Another Genre That Is Not.
Emily E. Auger. Tech-Noir Film: A Theory of the Development of Popular Genres. Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2011. 492 pp. £60 hc.
Emily Auger’s argument is two-pronged: to define the emergence of the new genre that she calls “tech-noir” and to argue its crowning position in the succession of popular genres of the last 200 years. Drawing its name from a nightclub in which Sarah Connor is hiding from the cyborg in The Terminator (1984), the term “tech-noir” has been previously used to describe a loose aesthetic at the intersection of cyberpunk-styled near-future sf and film-noir visualities, for example in the 2003 themed issue of the newsletter of YLEM, an international organization of artists, scientists, and authors. In Auger’s study, this largely impressionistic label is replaced with a full-blown definition of a genre “with unique emphases and concerns” (13). In it, the “noir” component loses its original filmic connotations and instead is used—not very fortunately, I think—to designate a general skeptical attitude arising from “the realization that technology is a real-world problem” (12). For the author, this awareness “began to consolidate in film in relation to certain plots, constituent units, and didactic messages” (12) in the 1970s, although she also admits that the ease of access to post-1970 films was a factor in establishing the temporal frames. A number of other parameters of the genre are discussed, too: it exposes “the temporal nature of concepts of identity and society” (21); among its agents are “cyborgs, androids, clones, virtual beings, and other forms of artificial intelligence” (114); its settings generally emphasize “wastelands” (118); and other, presumably defining, categories include the “abject” (142) and “the aesthetics of good and evil” (143). Central to the argument is the insistence that tech-noir “picks up after science fiction” (21)—and this is precisely where the first major problem of the book is located.
Auger’s conception of tech-noir is predicated on a certain—peculiar at best—understanding of science fiction, which “no longer seemed to speak to the proper use of science and technology,” and has given way to tech-noir, which appears “when people start to seriously question the effects of science and technology” (36). “It is in tech-noir that the center of discourse shifts from the celebrated ‘science’ of science fiction to its consequences, particularly technology and the ways it can be, and indeed is being used for purposes that challenge just about everything: the environment, economic and social stability, and more” (21). Characters in science fiction may even occasionally “shift attention from external conflicts to the divided inner self” (49), but it is tech-noir that truly investigates this inward gaze. I suppose statements such as these—and there are more, including factual mistakes and the persistent use of “sci-fi”—do not even require comment in this journal, but given that they serve as foundation for Auger’s posited genre, they provide a sense of the speciousness of the overall argument.
The author’s other preoccupation is identified in the second part of the book’s title: Auger attempts to install tech-noir, which “postdates the familiar gothic, detective, and science fiction” (13), as the pinnacle in the historical succession of genres—both historical and aesthetic. In this succession, gothic fiction, detective fiction, science fiction, and tech-noir are characterized by their relative emphasis on various discourses—psychology, sociology, science, and aesthetics, respectively. These pairings are further correlated with the realms of experience of the symbolic, the real, the imaginary, and the simulacrum, the last of which, next to a reference to Baudrillard, is puzzlingly identified as “an idealized order of things that the hero is inevitably called upon to restore or reaffirm” (33) and “the realm of ‘natural’ balance, wholeness, or unity” (34). Concurrently, running through all of these are the myths of Prometheus and Oedipus, each of which receives an extensive treatment in the study.
Like the definition of tech-noir, this very rigid structuralist vision of genres (elegantly laid out in the appended tables) and their evolution is very problematic. Against the grand promise of “A Theory of the Development of Popular Genres,” the study curiously omits several crucial traditions such as the western, the romance, fantasy, and horror. While the progression Auger traces from the gothic to sf is almost exclusively based on literary texts, tech-noir is constructed as a cinematic genre; it is not clear, however, whether literary tech-noir exists and what texts would belong to it. Finally, the author does not even acknowledge the recent transformations of genre theory or address their consequences for her propositions—especially the insight that genres are ideological and economic constructions rather than mathematical descriptions of literary or cinematic objects. Instead, she devotes much of her argument to constructing elaborate lineages of worthy predecessors, and even those at times appear to be little more than a stringing together of cinematic adaptations of such texts as Frankenstein (1818) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), which merely demonstrates the evolution of certain motifs or characters. All in all, the first 150 pages of Tech-Noir Film are a forced and confused argument attempting to justify a new genre whose texts, such as Westworld (1973), The Boys from Brazil (1976), Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator (1984), RoboCop (1987), Until the End of the World (1991), Strange Days (1995), The Matrix (1999), and Code 46 (2003), among others, already have a home. It is called science fiction—but in no place does Auger even attempt to explain why any of the above should be considered tech-noir rather than sf.
These failures are unfortunate since Auger is an astute reader and viewer—both the copious notes and the extensive bibliography (which, admittedly, lacks almost all of the foundational scholarship in sf studies in general and sf film studies in particular) demonstrate the earnestness of her ambitions. Happily, the failure of the theoretical section is counterweighed by the second, larger part of the book containing an extensive survey of 216 films. Regardless of the fallacious argument the filmography is supposed to support, it is in her detailed readings that Auger’s scholarship shines and her analyses prove potentially useful.
The selection of films is highly eclectic—from Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Lumet’s Network (1976), De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), and Weir’s The Truman Show (1998), to the sf classics mentioned earlier, to the new B-class of the Project Shadowchaser (1992-95), Cyborg Cop (1993-95), and Nemesis (1992-96) franchises. Yet common to them all are certain technological thematics (broadly understood), that are broken down into a series of hierarchical motifs and topoi (148-59). All films are indexed and listed several times according to various criteria, including the thematic groupings earlier used in The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010). In the filmography itself, the film synopses are fairly detailed and, unlike in many publications relying on such listings, do not give an impression of being hastily collated from online summaries. The last section of each entry situates the film in a broader context, cross-referencing it with other titles preoccupied with the same issues and occasionally with literary texts. The most valuable aspect of the filmography is its wide selection, particularly its inclusion of the whole range of 1980s and 1990s B-class titles. While they may not be as intellectually challenging as Hollywood classics such as Blade Runner, Terminator, or Alien (1979), such titles as Brainstorm (1983), Cherry 2000 (1987), Fortress (1992), Final Mission (1993), Circuitry Man II (1994), Expect No Mercy (1995), Encrypt (2003), and many others constitute an important genealogy for sf cinema. That Auger devotes as much attention and space to them as to revered classics is admirable and highly useful, providing a much fuller account of the sf filmic landscape of the past two decades. Many of the films discussed have never even been mentioned in the existing scholarship. Occasional minor errors, such as merging Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979) and The Island (2005) as a series, do not detract much from the comprehensiveness of these 250 pages.
Consequently, I can, despite my criticisms of its framing argument, recommend Auger’s study as a worthy purchase (more for libraries than for individuals, given the hefty price tag) that can prove useful both as a research checklist of a generally overlooked roster of sf films and as a valuable classroom resource.
—Paweł Frelik, Maria Curie-Skłodowska University
Much More Than an Intellectual Hoodlum.
John Baxter. The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011. 377 pp. £20 hc.
It was to be expected that, after J.G. Ballard’s death in 2009, someone would endeavor to tell the story of the British writer’s life. Ballard’s own exploitation of autobiographical materials in such works as Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991) called out for research that could help readers and scholars sort fact from fiction in those two novels, as well as his final memoir, Miracles of Life (2008). A well-researched and painstaking biography can be a useful support for scholarly analysis, providing precious information about the personal/historical contexts in which an author’s works were written. A great biography is one that succeeds both as literature and as historiography, but unfortunately Baxter’s The Inner Man is neither of these.
Reading it as a literary biography—where the adjective stands for richness of style, complexity of structure, emotional power, etc.—proves disappointing. One could compare Baxter’s biography to the partly factual, partly fictional book by Emmanuel Carrère, I Am Alive and You Are Dead (1993), which tells the story of another sf writer, Philip K. Dick, who is often mentioned in connection with Ballard (all their differences notwithstanding). The fictionalized biography or biographical novel written by the French novelist is much more persuasive in terms of style, construction, emotional power, and empathy than Baxter’s book. The problem with reading The Inner Man as a literary (that is, perhaps not wholly reliable but aesthetically rewarding) biography—apart from its being introduced and presented as a plain biography, which should “illuminate the troubled reality behind the urbane and amiable façade” of J.G. Ballard (as the dust-jacket flap boasts)—is that it does not really elaborate the materials that seasoned Ballard readers already know so well. Shanghai in the Thirties, Lunghua camp, impoverished post-WWII England, Cambridge, Moose Jaw … Ballard scholars and lovers know these symbolically charged places because they have been discussed in his autobiographical fiction and memoir. Baxter merely rehashes atmospheres and insights already extensively covered by the author.
Nor does he manage to recreate the life of Ballard in Ballardian terms, a legitimate move in a biography that aims at aesthetic creation rather than documentary trustworthiness. Carrère’s fictionalized biography is fascinating because it tells Dick’s life as if it were a novel written by Philip K. Dick; although this move had already been made by Dick himself in his most autobiographical works (A Scanner Darkly , VALIS , and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer ), Carrère often manages to out-Dick Dick in his dubious but enthralling retellings of meaningful episodes in the writer’s life, recreating that peculiar atmosphere of ontological uncertainty that is the hallmark of every truly Dickian fiction. For his part, Baxter fails to invoke that unmistakable Ballardian mood that can be found on any page written by the Shepperton visionary, be it the earliest sf stories, the apocalyptical novels of the 1960s, the postmodernist experiments of the 1970s, or the apparently more conventional autobiographical fictions and crime novels of the 1980s and 1990s. The reason for this purely literary shortcoming is, I suspect, that Baxter has mixed feelings about Ballard: since his basic theses about the personality of Shanghai Jim are that he was (1) an alcoholic, (2) a violent man, ready to mistreat his girlfriends, and (3) a shrewd and cynical ad man who relentlessly carried out a promotional campaign for his works and above all for himself, one cannot help feeling that Baxter ultimately dislikes Ballard and that his intense and all-pervading antipathy prevents him from recreating the characteristic atmosphere of genuinely Ballardian fiction and non-fiction.
All in all, The Inner Man reads like a desperate attempt to reduce Ballard to the psychological (or psychiatric) profile of one of his stock characters, the one JGB connoisseurs have labelled the “intellectual thug” or “hoodlum intellectual,” such as Vaughan in Crash (1973), Wilder Penrose in Super-Cannes (2000), or Dick Sutherland in The Kindness of Women (1991)—not to mention the much more elusive protagonist in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), whose surname changes in each chapter, with only the initial T serving as a sign of fractured identity. Were those characters fictionalized portraits of their author? It is not a new hypothesis, but Baxter himself seems to be aware that one of them, Dick Sutherland, is actually based on Chris Evans, one of Ballard’s closest friends (296). Moreover, if the hoodlum intellectuals in Ballard’s fiction can be interpreted as self-portraits of a transgressive artist and his outrageous theories, how does one account for the other type of character that can often be found in his novels and stories, the voyeuristic observer such as Dr. Nathan in Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard “himself” in Crash and The Kindness of Women, or Paul Sinclair in Super-Cannes? These are often rather vague individuals who are lectured by the more vividly portrayed intellectual thugs, until they discover in themselves a latent streak of those obsessions more blatantly expressed in the deviant thinkers who mentor them. If the intellectual hoodlums are anamorphic images of their author, why should not the pallid voyeurs be as well? And what about those female characters that one of Ballard’s first commentators, David Pringle, interpreted as components of the inner Ballard, according to the Jungian theory of anima? I think that there is a strong connection between Ballard’s stock characters and their creator, though it may be one of twisted representation; but if this is true, then one cannot claim that Ballard is simply the hoodlum intellectual, which is essentially Baxter’s thesis.
Of course, I cannot berate Baxter for not writing a satisfactory fictionalized biography, because this may not have been his aim. I should admit, however, that, by trying to read The Inner Man in this mode, I was doing Baxter a favor since if read as a postmodernist experiment in biofiction, his book is merely unsatisfactory, whereas if read as a traditional biography seeking to present a solid, accurate, reliable story of James Graham Ballard’s life, it is a total failure.
Since the publication of The Inner Man, JGB scholars, experts, fans, and buffs have been busy spotting the distortions and plain mistakes in the book. Rather than reporting their findings, I invite readers to visit Rick McGrath’s website and to read two pages that summarize the ongoing discussion on the JGB mailing list at Yahoogroups (moderated by David Pringle): “Dissecting John Baxter’s JG Ballard Bile-ography” and “Some Random Notes on Reading The Baxter Biography of J.G. Ballard.” Other reviewers have also criticized Baxter for his general sloppiness, listing all the erroneously attributed quotations (e.g., a famous sentence by Nietszche that has been put into the mouth of H.G. Wells ), unsupported statements (e.g., that Ballard dictated his novels to a typist, even though Baxter subsequently quotes the author saying that he typed out “the final manuscript” [245-46]), and methodological inconsistencies (e.g., after having repeatedly said that Ballard’s narratives of his own life are not reliable, something that scholars already knew, he uses those narratives as sources of evidence for his hypotheses) would make this review too long. Suffice it to say that Baxter makes glaring mistakes even when he describes the plots of Ballard’s novels. When discussing Hello America (1981), for instance, he tells us that the villain of that novel, the sinister President Manson, “decides to leave earth in the last functioning space vehicle” (257). Yet President Manson does not leave earth at all but is ultimately executed by a platoon of android replicas of the most famous US presidents (including a Nixon android, embarrassed by his resemblance to the self-proclaimed president); and this final scene, undoubtedly one of Ballard’s sharpest displays of irony, is not a lesser, meaningless detail.
Baxter repeatedly tells us that Ballard has never really been an sf writer. This is a defensible thesis, albeit disappointing for sf scholars; however, it is not one that the author of The Inner Man has thoroughly argued. It is similar to Baxter’s pet theory that Ballard was a shrewd ad man who managed to build his myth well above his real merits. Ballard did work in an advertising agency for a very short time in 1953, but it is doubtful that he gained full command of all the techniques involved in professional advertising. This is another thesis that Baxter tries to prove simply by stubbornly repeating it chapter after chapter.
Moreover, the structure of the text makes it useless for scholarly research. First of all, Baxter’s unnecessary detours from a linear chronology are rather annoying and do not add to the scant aesthetic appeal of the book. But what is much worse is that he cites his sources in a disorderly way at the end (347-50), not bothering to connect specific quotations in the book to those sources, either by footnotes or parenthetical references. As a result, it is often difficult to trace where a quotation comes from. When it comes to such statements as this: “These reverses [i.e., the problems with the US edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, which was pulped by Doubleday] pushed Jim into further drinking, which in turn affected his relationship with Claire [Walsh, his longtime girlfriend]” (229), one wonders whether this is just a hypothesis or if Baxter has some evidence to support it. What authorizes Baxter to say that this professional disappointment caused Ballard to drink heavily? Did he access Ballard’s papers at the British Library? Did some of Ballard’s acquaintances tell him this? Is he quoting a private letter, possibly one of those written on postcards? We are not told, and the suspicion that this is pure speculation remains.
All in all, this biography reads like a hastily assembled instant book; surely it is not a text that I would recommend to a PhD student who wished to write a dissertation on Ballard. This is a pity, because a reliable, well-documented, balanced biography of the Man from Shanghai, a writer who cunningly mixed fact and fiction about himself, is badly needed today by scholars, students, and affectionate readers (and it is odd that a man who famously theorized the death of affect manages to call forth such strong emotions, as attested by Baxter’s bad blood and the passionate reactions of Ballard fans to it). The Inner Man is definitely not what we have been waiting for.
—Umberto Rossi, Rome
SF Cinema History for Reference Collections.
M. Keith Booker. Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Cinema. Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts, No. 44. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2010. xxxiv + 331 pp. $80 hc.
Keith Booker’s new Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Cinema has a daunting challenge: as noted in the series editor’s forward, it must provide coverage of something that is “hardly monolithic,” that “consists of different genres,” that is “produced in an increasing range of countries,” and that employs “varying techniques” (ix). The structure of the book makes it easily readable, presenting its overview in a few different formats. After the brief editor’s foreward and author’s preface, Booker gives a twenty-page chronology that begins with “1818 Great Britain: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (xv) and ends with the many films released in 2009, including “J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek prequel” (xxxiii). Of course some scholars will have a problem with Booker’s starting date for the genre, but his point is not to argue for when sf began. Rather, his chronology covers the key dates in sf history that are relevant to cinema. Given the many film versions of Shelley’s classic that have appeared, Booker’s choice is a smart one that is reinforced at several points. Booker also begins each entry with the date and country (or countries) of origin, a strategy that adds a geographical and national context to the timeline.
The nineteen-page introduction provides an overview that fleshes out much of what has been covered in the chronology. In his discussion of the silent era, Booker covers the importance of French magician and filmmaker Georges Méliès. The Méliès adaptation of Jules Verne’s work, his 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, demonstrates how sf cinema has been at the forefront of technical innovation since the beginnings of the medium. Booker foregrounds how many early sf films, such as the Edison studio’s adaptation of Frankenstein (1910) and the works of the German Expressionists, drew from horror as much as from sf to tell their stories. Booker’s point in this regard is particularly interesting, since the 1920s sf pulps also exhibited a lot of genre fluidity as the writers and editors tried to find story characteristics that resonated with readers. In the early sound era, Booker shows how Universal films such as Frankenstein (1931), coupled with the rise of sf serials, fueled a surge in the popularity of sf cinema. The explosive conclusion to World War II helped spur another period of growth in the 1950s, the excessiveness of which led to a falling off in the early 1960s. With the release of Star Wars in 1977, Booker asserts that sf cinema moved to the forefront of technological innovations for all movie-making, a position it has maintained ever since.
The main dictionary includes 278 pages of entries on people, films, subgenres, themes, and companies that have played significant roles in the history of sf cinema. I was pleasantly surprised to find a critical look at industry practices woven throughout the discussions of everything from “20th Century Fox” to “Monster Movies” to “The Blob.” Too often sf scholars trained in literature ignore this important approach to media studies. Booker’s expertise in this regard shines throughout the volume.
Every sf scholar will probably find fault with something in the dictionary: I was annoyed that there were no entries for “atomic bomb” or “nuclear apocalypse,” nor was there anything to point the reader to the fact that these issues are covered under the long entry for “Postapocalyptic.” Having said that, it is unfair to fault Booker for such niggling things when the dictionary as a whole is so well organized, clearly written, and comprehensive. The book is rounded out by an extensive bibliography of scholarship, subdivided into a number of useful headings. As a resource, this Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Cinema should prove of great value to students, new scholars in the field, and sf experts alike. It would also probably prove popular with a wider audience if it were formatted and priced in a more accessible manner.
I will certainly recommend that my library purchase a copy. I have serious reservations, however, about the wisdom of even producing books such as this without also making them accessible to newer information-seeking methods. Most libraries are having their resources cut drastically and can no longer afford to put as much money into expensive reference texts. Indeed, the ebook version of the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Cinema is only one penny cheaper than the hardback, which puts this volume out of reach for most individual scholars and interested members of the public. With free, unscholarly, garbage information proliferating on the Internet (and making its way into students’ heads and papers), it is imperative that work such as Booker’s be packaged and marketed in formats that allow it to compete on an equal footing.
—Patrick B. Sharp, California State University Los Angeles
Sf’s Transcultural Contexts.
Steven T. Brown. Tokyo Cyberpunk: Posthumanism in Japanese Visual Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. x + 256 pp. $27 pbk.
Steven T. Brown’s Tokyo Cyberpunk is a welcome exploration of science fiction within “Japanese visual culture.” Over the past decade there has been a growing number of English-language anthologies, articles, and even an annual journal devoted entirely to the study of Japanese animeand manga, many of which have been concerned with works that are classified as science fiction. Though there is growing interest, book-length studies of Japanese sf such as the one Brown offers remain few and far between. Comparable is Robert Matthew’s Japanese Science Fiction: A View of a Changing Society (Routledge, 1989), a work that was a reflection of the Western world’s fascination with Japanese economic practices and identity politics during that nation’s postwar high-growth period. Brown’s study is likewise a reflection of its own time and electronically mediated contexts, largely concentrating on works of film and television, both animated and live-action, as well as offering an occasional reference to manga and visual art. Brown demonstrates his extensive knowledge of the Japanese cultural milieu, while at the same time showing how works might be contextualized within the broader fields of sf studies and critical posthumanism.
The overarching thesis of Tokyo Cyberpunk, “that works of Japanese visual culture dealing with posthumanism offer a defamiliarization of contemporary society (both Japanese and non-Japanese), and its most acute cultural anxieties and sociopolitical problems,” is not a new argument within sf studies. Brown’s work is less a novel theoretical intervention, however, than an expansion of already existing theories into transcultural contexts. The connections between the specifics of Japanese texts and their global implications are emphasized through Brown’s practice of “rhizomatic reading,” his use of the network theory developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Rhizomatic reading, in Brown’s interpretation, is the practice by means of which cultural “interpreters” (academics, fans, producers) forego looking for isolated “deep meaning” within selected Japanese texts and instead examine their “connections with other anime, other films, other works of art, and other discursive formations” (9). The short but succinct reading of Katshiru Otomo’s multi-volume Akira saga (1982-90) in the introduction, “Posthumanism after Akira,” demonstrates that Brown is less interested in discussing the nuances of different media than in making broad arguments that encompass many different yet connected sources that have become linked through transnational capitalism, postmodern ideas, and globalized communications technologies.
There is one choice regarding chapter organization that seems odd. Brown’s conclusion, entitled “Software in a Body,” is itself a main chapter that would be more useful following the brief introduction. The chapter is an expansion of his editor’s introduction to the 2006 collection Cinema Anime (Palgrave, 2006). Brown takes care to explain the concept of critical posthumanism, drawing on the insights of Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles, and Jill Didur, and usefully connects their theoretical work to his reading practices. He then offers an insightful reading of director Nakamura Ryūtarō’s animated Serial Experiments Lain (1998) and the ways in which it exemplifies “the development of the posthuman cyborg subject [that] is coemergent with the forms of technology and companion devices that surround it” (170). This sort of critical framework is still not widely known across disciplines, and when it is tucked into the back of the book, the connections are potentially less obvious, particularly for new graduate students just beginning to research these interdisciplinary questions. This is a minor complaint, but given the book’s emphasis on posthumanist theories, addressing them earlier would have been preferable.
In the book’s actual first section, “Machinic Desires,” Brown mixes a detailed discussion of director Oshii Mamoru’s animated film Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) with accessible but detailed histories of the latter’s transcultural intertextual sources: Freud’s theory of the uncanny, the art of Hans Bellmer, traditional mechanized Japanese dolls known as ningyō, Roland Barthes’s analysis of the subject, and the philosophy of René Descartes. It is the bringing together of these myriad sources that makes the chapter so rich as a resource. Brown appropriates the psychoanalytic concept of the uncanny, noting that in Oshii’s film it leads not to a recuperation and taming of our fears about our subjectivity but instead supports a “defamiliarization of the everyday that destablizes our assumptions about what it means to be human in a posthuman world” (35).
Part II, “Desiring Machines,” features a reading of director Tsukamoto Shin’ya’s live-action cult films Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992)in comparison with such body-horror films as David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986). As interesting as the comparison of the films is, the most original aspect of the chapter is Brown’s discussion of the stereotype of the Japanese salaryman, hegemonic masculinity, and the subsequent spaces and discourses both inside and outside of Japan that challenge such forms of heteronormativity (105-109). He even goes so far as to provide a brief history of the infamous tentacle motifs that “constitute one of the dominant images of monstrosity in Japanese science fiction and horror anime” and argues that in Tetsuo: The Iron Man they appear as an affirmation of the “queerness” of the central characters (94). Brown also mentions Tsukamoto’s use, in Tetsuo II, of imagery that can be associated with the proto-fascist Futurist movement (102-104), showing how the political implications of such conservative imagery is at odds with the critique of heteronormativity offered by the first film; unfortunately, this observation comes at the end of the chapter, losing an opportunity to explore the contrasts between subversive and recuperative representations of monstrous bodies in Tsukamoto’s layered films.
Two live-action films from 2001, Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Kairo andanother film by Oshii Mamoru, Avalon, make up the backbone of Part III. Here Brown explores the implications for human subjectivity of increasing technological mediation within a world where “machines ... communicate much better with each other than do humans” (114). In his reading, Avalon is more hopeful than the horrific solipsism found in Kairo, and he stresses the potential of learning to “read the codes” that otherwise oppress and constrain (137). Brown is careful to note, however, that even Kurosawa’s film ponders how easily such a practice can be implemented if the “codes” themselves construct the subject that learns to read them (154). As in the previous chapter, Brown’s strongest and most exciting analyses come when he goes beyond his readings of the texts themselves and looks at their transcultural implications, in this case exploring how they relate to the concept of the hikikomori—secluded Japanese young people who shut out the world for months or even years (118-19). Brown’s citation of sociopolitical perspectives suggests that a social phenomenon restricted to Japan and parts of Asia is in fact an aspect of how subjects are constructed within culturally specific contexts under globalized capitalism and pervasive communication technologies. We are left with the implication that, as in the best sf, the potential exists for multiple and localized reinterpretations of increasingly dominant and universalist discourses that discursively limit possibilities for what it means to be human.
Despite some less-explored tangents and my concerns about chapter ordering, Tokyo Cyberpunk is an exciting study that is at its best when it considers the transcultural theoretical value of Japanese visual culture. Its detailed bibliography makes it ideal for university library collections, as well as for teachers and researchers who are interested in the expansion and further complication of the existing work on sf, transnational cultural studies, and critical posthumanism.
—Jonathan Smith, Wilfred Laurier University
A Literature of Transgression and Subversion.
John Clute. Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm. Essex, UK: Beccon, 2011. iv + 369 pp. £16 pbk.
“Pardon this intrusion,” says the Creature to the blind man at approximately the midway point of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). For John Clute, editor of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979; rev ed. 1993; online ed. 2011) and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), among many other credits, this moment is more than just an evocative title for an anthology collecting recent essays, readings, introductions, and occasional writings—it structures in some basic sense the experience of modernity as such. “He, or it, has never uttered a word before this moment,” Clute writes. “He stands now before the exiled gentleman from the previous world, whose literal blindness tells us literally that he cannot understand the nature of the new order of thingslooming above him” (14).
Pardon this intrusion—“the first words of the new century”—signifies for Clute both the beginning of modernity and the beginning of fantastika, his name for the supergenre that includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Here Clute sidesteps the anxieties of genre definition and differentiation that have dominated—or plagued—sf studies at least since Darko Suvin’s famously exclusionary cognitive estrangement; in Clute’s hands all the many genres become sibling instances of a single overarching universal. “Fantastika” names that large class of fictional works that are understood by both writer and audience to describe fantastic, unreal, and impossible events, an important principle of literary classification, Clute claims, only during the Enlightenment. Prior to this, the presence or absence of impossible things was not an especially noteworthy feature of a text; afterwards, it became the first criterion, the chasm dividing the serious (mimetic realism) from the irrational, the childish, and the frivolous (fantastika).
But fantastika survives this diminishment and quickly becomes a literature of transgression and subversion, the explosive return of those categories of human experience that Enlightenment rationalism had sought to repress. Fantastika becomes, in essence, the critique of what is called reality—it becomes reality’s inescapable other half, its darker shadow. (Even the terms we use to describe this relationship are themselves a type of fantastika; already we are speaking the language of doppelgängers, of Jekylls and Hydes.) In this sense the birth of fantastika is really the moment when History itself is born: “Genres began when the creation of geologic time and evolutionary change began to carve holes in reality, which became suddenly malleable; when, for the first time, the human imagination (as in the French Revolution) could conceive of altering, by fiat, both human nature and the world we inhabit” (3). Key to this inversion is the host of post-Enlightenment scientific discoveries that show Planet Earth itself to be fragile, unstable, irrational, and constantly in flux—discoveries that have recast the human race not as the privileged children of God but rather as “a species clinging to a ball that may one day spin us off” (23-24). This is the third component of Clute’s title, “the world storm”: the unceasing, vertiginous pulse of a planetary history that seems to be propelling us faster and faster towards utter ruin.
In the light of all this radical contingency, the irrealities of fantastika are, paradoxically, realer than Reality and truer than the Truth. Here fantastika becomes in Clute’s hands something more than just another literary genre; it becomes an essential mode of human thought, perhaps the very mood of modernity itself. Fantastika is the literary genre most appropriate to a world that has lost its grounding, a reality that no longer seems to be quite real. Consequently, where Suvin privileges the formal “cognitive estrangement” that is constitutive of sf, and where others (such as China Miéville) have favored the freer play of the imagination native to fantasy and “weird tales,” Clute’s approach to genre favors instead the ineffable and monstrous intrusions that characterize horror and terror. For Clute, it is Kurtz’s deathly gaze—the horror, the horror—that is fantastika’s most essential encounter with modernity, though he might have cited alongside Kurtz such paradigmatic figures as Benjamin’s impotent Angel of History, who sees only catastrophes in the storm of progress blowing us away from Paradise, or Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, for whom history is a nightmare from which he is fighting to awaken. For Clute, Horror is the most vital form of fantastika because the horror at its core is always that of recognition, of seeing truths one does not want to see but cannot ignore: “It is the task of modern horror to rend the veil of illusion, to awaken us. Horror (or Terror) is sight…. Horror (or Terror) is what happens when you find out the future is true” (42).
Here, I think, we can see Clute’s theoretical contribution to the larger field of sf studies most clearly. Where the Suvinian/Jamesonian approach to sf has always tended to focus on literary figurations of utopia (either as a manifest program or as a latent impulse), Clute’s fantastikais in some basic sense incompatible with utopia. His approach argues not only that the genres of fantastika are “inherently better designed to sight disaster than to plan solutions,” but also that “it may in fact be the case that sighting and planning are very nearly incompatible operations of the human imagination” (54-55). The task before fantastika is not to change history, then, but to recognize it—and so the formal aesthetic undergirding all fantastika becomes not utopia but “planetary dread” (55). But Clute’s version of the genre is no less politically relevant for this revision. Where postmodernity for Jameson denotes the exhaustion of our ability to conceive of History, or of a future that might be different from the present, postmodernity for Clute is similarly “a series of exercises in denial” and “the creation of a world society founded in amnesia” (68). But the temporal orientation of our resistance to this crisis has been entirely reversed. At the end of Clute’s extended meditations, we find that fantastika is not really a genre of the future at all. It is instead a genre of the past, of history—what Milan Kundera called the struggle of memory against forgetting.
—Gerry Canavan, Duke University
The Power of the Narrators.
L. Timmel Duchamp. Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles. Seattle, WA: Aqueduct, 2010. 260 + viii pp. $19 pbk.
This collection of sixteen essays explores the powerful effects of various narrative strategies in shaping our lives. The essays are mostly written by sf/f authors, along with a few academics. Of course, the boundary is not absolute—many of the writers have backgrounds in academia and, of course, Samuel R. Delany is an active professor as is Susan Palwick. The majority of these essays grapple with the ways in which narrative has been used to disempower or to liberate subjugated groups; therein lies the collection’s inherent interest as well as its oversight. Certainly narrative is of central importance to the human experience, and understanding its function can help us to take control of that experience. At the same time, many of the essays in this collection overstate the power of narrative, effacing the way material power determines our lives. Too many of these essays present material power as an outcome of ideological—or narrative—constructions (the distinction between narrative and ideology is practically non-existent in most of these essays), rather than the other way round, with little or no support for this underlying assumption.
The collection is divided into three sections, with the first exploring narrative considerations in the study of history as well as in sociological analysis. The second section presents a more literary consideration of narrative. The book closes with a third section in which several writers put forth ideas about how best to use narrative. The first section contains two excellent pieces. Rebecca Wanzo analyzes the craze for stories of missing white girls that seized the national news media in the last twenty years. She deftly identifies the traits that propel such a story from family horror to national event, discusses stories of endangerment and harm that do not make the news, and continues with a nuanced, incisive explanation of why the more popular narratives are paradoxically comforting to those who accept the dominant ideologies informing contemporary American culture. In a very different vein, editor Duchamp’s beautifully written piece illuminates the competing claims and concerns that the professional historian must balance in deciding how to tell the past. Ought she to focus on individual lives, or must every case study illustrate a larger historical trend? What is lost when we value professional detachment over emotional response? Should a professional historian be interested in the same things that interest a lay reader? It is clear where Duchamp’s sympathies lie with respect to these questions, but even for the reader who comes to a different conclusion, her concerns and experiences provide a clear, poignant understanding of what is at stake.
In the book’s second section, Andrea Hairston’s essay on the combination of fantastic and mimetic narrative employed by Guillermo del Toro in the film Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is one of the collection’s true stand-outs. With the combination of sophisticated analysis, humor, high intelligence, insight, and affecting emotion that marks all this author’s work, it analyzes the confusion of both critics and movie-goers at the movie’s refusal to either validate or dismiss as imagination the fantastic events it depicts. Hairston then explicates how the fantastic serves not as an escape from, but as an engagement with, fascism, “the Fairy Tale nightmare of our contemporary world” (148). Rebecca Wanzo appears again in this section, this time with a fascinating essay about the connections among nineteenth-century sentimental fiction, contemporary self-help books, and Octavia Butler’s Parable novels (1993-98). In the final section, various writers suggest ways to handle responsibly the power of literature, with Delany considering the relationship between ethics and aesthetics, especially when it comes to cliché, in a complex and satisfying piece.
Other contributions, unfortunately, do not live up to this high standard. Carolyn Ives Gilman presents an essay decrying the effect of postmodernism on humanities academics of the 1980s and extolling the importance of evidence-based narratives, even while presenting no citations or evidence for her own assertions about various Native American conceptions of time. Gilman’s piece is one of a few that ascribes a great deal of power to humanities academics, far more than, in my experience, we actually have, and makes generalizations based on academic trends that are, at this point, at least twenty years old. Rachel Swirsky writes a good-hearted essay about how progressive writers ought to use their stories to promote progressive ideologies and avoid stereotypical clichés about oppressed groups; there is nothing wrong with what she says, but she is far from breaking new ground. Nonetheless, this book will be much appreciated by scholars who are interested in the ways that writers consciously articulate their mission, and other scholars will turn to it for the fine essays by Hairston, Wanzo, Delany, and Duchamp.
—Veronica Schanoes, Queens College, CUNY
Retrolabeling and the Origins of SF.
Rachel Haywood Ferreira. The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2011. xi + 304 pp. $80 hc; $29.95 pbk.
Like many other books, this one delves more deeply into topics previously considered by the author: Haywood Ferreira’s dissertation (2004), the 2008 article “Back to the Future: The Expanding Field of Latin American Science Fiction” (Hispania 91.2), and another essay entitled “The First Wave: Latin American Science Fiction Discovers Its Roots,” which was published in SFS in 2007. The result is a much-needed, well-written account of the origins of the genre in Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil from 1850 to 1920—which Haywood Ferreira calls, not without explanation, the nineteenth century (11).
While previous comprehensive works in this area have mostly provided lists of publications, with some modest criticism (such as the “Chronology of Latin American Science Fiction, 1775-2005” that appeared in SFS in 2007), Haywood Ferreira’s study delves in detail into several works from the three countries mentioned, presenting them as representative of the development of the genre in the entire region. Although many of these works have not been considered sf before, Haywood Ferreira goes back to Hugo Gernsback’s “retrolabeling” technique in Amazing Stories, which constructed precursors for the modern genre, in order to include them as sf in her account. Acknowledging that this action is nothing more than the product of a “desire for the stature and legitimacy that identifiable ancestors bestow upon their descendents” (1), Haywood Ferreira chooses works by famous Latin American authors whose oeuvre was not considered sf, or at least not until recently. In doing this, she argues for a Latin American tradition that had seemed nonexistent before. What is more, she affirms that early sf in the region was not merely the product of foreign imitation—as had largely been the case since the pulp era—but rather that it focused on regional problems and emerged out of local debates such as nation building, the quintessential Latin American civilización y barbarie conflict, and the relevance of science and progress in the modernization debates of new nation states. Haywood Ferreira affirms that “[p]rior to the heyday of the pulp era … sf was not so thoroughly perceived as an external genre that was unrelated to Latin American realities,” and also that “strong links [had not] yet been forged between sf and popular culture” (3). Indeed, sf was read only by elites—men mostly, especially those with scientific and literary knowledge (5).
The nineteenth century in Latin America was a time of scientific debate and planning among these elites, a time in which scientific discourse convened truth (5) and was commonplace in the literary production of the day. Haywood Ferreira reminds us that rather than looking at Latin America as a region that imports elements from the West, we need to follow González Echevarría’s idea that “Latin America is part of the Western world, not a colonized other, except in founding fictions and constitutive idealizations” (6). Therefore, the production of ideas that reflect scientific, technological, and ideological advances needs to be understood more as a dialogue among intellectuals of different regions rather than as borrowed ideas from a canonical West that are applied to a subaltern other. If we apply this idea to the sf written in Latin America by the authors studied in this book, we can certainly look at their work as exhibiting (or embodying) a previously denied originality. As Haywood Ferreira indicates, “[t]o have an understanding of Latin American science fiction, then, is to have a more complex and complete picture of Latin American reality” (9). ]
Another important concern is finding the elusive answer to this vexing question: is there an sf that we can call Latin American, an sf that is distinctive from others because it is produced in this region (217)? Unfortunately, the question appears too late in the text, and I do not think it is fully addressed, perhaps because we are presented with comments and ideas from authors mostly from Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, and I would argue that, as the title of the book suggests, the question of a possible Latin American sf belongs to all members of the region, whose voices are largely absent. As Haywood Ferreira indicates, she has listed “[n]inety works from eleven countries” (223) that pertain to her nineteenth century; but this account, and a subsequent list (225-30), appear only in the concluding pages of the book, thus hampering full development of the relevant debates. To be fair, I have to say that it may be impossible, methodologically speaking, to write a book in which you study all the production of this vast region, unless you plan for several volumes. But I still have qualms about the idea that the sf of Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil is enough to represent Latin America collectively. Perhaps a more honest question (and can of worms) would be: is there an entity called Latin America that produces ideas, philosophy, science, literature, etc., distinctive from the rest of the world and uniquely Latin American? Only by attempting to answer this question can the debate over a Latin American sf be addressed as well.
In spite of my disappointment with how this specific topic is addressed, The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction is a very well-written book, and it achieves the goals established at the outset—to present the case that certain texts, written in Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil during the period indicated, can be read as an initial literary core of the sf genre. In addition, these works can be linked to topics relevant at the time of production in those areas of Latin America, making sf a genre of social and political importance from its origins on the continent. Retrolabeled or not, many of the works mentioned in the study are today commonly read as works of either proto-sf or sf proper, including Eduardo Holmberg’s “Horacio Kalibán o los autómatas” (Horatio Kalibang or the Automatons, 1879), Amado Nervo’s “El sexto sentido” (The Sixth Sense, 1918), or Horacio Quiroga’s “El Vampiro” (The Vampire, 1935). Haywood Ferreira discusses the social and political elements treated in these works, including sociopolitical discourses (nation building and the role of women) and trendy scientific discourses (Darwinism and eugenics). Regarding eugenics, for instance, we learn that Latin American views were mostly influenced by Lamarckian theory and its brand of “soft” evolutionary inheritance, instead of the Mendelian “hard” theories followed by the Anglo-Saxon world (44). This preference had ideological consequences such as a different line of thought regarding issues of mestizaje, the roles of women, and national identity. A perfect example is Brazilian Godofredo Barnsley and his São Paulo no anno 2000 (São Paulo in the Year 2000, 1919), a text that calls for women to stay home breeding and educating the next generations under traditional family values, while proclaiming an end to consanguineous marriage as one of the evils of social degeneration (60-61). Moreover, Haywood Ferreira points out that following a period of faith in progress, the new discourse became technophobic (81), generating a search for discourses of fringe science, as in the case of the only woman’s fiction studied in detail, Argentine Juana Manuela Gorriti’s short story “Quien escucha su mal oye” (He Who Listens May Hear, To His Regret, 1865), which uses elements of the fantastic to take the reader through multiple scientific and gender transgressions (154).
Reading The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction is a pleasure for both the Latin Americanist and the sf researcher. It allows us to delve into a history that had been told before perhaps, but through the wrong prism. According to the author, Latin America has had a foot in the world tradition of sf since the beginning of the genre, and Haywood’s book closes the door on any doubt about that.
— Juan C. Toledano Redondo, Lewis and Clark College
William Gibson Overdrive.
Tom Henthorne. William Gibson: A Literary Companion. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. 168 pp. $39.95 pbk.
William Gibson’s career stretches back over three decades, since his first short story was published in the late 1970s. Soon thereafter, he shook up the sf field, emerging as the key figure in the 1980s cyberpunk movement. In particular, his first novel, Neuromancer (1984), has been much celebrated and equally imitated—it had a stunning impact on the field and, to a lesser extent, the wider culture. Since those heady days, cyberpunk’s vision and sensibility have been absorbed into the ever-evolving sf megatext. The field as a whole now has a “post-cyberpunk” quality, apparent across all relevant media. Its tropes and iconography show a new emphasis on machine intelligence and posthuman bodies; themes of alienation and rebellion abound, and with them images of ruined, desolate cityscapes. Meanwhile, Gibson has moved on. His most recent novels, Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and Zero History (2010), are set more or less in the present, and they have no clearly identifiable sf elements. In the early years of the new millennium—so Gibson seems to suggest—our world has become alien to us, as if it were science fiction.
Tom Henthorne seems alert to all of this. He foregrounds these issues throughout William Gibson: A Literary Companion, which provides a one-stop-shop for biographical and bibliographical information, critical commentary, and pedagogical material relating to Gibson and his work. The volume consists mostly of Henthorne’s short essays on each of Gibson’s novels and stories, and their significant themes, motifs, and characters. Due attention is also paid to Gibson’s forays into cinema, television, poetry, and nonfiction. Overall, the book displays insight, scholarship, and practical thinking about the needs of readers. It includes a twelve-page chronological discussion of Gibson’s life and work (in effect, a short literary biography), a glossary of terms, a timeline of relevant technological developments in the real world, and a lengthy appendix of suggested writing and research topics. The book is clearly aimed at teachers, academics, and high school or undergraduate students. Nonetheless, its short essays are sophisticated and opinionated. There is much to think about here, and react to. One problem, perhaps, is that this structure causes repetition for anyone who actually reads the book from cover to cover, as I did—inevitably, some of the same points are made under numerous headings. That, however, is clearly not how the book is meant to be used. It is, rather, a resource to be consulted on topics as needed.
One pleasing aspect is that Henthorne avoids the usual knee-jerk characterization of Gibson’s narratives as dystopian. As he acknowledges, Gibson himself has resisted that label: “Although many people regard Gibson’s work as dystopian, Gibson insists that it is not” (50). Indeed, as Henthorne elaborates, Gibson has described Neuromancer and its sequels as providing optimistic visions of the human future. Although conditions are harsh in these futuristic spaces, humanity has survived, individuals can still exert agency, and many aspects of what we are shown are actually pleasant in their way, even alluring. Unfortunately, Henthorne is not consistent about this; although he makes the point in his essay on “Dystopia,” he appears to forget it elsewhere. Nonetheless, someone dipping into various parts of the book would find a nuanced and useful view of Gibson’s attitude towards the future. Henthorne plausibly sees Gibson’s most recent novel, Zero History, as the closest to expressing a truly dystopian vision, and (as Henthorne acknowledges) even this cannot be regarded as a full-blown dystopian work in the mode of, say, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
William Gibson: A Literary Companion could have used one more layer of proofreading before publication. Though they do not detract from its usefulness, the reader will, alas, encounter small glitches every page or two. To take just one example, we are told that, in Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), 3Jane Tessier-Ashpool wants revenge on Molly Millions “for forcing her two [sic] reveal that [sic—why not “the”?] code that allowed the two AIs to merge” (116). When this sort of thing happens so often, it becomes irritating and distracting. Nonetheless, Henthorne has performed a valuable service by gathering so much information about William Gibson and his work into one place and approaching his topics from multiple angles. He offers useful discussions of Gibson’s aesthetic choices, his various themes, visions, and characters, and the historical context of his career. William Gibson: A Literary Companion will find, and deserve, a grateful audience.
—Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle
A Clockwork History of Ideas.
Minsoo Kang. Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2011. xii + 374 pp. $39.95 hc.
One must salute Minsoo Kang’s ambition. This is a history that traces the odd and rarely used ancient Greek notion of automaton, the self-mover, from its classical sources through Medieval and Renaissance natural philosophy and the rise of industrialism in the Enlightenment, before hurtling towards Modernism and “The Revolt of the Robots” in the 1920s. It ends in 1935, but rather arbitrarily: one senses this study could have been infinitely extended. The work covers Greek and Latin sources, the thinkers of the Italian Renaissance, British mechanistic philosophy, German Naturphilosophie and its discontents, French and German bio-mechanics, and European-wide Modernist reactions, even occasionally dipping into American materials. A lot of this comes from secondary sources, but it is impressive indeed that there are whole separate fields of scholarship that are synthesized here in ways that often retain a sense of the complexity of debates within them. This is not a book about sf, and the sf sources feel a bit scrappy and sometimes arbitrarily chosen, but sf scholarship will certainly benefit from this volume’s breadth of reference and the historical density it gives to key developments in mechanization and the progressive technological saturation of the lifeworld. The ambiguity and uncanniness typically associated with lifelike automata, a central conflict in both the gothic and sf, is given a really strong prehistory by Kang’s survey. In an era of narrow specialization, this book undertakes an epic journey, and every reader will learn something new along the way. It is an exhaustive, sometimes exhausting, attempt to survey the emergence and modulation of a concept in the good old honorable tradition of the history of ideas. Its strengths and its weaknesses lie in that largely unexamined methodology.
Seven chapters map this terrain. In the first, Kang explores the different emphases given the notion of automata in various classical Greek texts. The idea seems to emerge from the notion of animate statues, particularly the much discussed devices of Daedalus, which were considered among the miracles of the Greek world. Kang tracks the discussion of these objects that create liminal uncertainty in works by Aristotle, Diodorus, and Plato. This allows Kang to establish the dialectical dynamics of the automaton, hovering between animate and inanimate, life and death, autonomy and servitude. It is a rather quick survey, and although densely referenced, it does not communicate a particularly persuasive grasp of classical sources. Even from my own very limited reading on ancient Greek mystery religions, the ritual invocation of gods into statues and the affective intensity that surrounded these initiations deserves more attention and understanding than is supplied here. The scholarly problem is lack of sources, but that prompts lively debate among classicists about the form and content of mystery religions and the role of icons. Sacred and profane, ecstasy and dread are other dynamics that are not well addressed here. Given the religious disputes over the “magical” animation of mechanisms in later chapters, this seems like an opportunity missed. The sketchiness here provides an early sense that the range of the book will frequently come at the expense of nuance.
At the same time, this introductory chapter tries to establish a theoretical framework for ambivalence about automata. Kang attempts to push to one side Freud’s Uncanny, developed from a psychoanalytic rereading of Jentsch’s analysis of Hoffmann’s tale “The Sandman” in 1919. Freud’s account is held to be too monolithic, too intent on finding a singular affect to associate with the automaton. Although Freud’s concept will keep returning throughout the book (like the uncanny itself), Kang is after a more versatile dynamic that can be tracked as it shifts and alters according to historical context. One senses that Kang also wants to challenge what is considered to be over-familiar conceptual frameworks. Instead, Kang uses Mary Douglas’s work Purity and Danger (1966) and Victor Turner’s work on “liminal entitites” in The Ritual Process (1969) to proclaim that “the automaton is the ultimate categorical anomaly” (36). This is hardly a strikingly new conceptual framework (Douglas’s ideas flowed back into literary studies 30 years ago with Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror ), but it is entirely serviceable. It allows Kang to track the concept of the automaton between the poles of broadly positive and negative receptions across the centuries, the shifts in polarity bolstered by speedy historical contextualizations. In this intellectual history, the idea, once established, needs only to be traced in its various instantiations.
I derived the most benefit from Kang’s very long chapter on Medieval and Renaissance discussions of the automaton, including the arrival of the more common usage of the Greek word among Renaissance scholars. At the same time, I am fully aware that this benefit comes from my own poor knowledge of the fields in question: experts might very well balk at Kang’s magisterial charge through the sources. The pattern is set in this chapter for a tendency to list sources exhaustively, meaning few ever get the proper space to demonstrate their full textual complexity. A historian rather than a literary scholar, Kang approaches sources in a ruthlessly utilitarian way, and major works are often given little more than a breathless paragraph or two. Literary works, in particular, are strip-mined for references to mechanical devices, without much attention to their formal frames or literary contexts. Nevertheless, I found Kang’s synthesis of Medieval sources about myths connected to mechanical oracles (“brazen heads” that can speak and prophesy the future) incredibly informative, and the chapter as a whole allowed me to connect together my fragmentary knowledge of Renaissance thinking about mechanism and magic into a meaningful narrative. It is Cornelius Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia (1531) that begins to use the word automaton in the modern sense, and his lists of brazen heads, self-moving images, speaking statues, and other spookily in/animate devices had an impressive intertextual afterlife in the century that followed.
The third chapter runs from 1637 to 1748, from René Descartes’s Discourse on Method to Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s Man a Machine. This is the era of the mechanistic world picture, and Kang claims “that the automaton emerged as the central emblem of the entire mechanistic world view that was dominant in the era” (112). Residual anxiety about the impiety of the automaton is replaced by the confidence of the scientific revolution, Kang claims, in a typically sweeping argument—although, because most of the sources are philosophical in this section, the history-of-ideas strategies work more effectively. Having run through the Cartesianism and the clockwork worlds of Boyle and Hooke and the “state-machines” of Hobbes, the fourth chapter charts a counter-reaction in later Enlightenment thinkers, starting with Rousseau and Diderot, who defended a more vitalist account against reductive mechanism. Provokingly, then, Kang situates the eighteenth-century craze for automata at the end of a trajectory rather than at a beginning. Most histories of modern automata, such as Gaby Wood’s engaging Living Dolls (2003), begin with Jacques de Vaucanson’s mechanical duck, which caused such a sensation when displayed in 1739 and periodically around Europe for the next 100 years. Instead, Kang sees this as a culmination of clockwork conceptions, just on the cusp of European Romanticism and its investment in resistant theories of vitality and spirit. Yet Kang is also strong enough to complicate what risks turning into the tracing of reactions and counter-reactions, monolithic shifts of positive and negative attitudes towards automata. There is recognition here that recent scholarship has interrogated the Weberian thesis and linear historical premise of “the disenchantment of the world.” The lifelike automaton has always retained a sense of the magical that holds audiences spellbound, that enchantment becoming perhaps especially strong at moments when materialism seems to take the strongest hold—an argument made most persuasively by Marina Warner in Phantasmagoria (2006).
The fifth chapter on Romantic reactions to automata shows the heaviest concentration on literature, tracing the fictions in the work of the German and English Romantics. Kang includes the very familiar and expected range of reference (Tieck’s essay “On the Marionette Theatre”  and the automata tales of Hoffmann) but also steps outside to point to a continuing tradition of Enlightenment satire in the work of Jean Paul and Büchner. Critical utopian projections of future automated states are also referenced in passing. Kang slows down to treat the Hoffmann tales at some length, but this rather highlights the fact that exhaustive breadth has stolen any ability to provide particularly penetrating or original readings of these texts. In a very breathless summary of the rise of “fantastic fiction” (in six pages) against the backdrop of German Naturphilosophie (in three pages) and the French Revolution (in two pages), this section tends only to rehearse what we already know. Freud’s Uncanny returns in this chapter virtually unchallenged. The freight of all that historical work cannot really come across, because the book keeps making huge ruptural slices through history where polarizing shifts occur. This tactic makes writing about closed historical epochs easier but tends to strangle any cumulative continuities. Chapter 6, which covers 1833 to 1914, seems, disappointingly, to be the sketchiest of all, threading itself along a narrow strand that is woven among isolated texts without much sense of the consolidation of the industrial revolution around them. The attention shifts rapidly between von Helmholtz’s model of the work and heat expenditure of the steam engine as the new model for the world (replacing the perpetual motion of a clockwork universe), before heading off for a couple of paragraphs on Marey’s Animal Mechanism (1873), Disraeli’s Coningsby (1844), and Herman Melville’s“The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” (1855), with a paragraph on Marx’s Capital (1867), little more than a long citation. Any pretence to cover the very different contexts of Germany, England, or America is abandoned. Early Modernism is dealt with by means of Wells’s short story “The Lord of the Dynamos” (1894), Henry Adams’s chapter “The Dynamo and the Virgin” (1918), and some discussion of Alfred Jarry. This is sketchy indeed. By this stage, the history of the idea is progressively reducing everything to mention rather than analytic use. A chapter on the counter-reaction in the 1920s to the total war of 1914-18 and the rise of Taylorism in both America and the Soviet Union seems better contextualized, but the texts—Čapek and Zamyatin—are obvious. There is no reference to the Great War or the desperate state of Germany in the 1920s fueling the rise of some of the key texts on technologization by Adorno or Heidegger (Benjamin only briefly appears in an earlier chapter) that still frame our discussions. This points to Kang’s complete blindsiding of most contemporary science and technology studies. The afterword, including the inevitable references to Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, is perfunctory. By this stage, Kang’s clockwork mechanism is beginning to wind down.
This is an intellectual history that is rich in local examples and full of useful sources that I will certainly chase up under my own steam. It is constantly showing signs of turning into cultural history—wanting to problematize broad sweeping characterizations with rich local detail and resisting easy or ossified conceptual frameworks. Yet the very ambition to cover the entirety of Western thought on the subject of the automaton often results in falling back into disappointing generalization and unexamined assumptions. My advice would be definitely to open the hood on this beast of a machine, but only to raid it for the spares you need to keep your own motor running.
—Roger Luckhurst, University of London
The Destruction Before the Calm.
Peter Y. Paik. From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010. 207pp. $20 pbk.
If there are any images from the current Occupy! movement more powerful than those of the overwhelming police response it has summoned, they are the images of calm, peaceful restraint on the part of the protestors themselves. The force brought to bear on the movement and the unwillingness on the part of the protestors to resort to violence has caused some to wonder whether any contemporary revolutionary movement can succeed without rising to the same level of violent response as those it wishes to replace. Peter Paik’s From Utopia to Apocalypse examines texts that explore “with unblinking candor and rigorous equanimity, the violence committed in the name of founding new modes and orders as well as for the sake of destroying unjust regimes” (19). Through these texts, Paik critiques the willingness of both neoliberal capitalist and revolutionary socialist ideologies to employ and then obfuscate the use of force to consolidate and maintain power.
Grounding his discussion of graphic novels, sf film, and Japanese manga in the work of political theologist Carl Schmitt, Paik suggests that each new revolutionary leader can be seen as a demiurge fighting to replace the established social order maintained and defended by a sovereign who has taken on the role of God. Paik uses political theology to suggest that any successful revolution must be a complete revision of social reality, and as such, the demiurgic forces must often resort to violence as a means of seizing control. According to Paik, the texts analyzed “serve to unmask with unflinching directness the brutal impact of the world-making projects of its demiurges as well as the harsh necessities that call forth these undertakings in the first place” (20). Although the focus on political theology can seem a little forced at times, as an examination of the use and justification of violence in utopian narratives Paik’s work deserves to be read.
The first—and most effective—chapter of Paik’s book examines the creation of the utopias in Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen (1987) and Kurt Vonnegut’s novel The Sirens of Titan (1959). As readers of Moore’s work know, the comic ends with one of the main characters—the retired superhero-turned-industrialist Ozymandias—using a teleported mock-up of an alien lifeform to murder three million people, ending a nuclear stalemate between the US and the Soviet Union. Paik sees Ozymandias’s act—and the choice of the other characters either to accept or deny what he has done—as a challenge to the reader to imagine a successful revolution that avoids violence. Paik then examines several of the supporting characters to highlight the ways in which each complicates or challenges the morality of shocking humanity into peaceful coexistence. The strength of this chapter comes from Paik’s understanding of the complexities of Moore’s work and his willingness to move beyond a simple examination of the formal qualities of the graphic novel. Paik gives Watchmen the respect it deserves, and his use of the comic to critique revolutionary politics is easily the centerpiece of his book.
In his second and shortest chapter, Paik looks at Korean Director Joon-Hwan Jang’s film, Save the Green Planet! (2003) and its positioning of a singular individual against a seemingly unstoppable global power. Paik frames his discussion of the post-apocalyptic film with an analysis of Alexandre Kojève’s theory of posthistory as a subhuman utopia where citizens placated by technology exist in a “homogenous world state” under the tyranny of a select few (72-73). Paik sees Save the Green Planet! as a “clash between the globalizing biopolitical order and the singularity it violates,” with the protagonist, Lee Byong-Gu, kidnapping and torturing his employer, Kang Man-Shik, the head of a company who might also be an alien from Andromeda (76). Paik suggests that Joon-Hwan’s film complicates the cathartic nature of seeing an individual triumph over those in power by making Byong-Gu a psychotic murderer and by suggesting that Kang’s alien race has come to Earth on a purely humanitarian mission. As in his analysis of Watchmen, Paik shows that Save the Green Planet! questions the viewer’s acceptance of violence even when used for a seemingly noble cause.
The third chapter focuses on Hayao Miyazaki’s magnum-opus manga, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982-94). Written over a period of twelve years and comprised of more than 1100 pages, Nausicaä’s plot is more difficult to explicate than any of the other texts Paik examines, and there are places in this chapter where the complex storyline becomes difficult to follow. Perhaps this is why Paik foregoes any initial framing and proceeds instead to a direct examination of the titular heroine and her position as both a “saintly” figure possessing an objective respect for human life and the character who, in effect, signs the death warrant for the human race. Nausicaä can be seen as a counterpart to Moore’s Ozymandias in that she is willing to risk the destruction of millions of people in order to secure a better future, and although Paik does not explicitly follow this thread, the chapter can be seen as an exploration of the ethical dilemmas faced by Nausicaä as she decides whether humanity is worth saving at any cost. This chapter might not be as complete as the others in its exploration of Paik’s theme, but as one of only a handful of studies devoted to this popular text, Paik’s work is a welcome addition to manga studies.
Paik begins his fourth and final chapter by summarizing Slavoj Žižek’s criticism of the Matrix trilogy (1999-2003) for not fully envisioning the path to a successful left-wing revolution. Paik then uses the animated prequel to the Matrix films, The Second Renaissance (2003), to suggest that the failure of the trilogy is not so much in its inability to outline the path of revolution as it is in its failure to capture the “moral complexity” of true tragedy. In the subsequent section, Paik uses theorists such as Terry Eagleton, Eric Voegelin, and Žižek to identify the link between tragedy and revolutionary politics, ultimately suggesting that “the ideological passion necessary for the transformation of society becomes impossible to sustain once the revolutionaries lose their stomach for enduring ordeals and afflictions” (143). In the final section of the chapter, Paik returns to the work of Alan Moore, offering a pointed look at the actions of Moore’s anarchist protagonist “V” in his comic V for Vendetta (1989). Specifically, this section focuses on V’s use of a simulated prison cell to convince Evey Hammond that she has been captured and then killed by the secret police so that she need not fear death. Paik points to those who have compared Evey’s ordeal to Žižek’s notion of “subjective destitution,” and then challenges Žižek’s conception of freedom through symbolic suicide by invoking Steven Shaviro and Simone Weil. One gets the feeling that Paik is critical of any revolutionary action that would devalue human life, but at the same time he argues that V for Vendetta’s exploration of imprisonment and deprivation is just as valid as Weil’s. One of the strengths of this chapter is Paik’s willingness to engage in a dialectical examination of the use-value of trauma that seems more in line with Moore’s intended response to his work.
There are places in Paik’s analysis where the application of political theology (and of the work of Carl Schmitt and Simone Weil to the texts he examines) seems a bit strained. Paik clearly has an understanding of the subject, but suggesting that Moore’s work in particular “[takes] political theology as [its] principal theme” (20) is a stretch. And the bulk of Paik’s work is dedicated to an analysis of Moore’s work, with just under half the volume dedicated to Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and the Miracleman series (1990-91). Especially when weighed against the middle chapters, one wonders why he did not decide simply to focus on Alan Moore. Paik’s ability to anatomize clearly and to interrogate Moore’s work and the complexity of its plots and character development is reason enough to read his book, and the care with which he examines Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is appreciated, but one cannot help but feel that the first and fourth chapters are much better developed both thematically and critically. Ultimately, this book has certainly earned the praise and attention that it is getting, and anyone interested in the politics of revolution, or in Moore’s work, will definitely find it useful.
—Jeff Hicks, University of California, Riverside
Deep in the Hundred-Light-Year Wood.
Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg. The Business of Science Fiction: Two Insiders Discuss Writing and Publishing. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. vi + 269 pp. $35 pbk.
From one perspective, book reviewers should pontificate about the merits of books without pondering how they might have been different; thus, informed that Resnick and Malzberg’s The Business of Science Fiction represents a compilation of their columns from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s SFWA Bulletin, reviewers might limit themselves to the question: is this a good book? As it happens, this is a very good book indeed, as I will explain, but trained academic scholars are driven to consider other questions: which columns were included, which were excluded, and why? When were these columns published, and why were they arranged in this fashion? Were they revised or left as originally written? Thus, before writing this review, I examined all issues of The SFWA Bulletin featuring installments of “The Resnick-Malzberg Dialogues” and employed the resulting bibliography, and my own knowledge of McFarland Publishers, to develop responses to the above questions, determining that, both unsurprisingly and ironically, the book was strongly shaped by marketing considerations.
The book itself provides little information about these matters since McFarland is not enthusiastic about publishing compilations of previously published materials and would not wish to advertise that some items in this probing examination of contemporary science fiction were written in the late 1990s. And there is no great mystery about the inclusion of only 26 columns when 45 were available: McFarland prefers books to be no longer than 120,000 words, each column is about 4500 words long, and doing the math shows that twenty-six was the maximum number of columns that could be accommodated. As for the book’s structure, the chosen 26 were sorted into three debatably separable categories, “Writing and Selling” (chapters 1-11), “The Business” (chapters 12-20), and “The Field” (chapters 21-26), and arranged within each section by date of publication. Based on cursory examinations, I discern no significant revisions, though two titles were minimally tweaked and there are undoubtedly other minor changes at the level of copyediting.
I reserved the most intriguing questions for last: why were these columns included, and others excluded? Part of the answer involves the practical need to provide the book with a strong focus, since few companies will want to publish “a bunch of essays about science fiction” because few libraries will want to purchase them. Thus, having selected “the business of science fiction” as their theme, Resnick and Malzberg were obliged to omit columns that were not clearly related to that concern, such as those on “Humor,” “Movies,” and “Theatre.” In cases where two columns addressed the same subject, it made sense to include only one of them, so the book offers the updated “e-Publishing Revisited,” not the original “e-Publishing,” and presents the first, more general column on “The Specialty Press,” not the second, more historical survey (a shame, since I rather enjoyed the second column). Also, even Jove nods, and a few columns were probably left out because they were deemed not to represent the writers’ best work. (For example, I recall thinking that the “Cutting Edge” column was a weak effort, with a poorly chosen topic and a discussion that never got off the ground, and Resnick and Malzberg apparently reached the same conclusion.) Finally, the column on “Criticism,” which includes some barbs aimed at academic scholars, was surely omitted as a matter of sound business practice: why risk offending purchasers in one of McFarland’s major markets, college libraries?
Though I now understand why the book took this form, however, I still would have preferred a heftier compilation of all their columns, because even on their off days, these writers are brimming with insights and absolutely incapable of being dull. They have long represented just about the only reason to subscribe to The SFWA Bulletin, and all too often their columns are the only things I read therein. I urge every reader with access to this magazine to seek out and read every one of them; furthermore, I would point out to Resnick, Malzberg, and McFarland that there now exist more than enough columns for a second volume, and I would like to see it published as soon as possible, for the easiest possible access to their work. (To briefly indulge in another annoying habit of trained academic scholars—fact-checking—I found that the collective knowledge of Resnick and Malzberg is almost unfailingly accurate, and even when one writer makes a mistake, the other usually corrects him; so, when Resnick comments that Hugo Gernsback’s Science-Fiction Plus only lasted six issues, Malzberg immediately responds that there were actually seven [168-69]. The only errors I located were trivial: the date of Michael Avallone’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. novelization is misidentified as 1966, not 1965 ; it is said that William Gibson’s second sale came five years after his first publication, when it was four years ; the title of the film Rain Man  is misrendered as The Rain Man ; and so on.)
As delightful as these columns are, though, one must acknowledge that reading them can also be frustrating for anyone seeking to understand the current state of science fiction publishing—because, whenever questions are posed, the authors provide, as a matter of both natural inclination and deliberate design, contrasting and often contradictory responses. And one can never decide which writer is correct.
Resnick justifiably regards himself as a successful author, with innumerable publications, several awards, and a healthy income; he says, “This field has been very good to me” (214). And, since “writing science fiction ... has been a mostly joyful experience” (39), he views the field with an optimistic disposition, arguing that no matter what new vicissitudes afflict working writers, they can overcome them with hard work, creativity, and pluck, just as he does. As Malzberg notes, then, Resnick tends to “take the cheerful, positive, forward-looking position” on every issue the pair confronts (124). Malzberg, despite a record of achievements comparable to Resnick’s in most respects, looks back at “the twenty disastrous years of what I no longer call my career” (256) and consequently offers a “somewhat bleaker perspective” (124) on a writer’s career. Borrowing language from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Malzberg repeatedly argues that Resnick can “write from the authority of success,” while he writes from “the authority of failure” (135). Resnick epitomizes the contrast by stating, “We see a glass that’s filled halfway to the rim. I say it’s half full; you want to know who pissed in it” (126). Most colorfully, the men draw upon characters from A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories (1926-28) to describe themselves: Malzberg begins envisioning himself as “the Eeyore of science fiction” (72) in 2006, and by 2009 the analogies are clearly announced in one dialogue (240-243): Resnick is the perpetually sunny Winnie the Pooh, Malzberg the perpetually gloomy Eeyore.
It is significant that, as explained in the book’s introduction, The SFWA Bulletin originally approached Resnick to write a column by himself (Resnick suggested adding Malzberg as his co-author), and that the dialogues’ otherwise-balanced format always gives Resnick both the first and last word. For Resnick epitomizes the upbeat, supportive attitude that must always characterize magazines for writers, constantly reminding readers that becoming a writer was a wise choice, and they will always do fine as long as they are attentive to all the latest opportunities to earn big money, as revealed by savvy pros, such as selling podcasts in Bangladesh or writing alternate-history zombie romance novels. And while both Resnick and Malzberg properly condemn that sort of misleading boosterism, found in publications such as The Writer’s Digest (singled out for special condemnation ), the fact remains that The SFWA Bulletin is also a writer’s magazine, and many articles it has published are vulnerable to the same criticisms. The magazine should be celebrated, then, for boldly publishing the advice of an iconoclast such as Malzberg, who insinuates to the often-struggling members of the SFWA that, all things considered, they might be better off if they abandoned writing altogether and looked for a real job.
But on all matters they debate, which author is right? The paradoxical answer is that they are both entirely right, both entirely wrong, and both about half-right and half-wrong. Both are utterly persuasive: while you read Resnick, you believe Resnick, and while you read Malzberg, you believe Malzberg. Both have facts and personal experiences to back up everything they say. Their dialogues are held to a maximum of 4500 words not, I suspect, because there would never be room in The SFRA Bulletin for lengthier discourses, but because both participants recognize that their arguments could continue on indefinitely without nearing any resolution. To characterize “The world of the writer,” then, Malzberg references not Milne’s sedate forest, but “[t]hat dense and tangled wood in which Dante’s protagonist found himself” (162). And after readers are guided through “the business of science fiction” by these qualified experts, everything about the field will seem “dense and tangled,” which may discomfit scholars who expect books to provide definitive answers.
Thus, these are the conclusions that I draw from this book:
1. For science fiction writers today, things have never been better.
2. For science fiction writers today, things have never been worse.
3. For science fiction writers today, things are about the same as they have always been.
4. There are ample amounts of evidence to support all three of the preceding statements.
To put it another way, the state of science fiction writing and publishing today is a complicated matter, and anything one says about it depends entirely upon one’s perspective.
Trained academic scholars, of course, could never embrace such an equivocal conclusion and would instead shape their materials to present and defend one particular thesis about the science fiction marketplace; and had they wished to do, Resnick and Malzberg might have written separate books following that design. Fortunately, not being trained academic scholars, these writers have instead developed and mastered a format that allows them to convey the messy reality of contemporary science fiction, instead of an attractive or apocalyptic fantasy. Thus, after reading this book, you will know more about science fiction than you previously knew, and will be less sure about everything you once believed about science fiction. That may not represent the sort of recommendation that publishers post on their websites, but trust me, readers of The Business of Science Fiction will thoroughly enjoy this journey, even if they are dissatisfied to find there is no destination in sight.
—Gary Westfahl, University of La Verne
The Philosopher’s “Oh.”
Han Ryner. The Superhumans: A Prophetic Novel. 1929. Trans. Brian Stableford. Encino, CA: Black Coat, 2011. 288pp. $22.95 pbk.
The scope of Han Ryner’s The Superhumans: A Prophetic Novel (1929) might remind readers most of the far-future speculations of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) or Arthur C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night (1953). Against a backdrop of geological and biological catastrophism (“[c]limates were … unified; the torrid and humid suffocation was the same at the poles as at the equator”), life on Earth as we know it perishes and revives in new forms: “Being was like a strange knight who, in the middle of a battle, tried on breastplates and found none that fit him” (181, 201). Homo sapiens destroys itself in racial wars, giving way to a new race, the “superangels,” who quickly show themselves to be as little morally advanced as their precursors (197-99). Regression seems to be the order of the day, as animal and plant life revert to a primordial condition, so that the revenge of an outraged nature takes the form of “superelephants”—giant, sentient mastodons who, one imagines, could have a long chat about human idiosyncracies with Swift’s Houyhnhnms and the inhabitants of Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes (1963).
Why this bizarre Sturm und Drang spectacle? Perhaps we are being invited to marvel at “life in revolution”: “Life, is not your beauty to manifest yourself variously, abundantly and indefinably?” (259). Or is the entire thing a satirical send-up of the idea of Progress? Is this a way to jar us out of our parochial perspectives by taking the long view? “Confronted with the absolute,” as the narrator of The Superhumans reflects, “would the invariant chaos in which we live, which custom renders normal … be any less paradoxical?” (201).
Han Ryner (a.k.a. Henri Ner, 1861-1938) was certainly not one to shy away from paradox. A professor of classics at the Lycée Charlemagne in Paris who bore a striking resemblance to a bust of Socrates, Ner’s love of the Cynic and Stoic philosophers’ rebellious spirit led him to embrace an individualist and pacifist variety of anarchism in the 1890s, collaborating with anarchist cultural projects such as the Université Populaire under his nom de guerre of Han Ryner. Marginal as his politics were within the anarchist milieu (most anarchists were neither pacifists nor individualists), his novels and short, parable-like stories, no less than his essays, became so internationally popular among anarchists that E. Armand could refer to a certain phenomenon of “Rynerism.” For all this, and for his disdain toward the French literary establishment, he and his books have fallen down the oubliette of literary history.
Fortunately, Brian Stableford, practitioner and critic-historian of sf, knows his way around the catacombs of French literature, from which he has been exhuming some notable figures of late for Black Coat Press and its parent imprint, Hollywood Comics, including collected stories of the fantastic by such high-culture figures as Guy de Maupassant and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and pop-cult giants in the Vernean vein, such as Albert Robida and Jules Lermina. I am not sure whether the booming market for steampunk can support fifty-five (!) translations of pre-Gernsbackian French science fiction, but fellow scholars of sf in the Anglophone world can be deeply grateful for the effort.
Less fortunately—and perhaps this is a consequence of the unbelievable velocity of Stableford’s output as a translator—the Englishing is not perfect. As a producer of poor translations from the French (with a bad conscience), I recognize the signs: false cognates (“Tout le jour, il marchait au hasard” becomes “All day he marched at random”  instead of “All day he wandered aimlessly”), odd sentence structures with needless subordinate clauses (“The old man reminded them, specifically, that although, in normal periods, creatures remain slaves to an inflexible form, prisoners of an almost immutable species, the great catastrophes created by the alternative shocks of the star of ice and the star of fire liberate forces, permitting all hopes, all attempts, all efficacious efforts, and all progress” ), etc. This does not come of an insufficient grasp of French—Stableford even provides footnotes with helpful glosses on some of the subtler nuances of the original language that resist translation—but it is pervasive enough to be distracting to anyone with a love of English.
The content exceeds the form. The title story of The Superhumans is actually a novella, taking up just over a third of the collection; a second novella, The Travels of Psychodorus, Cynic Philosopher, takes up another third, and the rest is a passel of short stories selected from Ryner’s vast corpus. The stories are a rather mixed bag; the first, “The Ape-Man” (1894), shows Ryner in his guise as misogynist, an attitude obviously not ethically consistent with his anarchism (but, as Richard Sonn points out in Sex, Violence, and the Avant-Garde: Anarchism in Interwar France , not uncommon in the French anarchist milieu of the time). They are not without interest, however: “The Revolt of the Machines” (1896), for instance, reads like a decades-early sketch for Karel Čapek’s R.U.R., and “A Historical Romance” (1896) turns the utopian genre on its head by narrating year 2347 of “the Social Era” from the point of view of its one and only enemy, a lonely rapist-murderer who hates equality, waxes nostalgic for “all the ancient superiorities,” and longs to become a Nietzschean superman (27, 29).
The stories are short and swift, sometimes lyrical but minimally furnished with narrative trappings. This is not sf on the model that Ursula K. Le Guin borrows from Virginia Woolf in “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown” (1976): that is to say, there are lots of ideas here but no fully realized characters in whom we can immerse ourselves, no Mrs. Browns. Even plotting is almost beside the point for the kind of fiction Ryner was writing, which can best be placed in a line of descent from the contes philosophiques of Voltaire and Montesquieu. As Bruce Sterling wrote of another scion of this tradition, Stanislaw Lem, science fiction is not literature so much as “a documented form of thought-experiment,” a testing of some proposition about the “structure of the world” (“The Structure of Cognition,” SF Eye 2 [Aug. 1987]: 62). The structure Ryner is interested in is not only epistemological and ontological (he is really uninterested in science per se, which serves as yet one more material for myth-making) but ethical: what would it mean, for instance, to really accept that human life is part of a continuum with animals and machines? And what does it say about us that we find it so difficult to imagine a genuinely happy world, that it is so much easier for us to imagine the man who, in the midst of utopia, dreams of being “a general who kills millions of men, a tyrant who humiliates them, a slave-master who beats them, a thief who deprives the poor of their last garments and laughs on seeing them writhing under the stings of cold, a factory-owner who skimps on the initially-almost-adequate morsels of bread accorded to his workers” (28-29)? Wait a minute—what’s the difference between this cruel thief and the factory owner? Oh. That “oh” of recognition, with the accompanying sense of boggling or dislocation, is the kind of effect, more than Woolfian identification, even more than the hard-sf effect of “wonder,” that Rynerian sf aims at.
Caroline Granier borrows a Rynerian phrase for the title of her recent study, Quitter son point de vue: Quelques utopies anarcho-littéraires d’il y a un siècle (Changing one’s point of view: several anarchic-literary utopias from a century ago; ed. Michel Anthony, Paris: Monde libertaire, 2007). It comes from Ryner’s novel Les Pacifiques (1914), which also takes advantage of an anti-utopian narrator, who in spite of his first-hand experience of the warmth and joy lived by inhabitants of the lost island of Atlantis, refuses “to leave behind his solid point of view as a Frenchman and a man of the twentieth century” (Granier 42). This, Granier suggests, is exactly the function of anarchist utopian writing: not to posit a perfect society, something anarchists are deeply ambivalent about to begin with, but to pry readers away from the perspectives they inhabit, away from the seemingly solid presuppositions of everyday life under capitalism and the State. We can see a similar logic at work in Ryner’s The Travels of Psychodorus, Cynic Philosopher (1903), a novella Stableford compares, not without reason, to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).
Like Gulliver—or Lem’s Pirx the Pilot—Psychodorus is a nomad, an episodic observer of different forms of life who has the cognitive advantage of being detached from them, a mobile rather than a solid point of view. Nevertheless, each one of the other forms of life he encounters reflects a fragment of human life as we know it. In his first adventure, “The Rooted People,” we meet a settlement of human trees whose perspective is literally fixed in place; for them, like the inhabitants of Plato’s cave (or nineteenth-century positivists), there is either “nothing beyond the horizon”—or, like Christians, they believe that the world beyond what they can see is divided into “a delightfully moist land where the Earth is generous, and a land of torments and dryness” (71-72). Ha ha! How parochial.… Oh.
This collection represents a real contribution to sf studies: a chunk of forgotten literary history in which the gaudiest of generic garb clothes a philosophically challenging and politically engaged work of the fantastic. It should embarrass us in academia that the treasures to be had from translations like Stableford’s are not being garnered by academic presses but by small publishing outfits such as Black Coat Press.
—Jesse Cohn, Purdue University North Central
Méliès’s Extraordinary Voyages.
Matthew Solomon, ed. Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon. Albany: SUNY P, 2011. xii + 259 pp. $29.95 pbk.
Georges Méliès is certainly one of the most important and oft-discussed figures of early film history, in large part because of the way his works pushed beyond the initial cinematic impulse to record and represent reality. His fantasies or féerie filmsstand in rather stark contrast to the other key touchstone of early cinematic history, the Lumière brothers’ actualités, for unlike their efforts at observing the everyday—the arrival of a train, knocking down a brick wall, bathers at the seaside, etc.—Méliès’s shorts repeatedly conjured up the marvelous in both subject and method. His theatrically stylized and exaggerated images, his fascination with magic and outlandish adventure, and his reliance on sudden appearances and disappearances (typically achieved by stopping and starting the camera and by effective editing) all helped open the door to an ever-expanding stream of cinematic fantasy, including an sf cinema. In the pioneering effort, Méliès produced more than 500 short films between 1896 and 1913 (of which approximately 140 still survive), ranging across a variety of genres, but achieved his greatest fame—and probably greatest impact—with a number of proto-sf efforts, such as An Impossible Voyage (1904), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1907), The Conquest of the Pole (1912), and especially, as this book underscores, A Trip to the Moon (1902), which probably remains the most often seen and discussed of his works. Matthew Solomon’s collection of essays, Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination, addresses this generic linkage, but also goes beyond it to situate this film in the turn-of-the-century cultural context that fused our fantastic imaginings with the various technologies, including film, that would help usher them into being.
Solomon has already established a solid reputation as an interpreter of early film fantasies and late-modernist culture, thanks to his book Disappearing Tricks (2010), astudy of Houdini and silent film. That reputation has helped him attract a variety of noted international film scholars to this reassessment, among them Paolo Cherchi Usai, Ian Christie, Murray Pomerance, Tom Gunning, and Richard Abel. And while a few of the pieces included here are reprints—notably the contributions by Usai and Thierry Lefebvre—most are original contributions or, as in the case of Andre Gaudreault’s offering, revisions of earlier work. More important is that these pieces are almost uniformly solid and readable pieces of scholarship that open up to a broad audience, as they take us on their own “fantastic voyages”: examining the tradition of the féerie play, surveying late-nineteenth-century Expositions and Worlds Fairs, considering early feminist film imagery, exploring late-modernist efforts at reframing the nature of vision, and looking at Méliès’s impact on other early efforts at an sf cinema. In short, the book is both a substantial contribution to the scholarship surrounding Méliès’s pioneering work and also a study that will prove interesting and accessible to non-film scholars.
One of this volume’s primary aims is to balance out what Gaudreault refers to as the “teleological view of film history,” which simply places Méliès and his best-known film as key markers in “an evolutionary and progressive model” of that history (32). Thus, many of the essays try to situate both the film and its maker in a rich cultural context of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century entertainments: the writings of Jules Verne most obviously, but also nineteenth-century French theater, Jacques Offenbach’s 1875 operetta Le Voyage dans la lune, H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1901), popular magic shows of the era, the music hall tradition, traveling illustrated lectures on astronomy by figures such as Albert Hopkins and Camille Flammarion, the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900, and especially the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 with its featured cyclorama of “A Trip to the Moon” (later moved to Coney Island as part of its famous Luna Park). All are, as Ian Christie offers, equally important components in “Méliès’s knowing reinvention of popular forms” (76)—a fact typically ignored in most historical discussions of this work. But more importantly, they help point to that work’s place in what Tom Gunning describes as a complex “conjunction of modernity, vision, cinema, and global ... space” that was emerging at the turn of the century (98), as modern technological culture presented us with new ways of seeing and responding to our world, to which Trip to the Moon stands as a milestone.
Fortunately, that effort at describing the rich context of Méliès’s landmark film does not crowd out its treatment as a key text of science fiction. As noted above, several essays discuss the film’s echoes of Verne, describing both its narrative links to the latter’s novels From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the Moon (1869) and Méliès’s broader imitation of Verne’s voyages extraordinaires tradition. The treatment of space in Trip to the Moon figures in several of the essays, perhaps most compellingly in Gunning’s discussion, which links Méliès’s depiction of his astronauts’ shell quickly approaching and then plunging into the moon’s eye to Walter Benjamin’s vision of modernity’s sudden shock effect—i.e., as a metaphor for the new era’s fundamental challenge to seeing. Antonio Costa treats Méliès’s work as a kind of linchpin to understanding the appearance of other early sf films, especially Marcel Fabre’s own comic “extraordinary voyage,” Saturnino Farandola (1913). For Costa, Méliès established, through a great number of similar works, a logic of the “marvelous” rather than the “fantastic” that would hold sway over sf cinema until the following decade. And Viva Paci examines the long legacy of Méliès’s sf images as they have informed a wide variety of other features, experimental films, and music videos, resulting in, as Paci puts it, “a continuous, productive exchange of images and ideas” (203) over the century since Trip to the Moon first appeared.
Several added attractions to this volume also bear mention. As appendices, it includes a list of Trip to the Moon’s thirty tableaux or scenes, along with a descriptive synopsis of the film taken from a 1902 trade catalogue. Theseelements not only make the film’s oft-discussed structure and editing patterns immediately apparent but they also provide a check for the many abbreviated versions of the film that are in circulation. There are also extensive interview comments by Méliès, provided in 1930, as well as translations of two articles he wrote, “The Marvelous in Cinema” from 1912 and “The Importance of the Script” from 1932. These contributions alone add a good deal of value to the volume, since they let us glimpse Méliès’s sense of what his films had accomplished and better understand how he saw the fantastic as central to the real accomplishment of the cinema: the “cause” of its “formidable success,” without which, he says, film might have remained “a barely known laboratory tool” (235). Finally, the book includes a DVD that offers both a complete version of the film—that is, one including the final two scenes that are usually missing from contemporary prints: of the triumphal parade of the astronauts and of the dedication of a statue to the leader of the moon expedition—and a hand-colored version to demonstrate how such early efforts often used coloring to enhance a film’s visual appeal and thus its market value.
Fantastic Voyages is a significant volume of criticism, one that has a clear appeal to historians of early film, but also one that, thanks to the quality and breadth of its contributions, has much to offer a wider audience. The essays are almost uniformly of a very high quality, and they manage to paint a compelling portrait of the late-modernist era that saw the emergence of film, science fiction, and the technological culture in which both have played crucial roles. We might recall that, in his own time, Méliès was often referred to as the Jules Verne of the cinema, thanks largely to his ability to capture the spirit of the author’s voyages extraordinaires. This volume takes readers on some of those voyages, in the process helping us to better understand the rich tradition at the heart of sf cinema.
—J.P. Telotte, Georgia Institute of Technology
Re-viewing Verne’s Invisible Man.
Jules Verne. The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz. Ed. and trans. Peter Schulman. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2011. Bison Frontiers of Imagination series. xvi + 220 pp. $29.95 hc; $15.95 pbk.
This book is the first English translation of Verne’s original manuscript of a novel that was published posthumously as Le Secret de Wilhelm Storitz, one of the legendary author’s last Extraordinary Voyages. The first French edition was released in 1910, five years after Verne’s death, and its English translation did not appear until 1963. Storitz was among several posthumous works—titled and untitled, in various states of completion—that were brought to press from 1905 to 1919 by Verne’s son Michel, who was executor of his estate. By the early 1980s, however, Verne scholars began to question the authenticity of these works. Jules Verne’s original manuscripts had finally become available to the general public, and a close examination of them revealed that Michel had heavily edited, revised, and even rewritten most of his father’s posthumous novels before their publication.
During the past few decades, the reaction among Verne aficionados to this important revelation has been mixed. The majority of them have followed the lead of the Société Jules Verne in France and its president Olivier Dumas, who categorically denounced these “tainted” Verne novels and proposed replacing them with published editions of Verne père’s first-draft manuscripts. These new French editions began to appear on the market in the mid-1980s. Most contain polemical prefaces by Dumas strongly condemning Michel’s “disfigured” versions and insisting that these new manuscript-based editions henceforth be considered the best and only authentic versions of these Verne stories. Certain other Verne scholars, less obsessively purist, have disagreed. They have contended that Michel’s changes often improved the readability of his father’s rough drafts; that, for some of these novels, Verne père himself would have made many of these changes during the proofing stage had he lived long enough to do so; and that such father-son collaborations were not uncommon during Verne’s final years and even earlier. They have argued that the actions of the Société Jules Verne—in its rigid, unilateral rejection of all these original editions, regardless of their individual quality—were harming Verne’s literary legacy rather than helping it (see my review-essay “Protesting Too Much: The Jules vs. Michel Verne Controversy” in SFS 36.2 [July 2009]: 321-26).
But before proceeding to an analysis of this particular version of Storitz, it might be useful to clarify the present status of these controversial posthumous novels by Verne. There are a total of eight of them:
1905, Le Phare du bout du monde—original published version
The Lighthouse at the End of the World (1923, trans. Cranstoun Metcalfe)
Le Phare du bout du monde (1999)—manuscript version
The Lighthouse at the End of the World (2001, trans. William Butcher)
1906, Le Volcan d’or—original published version
The Golden Volcano (1962, trans. I.O. Evans)
Le Volcan d’or (1989)—manuscript version
The Golden Volcano (2008, trans. Edward Baxter)
1907, L’Agence Thompson and Co.—original published version;
The Thompson Travel Agency (1965, 2 vols., Package Holiday and End of the Journey, trans. I.O. Evans)
(to date, no manuscript version or translation)
1908, La Chasse au météore—original published version
The Chase of the Golden Meteor (1909, trans. Frederick Lawton)
The Hunt for the Meteor (1965, trans. I.O. Evans)
La Chasse au météore (1986)—manuscript version
The Meteor Hunt (2006, Frederick Paul Walter and Walter James Miller)
1908, Le Pilote du Danube—original published version
The Danube Pilot (1967, trans. I.O. Evans)
Le Beau Danube jaune (1988, The Beautiful Yellow Danube)—manuscript version
(to date, no English translation of the manuscript version)
1909, Les Naufragés du “Jonathan”—original published version
The Survivors of the “Jonathan” (1962, 2 vols., The Masterless Man and The Unwilling Dictator, trans. I.O. Evans)
En Magellanie (1987, In Magellania)—manuscript version
Magellania (2002, trans. Benjamin Fry)
1910, Le Secret de Wilhelm Storitz—original published version
The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz (1963, trans. I.O. Evans)
Le Secret de Wilhelm Storitz (1985)—manuscript version
The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz (2011, trans. Peter Schulman)
1919, L’Etonnante aventure de la mission Barsac—original published version
The Barsac Mission (1960, 2 vols., Into the Niger Bend and The City in the Sahara, trans. I.O. Evans)
Voyage d’études (1993, Study Trip)—manuscript version (consisting of only 4-5 chapters and some notes)
(to date, no English translation of the manuscript version)
With the exception of L’Agence Thompson and Co.—whose manuscript (by Jules? by Michel?) does not vary greatly from the 1907 published text—all the posthumous novels have now been replaced by new editions based exclusively on Verne père’s original French manuscripts. And since 2001, Anglophone Vernians have begun publishing English-language translations of the latter.
One obvious question arises when judging the manuscript versions against the original published versions of these novels: which ones are better? Despite the biased judgment of the French Société Jules Verne (for whom none of the original versions can be better because they were all contaminated by Michel’s hand), there are no simple answers to this question. For example, The Survivors of the “Jonathan” is clearly a much better novel in every way than the sketchy and uninspired Magellania. In my opinion, the same holds true for the Michel-edited versions of The Lighthouse at the End of the World and The Golden Volcano. But in The Meteor Hunt, The Barsac Mission, and The Thompson Travel Agency, Michel went too far: not limiting himself to being the editor of these texts, he became their primary author. The case of The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz is similar but slightly different. Although Michel left the bulk of his father’s (nearly finalized) manuscript intact, the changes he did make served to weaken instead of strengthen the novel’s overall quality.
Exactly how are the two versions different? Here is a brief summary of The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz as Verne originally wrote it (spoiler alert!). The French engineer Henry Vidal—who acts as first-person narrator in the story—travels from Paris to Hungary to attend the wedding of his brother Marc, a painter, to a lovely young Hungarian woman named Myra Roderich. Weeks earlier, Myra and her family spurned a marriage proposal from the evil Wilhelm Storitz, whose late father was a famous but widely feared German scientist who had experimented with “Roentgen rays.” The young Storitz, infuriated with his rejection as a suitor, vows to take his revenge on the entire Roderich family. Determined to find a way to prevent Myra from marrying anyone but him, Wilhelm shuts himself up in his father’s laboratory and, using the latter’s secret notes, invents an invisibility potion. He drinks it and, now unseen, he terrorizes Myra’s family and succeeds in kidnapping Myra herself and forcing her to drink the potion too. Before he can escape the country with his prize, Storitz is tracked down by the police and killed. As he lies dying, his body slowly reappears (strongly reminiscent of Wells’s 1897 novel The Invisible Man, on which Verne’s Storitz was patterned). But his secret dies with him; Myra must remain forever invisible. In a bittersweet ending, she and her fiancé Marc marry, remain in Hungary, and find happiness together. A nostalgic Henry Vidal concludes the novel with the following thoughts:
And I sometimes ask myself whether I have to permanently give up any hope of ever seeing that young woman in her physical form again, whether some sort of physiological phenomenon might possibly occur, or even whether the simple passage of time might bring back her lost visibility; whether, one day, Myra might finally reappear before our eyes, radiating with her youth, grace, and beauty?
The future might well decide in the end, but for the sake of Heaven, I pray that the secret of invisibility may never resurface again, and that it remain forever buried deep down in Otto and Wilhelm Storitz’s grave! (Schulman trans.)
Michel’s revisions to this original version of Storitz were few but significant. Inexplicably, he moved the action from the late-nineteenth century to the eighteenth century, which necessitated a host of changes to the geographical and historical references throughout the narrative. And he completely rewrote the novel’s dénouement to give it a more conventional “happy” ending. In his version, a married Myra suddenly regains her visibility at the very moment when she gives birth to her first child (a boy). All three Vidals then move back to Paris, where Marc goes on to have a “glorious career” as a “famous artist,” and Henry spends a great deal of time with his young nephew whom he “cherishes.” The final paragraph of this doctored version reads as follows:
Heaven grant that their happiness endure for many a long year! Heaven grant that nobody else ever suffers the evils that they have suffered! Heaven grant, and this shall be my last word, that nobody ever rediscovers the execrable secret of Wilhelm Storitz! (I.O. Evans trans.)
Obviously, such a clichéd and predictable conclusion changes the tone of Verne’s cautionary tale from tragic to trite. As Peter Schulman, translator and editor of this edition of Storitz, accurately summarizes: Michel made a calculated decision to try to increase the novel’s commercial sales by sacrificing his father’s “poignant and highly original ending” (xiii) for one that he assumed the reading public would prefer.
Schulman is a professor of French at Old Dominion University, and his translation of The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz comes across as both supple and smooth. It achieves quite nicely that delicate balancing act of remaining faithful to Verne’s text without being stilted. The book’s critical apparatus (introduction, afterword, and notes) is a model of informed scholarly exegesis, which should be no surprise to those in the field since Professor Schulman is known as one of the world’s top Verne experts. One small complaint: the lack of a secondary bibliography in the appendix—it would have been handy for the reader to find gathered together there all the critical references related to this little-known sf novel by Verne. Bottom line: this book is highly recommended for all libraries, for all Verne enthusiasts, and for all readers with an interest in early sf portrayals of invisibility.
—Arthur B. Evans, DePauw University
Pitfalls of Prophecy.
Gary Westfahl, Wong Kin Yuen, and Amy Kit-Sze Chan, eds. Science Fiction and the Prediction of the Future: Essays on Foresight and Fallacy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. vi + 263 pp. $35 pbk.
For most academic collections of essays, it is tangential to note that the title is imprecise. But with Science Fiction and the Prediction of the Future, this referential fuzziness reflects sf’s difficulties with the question under discussion—which, according to the back cover, is this: “Can the genre actually provide glimpses into the world of tomorrow?” The trouble here, as Gary Westfahl’s opening essay (“Pitfalls of Prophecy”) points out, is that science fiction demonstrably fails at prediction far more often than it succeeds. For every radar-prefiguring Actinoscope emerging from the mind of a Hugo Gernsback, there are hundreds more forecasts (many of them in Ralph 124C41+ ) that never came to pass. If we ask, as Westfahl does in his Introduction, whether sf got even the “feel” of the future right (6), the answer is a resounding no. This overturning of sf’s future dreams is so thoroughly ingrained by now that it has spawned a subgenre of anticlimax, recognizable in everything from band names such as We Were Promised Jetpacks to the complex mythology of failure in The Venture Bros (2003- ). If one were to list the things that sf does consistently well, “predicting the future” would fall somewhere around “winning Booker Prizes.” One might be left to ask, as Richard L. McKinney does near the end of his essay on “Places of Alterity in Science Fiction”: “what does all this have to do with predicting the future?” (80)
While few of the essays can speak to that specific question, that should not distract from their overall sharpness and quality—for instance, Veronica Hollinger’s valuable readings, in her “Technobodies and the Anxieties of Performance,” of Cordwainer Smith’s “Scanners Live in Vain” (1950) and C.L. Moore’s “No Woman Born” (1944). Hollinger’s analysis, grounded in N. Katherine Hayles’s work on the posthuman and Judith Butler’s on performativity, does not touch on prediction per se, but does invite further exploration of subjectivity and the machine/body interface as addressed by Golden Age sf and received by readers today. It also points to a difficulty with considering sf in terms of “prediction”: Smith’s story clearly does not provide a “glimpse of the world of tomorrow” in any predictive sense; Moore’s story might yet prove prescient, but as Hollinger shows, the story has value—specifically, quoting Foucault, its “historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (qtd. 60)—entirely separable from the real-life emergence of any cyborg-idoru performer.
Which is to say (following Fredric Jameson) that science fiction is a genre not about the future, but about the present. With very few, Gernsback-inspired exceptions (such as Gregory Benford’s volume-closing thought-exercise), when sf speaks of the future, it does so in the present tense: a mode Northrop Frye, in Words With Power (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), calls the prophetic or “kerygmatic”: “the magical line or phrase … that suddenly seems to extend one’s vision … a verbal formula that insists on becoming a part of us” (114). This formulation transcends the true/false dichotomy of prediction; and it is noteworthy that even the essays taking up a “successful” prediction—such as Murray Leinster’s Web-wired world in “A Logic Named Joe,” analyzed by David L. Ferro and Eric G. Swedin—primarily address our own incorporation of these stories, rather than ascribing any unusual prescience to the tales themselves.
This seeming disparity between project and pieces is traced in Westfahl’s Introduction to the book’s origins in a 2003 conference on “Technoscience, Material Culture, and Everyday Life”—a more apt description of the contents. But this title was deemed too broad for marketing, hence the restrictive focus on “prediction” when instead this volume is better seen as a worthy successor to this editorial trio’s previous compilation, World Weavers: Globalization, Science Fiction, and the Cybernetic Revolution (2005). Both Amy Kit-sze Chan’s and Wong Kin Yuen’s essays continue their Deleuzian projects from World Weavers, Chan offering a thoughtful musing on calligraphic styles and technologies as a locus for écriture feminine, while Yuen provides a dense yet graceful look at the kung fu fantastic and intercultural studies. This spirit of cross-cultural exchange animates a number of other essays—Véronique Flambard-Weisbart on Hong Kong cinema and the French New Wave; Sharalyn Orbaugh on Italian Futurism and oft-destroyed Tokyo; Lynne Lundquist’s delightful reading of The Beatles’s much-maligned movie Help! as unwitting precursor to our “Globalized, Radicalized, Technologized World”—though, as Lisa Yaszek noted of the previous volume in her review in SFS (34.2 [July 2007]: 256-59), there are large landmasses left unaccounted for (most curiously for a volume ostensibly on prediction, there is next to nothing on the entire former Soviet bloc), and the gap between original conference and publication date is wider for this volume than the previous.
Difficulties of assembly aside, the book is generally excellent (in addition to the pieces mentioned above, note also those by Rob Latham on sf psychedelia and the love/hate reception of 2001: A Space Odyssey , and Brooks Landon on the ignored possibilities of cybertextual sf). Much of it ought to prove useful to the scholarship of the future—as long as we do not ask it to predict what that future will be.
—Andrew Ferguson, University of Virginia
Gary Wolfe. Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature. Middletown CT: Wesleyan UP, 2011. xvi + 260 pp. $75 hc; $27.95 pbk.
The first draft of sf criticism is its reviews. A roll call of names springs to mind here—Damon Knight, William Atheling, Jr. (a.k.a. James Blish), John Clute, Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones, to pick five at random—and they have done much to sift the runners and riders out from the mass of genre publications. Sometimes I long to see what the reviewers could do with a larger canvas—but even Clute’s magisterial Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979, with Peter Nicholls; rev. ed. 1993; online ed. 2011) is a patchwork and his essays—aside from review-essays—are all too rare. Another name to add to the list is Gary K. Wolfe, whose reviews, mostly published in Locus, have been collected in Soundings (2005), Bearings (2010), and Sightings (2011), and whose Critical Terms in Science Fiction and Fantasy (1986) is repeatedly at my elbow. He has written articles (over two hundred), but it is a long time since he had a solo monograph—Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (2002), cowritten with Ellen Weil, perhaps comes closest. With such a sustained and intricate surveying of the terrain of sf, fantasy, and horror over the years, he could surely offer us a cogent and detailed overview of these fields. Evaporating Genres, with its eleven chapters, is not quite that, alas, though it has cogency (with some carping to follow) and a sense of overview (with oversights). Wolfe effectively admits this, noting that the book’s chapters “are not exactly governed by a single overarching critical methodology or theory.… This book does not purport to propose a theory of the fantastic in literature” (187). (In case I am misprisioned, I hasten to say that this lack does not at all discredit the volume.)
We can envisage two broad approaches to genre criticism. In one corner sit the tenure-track academics with their Marxism or queer theory or post-structuralism, or in any case the terminological cant of the academic initiate, who see each text as an exemplar of theory and pay careful homage to their forebears (Jameson, Suvin, Haraway). In the opposite corner sit the professional reviewers, aware of what they have read before (Wells, Le Guin, Asimov) and inevitably jerry-rigging an idiosyncratic critical language to discuss each new volume, slowly building towards something or other, though not exactly towards a finished theory. One moves from macro to micro and one from micro to macro, and Clute fits into the latter camp. As Wolfe notes in his closing chapter, Clute flies critical kites in his reviews—Knots here, Equipoise there, Wronging and Thinning and Recognition and Healing all over the place—and some of these terms make it into The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1995, ed. with John Grant) or The Darkening Garden (2006) and become part of the scaffolding of his theories of specific genres. Wolfe would rather be in Clute’s gang—he tells the sad tale of a job candidate who reads no fiction because all he reads is theory (211). I just worry that in aligning oneself with the outlaws, one always has to fashion a new wheel when several are already available inside the ivory tower. Wolfe knows his Freud and his Bettelheim and his Delany and his Todorov, but he does not deploy them.
This is a shame, because Wolfe could do with some of that theory, which might make more sense of the theme that he claims the book lacks. The eleven chapters were originally published between 1982 and 2009, including contributions to the academic journals Foundation and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, several academic essay collections, the fannish newsletter Vector, and the largely fiction-based Conjunctions 39 (a magazine special issue devoted to “New Wave Fabulism”). In three decades, we might imagine that Wolfe has changed his mind on some topics, but many of the essays have been reworked, partly to add signposts to overlaps between chapters (although not systematically), partly to add more recent examples. Thus an article on “The Artifact as Icon in Science Fiction” from 1988 can find space to mention Soul Music (85)—listed as 1995, but really 1994. In most cases, the essays are revised or expanded from their original appearances, in many cases adding post-2000 examples (although in his discussion of the influence of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy [1951-53] on Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the Aum Shinrikyo cult  he does not note the alleged connection to the name al-Qaida). While, on the one hand, this gives a fascinating overview of the sf, fantasy, and horror of the late 1990s and 2000s, on the other hand it sometimes leaves the sense of a void in time between the main subject matter of the chapter and this new material. It is not as if the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s are disappeared—“The Artifact as Icon in Science Fiction” chapter is mostly 1970s-based—but they do feel occluded. The essays have gaps, as well as overlaps. It is perhaps the intersection of these that gives the sense the book has a thesis that does not quite work.
This thesis is pointed to by the book’s title—Evaporating Genres. This formulation occurs in a self-quotation of a review of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror: “‘Fantasy is evaporating’” (viii, 50). This is not a suggestion that fantasy is dying, but rather that “it had grown so diverse and ubiquitous that it seemed a central part of the fabric of contemporary culture” (51). The unique and special definitions of fantasy that distinguish it from the mainstream are no longer solid and certain. So why have a separate category at all? Similarly, the horror genre has changed: Wolfe’s account of Peter Straub’s work suggests that he could hold his own with the postmoderns, and the audience-response definition of horror as that which horrifies no longer seems necessary and sufficient (151ff). The same evaporation is true of sf, where some novels “may convey the feel of a particular genre … even though they lack traditional genre markers” (15; emphasis in original). This is not the muscling in of P.D. James, Margaret Atwood, and Paul Theroux from outside to reinvent the genre’s wheel and win literary glory, but rather the intelligent use of genre tropes by writers such as Jim Crace, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Lethem, and the pushing back of boundaries by those inside the ghetto itself. The interior walls have been broken down too, with fantasy sliding into sf into horror with a writer such as China Miéville (15, 162) straddling genres or Geoff Ryman moving through realism to fantasy and back again (32-33). The last twenty years have seen both a shift from genres to supergenres—the horror-fantasy-sf megatexts (57)—and also an explosion in the number of subgenres or movements challenging the genres proper: “Slipstream. Interstitial. Transrealism. New Weird. Nonrealist fiction. New Wave Fabulist. Postmodern fantasy. Postgenre fiction. Cross-genre. Span fiction. Artists without Borders. New Humanist. Fantastika. Liminal fantasy. Transcendental Horror” (164). Wolfe ably discusses a number of examples of such works—especially in the chapter “Twenty-First Century Stories,” co-written (like the one on “Peter Straub and the New Horror”) with Amelia Beamer—but perhaps he could have afforded to be more cynical about the way in which such labels are a way of packaging and flogging a group of writers in an anthology. Draw up a manifesto, ring up your mates for a story that may or may not fit, critique the previous generation, and hey presto, you have a movement.
That the genres are evaporating is a seductive thesis, but I do not believe it. In part this is because Wolfe is such a good critic, in part because he is not a good enough theorist. One of the rhetorical ploys of genre critics—and I suspect I am as guilty of this as the next person—is to argue for the unique conditions of sf, fantasy, and horror as being especially cast outside of the academy and thus inherently subversive. Our genres are indefinable, whereas everyone knows what the western, romance, adventure/crime/detective/police procedural genres are. John G. Cawelti can construct standard narratives for crime, westerns, and social melodramas (23), but not the most narrative-driven of evaporated genres—although Wolfe has a go at some narrative structuring for apocalyptic fiction and fantasy. I think that we construct particular genres as solid and monolithic to a degree that those fans of those genres would not recognize. Wolfe’s own accounts of Edisonades such as The Huge Hunter: or, The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868) suggests a more symbiotic relationship between a “moribund” genre (58) and an evaporated one—especially as Wolfe so skillfully explores the frontier theme in sf. If all genre bets are off, why then think of slipstream and interstitial fiction and so on as “something else” (167; emphasis in original)? What else is there? If there are no rules, can they be broken? All that is solid (genre) has melted into air—except when some new movement reifies the old-timers as set in their ways and unveils a new panoply of melted watches.
So we live in the time of the Fall, or after the Fall—when we have a free play of genre conventions. When did it all go right? (Or wrong?) This is not as clear as it might be. In his account of science-fictional autobiographies, Wolfe notes the repeated primal scene of discovery by authors of Amazing Stories (141-42), but equally he traces sf through the nineteenth century, through the thickets of magazines and, most interestingly, anthology titles (18-22); similar histories of fantasy and horror are traced. If the fantastic is less hidebound, less formulaic, less predictable, less pure than it used to be, it is not at all clear that it was ever hide-bound, formulaic, predictable, and pure in the first place. Paradoxically, the destabilized genres have never been stable, or at least have only been stable in very contingent conditions. At points Wolfe even seems to say this. We need an understanding of what genre is.
And this is what Wolfe refuses to give us—in one of his interstices, he even admits that “‘genre’ is used largely as a term of convenience” (1) and that “[f]rom the pure perspective of literary theory, persuasive arguments can be made that … science fiction, fantasy, horror … [are not] pure genres in any taxonomic sense” (1). Genres can be kinds of narratives, affinity groups of readers, sales pitches of publishers, shops, and libraries, groupings of writers, gambits for writers in interviews, and more. Genres can be defined by narrative structure, by iconography, by theme, by ideology, or by audience response. Genres are composed of texts that belong to those genres (and yes, that is a circular argument). No text belongs only to one genre, and each text probably violates the rules of the genre to which it belongs; certainly there is always a point when a text does something that is not part of its genre. I am sure Wolfe knows all this. The wonder is that we recognize what anyone else is talking about when we discuss specific genres. Perhaps we do not. The chapters here on the artifact, the apocalyptic novel, the frontier theme, and, to a lesser extent, the dialectic of chaos and stability offer fine examples of a move from close-up to mid-shot, if not quite from micro to macro. To complete that journey, Wolfe needs to confront that “pure perspective” and have more nuance in the polysemic usage of the term “genre.”—Andrew M. Butler, Canterbury Christ Church University College