BOOKS IN REVIEW
Conceptual Slippage and Inadvertent Conflations.
Masood Ashraf Raja, Jason W. Ellis, and Swaralipi Nandi, eds. The Postnational Fantasy: Essays on Postcolonialism, Cosmopolitics and Science Fiction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. x + 215 pp. $40 pbk.
This is an uneven collection that aims to achieve too much and, as a result, accomplishes not enough in articulating and enriching our understanding of the three theoretical terms in its title. The best essays engage with and rethink one or more of these multivalent concepts through a cogent analysis of sf texts, but more often than not the writing makes gestures towards or broadly invokes postnationalism, postcolonialism, and cosmopolitics in thematic rather than problematic terms. Further, those writers who do draw on postcolonialism’s critical bibliography tend to limit themselves to a narrow band of texts from the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the field was receiving increased academic attention, particularly The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (1990) by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, and The Location of Culture (1994) by Homi Bhabha. While these are without doubt formative works in postcolonial criticism, the scholarship of Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Timothy Brennan, Neil Lazarus, Benita Parry, Simon Gikandi, and Ato Quayson (to name just a few) is conspicuously absent from the contributors’ discussions of postcolonialism, although Said and Spivak do receive a few passing references. This seems contrary to the editors’ claim that the essays will “bring to bear upon some classical and contemporary works of science fiction, the full resources and innovative vigor of postcolonial theory” (9). There might be two reasons for this: first, postcolonialism has become such a recognized intellectual field that its concepts have percolated into other areas of study in an almost naturalized fashion that seems to forego the need for direct engagement with postcolonial critics; second, the anthology’s emphasis is more on postnationalism and cosmopolitics, which might be regarded as concepts emanating from earlier questions posed by postcolonialism in its formative period. Whatever the case, I do think there remains a lot of room for fruitful conversations between more recent incarnations of postcolonial studies and science fiction.
The introduction by Raja and Nandi maps out the conceptual and terminological terrain of the collection and gives credence to the two reasons I noted above for the overall lack of engagement with postcolonial criticism. Arguing that nations and nationalisms are still salient social formations and political ideals, the editors focus on postnationalism as a fantastical idea that also generates a genre of writing we might recognize as fantasy or speculative fiction. Furthermore, they trace important connections between science fiction and postcolonial studies on issues of time, space, and existence. I am persuaded by the latter connections, but while I concur with the editors’ skepticism towards postnationalism and its celebratory connotations of global mobility, I find it odd that Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity At Large (1996), one of the earliest and most provocative arguments for postnationalism, is missing from the discussion, along with more recent scholarship on globalizing literary studies (for example, a 2001 issue of the PMLA). The editors insist that their work is polemical: they refuse to “lower our ‘shields’ and let the captains of industry and prophets of neoliberal globalization incinerate us out of existence with their full-powered rhetorical ion blasters” (10). Readers might be forgiven for feeling as if they have stumbled onto the bridge of Captain Kirk’s Enterprise on red alert, and this polemical passion may have precluded a more precise engagement with postnationalism and postcolonialism. Postnationalism, postcolonialism, and cosmopolitics are related but not synonymous terms, and, although the editors do elaborate on cosmopolitics/cosmopolitanism through a discussion of Bruce Robbins’s work on the subject, this conceptual slippage also seeps into the essays that follow.
The collection is divided into three sections of four essays each. The first focuses on “Postcolonial Issues in Science Fiction,” beginning with an intriguing essay by Michele Braun that examines Salman Rushdie’s first novel Grimus (1975) as a blending of magical realism and sf elements that presages Rushdie’s later concerns about nationalism and migration. Also noteworthy is Karen Cordozo and Banu Subramaniam’s analysis of Ruth Ozeki’s novels as “biofiction.” Cordozo and Subramaniam draw parallels between aliens as an invasive botanical or zoological species and aliens in human immigration, and posit a post-capitalist world where humans, plants, and animals can celebrate their species hybridity. The hybridity of culture and language is also celebrated by Chris Pak in his essay about postnationality in science fiction, but Pak relies perhaps too much on Bhabha’s notion of hybridity to suture his analysis to postcolonial studies. Bhabha is again invoked by Adam Frisch to discuss the interaction of humanity, technology, and landscape in Ken MacLeod’s novel Night Sessions (2008), with predictably postnational results.
One wonders if some contributors have inadvertently conflated Bhabha’s ideas about hybridity with the entire field of postcolonial criticism, as Suparno Banerjee’s “Dystopia and the Postcolonial Nation,” in the collection’s second section on “The Nation and Ethnicity in Science Fiction,” once again valorizes the hybridity of the modern Indian nation through Ruchir Joshi’s novel The Last Jet-Engine Laugh (2001). It is therefore refreshing to read Swaralipi Nandi’s “The ‘Popular’ Science,” a genealogical study of science fiction and national sentiment in Bollywood cinema from the 1980s to the twenty-first century. Also turning away from a fascination with hybridity is Angel Mateos-Aparicio Martin-Albo, who interrogates images of space as a vast and liberating final frontier in numerous sf novels by connecting such representations to the American frontier myth of imperial expansion. More bewildering is Jenn Brandt’s “Postcolonial Ethics and Identity in Kirinyaga,” which offers a meticulous reading of Mike Resnick’s 1998 novel without any reference to existing works on postcolonialism or ethics, thus foreclosing a potentially illuminating dialogue between a close literary analysis and established theories.
The third section moves us “Towards a Postnational Discourse,” although postnational questions have already been raised by earlier essays. The Oankali in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-89) and their ability to communicate directly through bodies is the focus of Katherine R. Broad’s essay. Broad argues that the Oankali’s intimate and unmediated method of corporeal communication is akin to colonialist knowledge and actually erases difference and individuality more absolutely than a mediated system of distinct signifiers connecting separate entities. Another intriguing counterintuitive turn occurs in Stacy Schmitt Rusnak’s discussion of the 2006 film Children of Men as a product of director Alfonso Cuaron’s transnational or cosmopolitan Mexican identity rather than a representation of a dystopic Britain. Drawing on Giorgio Agamben’s and Michel Foucault’s work on biopolitics and states of exception, Rusnak makes a provocative argument that the film should be examined within a post-NAFTA Mexican transnational problematic despite its apparently British cultural dress. Less persuasive, however, is Jason W. Ellis’s suggestion that the World of Warcraft game can help human players from all over the world transcend race and nation by “Engineering a Cosmopolitan Future.” Ellis does not address the fact that Blizzard Entertainment, the company that created, runs, and continuously develops this videogame, is a profit-driven company based in the United States or how its imbrication with global capitalism can regulate or circumscribe any radical cosmopolitan sensibilities emerging from the player base. Even more puzzling is Marleen S. Barr’s essay that ends the book, “Fantastic Language/Political Reporting: The Postcolonial Science Fiction Illocutionary Force Is With Us.” Despite including the term “postcolonial” in the title and introduction, Barr does not refer to any existing postcolonial theories or texts to explain how “the language of science fiction has become a post colonial illocutionary force that exemplifies how to do political things with science fiction words” (189). Nor is Barr’s essay moving towards postnational discourse: the primary texts under scrutiny are excerpts from speeches by American politicians and news coverage by major media outlets of recent national elections and public debates. Although the essay is a thorough and cogent analysis of the myriad ways sf vocabulary is invoked by political figures of all stripes, it has little to do with postcolonialism and postnationalism, and one can only wonder about its position as the collection’s concluding piece.
At their best, the essays in The Postnational Fantasy enable us to see how postcolonial studies might be employed in interpretations of sf texts that appear to describe distant locations and alternative futures far removed from the legacies of colonial conquest and the looming presence of imperial power in our present-day world. Even the weaker essays in this collection are instructive, a reminder that more rigorous and illuminating conversations await us if we tune our hailing frequencies beyond the modulations of cultural and linguistic hybridity to consider more recent intellectual developments in postcolonial, postnational, and cosmopolitical scholarship.
—Weihsin Gui, University of California, Riverside
Scotland Conquers the Science-Fictioneers.
Caroline McCracken-Flesher, ed. Scotland as Science Fiction. aperçus: histories texts cultures. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2012.vii + 197 pp. $27.95 pbk.
This invitingly titled volume of essays began as a panel at the 2007 convention of the Modern Language Association. Insightful and innovative from a Scottish-studies point of view, the volume approaches its other topic, the one in which readers of SFS are adept, in a haphazard and sometimes patronizing way. The Foreword argues that sf as practiced by Scottish writers runs “ahead of the curve for science fiction, and today shows the potential to remap the genre” (vii). Yet this thesis is too often advanced by using the term “science fiction” as if it were synonymous with “kitsch.” From time to time, the volume tries for critical traction by distributing the failings of weak sf over the genre as a whole: examples include statements about the genre’s “masculine dynamic” (11) and commodifying comic-book “stereotypes” (154). The engagement with recent sf criticism in Caroline McCracken-Flesher’s Introduction is unnecessarily hostile: “Today, science-fiction writers in dominant/technological places overconfidently define their genre while barely recognizing other traditions—whether of literature or science fiction” (8). This scolding appears to be directed at Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., whose Princeton dissertation was on nineteenth-century realistic historical novels in Italy, Hungary, Russia—and Scotland.
Invidious comparison is likewise the fate of some fine sf authors. In a discussion of Ken MacLeod’s Engine City (2003), Gavin Miller suggests that MacLeod inverts the final sentence in Arthur C. Clarke’s story of 1953, “The Nine Billion Names of God” (changing “Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out” to “quietly, without any fuss, the starships were coming in”), to promote Western Enlightenment values and establish “man’s triumph over the gods.... [T]echnology (symbolized by the starships) will defeat mystic irrationality” (71).The innocence of Western Enlightenment values has been at least called into question by postmodern theorists including Lyotard, for one thing. Moreover, is it likely that Clarke, whose story is assumed to promote a “wish” for “Buddhist awakening” (71), shares the viewpoint either of the computer techs or the monks in the story? He might be challenging the rampant technophilia of postwar Campbellian hard sf—critiquing the genre, then, not promoting “mystic irrationality.” As in this instance, Scottish writers are read with insight while non-Scots are positioned as straw folk. The bland dismissal of all non-Scottish sf began to remind me of an old Monty Python sketch, a debate between the Minister of Home Affairs (Graham Chapman in extravagant drag) and his opponent, “a small patch of brown liquid.”
The Introduction’s brief summary of Csicsery-Ronay, Jr’s, Veronica Hollinger’s, and Joan Gordon’s contextualization of sf in terms of imperialism and posthumanism ends with the same “but enough about you” transition seen in several of the chapters: “The growing anxiety about living imaginatively beyond our human relevance and perhaps even our recognizable existence, a problem for today’s science fiction, only goes where the Scots, by historical necessity, have boldly gone before” (5). When it considers sf outside Scotland, this volume’s approach is largely built on presumptions about popular sf that have little to do with the genre today. Cold-War standby Star Trek may be invoked with a chuckle, as in the sentence quoted above, but there is no mention in this volume of sf’s currently dominant trope, the Singularity.
Scotland has struggled over many centuries to remain distinct as a blend of cultures—Catholic and Presbyterian, Highland and Lowland, Gaelic and Lallands, etc. Science fiction, as several contributors well observe, often considers futures beyond sovereign states, planets, species, or bodies. This important difference loses nuance, however, when staged merely as a competition. In her chapter on feminist sf and the work of contemporary novelist Margaret Elphinstone, Alison Phipps acknowledges that Elphinstone
was not the first feminist writer in Scotland to work with the genre of science fiction. Naomi Mitchison might be considered an antecedent, as might the later American writer, Ursula K. Le Guin. (Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman came out in 1962; Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969.) The Scot, Mitchison, is notable for grounding historical and science fiction writing in recognizable historical and mythic events. (104)
Mitchison not only got there first, in short, but Le Guin’s sf is somehow less “grounded.” Phipps discusses two wonderful authors—Mitchison and Elphinstone—but feels it necessary to praise her subjects by oversimplifying the historical evolution of feminist sf, airbrushing out such early writers as Leslie F. Stone and Catherine L. Moore, whose superb “No Woman Born” appeared in 1944. There is no mention even in passing of James Tiptree, Jr., Octavia E. Butler, or Joanna Russ.
Colin Manlove’s Scottish Fantasy Literature (1994) established a working canon for Scotland’s deep and rich fantasy tradition. Worlds within, states of altered consciousness, and encounters with the preternatural characterize Scottish writing from William Dunbar’s dream-vision “The Thrissell and the Rois” (1503) through ballads such as “Tam Lin,” Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926), and so on down to the present day. Many texts considered “science fiction” in this volume would be classified as fantasies or slipstream under most taxonomies of the fantastic; indeed, this work considers at length six authors placed foursquare in the fantasy canon by Manlove himself: Robert Louis Stevenson, George MacDonald, J.M. Barrie, David Lindsay, Alasdair Gray, and Margaret Elphinstone. Six prose authors join the mix in the volume under review: J. Leslie Mitchell (1901-1935; better known for realistic fiction published under the pseudonym Lewis Grassic Gibbon), Muriel Spark (1918-2006), Iain M. Banks (1954-), Ken MacLeod (1954-), Andrew Crumie (1961-), and Matthew Fitt (1968- ). An excellent chapter by Alan Riach in addition addresses “alternative worlds” in Scottish poetry by James Young Geddes (1850-1913), Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978), and Edwin Morgan (1920-2010). The familiar strategy of cushioning the wayward topic of sf with a reassuring layer of widely known names is evident in this ad hoc canon.
There is a reduced-type entry in the Bibliography, but no chapter about (or even passing mention of) the exuberant sf of Charles Stross. The Scottish anime version of Stross’s “Rogue Farm” (2003) was partly funded by Grampian TV and nominated for a 2005 BAFTA (British Academy of Film Television Arts) award. Superhero comics come in for some polite joshing—“even Batman ... has gone to Scotland twice” (1)—but there is no mention of Scottish comics and graphic novels—for example Louis (2000-2010), a comic by Glasgow residents Sandra Marrs and John Chalmers that is gently surreal (Louis’s best friend is a mechanical bird named FC, short for Formulaic Companion). Another disappointment is that Scotland as Science Fiction never considers today’s Scottish sf in the context of the vigorous recent resurgence of the genre throughout the UK, with the result that the “British Boom” is never mentioned.
If one can tune out the sketchy treatment of sf in a work with this title, it does have strong moments and chapters. The addition of post-2000 Scottish authors to Manlove’s 1990s account of the Scottish fantastic is useful and overdue. Some contributors, such as J. Derrick McClure, simply ignore the brief to address genre sf and approach their authors appropriately as Scottish fantasists: McClure’s thesis is that the “fantasies of MacDonald, Lindsay, and Mitchell resonate ... with the idea of an Otherworld visibly rooted in Celtic tradition” (29). Cairns Craig, too, engagingly addresses not sf per se but “Scotland’s Fantastic Physics,” surveying literary echoes of the Scottish scientists’ fascination with the Laws of Thermodynamics as well as anti-Newtonian physics in the fiction of MacDonald, Stevenson, Barrie, Spark, and some less familiar but equally interesting writers. Ian Duncan offers a compelling comparative study of Gray’s Lanark (1981) and David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus (1920), while John Corbett addresses the “contrasting narrative strategies” of Matthew Fitt, whose But n Ben A-Go-Go (2000) projects broad Scottish dialect as the language of the future, and Iain M. Banks, more inclined to use standard English that is nonetheless “Scottish-accented” (118). Matthew Wickman writes on Gray’s Lanark and its “ambivalent” view of postmodernism (172). Wickman’s chapter has the best go at justifying the volume’s rather willful approach to defining sf, finding support in a remark of Brian Aldiss that “‘It is more correct to consider [science fiction] a mode of expression’ than ‘to classify it as a genre’” (qtd. 173).
Many of the chapters offer lively commentary. If only about half are concerned with sf (strictly considered) at all, the close reading of one or two texts in which most contributors engage does bring into sharper focus excellent recent work by Matthew Fitt, Iain M. Banks, Ken MacLeod, and Andrew Crumey. It is also good to see J. Derrick McClure’s fresh new take on J. Leslie Mitchell’s post-apocalyptic Gay Hunter (1934) and the time-travel story Three Go Back (1932). The latter was blurbed on the cover of its Galaxy Book reprint in 1953 as “a powerful story mixed with Science and Sex,” but McClure is right in saying that “To describe [the two novels] as science fiction would require a fairly broad interpretation of the term” (37). Incidentally, Scotland as Science Fiction’s cover illustration is based on a beautiful drawing by Alasdair Gray.
Scottish studies and science fiction have much in common. Both are all but ignored by traditional academics. Both struggled for years even to be provisionally admitted among the Discussion Groups of the MLA. Both fields present the challenge of bringing back into scholarly debate work of high merit that has been forgotten, overlooked, neglected, and/or misread. Yet a danger of working the edges and borders of academic consensus is a kind of reflexive defensiveness. Knowing that there is resistance, writers and critics in both fields have been known to push their claims with a certain epistemic violence. The project under review occasionally turns its aggression against non-Scottish (especially North American) sf. In like manner, mid-century sf writers sometimes tried to argue on behalf of their beloved, denigrated genre by attacking the avant-garde, as in Heinlein’s diatribe against Henry Miller, James Joyce, and others in a speech he gave in 1957 (“SF: Its Nature, Faults, and Virtues”). In my idea of a utopian future for both fields—for I work in both—there would be less special pleading and a steadier focus on the difficult business of making connections. For all its omissions and flaws, a merit of this collection is that it will encourage such further conversation and connection.
—Carol McGuirk, Florida Atlantic University
Ballard and His Discontents.
Samuel Francis. The Psychological Fictions of J.G. Ballard. London: Continuum, 2011. vi + 202 pp. £60 hc.
At an event to mark the opening of the J.G. Ballard archive at the British Library, Beatrice and Fay Ballard recalled with some fondness a favorite book of their father’s, one from which he would insist upon reading during the family’s book-at-bedtime hour: Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1930). For readers familiar with Ballard’s unflinching inquiries into the physical and psychological landscapes of modernity, this anecdote may come as no surprise. Freudian concepts loom large in the Ballardian imagination, and if Ballard’s fictional and nonfictional writings had been issued with indexes, they would have read something like this: anal-sadism; death instinct; fetishism; hysteria; masochism; Oedipus complex; polymorphous perversity; super-ego; uncanny; unconscious.
One of the many virtues of Samuel Francis’s The Psychological Fictions of J.G. Ballard is that it provides theoretically rich and meticulously historicized accounts of such psychological terms (and many more) as they are taken up critically and creatively across Ballard’s oeuvre. Freud dominates Francis’s critical account of Ballard, but the significance of the psychoanalyst’s writings for the postwar author’s fictions is not reducible simply to influence. Instead, Francis argues for a relationship of intertextuality, a relationship of productive “encounter and confrontation” between psychoanalytical and literary texts (19). Furthermore, in recognition of Ballard’s sustained engagement with a “wide range of psychoanalytical, psychological and psychiatric discourses” across the course of his career (2), Francis opens up Ballard’s work to the complex, and invariably conflicting, “con-texts” of Carl Jung, R.D. Laing, and Herbert Marcuse, amongst others. What emerges from this rich intertextual exchange is a series of intricately rendered rereadings of the major novels and lesser-discussed short stories. Francis’s insights are far too complex to be simply listed and paraphrased here, but particular highlights include: an imaginative mobilization of Jung’s theories of flying saucers as “mandala-images heralding a moment of communal psychological transformation” (49) in Ballard’s “The Venus Hunters” (1963); a penetrating account of the simulations of schizophrenia and psychosis in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) in relation to the conventional theories of F.J. Fish and the controversial approaches of Laing; an illuminating invocation of Freud’s “Instincts and their Vicissitudes” (1915) and “The Economic Problem of Masochism” (1924) as they dialogue with Ballard’s notorious novel Crash (1973); and a disturbing and highly suggestive “mutual entanglement” (20) between Konrad Lorenz’s ethological work On Aggression (1963) and Ballard’s literary explorations of violent, neo-fascistic behaviors in post-millennial culture.
A further strength of Francis’s excellent study is that it stresses from the outset the many and various ways in which Ballard’s fiction is concerned with “dramatizing, fictionalizing, adapting, modifying, mutating, or subverting psychological discourses” (2). Ballard’s appropriation of psychological discourses is anything but straight, and early attempts to divide Ballard’s short stories into distinct Freudian and Jungian phases soon collapse under the pressures of conceptual hybridity. A perfectly controlled and illuminating reading of human identity in “Now Wakes the Sea” (1963) in relation to Jungian conceptions of the collective unconscious, for example, soon turns into something else: “As so often in Ballard, ‘Now Wakes the Sea’ exemplifies the conceptual impurity of his fiction, the story’s denouement evoking notions of abreaction and death instinct associated not with Jung but with Freud” (44). A further example of Ballard’s modification of psychological concepts emerges out of a fascinating account of The Drowned World (1962) in which Francis tracks the cross-fertilization of Jungian ideas “with neurophysiological terminology” from Ballard’s “medical anatomical training” and with “concepts from biology” (69). Through exemplary close textual analysis, Francis demonstrates how Dr. Bodkin’s specific terminology for identifying what might be triggering Hardman’s dreams (an “innate releasing mechanism”) can be located in “the pioneering work of Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen in the field of ethology, the biological study of behavior” (69). Opened up in this way to contemporaneous “biopsychological speculations,” Ballard’s catastrophe novels are shown to be deeply Freudian at the same time that they are identifiably post-Freudian explorations of memory, trauma, and human identity.
Of all of Ballard’s fictions, the texts or “condensed novels” that he wrote during the mid-to-late1960s—collected as The Atrocity Exhibition—are shown by Francis to be the most “conceptually impure” and subversive in intent. “Love and Napalm: Export USA” (1968), for instance, “twists the Freudian acceptance of a degree of perversity as normal for a ‘healthy’ subject satirically into a deadpan pseudo-scientific routine making the deliberately provocative suggestion that voyeuristic sexual responses to Vietnam atrocity footage should be accepted as characteristic of healthy human psychological function” (104). The suggestion that “Love and Napalm” is a “satirical indictment of the media viewer’s libidinal complicity with the violence of Vietnam” (104) is certainly a compelling one; however, what is conspicuously absent from this reading is any attempt to tease out how satire manifests itself across Ballard’s texts. If the relationship between psychoanalysis and literature initiates, as Francis (following Peter Brooks) suggests, a “neo-formalistic psychoanalytical criticism,” one that “forces the critic to respond to the erotics of form—that is, to an engagement with the psychic investments of rhetoric” (21-22), then Francis’s re-readings of Ballard (an author who moved laterally across literary and visual forms) do not achieve what they might. Without question, Francis interrogates psychological forms and tropes in meticulous detail throughout his study, yet at no stage in the discussion is there any real move to consider textual forms or issues of rhetorical style. This is a shame, given that in recent years, critics such as Umberto Rossi, Jeannette Baxter, Andrzej Gasiorek, and Roger Luckhurst have paid a good deal of attention to the formal and rhetorical dimensions of Ballard’s writings, not only in relation to The Atrocity Exhibition, but also the later autobiographical fictions Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991). So, while Francis works extremely hard to establish a new and fascinating set of con-texts (including writings by Freud, Cathy Caruth, Michel de Certeau, and Jacques Derrida) for reading Ballard’s autobiographical fictions as “psychoanalytical historiographies,” he does so at the risk of closing down their formal complexities. Francis refers in passing, for instance, to Ballard’s final text, Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton (2008), as his “autobiography proper” (137)—yet surely the term “proper” is problematic in the context of this study. Does not the ambivalence that Francis so rightly identifies as a hallmark of Ballard’s psychological fictionsalso stretch to this text? Indeed, Miracles of Life is a conspicuously partial example of autobiographical writing, one that would be of interest to any “neo-formalistic psychoanalytical criticism” because of how it repeats (with difference) scenes and images from not only the autobiographical novels but also such autobiographical non-fictions as “Time, Memory and Inner Space” (1963), which engage so intriguingly with Freud’s “Creative Writing and Day-Dreaming” (1908).
Its limited attention to textual form aside, The Psychological Fictions of J.G. Ballard is an impressive and significant contribution to Ballard studies. At every stage in his analysis, Francis demonstrates an extremely detailed knowledge of the author’s work as it intersects with a wide range of psychological, psychoanalytical, and psychiatric intertexts. Although, for this reader, the balance between psychoanalytical texts and literary texts is not always maintained (Ballard is almost entirely eclipsed by Michael Billig on fascism towards the end of the final chapter), Francis does make a compelling case for understanding Ballard as a “thoroughly psychological writer” (184-85). Beyond this, Francis should be congratulated for conceiving a critical account of Ballard’s work that is so alive to its paradoxes, its limitations, its frustrations, and its “great and affecting beauty” (187).
—Jeannette Baxter, Anglia Ruskin University
William Gibson. Distrust that Particular Flavor. New York: Putnam, 2012. 272 pp. $26.95 hc.
William Gibson reveals in the introduction to Distrust That Particular Flavor, a collection of 25 previously published nonfiction essays and speeches (with commentary), that he “never felt entirely comfortable with the pieces collected here.... They are not fiction. Worse, they somehow are not quite nonfiction either, it feels to me, because they were written from the fiction-writing place, the only writing place I had, with fiction-writing tools, the only writing tools I had” (12-13). I believe that Gibson’s employment of his “fiction-writing tools” to craft nonfiction is what gives these interesting and entertaining essays their power. They are in no apparent order—thematically or chronologically—except, I assume, by the author’s personal choice. Nevertheless, the essays focus in one or more ways on autobiography, art, computer technology, digital filmmaking, Japanese culture, photography, the posthuman, and travel narratives.
The anthology’s title comes from “Time Machine Cuba” (2006), in which Gibson muses on H.G. Wells’s proposed epitaph, “I told you so. You damned fools.” According to Gibson, he began “to distrust that particular flavor of italics when the world didn’t end in October of 1962.... I may actually have begun to distrust science fiction, then, or rather to trust it differently, as my initial passion for it began to decline, around that time” (172). This distrust of prophetic vision in sf appears in the previously unpublished essay, “Talk for Book Expo, New York.” “Shiny Balls of Mud: Hikaru Dorodango and Tokyu Hands” (2002), my favorite essay in the collection, is a complexly arranged, poetic meditation on Japanese solitude and otaku woven together by the image of the eponymous hikaru dorodango. Emphasizing a different aspect of Japan, Gibson explains in “Modern Boys and Mobile Girls” (2001) why he focuses on that country in his fiction: “The Japanese are the ultimate Early Adaptors, and the sort of fiction I write behooves me to pay serious heed to that. If you believe, as I do, that all cultural change is essentially technologically driven, you pay attention to the Japanese” (104). It is, according to Gibson’s editorial comments, “the closest I’ve gotten to explaining why Japan fascinates me” (110).
I found two cyberculture essays to be particularly useful and interesting. Gibson’s “Googling the Cyborg” (2008) shares a number of affinities with Philip K. Dick’s speech, “The Android and the Human” (1972): aside from both talks being delivered in Vancouver (thirty-six years apart), they each focus on reconsidering cybernetics—Gibson rethinks the cultural effects of Vannevar Bush’s memex, and Dick reverses the cybernetic relationship inaugurated by Norbert Wiener. Finally, “The Road to Oceania” (2003) turns out to be Gibson’s most prescient essay. While imagining the effects of digital technology on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-four (1949), Gibson cautions, “In the age of the leak and the blog, of evidence extraction and link discovery, truths will either out or be outed, later if not sooner. This is something I would bring to the attention of every diplomat, politician, and corporate leader: The future, eventually, will find out” (144).
While I would have enjoyed seeing more material in this collection, it is a fine, if eclectic, anthology that deserves consideration by sf critics. Thematically, the collection’s mixed bag holds the most obvious interest for scholars of Gibson and of cyberpunk, but it also contains useful material for a range of researchers, especially those focused on new media, the Internet, and Japan. Libraries should stock it with Gibson’s fiction catalog, because it will likely contribute to scholarship outside sf. I also recommend you seek out Gibson’s nonfiction that is not included here (e.g., his essay on Dick, “Some Blues for Horselover Fat,” or his 1992 introduction to the floppy-disk-based ebook of the Sprawl trilogy [1984-89]), because they are equally innovative, fascinating, and dynamic.
—Jason W. Ellis, Georgia Institute of Technology
Reading African-American SF in Germany.
Elisa Edwards. Race, Aliens, and the U.S. Government in African-American Science Fiction. Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2011; 102 pp. €19.90.
The study of race and racism in sf criticism is a burgeoning field. With this slender volume (featuring an introduction, five chapters, a conclusion, and a bibliography), Elisa Edwards enters this conversation. Her study focuses on three sf stories by contemporary African-American writers: Derrick Bell’s “The Space Traders” (1992), Octavia E. Butler’s “Amnesty” (2003), and Walter Mosley’s The Wave (2006). Edwards investigates how these three very different writers subvert an otherwise white genre by concentrating on racial issues and boundaries in the context of the alien-encounter motif. Using theories of species politics, Edwards demonstrates how these alien-encounter stories display the white US Government as the real threat to its black population, a threat more real than the imagined outer-space intruders ever could be.
Edwards opens her study with a provoking title, “‘As White as a Ku Klux Klan Meeting?’ Introducing Science Fiction.” By quoting black fantasist Charles Saunders, Edwards draws attention to the seeming exclusion of blacks and other minorities writing and reading science fiction. She then names a few “new” black voices in sf writing, namely Steven Barnes, Walter Mosley, and Tananarive Due, as well as a couple of black fan communities, such as the Carl Brandon Society and SciFiNoir. Edwards goes on to identify the alien other as a key for African-American writers to express their own alienation. She then explains her reasons for choosing Bell, Butler, and Mosley: the selected stories all deal with alien contact, are set within the United States, and offer a black perspective. She argues that the American government affirms its sense of conservative whiteness because of the conflation of racial other and alien other, justifying the racial restrictions that occur in each of the narratives considered.
In a nine-page first chapter, Edwards attempts to define sf as a field, reviewing well-trodden definitions by Wells, Heinlein, and Gernsback and by scholars such as Darko Suvin, Marleen Barr, and Adam Roberts. Roberts’s definition, which focuses on “the encounter with difference,” is a touchstone for Edwards and can be found throughout the remainder of her text. Edwards then shifts her focus to a fleeting historicization of race and ethnicity in mainstream sf, with a discussion of white supremacy, racial segregation, and yellow-peril narratives from 1881 through the 1953 publication of Childhood’s End. Clarke’s novel represents a turning point for Edwards because it features what for her is the first African-American main character in science fiction. She next turns to Samuel R. Delany and his important essay “Racism in Science Fiction” (1998) to talk about the experience of racism within the science-fiction community. Finally, she suggests that black sf forms its own genre sub-group, but she barely engages with Sheree Thomas’s influential use of the “dark matter” metaphor, which considers the invisible pull of unknown black writers on science fiction.
In her four-page Chapter 2, Edwards offers a critical background on alien figures and the alien encounter motif. She considers the status of illegal aliens in the US before taking on George Slusser and Eric Rabkin’s idea “that the alien is always other than human beings” (16). This thinking is followed by her use of Carl Malmgren’s four types of alien encounter, Alcena Rogan’s psychoanalytical approach to the alien, and Lacan’s “mirror stage” theory. The sixty-six pages comprising chapters 3, 4, and 5 are dedicated to analytical readings of Bell’s, Butler’s, and Mosley’s narratives. These chapters engage with issues of institutional racism and the way in which the alien can be used to critique it; for example, in her discussion of Butler’s “Amnesty,” Edwards makes clear that the aliens are more humane than an unethical US government, which tortures the main character in order to learn what she knows about the technologically superior aliens. A four-page conclusion summarizes how each text effectively counters the perceived otherness of African Americans within mainstream US culture.
The first twenty pages of this text are a disappointment if they are intended as an entry point into this particular niche of sf criticism. Edwards seems unaware of all the critical work now being done on race and racism in sf, particularly discussions of Afrofuturism. Aside from cursorily mentioning Edward James’s foundational essay “Yellow, Black, Metal, and Tentacled: The Race Question in American Science Fiction” (1990), Delany’s essay, and Barr’s Afro-Future Females collection (2008), among a few others, Edwards’s effort at contextualization is much too brief, narrow, and familiar—for example, she claims that Barnes is a “new” black voice in sf despite a decades-long career. Using a small handful of critics and authors, she never says much that is new or insightful about the historical trajectory of the field.
Despite the thinness of the opening chapters, the close readings contain some penetrating analyses. In her reading of Bell’s story, Edwards keenly displays her understanding of racism’s entrenchment in this country and how Bell exposes it. Nonetheless, Edwards’s reading of this story could have been enhanced if she were aware of its sequel “Redemption Deferred: Back to the Space Traders,” later published in Bell’s Gospel Choirs: Psalms of Survival in an Alien Land Called Home (1996). Regarding Butler’s “Amnesty,” Edwards shows how the story functions as a critique of the US government’s taking away the rights of its own citizens out of fear. Finally, Edwards makes a convincing argument when she states that Mosley’s novel “reflects upon the fear of the U.S. Government and ‘white’ America of an ‘invasion’ of mainstream American culture by African Americans and the violence used to counteract this fear” (86).
In Edwards’s defense, her brief study could very well be the first on the subject of race and sf published by a German press. With this thought in mind, the book partially fulfills its purpose by introducing this particular area of study to a new audience. In fact, this slim text can be useful to readers if they are seeking close readings of these specific and lesser-known narratives by major black sf writers. Nonetheless, the book will struggle to find an audience beyond major research libraries and perhaps a few scholars in the field.
—Isiah Lavender III, University of Central Arkansas
Beyond the Fallout Zone.
Paul Williams. Race, Ethnicity and Nuclear War: Representations of Nuclear Weapons and Post-Apocalyptic Worlds. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2011. ix + 278 pp. £65 hc. Distributed in the US by U of Chicago P. $95 hc.
The thesis of Paul Williams’s study addresses the racial—and sometimes postcolonial—cultural tropes that arise in primarily nuclear and post-fallout sf. As noted in his preface, the study is centered on an idea articulated by novelist Arundati Roy that nuclear weapons are white weapons of colonialist power. Accordingly, Williams’s work also looks to contribute to the growing field of racial and colonialist dialogue that has emerged in sf studies in recent years. Of course, Williams is entering a thoroughly developed scholarly field of atomic sf criticism, and his work is perhaps best paired with Patrick Sharp’s Savage Perils: Racial Frontiers and Nuclear Apocalypse in American Culture (2007). Unlike Sharp’s more traditional historical framing that covers a few texts in detail, however, Williams canvasses a wide spread of films, hard sf, popular fiction, poems, film lyrics, and speeches that range across five decades. Williams then probes how their aggregate atomic visions register the predominantly “white” role of nuclear futurism.
\Divided into eight chapters, the middle six of which are organized thematically, then loosely chronologically, Race, Ethnicity, and Nuclear War opens with an overview that details a pre-1945 history of racial ideologies and aerial bombings. Of the seven remaining chapters, four focus principally on American fictive spaces: Chapter 2 looks at how post-nuclear US geographies create “inverted frontiers” where Anglo survivors are the unsophisticated minority (e.g., William Tenn’s “Eastward Ho!” ); Chapter 4 examines the African Diaspora in relation to 1950s and 1960s sf in urban spaces such as Philip Wylie’s Tomorrow! (1954), and concludes with a discussion of Octavia E. Butler’s more recent novel Dawn (1987); Chapter 5 uses the critical lens of black modernity to identify how specific sf and poetry critique contemporary race hydraulics; and Chapter 6 is focused on the role of racial minorities in fiction set within Los Alamos National Laboratory.
One of the strongest features of the project is that it catalogues so many atomic sf works that would otherwise be spread across the disciplinary ether. Williams also finds creative ways to read less obvious geographies of post-nuclear sf. A case in point is Chapter 3’s adoption of Neil Gaiman’s idea of “soft places” to characterize the postcolonial Australian outback of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), which feels innovative and holds promise, although the subsequent analysis is centered almost entirely on character development within the film. This chapter begs for some sort of critical-historical correlative, such as scholarship on Australia’s colonial history or relevant postcolonial scholarship. Moreover, Williams often does not adequately represent and respond to other scholars (in atomic sf and other fields). This oversight is most strikingly noticeable in the subsection of Chapter 5 where Williams addresses racial narratives in Langston Hughes’s “Simple” short stories (1940s-1950s) and Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo (1972); in 1995, Ken Cooper discussed the same texts in a book chapter entitled “The Whiteness of the Bomb” (Postmodern Apocalypse: Theory and Cultural Practice at the End, ed. Richard Dellamora) and with more or less the same space, scope, and critical approach. While Williams does note in his introduction that he will try to nuance Cooper’s position, in the chapter itself he does not remind readers how similar his approach is, and then mostly parallels Cooper’s claims, yet only cites him for sound bites a few times in the section. Similarly, the infusion of pertinent primary or secondary historical sources would have aided in Chapter 6’s reading of fiction set at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Williams identifies concerns of Jewish identity in Dexter Master’s The Accident (1955), and his analysis would have been enriched by adding how, for one thing, historians and former employees have noted that there was really no concept of Jewish consciousness or identity at Los Alamos until further into the Cold War period. Such points in the book present frustrating missed opportunities for Williams to add substantially to already existing critical race discourse in atomic sf criticism.
Although Race, Ethnicity, and Nuclear War covers a wide, eclectic range of texts, what is included and what is omitted in this book is sometimes puzzling. Williams predictably references the uranium-mine dénouement of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977), but curiously overlooks Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), despite that novel’s pervasive, scathing critique of how “bomb ideologies” mold issues of Anglophone modernity, race relations, nuclear weapons use, and colonial redress. Beyond Thunderdome gets an entire chapter, but there is not even a mention of Waterworld (1997), a film with a heroine named Enola (after the nuclear bomber that dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima) and a conclusion set on the “dry land” of a Japanese mountaintop.
Perhaps the most interesting new work and the best analytic focus of the book comes in Chapter 7, entitled “The Hindu Bomb.” Here Ruchir Joshi’s re-imagined past and speculative futures in The Last Jet-Engine Laugh (2001) are discussed in relation to other South Asian writers’ assessments of the political pressures between Pakistan, Hindu Nationalists, and the Indian pursuit of weapons technology. Williams argues that the racial and religious undertones that accompanied these pursuits of nuclear dominance were still influenced by India’s and Pakistan’s secondary status to Western nations. The concluding chapter of the book, a coda that synoptically reviews additional films and works of fiction, gestures at the 9/11 rhetoric of nuclear-weapon marshaling, and touches briefly on the War on Terror.
My largest concern with the book is the sizeable gaps of time that are spanned and conflated without carefully identifying historical differences. Williams also underutilizes (or omits) large bodies of relevant scholarship. While the writing sometimes felt uneven, I appreciated that Williams admirably avoided the use of jargon-laden prose. And though each chapter could have covered its materials and their themes with greater detail and historical precision, Race, Ethnicity, and Nuclear War serves, in many ways, as an early building block for Williams’s future contributions to the field.
—Alan Lovegreen, University of California, Riverside
Fantasy and the Ironic Imagination.
Michael Saler. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford, 2012. x + 283 pp. $27.95 pbk.
My least favorite part of Michael Saler’s As If is the subtitle. There is very little in the book about virtual reality, nor is there any need to tie fantasy into a presumably trendier cybernetic successor. What Saler is really looking at is the creation of shared imaginary worlds, something that long precedes the examples he considers and that spans many storytelling modes and genres. His central question is what makes an imaginary world catch hold in the popular imagination. He looks at the biographical backgrounds, social milieus, historical contexts, and intellectual underpinnings of a trio of such creations, and his most important contribution is his discussion of each as a complex and deliberate response to problems of modernity, especially what he calls (following Max Weber) the “disenchantment of the world.” Why, he asks, is it works of fantasy that have become cult favorites and cultural by-words, “rather than the equally cohesive worlds of contemporary realist writers like Émile Zola, Thomas Hardy, or Anthony Powell?” (6).
I am not sure he is entirely correct in drawing this distinction (what about devotees of Jane Austen or celebrators of Bloomsday?), but it is true that outlandish and magical spaces are more likely to become collective imaginative playgrounds. Weber’s term would seem to hold the answer to Saler’s question: what better cure for disenchantment than enchantment? But re-enchanting the world is easier said than done, especially when the marvels are always and necessarily fictional. One of Saler’s important contributions here is his discussion of the relationship between imaginative play and belief. He suggests that the distinctively modern response to the problem of believing in marvels and mysteries is what he calls “the ironic imagination.” It is not entirely clear how this ironized version of suspension of disbelief differs from earlier formulations such as Keats’s negative capability or Tolkien’s secondary belief, but bringing irony into it certainly aligns it with other manifestations of modernity. Irony is self-aware and rational, and the imaginary realms discussed here are particularly characterized by both reason and self-criticism.
The book focuses on three writers and the worlds they created: Arthur Conan Doyle’s crime-filled London, with its most famous resident, Sherlock Holmes; H.P. Lovecraft’s haunted New England, crawling with malevolent gods and tentacled monsters; and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. These are all shared worlds, though shared in different ways. Holmes has figured in films, fiction by writers other than Doyle (most notably Laurie R. King, who is not mentioned by Saler), mock-scholarship, and costumed role-playing. Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu mythos” has crossed over wholesale into the work of a number of other writers and had an indirect effect on the entire horror genre. Tolkien’s work has, of course, been filmed, with great success, but the Tolkien estate has long resisted the creation of other imaginative works based on his characters or settings. That does not prevent imitation, and all heroic fantasy and fantasy gaming (computerized or role-playing) of the past half-century owes something to The Lord of the Rings (1954-55). Not solely to The Lord of the Rings, however—though Saler briefly mentions other influential secondary-world fantasists such as William Morris, E.R. Eddison, and C.S. Lewis, he does not really treat fantasy as a genre with multiple taproots and branches, a perspective that is needed to account for either the fiction or the games.
Nor does he tap into existing criticism of the fantastic. Widely cited scholars such as Kathryn Hume, Farah Mendlesohn, Eric Rabkin, and Gary K. Wolfe are missing from his bibliography. (And, yes, I looked: I am not there either.) Marina Warner shows up in disguise as “Maria.” Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” (1947) is discussed, but not the equally insightful analyses of fantasy by writers such as George MacDonald and Ursula K. Le Guin. To be fair, Saler is not really looking at fantasy as a form of storytelling—there is very little discussion of plot or character—but rather as an act of deliberate departure from observed reality. He is interested in how and why a writer might construct an internally consistent, counter-factual universe and how such a universe is received and used by audiences. And his investigation of each of the three major examples is well worth reading on its own. He treats each writer with respect and makes a solid case for reading them together: London master criminals have much more in common with ring-wielding Dark Lords than one might expect. His discussion of Lovecraft is especially insightful: while acknowledging the writer’s stylistic lapses and ugly prejudices, he also conveys a sense of his eccentric brilliance and self-transcending humanity. I have never enjoyed reading Lovecraft, but Saler shows me how I might do so.
Saler does not claim to be writing a survey of all shared worlds, so one cannot fault him for omitting specific examples, but I would like to know what he would do with such widely imitated or reworked creations as L. Frank Baum’s Oz, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom, Robert Howard’s Hyborean Age, or Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover (the first of such imaginative spaces to be deliberately opened up by its creator to fledgling writers). I wish he had included at least one woman writer. Besides Bradley, Andre Norton, C.L. Moore, and P.L. Travers would be good candidates, and the worlds they created differ in interesting ways from the men’s. I would also like to know more about a term he uses regularly: the New Romance. He writes as if this were a standard descriptor for imaginative fiction of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, but there is little discussion of its coinage and use. It was new to me. He explains how the New Romance breaks with predecessors—it incorporates modern scientific skepticism about the very marvels it invokes—but undercuts his argument by pointing out continuities from Poe to Doyle and even from Beowulf to The Lord of the Rings. My own sense is that the ironic imagination has always been a part of the literature of the fantastic, including many branches of folk narrative. Ovid’s treatment of the Greek myths is just as ironic as Doyle’s treatment of scientific marvels, and a good bit more skeptical than Doyle’s spiritualism and faith in fairies. “Jack,” of Appalachian Jack Tales, is a shared character type—believed in, yet fictional—like Holmes. Perhaps the newness of the New Romance lies in the systematic nature of its world-building. Words that keep coming back in the discussion include “coherent,” “stable,” “consistent,” and “rational.” It is no wonder that we, who live in a world that is all too incoherent, unstable, inconsistent, and irrational, should turn to works that offer respite from and a critical contrast to our own lived experience. I appreciated Saler’s book because it demonstrates that such imaginative spaces are not merely aesthetically pleasing but culturally important.
—Brian Attebery, Idaho State University
The Science in Science Fiction.
Martin Willis. Vision, Science and Literature, 1870-1920: Ocular Horizons. Science and Culture in the Nineteeth Century. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2011.320 pp. £60 hc.
Martin Willis has a weakness for trinomials. Vision, Science and Literature is the successor to Mesmerists, Monsters and Machines (Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 2006), a study of fiction from Ernst Hoffmann to H.G. Wells that set out to remedy the “extreme rarity” of “extended readings of the use of science in science fiction texts” (1). His new book, described as a project in cultural phenomenology, is still more determinedly interdisciplinary. Not only is Willis closely familiar with recent work in the history of science, but he also draws on research in several scientific archives, including those of the Lowell Observatory at Flagstaff, the Egypt Exploration Fund, and (a source already mined in his excellent chapter on Wells in Mesmerists, Monsters and Machines) the British Institute of Preventive Medicine. Willis’s declared intention is to break down the accustomed barriers between the “factual” and the “imaginative,” between the scientific pursuit of knowledge and the entertainment values enshrined in popular culture. This is the source of the book’s qualities but also of its defects. Looking for the “sense of wonder” and the self-conscious resort to literary imagination in the letters and notebooks of late Victorian scientists, Willis shows that they can be found in abundance. His attempts to enlist storytellers such as Le Fanu, Stoker, Rider Haggard, and Conan Doyle in the army of disciplined seekers after knowledge are much less successful, partly because their writings demand more careful attention than Willis often seems inclined to give them. Fiction plays a diminishing role as the book proceeds, and, in the final chapter, it is the escapologist Harry Houdini who emerges as an unlikely hero of cultural resistance against what Max Weber understood as the scientific and political rationalization inherent in modernity.
Vision, Science and Literature is divided into four parts, “Small,” “Large,” “Past,” and “Future,” each concerned with a different area of mainly visual enquiry. By “small,” Willis means “microscopic,” noting the microscope’s emergence after 1880 as one of the pre-eminent scientific instruments due to its role in bacteriology and the modern theory of disease. The defining feature of microscopic vision, we are told (though this will turn out to be true of each of the other visual types Willis considers) is its “epistemological uncertainty” (14). It is, of course, not difficult to demonstrate the dominance of epistemological uncertainty in the two fictional examples examined in this section, J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (1872) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). To connect them specifically with “microscopic” vision, however, is much more tenuous. In turning to vampire fictions, Willis deliberately avoids texts in which the microscope takes center stage, such as “The Diamond Lens” (1858) by Fitz-James O’Brien (mentioned once here) or Wells’s “A Slip under the Microscope” (1896). There is no mention of a microscope in “Carmilla” or in Dracula, though in Stoker’s novel we are given the (negative) results of Dr. Seward’s analysis of Lucy Westenra’s blood. This does not prevent Willis from finding in both texts a “depiction of the conflicting evidence of microscopic vision” (23). Le Fanu and Stoker, he claims, were aiming not at “the production of Gothic terror, but ... [at] a greater understanding of the problematics of microscopic vision” (18). This argument is not persuasive, and for all Willis’s sometimes heavy-handed commentary, the relationship between microscopy and representations of vampirism remains one of contemporaneity rather than close interrelationship.
Part II, “Large,” turns to telescopy and to scientific and fictional representations of Mars. Here Willis was unfortunately unable to draw on Robert Crossley’s magisterial Imagining Mars: A Literary History (Wesleyan UP, 2011). Both authors have combed through the Flagstaff archives, but where Willis’s account of the key figure of Percival Lowell differs most from Crossley’s is in his much more detailed analysis of the astronomer’s published and unpublished writings. Willis also takes a notably controversial stance on the question of Wells’s interest in Lowellian Mars, asserting that the red planet in The War of the Worlds (1898) is “traversed by a system of canals” (83) and that the novel “is itself a tableau vivant of Lowell’s astronomical observations” (85). The evidence for this is slender even though at least one early reviewer of The War of the Worlds read the novel in Lowellian terms. As Crossley has pointed out, Lowell is not named in the text and Wells is likely to have known little about the champion of the Martian canals until several years later. Willis’s credibility in this section is not enhanced by his claim that the “speculative writer of quasi-scientific repute” mentioned by Wells’s narrator had written a “short work on Mars and the Martians” (82), rather than a portrait of humanity a million years hence. Willis also describes R.A. (later Sir Richard) Gregory as “one of the foremost Victorian science journalists” (95)—Gregory, born in 1864, did not become editor of Nature until 1919—and identifies the Canadian-American Simon Newcomb as a “British astronomer” (67).
The remainder of the book may be summarized briefly. Part Three, “Past,” considers the relationship between fieldwork and travel writing in the work of Amelia Edwards, Flinders Petrie, and other Egyptologists. Here the Gothic tropes exemplified by Stoker and Rider Haggard are shown to proliferate in contemporary archaeological field notes, diaries, and tourist guidebooks. Part Four, “Future,” links the science of ophthalmology (briefly studied by Conan Doyle) to the fascination with optical illusions shared by the Sherlock Holmes stories and Harry Houdini. Houdini was not only a prolific writer about his craft, but the co-author, with H.P. Lovecraft, of a short story published in Weird Tales. The final chapter details Conan Doyle’s arguments with Houdini over spiritualism, but the section title “Future” seems to owe more to symmetry than anything else. Vision, Science and Literature is not the kind of follow-up to Mesmerists, Monsters and Machines that SFS readers may have looked for, but there are, nevertheless, lessons to be learned from this flawed but ambitious and wide-ranging book. The interdisciplinary study of science and science fiction would do well to pursue the combination of archival research with engagement in current debates on the history of scientific culture that Willis exemplifies.
—Patrick Parrinder, University of Reading
Phyllis M. Betz. The Lesbian Fantastic: A Critical Study of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal and Gothic Writings. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. viii + 203 pp. $40 pbk.
Phyllis Betz’s third study of lesbian-authored popular genre fiction from McFarland, The Lesbian Fantastic, begins with the somewhat sensationalistic assertion that “Lesbians are scary” (1). The author goes on to explain, however, that—because lesbians violate the dominant patriarchal society’s images and categories related to gender—the lesbian writer stands in a privileged position to reappropriate negative images of alterity and monstrosity found in fantasy literatures in order to “reframe the engagement between her private self and the public’s assumptions” (2). This book reveals how contemporary lesbian writers adapt the conventions of sf, fantasy, and gothic/paranormal fiction for their own (and their implied lesbian readers’) purposes. It offers a basic introduction to the history and theory of each genre followed by more detailed analyses of a number of little-examined lesbian-authored texts dating from the 1980s through 2010.
Though clearly organized, the study has a consistent problem with a dual use of “fantasy” as both an umbrella term equivalent to “the fantastic” in general and as a designation for a specific genre distinct from sf and the gothic/ paranormal. In her introduction, “Reading Lesbians, Reading Fantasy,” Betz cogently explains the importance of the reader’s role in the production of genre fiction and its conventions, then identifies some of the preoccupations that fantasy and lesbian literatures share. Desire, the body, and the Other become objects of focus, with both heroes and monsters engaged in quests for self, gendered identity, and a place in the wider community. “By reshaping the configuration of the characters—often both hero and monster/alien will be lesbian—lesbian fantasy texts offer their lesbian readers a way to re-imagine desire, transgression, fulfillment, and society” (17).
Chapter one, “Once Upon a Time: Historical Backgrounds and Contexts,” establishes what all types of “fantasy” have in common: a focus on creating a “sense of wonder” and the ability to “simultaneously subvert the overt meanings found in the narrative” (31), a critical function in which one discovers “that what was once believed needs to be overturned” (32). Betz clearly views these subversive functions of fantasy as central to lesbian productions, which question the dominant paradigm of compulsory heterosexuality and offer readers alternate realities in which lesbian identity is normalized or even made heroic. She then briefly outlines the history and definitions of the three distinct gothic, fantasy, and sf genres, concluding with an overview of “Early Lesbian Fantasy Fiction” that cites late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ghost and vampire stories featuring an intense female friendship (such as Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” ).
Chapter two, “Here Be Monsters: Lesbian Gothic,” examines how lesbian-authored works such as Karen Minns’s Bloodsong (1997) and Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories (1991)—perhaps the only text in Betz’s unique corpus that has had considerable scholarly analysis—appropriate the conventions of the vampire tale. It is clear that Betz adopts the term gothic in its broadest sense, including the ghost story, the tale of terror, dark fantasy, horror, and paranormal romance in this category. Acknowledging prior critical work such as Paulina Palmer’s Lesbian Gothic (1999) and George Haggerty’s Queer Gothic (2006), Betz also frames her discussion of ghost stories and novels—Catherine Lundoff’s anthology Haunted Hearths and Sapphic Shades (2008), Kate Sweeney’s She Waits (2006), Jennifer Fulton’s Dark Dreamer (2005), and Karin Kallmaker’s Christabel (1998—within Terry Castle’s concept of the Apparitional Lesbian ). She also discusses very recent lesbian werewolf novels by Nene Adams (Barking at the Moon ) and Gill McKnight (Goldenseal ).
Betz spends more time defining genre fantasy in chapter three, “In a Kingdom Far Away: Lesbian Fantasy,” contrasting it to gothic’s more explicit engagement with sexual desire and tragic outcomes. Fantasy narratives deal instead with desire as “a longing for what cannot be had in the everyday world” (102), and they typically end with the successful resolution of the quest (103). Invoking Farah Mendlesohn’s typology in Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008), Betz describes how lesbian novels, as well as the television series Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001), rework traditional images to offer fantasies of power and agency for lesbian characters. Her corpus includes Ellen Galford’s Queendom Come (1990), Elizabeth Brownrigg’s Falling to Earth (1998), and Sarah Dreher’s Grey Magic (1987) and OtherWorld (1993). Like non-genre lesbian literature, lesbian fantasy also offers narratives of coming out (Jane Fletcher’s The Exile and the Sorcerer ) and rejections of the same-sex couple (L-J Baker’s Adijan and Her Genie  and Shea Godfrey’s Nightshade ).
Chapter four, “Beyond the Known Galaxy: Lesbian Science Fiction,” suffers from an extended rehearsal of the genre’s history and criticism, a task adequately performed in the introduction. This leaves little space for the primary task of the study, analyzing actual lesbian sf novels. Betz discusses only three: Lauren Wright Douglas’s In the Blood (1989) and Katherine Forrest’s Daughters of a Coral Dawn (1984) exemplify “serious” utopian/dystopian sf, while Gun Brooke’s Protector of the Realm (2005) represents lesbian adventure sf. Chapter five, “Blurring the Lines: Mixed Genre,” opens with an exemplar text, Jody Scott’s I, Vampire (1984), which introduces the sf motif of the extraterrestrial into a vampire tale, in the process becoming a “political and cultural satire” (160). Though it cites early examples of hybrid genre fiction (Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto  and the Brontë sisters’ mélange of gothic and serious literature), little theoretical discussion subtends this potentially significant chapter. Betz’s discussion of crossovers between gothic and detective fiction includes works by lesbian writers Verda Foster (The Gift ), Jeanne McCann (Wise Love ), and Lauren Maddison (Witchfire ). She also observes that because of the heavy role of desire in all lesbian popular genre fiction, the conventions of romance also often come into play, illustrating the point with Katherine Forrest’s space-opera/vampire hybrid, “O Captain, My Captain” (1987).
Betz offers an eloquent apology for the use-value of fantasy literature (broadly defined) in her conclusion. Asserting that “[e]veryone needs to dream” (173), whether as escape, transgression, or the envisioning of possible better worlds, Betz views fantasy as a literature of empowerment: “For lesbian readers, their fantasy texts remind them that power does not just belong to those persons or institutions whose intent is to deny major characters their right to the expression of their full identity” (175). In an appendix, Betz also tackles the question “Why Would a Lesbian Writer Use Gay Characters Instead of Lesbian Ones?”
Also the author of Lesbian Detective Fiction (2006) and Lesbian Romance Novels (2009), Betz has certainly contributed to the field of queer literary studies. Because of the scope of her primary corpus and the background materials on three distinct genres, the analysis may appear to lack depth, however. And while her coverage of genre theory is generally up to date and takes into account key theorists, I found limited support in the areas of gender studies and queer theory. In addition to occasional typographical errors, Betz qualifies “China Mievelle” [sic] among the “second generation of female fantasy writers” (53), and she consistently fails to cite an initial publication date after the first mention of a title. That said, The Lesbian Fantastic offers a generally sound, jargon-free overview of the sf, fantasy, and gothic/paranormal genres for beginning critics (undergraduate and even early graduate students). Its greatest contribution is its decision to focus specifically on a corpus of little-studied lesbian genre novels; unfortunately for those solely interested in sf, that is her smallest corpus of study. Although the book offers little new theory for specialists, Betz is to be praised for her willingness to introduce readers to less known, highly contemporary objects of study.
—Amy J. Ransom, Central Michigan University
Burgess’s Unflinching Vision.
Anthony Burgess. A Clockwork Orange. Ed. Mark Rawlinson. Norton Critical Editions. New York: Norton, 2011. v + 357. $16.95 pbk.
Here it is, O my brothers, Anthony Burgess’s 1962 horrorshow of a novel, newly enshrined in a Norton Critical Edition, accompanied by biographical, historical, and critical pieces that illustrate the literary and social importance of both the novel and the film based on it. Like any NCE, this edition is complete to the point of exhaustion, and many of the inclusions seem repetitive, but there is enough diverse content to assume that anyone interested in either novel or film will leave satisfied. The text of A Clockwork Orange is based on the 21-chapter British version—as opposed to the American edition, which, until 1987, contained only twenty chapters and was the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film. The editor resists the temptation to provide a glossary (such as appeared in the 1962 Norton edition) or a mountain of footnotes for the novel’s “Nadsat” dialect; instead, as Burgess intended, the reader is allowed to gradually pick up the language along the way. There is, however, a glossary that pairs Nadsat words with their Russian roots, identified by referring to Burgess’s personal dictionary; while definitions are provided for the root-words, there is no explicit claim made for the meanings of Burgess’s inventions. This, perhaps, will cause students some frustration; however, they are free to find Stanley Edgar Hyman’s original glossary online. Footnotes are reserved for historical allusions, definitions of difficult English words (“forficulate”?), and information on marginal annotations from Burgess’s original typescript.
Those familiar with the story about the story—primarily the controversy surrounding the novel’s ending—will find plenty of grist for the grudge mill here. In short, the narrative surrounding the novel’s delivery to an American audience revolves around a he-said/they-said plot of exploited artist versus corrupt publisher. In 1962, Burgess alleges, Norton’s then-publisher Eric Swenson lopped off the redemptive “rebellious-adolescent-grows-up” twenty-first chapter, deeming it unnecessarily upbeat for an American audience accustomed to violence and depravity, with the result that the American version ends, as does the film, with Alex freed from his brainwashing and prepared to resume his old ways. “I was cured all right” (114), he leers. With the restoration of the excised chapter, Norton finds itself in the strange position of promising the reader the text “precisely in the form [Burgess] wishes it to be” while simultaneously asserting their innocence in the original fiasco. Editor Mark Rawlinson comments rather snarkily in his preface about “the author’s changing evaluation of his own fiction and of his motives in writing it” (vii), and Swenson’s introductory note to the 1987 edition (reproduced here in a footnote) politely suggests that the sides “differ in their memories” (166).
If this seems trivial, that is because it is; however, so much of Burgess’s material here—as well as the attendant scholarship—is focused on the controversy surrounding the various endings that you wonder if he thought of anything else—or, rather, whether Norton is guilty of excessive self-regard. There are some valuable pieces in the “Backgrounds and Contexts” section, particularly Burgess’s discussion of autobiographical influences on the novel and further insight into his basic Manichaean construction of the tension between the principles of Pelagianism and Augustinianism. Always erudite, Burgess holds his own in discussions on the ethics of art (especially in a letter in defense of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch ), and he manages a zinger in a Rolling Stone piece that alone is worth the price of admission: commenting on moralizing fan mail, he calls the writers “masturbators, who having seen the film, have discovered the book, used it as a domestic instrument of auto-erotic release, and then fastened their post-coital guilt onto me” (145).
There is a short “Cultural Settings” segment with pieces on B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism and George Steiner’s art and morality. The most interesting bit of writing is by Paul Rock and Stanley Cohen on the mid-1950s “Teddy Boy” appropriation of Edwardian upper-class manners and dress by violent working-class gang members, a sartorial juxtaposition that inspired Burgess’s rendering of his droogs. The edition ends with a long “Criticism” section that covers, consecutively, the novel and the film, although there is naturally some bleeding together within individual pieces. The reviews of both works are predictably polemical, though Kubrick’s movie gets the worst of it in pieces by Pauline Kael and Christopher Ricks, who convincingly expose its sadism and the alterations and elisions Kubrick made to the text in order to present Alex as sympathetic, moves that distort Burgess’s unflinching vision. An article by Andrew Biswell early in this section effectively blows Burgess’s position on the ending controversy out of the water—it seems an act of charity that Rawlinson allowed it to linger until page 199. Other highlights include William Hutchings on the (d)evolution in depictions of violence from the novel through the film and successive stage adaptations, Samuel McCracken on the inability of brainwashing as depicted in the book/film (“Ludovico’s technique”) to provide a suitable metaphor for the intended critique of free will, and Peter Hughes Jachimiak on the subcultural appropriation of the book’s distinctive style in the neoliberal buffet line of fashionable self-construction: “the shock of the novel and the schlock of the film have now been stirred into a kitsch slurry following their repeated appropriation within late modern youth culture…. A Clockwork Orange no longer scares, now it just sells” (301).
Despite its awful jacket design, the Norton Critical Edition will no doubt sell—the real question is whether or not its critical apparatus can recuperate a fairly good piece of literature from its circulation as kitsch image, mere fodder for last-minute Halloween costumes and college dorm walls. And all that cal.
—Michael Jarvis, University of California, Riverside
Pining for More Utopia.
John Scheckter. The Isle of Pines, 1668: Henry Neville’s Uncertain Utopia. Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2011. xvii + 222 pp. £55 hc.
Neville’s brief tale is told in two parts. The first is an account by an Englishman, George Pine, telling how he and four women, the only survivors of a 1569 shipwreck, set up housekeeping on an uninhabited island where they landed and then, for want of anything better to do, busied themselves populating it with their offspring. Neville does not dwell on the sexual details of this idyll (if it is an idyll). Fifty-nine years later George tallies 1,789 of his descendants. The second part is an account (with related letters) by a Dutch sailor, Henry Cornelius Van Sloetten, telling how he discovered the island in 1668, inhabited according to his estimate by “about 2000 English people without cloathes, only some small coverings about their middle” (13). After getting Pine’s written account from his grandson, Van Sloetten sends it to friends along with his own observations on the islanders’ customs, their response to the arrival of his ship, and the response of its crew and himself to this utopia (if it is a utopia) of topless English-speaking men and women.
Scheckter’s “Critical Text” of The Isle of Pines occupies 17 pages. In the rest of his 222 pages, he provides a preface, introduction, and six chapters of commentary, along with supporting apparatus that includes a list of early copies consulted in forming his critical text; a 16-page list of all the textual variations he discovered in them; a list of subsequent editions; and a list of early Dutch, French, German, Italian, Swedish, and Portuguese translations in which Scheckter finds clues to how Neville’s contemporaries viewed his tale. A concluding 16-page list of Works Cited is helpfully divided into “Earlier Sources” and “Later Sources.” There is a thorough index.
There is no dust jacket. Boards are an attractive bright red with white lettering. In a white panel on the front board is a stunning picture, from John Digby’s 2001 series Water Voyages, showing a wrecked ship superimposed upon the drawing of a fish. A similar, equally arresting, image from Water Voyages adorns the last page of Scheckter’s commentary. These illustrations have nothing directly to do with The Isle of Pines. As Digby explains, they are designed to “lead us into mysterious depths crowded with alert inhabitants whose lives are interwoven with our own. They are meditations not only on natural history but also on human history, its restlessness, hunger and fascination with voyaging” (178). Elsewhere in the book are five illustrations from 1668 editions and four made by Mike Hudson for a 1991 Isle of Pines text published in Katoomba, New South Wales, by Wayzgoose Press in a limited edition of 50 copies.
A distinctive typographical feature of Scheckter’s “Critical Text” of The Isle of Pines is a version of the old long “s,” used throughout where it would have been used in 1668. These echoes of older type fonts are reminders that we are reading a work first published over 300 years ago. The illustrations reproduced from 1668 texts further enhance awareness of encountering an avatar of an ancient artifact. But all such encouragement to imagine a 1668 reading experience, or try to, are at odds with Digby’s superb drawings that are unlike any seventeenth-century style I know of, Mike Hudson’s whimsical Wayzgoose Press illustrations, other type fonts in and outside the “Critical Text,” and Scheckter’s commentary. These all tug Neville forward to become (in weird ways) our contemporary or at least our accomplice in taking a mostly disapproving view of what is now widely regarded as a deplorable colonial past.
The Isle of Pines does not rank among works such as Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) that retain far beyond their time the power to provoke serious thought about how any reader’s own society might be better, or worse, by becoming more like or unlike the utopian society depicted. Scheckter wisely avoids attempting a case for placing what he calls Neville’s “Uncertain Utopia” in that company. Nor does Scheckter argue that The Isle of Pines induces any kind of cognitive estrangement that warrants attention from historians or fans of sf, which he avoids discussing. No dreams of electric sheep or other sf apparitions interest Scheckter here, but a very different vision:
The Isle of Pines is a twenty-first-century reader’s dream of an early modern text. We have multiple narrations in culturally indicative voices; we have manifold articulations of temporal and spatial construction; we have interrogations of race, class, and gender, precisely at a time when these concepts are developing into the western inheritance of domestic, national, and imperial identities. Further, the text plays with narrative veracity by challenging its own voice and its very presence as a physical object. It invites the reader to help displace narrative authority, and challenges ideas of truthful reportage, again at a crucial time when empirical observation and scientific method are gaining ascendancy over other scales of knowledge. Add to this a fair amount of sex, violence, and lolling around paradise, and the fun leaps its boundaries. (xiv)
For Scheckter, then, The Isle of Pines is the very model of a modern major theorist’s dream text: a body of words upon which the twenty-first century’s favorite instruments for cultural and textual analysis may be employed for an exemplary dissection. And it is short enough for a very complete job of it, done with microscopic attention to every detail. Scheckter displays brilliant command of relevant theories that he lovingly applies to suggest what Neville’s “uncertain utopia” may reveal about ideas of race, class, gender, scientific method, and cultural identities as understood in the seventeenth century and (more fully) as many now understand them. It is a bravura performance. For Neville’s relevance, if any, to sf, however, you are on your own. As for sex, lolling around paradise, and fun that leaps textual boundaries, I advise you to look elsewhere.
—Paul Alkon, University of Southern California
Matthew William Kapell and Stephen McVeigh, eds. The Films of James Cameron: Critical Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. ix + 229 pp. $40 pbk.
James Cameron is a director of big-budget, blockbuster genre films—films that are often derided and praised by critics in equal measure. He is also the creator of iconic cinematic images: Arnold Schwarzenegger leaning into the camera as he ominously promises “I’ll be back”; the metal exoskeleton of the T-800 emerging from the fire to continue its tireless pursuit of Sarah Connor; an aquatic tentacle moving gracefully through an underwater exploration platform; the liquid metal T-1000 smoothly reforming from silvery reflective liquid into the shape of actor Robert Patrick; Ripley emerging from the cargo hold, encased in a giant biomechanical loader, warning the monstrous alien mother to “stay away from her, you bitch!”; or Jack and Rose leaning in for a kiss while standing on the bow of the Titanic as the image slowly dissolves to the now decaying form of the real ship at the bottom of the ocean. These images, and many more, continue to haunt popular consciousness, and their longevity and impact belie any easy dismissal of Cameron’s work.
While his films have their weaknesses, there is something about Cameron’s movies that sets him above many other filmmakers working in popular genres, and identifying that “something” (or somethings) is precisely what the editors of this book have set their sights on. For them, Cameron’s work taps into modern myth, “artfully captur[ing] many of the themes, ideas, motifs and ideologies present in the contemporary world” (217). While many other books, they explain, have been written about Cameron, whether biographies or critical studies of his films designed to “explicate some aspect of Cameron’s character” (3), Kapell and McVeigh’s aim is to focus on the films themselves, unpacking their significance and cultural meaning while also challenging the popular critical perception that blockbuster genre films are by necessity empty and meaningless. This is a commendable ambition that invites the reader, whether scholar or Cameron fan, into the chapters that follow.
To achieve their aim, the editors have constructed their ten chapters exploring Cameron’s film oeuvre from a diverse range of academic disciplines and critical perspectives, including politics, history, technology, gender, motherhood, homosexuality, and postcolonialism. While the films overtly lend themselves to some of these approaches—Titanic (1997)positions history at its very core, Cameron’s representation of strong women is regularly noted, and The Terminator films (1984, 1991) present technology as the means of humankind’s destruction—the authors here demonstrate how these themes are often more complicated then they initially appear. Andrew B.R. Elliot explores how Titanic, ostensibly about a real event, and Aliens (1986), reworking the Vietnam war in space, problematize notions of truth and history by highlighting a range of individual perspectives while at the same time reconciling these perspectives within a vision of truth—Cameron’s truth. Elisa Norminio and editor Kapell explore the changing representation of strong women between Aliens (1986) and Avatar (2009) as embodying the shift from second- to third-wave feminism. Elizabeth Rosen explores Cameron’s seeming ambivalence toward technology conveyed through the tension between his presentation of technology as at best unreliable and at worst destructive and his aesthetic celebration of cutting-edge special effects.
Others chapters take approaches that are not obviously associated with Cameron and offer counter-readings. For instance, McVeigh and Kappell’s chapter challenges the perception, perpetuated by Cameron himself, that Avatar is his first political film, by offering a reading of his earlier films in the light of the rise and decline of Cold War politics. Similarly, while on the surface his films seem to perpetuate notions of heterosexual normativity by embedding romance within the action narratives, Roger Kaufman applies psychoanalytic theory to uncover unconscious homosexual themes embedded within various same-sex relationships: the T-800 and the teenage John Connor in T2, Ripley and Newt in Aliens, as well as cross-species relationships in The Abyss (1989)—Bud and the underwater aliens and Avatar —Jake Sully’s neural union with various Pandoran animals. The book is filled with thought-provoking arguments that will encourage readers to look at the films in a different light.
All of the chapters are engaging and scholarly, presenting nuanced readings of Cameron’s films. The main weakness of the book is not a result of the individual chapters but rather of the editor’s overall aim for the collection, which is to focus exclusively on Cameron’s seven feature films. Too many of the chapters examine all seven films in sequence, lending the book a repetitive structure. This approach enables the reader to see connections across the director’s work, including non-sf films such as True Lies (1994) and Titanic, but at times it also spreads the argument too thin, presenting an overview rather then a detailed analysis. As a result too few chapters examine the style and aesthetics of the films or push beneath the surface in their discussion of narrative or theme—notable exceptions being Bruce Isaac’s discussion of Cameron’s movies as high concept, Norminio and Kapell’s comparison of Aliens and Avatar, and the two final chapters—by John James, Tom Ue, and C. Scott Littleton—on Avatar and postcolonialism.
Finally, the exclusive focus on these seven feature films is overly restrictive. Only Dean Conrad mentions the short film Xenogenesis (1978), written and directed by Cameron and Randall Frakes, and the editors simply dismiss his first feature film, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981). Ignoring these films, and offering only cursory mention of Cameron’s documentaries, undermines the book’s aims as it limits our understanding of his work as a filmmaker rather than opening it up. Also, the essays acknowledge but fail to discuss the significant contribution to filmmaking that Cameron has made as a technological innovator, and this is a missed opportunity to consider the impact of his work. Cameron remains a leading filmmaker of largely blockbuster sf cinema, and yet his influence on the genre is as much felt in his contribution to developments in special effects (including CGI and 3D technology) as in the impact of his individual titles. In this manner, the book clearly explores how Cameron’s films are a construction of their times, responding to a wide range of political, cultural, and social influences, but it fails adequately to consider the way in which his work is equally shaping (at least in part) both sf film and cinema itself.
—Stacey Abbott, University of Roehampton
Looking Backward and Forward.
Sara Wasson and Emily Alder, eds. Gothic Science Fiction 1980-2010. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2011. xix + 219 pp. £65 hc.
Two well known descriptions of the relationship between science fiction and the Gothic are referenced several times in this collection of eleven articles. Darko Suvin sees science fiction and the Gothic (including horror and fantasy) in opposition to each other: science fiction is rational, critical, active, and forward thinking—a flying DeLorean—while the Gothic is somewhat of a clunker, struggling under its burden of the past and intermittently sputtering about things that go bump in the night. Brian W. Aldiss argues for a more familial relation between the two: the extraterrestrial realms explored in sf are outcroppings of the sublime landscapes traversed in the Gothic. This collection shows that Gothic science fiction is a hybrid formed by the tensions, anxieties, and strange bonds that develop when past and future, superstition and reason, nature and science are grafted together.
The essays collected in Gothic Science Fiction investigate the horrors of globalized capitalism, the threat of technology to human subjectivity, the uncanny doubling of human and posthuman bodies, and the hybrid places and histories found in works of this genre. There are several standout essays, but the quality of the articles is rather uneven, so the reader is sometimes taken on a meandering voyage to nowhere in particular. The volume is divided into three sections: “Redefining Genres,” “Biopower and Capital,” and “Gender and Genre.” There is also a phantom fourth section, “Strange Cities, Strange Temporalities,” mentioned in Wasson and Alder’s excellent introduction but absent from the collection. Was there some last-minute shuffling around of essays?
The main lines of inquiry engage texts that look, Janus-like, to the future and to the past, with Gothic science fiction expressing the magnetism that unites these opposing poles. One must think Gothic sf in terms of zones of contact between genres, Roger Luckhurst argues in the first essay of the collection. A zone defies the type of borders prescribed by Suvin’s understanding of the Gothic: it is a dynamic space where generic interpenetration and hybridity reign. (Nickianne Moody describes the Gothic punk milieu in similar terms: it is a “narrative environment” characterized by an openness and flexibility in form.) The articles contained in the volume’s first section, written by Luckhurst and Fred Botting, are comprehensive and extremely engaging. Combined with the editors’ introduction, they effectively map out the zones, bodies, corpus, and concerns of Gothic sf, laying sturdy foundations for understanding the genre. Some articles later in the collection undertake the same task but with less elegance. The volume frankly becomes quite repetitive if the articles are read in succession. For this reason, the collection is probably at its most enjoyable when one dips in and out of it on a need-to-know basis.
Many essays investigate the problematic bodies that abound in Gothic science fiction. Some address connections to the field of medical humanities (Wasson and Alder), others explore Foucault’s biopower in relation to the Gothic sf body (Aris Mousoutzanis and Gwyneth Peaty), and others study how archetypal Gothic or sf figures break through generic borders (Botting and Laura Hilton). Zombies ungainly stumble into the forward-moving path of posthumanism and thus participate in a “questioning of the limits of modern humanity” (Botting 38). But when the living dead are figured within a medical framework, they become the unlikely star of a biotechnological discourse seeking to extend and augment life (Peaty). Reading the Borg of Star Trek within the context of the cyber-vampire, Mousoutzanis shows that the Gothic blurring of self and other reads as ambivalence towards the imperialism of the Federation and that of the Borg—good and evil are not always clear-cut.
What is exciting about many of the essays in this collection is the rigorous questioning of the divergent drives that are inherent to Gothic sf and that constantly twist and turn and unsettle expectations. For example, the generic instability of David Conway’s “Metal Sushi” (2006) is thematized through the gender instability of the protagonist, who embodies both the hyper-masculine private eye and the femme fatale of hard-boiled detective novels (Mark P. Williams). Even more fascinating are the various avatars of the Gothic double, addressed in several essays. The human clone bred for organ harvesting, Wasson shows, is an eerie scientific form of doubling, questioning the relationship of the harvester to the harvested. What is monstrous is not the double but the organ harvester who hushes the suffering of the abject body of the harvested. In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999- ),Dr. Jekyll’s iconic double is no longer shorthand for pure evil; he is a nuanced anti-hero (Hilton). The genetic engineering perpetrated by the Amnion in Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Gap Cycle suggests that our identity as human both can and cannot be encased and encoded in our skin and genes—our corporeality is both meaningful and meaningless (Alder). These are examples of essays that demonstrate that the “dark futures” of the texts studied in this collection have the “greatest value” in what they reveal about our “dark present,” as the editors say at the end of their introduction (16).
As a whole this is a successful volume that will appeal to students and scholars of English-language sf (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis  and Guillermo del Toro’s film Cronos  are the only non-Anglophone works studied). Many of the articles are excellent and will prove to be essential for scholars researching Gothic sf. There are, however, a few missteps. In certain articles, less emphasis should be placed on codification; such gestures are often made without reflecting on what is to be gained (by the text, by the reader, by critical discourse) in rigidly defining a genre and arguing a particular text is of that genre. For example, does not attempting to uncover “traces” of science fiction in Toni Morrison’s works undermine the cultural specificity of her decision to use “enchantment” instead of scientific rationalization in her fiction? Are we not at our best when we are concerned with what a text does, rather than in which pigeonhole it belongs?
—Elizabeth Berkebile McManus, Northwestern University
Evolution of an Author.
Jonathan R. Eller. Becoming Ray Bradbury. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2011. xiii + 324 pp. $34.95 hc.
Since Ray Bradbury’s recent death, there has been an obvious need for a critical overview of his life and work. Jonathan R. Eller’s Becoming Ray Bradbury, though not comprehensive, provides a valuable foundation, covering his life up to 1953 and the publication of Fahrenheit 451. Although the book reveals an obvious admiration for Bradbury and his work, it is not a hagiography. One of its most interesting—and emphasized—points is that Bradbury was not a “naturally gifted” writer; on the contrary, his early writing was highly derivative, self-conscious, and stilted, and it was only through a long, difficult process that he developed a unique and mature literary voice. This was made possible, as Eller shows, through Bradbury’s contact with other writers, his broadening exposure to literature, and his reading of books about writing. Eller also directly addresses Bradbury’s literary shortcomings that persisted deep into his career, such as simplistic characterization and difficulty sustaining longer works, and how these weaknesses hampered his development.
Eller makes his focus and purpose clear when he writes that “Bradbury’s texts reveal what changed in his work …, and critics have told us for decades why this is important. But it’s not clear how he reached his full power as a storyteller and prose stylist until one examines certain influences on authorship that he encountered” (59; emphases in original). In other words, this book is not about Bradbury’s stories, but rather about Bradbury’s development as a writer. As a result, there is not much detailed discussion of specific texts; instead, Eller focuses on the overall devolvement of Bradbury’s career, both as an artist and as a professional. The book explores the important roles literary agents, publishers, and colleagues played in allowing Bradbury to get his work in print and how, even before Bradbury became a professional, he made important connections through fanzines, clubs, and conventions.
Moreover, the book clearly focuses on Bradbury as an author, devoting relatively little attention to his personal life. There is, however, a significant examination of Bradbury’s evolving ideas on religion, science, and politics, as these are directly relevant to his work. During the 1950s, Bradbury’s opposition to both McCarthyism and the Soviet Union drew hostility from the right and the left. His political attitudes were reflected in his work and caused him professional problems, up to and including the publication of Fahrenheit 451.
Eller addresses Bradbury’s complicated relationship to the sf genre, claiming that his sf reading at a young age had a tremendous, even detrimental, influence on his writing. Eller argues that one the most important steps in Bradbury’s development as an author was his decision in 1944 almost completely to stop reading science fiction, and instead to broaden his knowledge of mainstream literature. This decision helped Bradbury to become less imitative and formulaic in his writing. Later in his career, he made a conscious effort to shake off the sf label. Eller explains that Bradbury did this partly in order to gain a larger audience and broader publication opportunities, but also in order to reduce the public perception of sf as a niche genre. At the same time, Eller argues that Bradbury’s style of science fiction was fundamentally different from the “hard” sf then popular within the genre, in that Bradbury was less interested in technology or scientific plausibility and more in universal human emotions.
The book is divided into five parts, covering major time periods, and each part is divided into chapters. The chapters are rather short; most are five to seven pages long. On the one hand, this does help to keep them tightly focused; on the other hand, it sometimes causes the book to feel a bit choppy. Eller draws on unpublished interviews, letters, stories, and other documents that could only be found in archives and private collections. This is one of the book’s greatest assets, providing a treasury of otherwise unavailable information, although it is sometimes frustrating to read Eller’s analysis of stories that were never actually published. Fans of Bradbury will find this book a fascinating and revealing look into his life and work, and anyone interested in how an author develops a unique literary voice will find it a rewarding case study.
—David Bañuelos, University of California, Riverside
On French SF.
Bradford Lyau. The Anticipation Novelists of 1950s French Science Fiction: Stepchildren of Voltaire. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. 248 pp. $55 pbk.
More so perhaps than any other genre, science fiction invites us to reflect on general philosophical questions and to reassess the cultural issues relevant to contemporary society. As George Slusser notes in his introduction, the French sf novels examined by Bradford Lyau in his remarkable book illustrate both the tremendous technological progress that transformed the French way of life in the 1950s and the political dilemma that divided France at a crucial time in its history.
Historically France has been the forerunner in novels of anticipation, from Cyrano de Bergerac’s L’Autre monde ou Les Etats de la lune (1657) to Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires (1863-1905) and Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes (1963). Bradford Lyau argues that Voltaire’s contes philosophiques, with their satirical intent, can also be seen as a privileged model for the authors who, two centuries later, tried to measure the promises of scientific progress and confront the reality of a country seeking its identity in the aftermath of World War II. The French sf writers of the 1950s thus inherited a unique blend of cultural and philosophical traditions. Moreover, with their deep admiration for American sf writers, their works offer a privileged example of the multicultural thinking at the heart of the genre itself.
Bradford Lyau has chosen to group the authors according to their general point of view regarding the challenges generated by an accelerated sense of progress. The “moderates” (F. Richard Bessière, M.A. Rayjean, Kemmel), who are reluctant to adopt “extreme or absolute measures in the application of the new ideas and technologies on society,” also express concern about recent scientific developments such as atomic energy or the human capacity to protect their environment. The “conservatives” (Stefan Wul, Maurice Limat, Peter Randa, Kurt Steiner), though not advocating a political stand, tend to express general pessimism over the capacity of science and technology to solve humanity’s problems. Perhaps because of this attitude, three of these four authors also express in their novels more conservative views about religion, politics, and ideology; the fourth (Steiner) imagines a future of the human race inspired by the most heroic deeds of Europe’s medieval past. The “radicals” analyzed in the book (Jean-Gaston Vandel and B.R. Bruss) are more ambitious, as they propose a complete rethinking of human values in the light of humans’ capacity to make major scientific discoveries. They do so without hiding the tensions that will always threaten the possibility of progress: as many of their novels demonstrate, the growing power of the elite and a governing technocracy would no doubt challenge basic principles of individual freedom. One of the books examined in this chapter, Vandel’s Les Titans de l’énergie [The Titans of Energy, 1955], interestingly revisits Greek myths of the origins of the human race, the better to explore transformations still to come.
The categories of moderate, conservative, and radical thus also describe the authors’ philosophical ambitions, and one of the considerable merits of Lyau’s book is to show that the willingness to engage in the most daring technological fictions also leads to a careful exploration of social ties. Among the moderates, Richard Bessière’s work, as Lyau demonstrates, best reflects the complexity of issues facing thinkers in postwar France: Bessière’s interest in the French philosophical tradition (from Pascal to Voltaire and Bergson) is nuanced by his attraction to Tibetan spirituality; at the same time, Bessière’s novels borrow from Saint-Simon’s social theories and reflect on the beginning of the European union.
I was intrigued by the authors Lyau could not quite fit into these categories: Henri René (Jimmy) Guieu, described as “the extremist,” and Gilles D’Argyre, who is given a chapter entitled “A Last Word.” Guieu distinguishes himself by his enthusiastic embrace of science and technology: the human race, he suggests, would have little hope of saving itself but for scientific progress. The same belief is expressed by Gilles d’Argyre, a novelist and literary critic very familiar with the works of Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke.
Lyau’s classification, a measurement of the authors’ capacity to embrace the new, may appear unusual for a study of science fiction, yet it allows him to show with remarkable clarity many aspects of the genre often masked by technological fireworks or futuristic inventions. The book could well have been organized around themes rather than attitudes. Indeed, like their American counterparts, the novels cover space exploration (from the Moon to Pluto and Polaris), extraterrestrials and robots, scientific mastery and distant civilizations. But the reader would have missed what appears at the end as one of the most crucial elements of sf itself: that the anticipation novel operates as metamorphosis—it transforms and reshapes. In this sense, it is not a pure invention but a metamorphosis in the biological sense, the abrupt development from a primitive shape into a fully developed animal dramatically different from its previous self. Lyau’s work allows us to see how the explosion of French science fiction in the 1950s stemmed from writers familiar with the political traumas of World War II and the last colonial wars. Lyau shows how these novels incorporated ideas from the great philosophical tradition of Enlightenment thinkers; last but not least, these works reflect the enthusiastic reception of American sf work now largely available to the French public. Lyau’s deep understanding of French culture and his thorough knowledge of sf, both French and American, allow him to make a strong case for the significance of a genre still in search of literary legitimacy, at least in Europe. Among the writers studied in Lyau’s important book, only one—Stefan Wul—has been translated into English. Let us hope The Anticipation Novelists of 1950s French Science Fiction will encourage additional translations.