin, intelligence, decadence, Utopia, dystopia, genetics, and biotechnology. It missed an opportunity to flag “conte philosophique,” a term used in the discussion and having its own entry.
These trails supply a remarkably thorough exploration, but the entries supply much more than a path to follow. Let the example of the entry on eugenics demonstrate the erudition of the individual entries. It begins with a discussion of Francis Galton, the nineteenth-century popularizer of the concept, and we learn that he and Darwin were cousins. Stableford goes on to contrast positive and negative eugenics, explain biometrics, connect it to Utopian and dystopian literature including satiric works, to list a number of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century works using the concept, and to connect it to theories of racial supremacy, including the Nazi program. The last two paragraphs, exploring sf texts that use eugenics, contrast C.S. Lewis’s anti-scientific “slander” (168) with C.L. Moore’s more “conscientiously neutral manner” (167), and describe C.M. Kornbluth’s “striking black comedy” (168) and more contemporary examples such as “Greg Egan’s ‘Cocoon’ (1994), the film Gattaca (1997), and a Star Trek novel series on The Eugenics Wars (launched 2001)” (168). The range of bodies of knowledge, works, and media is impressive even in the age of Google, and the entry forms a coherent, lively essay on the topic as well as a collection of information.
I followed a number of trails of entries as I read for this review. The path leading from “Atom Bomb” demonstrated how useful the book can be in a concrete way. I had a student who wanted to write a paper on how the atom bomb is used in science fiction, a very broad topic about which he would need to learn more, quickly, in order to narrow down the topic to something more manageable. I pointed him to Stableford’s entry on the atom bomb, where he found six and a half columns of information: an historical and scientific account of its development, a discussion of early twentieth-century uses of the bomb in fiction, John W. Campbell’s response to the bombing of Hiroshima, several bibliographic paragraphs discussing a wide range of texts from pulp-fiction stories to novels, analysis of works about the immediate effects of the bomb and about the post-atomic or post-holocaust subgenre of sf that Stableford calls “one of the most significant ... in the 1950s” (49). In addition, my student found discussion of various ways in which anxieties about the atom bomb are linked to those about population and pollution as well as, of course, the Cold War. The entry discusses mainstream and non-fiction responses as well as sf. Within the volume as a whole, my student could move to entries on: weapons, the atom, Einstein, Clarke, population, pollution, Sagan, alternative history, Wells, Campbell, and war (these last three missing their signifying asterisks, though). He found references throughout to a wide range of sf writers from a wide span of time, and to movies as well as the written word. Finally, he could consult the bibliography for more extended studies of the subject and look through the index. With all this information, he was able to narrow down his focus to a much more specific study about the ways in which power is abused in a story, a film, and—his own contribution—a role-playing game.
Stableford does not have entries on everything I might wish. I am working now with the connection between animal studies and science fiction, so I looked for entries on animals, ethology, and sociobiology. The first two were absent, but there was a rather short entry on sociobiology. It was accurate and suitably skeptical, calling it a “speculative science because no direct causal connection between genes and behaviour has yet been demonstrated” (486). The entry had only a few trails to follow—to Darwin, neurology, ecology, and exobiology—and mentioned only two sf stories and two explorations of the connections between sociobiology and the arts. That does not mean, however, that I found nothing useful to my own project. By looking up authors I have found central to my own research—from Stapledon to Simak to Slonczewski—in the index, I was led to very useful scientific and bibliographic information in entries on intelligence, evolution, the conte philosophique, and xenology. Both Stapledon and Simak have their own entries in the volume as well. A pleasant browse in the “Thematic List of Entries” led me to a number of helpful sites: Alien, Colonisation, Ecocatastrophe, Monster, Posthuman, Lamarck, Biology, Biotechnology, Ecology, Entomology, Genetics, Microbiology, Ornithology, Zoology, Eugenics, Mutation, Anthropology, Ethnology, Psychology, and Genetic Engineering. By following all these paths, I added to my stockpile of facts, bibliographic references, and stimulating ideas.
The book is not absolutely perfect, however, and here it is time to discuss its few flaws. First, I was not clear on Stableford’s criteria for selecting authors to whom he devoted entries. The introduction attempts to explain, saying:
most of those individually annotated have been included because of the relevance of their work to issues in science, rather than their importance within the history of genre science fiction. Particular priority has been given to writers who are practicing scientists as well as writers of fiction, and to the links between the various aspects of their careers. (xxii)
Why then, I wondered, were Clifford Simak and Robert Silverberg present? And why was Joan Slonczewski absent? The selection seemed more idiosyncratic than logical to me. Second, I was bothered by the phallocentric tone of the volume. The introduction uses the universal “men” rather than the more inclusive “people” which I, not being a man, but yet a person, prefer, as in the phrase quoted near the beginning of my review, “intellectual communion between scientific and literary men” (xxi). Among the entries on leading figures—Authors, Characters, Philosophers, Scientists, and Scientists/Authors—there was only one woman, Ursula K. Le Guin; no Marie Curie-Skłodowska, no Joan Slonczewski, no Donna Haraway. Although there has been much speculation on the links between gender and sex and on alternative sexuality in both science and science fiction, the entry on Sex does not go into as much detail as the large body of work on these subjects might justify. One can find some relevant leads in the index, and a great many female authors appear in individual entries, but the male bias is noticeable. Finally, as up-to-date as seems humanly possible in a work of this sort, nevertheless its mention of games is minimal (though present) and its list of websites short.
None of these objections can take away from the fact that Science Fact and Science Fiction is a wonderful addition to my very short list of absolutely vital sf resources, where it joins Clute and Nicholls’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Neil Barron’s Anatomy of Wonder, and the bibliographical wormholes of SFS’s website. There is nothing else like it, but its presence makes clear that there should have been. It is an absolute must for any institutional library and for those of us for whom those other two volumes are vital.—Joan Gordon, SFS
Two Perspectives on Doctor Who.
John Kenneth Muir. A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008. xii + 491 pp. $29.95 pbk.
Marc Schuster and Tom Powers. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy: The Discerning Fan’s Guide to Doctor Who. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007. vii + 207 pp. $35.00 pbk.
John Kenneth Muir’s book (hardcover 1999, now available in a new 2008 paperback edition) is an extensive guide to Doctor Who (1963-89) prior to the cancellation of the series in 1989. The book is an excellent reference for fans and scholars interested in the history of Doctor Who; Muir offers an introduction to the Doctor Who universe, an in-depth production history of the series from its inception through the 1996 Paul McGann pilot, a “Curriculum Vitae” that traces imaginative predecessors of and successors to Doctor Who, and an analysis of the show’s successes, its thematic concerns, its treatments of sex and gender, and its cinematography and special effects. The core of the book, however (and what makes it centrally useful as a reference volume) is an episode-by-episode guide that includes credits, a full synopsis of each episode, and Muir’s critical commentary (along with somewhat outdated notes about the episode’s availability). He concludes with a survey of Doctor Who spinoffs (films, tv shows, radio adaptations, stage adaptations, videos, books, and comics) as well as with a survey (now very outdated) of fanzines and internet fan sites.
Muir’s strength throughout the volume is his encyclopedic knowledge of sf television history and of the production history of the show itself; he offers extensive discussion of behind-the-scenes production decisions, and he can casually detail the entire careers of the most obscure supporting-cast members. For scholars interested in production history, fans captivated by juicy backstage gossip, or television enthusiasts curious about the show’s background, this book will be an indispensable reference. The episode guide alone is a fan-fiction writer’s dream come true.
Muir offers a “critical” history in the sense that the volume is not primarily a commercial publication intended to promote the show. It is not, however, a critical analysis of Doctor Who in the sense that sf scholars might hope for; Muir’s episode-by-episode commentary, for example, is primarily evaluative (he offers enthusiastic assessments of the success of each episode based on production factors such as performance, cinematography, special effects, etc.). The closest he comes to what contemporary scholars would consider a critical analysis is in the “Curriculum Vitae” chapter, where he presents preliminary (and inconclusive) thoughts about how the Doctor’s sense of “morality and meaning” shifts from decade to decade (57). In particular, he raises interesting questions concerning the Doctor’s sense of entitlement when it comes to intervening in alien conflicts. There is much to be said, particularly in the current global context, about the imperialist and/or anti-imperialist dimensions of the Doctor’s interventionist ethos in foreign affairs. Muir touches gently on this, but he draws few firm conclusions. (For a strong engagement with this topic, see Alec Charles’s “War Without End?: Utopia, the Family, and the Post-9/11 World in Russell T. Davies’s Doctor Who” in SFS 35.3 [Nov. 2008]).
Muir also comments on the absence of sex in Doctor Who, and he rightly argues that the casting of attractive (and sometimes sexily-clad) female companions represents an attempt to “exploit sex without ever exploring sex” (63). More insightfully, he also points out that many of the female companions in the show are complex and intelligent characters until they depart from the Doctor to settle down and get married: “On Doctor Who, the women who stay behind to marry inevitably act not as if they have succumbed to passion, lust or love. On the contrary, they act as though they have contracted a strange disease that has drained all traces of personality from them” (64).
These amusing moments aside, the volume offers little critical analysis of themes or historical contexts. It does, however, offer a vast and useful encyclopedia of the show’s production history. Muir is an appreciative enthusiast, and the sheer scope of the data accumulated in this compendium makes is a must-have resource for fans and a useful tool for navigating the show’s history for scholars.
Marc Schuster and Tom Powers’s The Greatest Show in the Galaxy: The Discerning Fan’s Guide to Doctor Who extends beyond Muir’s scope to include coverage of the new BBC Doctor Who (2005-) as well as the original series. The title of Schuster and Powers’s book is a not-so-subtle hint at their central thesis (that Doctor Who is the greatest show in the galaxy), and it is also an insider’s reference to the title of a classic Sylvester McCoy episode, “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.” (This was episode #155 at the conclusion of season 25, and it aired in four parts in 1988-89. I have all this data on hand due to Muir’s helpful Critical History.)
he Greatest Show in the Galaxy is essentially an enthusiastic celebration of Doctor Who framed as a critical analysis. Schuster and Powers are college composition instructors, and many of the chapters exemplify the sort of writing that would be encouraged in a freshman composition classroom. Despite this, there are some suggestive close readings, and Schuster and Powers note that they deploy the trappings of critical analysis more for fun than for seriousness; Powers, for example, calls the book “a tongue-in-cheek rage against traditional academic prose” (4).
Each chapter offers a half-serious, half-playful analysis of a different aspect of Doctor Who. The opening chapter, “One of Us: Doctor Who as Cosmic Spectacle,” suggests that “it is the Doctor’s very showmanship that has given the recently revised series the revered place in the pantheon of science fiction it enjoys” (7). Sadly, many of the chapters suffer from similarly weak thesis arguments; key claims often begin from an observation of some characteristic of the show (such as the Doctor’s “showmanship” or the show’s treatment of “death”). The subsequent discussion cites examples that showcase this characteristic, and the chapter then concludes (inevitably) that this proves that Doctor Who is—you guessed it—the greatest show in the galaxy. For fans and supporters, this may offer an enjoyable exploration of the show’s themes. For students of science fiction and popular culture, the approach is unsatisfying. The chapters are often reminiscent of paper topics that one might encounter at a fan conference; they are useful insofar as they raise the level of conversation from content to theme, but they rarely break through to insights that warrant serious academic publication.
One of the worst aspects of the book is the authors’ tendency to treat the Doctor as a person rather than a character; this is most obvious in the second chapter, which “places the Doctor on the analyst’s couch to determine whether he suffers from such conditions as multiple personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, repressed memory and selective amnesia” (7). Why one would ask such questions in the first place, other than to deploy psychoanalytic critique for its own sake, eludes me. The best chapter, in my view, is “Intergalactic Culture Jam: The Doctor vs. the Mega-Corporation.” Here the authors read the ways in which the new Doctor Who offers “an extended riff on advertising, consumerism, and the entertainment industry” (119). The chapter suffers, in general, from the freshman-comp bias that everything corporate is evil, but despite this, Schuster and Powers offer compelling close readings of many of the Doctor’s antagonists as allegories of corporate greed and corruption. They read the Autons in the premiere episode of the new series, for example, as indicative of the show’s resistant attitude toward mindless consumerism. Autons are plastic aliens, and “plastic is a distinctly corporate product that frequently symbolizes all that is wrong with our current culture of mass-consumption” (122). Rose Tyler, in contrast, is said to represent “the desire to live as more than just a mindless consumer’ (123).
The close readings of the various villains in this chapter are provocative, and Schuster and Powers are arguably at their strongest when they read the Doctor’s adventures as an “extended culture jam” designed to reclaim the public sphere “by turning the overblown ethos of mass consumption and corporate culture on its head” (9). The conclusion of the chapter, however, withdraws from more robust critical implications to offer a narrow moral: “following the Doctor’s cue, we’d do best to approach these corporations—and our own relationships to them—with critical minds. We must question the meaningless drivel of the advertising industry. We must recognize the power of corporate logos and slogans to invade our minds and spread among us like viruses” (135). While there are meaningful critical claims to be leveled against consumerism under late capitalism, they are not to be found here—instead, consumer culture is a straw monster against which the Doctor struggles, and (again), the very passion of this struggle proves that Doctor Who is the greatest show in the galaxy.
Schuster and Powers offers an entertaining guide for “discerning fans,” and in this regard, their book is a success—many fans of the series will be entertained by the readings offered here. There is another breed of “discerning fan,” however, that might wish to see an analysis of the show with greater depth, historical sensitivity, and complexity than The Greatest Show in the Galaxy has to offer. For such a fan (like myself), neither Schuster and Powers nor Muir offers a satisfying read. Muir, at least, offers a pragmatic reference tool; The Greatest Show in the Galaxy might (at best) offer enjoyable reading selections for an undergraduate composition class.—David Higgins, Indiana University
More Nightmare than Dream.
Mordecai Roshwald. Dreams and Nightmares: Science and Technology in Myth and Fiction. Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008. 227 pp. $35 pbk.
As the author of the 1950s post-apocalyptic classic, Level 7 (1959), and as a professor emeritus of social science and humanities at the University of Minnesota, Mordecai Roshwald, one might expect, would be the perfect person to investigate the links between technology and fiction. In practice, however, Roshwald creates a rambling collection of personal reflections. His work, Dreams and Nightmares: Science and Technology in Myth and Fiction, as the ninth installment in the Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy series by McFarland, is certainly ambitious in its attempt to highlight the importance of science and technology in a variety of texts throughout the last two thousand years. Examining a diverse array of works from authors such as Verne, Wells, and Huxley, and moving both chronologically and thematically, Roshwald traces the use of science and technology in these texts in relation to each time period’s defining moral and philosophical stance. Thus Roshwald seeks to link these works of fiction to the public perception of science over the years.
Throughout the early chapters of the book, each use of technology or science is examined and then determined to show both the positive aspirations of humanity and the possible negative implications of the inventor’s hubris in his inability to understand the far-reaching consequences of his inventions. Roshwald’s exploration of the Golem myth, for example, highlights the “highest, most ambitious, dream” of humanity, as well as the “danger that the Golem will run amok, a point not to be lost in a generation weary about missiles ‘escaping’ their electronic controls” (38-40). In later chapters, Roshwald’s focus seems to shift as he enters the twentieth century. Focusing a large amount of space and energy on a criticism of B.F. Skinner’s utopia in Walden II (1948) as “an all too facile construction,” Roshwald demonstrates his personal bias against pure utopia (123). This bias is shown strongly in his repeated praise for authors such as Orwell and Zamiatin, whom he sees as choosing to provide a warning against the misuse of technology without condemning science altogether. Roshwald’s personal philosophy seems plain: we must constantly strive towards the glorious future promised by advances in technology and science, while being constantly aware of the human limitations of the inventors.
Secondary research and theory are used infrequently in this volume, and then only in the broadest of strokes as Roshwald maintains his personal vision. Roshwald’s one-sided privileging of technology leaves the reader looking for the opposite view. Perhaps Roshwald’s bias is best shown when he claims that the moral of E.M. Forster’s story, “The Machine Stops” (1909), is that we must remember to retain our knowledge of how to fix the machine, and not that our reliance on the machine itself should be questioned (152). The goal of Dreams and Nightmares to examine the use of technology and science within literature and myth is admirable. The work needs to be done, but in its attempt, this book fails. While Roshwald’s work points to the need for a critical reading of the presence of technology and science in myth and fiction, this volume lacks the research and focus necessary to rise to the promise the subject offers.—Jeff Hicks, University of California, Riverside
On Feminist SF.
Maria Serena Sapegno and Laura Salvini, eds. Figurazioni del possible. Sulla fantascienza femminista [Representations of the Possible. On Feminist Science Fiction]. Roma: Iacobelli, 2008. 152 pp. € 12,90 pbk.
The volume Figurazioni del possible. Sulla fantascienza femminista bears witness to the fervid atmosphere of cultural and social engagement that many Italian intellectuals have recently been creating in the field of feminist studies. Particularly remarkable on this front is the work done by the Laboratorio di studi femministi “Sguardi sulle Differenze” [Workshop on Feminist Studies “Looking at Differences”] (<www.sguardisulledifferenze.org>), based at the Sapienza University of Rome. Founded in 2000, this group aims to establish a bridge between academic discourse on gender and feminist political activism as well as to reach out to people across diverse generations and cultural backgrounds. The annual activity of the association consists mainly in organizing a series of six interdisciplinary seminars in which major issues of feminism are discussed, ranging from the reading of classical feminist texts to debate on new cutting-edge aspects.
This book, edited by Maria Serena Sapegno and Laura Salvini, is part of the project and collects the proceedings of the International Seminar on Feminist Science Fiction held in Rome in March 2006. The varied nature of its contributions reflects the different angles from which feminist sf is explored. As Sapegno points out in her introduction, the articles and interviews included in the collection are purposely structured in a dialogic form, which is not limited to the strictly academic approach but privileges instead an open exchange of ideas and experiences (13). Starting from the analysis of two paramount texts, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), a variety of voices and points of view intertwine: from feminist sf specialists to critics who deal with the subject for the first time and from novelists to non-fiction writers. Moreover, the international dimension encourages cross-cultural dialogue highlighting not only how the general discourse on feminism in Italy has benefitted from feminist sf, but also how these stimuli have been used by Italian women to face controversial matters such as the borderline between ethics and political control in the application of genetic engineering.
The argument oscillates between two poles: the ability of feminist sf writers to imagine utopian—or dystopian—worlds and the extent to which their narratives have an impact on our own world. On the one hand, behind the flawless façade of utopia always lurks what Sapegno calls “la trappola dell’assoluto” [the trap of the absolute] (11), which freezes all projects for a better reality into dreams of idealistic yet artificial perfection. On the other hand, the lives and writings of many feminist writers show that desire is the first step towards change, or, in other words, that theory is not disjointed from action.
A recurring name in the book is that of Octavia E. Butler. Laura Salvini pays homage to her memory in the opening article by briefly sketching her biography and career, both of which hinged on the imperative motto: persist. In the following chapter Salvini draws the boundaries of feminist sf and explains that seeing genre literature through women’s eyes means primarily “comunicare attraverso il linguaggio dell’emozione” [to communicate through the language of emotion] (25). The mental as well as the emotional approach of and to texts is at the core of feminist writers’ use of their creative freedom for didactic purposes.
Margaret Brose, Charlotte Ross, and Tatiana Crivelli present three different interpretations of The Left Hand of Darkness and The Handmaid’s Tale. Brose uses the chromatic spectrum to describe the two novels. Le Guin’s book is regarded as white, or non-colored, since sexuality and maternity play only a secondary role in the narration. On the contrary, red—“il colore della caritas e della procreazione femminile” [the color of caritas and female procreation] (39)—is predominant in Atwood’s novel, in which gender issues are seen through the lens of the uncanny. Ross begins with a definition of feminist sf, whose main assets are a critique of the established system and of the representation of time. She regards The Left Hand of Darkness as “potenziamente più produttivo per chi riflette sui temi dell’identità di genere e della sessualità” [potentially more productive for those who reflect upon the themes of gender identity and sexuality] (58), whereas The Handmaid’s Tale does not envisage any feminist future remaining anchored to a heteronormative dualism. Crivelli’s article combines the point of view of an expert in women’s writing with that of a woman reader biased against sf. She points out the similarities between the two novels by compiling a list of common motifs: anxiety, communication/control, maternity, roles/sex/ society. In her conclusion she wonders why, since male sf can be seen as a projection of man’s thirst for power, feminist sf (in the two examples considered) does not perform the same liberating effect but “angoscia con rappresentazioni di oppressione” [causes anxiety through its representations of oppression] (75). Although Crivelli warns that her reading is less critical than emotional, the inclusion of her skeptical assessment of the two works in the volume matches the editors’ intent, i.e., to provide an overview of the debate on feminist sf by taking into account a varied range of approaches.
The other contributors offer critical readings of several aspects of feminist sf. Anna Scacchi notices the sense of social responsibility that marked the life of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and explains the strong connection between her utopian fiction and social reform. Federico Appel tells about an editorial experiment carried out in Italy in 1906 by the editors of the magazine Letture per la Gioventù [Readings for Young People]. They published the first chapter of a new novel titled Il rivale di Giove [Jupiter’s Rival] and invited the readers to continue the story. This literary competition was actually intended to verify how the public would respond to the magazine’s anti-feminist ideology. Quite unexpectedly, the narrative was turned into an sf novel, since, Appel argues, this seemed to be the only framework within which the transgressive behavior of the female protagonist could be made acceptable for the social standards of the time. Eleonora Carinci underlines the importance of history in “Souls” (1982) by Joanna Russ and shows how the author uses irony in order to overturn the traditional topos of the battle of the sexes. In the closing article, Liana Borghi traces the evolution of feminist utopias and illustrates how technological imagery has always dominated in the alternative worlds created by women writers.
To conclude, the common thread linking together the contributions collected in Figurazioni del possible is that feminist sf writers and readers look ahead positively to a future when the possible will become real. Sarah Lefanu and the Italian scholar and novelist Nicoletta Vallorani, whose interviews appear in the volume, also share this view and add that the genre hybridism characterizing contemporary feminist sf enables it to confront the coming challenges on both formal and ideological planes. Especially if considered in relation to the conservatism of Italian culture, the book is not only a valuable attempt to analyze the work of feminist writers but also to constitute a confrontational ground to discuss controversial issues at stake in contemporary society. —Valentina Polcini, University of Exeter
Making Things Strange.
Simon Spiegel. Die Konstitution des Wunderbaren. Zu einer Poetik des Science-Fiction-Films [The Constitution of the Marvellous. Towards a Poetics of the Science Fiction Film]. Zürcher Filmstudien 16. Marburg: Schüren Verlag, 2007. 385 pp. €24.90 pbk.
Simon Spiegel, a Swiss free-lance film reviewer, journalist and teacher at the Seminary of Cinematic Studies of the University of Zürich, has now published a doctoral thesis that offers not only, like so many books on sf films, a listing and plot synopses of sf films, but also a discussion of the theoretical background that makes the book a contribution to sf theory in general, a field that resembles a minefield. Spiegel does not restrict himself to films. His starting point is the written literature, and he enters into a dialogue especially with those theoreticians who have greatly influenced the discussion: that is, Darko Suvin for the theory of science fiction and Tzvetan Todorov for the theory of uncanny fantastic literature (with which European literary theoreticians are much more concerned than with other fantasy). Suvin’s conception of sf as the literature of cognitive estrangement operates with terms that are highly diffuse and controversial, and claims a procedure as typical for sf, which applies in principle to any kind of literature. Contrary to Suvin, Spiegel holds that naturalization of the strange is the principal method of science fiction, not estrangement of the familiar. Equally disputed are the views of Todorov which Todorov himself has in the course of time somewhat modified or abandoned. Suvin is especially open to attack in that he refers to the masterworks of sf and excludes many other examples which, although undoubtedly science fiction, are quite different from those peak works. Spiegel does not make this mistake; he concerns himself not only with groundbreaking works of sf film but with techniques that are valid for sf cinema in general. The main theoretical points of his book have been presented succinctly in English in his piece “Things Made Strange: On the Concept of ‘Estrangement’ in Science Fiction Theory” (SFS 35.2 [July 2008]: 369-85).
His starting point is the problem of definition, since while there are numerous definitions of sf, none has met with universal acclaim. Spiegel discusses the problematic nature of the term “genre,” tries to define the borders between fantasy, the marvellous, and the uncanny, considers whether science fiction might be considered a genre or a mode of writing, and traces its historical origins in the gothic novel, the scientific romance, and Gernsback’s views of scientifiction. In cinema the development is from the films of Meliès, who had as yet no concept of genre and who was interested most of all to “generate effects never seen before” (92; this, and all translations from the German are my own)—something that is even today one of the main attractions of sf films. It is hardly possible to speak of an sf cinema before 1950, although there were some films with an sf modus.
The concept of the “novum” that is so central to sf is not considered in respect to real scientific possibilities but as a rhetorical figure that creates an impression of technology and scientific rigor created by an sf world that is apparently compatible with reality. The reference to the real world in sf is not greater than in pure fantasy; science fiction only appears to be more realistic. In the cinema, plausibility is easier to achieve than in literature, for it can simply show something that looks technological, such as the space station in 2001 (1968), and that is all that it takes. Film presents its nova in concrete objects: “The evidence of a photographic film image is a decisive strength of the film: the novum doesn’t remain a vague notion, it appears really as a visible picture. That a novum appears to be convincing depends only secondarily upon its scientific plausibility; much more important is the fact that it is visible in a concrete form” (48; emphasis in the original). On the other hand, literature has the advantage that much can be left to the imagination of the reader, who supplements hints and suggestions according to his or her abilities.
Spiegel investigates especially the act of understanding the “literal” meaning of a film, its “surface,” and develops a model of viewing, investigating what the recipients make of the information transmitted, which itself depends on what knowledge they bring to the viewing and what they expect from the film. Spiegel also discusses the view that science is a modern myth.
In the second part of his book, Spiegel goes “In Search of Wonder” (121), using the title of the book by Damon Knight (1956), and puts together the building blocks for a poetics of the sf film: he considers possible and impossible worlds of wonder, the worlds of science fiction and how they are narrated, “important images” (177) in sf film, and the relationship of metaphor and cognition. In his opinion, science fiction is a “a realistic irreality” (197) and he investigates how the effect of strangeness and the alien are achieved in sf films, often by the use of “alien sounds” (229).
Spiegel also explores the “conceptual breakthrough” (246) to a new paradigm, story twists, and the philosophical question that is asked again and again, in literature as in films: what is the nature of humanity? He discusses the sublime and the grotesque, the pleasure of being frightened, what he calls the “pleasurable non-pleasure” (281), Big Dumb Objects, “effective spectacles” (301) in the cinema of attractions and special effects, and, lastly, digital worlds.
The book offers a voluminous bibliography of primary literature, reference works, and secondary sources, an index and a filmography, and is accompanied by a DVD with scenes from films.
Although the book focuses on the formal properties of the medium of the sf film in general, it is also of great value as a theoretical text on written sf, for the author considers nearly all important works on the theory of science fiction, especially European works on the fantastic, weighing the various concepts and forming them into a syncretic picture. In particular, he bases his discussion on Samuel R. Delany’s work, who is of the opinion that sf is characterized by a radical literalness and requires a particular attitude of the reader. Spiegel does not wholly agree with him, and shows that Delany sometimes claims something to be specific for sf which is also to be found in other literature. Spiegel’s book is one of the rare studies in German that concerns itself with problems of narratology and observes an affinity of sf to traditional storytelling. This affinity is not so prominent as in supernatural horror, which can only be told in a traditional form, but which nevertheless allows a broader spectrum of narrative strategies (as in the New Wave, which aimed, however, at not only a formal but also a conceptual innovation). The domination of conventional story devices in the sf cinema is owed not only to a consideration of market strategies, but also to those factors inherent in the form.
The reader will find in the book a wealth of stimulating ideas brought into a consistent and convincing whole; it is an important contribution not only to film theory, but to sf theory in general.—Franz Rottensteiner, Vienna
Gary Westfahl. Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits. New Haven: Yale UP, 2005. xxi + 461pp. $28.00 pbk.
Since the year 2000 or so, there have been a number of very good and very broad reference works concerning sf. Increasingly substantial “companions” came from Oxford, Blackwell, and Routledge. Brian Stableford produced an encyclopedia of sf fact and fiction (see review in this issue). Oxford offered up an sf lexicon. John Clute has promised a revised and updated version of his and Peter Nicholls’s extraordinary encyclopedia, this version to be available on-line. Recently, Robin Anne Reid supplied a two-volume Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy (2009), a welcome complement to Gary Westfahl’s 2005 The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, which in three volumes provides a substantial and compelling catalog of the most canonical themes, topics, and texts within the genres of the fantastic.
Westfahl has now produced a curiously worthy book of quotations, mostly drawn from sf but supplemented by a few from fantasy. Working in a long tradition initiated by books such as Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (the first edition dates from 1855), Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits lists almost 3000 passages from sf fiction, film, and television, ranging from the era of proto-sf through the early pulps to very recent texts, such as the film X2: X-Men United (2003). Westfahl also includes passages from sf scholarship. Humanity, Death, Knowledge, the Universe, and, not unsurprisingly, Science Fiction are the five categories with the greatest number of entries among the 130 alphabetically-arranged topics. Most of the classes are common terms—Aliens, Computers, Nature, Utopia—and none is at all exotic. Only one (Surrealism) seems odd, though Westfahl uses that rubric to catalog “science fiction’s noted ability to generate, due to its innovative subject matter, statements that are delightfully absurd or incongruous” (xx).
Bartlett, like many other quotation lists, is arranged by author, but most web-based quotation pages now make searching by topic the default option. In order to assist readers to track familiar favorites, Westfahl offers a helpful index of titles and authors. The most quotations come from Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1992 Red Mars (37), and the author quoted most often is Robert A. Heinlein (171), followed closely by Ursula K. Le Guin, and the rest of the usual suspects—Dick, Pratchett, Gibson, Adams, and Clarke. Indeed, while most of the names and texts are familiar (in Bartlett’s sense), there are a few oddities and surprises, such as the 17 quotations from Norton Juster’s delightful The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), although there are only 11 from Lewis Carroll, Juster’s literary godfather. (Lists of the top entries were provided to the SFRA conference in the summer of 2005, and are recorded on The World of Westfahl, at http://www.sfsite.com/ gary/ww-quotations01.htm; at the same site, you can also hear a 60-minute interview concerning the book.) Most of the quotations are twenty to forty words. The longest I counted was a whopping 164 words, from the category “Humanity” and written by Spider and Jeanne Robinson in “Stardance,” a novella from 1977 (173). The shortest I noted was just four words—“The king was pregnant” (363)—a phrase so familiar that, like “the door dilated” (361) or “Ninety percent of everything is crud” (219), most of us do not need it identified.
In his six-page editorial introduction, Westfahl outlines his editorial practice: “I resolved to locate and reproduce definitive texts for all quotations” (xvi). Indeed, Westfahl’s insistence on accuracy and fidelity means that he left out many passages he could not verify. He rigorously sought out these sources and then transcribed original versions from first book publication (original or in English translation), from the best scholarly edition available, from the first magazine publication, or from direct transcription of tv and film dialog. I believe him. In the few instances where I thought a passage might contain a slight misquotation and so checked sources, Westfahl was accurate.
His criteria for inclusion, however, are more obscure. Pith and wit appear less compelling to Westfahl than does topic, though no doubt he strove to feature the famous, the insightful, and the nuanced. What a daunting task, to cull from the sf megatext all that is pithy and worth reciting! But far too many of these passages remain astonishingly pedestrian—dull or witless, flat or un-insightful, such as “The best way of handling pain was to study it objectively” (Arthur C. Clarke, 266). Others are simply vacuous, such as “Who is true will breed true” (Doris Pitkin Buck, 383). And there is also what I take to be an unhealthy interest in the telescripts of J. Michael Straczynski. But even if very few of the quotations are so witty as to be memorable, and if only a very small percentage are the recognizable keystones of the genre, Westfahl has provided us with an excellent storehouse, both for browsing and for fishing. Scholars will find much that is apt and much that is suggestive; lay readers will find the collection both informative and generally entertaining.
The genesis of the book was an invitation from Yale’s Fred Shapiro for a volume to complement the publication of The Yale Book of Quotations (2006), which consists primarily of modern American quotations, especially those with extra-literary origins. As Westfahl says in his introduction, he was eager to take up the task, no matter how intimidating and difficult it would be (xv). Because, as Westfahl acknowledges, there is simply too much material to mine and glean all the relevant bits of sf wisdom (xx-xxi), Science Fiction Quotations reads as a sort of commonplace book, a record of Westfahl’s wide reading and engaging intellect. This book, surely the first edition of a series that will remain a valuable contribution to the reference collection in sf studies, is highly recommended for all university and public libraries.—Neil Easterbrook, TCU
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