Combating the Japanological Neurosis.
Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., and Takayuki Tatsumi, eds. Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008. xxii + 269 pp. $20 pbk.
Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams is an ambitious and innovative addition to the rapidly growing English-language scholarship on Japanese animation (or anime). Readers of SFS are most likely familiar with the practical circumstances surrounding the recent flourishing of this scholarly literature, a development that came in response to anime’s massive popularity on North American campuses. As the first generation of students bred on images of robots, cyborgs, and other improbable creatures wreaking havoc in the curiously familiar urban setting of near-future Tokyo entered college a decade or so ago, Japanologists suddenly found themselves faced with mounting demands to address what in the eyes of students was one of the most enticing aspects of contemporary Japanese culture. The earnest rush to meet overwhelming student demands, however, does not fully account for the complex of motives lying behind the rapid rise of Anime Studies. I do not mean to point fingers at the occasional get-on-the-bandwagon opportunism that invariably accompanies any rapidly emergent field. What I do mean to point out, instead, is the uniquely convenient character of anime for the Japanologist, whose academic loyalty is continuously torn between specificity of cultural reference and universality of appeal. At once hyper- or postmodern and uniquely Japanese, anime weds global market with Japanese monopoly (on the supply end at least) in an ideal union that only an oneiric medium like this could allow.
This is perhaps why, for all the insights Anime Studies has brought to the understanding of the medium (many coming from authors in the current collection), the field has so far remained curiously resistant to approaches that might in any way threaten the unity of anime as an object of study. Simply broaching the question of anime’s audience (as Saito Tamaki does in Robot Ghosts), for instance, can be a threatening gesture, as it would risk opening up the possibility that the medium may not be singular after all, that there may exist as many kinds of anime as there are local forms of reception. Such a questioning of anime’s unity, however, is precisely the challenge that Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams takes up, courageously if somewhat haphazardly. It does so in a number of ways, most evidently (as indicated in the book’s subtitle) by addressing the question of science fiction as genre. More is at stake than meets the eye in this seemingly innocent theoretical move; for if anime is by definition Japanese (at least for the time being), such is manifestly not the case with science fiction. Clearly, not all sf is Japanese, and perhaps less evidently for the lay reader, not all anime is sf (far from it, as a matter of fact). Confronting anime with the question of genre thus serves to complicate the presumed coherence of the medium in a number of productive ways, some of which I hope to underscore.
At this juncture, however, I should first address the question of whether it makes sense to pigeonhole into Anime Studies a book that aspires to be a comprehensive study of Japanese sf, encompassing both prose fiction and animation. The first reason is an unfortunate one: the book does not quite live up to its aspiration. Although the introduction (and Tatsumi’s postscript to some extent) manages to present a concise yet compelling historical overview of Japanese sf across media, the two parts of the book do not exactly hang together. The second part, dedicated to anime, is palpably more coherent than the first, devoted to prose sf, with only a few, rather ill-defined motifs running between them. Overall, the editorial stance, if not the attitude of individual contributors, comes across as anime-centric, prose literature being used as a foil for sf anime and its global success rather than taken on its own terms—even though the first part of the book does include some excellent discussions of individual works and authors, most notably Kotani Mari’s learned and impassioned survey of Japanese women’s sf.
Further compromising the volume’s ambition to present a comprehensive picture of Japanese science fiction is its almost complete neglect of manga (Japanese comics). The omission is regrettable for a number of reasons. Manga’s massive readership alone (arguably larger than anime viewership and prose sf readership combined) would make it a mandatory part of any survey of the genre in Japan. Moreover, beginning with Astro Boy (1952-68), Tezuka Osamu’s classic and massively popular robot narrative, and including, among so many others, Ishinomori Shotaro’s stylishly lyrical space operas (including the popular Star Blazers [a.k.a. Space Battleship Yamato, 1974-75]), Hagio Moto’s psychologically-complex sf mythologies (e.g., They Were Eleven ), and more recently Iwa’aki Hitoshi’s poignantly idiosyncratic alien tale Parasyte (1990-95), the steampunk alternative histories of Arakawa Hiromu’s Full Metal Alchemist (2001-10), and Urasawa Naoki’s 20th Century Boys (1999-2006), the postwar history of manga features some of the most compelling works of Japanese sf. Last but not least, manga would have strengthened the connection between Parts I and II of Robot Ghosts, conveniently mediating between print works and the visual discourse of anime.
Despite these shortcomings, the volume, taken in terms of what it actually manages to be (i.e., a work of Anime Studies that incorporates selective aspects of the broader science-fictional context), raises a number of important issues. As suggested above, much hangs on the tension between specificity and universality, between global reach and local context, and ultimately between the geo-cultural epithet and the generic category that together form the notion of “Japanese science fiction.” The tension, broached thematically in the first section through the ideological critique of nationalism (e.g., Miri Nakamura on the foreignness of machines, Thomas Schnellbächer on the postwar myth of the Japanese empire), resurfaces in the second part as the question of interpretive strategy, the tenuous negotiation between localizing and globalizing readings. Such a tension is latent in any act of cultural interpretation, but for various disciplinary reasons, some of which I touched on earlier, it tends to elicit a particularly nervous response on the part of the Japanologist.
The globalizing pole of the tension is best represented by Christopher Bolton and Livia Monnet (as well as Azuma Hiroki in the first part of the book and, to a certain extent, Susan J. Napier in the second). Their essays address, in deeply complementary ways, how the sf plots and sophisticated presentation strategies of the animations they analyze function as meta-commentarial parables for the perceptual-cum-epistemological possibilities and limits of anime and of computer animation respectively. Japan as cultural framework and interpretive regime barely comes up in their essays, which instead uncompromisingly zoom in on the media-theoretical (or phenomenological, as Vivian Sobchack might call it) properties of animation as a medium—in ways that, I would add, echo Thomas Lamarre’s ambitious attempt to formulate a “media theory of animation” (see his The Anime Machine [Minnesota UP, 2009]).
The localizing impulse, on the other hand, is evident to varying degrees in the contributions by Napier, Naoki and Hiroko Chiba, Sharalyn Orbaugh, and Saito. Saito’s essay takes localization furthest, advancing a bold psychoanalytic-cum-sociological account of otaku subculture. Most illuminating is his analysis of the Armored Girl (sento bishojo), the bizarre sex symbol of sf anime that brings juvenile innocence into unlikely union with an Amazonian bellicosity and an aggressively mechanized sex-appeal, the incongruity of which Saito relates to the singular polymorphism of otaku sexuality. Unlike the classical subject of psychoanalysis, the otaku does not compensate for his real (lack of) sexuality through fiction; rather, fiction, with its multiple imaginary layers, is the lived space of otaku sexuality, the primary object of otaku love that finds no counterpart (however transferential) in reality. This unique form of subjectivity—unique not only to contemporary Japan but to a particular segment of its population—is, Saito maintains, what structures the complex sociology of anime (and manga) production and reception.
These are but a few of the various ratios of localizing-globalizing interpretations sampled in the volume. The vision of anime and sf literature it conveys is decidedly multifaceted, not allowing easy reduction to culture, media, or genre alone. This fracturing of the Japanological fantasy of anime as a seamless unity, however, comes at the cost of compromising the volume’s strategic coherence. It may be too much to ask a broadly conceived collection of essays on Japanese sf literature and anime—the first of its kind—to be at once encompassing and fully detailed. Nonetheless, I believe it is worth highlighting the critical alternatives available in Robot Ghosts, which will no doubt form the interpretive cores of the many similar collections to come in the near future.
In conclusion, I would like to briefly examine Orbaugh’s insightful discussion of cyborg and subjectivity in sf anime, for I think the essay gives concentrated expression to the challenges that a project such as Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams faces. Drawing on recent debates surrounding the figure of the cyborg, Orbaugh asks why—unlike Hollywood movies, which almost invariably portray mechanized others as sinister, threatening beings—anime and other works of Japanese popular culture tend to depict robots and cyborgs as sympathetic figures. Orbaugh sees in this the expression of Japan’s peculiar relation to modernity, its self-identification as the West’s Other. Orbaugh’s point is well-taken (even though it has been raised before), and her answer makes a certain amount of intuitive sense; but for all the insights it brings to the matter, an allegorical reading such as this risks reinforcing the unity of anime that the book begins to question. Orbaugh wittingly or unwittingly subsumes anime back into the national allegory of Japan’s ambiguous location in the modern world, which, incidentally, is the same allegory informing the Japanologist’s own professional neurosis, his or her own (mis-)identification with the other.
Only by liberating anime from such a Japanological neurosis can a truly pluralizing conception of anime become possible. Fresh lines of inquiry will then emerge, such as the alternative allegories of identification anime helps to channel, as it seems to do in North America, or the contending local structures of identification that coexist in anime reception in Japan and elsewhere. I for one look forward to those volumes to come that present anime and Japanese sf as either more radically global or local than its national epithet usually allows.
—Hajime Nakatani, Rikkyo University
Science Fiction and its Others.
Paul Meehan. Tech-Noir: The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008. viii + 264 pp. $55 hc.
Fred Botting. Limits of Horror: Technology, Bodies, Gothic. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2008. 229 pp. $84.95 hc.
Two (fairly) recent books engage the relations between sf and other genres. Paul Meehan’s Tech-Noir offers a straightforward and painstakingly detailed history of the combination of sf cinema with film noir, a fusion that he calls “tech-noir” after the name of a dance club in The Terminator (1984). Unfortunately, Meehan displays hardly any interest in genre theory, and his handling of generic categories is not particularly clear. Science fiction (the “tech” side of his hybrid genre) remains undefined, though the films Meehan considers sf would be readily recognized as such by nearly everyone interested in the matter. By “noir,” however, he often seems to mean something much more extensive and more nebulous than film noir in the usual sense. Rigorous definitions are again lacking, but at some points Meehan appears to count as “noir” almost any film that deals with conflict and violence—i.e., the “dark” side of human life (although there are exceptions, such as Westerns). Accordingly, quite a few films—for instance, straight mysteries and, especially, supernatural horror films—that have little to do with either sf or film noir find a place in this book.
The conceptual haziness that weakens the book’s overall structure is also found in Meehan’s handling of particular movies. Though he discusses over a hundred films in significant detail—and mentions hundreds more in passing—there is relatively little actual criticism on offer here. Most of the consideration of individual films is pure plot summary, and the interpretive comments that Meehan does allow himself tend to be mainly descriptive. Though these comments are, on the whole, unexceptionable, most are unlikely to provide fresh insights for readers sufficiently interested in film to be reading this book in the first place.
Despite the rather thoughtless empiricism that thus constitutes the central shortcoming of Tech-Noir, the book does possess genuine strength in its factual richness and solidity. Meehan is massively well-informed about the history of cinema—especially, though not only, with regard to the films most relevant to his theme—and he provides an amiable guided tour of nearly a full century of moviemaking. Chronologically, the tour starts, in the volume’s most useful chapter, with interwar German Expressionism—above all Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)—where the origins of both sf cinema and film noir are primarily to be found. The book then turns to a number of mostly American and mostly fairly minor works of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, before arriving at such key films as Alphaville (1965) and Soylent Green (1973), and then at what Meehan regards as the tech-noir “golden age” of the 1980s, which produced Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator, Robocop (1987), and Batman (1989). Discussions of later films such as Dark City (1998) and The Matrix (1999) conclude the volume. The accounts of the movies are lucid and genial—and impressively accurate, so far as I can tell—with the amount of space devoted to each film roughly proportional to what Meehan evidently sees as its aesthetic and historical significance. Meehan’s enthusiasm for the major films is contagious; and he also shows himself capable of appreciating the salient qualities of many lesser and lesser-known works without making implausibly grand claims for them. On the rare occasions that he does discuss what he considers a neglected masterpiece—e.g., John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966)—his advocacy seems reasonable enough.
It is, of course, a bit wearing to slog through summaries and descriptions generally unrelieved by much conceptual substance. Though I doubt that many readers (except for conscientious reviewers) will devour Tech-Noir cover-to-cover, the volume could be of real use as a reference work—by no means the least noble of literary functions.
Fred Botting’s Limits of Horror is, by contrast, a deeply and rewardingly conceptual work, though not a particularly well-written one. Employing theoretical tools derived from Marxism, from post-structuralism, and, above all, from psychoanalysis, Botting addresses himself to Gothic horror as instanced, mainly, in literature, films, computer games, and performance art. Gothic is the subject of a good deal of the author’s earlier work and one on which he writes with an erudition and an intellectual authority matched by few other critics at work today. Though sf as such is not an express concern for Botting as it is for Meehan, he (almost inevitably) finds occasion to discuss a good many questions and texts of integral importance to science fiction—perhaps most notably Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), which, as Brian Aldiss pointed out long ago, marks the point at which sf emerges from the older tradition of Gothic.
“Monsters no longer render norms visible; they are the norm” (12), Botting writes in his introductory chapter, and this provocative sentence contains the germ of a good deal of his overall argument. Gothic for Botting is no ahistorical generic essence but, on the contrary, a mode of expression that has changed almost—though not quite—beyond recognition between its eighteenth-century beginnings and its current manifestations. Overall, the transvaluations of law and desire in the era of late capitalism and its attendant technology (or the era of “postmodernity,” as Botting often calls it) have tended to render horror more mechanical, more mundane, and less hauntingly other. For example, in an important chapter called “Daddy’s Dead,” Botting examines the decline of paternal authority and of what Lacanian psychoanalysis knows as the paternal metaphor, leading to the increasing occlusion of the transgressive moment on which the older Gothic mode so heavily depends. Transgression tends to become the norm—which, of course, is to say that it largely ceases to be transgressive. One might wish that Botting had dealt explicitly with Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955), whose groundbreaking analysis of the waning of the Oedipus complex would seem to be crucial for Botting’s own argument. One might also wish that Botting, especially in his more Baudrillardian passages, were clearer as to the difference between the mutual interpenetration of the terms of a binary opposition (like norm and monster) and their actual indistinguishability. But these are relatively minor objections to a challenging and rigorous argument.
The most densely theoretical and perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book is entitled “Beyond the Gothic principle.” Whereas Marcuse in the 1950s had optimistically hoped that it might be possible to get beyond the reality principle of capitalist society, Botting in the new millennium is bleakly pessimistic as he posits “an artificial death drive” (217) that masters our civilization, a civilization in which human affect and human meaning have been so flattened out that the very distinction between life and death is problematic. If the Gothic is increasingly vacuous and monstrosity increasingly banal, then—assuming I have correctly followed the logic of Botting’s argument—this is finally because death itself, the ultimate horizon of meaning, is now to be found stranded in meaninglessness. “Game over and over again” (217), the book concludes.
Limits of Horror is doubtless hyperbolic in its thesis, a hyperbole reflected in the sometimes tiresomely melodramatic rhetoric that Botting often employs. Then too, the book can be faulted for a somewhat unclear organization: the several chapters appear to be originally free-standing essays that have not been integrated with sufficient care, so that a certain amount of unnecessary repetition co-exists with a sometime lack of effective transitions. Still, this is a work of deep learning and strenuous intelligence that is required reading for serious students of the Gothic and interesting reading for many others.
—Carl Freedman, Louisiana State University
They’re Making a List.
Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint, eds. Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2010. xxiv + 288 pp. $26.95 pbk.
From the best-selling Decalogue to all those books with the word “Lists” in the title (the University of Michigan library’s online catalog lists over 26,000) to every year’s best- and worst-dressed lists, there’s a list for everyone. So, we can say that everyone likes a list. Quick: can you name nine other things of which that is true? Well, food; sleep; come to think of it, oxygen; and, oh yes, science fiction. What? You don’t like science fiction? What about The Tempest? Streamlined industrial design? World’s fairs? Listing is a game and a conversation starter and a way to define what you’re talking about. Can you name the ten worst killers in human history? Hitler’s in there, for sure, and so is Stalin. What about Pol Pot? Tamerlane? When it comes to numbers, Vlad Tepes doesn’t come close, but if you consider his sheer joie de mourir, he might make the cut, so to speak. And what about plague? We can’t forget plague. See what I mean about a conversation starter, a game, and a way to define? So that’s already three good things about this book. I’ll exemplify.
Conversation starter. The editors included Gerry Anderson. Who? Really? Yes, really. Frankly, Nicholas Cull’s essay arguing the cultural importance, especially on the eastern side of The Pond, of the inventor of tv’s Thunderbirds (1965-66) and his technique of “Supermarionation” doesn’t exactly convince me that Anderson is one of the top fifty, but, hey, he’s a bigger deal than I thought, so thanks from me and from the whole Team America: World Police (2004). And this book is full of such worthy assertions.
And that’s not all. Did you know (I sure didn’t) that Anderson originally wanted to be an architect, but a plaster allergy kept him from making the necessary models, so he turned to puppets instead?
Nuggets. A good book of lists provides nuggets. And this one does.
So that’s four good things.
Game. Name someone you think is in the top fifty and see if that person is in the book. If so, cool; if not, is there someone like that person who should be bumped? Okay, I name Superman. If The Doctor (Who, of course) merits his own entry, surely Superman does, a continuing character extending over a longer time span, a wider international audience, and more media. You be the judge.
As it happens, Superman is mentioned in the essay on Alan Moore, a fact discoverable through the excellent apparatus. And speaking of excellent apparatus, this book has that, so that’s five good things.
The apparatus includes an alphabetical list of contents, which in fact lists the fifty short essays that make up the body of this book in their order of presentation. Then there’s a chronological list of contents that relists them according to the birth years of the essay subjects. This is more fun to peruse after reading the book than before because late bloomers like James Tiptree, Jr., 1915-1987, get listed way too early (between Leigh Brackett, 1915-1978, and Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008) while The Doctor, listed by his first tv appearance (1963) rather than the birth years of any of his initial creative team, comes way too late, a throwback between Greg Egan (b. 1961) and China Miéville (b. 1972). So that’s the first bad thing about this book: lists are artificial and inevitably distort the messy world they aim to represent by their implication of a specious regularity.
Of course, that’s also a good thing by way of starting conversations: given the different views toward both feminism and writing that one sees in the work of Brackett and Tiptree, what does it mean that they were born into the same world, a world that soon included young Arthur Clarke who would go on to produce works so fine that many of us don’t even notice their subtle misogyny?
The apparatus also includes, of course, brief bios of the contributors and, as it happens, a very good index. In addition, each essay bolds the first occurrence of the name of anyone it mentions who figures as the subject of another essay in the book. And each essay ends with a list of yet more bold names and a brief bibliography of works cited in that essay. In short, this book is wonderfully easy to use. So easy that probably no one but a book reviewer would ever read it end to end.
But I did. And I enjoyed it.
The list of demerits for this book is remarkably small. First, as expected, the essays are of somewhat variable quality. They range from the merely informational to some, like Brian Attebery’s superb discussion of C.L. Moore as an influential pioneer short-story writer both alone and as a collaborator (bring out an edition of her work, Brian!), that make even an old hand in the field glad to have this essay available.
Second, it is unclear who should be the model reader of this volume. Newcomers to the field are likely to find that all fifty figures merit attention, and the background and overview at least attempted by each essay will be welcome, but these are not the fifty key figures, as the editors themselves make clear in their Introduction, effectively making the first and perhaps second move in the list-inclusion game themselves. Still, most would indeed merit that designation (but Nalo Hopkinson: really?) and all fit into what the editors call “a mosaic description of the landscape of sf” (xxiii).
But what are the dimensions of that mosaic? In this book it extends—wisely—to comics (Alan Moore, Stan Lee) and philosophers (Jean Baudrillard) and filmmakers (David Cronenberg, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg) and even critics (Donna Haraway), but we live in a science-fiction world, where Disneyworld, including EPCOT, a permanent world’s fair, is the most visited place on Earth. Ray Bradbury was a design consultant for that and for Disneyland, where Main Street turns west to Frontierland and east to the rising sun of Tomorrowland. Frank Gehry designs sf buildings. Lady Gaga makes sf videos. The sound of the theremin is the sound of the future.
I won’t mention the few minor errors (a date wrong here or there, a title botched up) because they are few and not to the point. The point is that this is a terrific book but each of us will have to decide how to read it.
Carl Freedman suggests that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels “may well constitute the most important trilogy in all of sf” (10), while John Rieder’s dissection of the virtues and wide influence of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy perhaps suggests otherwise. Newcomers to sf won’t know what to do with that possible conflict other than read both sets of novels, which is another good thing. Old hands, I think, will find a different imperative: discuss.
—Eric S. Rabkin, University of Michigan
The Pleasures of Horror.
Brigid Cherry. Horror. Routledge Film Guidebooks. New York: Routledge, 2009. x + 240 pp. $29.95 pbk.
The question Brigid Cherry attempts to answer in Horror is how audiences experience pleasure in the viewing of cinematic horror. Her book first introduces the problem of considering horror as a genre and then uses two major theoretical approaches—psychoanalysis and cognitivism—in order to unravel what specifically about horror films makes them pleasurable for audiences. She explores why horror cinema has endured when other genres of film have ceased to hold the public’s imagination and, more significantly, why the horror genre has been able to adapt to a changing succession of cultural moments and find a way to speak to that moment’s particular anxieties. In doing so, she examines a wide range of previous scholarship on horror cinema and performs in-depth readings of several touchstone movies within the genre.
Cherry praises the pleasure that can be found in horror films, and the structure of the book is built around the many scholarly attempts to account for that pleasure. Her commitment to that aim does not prevent her from challenging established understandings of viewing pleasure or from concluding that an analysis of “pleasure in the specific film of a particular historical period, in one national horror cinema, for a specific audience” (166) is a more accurate approach to the question than a method that attempts to account for the genre as a whole. Cherry thus begins her task by deconstructing the notion of horror as a cohesive genre.
The first chapter begins with an examination of the presumed unity of the horror film, quickly pointing out how problematic such a category proves, even for a genre as easily identifiable as this one. Cherry’s assertion that “the genre should perhaps be more accurately thought of as an overlapping and evolving set of ‘conceptual categories’ that are in a constant state of flux” (3) seems to speak also to the sf field and to provide a useful framework for larger discussions of genre. One of the problems with seeing horror as a unified category is that specific subgenres—or “cycles,” such as the slasher cycle of the late 1970s and early 1980s that began with Halloween and enjoyed a resurgence in the 1990s with the Scream movies—tend to dominate at particular historical moments. These canonical films tend to overshadow others that are not easily identifiable within the boundaries of the cycle because “genres are synthetic rather than organic in terms of their conception”—i.e., they do not preexist and determine the individual texts of which they are composed but rather are constituted “after the fact” (31). Besides pointing out the difficulties inherent in genre analysis, the first chapter clearly delineates the boundaries of Cherry’s focus: twentieth-century American and British horror films (with some brief attention to the Japanese Ringu cycle [1998-2000]). It also sets up her larger discussion of audience reception by articulating her argument about genre with her theory of audience response. By focusing on how “audience responses and readings can be a vital element of how genre works in practice” (36), Cherry transitions into the primary focus of the book, which is to explain the many ways audiences respond to horror texts and provide a theoretical overview of how a viewer finds pleasure in horror.
The second chapter breaks down the technical ways in which films create terror (from Georges Méliès’s use of re-exposure in the late nineteenth century to the remarkable special effects of 1980s “splatter” films) and provides a concise history of the horror film in the US and UK that is (appropriately for a “guidebook”) geared for a film theory novice or an undergraduate student in a film course. The next chapter, “Horror Cinema and Its Pleasures,” attempts to provide the same kind of sweeping overview, this time of the relevant criticism; but Cherry is less effective when glossing the work of other scholars. While she gives a strong overview of the major theorists in the field, the coverage often devolves into mere summary. Such discussions are redeemed when Cherry analyzes specific films using the theories she has just finished reviewing, the standouts being her readings of the potentially empowering female gaze in Candyman (1992) and the dislocated female gaze in The Descent (2005). What is clear from this chapter is that Cherry is well versed in horror-film theory, as well as being an excellent close reader of individual texts.
Although Cherry adeptly illustrates how various theoretical approaches can be productively applied, the chapter ends with an ultimate rejection of both psychoanalytic and cognitive approaches to audience reception in favor of an approach with much more limited scope: a contextual reading of a cycle’s cultural moment. Cherry suggests that “grand narratives” of universal anxiety can be read with particular success in film genres, but that the narrower horror cycles tend to reflect smaller and more definite “sociopolitical context[s]” (168) that reveal very specific sets of cultural concerns. For example, she follows up on Mark Jancovich’s analysis of the various incarnations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978, 1993, 2007) to illustrate how this story has been successfully remade to reflect a range of fears: McCarthyism, Communism, consumerism, militarism, and postmodern alienation. Her careful analysis of social anxieties about politics, identity, technology, and violence within specific film cycles—and her attention to how horror continues to be a vibrant genre, providing specific forms of viewing pleasure—make this chapter the most useful for scholars, providing solid groundwork for further theoretical development.
—Kimberly Hall, University of California, Riverside
Turning Suvin Inside Out.
Seo-Young Chu. Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sheep?: A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2011. 316 pp. $39.95 hc.
Seo-Young Chu’s Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? is a surprising book—surprising because of its wit and originality, on the one hand, and because of its unusual, provocative thesis, on the other. Chu proposes, as her subtitle proclaims, a science-fictional theory of representation. She does not mean to advance a new definition of the genre, but rather to approach sf as a mode of what she calls “lyric mimesis,” or “a representational technology powered by a combination of lyric and narrative forces that enable SF to generate mimetic accounts of cognitively estranging referents” (73). All of the most surprising aspects of Chu’s approach to sf appear in this statement: her emphasis on its lyricism, her insistence that sf is mimetic, and her revisionary relocation of Darko Suvin’s influential notion of cognitive estrangement, displacing it from the defining formal strategy of sf to the key quality of its referents. Let me take these three topics one at a time, beginning with Chu’s ideas about sf’s lyricism.
Chu argues that lyricism is an “absent omnipresence” in sf, something so pervasive that it usually gets taken for granted and goes unnoticed. Some of the lyrical qualities that Chu convincingly identifies in sf include its treatment of temporality, its descriptive intensity, and its emphasis on eccentric or heightened perception. Many of the best passages in Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? consist in drawing out the “rich affinities” that join sf and lyric poetry, as in Chu’s demonstration of the science-fictional qualities of an Emily Dickinson lyric (16-17); or in her recasting of Stapledon’s prose description of the protagonist of Odd John (1936) as a versified Spenserian “blazon” (119-20); or in her elegant, playful, acute analyses (35-46) of the lyrical intensity of descriptions of sf environments in E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909), William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Greg Egan’s Diaspora (1998), Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961), and John Crowley’s Engine Summer (1979); and of sf bodies in China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000), Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974), Charles Stross’s Singularity Sky (2003), Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God (2000), and Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days (2005). It is hard to take exception to Chu’s exuberant exposition of the lyricism that pervades so much sf, and it will no doubt be a pure pleasure for many readers, as it was for me, to see the sort of close stylistic and rhetorical analysis usually reserved for canonical poetry lavished on sf prose that richly deserves and awards such attention.
Chu’s insistence that sf is “a mimetic discourse whose objects of representation are nonimaginary” (3) is certainly a more controversial claim; in fact, some may think it crosses the line from provocative and surprising to idiosyncratic and weird. But she makes a good case. The first point to make is that Chu insists that lyrical poetry is also a mimetic discourse. Setting herself firmly against Todorov’s opinion in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1970; trans. 1973) that “the poetic image is a combination of words, not of things, and it is pointless, even harmful, to translate this combination into sensory terms” (qtd. 64), Chu protests that she “see[s] no reason why readers should be forbidden to read poems as ... referential descriptions” (64-65). For her, “many of Dickinson’s poems ... reveal an astonishing science-fiction cosmos where clocks are afflicted with timelessness, mathematical diagrams glow across night skies, and the specter of postapocalypse haunts every other mindscape” (65). But Chu’s claim is that the objects of representation in sf are “nonimaginary,” and these objects filling Dickinson’s science-fictional cosmos are imaginary, are they not? Here we encounter one of the trickier turns in Chu’s argument. The “referent” of sf mimesis is not the counterfactual objects that are such an obvious component of most sf; these objects are what Chu calls “science-fictionemes.” She connects them with sf’s lyricism by saying that they are often literalized versions of figures of speech—personification come alive, apostrophe turned into dialogue, metaphor made flesh. But the function of these science-fictionemes is mimetic. Their purpose is to make material and visible, “available for representation,” objects that elude more direct strategies of representation.
Chu posits a spectrum of representability, one end populated with simple material objects like pencils and the other with non-representable concepts like eternity. The literalized figures of sf “make available for representation” objects that cluster toward the non-representable end of the spectrum. Chu’s examples of such difficult referents, each of which forms the basis of a chapter, include the globalized world, cyberspace in the 1990s (the dating emphasizes historical fluctuation in the representability of things), war trauma, the Korean notion of “han,” and robot rights. These are objects that are not available for direct representation and therefore need the indirect sort of lyrical representation, the literalization of figures of speech, that Chu says characterizes sf; thus, for each referent she names and analyzes a corresponding set of science-fictionemes. For example, the globalized world possesses “a certain phantasmagorical texture that realism cannot adequately represent” because “its literal dimensions operate independently from its figurative dimensions,” meaning that it is simultaneously a spheroid physical object and “an ever-mutating web wherein localities separated by geographic distance may suddenly find themselves rendered contiguous” by modern communications technology (86). Thus sf has recourse to science-fictionemes, such as teleportation or the ecumenopolis, to “bring to life the complex ambivalences latent in figures of speech associated with the global world” (87).
This brings us around to Chu’s revision of Suvin, which seems to me the most problematic aspect of her book. Although Chu disavows any intention of redefining sf, and although she approaches sf as a mode rather than as a genre, she nonetheless begins with a list of definitions culminating in Suvin’s famous formulation of sf as “an art form that achieves the effect of ‘cognitive estrangement’ by way of ‘an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment’” (Suvin qtd. in Chu 2). Chu then presents her own approach to sf as “Suvin’s definition turned inside out. Instead of conceptual-izing science fiction as a nonmimetic discourse that achieves the effect of cognitive estrangement through an ‘imaginative framework,’ I conceptualize science fiction as a mimetic discourse whose objects of representation are nonimaginary yet cognitively estranging” (3). As I hope I have already indicated, Chu’s claim makes excellent sense and proves very rewarding to an analysis of the poetics of sf, which I would say is also the most powerful aspect of Suvin’s theory; however, Chu’s revision of Suvin also drags along with it the less salutory baggage of Suvin’s formalist, exclusionary genre theory, which Chu indeed turns inside out but unfortunately does not leave behind. Where Suvin gets tangled up in unnecessary denigrations of and border defenses against neighboring genres like fantasy, detective fiction, and the fairy tale, Chu tends to dissolve genre distinctions altogether.
For Chu, for instance, sf and lyricism are “high-intensity” forms of mimesis as opposed to the “low-intensity” mimesis she calls realism:
What most people call “realism”—what some critics call “mundane fiction”—is actually a “weak” or low-intensity variety of science fiction, one that requires little energy to accomplish its referential task insofar as its referents (e.g. softballs) are readily susceptible to representation. Conversely, what most people call “science fiction” is actually a high-intensity variety of realism, one that requires astronomical levels of energy to accomplish its referential task insofar as its referents (e.g. cyberspace) elaborately defy straightforward representation. (7)
Surely the task of realist fiction involves something more than the mimesis of softballs. Are not the ultimate referents of canonical realist masterpieces like George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874) or Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) more complex, more difficult to represent? Are not the profound energies devoted to characterization, plot, and setting in works such as these strategies for making “available for representation” referents of the same order of difficulty as those Chu elsewhere calls “cognitively estranging”? In fact, Chu admits as much by treating realist fiction as science fiction when she analyzes—movingly and persuasively—the contortions of subjectivity and narrative voice around the “cognitively estranging referent” of trauma in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990). As a reading of O’Brien’s poetics, Chu’s exposition of the way autobiography, realist fiction, and lyrical devices are intertwined in narrative form is brilliant. But if one takes seriously Chu’s argument that The Things They Carried is science fiction insofar as it reaches lyrical intensity in the attempt to evoke a “cognitively estranging referent,” realist fiction threatens to disappear as a meaningful category, and our understanding of genre seems to be headed toward an ahistorical dead end. Or to put my criticism more positively, Chu’s working definition of sf accomplishes the goal she sets it, that of opening up the manifold and rich affinities of sf with lyricism; but, like any such formal definition, it is inadequate to describing the dynamics and intricacies of the mutable historical phenomena of genre distinctions and connections as they unfold in the production, distribution, and reception of narrative and lyric art. That, as I have argued elsewhere, is a task that requires narrative rather than formal description (see my “On Defining Science Fiction, or Not: Genre Theory, SF, and History,” SFS 37.2 [July 2010]: 191-210).
There is much more to Chu’s book than I have described here. Most of my remarks have been based on the long introductory chapter in which Chu proposes and spells out her thesis about sf and lyric mimesis. Each of her five chapters on cognitively estranging referents offers rich rewards as well. Her highly charged and original readings of Stapledon’s Odd John in the chapter on the globalized world and of Last and First Men (1930) in the chapter on war trauma can only make one hope for a more extended essay on Stapledon’s fiction in the future. The reading of William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy (1993-99) in the chapter on cyberspace is similarly persuasive and illuminating. The chapters on war trauma and “postmemory han” (the burden of guilt and shame that Korean Americans experience for the traumas of their parents and grandparents) turn the exuberant exposition of lyricism in the first half of the book toward darker and deeper psychological and emotional territory. The final chapter on robot rights, spanning the ground from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) to Steven Spielberg’s A.I. (2001), contributes impressively to the hot topic of posthumanism. This is not just a surprising book, it is an exceptional one, and highly recommended reading for all sf scholars.
—John Rieder, University of Hawai’i at Manoa
A Gift of Le Guin.
Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin, eds. 80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin. Seattle, WA: Aqueduct, 2010. 239 pp. $19 pbk.
For Ursula K. Le Guin’s eightieth birthday, Kim Stanley Robinson commissioned a Festschrift: a collection of “personal essays, poems, stories, and academic articles from readers and writers who love Le Guin’s work” (jacket text). I admit, the Festschrift is an unfamiliar genre to me, and I expected to be a little bored reading 80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin. I love Le Guin’s work, but page after page of other people loving Le Guin’s work might get a little old. Or so I thought. Fortunately I was wrong.
This surprisingly rich book is light but multifaceted, and full of gifts for Le Guin fans both new and old. The variety of modes of writing and the range of voices—contributors include Eileen Gunn, Brian Attebery, Gwyneth Jones, Vonda N. McIntyre, and John Kessel, among others—kept me charmed from cover to cover, and the lack of editorial apparatus kept me guessing about what would come next but nodding in satisfaction when I got there. M.J. Hardman’s essay about linguistic possibilities in Always Coming Home (1985)—possibilities that we can use language “to support the culture/society that [we] wish to construct” (53)—leads seamlessly into four dazzling pieces of short fiction by members of Beyon’Dusa, an artists’ collective self-described as “wild wimmin writing and living these times together” (57). The collection slides from Deirdre Byrne’s powerful article on Le Guin’s “use of narrative as a means of constructing identities” (191) into Suzette Haden Elgin’s lighter and more personal essay on the joys and challenges of reading a story narrated by a tree (207). As expected, 80! includes many tales of readers, writers, students, and colleagues discovering, reading, and revisioning Le Guin’s work, as well as meeting her, working with her, and basking in her wisdom. But the excitement is contagious, and it carries into the more academic discussions of Le Guin’s feminism, her formal innovations, and her explorations of memory, empowerment, and the natural world. What is consistent across all pieces in the volume is a tone of easy intimacy and joyful gratitude.
While this book is a gift to Le Guin, it also inevitably details many of the gifts Le Guin has given to the contributors, from getting Ellen Eades through college “with [her] sense of humor intact” (117), to providing Pat Murphy with cookie fortunes for a Tiptree Award bake sale. (My favorite: “You will find something very odd in the broom closet on Tuesday” .) The collection is also explicitly marketed as a gift to its readers. The back cover asks, “What can you give the reader who has everything Le Guin wrote?” This book is not only appropriate for Le Guin experts, however. The fiction and poetry take Le Guin as inspiration more than intertext, a number of pieces include synopses and reviews of Le Guin’s fiction, and Julie Phillips provides an excellent biography of Le Guin’s life up to the early 1960s. Le Guin is frequently hailed directly, as is to be expected, but more often than not the assumed audience seems to be a good friend to whom contributors are recommending a treasured author, as when Nancy Kress explains, “Like quasars sending out pulses of energy across vast distances, a writer’s radiation may affect others far away. Ursula K. Le Guin so affected me” (146). I would give this book not only to a friend who has read everything Le Guin has written, but also to a friend who has read one or two of her books and is eager—or should be—for more.
—Elizabeth Lundberg, University of Iowa
Time Out of Joint.
Elana Gomel. Postmodern Science Fiction and Temporal Imagination. London: Continuum, 2010. xi + 177 pp. £60 hc.
It was sporadically reported earlier this year that the Chinese government, responding to a recent vogue for romantic historical settings in television drama there, has seen fit to denounce the narrative device of time travel. The Guardian quotes one censor decrying “questionable” content in popular programs such as The Palace and The Myth, which feature modern-day Chinese transported to the ancient dynastic past; such stories treat “serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged any longer” (“China Censors Want to Confine Time Travel Dramas to Past.” Online. 14 April 2011). That an apparently innocuous fantasy genre with no overt politics should run afoul of state ideology in this particular way struck many Western journalists, judging from their tone, as odd and faintly comical. Yet the anecdote reflects an anxiety over time and history (in the Marxist sense and otherwise) that arguably transcends cultures—a sort of temporal derangement endemic, in Elena Gomel’s reading, to all of postmodernity. What is at stake ideologically in narrative representations of past and future, particularly those positing fantastical elements that call into question their relationship to a “real” present? Is the culture’s ability—indeed, its powerful propensity—to think outside the representational codes of historiographic realism a symptom of creeping postmodern frivolity, a failure to take “serious history” seriously? Or does it suggest, to the contrary, a way in which postmodern subjects can also be historical subjects?
Gomel’s dense but rewarding Postmodern Science Fiction and Temporal Imagination looks to time travel and related sf tropes (alternate history, utopia, apocalypse) to re-map spatiotemporality in such way that postmodernism might be made accountable to history and vice-versa. With the critical exception of sf, Gomel sees postmodern culture struggling, awkwardly and sometimes desperately, to accommodate new and chiefly technologically engendered modalities of time to a 300-year-old procrustean bed of rationalist ontology: the totalizing “chrono-logic” (2) of the Enlightenment, in which past, present, and future are stable and transparent categories proceeding in a fixed linear sequence. Ironically, this conceptual structure remains so entrenched as to prefigure postmodern spatiotemporal discourse itself. Gomel’s book accordingly takes aim at what has become something of an orthodox position in postmodern critical theory (already a contradiction in terms): that because its aesthetics are synchronic rather than diachronic, postmodernism cannot coherently represent time, and that the present cultural moment is therefore somehow ahistorical.
In Gomel’s view, the casual identification of postmodernity with post-temporality stems from a narrow reading of Fredric Jameson, one she means to complicate by showing that linear chronology is only one of the ways in which twenty-first-century humans conceive of and experience time. In its zeal to stamp out master narratives, the postmodern critical project conflates rationalist chrono-logic with time itself, and thus succeeds only in naturalizing one particularly rigid temporal model among many conceivable alternatives. Meanwhile, a century’s worth of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that time is both physically real and, at the same time, considerably less susceptible to rational cognition than was once supposed. (Perhaps Doctor Who says it best: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause and effect. But actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly ... timey-wimey ... stuff.”) Far from living in a flattened, sterile, and perpetual Jamesonian present, Gomel says, “we are daily inundated by new articulations of temporality and historicity, which we perceive as a-temporal and a-historical only because we have been conditioned to squeeze time and space into narrow conceptual and representational frames” that are no longer viable (3). To conclude that history must be over simply because our epistemological tools are no longer up to the task of thinking it, by analogy and also in effect, is to accept Newton’s clockwork metaphor as the final word on cosmology because we have not yet wrapped our heads around relativity and quantum mechanics.
Narrative theory, for its part, “often seems to be stuck with the models developed for the realist novel, finding itself somewhat in the position of a physicist forced to describe the workings of the Hadron Collider in the language of the ether theory” (9). Classical narratology, weaned on Eliot and Proust, cannot conceive of alternative representations of temporality except as “parasitic” (3): ingenious but essentially masturbatory tinkering with narrative discourse-time, always answerable in the end to the beginning-middle-end schematic of story-time. Literary modernism and postmodernism, in this account, represent successive stages in the degeneration of the nineteenth-century realist novel: the former may jumble the sequence of realtime events by way of refracting them through the subjective prism of an individual consciousness, and the latter may invoke the temporality of realist poetics only for the sake of violating it, but neither can do so without recourse to the yardstick of objective chronology.
It would seem that sf escapes this line of attack only insofar as it is located outside the postmodern “mainstream” (9) and is therefore ineligible for serious narratological treatment in the first place. Yet Gomel goes much further in asserting that sf—preeminently if not exclusively—defies the critique altogether by positing its own self-contained spatiotemporal logics, ad-hoc structures she calls “timeshapes.” The notion derives from Mikhail Bakhtin’s “chronotope,” a concept that eschews overarching chrono-ontology and instead seeks to describe an idiosyncratic relationship between temporal and spatial vectors within the scope of a given narrative text (6). In Gomel’s rather more elastic formulation—“something more than a metaphor and less than a concept” (x)—the chronotope or timeshape is a unique configuration reflecting a particular, historically situated cultural sensibility. For example, in the timeshape of the prototypical time-travel narrative (the focus of Gomel’s first chapter), time is space: uncannily anticipating general relativity, H.G. Wells styles his titular time machine as a buggy-like contraption moving through time as a motorized vehicle moves through space, in a narrative figuration that crystallizes a whole range of fin-de-siècle anxieties and attitudes.
The virtue of this methodology is not just that it is flexible enough to treat individual sf texts on their own structural terms while still addressing a larger network of historical and intertextual meanings, but that in doing so it replicates the teeming profusion of postmodern discourse in an instructive way. Whereas the realist novel matured in a period characterized by industrialization, rationalism, and a stalwart belief in Progress (closely aligned values that can be found encoded in the dominant chrono-logical timeshape), postmodernity entails a multiplicity of heterogeneous and free-floating ontologies spawned continuously by theoretical physics, evolutionary biology, fundamentalist religion, and various other divergent forces. In this sense, sf “is the realism of postmodernity because it allows all its different and incommensurable realities to see themselves as in a glass, darkly, and occasionally clearly as well” (15). The overriding thesis is a bold one: sf, with its endless proliferation of localized timeshapes, each tailored to dramatize a specific philosophical circumstance, is not just an obscure branch or second cousin of postmodernism; it is postmodern literature par excellence.
The book’s somewhat complex theoretical apparatus is front-loaded into the opening chapters, which can make for slow going initially. With the heavy lifting out of the way, however, the reader is at leisure to explore Gomel’s elegant and insightful textual readings, of which space prohibits a detailed accounting here. The succeeding chapters are organized under three sf chronotopes, each attended by its own subgeneric commonplace. Time-travel narratives are governed by a deterministic timeshape that seems to lead inexorably to chronoclasm (causal paradox), giving voice to familiar postmodern anxieties about agency and, simultaneously, a wish to be free of responsibility. The opposite is true of alternate-history sf, which finds its scientific analog in the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics—a timeshape of radical contingency, in which agency is absolute but at the same time absolutely qualified by the total history of choices leading up to the one at hand. Each structure corresponds to one possible psychic response to the myth-shattering revelations of technoscientific modernity, more or less reducible to retreat from—or embrace of—deep ontological uncertainty. Gomel clearly favors the latter option, though there is a third, more troubling, possibility: the millenarian longing to be outside of time altogether, at best misguided and at worst an ideological incitement to violence. The difficulty of Gomel’s project is most apparent here, for she has to redeem history from the dustbin of post-temporality without succumbing to utopian seductions which, by her reckoning, amount to apocalyptic nihilism. If her story has a villain, it is the modernist teleological impulse whose most fearsome projection to date is the Holocaust; yet a postmodernism with no purchase on history is worse than useless. As Gomel writes, “re-imagining history today is neither an intellectual exercise nor an emotional luxury but a political necessity” (15). Let us all hope that sf is up to the job.
These difficulties notwithstanding, the book’s greatest shortcomings are in the design of the volume itself. The charm of Gomel’s writing is belied by the cover, which lends it the utterly generic look of a government white paper, while the reference materials included are pitifully inadequate to the scope of texts Gomel covers. At a list price over $100, an index of more than two pages does not seem too much to ask.
—Joshua Raulerson, University of Iowa
Octavia Butler, a Survey.
Gregory Jerome Hampton. Changing Bodies in the Fiction of Octavia Butler: Slaves, Aliens, and Vampires. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2010. xxvii + 157 pp. $60 hc.
Octavia E. Butler was a brave, unconventional, and very mysterious author, probably one of the finest of her generation. As one of the first analyses of the entirety of Butler’s writing, Changing Bodies is a very useful study. The book has a quite basic, essentially chronological structure and focuses on the recurring themes in her works. Hampton’s prose is straightforward and, as promised in the introduction, does not indulge in “esoteric jargon or essentialist genre hermeneutics” (xii). Moreover, although the author is primarily interested in how the body is figured and constructed in Butler’s fiction, he also tries to look at her writing in connection with the wider landscape of American culture.
In the introduction, Hampton places Butler’s work both inside and outside the genre of science fiction, showing how it can be viewed as a web of intersecting discourses (i.e., feminism, anti-colonialism, etc.) and categorizing vectors (i.e., class, race, gender, and sexuality) that allow us to consider her fiction as part of multiple literary traditions. Hampton argues that a proper acknowledgement of Butler as a major black female writer, for example, could open up her work to readings that highlight its significance to American culture in general, because “[r]ace matters a great deal in Butler’s fiction and it is her employment of race that assists in setting her fiction on the borders of genre boundaries” (xiii).
The first chapter, “Kindred: History, Revision, and (Re)memory of Bodies,” links the body of Dana, the protagonist of the 1979 novel Kindred, to the memory of slavery. Through her traveling across time and space—from 1976 back to the first half of the nineteenth century, from California to Maryland—Dana is brought to acknowledge a past she has never directly experienced. According to Hampton, “it is Dana’s unrecorded or unremembered memories that set in motion the making of her history and the construction of her body” (4). In her trip back in time, Dana has to make sure that her male ancestor, a white slave owner, literally stays alive to father her grandmother, and thus ensure Dana’s own existence in the twentieth century. Hampton rightly points out that it is the experience of slavery itself that makes this possible. Dana’s own body has been actively shaped by American slavery and, significantly, the novel begins with Dana having one of her arms severed during her last trip.
In the second chapter, “Wildseed: The Paradox of Bodily Inscriptions,” Hampton moves on to the first novel (in terms of internal chronology) in the Patternist series (1976-84)—Wildseed (1980), a complex narrative that questions our taboos on incest, miscegenation, and bodily integrity. Describing the violation of certain taboos, such as incest or interracial coupling, Butler suggests that we should rethink our conceptions or misconceptions on what is proper and acceptable in the reproduction of bodies. Hampton also shows how Wildseed is in line with Butler’s body of work by focusing on the theme of the Middle Passage, the physical movement of black bodies from West Africa to America that in various forms is common to all Butler’s fiction, from the simple topic of (time) travel, to the more complex ideas of transmigration into other bodies. The third chapter, “Patternmaster: Hierachies of Identity,” continues the analysis of the Patternist series. Hampton uses Hortence Spillers’s definition of ethnicity—a term “that can describe the changing practices and behaviors of a collective body, which might include gender and sexuality as well as other characteristics beyond the ‘normal’” (48)—to show how, especially in the novel Patternmaster (1976), Butler is conscious of the fact that race is a performance and as such is bound to a certain time and space. Thus, Butler considered race as an ethnicity and, in line with Spillers’s thought, she believed that it is race, as “the most commonly used method of identifying bodies” (66), that determines gender and structures of power.
The fourth chapter, “Discussing Duality and the Chthonic: Octavia Butler, Wole Soyinka, and W.E.B. Du Bois,” is the central and probably the most important in the book. Here Octavia Butler’s fiction is contextualized in African-American literature and cultural tradition by way of the trope of the mulatto. According to Hampton, the ambiguity of Butler’s fiction can be understood as a re-formulation of this multifaceted identity; as a matter of fact, Butler’s writing can be positioned between traditional African-American literature and traditional sf, because even though both genres deal with “spaces/scenarios” that are unfamiliar to mainstream (white) American literature, the spaces/scenarios used by Octavia Butler are unfamiliar also to sf and African-American literature, “primarily because they are focused on people and metaphors who have been traditionally marginalized and who have not yet been thoroughly theorized from a black aesthetic” (69). Hampton describes Butler’s conception of the mulatto as a combination of Yoruba aesthetics, as defined by Wole Soyinka in his essay “The Fourth Stage” (1988), and of W.E.B. Du Bois’s definition of African-American identity as a “double consciousness.” The way both Soyinka and Du Bois theorized identity, as made of hybrid, changing, and even conflicting elements, is significant to Butler’s fiction. Akin, the character at the center of Adulthood Rites (1988), the second book of the Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-89), is a human-alien mulatto and as such he can understand and translate each culture into the other. His hybridity is not only expressed by his understanding of different cultures and languages, but also by his being in between two stages of life, childhood and adulthood. In the quest for human independence from the alien Oankali, Akin is the only one able to deal with the mistrust typical of multicultural relationships and to facilitate change. This diplomatic stance comes naturally to the mulatto, who reasserts miscegenation as the potential tool to disrupt the traditional conceptions of hegemony and hierarchy because
1.) The state of the mulatto is potentially powerful. 2.) The mulatto is not someone who should be feared, for the mulatto potentially possesses a space of identity security. 3.) The varying appearance of the mulatto is at least subconsciously appealing because it represents a desired paradox of likeness and difference, a miscegenation resulting in something stronger and potentially more powerful than the “normal body,” i.e. black, white, male, female, animal or homo sapien. (79)
Chapters 5 and 6 are dedicated to the topics of religion and migration in Parable of the Sower (1993) and Mind of My Mind (1977), respectively. In Butler’s fiction, both religion and migration are connected to the idea of change. The protagonist of the Parable series, Lauren Olamina, for instance, preaches a new faith in a God she identifies with change. Moreover, Hampton points out that both religion and migration have a particular significance to the African-American reader because both can be associated with survival and community building. While religious belief is what literally kept black people alive when going through traumatic life experiences, migration in Butler’s novels has to do with the formation of hybrid communities, where differences are not flattened out for the sake of the group but rather are encouraged and cultivated. For instance, it is by embracing hybridity and change that human beings are able to survive and thrive in the Parable series.
The final chapter, “Vampires and Utopia: Reading Racial and Gender Politics in the Fiction of Octavia Butler,” is mostly devoted to Butler’s later books, Parable of the Talents (1998) and Fledgling (2005). In this chapter, Hampton summarizes Butler’s ideas on politics and draws conclusions on the utopian value of her work. Through the analysis of her vampire story and of the second volume in the Parable series, Hampton concludes that politics for Butler was a process of problem solving within society and that the black female body can be a source of political power. Thus, in her late writing, Butler keeps reasserting, maybe with even more strength, what she has always advocated for, that if we started to value (bodily) difference and variation instead of homogeneity and stability, the world might be a better place. So, even though one cannot say that Butler wrote utopian fiction, it is probably accurate to affirm that she was a utopian thinker. Indeed, as Hampton concludes in his afterword, “it is the glimmer of hope in each of her works that stands out and has the most weight in the imagination of her readers” (130).
Changing Bodies is a solid, straightforward investigation of Octavia Butler’s books and beliefs. Even though it tends to assume that science fiction is a homogeneous field, it has the considerable merit of clearly placing her work in the broader spectrum of African-American and American literature. Moreover, it shows how Butler wrote to empower other people, eventually opening sf up to diverse readerships and, maybe, making it easier for other writers of color to engage in such a “white” genre. (An appendix to the book includes two interviews with Butler and some of her African-American colleagues, Nalo Hopkinson, Tananarive Due, and Steven Barnes.) I should admit, finally, that I expected a more engaging reading of Butler’s work. Hampton’s analysis is avowedly uncommitted to any theoretical viewpoint, and as such I found it rather unsatisfactory. Changing Bodies is just the first overview, however, a map that every future scholarly examination of Butler’s fiction is going to enrich and expand. That is why I do recommend this book to anyone interested in studying Octavia Butler’s achievements, and her significance to American (and not only American) literature and culture.
—Arianna Gremigni, University of Florence
From Myth to Magic to History.
Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James. A Short History of Fantasy. London: Middlesex UP, 2009. 285 pp. £11.99 pbk.
In A Short History of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James—both well-respected scholars in the field—set out to provide an overview of the history of fantasy from early texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey to the work of current fantasists such as Nalo Hopkinson and China Miéville, and to do so in a concise, easily accessible fashion. The authors note in their introduction that “this book intends to fill a gap,” and go on to observe that “while plenty of people have worked on defining fantasy, and John Clute and John Grant and their collaborators have catalogued it [in their Encyclopedia], there is no short history of fantasy” (6); they also suggest that part of their purpose is to track developments in the genre over time. Because theirs is a history, and a short one, the authors in general refrain from literary analysis or interpretation of those generic developments, but the Short History admirably succeeds in fulfilling its stated purpose, and moreover, provides extensive supplementary materials (a Chronology of Important Works and People, a Further Reading List, and a Glossary) that will be useful for scholars in the field.
In their Introduction, the authors not only describe the need for a history of fantasy, but also spend a considerable amount of time discussing the merits and pitfalls of various approaches to defining fantasy. The “most obvious construction,” they observe, is “the presence of the impossible and the unexplainable” (3); however, they offer a thoughtful critique of this definition on cultural grounds, noting that “ideas about the location of the boundary between ‘real’ and ‘fantastical’ may be different” in different times and places (3). The second approach they consider is a historical one, advocated by such critics as Brian Stableford and Adam Roberts, who suggest that fantasy as a genre only emerges in response to the realism of the Enlightenment. This approach, however, tends to devalue what Mendlesohn and James term “the responses of earlier times to the fantastic” (3-4). The third approach, which the authors appear to favor (but in a qualified way), is exemplified by critics who “understand fantasy as a conversation that is happening, as we write, between the authors of the texts and the readers” (4-5); the four theorists they acknowledge as having most impacted their scholarship are Michael Moorcock, Brian Attebery, John Clute, and Mendlesohn herself. If there is an implicit thesis about approaches to the genre as a whole in the Short History, it can be found here, in which the authors privilege this view of fantasy as a dialogue, one that is always “happening.” The final approach to classifying fantasy, as discussed in the Introduction, is the means by which fantasy is packaged and sold—everything from cover art to shelving in bookstores. While often overlooked by literary critics, this aspect of defining fantasy is often central to the consumer’s experience of and expectations for the genre.
As one might, indeed, expect from a historical overview, the Short History is organized chronologically. Most chapters cover a single decade (e.g., “Chapter Six: The 1960s”) and continue up to the year 2010. Chapter Three, however, covers a longer time span, 1900-1950, and two other chapters are dedicated to in-depth studies of authors who have had “immense” influence on the genre. Chapter One, on the other hand, is enticingly titled “From Myth to Magic,” and looks at what the authors label the “progenitors” of fantasy: the epic, the romance, and the fairy tale. This chapter offers an extensive overview of myths, legends, sagas, and romances, moving rapidly from the Icelandic sagas to the medieval Arthurian romances. Mendlesohn and James note here that “one way to understand the survival of the Arthurian cycle is to see it as the folklore of the elite, reinforcing a Christian claim to temporal power and also a chivalric code of ethics”; they do, however, observe that “alternative traditions, belonging to the middling sort, the poor and the dispossessed” remain almost equally as powerful (10). This observation leads to a discussion of fairy tales and seventeenth-century popularizations of fairy stories and folklore; this seems to be a dramatic temporal leap, and any developments in fantasy between the Middle Ages and the seventeenth century are passed over without much mention. This chapter, however, ends with an excellent overview of the “rise of modern fantasy” (14) at the end of the nineteenth century, from the influence of the Gothic to children’s novels to William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites. This chapter is densely packed, and could perhaps have been expanded into two, or even into a book-length study in its own right, but it does present a wonderful array of major authors and works in their historical context.
The Short History is clearly and efficiently organized; chapters often begin by identifying major trends of the decade under discussion, and then providing examples, in relative chronological order, of important texts; for example, “Chapter Eight: The 1980s” begins by asserting that “quest fantasies became the dominant tradition in the 1980s” (119) and gives a brief definition of quest fantasy before proceeding to discuss such texts as David Eddings’s Belgariad series (1982-84). Tolkien and Lewis are given their own chapter, as Mendlesohn and James see their “innovations” as influential on all later fantasists, even those who explicitly reject their style. Somewhat more surprisingly, another later chapter is dedicated to Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, and Terry Pratchett, three authors who would seem to have less in common with each other than Tolkien and Lewis. Mendlesohn and James comment that these three authors have, however, helped to change both the marketing of fantasy and the public perception of the genre (168): Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000) offers “intelligence, complexity, and density” to young readers (170); Rowlings’s work combines an adventure story with “a longing for nostalgia and for an ‘old England’” (174), as well as benefiting from the rise of the Internet and global fandom networks; and Pratchett, despite a “sleeper hit” beginning, has subtly changed the genre overall by, as Mendlesohn and James put it, “us[ing] the storylines and the characters to poke and prod at the ‘givens’ of our own world, the stories we tell about it, and of the fantasy worlds many of his colleagues write” (181).
Mendlesohn and James end the Short History by speculating—or refusing to speculate—about the future of fantasy: “writers and critics in the post-modern world are sympathetic to the playfulness and willingness to experiment that has characterized much of the best fantasy…. Fantasy has the potential to bring huge changes to our understanding of literature in the twenty-first century, but to imagine that we can predict the long-term future of literature is, of course, sheerest fantasy” (217). The authors suggest here that fantasy will continue to be valuable in our understanding of both our literature and ourselves; A Short History of Fantasy will aid both scholars and thoughtful fans in that understanding.
—Kristin Noone, University of California, Riverside
Poe & Griswold = Kornbluth & Pohl?
Mark Rich. C.M Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. xi + 439 pp. $39.95 pbk.
This book is an important contribution to our understanding of mid-twentieth-century sf, even though I am very uncomfortable with some of its personal judgments. Most sf readers know a few basic facts about Cyril M. Kornbluth: co-author of The Space Merchants (1953); wrote excellent short fiction and some good novels on his own; died very young in 1958. Looking through the NESFA volume His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Fiction of C.M. Kornbluth (1997), I was struck by how much I had unconsciously absorbed, on initial reading years ago, certain characteristic attitudes, images, tag lines, etc. He was a ferociously intelligent writer, both outraged and amused by incompetence, intolerant of slovenly evasion and easy sentimentality, the ideal smartass young talent to appeal to a smartass young reader.
Rich has done an admirable job researching the man’s life and times, interviewing every possible living source, poring through professional and fan magazines, and digging through special collections at Northern Illinois and Syracuse Universities. If the narrative sometimes feels clotted with data, that probably is not just because Rich invested so much energy locating these details but also because no one else may ever have the opportunity to check all his sources again. Rich presents as good a sense as we are likely to get of the milieu in which Kornbluth began exercising his talents. In particular, the book gives a lively picture of the New York sf fans who called themselves Futurians, a gaggle of very bright, progressive (i.e., leftist) young men who reinforced each others’ belief that they were marvelously ahead of their destined era but that one satisfying thing they could do in the meantime was write: manifestos, humorous essays, poems, and sf stories. Besides a mid-teen Kornbluth, the Futurians included such later-major writers and editors as Donald A. Wollheim, Robert A.W. Lowndes, Isaac Asimov, and Frederik Pohl. Rich’s account of their friendships and feuds, incorporating interviews with the few surviving fans of the period, go well beyond the written record to be found in Sam Moskowitz’s The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom (1954), which eyed the group from the suspicious perspective of a conservative antagonist; or sometimes-member Damon Knight’s far more sympathetic The Futurians: The Story of the Science Fiction Family of the 30s That Produced Today’s Top SF Writers and Editors (1977); not to mention the relevant sections of such personal memoirs as Pohl’s The Way the Future Was (1978) and Asimov’s In Memory Yet Green (1979).
When, miraculously, Futurians became editors of several poverty-row sf pulps just before WWII, it was natural that group members filled the pages, not so much for the low pay as to establish themselves as published writers and to show that they could do it. In fact, several pieces of the fiction Kornbluth wrote incredibly quickly and under a bewildering array of pen-names for the likes of Stirring Science Stories (such as “The Words of Guru,” June 1941, by Kenneth Falconer) and Cosmic Stories (e.g., “The Reversible Revolutions,” March 1941, by Cecil Corwin) are folded into His Share of Glory along with tales from much later in his career. They do not look like apprentice work. When Kornbluth returned to writing following health-damaging service during the war, he turned out some marvelous stories. “The Little Black Bag” (Astounding, July 1950), for example, brilliantly juxtaposes present and future settings in which inferior individuals weigh down their superiors, cutting off all hope of redemption and progress; the story insists that if the people who can see this problem do not decide they must solve it, then all humanity will be doomed.
In what now looks like a golden age for sf magazines, Kornbluth found a variety of places to publish. Galaxy had a taste for social satire, such as “The Luckiest Man in Denv” (June 1952); on the other hand, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction encouraged experiments such as “MS. Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie” (July 1957) and “The Events Leading Down to the Tragedy” (January 1958), while Venture was open to edgier subject matter (“The Education of Tigress McCardle,” July 1957). Publishers such as Doubleday were beginning to do sf in hardcovers, and paperback houses could always use thrillers by someone like Kornbluth who could write very well and very fast. Rich does a good job tracing Kornbluth’s stressful life at this time as he provided for his wife and children, worked at mundane jobs, and labored over new sf. Somehow deals got made, books written. Kornbluth collaborated with Judith Merril on two sf novels and with Frederik Pohl on four sf and three mainstream ones, and he began learning to write full-length novels on his own. He proved he could be not just savagely but gently devastating in stories such as “Theory of Rocketry” (F&SF, July 1958). He was recognized universally as one of the leading sf writers of the period. At the time of his death, he was about to be named Consulting Editor of F&SF, a position that would have let him nurture other talented, dedicated writers. Rich gives much valuable detail on this part of Kornbluth’s sadly truncated life. Although the book is not especially strong in literary criticism, it does mention each piece of writing and indicate Kornbluth’s concerns as he struggled to become the writer he knew he could be.
Unfortunately, this is the part of C.M. Kornbluth with which I had the most difficulty. Rich has a passionate and all-pervasive agenda. His preface clearly states that Kornbluth was like Edgar Allan Poe, who was betrayed by his literary executor, Rufus Wilmot Griswold (2). In Kornbluth’s case, it is Frederik Pohl who has misinformed readers while hogging the spotlight; Rich believes that Pohl cheated Kornbluth and injured him as a writer while he was alive and has continued to do damage since his death. Looking over the Kornbluth-Pohl correspondence, Rich concludes that Pohl habitually shorted Kornbluth financially while representing him as an agent, editing his work, or collaborating with him. Even more seriously, Pohl hampered Kornbluth’s growth by enticing him into quick-buck, shoddy projects and then tampering clumsily with the results, which may have turned out surprisingly well due to Kornbluth’s inherent talent. Considering Pohl’s revision of the Pohl-Kornbluth Galaxy serial “Gravy Planet” into the book version The Space Merchants, for example, Rich comments that
[b]esides deletions of structurally important passages and the cheapening of female characters, the new version includes problematic changes in verb-tense and word choice.... Pohl undoubtedly had reasons for making these and other changes even if they were to the detriment of the novel. The changes were similar to changes Ray Palmer made on an early Asimov story, in which Palmer cut scientific rationale as much as possible, to emphasize the story line.... Yet it seems likely the changes were done out of lack of appreciation for what Kornbluth had accomplished with his draft. (230)
C.M. Kornbluth is saturated with such examples of angry, anti-Pohl feeling. In fact, Rich implies that Pohl’s consistent ill treatment was responsible for the young writer’s early death, claiming that Kornbluth “internalized injuries, slights, and wrongs ... even when already possessed of a fragile constitution that was failing because of hypertension and a damaged heart” (245). Nor did the betrayal end with Kornbluth’s death, since Pohl made sure that, when he edited a memorial anthology to benefit Kornbluth’s widow and sons, he got a large chunk of the profits (344).
This seems extremely damning—though perhaps seems is the key word. Just prior to that last quotation, Rich does note that Mary was listed as editor, although, as she wrote to Pohl, his should have been the name on the cover. He apparently did most of the work involved, except for the writing of the contributor checks (344). In fact, comparing Pohl and Griswold is not especially convincing, since Griswold worked hard to blacken the memory of his friend, while Pohl has at least cooperated in keeping Kornbluth’s reputation alive. Rich might suggest—as he does in almost attributing to Pohl the Kornbluth obituary in The New York Times that listed Pohl-Kornbluth collaborations but neglected Kornbluth’s independent work (2)—that in promoting Kornbluth’s legacy Pohl actually has been puffing himself up. Maybe, but Rich does not explain that notion fully. Nor does the book satisfactorily explain why Kornbluth put up with so much mistreatment over so many years. Despite the mass of quotations that Rich assembles, I have trouble accepting his total condemnation of Pohl. For one thing, according to Rich every change Pohl made to Kornbluth’s writing was for the worse. Considering the talent that Pohl has shown since then as a solo writer and editor, it is hard to imagine that Kornbluth was always at his best as a creative genius and Pohl always at his worst as a mere commercial hack. As Pohl’s list of personal and literary offenses accumulates, the best Rich can say is that Pohl may have been too crass to recognize the damage he was doing. Consequently, despite Rich’s extensive documentation, the book seems out of focus, concerned at least as much with damning Pohl as with increasing readers’ appreciation for Kornbluth.
Unfortunately, then, C.M. Kornbluth leaves me with mixed feelings. I admire the thoroughness of Rich’s research and appreciate the fierceness of his devotion to his subject; I just wish I could feel quite safe in trusting the results.
—Joe Sanders, Shadetree Scholar
Time-tripping the Black Fantastic.
Ingrid Thaler. Black Atlantic Speculative Fictions: Octavia E. Butler, Jewelle Gomez, and Nalo Hopkinson. New York: Routledge, 2010. ix + 193 pp. $95 hc.
Ingrid Thaler opens this rigorous work of sf scholarship with a reading of Douglas Kearney’s short-short story “Anansi Meets Peter Parker at the Taco Bell on Lexington” (2000), which stages a conversation between the spider/man of African and Caribbean folk traditions and the boy who will become the iconic Spiderman of US popular culture, in order to argue that “cultural production thrives on the dialogic exchanges of tropes that travel back and forth in cultural contexts and are thereby substantially changed” (1). Thaler develops this idea through her analyses of authors Octavia E. Butler, Jewelle Gomez, and Nalo Hopkinson, whom she holds up as exemplars of a new type of hybrid writing situated between the Black Atlantic tradition (often concerned with the past’s lessons for the present) and the more historically white-dominated genre of speculative fiction (concerned with the present’s implications for the future). Parsing the ways in which interactions of past, present, and future literary and cultural histories in these authors’ works illuminate concepts of race, identity, domination, utopia, and dystopia, Thaler’s four essay-chapters are as thought-provoking as they are meticulously researched.
It is Thaler’s close attention to existing scholarship, however, that diminishes the effectiveness of her first chapter, “The Meaning of the Past? Allegory in Octavia E. Butlers Wild Seed (1980).” So concerned is she with engaging the critical voices defining models of time and allegory that her own voice gets drowned out in the din. Yet the main thrust of her reading—that “Wild Seed conflates clearly identifiable time spaces of past, present, and future in its desire for a timeless allegory” (35)—gains little from the baroque literature reviews preceding it; once free of these hindrances, the chapter goes on to offer a lucid interrogation of how Butler’s allegory reveals the “gendered, unequal power struggle for reproduction between man and woman as eternally valid” (24). In her second chapter, “Traveling Through Time: Vampire Fiction and the Black Atlantic in Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories (1991),” Thaler showcases her skill at explication, guiding readers through the narrative’s intertextual web of black genres and white traditions. What emerges is an insightful discussion of how Gomez complicates the signifiers with which she works—the vampire, the slave, the white male, the black female—opening them up to new possibilities, such as queer interventions into current concepts of the monstrous or abnormal.
In the third chapter, “Dystopian Future and Utopian Vision: Surviving Apocalypse in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993),” Thaler displays an ability to synthesize wide-ranging cultural and critical conversations to form—like a photomosaic La Giaconda composed of a thousand tiny pictures—a surprising and coherent gestalt. Part of what makes this possible is her familiarity with the nineteenth-century (and earlier) American literary tradition, and some of the freshest insights emerge from her connections between Butler’s work and that of, among others, Mary Rowlandson, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. These connections allow Thaler to advance her thesis that Black Atlantic Speculative Fictions appropriate and rework extant literary genres, such as the slave narrative, the frontier tale, the gothic, the agrarian utopia, and the moral-didactic story. The final chapter, “A Better Future? Ambiguity, Cyberpunk, and Caribbean Syncretism in Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000),” analyzes the structural ambiguities built into the novel, its Pan-Caribbean fusion of dialects, the master/slave relationship between humans and super-intelligent machines, and the colonial impulses and violent power-negotiations propelling “utopian” communities into outer space. Here, the performance of personal trauma finds a conjunction with carnivalesque role-play and slave narrative to confront what Thaler calls the hybridized, “neglected histories” of Pan-Caribbean colonialism (124).
A few lingering questions remain after the final pages. In a work so dedicated to the interactions of past, present, and future in Butler’s work, why not give full attention to Kindred (1979)? And since all the essays concern female authors and themes such as the unequal power dynamics between men and women, why not add the term “Female” to the book’s title? Thaler explains the omission as “a feminist hope … that these texts need not necessarily and exclusively be analyzed in their relationship with feminist and womanist theories because the text’s literary and cultural work also demands critical attention” (14). Fair enough, though a discussion of why Black Atlantic Speculative Fiction might be particularly well-suited to the contemporary female writers representing this new genre could only give more coherence to the volume. All in all, the major critical strength of Black Atlantic Speculative Fictions is its sustained fusion of critical synthesis and clear-sighted explication, and Thaler’s close attention to Butler, Gomez, and Hopkinson more than makes the case that these authors have spearheaded innovations in formal hybridity and narrative temporality.
—Mark Young, University of California, Riverside
Fan Scholarship 2.0.
Heather Urbanski, ed. Writing and the Digital Generation: Essays on New Media Rhetoric. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. ix+168 pp. $35 pbk.
The close relations of editors, authors, and readers is one of the sf community’s unique features. Indeed, these close—and even porous—relations are as old as genre sf itself, beginning with the letter forums editor Hugo Gernsback included in his fiction magazines from the 1920s onwards. These forums encouraged fans to participate in a range of rhetorical activities: while some used these spaces to critically engage the ideas of their favorite authors, others were inspired to even more extensive creative efforts, establishing lively correspondences with one another, founding their own sf fanzines, and even pursuing professional sf writing and editing careers. Scholars interested in the legacy of these relations will find much to enjoy in Writing and the Digital Generation: Essays on New Media Rhetoric, a book that began, as editor Heather Urbanski explains on her dedication page, “in science fiction and fantasy fandom” (np). More specifically, the 26 authors featured in this volume explore how the digital applications associated with web 2.0—including social networking sites, blogs, wikis, and video sharing sites—enable contemporary fans to participate in rhetorical activities that blur conventional distinctions between creator and audience, and production and consumption.
Urbanski opens Writing and the Digital Generation with the observation that “with the recent explosion of participatory digital media, rhetorical reality is quickly catching up with rhetorical theory” (3). The veracity of this observation is particularly evident in the opening section, “React: Maintaining a Fan Community,” where authors test foundational ideas about the meaning and value of fandom first proposed by Henry Jenkins, Camille Bacon-Smith, and John Fiske two decades ago (in other words, what we might call fan scholarship 1.0) against the reality of digital fandom today. Several of the essays featured in this section, including those by Melissa Ames, Kimberly DeVries, and Thomas B. Cavanagh, confirm the more utopian ideals associated with fan scholarship 1.0. In particular, they demonstrate how digital technologies facilitate the exponential growth of fan communities and what Ames calls “second order production” (29)—that is, the creation and dissemination of unofficial, politically charged narratives that critically assess the source narratives around which contemporary soap opera, sports, and comic-book fandoms are based. Other essays—including those by Georgiana O. Miller, Michael R. Trice, and Karen Hellekson—update earlier theories of fandom by identifying the new technological skills that reality tv, sports, and sf fans must acquire to participate in their chosen communities, and demonstrating how the rhetorical activities of these communities are changing traditional notions of journalistic and historiographic writing. Of course, not all fan engagements with the digital world are equally successful. As Sean Morey’s personal vignette about the campaign to save Farscape (1999-2003) from cancellation illustrates, online fan activities can sometimes encourage a sense of individual and communal empowerment without having much real effect on corporate production practices. Furthermore, as Marina Hassapopoulou concludes in her exploration of the transmedia storytelling practices associated with the tv show Lost (2004-2010), increasingly savvy players in the pop-culture industry are beginning to use web 2.0 applications to manage and even appropriate fan production itself.
The essays featured in part II, “Re-mix: Participating in Established Narratives,” explore how the narrative practices of modern fandoms challenge a “crisis rhetoric” that vilifies “digital technologies as a whole, and film and video in particular … for luring young people away from the benefits of reading literature” (120). More specifically, the authors included in this section use ideas about subaltern narrative production drawn from the work of such classic fan scholars as Jenkins and contemporary ones such as Hellekson and Kristina Busse to complicate deeply rooted beliefs about the innate superiority of print literacy to its digital counterparts. As in the first section, the conclusions drawn here are provocative precisely because they are so mixed. Susanna Coleman and Kim Middleton demonstrate in their respective essays on videogame- and television-inspired fan fiction that fans—especially young female fans—actively use online research, writing, and video-editing applications to rewrite their favorite source narratives and, in doing so, create new modes of digital literacy. Elsewhere in this section, Julie Flynn and Kristine Larsen demonstrate surprising parallels between the creative practices of the speculative fanfic community and the critical practices of its academic counterpart. Meanwhile, Julie L. Rowse’s essay on the talking and viewing habits of fantasy-football-league participants provides a sobering reminder that digital technologies do not always foster either creativity or community but can sometimes foster distinctly apolitical and anti-social behaviors instead.
While the authors featured in the first two sections of Writing and the Digital Generation focus primarily on the rhetorical activities of contemporary fans who are—like their predigital counterparts—oriented primarily toward the written word, those collected in “Re-Create: Creating Narratives within Established Frames” explore the significance of fan activity in “some of the ‘flashiest’ examples of digital media: YouTube, Second Life, and MMORPGs” (12). This is perhaps the most theoretically provocative section of Urbanski’s volume, as the authors featured here pair insights from fan scholarship with those drawn from postmodern cultural theorists such as Paul Virilio and Jürgen Habermas and digital media theorists such as Janet Murray, Michael Nitsche, and Sherry Turkle. Such pairings enable Diane Penrod, Christopher Paul, and Wendi Jewell to show, for example, how the production of YouTube sf parody videos, World of Warcraft raiding documents, and World of Warcraft guild-building protocols can—much like traditional forms of fan fiction—actively facilitate the creation of social community. In a similar vein, the personal vignettes by Zach Waggoner, Harald Warmelink, and Catherine McDonald illustrate the creative potential inherent in online activities ranging from the creation of game avatars to blogging to the production of electronic music, all of which enable fans to explore new aspects of their personal identities. Finally, Matthew S.S. Johnson and Mark Pepper suggest that the new public spaces associated with the digital worlds of Guild Wars and Second Life enable both the recreation of classic political identities and the production of new aesthetic subjectivities.
The final section of Urbanksi’s collection, “Teaching the Digital Generation,” explores how the rhetorical practices and digital technologies associated with contemporary fandom might be productively incorporated into the classroom. For example, Juli Parrish’s essay about the feedback protocols associated with one Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) fan fiction website suggests exciting new ways to organize peer-review activities in the real-time classroom. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Kleinfeld, Ashley Andrews, and Jentery Sayers demonstrate how blogs, social-networking sites, and even GPS systems can be used to foster new avenues of communication between students and teachers. As in the other sections of this collection, Urbanksi balances stories about the utopian promise of digital fan practices with ones about the potential perils inherent in virtual life—in this case, offering readers the tale of her own difficulties navigating Facebook and Second Life. But even these difficulties turn out to be productive for Urbanksi, enabling her to speculate provocatively (and, for this reader, convincingly) about the probable relations between differing levels of technical know-how and differing attitudes toward print versus digital literacies.
Taken together, the 26 essays included in Writing and the Digital Generation will appeal to sf scholars interested in the cultural theories, aesthetic practices, and pedagogical possibilities of modern fandom. Young scholars and those who are new to sf studies will particularly appreciate the first two sections as they provide an excellent overview of fan scholarship from the 1980s to the present. More seasoned members of the sf community will find much to engage them, especially in part III, where Urbanski and her fellow authors forge provocative connections among fan scholarship, postmodern cultural theory, and digital media studies. Meanwhile, the concluding section on fandom, learning, and teaching will be of particular interest to those of us in sf studies (and I suspect that includes most of us with academic posts) who teach composition and communication classes on a regular basis.
My only caution to SFS readers who pick up Writing and the Digital Generation is that the very thing that makes this collection so lively and diverse—its multitude of short and to-the-point chapters—also engenders its few weaknesses. The essays included in Urbanski’s collection range from 2-10 pages in length and, as such, are much more modest than traditional academic essays. For the most part, this enables authors to make their points quickly and clearly, but in a few instances it leads them to draw big conclusions about the progressive social and political potential of digital fandom that do not seem to be entirely supported by the evidence presented. Furthermore, many of the novel attributes that Urbanski and her fellow authors attribute to digital fandom—including the creation of non-geographical communities, the demarcation of safe spaces in which to assess critically and creatively rewrite source material, and the porous boundary between fan and pro—have been fundamental aspects of sf fandom since Gernsback established the first print sf magazines. While a few of the authors included herein (most notably Kim Middleton) acknowledge that digital fandom may differ from its predecessors more in degree than in kind, most are silent on this subject. Of course, this silence might well stem from either the page limits with which Urbanski’s authors were working or the fact that speculations about the history of non-digital fandom were beyond the scope of this particular collection. Nonetheless, I cannot help but feel that by extrapolating more carefully from the past of sf fandom, these same authors could have made even more convincing arguments about its present configurations and future possibilities.
Of course, no single essay collection can (or should!) do everything, and the fact that Urbanksi and her fellow authors left me wanting to hear more about the cultural phenomenon that is contemporary fandom testifies to how thoroughly Writing and the Digital Generation captured my heart and engaged my mind. And so, rather than concluding with the wish that Urbanski had done the impossible and given her readers even more, I will conclude instead with the observation that I cannot wait to hear what Urbanski and other advocates of fan scholarship 2.0 will say about these topics in the future.
—Lisa Yaszek, Georgia Institute of Technology