BOOKS IN REVIEW
SR SF: Octavia Butler and Social Reform through Science Fiction
Consuela Francis, ed. Conversations with Octavia Butler. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2010. xvi + 232 pp. $50.00 hc; $22.00 pbk
Conversations with Octavia Butler is an essential book for those interested in feminist science fiction and gender studies, and a fun read for sf fans. With this collection, Butler’s no-nonsense responses to the human condition and the process of writing about it may be tracked over her three-decade career as (almost) the only black woman sf writer. (In this review, along with the page number I have cited the last name of the interviewer for easier reference.)
Many interviews repeat stories that Butler developed in response to fans’ questions about where her ideas came from, revealing a remarkable consistency in her long career. For example, multiple interviews contain Butler’s story about watching the movie Devil Girl from Mars (1954) as a young girl and being inspired to start writing, sure that she could do better (Fry 127; Brown 181; Gonzalez and Goodman 223-24). She frequently discusses the origins of Kindred (1979): a young male college student advocating Black Power in the 1970s wished that he could simply eradicate all the older generation of African Americans who held them back. His response made Butler realize her own anger at her mother’s acceptance of white people’s insults in her job as a domestic, until Butler considered that her mother’s silence was heroic, not cowardly, for her mother had put up with this racism in order to feed her family (McCaffery 21-22; See 40; Rowell 79; Brown 182; Burton-Rose 196; Keyes 219). Butler also reiterates that her Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-89) began with her disgust at George Bush senior’s 1980s claim that the US could wage “a winnable nuclear war” (McCaffery 23; See 40; Fry 128; Brown 183), and she repeatedly traces the development of her Parable series (1993-98) to her concerns about global warming (Kenan 35; Gonzalez and Goodman 224). Moreover, Butler declares in many interviews that she has always written for three audiences: African Americans, feminists, and science-fiction fans (McCaffery 13; Fry 130). In these cases, it is striking how consistent Butler’s responses are over many decades.
In one area, there is equally striking inconsistency. In most interviews, Butler is asked what writers influenced her. In each case, she gives a different answer. In a 1988 interview, Butler cites Zenna Henderson, John Brunner, Theodore Sturgeon, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Frank Herbert (McCaffery 16). In a 1993 interview, Butler claims she was most influenced by Joanna Russ, Kate Wilhelm, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, and Leigh Brackett (See 42). In a 1994 conversation, she tells us that Harlan Ellison was the first person who was truly helpful to her writing (Cob 53). While in 1993 almost all the influences Butler acknowledges are women, in 1996 all those she lists are men: John Brunner, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, and Ray Bradbury (Potts 68). In 2004, Butler mentions Sheri Tepper as a significant influence (DiChario 210).
Many interviews reveal surprising new insights into Butler’s writing process and her views on science and politics. In several places Butler discusses her interest in sociobiology, cautioning that she does not take a deterministic view, but hopes we will learn to curb our destructive biological urges (McCaffery 18; Potts 67; Mehaffy and Keating 108). In one interview, Butler poignantly explains why Dana loses her arm in Kindred: “I couldn't really let her come all the way back. I couldn’t let her return to what she was. I couldn’t let her come back whole, and that, I think, really symbolizes her not coming back whole. Antebellum slavery didn’t leave people quite whole” (Kenan 30). In that same interview, Butler admits that she was embarrassed about Survivor (1978), an early novel which she did not allow to be reprinted because of its poor science: when humans arrive on another planet, they immediately start reproducing with the aliens (Kenan 33). In another conversation, Butler reflects that she views novels as “preaching” (Jackson 44). Her discussions about her writing process throughout the volume are fascinating. She collected dictionaries and encyclopedias to help her writing, and owned reference works on invertebrates, religion in America, ancient Egypt. Her favorites were the Oxford Companion to Medicine and the AMA Encyclopedia of Medicine (Rowell 86), as we might guess from her famous short story, “Speech Sounds” (1983).
Assembling these interviews in one volume allows us to see that Butler’s politics become increasingly radical as she gains confidence as a writer and feels free to express her anger. In 1994, she bitterly criticizes “the Reagan attitude ... it was ok to kill people as long as you didn’t kill too many and you made a profit at it, and they were already born” (Jackson 47). In 1997, Butler acerbically claims war as men’s doing: “Not that women aren’t hierarchical, but we don’t tend toward mass murder” (Mehaffy and Keating 105). In this same interview, when Mehaffy and Keating ask Butler if she sees her texts as political, she responds that “Everything is political in one way or another” (115). In 2000 Butler decries the destructive myths that our US society lives by: “bigger is better,” and “my little bit won't hurt” (Brown 186).
Many of these interviews may be found online through academic databases, but it is still useful to have them all collected in one place, however. There are nonetheless a few problems with this collection. The criteria for selection are not listed, even though this volume does not include all of Butler’s interviews. Nowhere in these interviews, for example, does Butler tell the story that I have heard her tell about joining a lesbian association to see whether or not she was gay, only to find that, actually, she was simply a hermit. Why are NPR oral interviews included, but not the tapes housed in various campuses where Butler gave lectures, such as that at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York? Why are the interviews not all in chronological order? Snider, for example, says that Butler is still working on her vampire book, while Burton-Rose, placed earlier in the volume, says it has just been published. Finally, some interviews contain the dots indicating ellipses, but nowhere is it explained whether it was the editor or the original interviewer who deleted some of the interview. Still, these are minor sins of omission, not commission.
I heartily recommend Conversations with Octavia Butler. Francis’s introduction offers a good overview of the inconsistencies in Butler’s representation of herself. The earnestness of Butler’s voice threads through the volume: sf is the literature of social conscience, she claims (Mehaffy and Keating 99). The collection allows readers to compare Butler’s responses to writing sf over the course of twenty-six years, and it collects into one handy reference volume Butler’s candid, irascible fulminations on the weaknesses of the human race that made her choose sf as a means to reform them.
—Jane Donawerth, University of Maryland
Technophobia for the Young.
Noga Applebaum. Representations of Technology in Science Fiction for Young People. New York: Routledge, 2010. xvi + 198 pp. $110.00 hc.
Applebaum’s premise is a straightforward one. Most of what Americans call young adult science fiction, which she prefers to call young sf, is essentially technophobic. It reflects adult fears that, because children understand new developments in computer science and other technologies better than adults do and thus are empowered by them, the traditional hierarchy of adult-child relationships, particularly as typified by the nuclear family, is being undermined. Applebaum covers some of the same material discussed in Farah Mendlesohn’s The Inter-Galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children’s and Teens’ Science Fiction (2009). She lists Mendlesohn’s book in her index as forthcoming, but makes some use of her essay “Is There Any Such Thing as Children’s Science Fiction?” from The Lion and the Unicorn (2004), which was the seed from which Playground grew. It seems likely that Applebaum was also influenced by Kimberley Reynold’s excellent Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction (2007). The uneasy power relationship between adult authors and child readers has, of course, been central to the study of children’s literature for many years, and especially since Jacqueline Rose’s influential The Case of Peter Pan: The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (1984). By mentioning these three books by well-known scholars, however, I am in no way implying that Applebaum’s book is derivative; rather, I am pointing out that she is working one of the most important veins of contemporary children’s literature criticism and I would further suggest that she has much to say on the subject that is both original and of value.
After an introduction that succinctly outlines the entire book, Applebaum’s first chapter concentrates on environmental concerns in YA sf and the relationship between technology and nature, framing her “analysis within the context of Romantic constructions of childhood as innocent and savage” (14). Like Mendlesohn, she comments on the fact that, while early authors of what was then called Juvenile sf (such as Heinlein) were positive about technology, YA authors who had not initially written for adults and who eventually came to dominate the field were much more negative. Such writers, she notes, immediately set up technology and nature as binary opposites, allying the best interests of children with the latter. She explores the various philosophical positions concerning our relationship with nature, as put forth by everyone from Rousseau to Carolyn Merchant, Bill McKibben, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, and Al Gore, suggesting that there are three basic approaches to this topic in YA sf: novels in which “technology is used to exploit and dominate nature” (Mechanism); novels concerning “an agriculturally inclined fictional society, in which technology is unheard of or perceived as potentially dangerous” (Naturalism); and those about “a fictional society in which a partnership has been formed between humanity and nature” (Equilibrium) (25). For Applebaum, as for most environmental theorists, it goes almost without saying that this last version of the future, in which both nature and technology are valorized, is the preferred model, but it is also, unfortunately, the least frequently seen model in YA sf. Looking at how these approaches are handled in a wide range of books, including Monica Hughes’s The Devil on My Back (1984), Peter Dickinson’s Eva (1988), Janet McNaughton’s The Secret Under My Skin (2000), and Jeanne DuPrau’s The City of Ember (2004), she discovers “a disturbing trend” that associates technology “not only with the loss of anything green and living, but also with the loss of individuality and civil, as well as personal, freedom” (42). These books, she argues, due to their negative attitudes towards the value of technology, tend to send “their young protagonists to lead the way into a world that is no longer viable” and thus “inadvertently disempower their child readers by pushing them to achieve the unattainable” (43).
In the chapters that follow, Applebaum addresses such topics as the interaction between technology and the humanities, various authorial attempts to “remediate” (71) narrative structure by imitating digital storytelling methods, the effect of technology on adult-child power relationships, and the moral and spiritual implications of cloning. She begins each chapter with an intelligent and useful survey of the major relevant theorists and then goes on to a detailed analysis of a large variety of texts, including such important YA sf novels as Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993), Rodman Philbrick’s The Last Book in the Universe (2000), Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines (2001), Lesley Howarth’s Ultraviolet (2001), M.T. Anderson’s Feed (2003) and, interestingly enough, Orson Scott Card’s Ender's Game (1985), which, although originally published for adults, has in recent years been re-marketed to teens. She also looks briefly at picture books, finding little to praise there because “Adults’ anxieties regarding children’s use of technology are clearly at play in the majority” (157) of such works.
In summary, Applebaum argues persuasively that, since the literature to which young adults and children are exposed cannot help but influence their moral development and values, “supplying young people with an excess of cautionary tales that not only demonize technology but also ignore its creative potential and dismiss its significant role in repairing past damage associated with its misuse, can result in their internalizing technophobic attitudes” (159).This, she suggests, may leave the child reader poorly prepared for the high-tech future and, despite the aims of the authors who perpetrate such texts, may well serve to further marginalize reading. Over the past few years, however, we have begun to see an influx of YA science fiction and fantasy by writers who cut their teeth in the adult market, including novels by Cory Doctorow, Stephen Baxter, Ellen Klages, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Anne Harris. Such books may, one hopes, provide a healthy dose of technophilia to balance the equation.
—Michael Levy, University of Wisconsin-Stout
An Evolution of Monsterology.
Stephen T. Asma. On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. xii + 351 pp. $27.95 hc.
In this comprehensive, dynamic, vigorously researched, and erudite study, Stephen T. Asma traces the evolution of the perception of monsters in Western consciousness from the mythical beasts of ancient Greece to the cybernetic mutants of the conceivable near-future. The title echoes Ambroise Paré’s sixteenth-century Des Monstres et prodiges [On Monsters and Marvels], an illustrated encyclopedia written nearly half a millennium ago. A surgeon to French royalty, Paré focused primarily on human monstrosities with the teratological objective of coming to a greater understanding of birth defects. Asma targets the teratalogical as well, but as a historian and philosopher rather than as a medical doctor, and his scope of course extends far beyond corporeal freakery. Drawing on a variety of old and new media, ranging from philosophical and theological documents to newspapers, novels, and films, Asma investigates the realm of “monsterology” over the last 2,500 years. Ultimately, he uses monsters as a vehicle for reading our anxieties, pathologies, and obsessions, showing how changes in the meaning and representation of monsters has mirrored that of the human condition, especially vis-à-vis ideology. On Monsters is a conceptual history, then, as thoroughly entertaining as it is informative and intuitive.
In the introduction, “Ordinary Beings,” Asma discusses the different kinds of monsters we have created or perceived and the feelings of repulsion and attraction they evoke. “The monster,” he explains, “is more than an odious creature of the imagination; it is a kind of cultural category, employed in domains as diverse as religion, biology, literature and politics,” although he admits that in the book he is “concerned with literal monsters, [even if] the monster as metaphor is probably more relevant for us now” (13; emphasis in original). Here and throughout On Monsters, Asma oscillates between explication and storytelling, with an emphasis on the latter; sometimes he recounts his own experiences with the monstrous, but usually he narrates what monsters (real and fictional) have done (in reality and fiction). Furthermore, while he admits that “[b]oth the East and the West are rife with monsters of every stripe,” he concentrates only on the West, “anxious that ... an East-West project might be too big for an in-depth analysis” (14).
Asma divides the book into five sprawling parts, each of which contains two to four chapters. In the first part, “Ancient Monsters,” he measures the role that masculinity played in the construction of monsters. As a point of departure, he uses Alexander the Great’s orientalized view of Indian peoples and wildlife in a letter written circa 326 BCE. “The creatures described in Alexander’s letter may have been real exotic animals, such as cobras and rhinoceroses, which were then multiplied and enlarged by fear-filled perceptions.... Regardless of [its] veracity ... the symbolic nature of the story is provocative. Among other things, the narrative is a testament to masculine stereotypes of courage and resilience” (22-23). Asma deduces that, for the ancients, both real and imagined monsters were products of male insecurities within the framework of an aggressive, patriarchal culture: “Masculine audacity and bravado” are “the reflex response to vulnerability” (25). Thereafter he examines select non-human monsters (e.g., griffins, cyclopes, manticores), whose origins stem from mythological poetry, as well as liminal or “in-between beings” such as hermaphrodites and “man-headed oxen” (39). But the ancients were more captivated by internal, psychological monsters: i.e., the ways in which the flows of desire dictate monstrous behavior. For them, fear of monsters denotes fear of selfhood. Asma cites a wealth of philosophers to develop this notion, especially Aristotle and Plato. He concludes that “[t]he important point in all this is that the ancients were trying to work out a language and a way of thinking about internal forces, usually monstrous, sometimes benign” (57).
The subject of part two, “Medieval Monsters: Messages from God,” hinges on the conversion from polytheistic to monotheistic belief, which significantly revised the production/projection anxieties of the western self. “[W]hen monotheism became the dominant premise of religious culture, monsters had to be brought under the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God. Monsters needed to be explained within the idea of a universal creator God who presumably created frightening beasts, deformities, and demons, too, or at least let them exist” (64). For westerners, this creator God was Judeo-Christian, and monsters became symbols of “prideful insurgency ... that must be brought low and be damned by God’s overwhelming justice” (69), as seen in apocalyptic texts such as Daniel and Revelations. Crucial in this section is Asma’s consideration of Beowulf (c. 1000), the medieval epic poem whose anonymous author exhibits elements of both pagan and biblical convictions. According to Asma, “Beowulf is both the last gasp of pagan hero culture and an important breath in the rise of the Judeo-Christian humility culture. The truly Christian monster ... will not really be a monster at all, but only a confused soul who needs a hug rather than a sword thrust” (100). Hence figures the likes of Grendel and his mother are monsters, or their “persecutors” (e.g., the Danes) are monsters, depending on the tradition and its operating perspective. Similarly, other issues addressed in part two, such as witchery and demonic possession, illustrate how medieval thinkers regarded the monstrous specifically with regard to God and religion.
The birth of science and the Enlightenment era mark the transition into the next part, “Scientific Monsters: The Book of Nature Is Riddled with Typos.” Asma focuses on manifestations of the monstrous in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture and how scientific principles, instead of ideas about God, changed perceptions of the monstrous: “Very slowly the allegorical tradition gave way to more objective zoology. In the early seventeenth century the gradual turn from magical thinking to science had major implications for monsters” (127). He identifies three attitudes towards marvelous phenomena that dominated the period: raw and uncritical acceptance, suspension of disbelief, and some combination of the two. This period also saw the rise of industrialism and consumer capitalism, and as a result, capitalist hucksterism entered the scene. Perhaps the most famous huckster of this nature was P.T. Barnum, a discussion of whom no serious book on monsters could go without. Barnum’s freak shows demonstrate a vital swing, remaking monsters as socioeconomic spectacles; rather than products of “nature,” per se, they become products of capital. Asma goes on to talk about the effects of the medical industry and Darwinism on monsterology, examining how monsters “became an important means by which the new surgeons and physicians could limn the normal laws of nature” and how they “have been considered possible jumping-off points for the evolution of a new species” (163; emphasis in original).
In a turn from hard to soft science, Sigmund Freud, “pioneer in the science of monstrous feelings” (189), governs the fourth part, “Inner Monsters: The Psychological Aspects.” At this point, Asma says, “We are moving in our story from anxieties about external monsters to anxieties about inner monsters” (184). This movement into the temporal landscape of modernism constitutes a kind of reversion to the ancients, who were preoccupied with desire and the engine of the psyche. Asma is principally interested in Freud’s theories of aggression, the uncanny and the unconscious, all of which contribute to the pathological subject, a monstrous creature by dint of repressed libidinal energy and the violent psychological and physical behavior that can ensue from such repression. In addition to Freud, Asma calls upon Nietzsche, Kant, and Heidegger to foreground his analysis of “some of those psychological mechanisms that respond to monsters” (184; emphasis in original). In a subsequent conversation about modernist monstrous desire, he references a variety of horror and sf films, among them Eraserhead (1977), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Hostel (2005), The Road (2006), Forbidden Planet (1956), and Blade Runner (1981).
Most relevant for sf scholars may be the fifth and final part, “Monsters Today and Tomorrow,” if only in terms of some of its core themes: zombies, cybernetic organisms, disembodied consciousness, and biotechnology. Asma also deliberates on race and xenophobia. Very little sf is mentioned here, however, especially in the last chapter, “Future Monsters: Robots, Mutants, and Posthuman Cyborgs.” While he begins with a report on the initial reception of kaiju (“giant monster”) films such as Godzilla (1954), Asma uses science nonfiction—e.g., the work of cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick and computer scientist Alan Turing—to underscore the ontological tension created by the conflation (and hence monsterization) of the mind/body with hard technology. He writes:
In earlier paradigms of monsterology, all hybridization and the mixing of forms was considered insidious, and such hybrids (e.g., hermaphrodites, conjoined twins, manticores, griffins) were treated with suspicion. But after the Darwinian revolution ... we came to understand that deviation, variation, mixing, and even hybridization are mechanisms of all biology; underneath the stable species forms are hidden twists and turns of micromutation. (275)
By this logic, technology is a key that can unlock the monsters caged within us. This is a virtual idée fixe in sf literature and film, and even though Asma does mention texts such as The Matrix (1999), AI (2001), Ghost in the Shell (1995), and a few others, it is only in passing; the book would benefit considerably from a more sustained and detailed treatment of sf—particularly sf literature—as a representation of real-world dynamics. Asma never states it explicitly, but I got the sense that in his eyes, most sf is unworthy of serious academic consideration (at one point he uses the expression “sci-fi nonsense” ).
Aside from this qualm, On Monsters is among the most enjoyable and edifying studies I have read. As I have indicated, it unfolds in broad-stroked chronological order, although Asma sometimes jumps back and forth within given epochs in discussions of central figures, events, and tropes. The book ends with a short epilogue in which Asma “illustrates that both the literal and the symbolic uses of monsters are alive and well in our contemporary world” (281), ranging from the discursive demonization of political figures to obsessions with murderabilia and monster-oriented video games. Eminently readable and suited for a wide readership, On Monsters is an unrivaled powerhouse study of a subject that speaks to (and from within) us all.
—D. Harlan Wilson, Wright State University-Lake Campus
The Left Hand of Science Fiction.
Mark Bould and China Miéville, eds. Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. Wesleyan UP, 2009. x + 294 pp. $27.95pbk
Science fiction and Marxist theory have circumscribed at least partly coinciding orbits for quite some time now and their overlap—either in the form of the interpretative framework for individual texts or as general sf criticism informed by Marxist premises—has been studied critically. Among many contributions are Darko Suvin’s work on genre theory, a long line of articles and books by Fredric Jameson, including Archaeologies of the Future (2005), Carl Freedman’s essays, separate chapters in the Cambridge and Routledge companions, and a number of essays published in this very journal over the years. Given the ongoing interest in this particular overlap, we have been long overdue for a separate volume of essays devoted to precisely their convergence. Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction fills this absence and succeeds in a manner nothing short of spectacular.
The eleven essays, accompanied by Mark Bould’s introduction and China Mieville’s afterword, are divided into three sections—“Things to Come,” “When Worlds Collide,” and “Back to the Future.” At first sight, these headers appear fairly non-specific, recycling phrases that became titles that became phrases circulating in the world of science fiction. In fact, however, the grouping is quite consistent. “Things to Come” is marked by the presence of utopian thinking—“Ernst Bloch’s Not-Yet” (19)—in each of the essays. The contributions in “When Worlds Collide” are all rooted in the juxtapositions of sf with other disciplines, while all essays in “Back to the Future” concern the trajectories and conceptions of sf studies in one way or another.
Volumes of essays by various writers can be tricky affairs—an interesting collection idea can crash when individual contributors do not keep to the theme. This is not the case here. That Bould and Miéville managed to put together a compendium that demonstrates such high quality and such coherence while showcasing a spectrum of approaches to and applications of Marxist theory is in itself either a sign of serendipity or the result of hard editorial work. I naturally suspect the latter, but, one way or another, Red Planets is exceptionally cohesive and even dialogic.
Bould’s opening, “Rough Guide to a Lonely Planet, from Nemo to Neo,” is a relatively easy introduction to the mutual connections of sf and Marxist theory. Using the two texts indicated in the title—Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1869) and The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003), Bould demonstrates how radically these narratives are informed by the social and economic conditions of their respective periods and how much can be elicited from them when they are read from a Marxist perspective.
Similar rhetorical elegance can be discerned in Matthew Beaumont’s “The Anamorphic Estrangements of Science Fiction,” the first of the four essays in Part I, which begins with a close reading, somewhat reminiscent of Foucault’s dissection of “Las Meninas,” of Holbein’s painting titled “The Ambassadors” (1533). Central to and, literally, in the picture is the device of anamorphosis—in “The Ambassadors” present in the form of an oblique swoosh, recognizable only from a certain, non-standard vantage point as a skull. For Beaumont, anamorphosis is a “philosophy of false reality, or, more precisely, a poetics of alternative realities” (33) and as such it is emblematic of the textual dynamics of both utopia and science fiction. The author then proceeds to demonstrate how this analogy works out in specific sf texts. Focusing on texts by Le Guin and Robinson, William Burling, who is also the author of the chapter on Marxism in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction (ed. Bould et al. 2009), considers the problem of art within literary texts from the perspective of social relations. For Burling, futuristic works are indicative of the authors’ attempts to imagine a world beyond capital—a true challenge within the theoretical framework informing the collection. Carl Freedman’s “Marxism, Cinema and some Dialectics of Science Fiction and Film Noir” is predicated on the distinction between inflationary and deflationary tendencies of the respective genres. Film noir usually revolves around the disappointment of expectations and reductions of needs and dreams while sf films customarily showcase the unveiling of hidden wonders and the opening of all kinds of frontiers. For Freedman, this basic opposition “recalls a dialectical tension at the heart of Marxism” (72), which is at once deflationary in its critique of illusions and ideology and inflationary in its hope for the utopian future devoid of class oppression, or of class itself. A similar tension is addressed in John Rieder’s analysis of Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World (1991), which focuses on the interplay of colonialist and anti-colonialist discourses in the film. Ultimately, this leads Rieder to a diagnosis of sf’s complicity in colonialism, discussed at much greater length in his Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008).
Part II comprises three essays, all of which are structured around some confrontation or collision. In “The Singularity is Here,” Steven Shaviro reads Charles Stross’s Accelerando (2005) not only in its most obvious terms of posthumanity and cyborg theory but also as a fantasy of capital. Despite living in the bodiless Economics 2.0, the novel’s characters, Shaviro argues, never escape “the horizon of capital and its flows” (114) and the utter incomprehensibility of the processes described in the text seems to resonate meaningfully with our current oblivion to the mechanisms of our own derivatives trading. Sherryl Vint’s essay is solidly rooted in animal studies, the area that informs much of her recent work. In her contribution to the collection, she uses Cordwainer Smith’s stories of uplifted animals to reconsider the labor theory of value—Vint claims that Marx’s concept of labor is profoundly grounded in speciecism. Consequently, leftist political allegiances necessitate the recognition of the labor power and alienation not only of human social classes but also of animals. The final essay in this section uses Georg Lukács’s idea of Augenblick—the instant of a revolutionary process when the subjective moment is of crucial importance. Phillip Wegner applies this concept to Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution series (1995-99), pointing to their construction as foreclosing the knowledge of consequences but also to their composition in the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the towers in New York.
The essays in Part III all revolve around questions of the shape of sf studies, which, as Mark Bould suggests in the introduction, was irrevocably changed with the publication of Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979). Iris Luppa’s first essay concerns the negative reception of sf films in the Weimar Republic, especially of Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond (American title By Rocket to the Moon, 1929), which was accused of betraying its utopian imagination and condemned for its presumed sentimentality. Such reception of cinematic narratives was, for Luppa, emblematic of the rift between the Weimar intellectuals and the working class that eventually had catastrophic political results. Rob Latham’s “The Urban Question in New Wave SF” charts the almost simultaneous emergence of Marxist geography, represented by David Harvey and Manuel Castells, and New Wave visions of futuristic cities. Using Thomas Disch’s 334 (1972) as a text exemplary of the parallel lines of thinking about urban spaces, Latham suggests that a dialogue could have very fruitfully occurred between the two fields—a dialogue never ventured into by Marxist critics.
As I indicated earlier, Red Planets is an exceptionally even and superior collection, but my personal favorite in it is Darren Jorgensen’s tour de force “Towards a Revolutionary Science Fiction: Althusser’s Critique of Historicity.” Taking the canonization of Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin and the 1970s crowning of Suvin and Jameson as chief theorists of sf as its departure point, Jorgensen argues that the vectors of thinking about science fiction inscribed in and by the above four names are not the only ones possible, even within the Marxist framework. Louis Althusser’s scientific Marxism allows for reading sf not as an expression of its own environments of production but also as blueprints for revolutionary consciousness. Jorgensen writes:
It is possible then to think about SF not in the bourgeois terms of the novel, but as an experimental science. The object of study is not the ideological reproduction of SF, but a philosophical self-reflection upon these conditions of ideological reproduction. To read is to discover the absolute difference a novel has from its own ideological form, to the degree that it overcomes its own implication in bourgeois structures of generic reproduction.... Althusser looks to the absolute difference that escapes historical repetition, that creates the consciousness that is of itself revolutionary. SF is, as a genre, a structure of ideological reproduction, but it also fosters a critical and revolutionary consciousness of absolute difference. (208-209)
This belief—that science fiction is not just entertaining stories—is probably close to the hearts and minds of many readers and critics, even if they do not pursue any Leftist agenda. Articulating it against the background of Althusser’s thought gives this intuition much more power. The last essay in the collection, Andrew Milner’s “Utopia and Science Fiction Revisited,” is a very interesting attempt at reading the history of science fiction from the perspective of Raymond Williams’s cultural materialism. Milner interrogates and critiques Suvin’s and Jameson’s understanding of the relations between sf and utopia, pointing to Williams’s “selective tradition” and “structure of feeling” as extremely useful in conceptualizing what sf has been (213).
The volume is rounded out by China Miéville’s afterword, “Cognition as Ideology: A Dialectic of SF Theory.” In it, Miéville again takes Suvin’s theory to task, especially its aggressive rejection of fantasy as a literature worthy of study. At the very last come appendices, including a briefly annotated reading list of “Left SF” (249), a list of recommended films, and a list of critical and theoretical works, further subdivided into Marxist theory and “other.”
I have used quite a few superlatives in these several paragraphs while briefly describing the contents of the volume, but Red Planets would pass any quality test with flying colors—both as a whole and thanks to each single contribution. The exceptionally high quality of research and style are not the only virtues of Red Planets—there are at least two, and most certainly more, highlights of Bould and Miéville’s offering.
The first is the breadth of the (left)field covered in the essays—some are close readings of individual literary or cinematic works while others offer more general or even philosophical perspectives on the intersections of sf theory and Marxism. The theoretical underpinning preserves similar plurality. Hovering over the volume is what Mark Bould calls “the Suvin event” (18), which is invoked equally frequently as a paradigm-setting publication and as a position of contention to be deconstructed and revised. This latter revisionary strand, running through a number of the contributions, seems particularly valuable, amply demonstrating that the Marxist critique of sf is in itself a varied field rich in discussions and oppositions.
The other reason for my enthusiastic evaluation is its didactic potential. That a collection so varied is potentially very useful thanks to its scope both in research and instruction is fairly obvious, but I cannot help thinking that Red Planets is a brilliant introduction and an eye-opener for a whole generation of scholars. Given the accessibility of most of the essays, this includes less theoretically-minded readers from Eastern and Central Europe, but also perhaps scholars from other parts of the world. Historical vicissitudes and the resultant mindsets may have conditioned many of them to distrust every occurrence of the adjective “Marxist,” even where it describes a critical theory, but Bould and Miéville’s collection brilliantly shows it to be an intellectually valid and stimulating approach that not only resonates with some political sympathies but also opens up fascinating new ways of reading what, for many, especially in certain geographical or cultural territories, may still be stories of escapist wonder.
—Paweł Frelik, Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, Lublin, Poland
Carl Freedman, ed. Conversations with Samuel R. Delany. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2009. ix + 214 pp. $50 hc; $22 pbk.
Samuel R. Delany. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Rev. ed. Intro. Mathew Cheney. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2009. ix +254 pp. $27.95 pbk.
Samuel R. Delany is a key figure in science fiction and fantasy. As an sf writer, he has written some of the most significant novels of the 1960s (Babel-17 , The Einstein Intersection , and Nova ), the 1970s (Dhalgren  and Trouble on Triton ), and the 1980s (Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand  and the Nevèrÿon tetralogy [1979-1987]). As an sf theorist, he has produced some of the most perceptive analyses of the genre itself with The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (1977), Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (1978), and The Straights of Messina (1990). As an essayist/memoirist, he has given us Heavenly Breakfast: An Essay on the Winter of Love (1979), The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965 (1988), and Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999). As a pure stylist, Delany has given us magnificent sentences and beautiful titles as proof of his fertile imagination. As a sign of respect in the academic and literary world, Delany has been selected as a 2010 National Book Award judge. His writing, theorizing, and reflecting on cultural history are further magnified by his own race and sexuality. All of his writings are infused by his experience as a gay black man. This point is emphasized by the many interviews he has granted, some of which have been collected by Delany himself in Silent Interviews: on Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics (1994). Delany prefers to give written interviews because this form allows him the space and time to think deeply and respond fully with exactness and candor in a dialectic exchange of ideas. Delany states that, “if we want to know what the writer thinks and feels, then a written interview may serve more forcefully, faithfully, and accurately” (Silent Interviews 13).
Framed in this manner, Carl Freedman’s Conversations with Samuel R. Delany (2009) is a significant contribution to the study of Delany and his works. The twelve collected interviews range between 1986 and 2007. Each concerns some aspect of Delany’s work in terms of sf and its criticism, as well as addressing topics as varied as North Pole exploration, the Stonewall riots, and the Moon landing. Freedman chooses longer interviews over shorter ones in most cases and more recent and lesser-known interviews. Freedman makes a shrewd choice to feature more recent interviews since many of them delve into Delany’s formative years as a writer and critic. Delany has become a superlative critic of his own work with age, though he certainly was no slouch in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Each of these interviews reveals a little more of this gifted man.
Although the interviews offer a wealth of material, I want to mention just a few distinctive ideas from each. In the 1986 Joseph Beam interview, Delany discusses his time in a mental hospital, his homosexuality, and fragmentation as a means of political training. In the 1989 Lance Olsen interview Delany considers how alternative fiction “denature[s]” the artifice of mainstream fiction, the success of Dahlgren, and his love of the well-crafted sentence (20). The 1998 Charles H. Rowell interview concerns Delany’s legendary racial encounters with John W. Campbell, Jr. and Isaac Asimov, in addition to the influence of James Baldwin’s 1962 novel Another Country, with its exploration of race, sex, art, and creation, on Delany’s sense of identity politics. In the 2000 interview with Eric Lorberer and Rudi Dornemann, Delany tells how poetry provides a sense of renewal for him and how he adapted “she” as a pronoun of choice to combat sexism. In the 2001 Matrix Magazine interview, Delany says that he finds the terms postmodernism and speculative fiction largely devoid of meaning, and that much literary criticism begins with a hunch later backed by historical evidence. In the 2001 Jayme Lynn Blaschke interview, Delany says he feels lucky to see a revival of interest in his work and explains how his time in academia has naturally shifted much of his creative focus to critical writing.
In the 2003 interview with Adam Roberts, Delany articulates his sense of human values in terms of race, forgotten history, and information overload, and points out that there are still pockets of America that do not believe blacks are even human. The 2004 T.K. Enright interview features Delany’s description of jealousy and various pleasures across shifting boundaries in his pornographic novels The Mad Man (1994) and Hogg (1995). In the 2005 interview with Erin Cusak he calls for the same respect to be granted to pornography and comix that the literary genres receive. Among other topics, the 2006 Josh Lukin interview discusses Delany’s decision to move into academia because of the shrinking publishing industry and how theory has influenced his work. Delany ponders his time at Temple University and how it shapes his latest novel Dark Reflections (2007) in the 2007 Steven G. Fullwood interview. Finally, the undercurrent of camaraderie between Delany and Carl Freedman is clear in the final interview as the two men converse on a variety of subjects: gay men in classic literature, Delany’s own gay characters, the impact of television on America, the lesser impact of computing, and how the internet has broken down genre boundaries, among many other things.
Freedman’s collection functions as a worthy companion piece to Delany’s own Silent Interviews. The strongest asset of this collection is the wide range of topics covered while the weakest element is the (thankfully brief) Fullwood interview. The space would have been better filled with the inclusion of Mark Dery’s 1993 South Atlantic Quarterly interview, in which Delany shapes some of the tenets of Afrofuturism.While the discussions of theory and sexuality in this volume are excellent, I would have liked more emphasis on race and racism. Nevertheless, Freedman’s Conversations is a significant contribution that shows Delany at his finest—unapologetically gay, black, and intelligent—as a creative and critical force.
Delany’s first work of nonfiction, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (hereafter JHJ), remains a benchmark in sf criticism thirty-three years after its initial publication in 1977. In the fourteen essays collected in the original volume, written between 1966 and 1976, Delany describes the language of sf as a revisionary reading process that produces innovative meanings unique to the genre, and he demonstrates his claim with analyses of Disch, LeGuin, Russ, and Zelazny, among others. Extensively revised and reissued in 2009, JHJ has become even stronger, containing twelve essays in ten chapters and two appendixes. Delany has cut the essays “Characters,” “On Pure Story-telling,” “Shadows,” and “Teaching SF” from the 2009 edition while making the original introductory essay “Letter to a Critic” the concluding appendix. He also adds two essays: the feminist piece “Letter to the Symposium on ‘Women In Science Fiction’” (1975) and the first appendix, “Midcentury: An Essay in Contextualization” (2003). This revised critical volume proves that Delany’s thinking is resilient and continues to be relevant. His ideas cannot be ignored because they have shaped the genre itself. Understanding science fiction comes down to understanding its language and how words are used to create alien environments. Grappling with Delany’s ideas in fiction and criticism still affords a true sense of enjoyment in a burgeoning field of inquiry. These two volumes are are indispensible to any sf scholar’s collection of critical work.
—Isiah Lavender, III, University of Central Arkansas
Philip K. Dick, Novelist of Ideas.
Eric Carl Link. Understanding Philip K. Dick. Understanding Contemporary American Literature. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 2010. xii + 179 pp. $39.95 hc.
This smart little volume is part of a series from South Carolina Press called Understanding Contemporary American Literature that, according to series editor Matthew Bruccoli, aims to offer “guides or companions for students as well as good nonacademic readers” (ix). Earlier sf-related volumes in the series have dealt with contemporary American science fiction (in two volumes, one on 1926-1970, the other on 1970 to the present), Ursula K. Le Guin, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut. This latest installment, Understanding Philip K. Dick, is a nicely produced, compact, durable volume that could be recommended both to students looking for a guide into Dick’s corpus, and to scholars seeking an initial overview of the biographical and critical issues that have informed study of Dick’s remarkable career.
Link’s survey of Dick’s life and works emphasizes his status as a novelist of ideas. The best chapter in the book is the long fourth chapter, “The Themes of Philip K. Dick.” The first three sections of the chapter all cover epistemological themes, particularly in relation to the figure of the android. In the fourth section, Link moves to ethical questions, emphasizing the figure of the repairman’s Sisyphean struggle against the metaphysical background of entropic decay, a discussion that flows seamlessly into the following section on the problem of evil at a metaphysical level. The final three sections move from politics and war to problems of media manipulation, drugs, and schizophrenia, with a short, slightly incongruous section on evolutionary theory sandwiched in. The entire chapter ranges smoothly over Dick’s corpus, drawing examples evenly and fruitfully from short stories and novels, early, middle, and late.
Link’s approach throughout the volume is to focus on the texts themselves. Social and historical background receive short shrift, and although Link takes due notice of Dick’s stormy life, biographical information is definitely subordinated to textual evidence. Link does draw carefully and appropriately upon Dick’s essays and comments in interviews about his fiction. But he does not indulge in psychological speculation about Dick’s lost twin sister, the failed marriages, or even the possibly pathological character of his 1974 visions that became the subject of so much of Dick’s writing from then until his death. Link takes entirely seriously the religious and metaphysical interpretations that Dick offers of the visions, and if there is any bias or imbalance at all in Link’s remarkably even-handed and lucid coverage of Dick’s writing across the entire stretch of his career, it is to be found in the absolutely straight-faced way he treats Dick’s religious and metaphysical preoccupations.
Along with the excellent chapter on Dick’s themes, Link gives a brief and efficient summary of Dick’s biography, an initial overview of Dick’s main subjects and his importance in the spectrum of American mid-twentieth-century culture, a short chapter on Dick’s stylistic development as a writer, and a final chapter offering slightly more extended readings of six Dick novels: The Man in the High Castle (1962), Martian Time Slip (1964), Now Wait For Last Year (1966), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974), and VALIS (1981). The novels are chosen to illustrate the range and development of Dick’s writing, and each discussion has a discrete focus that supplements the chapters on Dick’s themes and development. Finally, not the least of the volume’s features is a very well prepared selected and annotated bibliography.
Link avoids the main dangers that attend the formulaic character of series contributions such as this. He rarely indulges in mere plot summary, and the writing never becomes plodding or repetitious. This is a book that performs its task not just competently, but generously and at times elegantly.
—John Rieder, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa
Biographer at Sea.
William H. Patterson, Jr. Robert A. Heinlein in Dialogue with his Century: The Authorized Biography. Vol. 1. The Learning Curve (1907-1948). New York: Tor, 2010. 594 pp. $29.99 hc.
The authorized biographer’s advantages—including full access to surviving friends and private papers—are usually counterbalanced by the requirement that a commissioned portrait flatter. Early in this volume, William H. Patterson, editor and publisher of The Heinlein Journal and co-author of a loopy study of Stranger in a Strange Land (A Martian Named Smith, 2001), makes an effort to be balanced that is discontinued when Virginia Gerstenfield Heinlein, who authorized this biography, enters the story (on which, more below).
Heinlein’s life is told in doggedly linear fashion: this is a slow-moving, strictly chronological procession of often disconnected info-dumps, sometimes about RAH, sometimes about social, historical, and political contexts. Yet Patterson’s expository skills are not up to the task of organizing the complex background materials, let alone of conveying Heinlein’s paradoxical temperament, by turns bossy and fragile, libertine and domestic, solitary and sociable. The merest offhand praise of Heinlein by Damon Knight some forty years ago—“he makes the spirit and power of engineering come so vividly alive that I almost wish I had been better at math”—evokes Heinlein’s distinctive appeal more effectively than this ponderous tome (“One Sane Man: Robert A. Heinlein,” In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction [Chicago: Advent, 1967] 76-89).
Patterson is prone to puzzling assertions (sea-sickness might have “caused” RAH’s tuberculosis ) and snobbery: “It is a truism of literature that the prestige forms of one era grow out of the subliterary forms of a prior era, and Heinlein’s writing career spans the transformation of a subliterary pulp genre into a significant dialogue partner at the interface of science and public policy” (12). The progressive disintegration of meaning as this sentence runs its course is an unfortunate hallmark of his style; but the emphasis on prestige is just as troubling. In Patterson’s account, the watershed event of Heinlein’s writing life was the group of short stories he sold to the Saturday Evening Post in 1947: “he became a public figure when he pioneered science fiction into the prestige general-fiction magazines” (13). While Heinlein no doubt enjoyed accessing high-paying, high-circulation markets, his quest was hardly to lift the sf genre out of its pulp gutter into middlebrow complacency. As this biography shows, RAH lived on the edge, evincing little sympathy for the bourgeois values of subscribers to the Saturday Evening Post. Heinlein throughout his career kept to the provocative core ideas of his early sf, as shown by For Us, the Living (written in the late 1930s but unpublished until 2004), with its future world premised on sexual freedom, nudism, and radical economic and social reform.
Unlike the page-proofs I am working with, the published book includes an index that I have accessed online. The index will make this not-too-readable project, whose chapter titles often are mystifying (e.g., “Frying Pan and Fire”; “And the Next”; “Keeping On”), more usable. Patterson covers Heinlein’s childhood and (in far too much detail, four chapters on Annapolis alone) his schooling and naval career. There are accounts of RAH’s early marriages—a short-lived first marriage to Elinor Curry (1929-30) and a 16-year marriage to Leslyn MacDonald (1932-48)—as well as his bout with tuberculosis, Naval retirement on disability, political activities, and brief career as a silver-miner, an episode connected to the Kansas City Democratic political machine in which RAH’s father was active. Later chapters intertwine accounts of World War II with Heinlein’s burgeoning friendships and clashes with such figures as L. Ron Hubbard and John W. Campbell. The volume ends in 1948 with Heinlein’s marriage to Virginia Gerstenfield Heinlein. Patterson includes extensive quotation from correspondence in which the lovers address each other as Wuzzum and Ticky; Heinlein must be cringing in his grave.
There are scattered discoveries. RAH was a stammerer from early childhood, which explains his participation in high-school debating clubs and also his anxiety about giving speeches. His parents showed open favoritism for his older brother, Rex Ivor, who preceded Robert to Annapolis. (Perhaps this family dynamic partly inspired the portrait of the twins’ sibling rivalry in Time for the Stars .) What Rex achieved easily and with full parental support, including nomination to Annapolis, Robert always had to fight for fiercely on his own. Many of the events of Heinlein’s youth, including incidents in which questionable orders are resisted by requesting them in writing, reappear in Heinlein’s novels for teens: Space Cadet (1948) is especially full of echoes of RAH’s experiences at Annapolis and in the Navy. Partly because of this work’s rigidly chronological structure, the author seldom makes connections between Heinlein’s youth and his early fictional heroes, but the links will be clear enough to readers familiar with Heinlein’s novels.
Other interesting matters: Heinlein’s love of nudity began in childhood, when he would slip out of the house on summer evenings to “play Tarzan” (20). He modeled for life-drawing classes in his teens. Nude sunbathing was part of the regimen for treating his tuberculosis, and he and Leslyn belonged to several “Sunshine Clubs,” including one in Denver that may be recalled in The Door into Summer (1957). Another sidelight: E.E. “Doc” Smith was one inspiration for Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long. Smith located a reasonably priced car for the Heinleins that they purchased using Robert’s check for “Sixth Column” (1941) while visiting Smith’s family in Michigan; then they drove “Skylark IV” back to their home in Los Angeles (265).
Non sequiturs and eccentric commentary often mar even these pages of such intrinsic interest for researchers of sf’s early days. The only meeting of Heinlein and one of his idols, H.G. Wells—RAH asked Wells to sign his copy of When the Sleeper Wakes (1910 version)—is compared by Patterson to “Mozart hearing the young Beethoven” (267).
The portrayal of Leslyn MacDonald Heinlein—indeed, of Heinlein’s early sexual life in general—raises questions. Leslyn Heinlein nursed RAH through tuberculosis, coached his early writing, and encouraged his political ambitions; but like a lot of marriages, that of the Heinleins was tested to the breaking point by World War II. The one-sided portrayal of Leslyn as the villain seems unfair. Patterson’s main source on the breakup is Virginia Heinlein, RAH’s third wife, who has no kind words even for Leslyn’s culinary skills: “he praised her cooking a lot, although that seemed to me rather ordinary. Nothing special” (158, quoting Virginia Heinlein). Leslyn’s index entries (“affairs,” “alcoholic deterioration,” “badmouthing of Heinlein,” “bouts of rage,” etc.) speak volumes about the biographer’s special pleading for Virginia Heinlein’s version of this part of Heinlein’s story. (There are no entries for “affairs” under RAH’s name in the Index but to use the word “affair” itself is misleading, for all of RAH’s marriages were, by mutual agreement, open.)
Both Heinleins had a very difficult war. Robert’s request to be reinstated in the Navy was declined because a bureaucrat in Washington was convinced that “Heinlein was a communist” because of a letter he had published in 1935 in the progressive newspaper Hollywood Citizen-News (305). Always in precarious health, RAH endured several painful surgeries during this time. Leslyn’s health went downhill during her war work at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard; both Heinleins worked there in different divisions and both hated the city, which was certainly no paradise for sun-worshiping nudists. When Leslyn discovered that her brother-in-law had been shot and then burned alive in a Philippine prison after months of torture, her depression deepened further. Stress and grief surely had their part in wrecking the marriage, yet Leslyn bears all responsibility. Another index entry on Leslyn includes four references to “psychotic episodes”; yet going back to the pages, one finds passages that fail to document any such thing: “she just locked herself in an enraged frame of mind” (221), “the psychotic episodes went away” (350), “Leslyn was confined to bed in a state of mind that could only be called psychotic” (415), and she was showing “flashes of temper” (537 n24). Only in a grudging footnote does Patterson concede that in 1950 Leslyn joined Alcoholics Anonymous and that she remarried twice, dying in 1981. Virginia Gerstenfield was one of RAH’s assistants at the Naval Propulsion Lab where he worked as a civilian consultant, but the author is not forthcoming on the role that Robert’s growing affection for Ginny, twelve years younger than Leslyn, who was older than Robert, must have played in the breakup. To have included discussion of these matters would have provided some much needed balance, and would not necessarily have meant shifting “blame” to RAH or to Ginny either.
Despite a show of copious documentation, Patterson’s scholarship is haphazard. When his general assertions are supported by footnotes, going to the note itself typically discloses only the date and recipient of a letter, with no quotation of the passage on which the assertion is supposedly based. In this way, readers are given only a signpost to possible but unspecified evidence. This sleight-of-hand with notes would be troubling even if Patterson were otherwise steady; but for reasons ranging from his awkward writing to his excessive deference to the person who authorized this work, his account raises troubling questions. As in Patterson’s oblique discussion of RAH’s recurrent bouts of urethritis (a symptom usually caused by a sexually transmitted disease), one wishes for more clarity and less question-begging: “Leslyn noted that Robert was exercising his extramarital sex privileges within a year of their marriage—though it is hard to it is hard to imagine how he could have managed much bed-hopping between TB and bouts of urethritis” (162). Patterson reports that a later surgery for bladder cysts ruled out gonorrhea but he does not discuss chlamydia, a more common cause of non-specific urethritis and infertility in men. The matter would be of limited interest except that Heinlein’s urinary tract ailments (called prostatitis  as well as urethritis) might be related to his childlessness. A magazine article of the early 1950s describes the shipshape house that RAH designed for Ginny and himself in Colorado Springs. It was tiny, with every space multi-purposed except a small separate room referred to in the article as the nursery. It evidently was not by choice that they never started a family.
This volume, part 1 of a projected two-part life, ends in 1948 with Robert’s marriage to Ginny. From a startling opening page, in which the day of Heinlein’s death in 1988 is compared with global memories of 9/11, to Appendix A, an account of Heinleinian ancestors over the last three centuries reminiscent of biographies written 150 years ago, Patterson is diligent yet somehow not authoritative. One among this volume’s clutter of titles is “The Learning Curve.” Perhaps the phrase will apply to Patterson himself and volume two will be stronger.
—Carol McGuirk, SFS
Logging the Analogy, Fueling the Fiction.
Nicholas Ruddick. The Fire in the Stone: Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2009. xx + 265 pp. $35.00 hc.
In his great work of 1979, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction,Darko Suvin coined for his use, or at least appropriated in a special way, the word “novum.” Nicholas Ruddick is no Suvin, but still individual wordplay is one of his key tools as he writes about the fantastic literature that deals with prehistoric humankind. Prehistoric Fiction, or “pf” as he prefers to abbreviate it in the fanspeak that we sf readers love, posits a huge human cast prior to the invention of the technology of writing. Ruddick himself has a highly evolved vocabulary, however; and one of the key pieces of his diction comes from Charles Darwin, the individual who not only is the dominant figure in the history of ideas that gives us pf but also was no muted freshman writer with words. He was a fine writer. What resonates with meaning is the first substantive word in Darwin’s title The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Ruddick plays very well with the concept of descent—one generation descending from its ancestors, one genre of art linked to its artistic parents (pf out of sf sired by science and fantasy), along with the wonderful irony in the term when the actual “rising” or ascending set of characteristics is seen. Humankind is bipedal and better able to stand up, perhaps, than any of the species earlier in the descent. But a part of the narrative is that somehow humankind has fallen literally in this descent. Ruddick’s title phrase, also, resonates since nearly all the fiction writers he treats, as well as all of the paleoanthropologists who feed ideas to the storytellers, agree that the one central story in the progress of humankind as we have inherited that story is the classic Prometheus/phoenix story about the discovery of fire. This is not just fire as it is given to us in lightning or volcano eruptions or forest fires, but rather it is the technology of the flint and iron pyrite whereby fire can be generated at will. In our time, of course, we have learned how to take any raw and cold stuff and make it come alive with heat and energy; we can convert matter into energy. The wordplay that drives Ruddick and his readers is exactly what drives any writing—even this review—raw material can come alive with what is buried within it. The stones can speak.
Wordplay grows into larger rhetoric in Ruddick also. The continuing analogy between his bibliographic and theoretic or genre-laden subject matter and his method of developing his argument is wonderful. Deep time (only now exactly 150 years since Darwin but a very deep century and a half) and digging down into the strata or layers are the figures he uses. He is self-conscious and very good in his use of these analogies. Ruddick’s digging, in fact, uncovers and exhibits an impressive treasure trove of buried fiction. He classifies and arranges by time period since Darwin; and then in the second half of his book he goes back over his exhibits and arranges by “phylum” or type or, as we say in literary study, by theme. In his chronological arrangement up to the midpoint of his book, Ruddick also is evaluative. Clearly, a part of the loving care of specimens for Ruddick is to tell his reader which were the more successful stories in this literature. He identifies and describes the best writer of pf from the earliest period, about the time of the American Civil War, then the same for the fin-de-siècle period, for the period just prior to 1914, for the period between the world wars (this was a period when, for Ruddick, there was not much good pf to be found), then finally for the period of contemporary pf. Strangely appropriate in this running analogy to the paleoanthropology itself is the fact that much of the best pf is French, just as so many hominid artifacts and fossils have been uncovered in France. Ruddick ends his book with what he calls a “coda” on Stephen Baxter’s Evolution: A Novel (2002). I fail to see how the analogy to music fits with the other analogies, and I suppose one can overdo figurative language. But Ruddick’s most important evaluative judgement of a successful adaptation in the subgenre of pf comes earlier and has to do with the set of novels by Jean M. Auel, dating from The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980). Other finds of his are arranged wonderfully, mostly in the earlier chronological narrative about the literature and its “periods.” J.H. Rosny, who died in 1940 but who produced his best books prior to 1914, seems to me the best discovery Ruddick has unearthed, though Rosny’s contemporary Edmond Harancourt is a wonderful find as well. The fact that neither the Harancourt novel, Daah, le premier homme (1914) nor most of Rosny’s novels are available in English translation makes the Ruddick discovery and evaluation even more important. William Golding with his masterpiece The Inheritors (1955) and Jack London with his tale Before Adam (1907), however, are declared extremely successful and well-adapted to succeed as pf. The layers of discovery for Ruddick yield a rich and “tangled bank” of literature, to use Darwin’s well-known image from the final paragraph of On the Origin of the Species (1859), and I love the analogy because it reminds me so appropriately of my basement full of books.
But Ruddick’s book is much more than a bibliography of Prehistoric Fiction. This had already been published by Marc Angenot and Nadia Khouri in the March 1981 issue of SFS (“An International Bibliography of Prehistoric Fiction”), and Ruddick does much more than bring it up to the present with Baxter and others. To continue his development by analogy, which I find such a fine rhetorical move in this book, just as evolutionary biology had to have a theory, a methodology, in order to become a science, so this generic study of pf needs a poetics. Darwin’s 1859 book introduced the theory of natural selection. A book hardly noticed in sf criticism, Joseph Carroll’s Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature and Literature ( 2004), provides Ruddick with his theory here; and, much to his credit, he opens this important new study in the important Wesleyan series with a clear and penetrating analysis of Carroll and of literary theory. This “poetics,” as Ruddick properly labels it, is a mix of materialist monism or unity, as in the work of Ernst Haeckel, who was the most energetic propagandist for a Darwinian sense of deterministic movement in history, and of Johnsonian practical criticism. I am sure Samuel Johnson would have been horrified if he could have seen how Darwinian his own rationale actually was for the success of Shakespeare, a practical rationale based on the ability to adapt to what the audiences want (see his Preface to Shakespeare ), because there is always a respect for teleology in Johnson. But finally I think there is a teleology in Darwin as well that nicely flows over into the thought of Joseph Carroll and hence to Ruddick. I do not believe that Ruddick uses the familiar Renaissance figure of speech “the book of nature,” but by implication, as I say above, a rich library of nature with piles and piles and layers upon layers of books and genres is imaged in what Ruddick writes. Such layers permit and, indeed, require the forensic detective work of digging them up; and they also may posit some “invisible hand” that placed them there to be dug up. The fire in the stone is there for a reason—maybe just to make good books. Finally, I think this is a very good book, with rich meanings; and it takes its place well in this growing series of books from Wesleyan University Press on early science fiction
—Donald M. Hassler, Kent State University
To the Mannerisms Born.
Brian Stableford. Gothic Grotesques: Essays on Fantastic Literature. Holicong, PA: Borgo P, 2009. 222 pp. $19.99 pbk.
──────. Jaunting on the Scoriac Tempests and Other Essays on Fantastic Literature. Holicong, PA: Borgo, 2009. 222 pp. $19.99 pbk.
──────. News of the Black Feast and Other Random Reviews. Holicong, PA: Borgo P, 2009. 201 pp. $19.99 pbk.
Is anybody reading this? In his introduction to News of the Black Feast, Brian Stableford claims that nobody reads reviews, which gives him the freedom to write pieces that are “far more exemplary of my natural rhetorical style” (11). I will come to what that natural rhetorical style might be shortly. In that same introduction, he twice says that he only writes reviews in order to get free copies of books. Taken together, this suggests an attitude towards reviewing that is, shall we say, cavalier, an impression more than borne out in these collections of Stableford’s reviews.
The reviews are witty, yes, but also orotund, mannered, often more show than substance. When he says “I rarely found so little of interest in an item under review as to persuade me to express my views in a colorless tone of dismal banality” (11), one is left wondering if he ever found so much of interest as to persuade him to talk simply and seriously about the work. It seems not, for we learn far more from these reviews about Stableford’s predilections (he describes the reviews as “adventures in perversity” ) and his natural style than we do about the books in question. And if his baroque phrasing and oblique references can make it hard to determine what is actually going on in a lot of these reviews, it is not helped by the fact that all three of these volumes share a total lack of copy-editing and proof-reading. In News of the Black Feast (far and away the worst offender), not a page goes by in which phrases are not repeated or omitted, homophones scattered with gay abandon, or sentences broken and words misplaced. This adventure in perversity is all too often an adventure in how perversely the English language can be treated.
The perversity also relates to subject matter, of course. Stableford has long had an interest in decadence, demonstrated by the way he returns obsessively to the topic throughout these three books. He writes knowledgeably about the gothic literature of the late romantic era, particularly about the long-forgotten science fictions of, for instance, Humphry Davy and Robert Hunt. He writes enthusiastically about the late-nineteenth-century decadent movement exemplified by writers such as M.P. Shiel and Vernon Lee in Britain and by Charles Baudelaire and Theophile Gautier in France. (He writes so enthusiastically about the French decadents in all three of the books under review that the only surprise is that he never devotes an essay solely to their work.) And he writes surprisingly about the modern Goth movement and about death metal music. In all of these, it seems to be the outré that attracts him, writing that is overly emphatic, that is lush, that is too full of exaggerated descriptions and excessive morbidity. The barely ironic use of a line from Shiel, Jaunting on the Scoriac Tempests, as the title for one of these collections, as well as the Gothic tenor of his other two titles, is indicative of his literary preferences and inclinations.
Yet for all his devotion to the decadent, he does not tell us quite as much about this literature as might at first appear. Half of the essays in Jaunting on the Scoriac Tempests, a good two-thirds of the reviews in News of the Black Feast, and not quite half of the essays in Gothic Grotesques are devoted to variations on the gothic, and yet the same small circle of American, British, and, particularly, French writers is referred to again and again. I lost track of the number of times Poe’s description of the gloomy residence of C. Auguste Dupin is compared to the even more gloomy residence of M.P. Shiel’s Prince Zaleski; or how often we are told that Sherlock Holmes was clearly decadent in his earliest incarnations but that Conan Doyle backed away from this aspect of the character as his fame grew. Whole paragraphs are repeated unchanged in other essays (though it is not always clear in what sequence the essays were written). Stableford acknowledges the repetitions in his introductions, but says they could not be excised without damage to the structure of the essays; a judgment from which, I must say, I beg to differ. But then, these do seem to be collections culled from Stableford’s computer with the least possible editorial input.
The arrangement is that News of the Black Feast contains reviews from a variety of sources, so that long and thoughtful reviews from The New York Review of Science Fiction rub shoulders with capsule reviews from the Goth music fanzines Screem and Bats and Red Velvet, interspersed with contributions to a volume on novels about Hollywood that never saw the light of day. Gothic Grotesques gathers general essays on such topics as “Horror in Science Fiction,” “The Gothic Lifestyle from Byron to Buffy” (he spends almost as much time writing admiringly about the decadent lifestyle as he does writing about decadent literature), and sf stories about the last man on Earth. It also contains two curious essays in which he writes about his own novels in the third person, a technique that seems to miss out on both the personal revelations of an author talking about his own interests and methods, and the critical analysis that might come from a genuinely disinterested approach. Finally, Jaunting on the Scoriac Tempests brings together pieces on individual authors, though again this results in some curious juxtapositions, overviews of the work of Dean Koontz and Terry Pratchett together with extended analysis of individual novels by M.P. Shiel and Bulwer- Lytton.
Not surprisingly, the more interesting work is to be found in these latter two collections (which also, perhaps not coincidentally, pay rather closer attention to such matters as spelling and punctuation). It is really as an historian of science fiction that Stableford shines, and the several pieces that fulfill that role here are the ones that catch the eye. Gothic Grotesques, for instance, reprints his “Science Fiction Before the Genre” from The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003), an essay that is full of dogmatic and contentious statements (his insistence that Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis was written c.1617, for instance, does not conform with any of the very varied arguments for the date of composition that I am aware of) but which is nevertheless a valuable and wide-ranging account of the early history of the genre. Even more valuable are two of the essays gathered in Jaunting on the Scoriac Tempests, “Humphry Davy’s Dream” from The New York Review of Science Fiction and “Resisting Panthea’s Siren Song: Robert Hunt and the Poetry of Science” from Foundation. Davy and Hunt were both members of the scientific community of the early nineteenth century and both, typical of the romantic age in which they lived, combined metaphysical ideas with the scientific rationalism they practiced. The metaphysics came out in curious fictions that occupy a position somewhere between gothic and science fiction. Indeed, it was Hunt who inspired William Wilson to coin the term “science fiction” in his A Little Earnest Book upon a Great Old Subject (1851), so it could be argued that it is a pivotal work in the history of our genre. Such rescuings of early works from literary oblivion are perhaps among the best things that Stableford has done.
In his introduction to Jaunting on the Scoriac Tempests, Stableford describes the essay on Hunt as “the result of one of the short bursts of scholarly enthusiasm to which I sometimes fall prey” (9), in which case one could wish that such bursts of enthusiasm had been rather more sustained, because scholarship of this class is always welcome. But he goes on to complain that he no longer has access to the academic libraries he needed for his research, “so this will presumably be the last authentic academic article I will be able to write” (10). The force of this, however, is mitigated by the fact that his introductions are full of complaints, some serious such as this, most far more trivial but often explored at great length. Editors who have taken offence, or failed to understand his sense of humor, failures of communication, pieces that never saw the light of day because the publication for which they were intended did not appear, or pieces that did appear but were rewarded with a derisory rate of pay: nothing ever seems to be right. This morose, doom-laden approach to life seems to inform not just his taste in literature but also the way he writes about it. Rarely do you find collections of criticism so suffused with the personality of the critic as these three books. But this attitude, combined with Stableford’s cavalier approach to his role as critic, means that these three books do not add up to the sum of their parts. More careful selection and editing would have resulted in shorter works, but ones that were on the whole more valuable.
—Paul Kincaid, Independent Scholar (Folkestone, Kent, UK)
Well Worth Watching.
Sara J. Van Ness. Watchmen as Literature: A Critical Study of the Graphic Novel. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. viii+ 212 pp. $35.00 pbk.
This little book does several useful things neatly.
For one, Van Ness’s survey of initial responses to Watchmen (1986-87) illustrates the unfortunate general critical queasiness about taking a graphic novel seriously. As sf readers, we are familiar with the attitude that sf is necessarily sub-literary. If, therefore, some new work feels like literature—if it has the power both to engage us and to enrich our response to experience, then it cannot be sf. The genre of comics gets even less respect, so the first mentions of Watchmen in 1986 often show embarrassment about paying attention to a comic at all, let alone finding anything worth recommending to someone else. True, Art Spigelman’s Maus (book publication in 1986 and 1991) had demonstrated that comics could deal with serious issues. The Holocaust was such a weighty subject, however, that any work involving it obviously claimed some attention; moreover, Maus had appeared in black and white installments printed in avant-garde periodicals over a decade. Watchmen, on the other hand, looked like a typical commercial newsstand comic: monthly installments, all in color, focused on the exploits of superheroes (costumed crime fighters actually, for the most part, but they looked like regular comic-book figures). All this considered, it is remarkable that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s work captured as much attention and recognition as it did, forcing at least some readers to see that something important was happening and that we should make the effort to appreciate it better by stretching our analytical skills.
The second thing that makes this book valuable is its demonstration of how to appreciate a comics story. We readers are used to thinking in terms of words, so we tend to imagine that illustrations are mere decorations. Perhaps that is part of why some readers are uneasy about approaching a story in which the words interact with and sometimes are subordinate to visual images and design.Van Ness dutifully refers to basic discussions in Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art (1985) and to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993), especially to McCloud’s image of a comic’s art and text engaging in a dance, so that readers’ attention is sometimes caught by one aspect, sometimes by the other, sometimes by how both interact. As a matter of fact, as the sample pages printed in Absolute Watchmen (the recent deluxe edition, 2005) demonstrate, Alan Moore tends to write unusually detailed scripts with a plethora of suggestions about layout, lettering, angles of vision, etc. Moore left it up to the artist, however, to put the story on the page, and Dave Gibbons responded brilliantly. Van Ness’s analysis of how words and art dance together in specific panels and sequences demonstrates how we can enrich our enjoyment of a comic by looking while reading.
Van Ness’s application of literary criticism to different aspects of the story sometimes works well, sometimes less so. Trying to locate a “narrator” within the cast of characters seems to me unnecessary, since no one is omniscient enough to fill that role; in fact, one of Watchmen’s points seems to be that no one, not even the smartest man on Earth, can know everything. On the other hand, her chapter discussing how different characters only partially fit the role set up in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) is illuminating.
As the bibliography shows, Watchmen is beginning to gather a body of critical attention (another recent and excellent essay is Bryan D. Dietrich’s “The Human Stain: Chaos and the Rage for Order in Watchmen,” in Extrapolation 50.1 : 120-44). On the other hand, the book’s last chapter includes a rather disheartening survey of responses to the movie version of Watchmen. Besides the well-considered response that it was a mistake to simply transpose the comic’s visuals to the screen, since the two kinds of storytelling are so different, some reviewers objected to the very idea of making a film from a comic story—how presumptuous!
Sigh. Back in the 1990s, when I was designing a course on graphic fiction, I had to make sure other colleges in the area would accept it as a transferable elective. I remember a conversation with one department chair, feeling the temperature over the phone line plummet as he realized I was talking about comics, as he groped for words: “Ah, yes, ah, that sounds like ... fun.” Perhaps Watchmen is helping to convince some people that “fun” and “literature” are not mutually exclusive. It is good that we readers of SFS already know that, right?
—Joe Sanders, Shadetree Scholar
Rejuvenating the Old Storyteller.
Jules Verne. Amazing Journeys: Five Visionary Classics. Trans. and ed. Frederick Paul Walter. New York: SUNY P, 2010. vii + 670 pp. $24.95 pbk.
Arthur C. Clarke once remarked that Jules Verne was “one of the greatest storytellers of all time” but added that he was also “one of the most widely distorted, censored, and mistranslated authors of all time” (William Butcher, Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography [New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 2006], xv-xvii). From the pioneering work of the late Walter James Miller in the 1960-70s to my own modest contributions more recently, Verne scholars have made good progress in rehabilitating Verne’s literary reputation over the past few decades. There has been an exponential increase in the number of academic studies of Verne’s oeuvre, many of which have appeared in the pages of SFS. And, since 1965, more than three dozen first-time or improved English translations of his novels have been published (as per the bibliography available in Verniana, an online journal devoted to the legendary author, at <http://jv.gilead.org.il/studies/volumes/ 01/HTML/Art Biblio.html>).
Frederick Paul Walter’s omnibus collection of new Verne translations called Amazing Journeys is the latest and one of the best examples of this anglophone Vernian “renaissance.” It offers (at a surprisingly affordable price) very good English-language versions of no fewer than five of Verne’s most popular works: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), Circling the Moon (1870), 20,000 Leagues under the Seas (1869), and Around the World in 80 Days (1873). In his brief but perceptive introduction—titled “Science and Showbiz” and to which I will return in a moment—Walter outlines his two-fold goals: he wants his “reader-friendly” translations of Verne to be “accurate ... complete down to the smallest substantive detail” but also to be “communicative ... to convey [Verne’s] humor, theatricality, and scientific excitement” (10).
In comparing these translations against Verne’s French versions, I can affirm that the first of these two goals—completeness—has been achieved to an admirable degree. Although, like most reprints of Verne, this edition does not reproduce all the wonderful illustrations that graced his original in-octavo volumes, the translator is very scrupulous about including the entirety of Verne’s text. He even reproduces the various “meta” components such as Verne’s many editorial footnotes (some, explaining US customs and weights and measures, have been moved to endnotes) as well as the chapter headings in the table-of-contents pages that originally accompanied most of these novels. Walter’s English renderings adhere to Verne’s original paragraphing; he does not add episodes or fabricate descriptions of his own, as one frequently discovers in some of the poorer Verne translations of these novels. And, as he explains in his extensive “Textual Notes” at the end of the book, he has put considerable effort into making sure that his versions are both accurate and lucid:
I’ve used the Livre de Poche red-cover reissues as working editions, but since no editions seem entirely free of typos and production slips, I’ve double-checked the LdP reprints against the many available online texts as well as early Hetzel and Hachette editions.... Where the original French texts refer to people, places, things, or concepts that may be obscure to a 21st century American, I’ve sometimes attached a footnote or incorporated a quick gloss in the text proper. My footnotes are labeled Translator’s note. All others are from the French editions. (657)
The second of his goals—“communicativeness”—proves to be somewhat more complicated. To convey, in translation, the intricacies and effects of an author’s narrative style is a real challenge for any translator. In my opinion, Walter’s bold new translations of Verne achieve this goal better than most. But some purists might argue that he too often crosses the line between faithfulness and creativity. For example, the very title of the omnibus is Amazing Journeys—referring, one assumes, to Verne’s own collection title Voyages Extraordinaires. But “amazing” (suggesting the reader/observer’s reaction to something) is not really the same thing as “extraordinary” (an attribute of the thing itself). And, although nicely descriptive, Circling the Moon does not precisely reproduce Verne’s original title Autour de la lune [Around the Moon]. Further, consider some of the following passages in the novels themselves.
In chapter 8 of Journey to the Center of the Earth, Professor Lidenbrock forces his nephew Axel to ascend a tall church steeple in Copenhagen in order to cure him of his fear of heights and to prepare him for their underground explorations. He tells him: “Il faut prendre des leçons d’abîme!” [We must take abyss lessons! (trans. Malleson) or You need to take lessons in precipices! (trans. Butcher)], which is rendered here as “You need to get an education in depth!” (38; emphasis in original). The clever phrase “education in depth” does not transcribe exactly what Verne wrote; it does, however, denote the same idea and—important for Walter—communicate the same tongue-in-cheek humor and wordplay that the author often indulges in throughout this novel.
Chapter 22 of part I of 20,000 Leagues under the Seas (notice how Walter includes the final “s” on Seas, an often overlooked detail but an accurate transcription of Verne’s original title) features an episode in which Papuan savages attack the Nautilus and are repulsed by an electrified companionway. Verne’s original text says: “Mais le premier de ces indigènes qui mit la main sur la rampe de l’escalier, rejeté en arrière par je ne sais quelle force invisible, s’enfuit, poussant des cris affreux et faisant des gambades exorbitantes” [But the first of these natives to put his hand on the railing of the companionway was thrown back by some invisible force, and ran off shouting and jumping about wildly (trans. Bonner)]. Walter’s translation says: “But when the first islander laid hands on the companionway railing, he was flung backward by some invisible force, Lord knows what! He ran off, shrieking in terror and wildly prancing around” (413). Colorful expressions such as “flung back,” “Lord knows what!,” “shrieking in terror,” and “wildly prancing about” certainly serve to enliven the scene for the anglophone reader—but one might also argue that they push the envelope of what is an acceptable level of translator embroidery.
Finally, at the end of chapter 2 in Around the World in 80 Days, Passepartout has just made the acquaintance of his new employer Phileas Fogg. Unaware that they will soon depart on an adventure-filled race around the globe, he is congratulating himself on being hired by such a staid and predictable gentleman: “‘Cela me va! voilà mon affaire! Nous nous entendons parfaitement. Mr. Fogg et moi! Un homme casanier et régulier! Une véritable mécanique! Eh bien, je ne suis pas fâché de servir un mécanique!’” [This is just what I wanted! Ah, we shall get on together, Mr. Fogg and I! What a domestic and regular gentleman! A real machine; well, I don’t mind serving a machine (trans. Towles) or This suits me! This is the perfect place for me! Mr. Fogg and I will understand each other perfectly. A homebody, and so methodical! A genuine automaton! Well, I am not sorry to serve an automaton! (trans. White)]. Walter’s rendering of this passage is as follows: “It’s a perfect fit! It’s right down my alley! We’ll get along famously, Mr. Fogg and I! He’s a homebody, an orderly man! A real piece of machinery! Well, it won’t pain me to have a domestic appliance for a master!” (547). The use of the American colloquialism “right down my alley” by a Victorian-period character of French background may seem to some readers a bit anachronistic or culturally suspect. And, although I personally find it hilarious, some might also view Phileas Fogg’s transformation from a “machine” to a “domestic appliance” to be a clear case of excessive translator license.
Such attempts by Walter to spice up Verne’s prose do not necessarily constitute a betrayal of what Verne originally wrote. Literal translations are often worse than less literal ones: they are too “accurate” and not sufficiently “communicative.” Consider, for instance, the following examples from chapter 21 of From the Earth to the Moon. In this episode, the plot focuses on a duel to the death agreed to by the main protagonists Barbicane and Nicholl, forcing Michel Ardan to intervene in order to prevent this tragedy from happening. The chapter is titled “Comment un Français arrange une affaire” [How a Frenchman Settles a Matter]. The standard English translation for this chapter is “How a Frenchman Manages an Affair,” a literal rendering whose stylistic clunkiness is exceeded only by its confusing ambiguity. Walter’s version—both clearer and snappier—is “How a Frenchman Deals with a Duel.” At one point in this same chapter, Barbicane’s Gun Club colleague J.T. Maston, worried about his friend and fearing the worst, laments: “‘Il faut que tout soit fini,’ dit Maston découragé. ‘Un homme comme Barbicane n’a pas rusé avec son ennemi, ni tendu de piège, ni pratiqué de manoeuvre! Il est trop franc, trop courageux.’” The traditional and literal translation of this passage is “‘It must be all over,’ said Maston, discouraged. ‘A man like Barbicane would not dodge with his enemy, or ensnare him, would not even manoeuvre! He is too open, too brave’” (trans. Lewis). Compare this stilted rendering with Walter’s more supple and expressive version: “‘It must be over and done with,’ Maston said despondently. ‘A man like Barbicane wouldn’t trick his enemy, or lay a trap for him, or even use any strategies! He’s too direct, too courageous’” (199). It seems obvious which of the two versions “communicates” better.
Amazing Journeys is explicitly designed and written for the American market: “My translations are intended for the U.S. public” (657). In his introduction, Walter not only criticizes the poor traditional British translations of Verne but also openly proselytizes what he sees as an historically important US/Verne cultural connection:
These five classics are more than household words, they’re joyous parts of our American heritage, from their films and Saturday morning cartoons to their connections with the U.S.S. Nautilus, the NASA space missions, and our other technological triumphs. And the USA itself is crucial to these novels: two have major American sequences, one divides its time between America and outer space, and still another takes place entirely in the U.S. So this volume is targeted to the American public....
For American purchasers, then, the texts convert metric figures to feet, miles, pounds, and other U.S. equivalents. The Americana, too, will be convincing for U.S. readers, sparing you the eye-rolling moments that can occur with overseas translators....
Finally, these translations work to suggest Verne’s style and tone—the stealthy wit, irreverent prankishness, tale-spinning virtuosity, and showbiz flamboyance of one of literature’s leading humorists and satirists. This is a Verne almost completely unknown to Americans ... yet a Verne who has an uncannily American mindset. (10)
Walter may be exaggerating his case somewhat here, since neither America nor Americans figure anywhere in Journey to the Center of the Earth, they are foregrounded in only a relatively small part of Around the World in 80 Days, and—apart from the frigate Abraham Lincoln and Ned Land—there is little of either evident in 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas. But it is certainly true that Verne, at least during the first half of his writing career, greatly admired all things American (see the special issue of Revue Jules Verne 15  called “Jules Verne et les États-Unis” as well as my own article “Jules Verne’s America” in Extrapolation 48 [Spring 2007]: 35-43). As for Verne’s supposedly “American mindset” and his being one of literature’s “leading humorists,” I have my doubts, but I will leave that discussion to other Verne scholars.
One discovers a bit more (typically American?) puffery and hyperbole in one of the otherwise excellent introductions that precede each of the five novels. Walter claims that Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth is “the world’s first time-travel novel,” ignoring a host of pre-1864 time-travel stories including Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred (1771), Émile Souvestre’s The World as It Shall Be (1846), and even Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843). He also claims that Verne’s novel was the first to feature “monsters from the Age of Dinosaurs,” but this honor actually goes to Verne’s fellow Frenchman Pierre Boitard in his Paris Before Man (1861).
These few quibbles aside, Amazing Journeys: Five Visionary Classics remains a unique and impressive red, white, and blue-collar collection of refreshing translations of Verne that gives new life to some of the old storyteller’s most famous tales. It is recommended for all English-language aficionados of Jules Verne, American or not.
—Arthur B. Evans, SFS
Still Watching the Skies.
Bill Warren. Keep Watching the Skies: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties. The 21st Century Edition. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. xi + 1004 pp. $99.00 hc.
The Foreword to the new edition of Bill Warren’s encyclopedic Keep Watching the Skies tells the prospective reader much of what he or she needs to know about the volume. Written in a fan-like tone by noted sf writer Howard Waldrop, it places the volume under the heading of “nostalgia” and notes that the book “will tell you more than even you want to know about the SF films of the 1950s” (3; emphasis in original). For sf scholars, particularly those engaged with sf media, that sort of commentary might send up red flags—flags of challenge and warning. For many of us would surely be skeptical that a book seemingly intended for the old-fashioned coffee table (i.e., it is in a large format, too heavy to carry around, well illustrated, and luridly dust-jacketed) could tell us something new, and we would probably be cautious about wasting our time on what could easily prove puffery. Yet Waldrop’s later promise offers a better deal: that readers will “come away with a renewed understanding of why they [i.e., American sf films of the 1950s] were like they were and of what the people who made them—the truly good, the truly bad, the truly indifferent—could possibly have been thinking” (3; emphasis in original). It suggests, and fairly accurately, that one of the more important elements of this book remains its insights into the cultural—and to some extent the industrial—mindset behind the production of what has proved to be such a distinctive body of films.
I say “remains” here, as I describe a key virtue of Keep Watching the Skies, because it is, as a subtitle tells us, a new, “21st Century Edition” of a book that has been around for a long time. Originally issued as a two-volume edition, with volume I appearing in 1982 and volume II in 1986, Keep Watching the Skies offered a year-by-year run-down on sf movies that were released in the US (although not necessarily made in the US) between 1950 and, curiously, 1962, offering for each entry an extensive plot summary, some mention of technical aspects, anecdotes on the making of the film, and comparison to other works in the same or a similar vein. As Warren admits, those entries were—and generally still are—“intensely personal” (6), emphasizing his reactions to the films, the conditions under which he first saw them, at times even the people with whom he saw or discussed them. Yet those entries are always something more than just personal reactions to or reviews of the films. Often of article length, they are chronicles of and appreciations for the conditions under which these films were produced, including the strangely at-odds circumstances that often found critics most lambasting the films that seemed to resonate most powerfully with period audiences (as Warren notes, the highly popular The Blob  was met with “amazingly contemptuous reviews” ) .
What allows for that sense of cultural context is the very encyclopedic nature of the volume. In this new edition Warren does away with the year-by-year tour of the films in favor of a simple alphabetical organization of the film treatments. That shift allows readers to find a particular film far more easily, while it also disguises one of the book’s intriguing original rationales—that 1950s sf films, as a type, “didn’t end when the fifties actually did” (5), but only gradually petered out in the early 1960s as the realistic black-and white style of 1950s filmmaking disappeared, as a general cultural optimism gave way to cynicism, and as the conditions of both production and film consumption changed. What results is an amazingly complete tour of what he implicitly argues is a type, ranging from Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953) to X the Unknown (1957), including both the silly, such as 1961’s Nude on the Moon (“the first feature-length SF-oriented nudie” ) and the highly serious, such as On the Beach (1959), giving nearly equal treatment to the bad (Plan 9 from Outer Space ) and the classic (The Day the Earth Stood Still ) and drawing in films with only questionable links to the genre, such as the film noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955), the Broadway musical adaptation Li’l Abner (1959), and the political melodrama The Manchurian Candidate (1962). But in juxtaposing so many even weakly connected films, the book does, in its own eclectic and even fun way, build a sense of the cinematic genre’s richness and flexibility, while, film-by-film, gradually cataloguing the era’s haunting concerns.
Warren’s entry for Forbidden Planet (1956) is in many ways typical of the book’s general approach. While longer than most entries—twelve two-column pages—it offers an extensive plot summary, a detailed production history, including a useful discussion of the film’s various script treatments, a sampling of period reviews, comments from and about the key actors, and a detailed and accurate credit listing. These are details that begin to sketch the amount of research that went into producing the volume and that already hint at its usefulness. And while much of this material is carried over from the original version of Keep Watching the Skies, there are enough nods in a contemporary direction, in this case a run-down on Leslie Nielsen’s later career, the citing of some recent appearances of the film’s famous Robby the Robot (for example, in Looney Tunes: Back in Action ), references to various fan-run websites, and comments on the DVD of the film to justify Warren’s assertion that he has updated each entry. Yet despite the film’s centrality to many critical discussions of robotics, simulacra, and the sexual dynamics of the science-fiction film, readers will find no reference to such debates or to the fact that Forbidden Planet has become a key text for contemporary theorizing of the genre. For as Warren cautions, he does “not subscribe to or even buy at the newsstand ... any particular critical theory” (6), a point underscored with Forbidden Planet as he attributes the increased attention the film has received simply to its having attained “cult” status (304). I believe, however, that most readers of Keep Watching the Skies will still turn to this volume for the sort of contextual material that Warren has laboriously pulled together, and such articles remain a useful early stop for those beginning a more nuanced critical study of Forbidden Planet or preparing to teach it.
Other reasons for that usefulness can be seen in the volume’s treatment of another film, this one from late in its announced period, George Pal’s 1960 production of The Time Machine. Discussing it at nearly the length of Forbidden Planet, Warren uses the film as a jumping-off point for considering the difficulties of depicting time travel and for discussing the continuing appeal of such narratives. In explaining the former, he ranges across an array of special-effects techniques, including the use of time-lapse photography, stop-motion animation, light manipulation, rear-screen projection, matte paintings, and model work, which in this case, as he explains, also involved the use of oatmeal to stand in for lava flowing over a miniature city. Justified by the fact that The Time Machine won an Academy Award for special effects, this extended discussion manages to survey most of the special-effects techniques that were available to fantasy filmmakers in the pre-digital era and thus serves as a valuable primer for those who want to explore such matters. In dealing with the latter, Warren’s additions become especially important, for he is able to draw in a host of films that involve time travel, including the 2002 remake of The Time Machine and the recent revisioning of Star Trek (2009), that have been released since the original edition of Keep Watching the Skies. And in doing so, he not only suggests the continuing importance of this sf motif, but also provides readers with the sort of cross-references and filmography that invite—and aid—more extensive research and consideration.
In its new incarnation, Keep Watching the Skies remains an expensive proposition at $99. That price buys a wealth of information, however, and delivers far more than the sort of nostalgic trip that Howard Waldrop suggests. It offers a tour of the cinematic genre in its early flowering and great variety; it draws together much of the primary background information one needs to begin working on these films, including recent interviews with film principals; and it often suggests interesting paths for additional research. Moreover, thanks to the author’s obvious enthusiasm for his material and his light style, the book simply invites browsing, really a kind of prospecting for valuable nuggets, as in Warren’s discussion of the different scripts for Forbidden Planet, of Faulkner’s involvement in The Thing from Another World (1951), or in the fact that Them! (1954) was originally designed (but not shot) as a 3-D production. While hardly a work of criticism, Keep Watching the Skies is a useful updating of the original edition that captures much of the flavor of the many films it chronicles.
—J.P. Telotte, Georgia Institute of Technology
Stranger on the Loose.
D. Harlan Wilson. Technologized Desire: Selfhood and the Body in Postcapitalist Science Fiction. Hyattsville, MD: Guide Dog, 2009. 207 pp. $14.95 pbk.
First, a confession: I’ve been a dyed-in-the-wool fan of D. Harlan Wilson’s fiction for some time now, especially since publication of his rollicking 2007 “Farewell to Plaquedemia,” Dr. Identity. In this debut novel—as well as in such earlier short-story collections as The Kafka Effect (2001), Stranger on the Loose (2003), and Pseudo-City (2005)—Wilson explores alternate “bizarro” worlds at once hair-raising, humorous, and ultraviolent. These are, in other words, slightly-estranged versions of our own everyday reality. As he observed in a recent dogmatika interview: “Foremost among [my] themes are … the absurdity of (capitalist) daily life, and the schizophrenization of the human condition by media technologies.” Since these same themes dominate Wilson’s new (non-fiction) study, Technologized Desire: Selfhood and the Body in Postcapitalist Science Fiction (2009), one might justifiably expect similarly insightful (or, at least, entertaining) conclusions. And, to a certain extent, one’s expectations would be fulfilled.
Technologized Desire begins by positioning itself vis-à-vis one of the most significant works of sf criticism, Scott Bukatman’s Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (Duke UP, 1993). This makes perfect sense, for, like Bukatman, Wilson’s focus is the “terminal subject”—“an unmistakably doubled articulation in which we find both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity constructed at the computer station or television screen” (Bukatman 9). Also like Bukatman, Wilson sees science fiction as a genre especially well-suited to the enunciation, analysis, and critique of this new subjectivity. “For Bukatman,” he notes, sf “maps the coordinates of the postmodern subject as produced by virtual and cybernetic forces. It is from this angle of incidence that Technologized Desire makes its departure” (12). In what direction does this departure lead? Wilson seeks to improve upon his predecessor in two main ways, suggesting, first, that Bukatman’s earlier study overlooks important psycho-capitalist factors (16), and, second, that Bukatman’s comparatively positive conclusions are overly optimistic. Where Terminal Identity sees both advantages and disadvantages to new cyber forms of subjectivity (323-24), Wilson recognizes only pathological self-delusion and technological self-entrapment: “Pathology (in the form of paranoia, psychosis, and schizophrenia) runs rampant in postmodern science fiction” (16):
Fantasy dictates the structure of reality—this is the fundament of my concept of terminal choice, which concedes that the only choice available to the postmodern subject, despite all desire and action, is rooted in a dependency on (and devotion to) consumer capitalism and the ultraviolent schizophrenic production of the commodity-self. Terminal choice means that free will is a fiction. (18)
To make his case for the above, Wilson offers close readings of five key texts: Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky (2001),William S. Burroughs’s Nova Trilogy (The Soft Machine , The Ticket That Exploded , and Nova Express ), Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness (1993), Max Barry’s Jennifer Government (2003), and the last two films of the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix trilogy (2003). By and large, his interpretations are right on the money: Wilson’s analyses are almost always rich, insightful, and convincing. Thus, Crowe’s and Raimi’s films demonstrate the impossibility of a “natural” self even while guilefully suggesting the opposite (45, 101-102); Burroughs’s trilogy advances intentionally pathological play as the only possible (albeit illusory) “escape” from postcapitalist (i.e., hyper-capitalist) “reality” (55, 62); and the Wachowskis’ Matrix films recapitulate all of this with an eye toward “the futurological dimension of a postcapitalist dystopia,” as well as the history of science fiction itself (162). In addition, Wilson’s key concern—that capitalist critique be added to the otherwise exemplary work begun by Bukatman—constitutes a valuable contribution to recent scholarship on postmodern science fiction. (In this context, he might also have drawn profitably upon Steven Shaviro’s Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society ).
Notwithstanding such clear strengths, Technologized Desire is hampered by certain shortcomings. First, apart from his firm conviction that it is the case, Wilson offers relatively little evidence in support of his central thesis that, “despite all desire and action,” the only option open to terminal subjects is “a dependency on (and devotion to) consumer capitalism and the ultraviolent schizophrenic production of the commodity self” (18). True, the texts he discusses—as well as the theorists he invokes (Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, McLuhan)—tend to view things in this way, but what of it? Others have seen in cyber-/cyborg-subjectivities not so much “pathology” as emancipatory promise. (How would Wilson’s arguments fare in the face of resistance by Donna Haraway, to choose only the most prominent example of this latter school of thought?) I am not saying Wilson is wrong, only that—at times—it feels as if he is preaching to the choir.
Second, and perhaps more grave, is the problem resulting for Wilson’s thesis if what he has to say is true. For if the only choice available is that of the technologized self, then why bother writing a book about it? To more fully reveal the contours of our cage? Conversely, if engaging in cultural critique actually does advance the cause of resistance, then the validity of Wilson’s central assertion is called into question, and “dependency on (and devotion to) consumer capitalism” is notour only option. To me, at least, this feels like an unresolved contradiction, and one rooted, I think, in a (post) postmodern discourse at once highly “critical” and thoroughly disillusioned. Wilson seems outraged by, and yet unable to believe in any viable alternative to, “the absurdity of (capitalist) daily life.” The result makes for enjoyable fiction, but somewhat frustrating theory.
— Kelly Meyer, The College of Saint Rose
Frank McConnell. The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science: Collected Essays on SF Storytelling and the Gnostic Imagination. Ed. Gary Westfahl. Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy 12. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. xii + 222 pp. $35.00 pbk.
Like many sf scholars of my generation and east-of-the-Rockies location, I knew Frank McConnell, particularly as the author of The Science Fiction of H.G. Wells (Oxford UP, 1981). He was also a notable professor of English, primarily at the University of Calfornia at Santa Barbara; an author of detective fiction; the author of nonfiction books on such non-sf topics as Wordsworth’s Prelude, film and Romanticism, postwar American novelists, and the Bible; a prolific writer of book reviews, articles, and opinion pieces; chair of the Pulitzer Prize fiction jury; and, relevantly here, a regular participant at the annual J. Lloyd Eaton Conferences on Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature.
McConnell (1942-1999) is memorialized in this excellent volume, with his works divided by the editor into three parts: (1) “Frank McConnell B.C.E. (Before Coming to Eaton),” four essays by McConnell mostly from before his regular presentations at the Eaton Conference; (2) “Slouching Toward Bedlam: The Early Eaton Essays,” seven essays; and (3) “Gnostic Lunch: The Later Eaton Essays,” five essays: a total of sixteen pieces by McConnell. The volume also contains a Foreword by Neil Gaiman; an Introduction by Westfahl; an “Epilogue: Memories of Frank,” with memorial pieces by Harold Bloom, Sheila Finch, Eric S. Rabkin, George Slusser, and others; chapter notes by Westfahl to supply citations to McConnell’s work (7); an impressive “Bibliography of the Works of Frank McConnell” (187-200); “A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Works Cited in the Text”; and an Index. There are brief headnotes to each of the three sections, putting McConnell’s essays into the context of the Eaton conferences, but no headnotes giving the dates or some idea of the context of individual essays/presentations.
I will not review the memorial statements, but I will praise their tributes as they reference “Frank’s final Eaton performance” (169), “Frank’s showmanship and scholarship” (165), and Frank as the Eaton Conference’s “royal jester” (168). Teaching and “presenting” are in part performances and demand skill at performance art; that skill has value; and showmanship combined with scholarship works well as a rough description of good teaching. Tenured professors in politically relevant fields need to claim (at times) what George Carlin formulated as “Occupation: Foole.” Like the not quite “all-licensed fool” of the royal court, tenured professors have some freedom to speak truth, with only small need to “Take heed, sirrah—the whip” (Shakespeare, King Lear, 1.4). Frank McConnell is rightly praised for speaking his mind clearly, wittily, and forcefully.
At the heart of the volume are McConnell’s essays, and their two most important points are probably, in Gary Westfahl’s words, first, “that all genres and categories of literature ... [are] essentially arbitrary and artificial” and—somewhat backing away from that position—“that science fiction could be understood as a literary legacy of the ancient Christian heresy of Gnosticism, a belief system which emphasized knowledge and spirituality while disdaining the body and the physical world” (6-7). At the figurative aorta or left ventricle or some crucial part of this heart is the 1991 presentation, “Alimentary, My Dear Watson: Food and Eating in Scientific and Mystery Fiction.”
Aside from featuring in the title a really bad pun and a descriptive subtitle, “Alimentary” is an exemplary piece of scholarship, starting as it does from what McConnell initially saw and labeled as a conference topic fit for some “term-paper-from-hell assignments” (112). Following, at a distance, Albert Einstein, Konrad Lorenz, and George Carlin, I will say that here is “Occupation: Foole” enacted in asking, and trying seriously to answer, dumb questions. What would I see while riding a beam of light? Why are coral fishes so brightly colored? Why should food “as an object of desire … be so all-but absent from” sf as opposed to all the eating in detective fiction (112)? McConnell took a small observation seriously and followed his question with an intensity that allowed some nuance in his view of genres and productive skirmishes with capital “T” Theory. McConnell concluded:
The genre of science fiction—if there are such things as genres—is one that loathes and fears the body and longs—as do we all—to make food either a sacrament or an excrescence, a passage to a higher world or a castoff relic of … mortality. (118)
Getting both more specific and more general, McConnell moves on to a statement of very high Theory:
what is below or behind science fiction that compels it to treat food as “under erasure” … [is] gnosticism. Like gnosticism—cancel that, as gnosticism—science fiction asserts the human as the vector-sum of cosmic forces far transcending the human, and among whom the human can hope only for annihilation or assimilation into the Holy Other. (121)
Sf is a fiction of transcendence, as opposed to detective fiction, “a fiction of immanence, affirming the innate value of the quotidian” (121).
Unlike some theorists he can name, though, McConnell cares about “facts and counterexamples” (118) and knows that “Immanence and transcendence, as Paul Tillich spent a lifetime showing, are not alternate choices, but, in their rich mutual tensions, our lot.” And McConnell can note that in significant works in sf, “the alternatives meet, join hands, and dance together, telling us—what all literature has to tell us, if it’s worth the eyestrain—that we are the children of light and the sons and daughters of darkness, that our daily bread is the gross matter of our mortality and the impossible, wished for viaticum” (122; emphases in original). So gnosticism is, arguably, the mainstream of sf, but there is a dissident tradition in sf, and it is an important one: it includes a group of narratives that place value on humanism, individualism, and free will. And there is definitely a tradition that celebrates the body and direct experience: a small group of stories, perhaps, but an important one, including everything from E.M. Forster’s frequently reprinted 1909 story “The Machine Stops” to such relative schlock as D.F. Jones’s Colossus (1966) and, more recently—testing the predictive value of the gnostic hypothesis —the graphic novel The Surrogates (2005-06) and film Surrogates (2009). And so forth, including the immanence vein in Ursula K. Le Guin’s work, a vein assiduously mined by my unit in the scholarly division of the Le Guin industry.
McConnell backs off from his assertions on gnosticism and sf (written in CAPITALS in “Alimentary”), but he did well to make those assertions and make them loudly. And the examination of gnosticism and sf is just a small part of McConnell’s contribution to scholarship collected here. I have said nothing about McConnell on H.G. Wells, or his brilliant essay on Frankenstein movies, “Born in Fire: The Ontology of the Monster,” a premonition of the gnosticism hypothesis as early as 1982—and an early EatonCon essay—or about “Song of Innocence: The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1973).
If you have easy access to a decent academic library, almost all of McConnell’s essays reprinted in The Science of Fiction are available to you in the Slusser and Rabkin (and Westfahl) volumes from the Eaton conferences (cited Science of Fiction 188-89). You would still do well to spring for the $35 and get this book in order to have a small part of McConnell’s work collected for you and handy. Libraries with any claim to a serious collection of sf scholarship should definitely buy the book.
—Richard D. Erlich, Miami University, Emeritus