BOOKS IN REVIEW
Definitely not the Disappointment Artist.
Jaime Clarke, ed. Conversations with Jonathan Lethem. Literary Conversations. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2011. xxiii + 191 pp. $40 hc; $25 pbk.
Jonathan Lethem. The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc. New York: Doubleday, 2011. xxiv + 437 pp. $27.95 hc.
In his essay “The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction,” published in The Village Voice in 1998, Jonathan Lethem mourns the fact that Gravity’s Rainbow was not awarded a Nebula in 1973. Thomas Pynchon’s opus was, in fact, nominated, but it lost to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama—a work that Carter Scholz (with whom Lethem authored a collection of short stories, Kafka Americana ) reportedly described as “less a novel than a schematic diagram in prose” (qtd. in “Squandered Promise,” available online). For Lethem, “Pynchon’s nomination now stands as a hidden tombstone marking the death of the hope that science fiction was about to merge with the mainstream,” a demise reconfirmed in the failure of Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star to receive the Nebula for best novel of 1976. While this lament is partly tongue-in-cheek (Lethem was and still is well aware of the politics of literary genres), his article was one of the first of his sf-oriented missives targeted at the people who read different books than sf fans do. I suspect most readers of SFS are familiar with or at least aware of slipstream discourses, but for the hipster/alternative crowd of The Voice, the article may have been an eye opener—science fiction is not what they thought it to be. Or so said Jonathan Lethem, who at that point had already published four novels, all decisively slipstreamy.
Of course, Lethem is a person who knows the price of writing across genres and marketing territories: from the beginning of his career, he has been a victim of science fiction’s conflicted relationships with other literary and cultural fields. While the writer has tapped a number of contemporary genres for literary material, sf has consistently and conspicuously remained his strongest influence. Five of his eight novels (I do not consider Believeniks!: 2005: The Year We Wrote a Book About the Mets , co-written with Christopher Sorrentino, a proper novel) are strongly science-fictional, as are the majority of Lethem’s short stories, so far collected in four volumes. He wrote the script for the revived Marvel comic run of Omega the Unknown (2007-2008). As an editor, Lethem has consistently championed Philip K. Dick’s writing: he edited three volumes of Dick’s fiction for the Library of America (the first volumes in the series devoted to sf) and, with Pamela Jackson, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick (2011), an extensive, annotated selection of PKD’s notorious journals. In addition, he co-edited Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley (2012) for NYRB Classics. As a critic, he wrote a volume in 2010 on John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) for the Deep Focus film book series of Soft Skull Press. Finally, Lethem has praised and promoted sf in his abundant journalism and essays as well as in public appearances—in his account of the 2012 Key West Seminar (in SFS #117), Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. called him a hinge that connected various conceptions of the fantastic represented at the event. And yet, for all these credentials, Lethem’s work has remained largely unknown to most sf readers.
It is immaterial whether this is a result of publishing primarily through non-genre venues or the inherent generic instability of his fiction. The acknowledg-ment of Lethem’s membership in the sf club, or lack thereof, can be used as a good litmus test of one’s conception of the genre. Suvinians are more than likely to dismiss him as someone belonging with the likes of Ray Bradbury as members of a “misshapen subgenre born of ... mingling” (Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre [New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1979]: 68). For those subscribing to a more eclectic and dynamic vision of what sf is, or aspires to be, as it enters the twenty-first century, Amnesia Moon (1995) or Girl in Landscape (1998) will be quintessentially hopeful novels demonstrating the genre’s openness to experimentation. I do consider Lethem a science-fiction writer—slipstream or not, his fiction and nonfiction seethe with the kind of imagination long associated with sf. Those who do not agree will probably not be swayed by either of the two books under review here, but even so they cannot deny one thing: science fiction has few more committed and devoted proselytizers in the larger literary world.
Of the two books, Conversations with Jonathan Lethem is more predictable, although not in any negative sense. It draws together fourteen exchanges of varying lengths, the two earliest of which come from our own territory: Fiona Kelleghan’s “Private Hells and Radical Doubts” originally appeared in SFS in 1998, and Shelley Jackson’s “Involuntary Deconstructionism” came out in Paradoxa in 2001. Inevitably there is a certain degree of overlap among the interviews, made even more apparent in the introduction, in which Clarke suggests several key parameters of the writer’s life, each time providing lengthy excerpts in which Lethem essentially says the same things. Apart from the two chats mentioned above, which naturally have a clear sf slant, the most interesting feature of the collection is a series of four interviews conducted by Michael Silverblatt of Southern California’s KCRW radio occasioned by the publication of specific novels. Given the format, the conversations are not very long, but Silverblatt is quite familiar with Lethem’s fiction, and though aired three or four years apart, they display little redundancy. Though the remaining interviews inevitably recycle variations on several standard questions, Conversations is still the first stop for anyone working on Lethem’s fiction and, in combination with James Peacock’s recently published critical study of the novels, Jonathan Lethem (Manchester UP, 2012), will be an invaluable resource, particularly since Lethem is such an exceptionally graceful interview subject.
Lethem’s second collection of miscellaneous writings after The Disappointment Artist (2005), The Ecstasy of Influence is a far more ambitious affair than its predecessor, a veritable treasure trove of Lethemiana—an apt term that reflects his apparent compulsion to write about anything that comes his way. Lethem is a voracious reader and viewer of what can be called, for lack of a better word, popular culture, and if one is to believe his recollections from younger and not-so-younger years, he has pretty much spent his entire life reading and viewing—excepting only the moments when he has been writing. The breadth of his sources is astonishing. Lethem appears to be as conversant with the high literary lineage from Kafka to Calvino as with genre sf writing. He also seems to have watched half of all the movies and TV shows listed on IMDB and read most superhero comics; in fact, the only contemporary cultural productions that he has stayed away from are electronic storytelling media.
Comprising 79 different pieces, The Ecstasy of Influence features almost every category of writing Lethem has engaged in: polemical and autobiographical essays; film, book, and comics reviews; literary introductions; short write-ups on music; and author studies. A true silva rerum, the book can be traversed in a number of ways: cover to cover, linearly; by thematic preoccupations; or simply by picking individual pieces randomly. While references to sf in general and Lethem’s lifelong obsession with PKD in particular constantly weave in and out in all of them, two sections are especially pertinent for sf readers. “Dick, Calvino, Ballard: SF and Postmodernism” collects eight pieces, including the long “Crazy Friend (Philip K. Dick),” the humorous “What I Learned at the Science-Fiction Convention,” and the much-too-short “The Claim of Time,” ostensibly a review of The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard but also a beautiful homage to the writer. While there is probably very little new information that can be gleaned from these pieces, even in terms of reading recommendations, Lethem’s lively accounts of his personal engagements with sf and postmodernism, peppered with his persistent self-deprecating humor, read very naturally.
“Plagiarisms” is the second section of special interest for sf readers—particularly its cornerstone, the now-famous (and if it isn’t, then it should be) collage essay “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which originally appeared in Harper’s in February 2007. Consisting of direct and indirect references, allusions, and even phrases lifted from other sources, which Lethem carefully enumerates at the end of the piece, the essay is a spirited defense if not of overt plagiarism then of unlicensed inspiration and borrowing in times of increasing corporatization of cultural and intellectual property. The argument itself may not be entirely new, but I cannot think of any other critical intervention that would, so coherently and so accessibly, bring together various aspects of a multifaceted discussion straddling remixing, narrative franchises, copyright/copyleft, and the circulation of cultural material. Although Lethem does not name-check science fiction in any part of the discussion, it is not difficult to see how his arguments dovetail with the genre’s internal debates concerning the balance between generic heritage and innovation. More specifically, it can be very productively matched with Philippe Hamon’s and Christine Brooke-Rose’s conception of megatext, later localized for sf studies by Damien Broderick. In many ways, science fiction’s commitment to such forms of seriality as motifs, parabolas, or icons makes the genre a quintessential example of a literary field in which influence and pla(y)giarism have been defining constituents.
The wide focus and diversity of material included make The Ecstasy of Influence an offering for as many readerships as there are genres and conventions Lethem has inhabited, but from our own sf perspective, I wish the volume had included the essay mentioned earlier, “The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction” (in an ideal world also accompanied by the polemical exchange between the author and Ray Davis that appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction in December 1998). For all their intellectual rewards, Conversations with Jonathan Lethem and The Ecstasy of Influence also make clear that Jonathan Lethem is a very nice guy. I know that both the interviews and the writings are only his public persona, but I think much can be deduced from the way in which Lethem constructs his responses to and discussions of all topics thrown at him. A reader and viewer of great passion and strong opinions, he never comes across as preachy or condescending. Despite his success, he seems to possess a certain humility and a readiness to admit that he may be wrong, which does not detract from the conviction of his arguments.
—Paweł Frelik, Maria Curie-Skłodowska University
A Time Machine Before Wells.
Enrique Gaspar. The Time Ship: A Chrononautical Journey. 1887. Trans. Yolanda Molina-Gavilán and Andrea Bell. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2012. xlii + 193 pp. $70 hc; $24.95 pbk.
The immediate interest of Enrique Gaspar’s novel The Time Ship (El anacronópete, 1887), translated from Spanish and splendidly introduced by Yolanda Molina-Gavilán and Andrea Bell, lies in its depiction of what is probably Western literature’s first time machine, preceding H.G. Wells’s novel by eight years and his earliest version of the story by a year. Gaspar’s time ship differs dramatically and sometimes hilariously from the trim bicycle-like apparatus that Wells bequeaths to twentieth-century time-travel writers and filmmakers, and yet in some ways it better exemplifies the hodgepodge of scientific and narrative aims that preoccupies late-nineteenth-century romance writers. The anacronópete is a massive, yacht-like contraption of ornate wood and crystal, shaped like a “keelless Noah’s Ark,” enclosing several levels of rooms, corridors, spiral staircases, and even a hold stocked with months of provisions for 30 or more passengers (50-51). The technology in this vessel comprises a veritable exhibition of futuristic engineering, described with an exactitude that Gaspar inherits from Verne but parodies with considerable wit: “electric batteries” and “conductors” control the onloading of supplies by mysterious hoisting fields; in the kitchen, a chicken is “plucked by an electric discharge while a spark turn[s] it into food 7,200 times faster than any ordinary grill”; soiled clothes enter an automatic washer and emerge “washed, dried, ironed, and mended”; debris is swept away by “mechanized brooms,” and “[i]n this way,” Gaspar observes, “one could begin sweeping on Monday and, a second later, find it finished on Saturday” (51-52). Much of the pleasure of reading The Time Ship—albeit tempered with a modicum of exasperation familiar to any reader of the didactic expositions of nineteenth-century scientific romance—consists in the sometimes subtle, sometimes riotous absurdity of Gaspar’s machinery, characters, and temporal theory, as well as the comical extravagance of the time ship itself and its voyages.
In part, the time ship’s lavish scale is an artifact of the story’s generic roots. As Bell and Molina-Gavilán explain in their introduction, Gaspar’s novel was originally written as a zarzuela, a type of comic opera, with the main characters arranged into “paired voices” and a large supporting cast organized into male and female choruses (xxxi). On stage, therefore, the anacronópete was obliged to convey a company of about thirty actors/singers through a variety of melodramatic scenes. The subsequent novel retains this full cast of outlandish characters and is no less flamboyant in its settings and plot, right up to its farcically abrupt ending. Among other adventures, the voyagers pursue the secret of immortality in third-century China, advise Queen Isabella to finance Columbus in 1492, visit Pompeii on the day of the Vesuvius eruption, and witness the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.
Although the sorts of paradoxes common in twentieth-century time-travel fiction are only latent (these are largely an invention of the 1930s), Gaspar does indulge in some play with temporal reversal and its effects, attended by a characteristically wry wit concerning both politics and literary convention. For instance, a side plot has a dozen aging French prostitutes travelling aboard the time ship at the request of the French government; they are to have their youth restored by the “unwrap[ping]” effect of the backward journey (19). The dubious rationale for this sociological experiment is that “finding themselves again in possession of their charms, they will take the path of moderation and abandon that of vice,” enabling France to “sanitize the family in order to save our homeland” (47). In such moments, mockery of technology and progress corresponds with what the translators call Gaspar’s “ironic view of any patriotic illusions of grandeur” (xxxvi). Skepticism about science, politics, and literary genre merge in the author’s voice to produce a deft outsider ethos that often sounds more like Čapek or Lem than like Flammarion, Verne, or Wells. Here is Gaspar’s description of a banquet in Paris celebrating the time ship’s launch: “With the hosts, guests, and parasites (plants that spring up in every dining room) seated and all bodies duly rested, the jaws were free to begin their work. During the appetizers, all torsos formed a right angle with the table. As the digestive systems got loaded down with ballast, that angle became acute” (44).
This amalgam of amiable satires—of modern civil customs, of French and Spanish culture, of scientific progressivism, and of literary style—suffuses Gaspar’s prose throughout. It is both a pleasure in itself and of historical interest for science-fiction studies; arguably, such hybrid satirical style is just as important in the sociopolitical and literary-cultural lineage of later time-travel narratives as any machine that Gaspar invents.
—David Wittenberg, University of Iowa
Grace Dillon, ed. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2012. 272 pp. $24.95 hc.
This new anthology is noteworthy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its scholarly apparatus. Not only does Walking the Clouds introduce readers to some fascinating texts in what could be a rising subgenre, much like the “postcolonial science fiction” to which it is related, but also Grace Dillon’s conception of “indigenous futurism” challenges notions of the genre itself. Dillon proposes this term to identify Native American and other indigenous writing related to science fiction, even identified as science fiction by its authors, but which at times faces confused reactions from a “mainstream sf” audience. For indigenous futurism often pushes the generic envelope into all kinds of new and unexpected shapes.
Walking the Clouds is the first sf anthology by mostly North American indigenous authors, though it also includes some work by Aboriginal Australian and New Zealand Maori writers; it is also the first work of/on science fiction published by the University of Arizona Press. It includes some names better known in the literary mainstream, such as Sherman Alexie and Leslie Marmon Silko, as well as some genre-identified authors (e.g., Andrea Hairston, Nalo Hopkinson, and Stephen Graham Jones), as well as completely idiosyncratic writers such as Gerald Vizenor. In addition to her general introduction to the volume, and her one- to two-page introductions for each of the nineteen texts (short stories, excerpts from novels, and an epic poem), Dillon further situates the contents within the context of each author’s oeuvre. The contributors’ biographies provide encyclopedic overviews of writers who will be unknown to the many readers this anthology seeks to reach, within both sf circles andthe field of Native American/Indigenous Studies.
The book’s introduction, “Imagining Indigenous Futurisms,” provides compelling answers to the questions: “Why Indigenous science fiction?” and “Why now?” Although writers such as Alexie and Vizenor have been experimenting with genre for some time, only now has a critical mass of sf, fantasy, and horror by Native writers accumulated. And, as with the snowballing body of “postcolonial” sf, Native peoples are appropriating tools usually associated with white conquest to write back to the empire, imagining alternate histories and vivid—at times bleak and cautionary, at others wildly utopian—futures for themselves and their communities. Dillon organizes the anthology into five loose categories: “Native Slipstream,” “Contact,” “Indigenous Science and Sustainability,” “Native Apocalypse,” and “Biskaabiiyang, ‘Returning to Ourselves.’”
Because of the experimental and oppositional nature of a good bit of the writing that qualifies as indigenous futurism, slipstream provides a home for idiosyncratic works that flirt with genre tropes, such as Alexie’s Flight (2007) or Jones’s The Fast Red Road (2000), excerpted here. Vizenor’s “Custer on the Slipstream” (1978) riffs precisely on a concept that defines his writing style but that was not coined by Bruce Sterling until ten years later. That “Contact”—a narrative at the heart of sf from its inception—represents a major theme for indigenous writers to appropriate and reimagine is certainly a no-brainer, but the inventive ways that Celu Amberstone, Gerry William, and Simon Ortiz revise the contact narrative are anything but uncerebral. Of special interest to Dillon because of her own theoretical interventions geared toward widening the definitions of “science” in science fiction to be more inclusive of non-Western technologies and indigenous ways of knowing, “Indigenous Science and Sustainability” excerpts Hopkinson, Hairston, Archie Weller, and Vizenor’s Bearheart (1978; rev. 1990).
Visualizing “Native Apocalypses” provides a powerful means of facing a genocidal past and envisioning an alternate future, as seen in contributions by Alexie, William Sanders, Zainab Amadahy, and Misha. Dillon concludes on the Anishinaabemowin concept of “Biskaabiiyang,” a “return to ourselves” paradoxically allowed by the estrangement effect of sf, not only for indigenous peoples, but also for descendants of colonizers. While the stories in this section may be dystopian (e.g., Eden Robinson’s “Terminal Avenue”) or utopian (e.g., Maori writer Robert Sullivan’s “Star Waka”), they all, like the anthology itself, “encourage[e] native writers to write about Native conditions in Native-centered worlds liberated by the imagination” (11).
But Walking the Clouds is not just a book by Natives for Natives; while Dillon may be seen as an activist promoting Indigenous sf, she also seeks to share it. Precisely because this anthology “confronts the structures of racism and colonialism and sf’s own complicity in them” (10-11; emphasis in original), this is a book that all of the sf community should read. Conversely, Walking the Clouds can also teach those in Native literatures about the potential of science fiction; the book’s approach—including excerpts as well as self-contained stories, along with a scholarly, but not inaccessibly jargon-filled, apparatus—makes it a perfect course text. While not all readers will find this challenging writing a walk in the clouds, it is nonetheless a necessary walk for us to take.
—Amy Ransom, Central Michigan University
Graham J. Murphy and Sherryl Vint, eds. Beyond Cyberpunk: New Critical Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2010. xviii + 263 pp. $125 hc; $39.95 pbk.
What was cyberpunk? We seem to have a reached a critical moment where it can be safely declared that cyberpunk is a thing of the past, a historical subgenre (aesthetic? form? movement?) and not a living one. Of course, many of its writers are still alive and writing, and its specific tricks and tropes live on in various successors such as steampunk, atompunk, dieselpunk, biopunk, and (most vexingly) something called “postcyberpunk”—but nonetheless it seems as though some imperceptible threshold has been finally crossed, some bit flipped from 1 to 0. In “The Gernsback Continuum” (1981), William Gibson famously wrote of the glittering unrealized techno-utopia that haunted his dingier, dustier present. That future—spaceships, hovercars, robot butlers, food pills—never happened (alas). But in 2007 interviews promoting his novel Spook Country, he frequently noted that the opposite had happened to cyberpunk: it was superseded by events. Somehow, instead of preempting the cyberpunk future, we had overtaken it, raced right past it; Gibson said he had given up trying to predict the future at all and was instead resigning himself to trying to predict “the year before last.” In a Facebook, drone-war world in which everyday life has been so utterly transformed, networked, and virtualized by information technology, that loose collection of texts once called “cyberpunk” seems at once totally triumphant and utterly superfluous—simultaneously the realism of our time and the literary equivalent of phlogiston, predicting everything and nothing.
Graham J. Murphy and Sherryl Vint take up this dialectic between ascendency and obsolescence in their recent edited collection Beyond Cyberpunk: New Critical Perspectives. Cyberpunk, they and their authors repeatedly find, was always dead—the announcement of its obituary more or less coinciding with the moment of the genre’s first emergence. The collection begins by unpacking this very paradox, framing it (as the “–punk” of “cyberpunk” might suggest) as yet another instance of a marginal movement quickly being captured, commercialized, and banalized by the mainstream. Their introduction even finds the cyberpunks eulogizing themselves in precisely this fashion; Lewis Shiner in his 1991 “Confessions of an Ex-Cyberpunk” finds the second wave of cyberpunk authors formulaic, while Bruce Sterling, in his 1998 essay “Cyberpunk in the Nineties,” mournfully declares that the cyberpunks are an erstwhile Bohemian underground undone by their own increasing respectability. The punks sold out, in other words, and the movement’s vitality was quickly sapped. Indeed, in his contribution to the collection, Rob Latham persuasively identifies this asserted rise-cooptation-and-fall as the dominant Ur-narrative of all sf historiography: sf critics repeatedly cast the genre as a “recurring cycle of messianic avant-gardism and old-school intransigence,” simply substituting each new movement in each position in turn (30).
Alongside the white elephant of respectability, Murphy and Vint find a second explanation for the passing of cyberpunk that is somewhat more specific to its cultural and historical context—its basic thematic indistinguishability from globalization. “Perhaps one of the reasons cyberpunk seems both so dated and yet paradoxically so relevant,” they offer, “is that the ideological assumptions of neoliberalism have become so ubiquitous as information technology” (xvii). Cyberpunk, they suggest, no longer feels vital precisely because its cognitive mapping of global capitalism has become so universal and inescapable. I can track the iPad I bought on Amazon on my iPhone as it leaves its factory in Shenzhen to arrive via FedEx on my doorstep in Milwaukee, before the charge has even shown up on my online account at citicards.com—so what good is Neuromancer to me? We all know damn well we are in the Matrix, and we seem to like it just fine. Indeed, as multiple contributors to the collection note, debates over cyberpunk have long judged the form to be far too comfortable with the world it depicts, typically locating its spirit of utopian jouissance not in resistance to informationalized capitalism but rather in programmatic, celebratory mastery of it. After a decade of surveillance-state nightmares, economic disasters, and environmental catastrophes, perhaps we are hungry for a bit less “cyber-” and a bit more “-punk.”
Going further, there is a third “death of cyberpunk” focalized by Murphy, Vint, and their contributors, and this is the sheer prevalence of literal death—and its posthuman transcendence—within and across cyberpunk fictions. Reorganizing the subgenre with the benefit of retrospection, Murphy and Vint make visible a preoccupation with death and dying that becomes in this telling cyberpunk’s overarching but unacknowledged central theme. We see this from the collection’s first essay (Brian McHale’s analysis of biopunk’s zombies) onwards, but the argument receives its clearest articulation in Andrew M. Butler’s reading of Jeff Noon, “Journeys Beyond Being,” in which cyberspace becomes not only an “escape from the body, from the meat” but also an underworld visit to “the realm of the dead” (77). The very next essay, Tom Moylan’s on the post-Neuromancer writing of William Gibson, goes further still, suggesting that cyberpunk originates precisely from a perception of global threat realized in the various disasters of the 1970s:
we now face a more fragile natural world and social environment, an unstable world economy (despite the extensive restructuring), a weakened national government (unwilling to exercise its own capacity for popular service), an increasingly subordinated population of women and people of color (facing increasing official and popular terrorism), a declining middle class (seen more clearly in the current recession as managers as well as skilled workers are laid off), a reduced and impoverished work force (deprived of the power of its own organizations), and a growing number of dispossessed who have been denied benefits of meaningful work and nurturing social services. (82)
My own recent interest in the ecological science fiction of the 1970s has left me similarly convinced that cyberpunk emerges primarily in response to the twin disillusionments that destroyed the fantasy of a happy Jetsons future, à la “The Gernsback Continuum”: the realization that the space program was a bust and there is nothing for us out there, and the realization that “progress” in technology was not perfecting human civilization but instead actively destroying the planet. Trapped, then, on a murdered Earth, we fantasize about escaping into the computer, the last place where we can still have all the untold riches sf of the Golden Age once seemed to promise. And this is of course precisely the imaginative space in which cyberpunk themes remain most vital and alive in the present moment—the fantasy of the Singularity, as popularized by Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, the so-called “rapture of the nerds” that has convinced so many of our students that as long as they can make it to 2040 or so they’ll get to live forever. Perhaps cyberpunk is always already “dead” because it is the neurosis of a dying civilization that cannot think about anything else.
The web comic Pictures for Sad Children once characterized the Singularity, and its fantasy of immortalized privilege, as “the nerd way of saying ‘in the future being rich and white will be even more awesome.’” The essays at the end of Beyond Cyberpunk take up this very question of the richness and whiteness of cyberpunk sf, adding maleness and straightness for good measure. Another kind of death hangs over cyberpunk, after all, a metaphorical death related to but distinct from the other “deaths” associated with economic postmodernism: the death of certain kinds of privilege historically associated with the social dominance of rich, straight, white males. Much as aesthetic postmodernism became culturally important precisely in the moment when the canon began to become more diverse—thereby returning its predominantly white, male practitioners to the unchallenged position of literary and artistic supremacy they had briefly risked losing—and much as the abstruse view-from-nowhere of “Theory” emerged as the overriding concern in the academy precisely at the moment of a revolutionary demand for racial and sexual equality, cyberpunk itself can be read against the grain as an unconscious and ultimately doomed attempt to preserve white, male hegemony in the face of sf’s increasingly diverse authorship and fandom. Karen Cadora makes this case most forcefully in her contribution to the collection, “Feminist Cyberpunk,” which notes first the masculinist tendencies of much early cyberpunk writing and then asks, sardonically, why it is that cyberpunk itself is declared dead “just at the moment when women writers begin to explore the connections between race, gender, sexuality, and cyberspace?” (172). Murphy’s essay finds cyberpunk in Harlem; still others find it in Japan, China, and beyond. In its exploration of cyberpunk’s critique of embodiment, the final third of Beyond Cyberpunk suggests that the long-awaited death of cyberpunk may yet have to wait—that what has happened is not death but democratization, that the hacking of our various consensual hallucinations has only just begun.
—Gerry Canavan, Marquette University
The Evolutionary Imagination.
Michael R. Page. The Literary Imagination from Erasmus Darwin to H.G. Wells: Science, Evolution, and Ecology. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012. viii + 224 pp. $99.95 hc.
In the Advertisement to The Loves of the Plants (1789), the poet Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, described his project as one of “enlisting the imagination under the banner of science.” Difficult though it is to sum up Michael R. Page’s invigorating book, we might say that in him science has found its latest literary recruiting agent. Erudite and well-informed, irrepressibly opinionated, and, frankly, often repetitious, Page offers a bracing mixture of literary history, textual analysis, and world-saving polemic. Surveying nineteenth-century British literature from The Loves of the Plants to H.G. Wells, he sets out to bring together sf scholarship and the strain of contemporary ecocriticism known as “green Romanticism.” This book, therefore, begins with science fiction’s emergence from the “conversation of literature and science” that Page finds in the Romantic poets (9), and ends by presenting the genre as a necessary source for the “visionary and forward-looking thinking that will determine the survival of the human species” (197). The result is a much more embattled study than the rather bland title suggests. While Page openly lets fly at the literary-critical establishment, which, he says, continues to denigrate sf, other groups more actively threatening to human survival—creationists, climate-change deniers, and the like—are surely within his sights.
The most influential statement of the claim that sf’s origins lie in Romanticism and, specifically, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) comes in Brian Aldiss’s history of the genre, Billion Year Spree (1973; rev., with David Wingrove, as Trillion Year Spree, 1988). Aldiss, accordingly, is one of the chorus of sf critics (including I.F. Clarke, Darko Suvin, W. Warren Wagar, and any number of regular contributors to SFS) whom Page tends to cite at every opportunity in support of his own argument. The Literary Imagination is as notable for its orchestration of the existing body of sf and Romantic-period scholarship as it is for setting out an original point of view. That such orchestration is (inevitably) highly selective can be seen in Page’s presentation of Aldiss, who is by no means invariably on-message when writing of sf’s relationship to science. Aldiss’s famous definition of the genre as “the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould” (Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction [New York: Schocken, 1974]: 8; emphasis in original) is quoted prominently in Page’s Introduction (12), but this book has little to say about the “confusion” attributed to scientific knowledge or, more significantly, about sf’s affiliations to the Gothic.
For Page, the crucial feature of Romantic literature, illustrated by Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1801) and Percy Shelley’s Queen Mab (1813), is its “implicit (and sometimes explicit) evolutionism” (111). Evolution, however, is a broad concept, going well beyond the (as it were, pre-Darwinian) concept of biological evolution that Page’s opening chapter traces in Erasmus Darwin’s poems. At one point Page endorses the journalist Lynn Barber’s observation that theories of evolution are “as old as the hills” (113), yet he has told us four pages earlier that “the idea of evolution is fundamental to the concept of modernity” (109), a statement that in itself verges on tautology. The English Romantics may have read Erasmus Darwin but, much more importantly, they visited France and Germany and encountered both the revolutionary spirit sweeping across Europe and the historicist thought of the Enlightenment. Page acknowledges the impact of historicism only indirectly by means of a series of passing references to Volney’s Ruins of Empire (1793), a book mainly remembered today for its formative role in the education of Frankenstein’s monster.
Frankenstein,one of the two subjects of Page’s central chapter (the other is Shelley’s later novel The Last Man ), is in many ways the test-case for his whole argument. He reads it as a fully-fledged sf novel and emphatically not as a Gothic extravaganza. He does this by glossing over certain elements of the text, such as the atmosphere of horror and disgust surrounding Frankenstein’s creation of life in his secret laboratory. For Page, Shelley’s “workshop of filthy creation” is no more than the scene of an “ambitious scientific program” (88). Similarly, the only significance Page will allow to Frankenstein’s early obsession with the medieval alchemists is that, under the tutelage of his professors at the University of Ingolstadt (not, as this book has it, Inglostadt), Frankenstein puts alchemy behind him. “It is,” Page writes, “vitally important that the reader recognizes that Victor fully rejects the alchemists once he has been indoctrinated into ... modern scientific methods.... Too many commentators have made the mistake of equating Victor’s experiments with alchemy” (87). The tone of ideological foreclosure here—very different from the author’s usually patient and detailed analyses—tells its own story: the text’s darker, more Gothic elements must be eradicated. Victor’s sole mistake, his “downfall” (88), lies not in the research program that leads him to collect dead body parts from graveyards and charnel-houses and wire them together, but in his refusal to take moral responsibility for the creature he brings to life. This raising of Shelley’s tale to an unambiguously rational drama turning on a single ethical choice overlooks the fact that Victor’s rejection of his creature is an uncontrolled, instinctive reaction, irrevocable once it has taken place.
The Gothicism of Frankenstein heavily influenced the two writers often regarded as Shelley’s principal successors in early science fiction, Nathaniel Hawthorne—who draws us back, time and again, into the world of the alchemists—and Edgar Allan Poe. Of the two, Hawthorne is not mentioned at all in The Literary Imagination, while Poe’s name (absent, as it happens, from the index) appears only twice in passing. Page offers, instead, a chapter on British fiction after The Origin of Species (1959)—including a pioneering account of sf elements in Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863)—followed by a full and generous treatment of the early H.G. Wells.
This book is marred in places by careless writing, of which the opening sentence of the Wells chapter is an unfortunate specimen: “H.G. Wells is the penultimate imaginative writer who wedded the literary imagination with evolutionary theory and his scientific romances are the fitting conclusion to this study of how the evolutionary imagination developed in the nineteenth century” (149). I can only make sense of “penultimate” here by assuming that the author thinks it means second-best (to Mary Shelley?) rather than second-to-last, since there is no writer following Wells. A second example, taken from the Conclusion, is Page’s offhand description of a series of twentieth-century sf masterpieces including Lem’s Solaris (1961), Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1993-96), and Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) as “pretty standard academic genre texts” (198), a far more disparaging phrase than I suppose was meant. The Conclusion leads, via discussion of Stephen Baxter’s 2003 novel Evolution, to The Windup Girl (2010) by “the genre’s hottest young writer” (199), Paolo Bacigalupi. Page’s final sentences tell us how he met Bacigalupi at the University of Kansas and thrust his copy of The Windup Girl into the novelist’s hands for a much-prized personal inscription. Inside the erudite literary scholar there was, all along, a passionate sf fan just bursting to be let out.
—Patrick Parrinder, University of Reading
A Fantastic Outpouring.
Lars Schmeink and Astrid Böger, eds. Collision of Realities. Establishing Research on the Fantastic in Europe. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2012. 364 pp. $126 hc.
Lars Schmeink and Hans-Harald Müller, eds. Fremde Welten: Wege und Räume der Fantastik im 21. Jahrhundert [Strange Worlds: Paths and Spaces of the Fantastic in the Twenty-first Century]. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2012. 462 pp. $140 hc.
Fantasy is currently omnipresent in Germany, but unlike the US or UK its academic discussion is mostly left to “lonely fighters,” and thus it receives scant attention in literary and cultural studies. Until now: recently an institutionalization of research took place. In 2010, for the first time, a large international conference on the fantastic was organized in Hamburg under the overall title of “Alien Worlds: Paths and Spaces of the Fantastic in the 21st Century” which was attended by more than 150 researchers. The main purpose of the meeting was to lay the groundwork for an association of scholars engaged in research into the fantastic. On 1 October 2010, the GFF—Die Gesellschaft für Fantastikforschung [Society for Research on the Fantastic]—was founded by more than 80 people in order to create the academic structures and networks that make it possible for members to present their work to an audience of peers. A biannual journal, Zeitschrift für Fantastiforschung, was created (four issues have appeared to date), and there are now annual conferences on the fantastic in the Germanic countries. The second one, “Eurofan: New Directions in European Fantasy after the Cold War” took place in 2011 in Salzburg, Austria; the third one, “Transitions and De-Limitations in Fantastic Literature” was held in Zurich, Switzerland; the fourth, “Writing Worlds: World- and Space- Models in Fantasy,” organized by the Justus-von-Liebig University Gießen, will take place in the building of the Fantastic Library in Wetzlar from 26 to 29 September 2013.
All the papers of the initial conference are now available in two large volumes, the first presenting work written in the English language, the second in German. The first volume also contains a “Conference Theme Story”: Paul Di Filippo’s “A Pocketful of Faces.” Among the 23 contributors in the English-language volume are two well-known writer/scholars of Anglophone sf: Brian Stableford (who seems bent on translating any old tome of French fantasy, horror, and adventure into English, with more than 80 volumes published thus far), and Marleen Barr, a pioneer of feminist sf studies. Among German scholars, Clemens Ruthner has written many theoretical investigations of fantasy, most recently on the concept of “fantastic liminality.” His contribution is a continuation of his earlier work on this topic.
The papers have been arranged in four groupings: “The Fantastic—Theory and History,” “Visualizing the Fantastic in our Culture,” “Fantastic Genres: Fantasy,” and “Fantastic Genres: Science Fiction.” A highlight in this volume is Marleen Barr’s “Fantastic Language/Political Reporting,” which shows how sf terminology has invaded everyday life and how sf terms and topics are used by politicians without the necessity of explanation or justification. In “The Art and Science of Heterocosmic Creativity,” Brian Stableford draws attention to an old tome of aesthetic theory, Alexander Baumgarten’s Aesthetika (1750). Most of the papers concentrate on such aspects of fantasy as fantastic beings (zombies, werewolves, and vampires); fantastic transformations; fantastic elements in children’s literature; or popular authors such as Tolkien and Terry Pratchett but also Andrzej Sapkowski. A Polish contribution by Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak and Agata Zarzycka on “The ‘Erl-King’ Inspirations in Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher Saga” investigates at length the (rather tenuous) influence of Goethe’s poem on the popular Polish writer, who likes to stress his erudition (and, following in Lem’s footsteps, to imply that he is one of the most intelligent men in Poland). All of Sapkowski’s fiction is now available in German translation, but he has found so far little critical attention.
greater interest are the contributions on science fiction. The discussion of “The Haunted Houses of Science Fiction: Modern Ghosts, Crypts, and Technologies” includes also Solaris (the Tarkovsky film, not the novel). Other topics discussed include the role of music in classical dystopias, Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic fictions, and “Renegotiations of a Cultural Stereotype in New Hard Science Fiction” in Sarah Herbes’s “Is the Scientist Still Mad?” Of special interest is Ingo Cornelis’s “Utopian, Dystopian and Subversive Strategies in Recent German Alternate History Fictions,” which investigates three novels of alternative worlds, two by non-genre writers. In Christian Kracht’s “Ich werde hier sein im Sonnenschein und im Schatten” (I’ll Be Here in Sunshine and in Shadow, 2008), Lenin has never left his exile in Switzerland, founding—together with Kropotkin and Bakunin—a Swiss Soviet Republic that pursues colonial ambitions in Africa; in Rob Alef’s satirical Das magische Jahr (The Magical Year, 2008), the German student movement has been successful, but nothing much has changed. The third example is by the genre writer (and prominent sf editor) Wolfgang Jeschke, whose latest and most ambitious novel, Das Cusanus-Spiel (The Cusanus Game, 2005; US edition to appear from Tor books next year), portrays a horrible future in which climate change, environmental destruction (partly caused by an incident in an atomic power plant), and racism against immigrants from Asia and Africa have turned large parts of Europe into a wasteland.
The volume with contributions in the German language offers sections on “Theoretical Reflections on the Fantastic,” “Crossovers in Fantastic Literature,” “The Fantastic in Film and TV,” and “Single Studies and Surveys in Fantastic Literature.” Among the contributors are some well-known names. Helmut W. Pesch, on “Fantasy and Intertextuality: Problems of Methodology in Genre Typology,” wrote the first German doctoral thesis on fantasy and is a fantasy editor at Lübbe publishers. Uwe Durst is the author of two voluminous studies on the theory of fantasy (Theorie der Fantastischen Literatur [Theory of Fantastic Literature, 2001; rev. 2010] and Das begrenzte Wunderbare: Zur Theorie wunderbarer Episoden in realistischen Erzähltexten und in Texten des “Magischen Realismus” [The Limited Wonderful: Theorizing Wonderful Episodes in Works of Realism and Magic Realism, 2008]). In “Begrenzte und entgrenzte wunderbare Systeme” [“Limited and Undefined Marvelous Systems”], he traces a development from bourgeois to magical realism. Hans-Harald Müller, one of the co-editors of volume 2, has written much on Leo Perutz and edited the reissues of Perutz’s novels. In his contribution on the forms and functions of the fantastic in the works of Arthur Schnitzler and Leo Perutz, he seems prepared to acknowledge at last that Perutz was a writer of fantastic literature. Simon Spiegel, who has written what promises to become a standard work on the aethetics of sf film, Die Konstitution des Wunderbaren [The Constitution of the Miraculous, 2007], examines the “blue marvel” Avatar (2009), in which he discovers a mixture of familiar elements characterized by insufficient estrangement. The prolific Polish scholar Jacek Rzeszotnik—who has written much in the German language, including an exhaustive study of the reception of Stanislaw Lem in Germany—provides a survey of Polish non-realist literature at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Amidst the flood of new Polish fantasies, mostly by writers unknown outside of Poland, he notes an increasing preoccupation with Germany and Germans, especially in alternate-world stories, with even Nazi soldiers emerging in a positive light. In his brief trip through the development of German science fiction, Hans Esselborn—who has written previously on sf (often on the virtual worlds of Herbert W. Franke) and has also taught it—traces a development from technological novels of the future (Kurd Laßwitz, Hans Dominik, and the German rocket novels of the 1920s) through Franke’s work in the 1970s to more contemporary variants, such as Andreas Eschbach’s Die Haarteppichknüpfer (1995, tr. 2005 as The Carpet Makers), in which space travel is commonplace but combined with social hierarchies reminiscent of the Middle Ages.
Other themes include fantastic fictions in everyday conversation, the role of the Latin language in fantasy, the construction of collective spaces of imagination in fantasy role-playing games, superhero films, George Méliès, myth and religious belief in Star Trek, urban fantasies for young readers, crypto-religious spaces in Lord of the Rings (1954-55) and the Harry Potter series (1997-2007), fairy tale forests, German gothic novels around 1800, and the representation of prehistoric Neanderthals. Overall, these two volumes offer studies in the wide field of the fantastic in all media, most at a high level of interpretation. They show how popular terms and topics of the fantastic have invaded the film industry, TV, games, politics, and everyday life. Also, they make clear that the German literary market is quite open to translations: all of Andrzej Sapkowski and almost everything by Lem and the Strugatskys is available in German, along with the work of a number of Russian fantasy writers such as Sergei Lukianenko. And while sf publishing in Germany, at least prior to the bestsellers Andreas Eschbach and Frank Schätzing, was dominated by paperbacks, now many fantasy novels by German writers begin with high initial print-runs in hardcover. Academic attention takes somewhat late cognizance of this fact in these two varied volumes.
—Franz Rottensteiner, Vienna
An Invaluable Compendium.
David C. Smith. The Journalism of H.G. Wells: An Annotated Bibliography. Ed. Patrick Parrinder. Haren, Netherlands: Equilibris, 2012. 432 pp. €119 hc.; €78 pbk.
This is not your ordinary bibliography. David Smith, whose name leads the title page, knew an enormous amount about Wells’s life and work, and he seems to have dreamed of a bibliography of all of Wells’s publications. Smith died in 2009, and Patrick Parrinder, who also knows a lot about Wells’s life and work, took over the project and limited it just to Wells’s journalism. Yet while the range may have been narrowed, many traces of Smith’s larger ambitions remain in the shape of the work and the annotations that summarize, explain, and link the individual entries. The result is a scholarly tool that also, by its thoughtfully eccentric approach, helps us rethink Wells, his career, his way of thinking, and his place in literature and history.
This is a big book with many entrances. Before we begin the bibliography proper, we survey the large field described by Mike Ashley’s useful “Descriptive Index of Newspapers and Periodicals,” which lists the periodicals in which Wells published, with their history, their place in the journalistic field, and the specific years Wells’s work appeared in them. A second, shorter section then lists chronologically the books in which Wells collected his journalism. The central section, the bibliography of Wells’s journalism, contains over two thousand entries. In addition to many nonfiction essays, letters, and comments, one also finds the first publication of Wells’s short stories and his serialized novels. The bibliography is organized by years, each year beginning with a succinct paragraph listing which Wells books appeared that year. This is followed by an alphabetical list of the journals in which he published that year and bibliographical descriptions of the pieces he published in those journals. Most of the entries also have some annotation telling us what the piece is about, what circumstances generated it, in what book it later appeared, and in what journals it was later republished.
The bibliography of Wells’s journalism is followed by four lengthy bibliographical appendices. The first lists, again by single years, 304 “Conjectural Items”—that is, unsigned published writings that might be attributed to Wells, either because he himself mentions such work at some time or because the style or subject seem Wellsian to the editors. The majority of these appear in the early years before The Time Machine (1895), when Wells was scrambling to get into print. The second appendix contains 92 “Reports of Wells’s Speeches.” The third appendix lists 99 “Press Interviews.” The fourth appendix lists 266 “Miscellaneous News Items”—published pieces other than book reviews and criticism that cite or quote Wells at length. This last category contains “information not easily available elsewhere,” and as Parrinder’s note warns, “does not aspire to full coverage of the field” (345). The main bibliography and these four appendices altogether amount to 2806 items, which are numbered consecutively through the book.
We catch in these appendices a glimpse of the dilemma Smith faced trying to gather and organize everything in print that mattered. Where do you draw the line about what to include? Is the news story of a speech a publication? The speech was planned and may have been made from a written text, but how about an interview or a news item? Finally, the very category of bibliography loses its special application to writings and turns into a scrapbook, a kind of Borgesian reverie of an ideal bibliography that includes every trace of Wells’s public thought.
Wells famously described himself not as an “author” but as a “journalist.” This bibliography certainly displays the accuracy of the latter term, but it also shows how deeply inseparable were Wells the journalist and Wells the author. If we think of an “author” as writing works that stand as recognized self-defining accomplishments, this bibliography, with its sub-categories, annotations, and cross-references, makes us look beyond the monumental works to see how they grow out of more ephemeral writings that live briefly in the public eye and then either get incorporated into books or disappear, to be read later only by scholars. To see Wells in this rich, three-dimensional way frees us from the dichotomy that he himself—for tactical reasons, to be sure—posed, and shows us a writer, embedded in history and in public conversation, for whom a book is only a special moment in an ongoing line of thought that finds its origins in the events of the world itself.
At the end, to enable a reader to find texts by title or by catchword, are two indices. The first, “titles,” contains approximately 175 entries, some of which (such as “Letters to the Editor”) entail a large number of page citations. The second is a general index: titles, authors, journals, associations, and many names. Some of these entries can seem quite trivial; for instance, the “Alexander the Great” citation is to a 1930 article in The Forum on “The Greatest Dates in History” (#1556). Yet even here the aura of Smith’s detailed knowledge shines, for not only is the essay described in some detail—that is, the particular “greatest dates” are listed—but the entry goes on to report that this was part of an exercise in which H.W. Van Loon and Will Durant also participated and to which school children were invited to submit contributions. Such details are not useless—we glimpse here Wells the historian, the educator, the lover of games, and the entertainer at work. I do not know where else such information could be recorded.
This invaluable and necessary bibliography complements David Smith’s other contributions to the study of Wells: his biography of Wells (H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal [Yale UP, 1986]), and his edition of Wells’s correspondence (Pickering and Chatto, 4 vols., 1998). It is more than just a scholarly tool. Its ambitious openness and the unexpected richness of its annotations make available for the rest of us many details of Smith’s research that had no fitting place in those first two massive undertakings. It is a text that enables a patient reader to see and experience in another dimension Wells’s active and immensely varied intellectual life.
—John Huntington, University of Illinois at Chicago
The Professional Hobbyist.
Billee J. Stallings and Jo-An J. Evans. Murray Leinster: The Life and Works. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. vii + 219 pp. $40 pbk.
Murray Leinster, the primary pen name of Will F. Jenkins, was first attached to an sf story with “The Runaway Skyscraper,” published in The Argosy magazine for 22 February 1919. Jenkins was already a professional writer, and he continued writing sf for half a century. In 1956, Leinster won the best novelette Hugo for “Exploration Team”; in the meantime, he had developed such sf themes as alternative time lines (“Sidewise in Time,” 1934), generation starships (“Proxima Centauri,” 1935), and the tense but ultimately peaceful encounter between interstellar civilizations (“First Contact,” 1945). In short, Murray Leinster deserved his title “The Dean of Science Fiction.” This valuable book by Jenkins’s two youngest daughters presents a mass of information to show how he helped create American sf and what that meant.
The first published work by Will Jenkins was a laudatory essay about Robert E. Lee written for the boy’s sixth-grade class. When it appeared in a Norfolk, Virginia, paper, a Confederate veteran sent Will five dollars, which he promptly invested in materials to build a glider in order win a prize offered by Fly magazine. He actually built and flew in the contraption; this book includes the prize-winning plans for Will’s glider “Condor,” a photo of him standing proudly inside it, and his description of a successful flight of forty feet in 1909. Early American sf grew out of such feverish scientific/technical experimentation by swarms of youngsters who believed they could master just about anything they could get their hands on because all it would take was imagination and a little gumption. Contemporary sf tends to be less sanguine about our ability to master the world around us, let alone understand the consequences of what we are doing. Still, that underlying confidence has not evaporated entirely. This book quotes Ben Bova’s remark that “everyone who landed on the moon read science fiction” (100).
Jenkins kept on experimenting throughout his life. He designed the slanted desk on which his Remington typewriter sat. During World War II, he tinkered with a way to disguise the wake of a just-below-surface submarine; upon hearing that he had conducted the research in a bathtub, one admiral innocently inquired what he had used to represent the periscope. In the 1950s, he developed and patented a system of projecting backgrounds during filming of a motion picture that was successful enough for Stanley Kubrick to use in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
The same persistent attitude is present in Murray Leinster’s sf. As a professional writer, Jenkins spent much of his life constantly producing saleable prose. His daughters record a steady, even-flowing writing career—no agonizing periods of writer’s block, no reassessments of his work’s moral significance (except for giving up writing romance fiction because it was emotionally phony). In his writing, too, he was fascinated by how things worked. Like a good experimenter, he would pick up an idea, look at it from different angles, and ask “What can be done with this?”—and then, “What would people do with it?” When the ideas were interesting, which they usually were, and the human reactions convincing, Murray Leinster’s stories still are satisfyingly thought-provoking and reliably well-crafted. The writing is never flashy but always solid enough to get the job done. Leinster wrote in many fields. This book contains a 20-page bibliography listing masses of sf but also “Western and Adventure,” “Mystery,” “Romance,” and “Other.” Besides the pulps, Jenkins had work published in such slick magazines as The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers. But he kept producing sf throughout his career because he loved it, because it let him do a thoughtful exploration of ideas.
Take the story “A Logic Named Joe” (1946), included as an appendix in this book. The authors justifiably make much of the story’s predictions about how linked computers (called “logics” here) could speed personal communication, spread information, etc.; yes, it is a strikingly accurate prediction of the Internet. Even more interesting, though, is Leinster’s speculation on what the system could do if it became unfettered and began giving routine users exactly what they offhandedly asked for (such as a request to sober up), then what sharper customers requested (such as how to transmute metals), then how formerly-restrained zealots could get instructions on how to reshape the human race. Suddenly, every dangerous, disastrous human impulse could be satisfied. Even at that point, however, giving up the logics is unthinkable; as a technician tells the narrator, “‘Logics changed civilization. Logics are civilization! If we shut off logics, we go back to a kind of civilization we have forgotten how to run!’” (182; emphasis in original). As the story ends, the narrator knows he has “saved civilization” by locating the one flawed logic at the root of the trouble and hiding it in his basement, but he cannot help thinking how he would use the machine if he could turn it on. Just for a while, of course….
Leinster recognizes how irrational or self-centered humans can be, though he seldom makes that the main emphasis in his stories. Jenkins himself appears to have lived a remarkably tranquil and productive life. This book is not especially probing, speculating mildly that the breakup of Will’s own family when he was a teenager may explain his intense unhappiness when his daughters grew up and were ready to leave home. The girls themselves, however, show no resentment of their clinging father. They describe their growing up in rural Virginia as idyllic, with a dad who was always willing to explain how things worked. Illustrated with family snapshots and documented with quotations from Jenkins’s correspondence, Murray Leinster is a good-natured life-record of a clear-headed man who was interested in the universe’s odd possibilities and willing to share his fascination.
It is unfortunate that Leinster’s fiction is not as well known today as it deserves to be. Curious readers can check out the 1978 del Rey collection The Best of Murray Leinster, edited with a capable introduction by J.J. Pierce. Massive Leinster collections of short and long fiction are available for Kindle on Amazon. It would, though, be nice to have easy access to more of the stories from Argosy:“The Darkness of Fifth Avenue” (1929) and its sequels (“The City of the Blind” , “The Storm That Had to Be Stopped” , and “The Man Who Put Out the Sun” ), for example, are wonderful yarns, leaping breathlessly from one crisis to the next, as solving one threat reveals a larger one, but always confident that problems exist to be solved. This early fiction shows the blend of romanticism and pragmatism that formed the rich compost out of which American sf grew and flowered.
—Joe Sanders, Shadetree Scholar
Lost in Space.
Gary Westfahl. The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. x + 361 pp. $50 pbk.
Both sf and media scholars have benefited much over the years from the work of Gary Westfahl and the publishing strategy of McFarland. Westfahl is a prolific and influential scholar who has authored a number of important historical studies of sf literature, including Cosmic Engineers (1996), the oft-cited The Mechanics of Wonder (1998), and Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction (2007), while McFarland has targeted audiences in areas neglected by university presses, emphasizing sf, film and media, and popular culture, and giving us such useful books as Roy Kinnard’s Science Fiction Serials (1998) and Bill Warren’s encyclopedic Keep Watching the Skies! (1982; rev. 2011). So the appearance of a new McFarland book by the Pilgrim Award winner Westfahl promised much. The intriguingly titled The Spacesuit Film, however, is a volume whose pleasures are qualified by its disappointments. It addresses a great number of films, certainly more than any other recent work on sf cinema, but discussion often devolves into lengthy plot summaries. It provides a scheme for pulling together the many texts under discussion, but its primary divisions into melodramatic, humorous, and horrific “spacesuit films” provide for little insight. It largely ignores other work in genre and film studies, and while drawing into the discussion a number of neglected and seldom-seen foreign films, frames their discussionin a surprisingly condescending tone, as when Westfahl admits that “while there may be additional films from other countries that merit a place in this study, the odds they will contribute anything new to the tradition of spacesuit films seem low indeed” (289). The result is a book that seems a bit lost in the very spaces it sets out to explore.
Westfahl’s thesis is interesting and even ambitious, suggesting that there is an important and unexplored subset of sf cinema (and television, since Westfahl believes a distinction between the media is “increasingly irrelevant” ). This subset seeks to convey “the true nature of space” and understands “the full implications of wearing spacesuits” (4). The notion of the spacesuit as a signature icon for an sf subgenre becomes not only a rationale for those who tend to focus on the “issue of scientific plausibility” in sf (6)—which has itself generated a number of books, such as Sidney Perkowitz’s Hollywood Science (2007)—but also a useful reminder of why many sf films orient their narratives around and develop conflict from the environment itself, since space seems, by nature, an environment invariably hostile to human life. Yet the notion that this emphasis on films in which people wear spacesuits is “breaking significant ground” (8) seems to claim a bit too much, particularly since this book, like much sf scholarship, demonstrates little familiarity with what has been published about sf film or television. It is an issue that equally plagues many of those doing research in sf film and television—who often seem unaware of scholarship on sf literature—but it becomes especially obvious in The Spacesuit Film because the author frequently points to a lack of serious research, while not acknowledging what has been done, even when works cover much the same ground as one of his centerpiece concerns, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Quite simply, there has been a great deal of work done in sf media studies over the last decade, especially by British and Canadian scholars, as sf has become a dominant film and television genre drawing considerable international attention. The bibliography here will thus probably disappoint most readers.
Moreover, that body of recent work—perhaps with the exception of my own—has generally been quite sophisticated, drawing in a wide variety of theories and critical approaches, broadly ranging across issues of gender, class, race, and media, as sf film and television have become key testing grounds for much contemporary theory. Certainly, the work of Steve Neale (Genre and Hollywood, 2000) and Catherine Johnson (Telefantasy, 2005) on generic participation—work that similarly draws together film and television texts while addressing generic and subgeneric relationships—would have added some valuable nuances to The Spacesuit Film’s schematic of horrific, melodramatic, and humorous narratives. Those categories might prove convenient for organizing an undergraduate class on such films, although one would need to caution students against some of the too easy generalizations that result, such as the notion that “melodramatic and humorous spacesuit films encourage people to travel into space because it is comfortingly familiar, whereas horrific spacesuit films urge people to shun space because it is disturbingly unfamiliar” (219). And additional discussion of film techniques and industry standards would be needed to counter some seemingly dismissive comments, such as the assertion that “science fiction filmmakers generally employ special-effects artists solely to craft grotesque alien monsters drawn from ancient human legends and nightmares” (322).
I chalk up such broad generalizations here to the author’s familiarity with so very many films and his desire to reach for ways of drawing them together and giving some framework to his commentary. And that sense of familiarity is one of the book’s main attractions. It does have an almost encyclopedic feel, as Westfahl ranges from an early and little-seen work such as the Danish Himmelskibet (1918; a.k.a. Excelsior, The Heaven Ship, and A Trip to Mars) to the recent Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011). It offers especially vivid descriptions of films from the 1950s and 1960s, if it at times also too readily dismisses many of those well into the 1950s because they “include fistfights, explosions, romances, or rubber-suited aliens, all representing the preferred form of entertainment for audiences at the time (and learned critics today)” (7). One of the book’s better turns is in its treatment of the Apollo moon landing as a media event, as Westfahl approaches its television coverage as a kind of ultimate “spacesuit film.” In fact, in light of Apollo 11’s close proximity to 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as the landing’s own inherent drama, its rapt audience of the period, and its illustration of many of the key activities he associates with the tradition of the spacesuit film (exploring the environment, conducting scientific research, dedicating the activity to a larger human cause), Westfahl suggests that with this coverage, “the tradition of spacesuit films had been taken as far as it could go” (312). This conclusion leads him to skim over post-Apollo 11 cinema, while acknowledging that “I have not watched, or have not recently watched, many of these films, so their use of spacesuits is not always confirmed, and I surely omit some relevant items for other researchers to chronicle” (319). But such omissions might only be expected in a work that tries to tackle as much of sf media history as does this one.
It should be mentioned that Spacesuit Films does include an extensive (but selective) year-by-year filmography for those researchers wishing to take up Westfahl’s invitation. It is also, as is customary for McFarland volumes, fairly well illustrated. And as with the author’s previous work, it is accessible and well-written, at times even eloquent, as when Westfahl argues for the worth of the subgenre he has identified because of the way “it conveys a message that other forms of human narrative never acknowledge: that humanity is capable of becoming something utterly different from what it is now, and the challenging new environment of space will most likely provoke this alteration” (307). That sort of statement may also constitute the real argument of this book and is probably balance enough for the several disappointments I have noted here.
—J.P. Telotte, Georgia Institute of Technology
The Fantastic and Genological Research.
Andrzej Zgorzelski. Born of the Fantastic. Gdańsk, Poland: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Gdańskiego, 2004. 184 pp. 20 PLN pbk.
It is regrettable that Andrzej Zgorzelski’s 2004 study Born of the Fantastic has passed relatively unnoticed among scholars. This book by one of the most distinguished Polish researchers of fantastic literature (his influential essay “Is Science Fiction a Genre of Fantastic Literature?” appeared in SFS 6.3 [Nov. 1979]) is a collection of essays documenting his lifelong fascination with “non-mimetic” fiction. Zgorzelski’s position—sometimes described by his fellow scholars as that of an “essentialist” or “substantialist,” always emphasizing the necessity of a distinction between discussion of a literary text as a work of art (the proper subject of the study of literature) and as a document of cultural relevance (the sphere of cultural studies)—seems rather unfashionable in a world so fascinated with the idea of interdisciplinary research. Yet his theoretical proposals might prove interesting for a surprisingly broad range of researchers, even those unlikely to share some of his assumptions.
Born of the Fantastic collects essays that have been significantly revised and expanded from their original publication, conveniently gathering and summarizing the scholar’s views on such fundamental issues as the constant tension between cultural and artistic mechanisms in non-mimetic literature. The collection is divided into two parts. While the second, “Textual Perspectives,” includes several interesting readings of particular texts (including J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings [1954-55], J.G. Ballard’s “The Illuminated Man” , and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King ), it is probably the first part, “Systemic Horizons,” that most readers will find especially inspiring. Essential for Zgorzelski’s theoretical proposals are the first two essays, “Theoretical Preliminaries: On the Understanding of the Fantastic” and “Fantastic Literature and Genre Systems,” in which he first introduces his concept of the fantastic and then applies it in a delineation of possible generic categories. The whole scheme—due to its scope and structuralist inspirations—is at least comparable to those presented by Tzvetan Todorov (in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre [1970, tr. 1973]) and Eric Rabkin (in The Fantastic in Literature,1976).
Zgorzelski’s “fantastic” is a literary operation marked by a breach in the initially established laws of the given fictional world of a text, which are recognized by the characters themselves. This is reminiscent of both Rabkin’s view—when he writes about the contradiction of the ground rules of the narrative world—and Todorov’s insistence on “hesitation” in the fantastic. However, while Rabkin seems to have abandoned his initial definition in his subsequent comparison of textual and “phenomenal” reality, and Todorov sees the hesitation between natural and supernatural explanations of events as something that must be experienced by both the reader and a character, Zgorzelski’s fantastic is a purely intra-textual phenomenon. Consequently, only characters’ reactions are valid, and any direct comparison between fictional and empirical reality is simply not justifiable in his view of the very nature of literary versus non-literary modes of communication.
At first sight this may seem to be just one more conflicting definition of “the fantastic” in contemporary scholarship. What is, however, remarkable is Zgorzelski’s subsequent application of the concept. First, he argues that, so understood, the fantastic is one of the most crucial elements in the evolution of non-mimetic genres and that on numerous occasions it has proven to be “a factor opposing the petrification of literary patterns” (23). Several interesting examples are provided to demonstrate the historical significance of this literary operation (although the most comprehensive and convincing discussion of the concept has been presented in another major work by Zgorzelski, Fantastyk, Utopia, Science Fiction , reviewed in SFS 8.2 [July 1981]). Second, the discussion of the concept foregrounds Zgorzelski’s most important theoretical proposal regarding the supra-geneological types of fiction: in short, he opposes the traditional division of literature into “realistic” and “non-realistic” fiction, instead proposing six different types defined by certain “presuppositions” based on an “unspoken agreement” between the author and the reader concerning the “style of reading”” (30). While the first of these, “mimetic fiction,” obviously refers to the traditional notion of realistic literature and the last, “meta-conventional” literature, to the large body of works usually denominated by other scholars as “postmodern” or “meta-” fiction, the four remaining categories—“fantastic,” “antimimetic,” “paramimetic,” and “exomimetic”— encompass a vast body of non-mimetic writing usually labeled, broadly, as “fantasy” or “the fantastic” (including horror and science fiction).
Zgorzelski’s complex taxonomy is definitely worth exploring; even if we do not agree with his assumptions, it is hard not to appreciate the coherence of his proposals. It is, for example, especially interesting to compare Zgorzelski’s taxonomy with that of Farah Mendlesohn, presented recently in her Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008). Born of the Fantastic is heartily recommended for all scholars interested in the problems of literary taxonomy and the theory of fantastic literature broadly understood.
—Grzegorz Trźbicki, Jan Kochanowski University