BOOKS IN REVIEW
Neo-Slavery and Science Fiction.
Marlene D. Allen and Seretha D. Williams, eds.. Afterimages of Slavery: Essays on Appearances in Recent American Films, Literature, Television and Other Media. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. v + 236 pp. $40 pbk
One might argue that chattel slavery is an apocalyptic event that created black experience in the new world as a real science fiction. This context is the only one in which I can read the solid Afterimages of Slavery collection as an sf analogue. This specific reading context depends on one’s knowledge of the neo-slave narrative paradigm, whereby contemporary black writers use conventions of the slave narrative to reflect on the legacy of slavery and to revise history, literature, and notions of freedom. In this respect, Marlene D. Allen and Seretha D. Williams gather a group of scholars to consider the persistent residual imagery of slavery in American culture.
Four of the thirteen essays are of particular interest to sf scholars. Nicole Furlonge displays how hearing is a technological mode of knowing the fractured past through “Afro-sonic moments” (56) in chapter four, “‘If I Allow Myself to Listen’: Slavery, Historiography, and Historical Audition in David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident.” In chapter five, “Tricksterism, Masquerades, and the Legacy of the African Diasporic Past in Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber,” Allen convincingly reads Hopkinson’s novel as a science-fictional neo-slave narrative using African-descended trickster symbols and sf motifs (planetary romance and artificial intelligence). Jonathan Gray argues that Kyle Baker’s graphic novel Nat Turner (2006) functions as an alternate history of the slave rebellion at Southampton in chapter eleven, “‘Commence the Great Work’: The Historical Archive and Unspeakable Violence in Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner.” In the last chapter, “The Slavery of the Machine,” Alexis Harley examines Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Alex Proyas’s I, Robot (2004) together with antebellum pro-slavery and anti-slavery documents to form her opinion on the extent of personhood and the nature of human rights.
There are not many weaknesses in this absorbing collection. One glaring fault, however, is that there is no chapter on Octavia E. Butler’s work and how slavery reverberates in the Patternist series(1976-84), the Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-89), and the Parable books (1994-99), not to mention Kindred (1979). Overwhelmingly, the choices made by Allen and Williams are as interesting as they are astute. Furlonge’s daring contribution focuses on aural engagements with literary texts to activate the voice of the past in dealing with slavery and its historical silence. Allen provides an instructive reading of Midnight Robber (2000) as a revision of Afro-Caribbean slave history. Gray illustrates how graphic novels can challenge and disrupt accepted history with the example of Nat Turner’s story being retold. Clearly, the essays in this collection grapple with the afterimages of slavery in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in a meaningful way. This collection is unique in its questioning of American slavery’s narrative and it should interest a vast array of scholars, including sf critics.
—Isiah Lavender, III, University of Central Arkansas
Tante Margaret Just Wants to Have Fun.
In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2011. 272 pp. $24.95 hc.
In Other Worlds collects Margaret Atwood’s miscellaneous writings on sf-related fiction, some short sf vignettes of her own, and a lengthy opening essay that reworks her Ellman Lectures in Modern Literature delivered at Emory University in 2010. Most of the short pieces are reviews and introductions to classic sf texts (Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels [1726-35], Haggard’s She , Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau ,Huxley’s Brave New World , Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four , Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time ) and some contemporary literary slipstream works (Bryher’s Visa for Avalon , Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go ). They appeared in major Anglophone media venues such as the Modern Library, Penguin paperbacks, Slate, BBC, The Guardian, and the New York Review of Books. The earliest date from 2002, the latest from 2011—which is essentially the span between the publications of Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009). It is clear that Oryx and Crake, Atwood’s second foray into sf after The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), was treated by the literary establishment as one of those significant moments when an Olympian writer brings a popular genre out of the slums into the Court of Quality. Oryx and Crake was short-listed for the Booker Prize, and in the decade since its appearance Atwood has been invited by media and academic institutions to be the genre’s spokesperson, its sponsor in polite company.
All in all, it has not been a pretty sight. It is glaringly obvious to anyone in the field that Atwood does not know very much about sf; she has not thought about it very much; and she has not read very much of it. Her writing on sf has been striking in its lack of curiosity, its laziness, and its conventionality. And yet, here it is, the magisterially titled In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. That this childish and banal collection of personal reminiscences and critical platitudes claims to explain a genre that Atwood still disavows (she writes “speculative fiction,” which depicts only “things that could plausibly happen”)—must give one pause. The only writers worth her mention are safe chestnuts (More, Swift, Verne, Wells, Gilman, Bellamy, Huxley, Lewis, Bradbury, Wyndham, Gibson, Sterling, Le Guin), feminist writers of the second wave (Russ, Piercy), and some iffy elders (Haggard, Hudson, Tolkien)—names that the literati consider sf writers only by accident. No Stapledon, no Dick, no Butler, no Delany, no Heinlein, no Clarke, no Tiptree (fer cryin’ out loud!). Of bona fide sf works, she mentions nothing published after 1984.
This alone should raise the suspicion that Atwood does not consider sf to be truly worth her attention. And sure enough, there is not a word about historical changes in the field, technoculture, or sf’s role in modernization. Sf is all about two things for Atwood. The first is the retelling of archaic folktales and myths. Those myths are the primal stories, the really valuable ones, and they fascinate the primal people: the ancients who invented them and children who create fantasy from them. The second is Margaret Atwood. Atwood’s Ellman lectures rely on reminiscences about her own childhood fascination with superhero comic books, gaudy sci-fi outfits, and her own prattling stories about flying bunnies. These provide the basis for connecting comic-book superhero tropes with classical myths: Wonder Woman is updated Diana, super-tools are descendants of fairy- and folktales’ magical devices, the recurrence of superhero doubles is just Jung in action.
The display of pulp Jungianism (and a similarly vulgar gesturing to Northrop Frye, who Atwood claims was her teacher) is the author’s excuse to parade a seemingly inexhaustible store of platitudes that require absolutely no evidence or reflection. X is always the modern answer for Y, where Y is an “eternal urge” for something or other; A is always the modern version of the more original B. “Gene splicing is the modern answer to the eternal urge to make a more perfect model of ourselves” (132); the nanopocalypse is the fresh version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And on and on. Apparently unconscious of the superhero industry or the boom in comics scholarship over the past thirty years, Atwood enlightens us about Superman’s, Batman’s, and Wonder Woman’s classical ancestry.
Atwood knows that she has been invited as a celebrity writer, not as an initiate or scholar of sf culture. We can assume that she knows her audience, readers of middlebrow “quality” writing who are utterly ignorant of sf. They came to hear about Margaret, and she delivers. Her arguments—such as they are—are pretexts for meanderings down memory lane, full of breezy digressions, jokey anecdotes, and superficial opinions told in a singsongy, glib voice, like an old aunt you have to listen to patiently as she ruminates about her happy childhood—which was, you know, so much more interesting than yours. Where she engages in the history of what she calls “modern wonder tales,” it is usually to deliver clichés and received wisdom.
Atwood’s writing about writing about has always been affably vain. In In Other Worlds, however, this reaches new heights. Evidently, science fiction—as a mode and a subject—has allowed her to relax her language and her attention, and to lie back in the hammock of thought. She clearly enjoys that she does not have to pretend to be serious and to work hard. The most troubling aspect of this attitude is that the genre itself becomes linked with her childishness. For Atwood, sf is a simple matter that evokes simplistic, and finally simple-minded, thinking. Atwood does not explain why she moved from dogmatic realism to “speculative fiction” or what challenges artists might encounter in making the move. Reading In Other Worlds, it is hard to dismiss the notion that she has found a way to combine social conscience with a return to narcissistic childhood naïveté—certainly not an advance in intellectual sophistication. The maddening recurrence of coy, qualifying conditionals for her claims—“possibly,” “perhaps,” “may well,” “in part,” “definitely seems,” “a certain,” throughout the book—indicates that Tante Margaret is not at all sure that she knows what she is talking about, but she may put one over on the children.
Not everything in the book is quite so juvenile. A reader who wants to be introduced to sf without pain will find solid information and comfortable theories. Some of the introduction and miscellaneous essays are informative. I use the Penguin edition of The Island of Doctor Moreau largely because of Atwood’s introduction (included here). The essays on Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Bryher’s Visa for Avalon are worth a read. But for folks familiar with sf’s rich philosophical and artistic heritage, In Other Worlds is much like Atwood’s own drawings on the book’s endpapers: cute, silly caricatures appropriate for kids’ pajamas.
—Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., SFS
Theoretically Informed, Richly Detailed, and Wonderfully Manic.
Science Fiction. Routledge Film Guidebook. New York: Routledge, 2012. vi + 239 pp. £16.99 pbk.
Mark Bould’s handy little volume is a lot more than the “film guidebook” it is pitched to be. The book does indeed offer a large amount of information about sf cinema of all sorts. Its scope is amazing, ranging as it does from the beginnings of the genre (Georges Méliès) to the present day, from costly spectacles such as Avatar (2009) to ultra-low-budget knockoffs such as The Wasp Woman (1959), from the high art of 2001 (1968) to the deliberate kitsch of Frankenhooker (1990) and the earnest awfulness of Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), and from English-language movies familiar to British and American fans to the sf cinemas of Russia, Eastern Europe, and East Asia that are far less known in the West. It seems as if Bould has seen every science-fiction film ever made—and also, even more impressively, that he vividly remembers pretty much everything that he has seen.
But for all its awesome erudition, Bould’s book is not anything like an encyclopedia or a list of what is worth seeing. It is neither a bunch of entries in alphabetical order, nor an historical narrative of the genre’s development. There are no rankings of zero to four stars, and no “thumbs up/thumbs down” recommendations or warnings. At one point, Bould argues against the received wisdom that Blade Runner (1982) must necessarily be of higher aesthetic value than the 1980 version of Flash Gordon. But his aim in doing this is not to reorder the sf canon; rather, he seeks to suggest that judgments of artistic “quality” are entirely beside the point. Other things are in fact far more important: the ways in which an sf movie affects its audience cognitively and emotionally, the social and technological conditions from which the movie extrapolates, and the ideological positions that it endorses or subverts. It is on such levels that Bould works through the corpus of science-fiction cinema.
In order to address these concerns, the book is organized conceptually instead of historically. There are three large chapters, each of which focuses on one important feature of science fiction as a genre. The first chapter is about the relation between sf cinema and science. By this latter term, Bould refers not only to actually existing scientific discoveries and doctrines, but also to the ways that science works in the world as a practice and as an institution, and to the ways that it is apprehended by the larger society. This allows Bould to discuss such matters as the fictional value of “bad” or incorrect science, the depiction of science in movies as both a source of supreme truth and as a danger to our very existence, and the persistence of gender inequities in both the practice and the popular representation of science.
The second chapter concerns the spectacular aspects of science-fiction cinema, particularly its use of special effects. This allows Bould to consider such matters as the way that science fiction takes up the legacy of the early “cinema of attractions,” and the ways that science fiction both continues and alters the eighteenth-century tradition of the aesthetics of the sublime. The chapter then fills out its account of sublime special effects—“spectacle” on a massive scale—with a discussion of sf in its grotesque and camp modes. Although traditional aesthetics has usually devalued these modes, Bould shows how their strategies of displacement and estrangement are similar to those enacted by the sublime, and how these three approaches all invoke the same cinematically generated discordances, albeit to vastly different affective ends. The chapter then moves on to consider the role of self-reflexivity in science-fiction cinema: the many ways that sf films call attention to their own apparatuses and means of production, as well as the ways that the real world outside the movie theater is itself permeated by cinematic technologies.
The third chapter of Bould’s book considers the legacy of colonialism and imperialism, and the ways that this legacy is represented and dramatized by sf narratives. The theme of First Contact, or the meeting with alien beings, has been central to sf cinema ever since Méliès. And the depiction of such meetings often works to allegorize the way that the West encountered its Others, the way it both idealized and pathologized the “primitive,” and above all, the way that it dominated and exploited the peoples of other parts of the world. This means that sf films have, on the one hand, offered mystified, mythical justifications for racism, colonialism, and imperialism, and on the other hand have mocked such practices and prejudices, and offered counter-narratives of liberation.
The summary that I have just given of the book’s structure and argument is accurate as far as it goes, but it does not do justice to the sheer scope of Bould’s discussion, nor to the richness of its details. There is something wonderfully manic about how the book works through its argument by virtue of sheer accretion and proliferation. One passage may impress us by the wealth of its examples, spanning countries around the globe and over a century of movie-making. But the very next section may well dazzle the reader with its detailed and intense account of the strange camera angles and editing choices that animate a forgotten or underrated movie such as The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1971) or Paris qui dort (1925). One of the great things about Bould’s analyses of particular films is that he does not separate form from content, or aesthetic devices from themes and meanings, or mode of presentation from narrative. Rather, all of these seem to operate on the same plane, as they contribute in the same way to our cognitive and affective grasp of the films being discussed.
The book is also deeply theoretically informed without ever being heavy-handed about its wealth of models and reference points. Bould begins his account with a friendly critique of Carl Freedman’s insistence (following Darko Suvin) of “cognitive estrangement” as the defining feature of science-fictional works. Bould suggests not that this is wrong, but that it is inadequate to the wide range of cognitive and affective strategies (not to mention cinematic “special effects” per se) of science-fiction cinema. He goes on to employ a wide range of theoretical perspectives—centered on, but not limited to, Marxist and Freudian approaches—that illuminate the complex and often disconcerting features of all sorts of sf movies. None of Bould’s approaches will be surprising to anyone familiar with cultural studies in the Anglo-American academy over the last thirty years or so. But non-specialist readers will appreciate the lucidity and sharpness of Bould’s explications, and even the most jaded theorists (a group in which I include myself) will be impressed by the energy, density, and profusion of his examples and elaborations.
To summarize, Mark Bould’s account of sf cinema is so rich, and so cognitively and affectively estranging, that it approaches the status of a superior sf text in its own right. While obviously a work of criticism need not mimic the condition of that which it examines and to which it refers—and indeed, the attempt to do so is often fraught with peril—I think that in this case Bould has succeeded. Once I started reading, I found the book difficult to put down; and I quickly populated my Netflix queue with many of the films described in its pages that I had not already seen. In what other text can one peruse an account of orgiastic gender-role reversals in British psychedelic fantasies of the 1960s and 1970s, followed in the space of just a few pages by a summary of the alienating, depressing, and sterile “non-spaces” of neoliberal late modernity, as described by the anthropologist Marc Augé? Mark Bould has produced a consummate work of careful and sober scholarship, one that at the same time induces in the reader a condition of dizziness and delirium.
—Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University
Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: The Sub-Genres of Science Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. xiv + 222 pp. $27.95 pbk.
Keith Brooke’s new collection of essays by some of the leading practitioners of their respective sf subgenres offers both fresh insight into and reliable guidance on the state of the art in the field—as well as some muddled contradictions and, it must be said, nothing especially new. Mostly restricting its domain to sf novels and story collections, though foraying into film and television briefly, the collection is brimming with some rough-and-ready, if also at points incoherent, critical sorties aimed at categorizing the common features of twelve major sf subgenres. In his foreword, Michael Swanwick extols hard science fiction “as the living beating heart of our genre” and defines the subgenre by its “acknowledgement of the primacy of the laws of the universe” (vii), yet in his essay on the topic, Gary Gibson seconds Greg Egan’s complaint that “people with no interest in science are very well catered for in science fiction; 99% of sf is written for them” (4). James Patrick Kelly manages to make a plausible case that “cyberpunk” is not a dead movement but a thriving subgenre, despite the fact that the form’s maiden voyage, the foundational anthology Mirrorshades (1986), also acted as a kind of swan song, with editor Bruce Sterling declaring the revolution over before it had really begun. The highly entertaining essay on space opera by Alastair Reynolds—in which he claims that traditional stories played straight and without camp are a “contradiction in terms, like tasteful heavy metal” (23)—is also an authoritative run-down of the subgenre, but wisely refuses to weigh in on how it manages to accommodate works such as Samuel R. Delany’s Nova (1968) and M. John Harrison’s Centauri Device (1975) in a New Wave defined by J.G. Ballard’s influential call for a moratorium on space opera. If a reader already well-versed in these subgenre debates is able to contain these multitudes of conflicting statements without too much psychic strain, the novice may have a more difficult time resolving the seeming contradictions.
The collection also seems to exist in a critical vacuum, as if recourse to academic scholarship was boycotted at the editorial level. This results in unfortunate research gaps in otherwise solidly informed essays. Justina Robson’s personal history of the alien-encounter subgenre, for example, with its sensible breakdown of the subgenre into the tropes of “Hostile Predators,” “Interesting Others,” “Unrecognized Selves,” “Transhuman Others,” and “Real Aliens,” is an engaging read for anyone casually interested in positioning Robson’s work or that of Octavia E. Butler, James Tiptree, Jr., Ursula K. Le Guin, and Elizabeth Moon, among others, alongside their archival bedfellows. Sorely lacking, however, are the sophisticated, extended analyses of the well-worn alien-encounter trope, or its resonance with lived, material history, to be found in the critical work of Gary K. Wolfe, Carl Malmgren, Mark Rose, or Sherryl Vint. Only looking for an efficient way to “share a few [alien-encounter narratives] that have been most memorable to [her]” (32), Robson also overlooks some of the genre’s most interesting examples, such as Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” (1934), Leinster’s “First Contact” (1945), Farmer’s “The Lovers” (1952), or Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutian trilogy (1991-97). In this essay, as in so many others, the laundry-list technique leaves the impatient reader asking what it all means.
Yet despite these oversights, the essays settle on a fairly uncontroversial consolidation of semi-canonized texts for their respective subgenres, as crystallized in annotated lists of recommended reading at the end. The book thus can serve as a good introduction to the myriad sf subgenres, covering a wealth of material this short review has no room to discuss, including Catherine Asaro and Kate Dolan on planetary romance, Kristine Kathyrn Rusch on alternate history, James Lovegrove on apocalyptic fiction, Keith Brooke on utopian and dystopian fiction, Adam Roberts on religion and science fiction, Paul di Filippo on special powers, John Grant on time travel, and Tony Ballantyne on posthuman fiction. In an era when reading tastes have become diverse and eclectic, not to say schizoid, an anatomy of genre distinctions may seem a mere marketing convenience, yet this modest collection does provide a useful readerly map to the growing body of literature comprising the sf megatext.
—Jerome Winter, University of California, Riverside
One Giant Leap for PKD Studies.
The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. Ed. Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. xxv + 944 pp. $40 hc.
A specter has been haunting sf studies—not the specter of communism (which seems to be haunting more solid worlds than those conjured up by sf writers and critics), but the embarrassing presence of the Exegesis, Philip K. Dick’s sprawling notebook-fleuve which looms large on the scene of academic research on the genre. The Exegesis has been a sort of urban literary legend for a long time. This pile of typescripts, found in Dick’s Orange County apartment when he died in 1982 and saved by the then executor of Dick’s literary estate, Paul Williams, remained unpublished until 1991, when a very small selection of its heterogeneous materials was edited by Lawrence Sutin and printed under the title In Pursuit of Valis by Underwood-Miller, the same San Francisco-based small press that gave us six volumes of Dick’s letters and five volumes of his collected stories. In his introduction, Sutin said that “The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick has too long remained a terra incognita” (vii); he also added that “the selections included in this volume will establish that the Exegesis deserves recognition as a major work in the Dick canon,” even while simultaneously acknowledging that it was “a sprawling, disconnected journal—part philosophical analysis, part personal diary, part work-in-progress notebook for the final novels” (xi).
Sutin’s prophecy was not fulfilled. The Exegesis has not became a major work in Dick’s canon; moreover, the small size of the selections published in 1991 left most of the 8000-page manuscript in the darkness—indeed, terra incognita that most scholars who worked on Dick were not at all eager to explore, map, and reclaim. In their Introduction to the new edition of the Exegesis, Jackson and Lethem correctly explain this lack of interest: the huge and chaotic manuscript “attracted unwelcome attention and threatened to undermine [Dick’s] growing academic and literary reputation with its disreputable aura of high weirdness” (xvi). Most of the Exegesis is a ceaseless, almost obsessive attempt by Dick to explain his notorious 2-3-74 experience—the series of strange facts and weird visions the writer had in February and March of 1974, which have been told in alternative versions in Dick’s novels Radio Free Albemuth (1985) and VALIS (1981), not to mention Sutin’s biography Divine Invasions (1989). If Dick’s later works created remarkable critical embarrassment, what about the text that proved that VALIS, pink beams, plasmates, fish signs, the eternal Roman Empire hidden behind the ordinary reality of Southern California, Thomas aka Firebrand, Ikhnaton, psychedelic displays of abstract paintings, and split brain/personality were not just wild creations of Dick’s unbridled imagination, but “real” life experiences that had unsettled the writer’s perception of the world?
Critics might accept the idea that a postmodernist character such as Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim had come unstuck in time, but it was much more difficult to accept Dick’s claim that he had come unstuck in time and seen God on top of it. No wonder then that the Exegesis remained for a long time a sort of white whale of PKD studies, yet without an Ahab who dared brave it. Let us also remember that—unlike Dick’s unpublished sf and non-sf novels—the commercial appeal of this whale of a manuscript was rather low, and remained so even in those years from 1982 to 2005 in which every bit of Dick’s fiction was reprinted.
Enter Fredric Jameson and Jonathan Lethem. There is no doubt that the ongoing canonization of Dick owes a lot to Jameson, whose contributions go back to his influential essay on Dr Bloodmoney published in SFS in 1975. The republication of all his writings on Dick in his 2005 monograph-cum-collection Archaeologies of the Future further boosted the reputation of a writer whose status had been constantly rising since his death. This in turn must have helped Lethem to mastermind the publication of the first volume of Dick’s novels in the Library of America in 2007, which was so successful that two more volumes followed in 2008 and 2009. The crackpot writer who (according to Dick himself) took drugs and saw God had been transmuted into a (post)modern classic. The times were ripe, then, to tackle the Exegesis, and this was Lethem’s next move.
So we are presented with a much larger selection of the giant manuscript. According to Lethem and Jackson, what you can read in this volume is still less than a half of the whole monster, but it is much more than what was included in Sutin’s slim chrestomathy. Moreover—and this is a much more important difference—Jackson and Lethem were helped by a team of editors and annotators coming from different fields, and this is absolutely unavoidable when dealing with a text that overflows any disciplinary boundary.
Dick was an amateur thinker. Sometimes his remarks in the Exegesis sound almost depressingly naïve; but the next sentence may make you think twice. His naïveté was such, however, that he nonchalantly crossed any given disciplinary boundary (given for us, maybe, but not for him), and it is the unexpectedness and sometimes the sheer absurdity of these crossings, these intellectual short circuits that is often (though not always, I admit) enthralling. So the team of annotators had to be perforce multidisciplinary: it includes Simon Critchley (philosopher), Steve Erickson (film critic, writer), Erik Davis (comparative religion historian and pop-culture scholar), Richard Doyle (Information Science and Technology scholar), David Gill (PKD buff extraordinaire and organizer of the 2012 PKD Festival), N. Katherine Hayles (literary critic and theorist of posthumanism), Gabriel McKee (theologian and PKD scholar), and Jeffrey J. Kripal (historian of religion and interpreter of mystical literature). Their notes provide much of the added value in the volume, and are often enlightening, even though not everything they have contributed to the critical apparatus may appeal to the curiosity of a rather traditional and conventional literary critic such as myself. But I am perfectly aware that Dick’s oeuvre is a multidimensional artifact that draws the attention of media scholars, philosophers, architects, theologians, etc.
Yet there is much also for the most conventional literary critic in these pages. And these heterogeneous materials make me think of another highly unconventional writer: William Blake, now a canonized classic, but once a sort of literary freak. Did not William Wordsworth say of him, “There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott”? Blake too elaborated a strange, we might say today mutant theology, a very personal pantheon of weird godheads, Urizen, Urthona, Luvah, Tharmas (plus others who were nonchalantly requisitioned by Philip José Farmer); Blake too was a sort of cultural bricoleur who ransacked the Bible, Milton, and Swedenborg; another amateur thinker and theologian who saw angels and demons instead of pink beams and “two rings, a bright one of light (Yang) and a darker one of Yin” (894), as Dick wrote in the last weeks of his life. Yet we have managed to metabolize Blake’s unorthodox, heretic, deviant theology; and we are learning to cope with Dick’s own strange mystical-psychotic system.
In other words, if we want to fully understand Dick’s fiction, especially the novels he wrote and published after 1970 (among which are some of his most relevant works, such as A Scanner Darkly  and the whole Valis Trilogy [1981-82]), we need to place his recurring images, symbols, superhuman entities, and arcane places (e.g., the Palm Garden in The Divine Invasion ) in the background of that hectic and unstoppable discourse he spun in his Exegesis. I do not think—let it be clear—that the often hastily written notes in this volume explain this or that passage in Valis or The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), but I do believe that even the most uncanny moments in those novels resonate with such notes as this: “All of it—2-74—2-75—and what the AI voice has said, and all the revelations and visions—it’s all indubitably this: soteriology. That is clear” (888). Gabriel McKee appropriately comments: “Whatever the reigning theory of the moment, Dick is always concerned with deliverance, liberation, rescue. Whatever bonds might restrict the individual being—karma, astral determinism, sin, demiurgic imprisonment—Dick wants to see them broken and the being released into an absolute, ontological freedom” (888). This is not far from one of the four coordinates of Dick’s oeuvre according to Jameson, that of repair-collectivity (to which the fundamental category of healing should be added), and an interpretive lodestar that may still yield so much for future PKD critics.
Dick’s fiction and life are here terribly entangled, but this is not something that asks for some sort of obsolete nineteenth-century biographical criticism: these are traces of that complex—and painful—process of integration (what Jonathan Lethem called “the Orange County integration”) that turned Philip Kindred Dick (and his friends and relatives) into characters in his fiction. Partial as it is, this new edition of the Exegesis, partial as it is, is a very welcome contribution to PKD studies, and it should become necessary reading (not linear, of course!) for all those who want to tackle Dick’s post-1970 literary output. Lethem and Jackson’s plans to put the rest of the Exegesis online (announced in the Introduction) may lead to another major step forward in the knowledge and understanding of Dick and his worlds.
—Umberto Rossi, Rome
Humanism on Gallifrey.
The Humanism of Dr. Who: A Critical Study in Science Fiction and Philosophy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. vii + 355 pp. $40 pbk.
David Layton’s The Humanism of Doctor Who is a book-length monograph that considers both the classic and the revived series (1963-89, 2005- ) through the lens of secular humanism. Two opening chapters answer the questions “Why Doctor Who?” and “What is Humanism?” and nine more chapters apply nine broad philosophical concepts (existence, science, ethics, etc.) to an analysis of the program. In each chapter following the first two, Layton lays out the history and philosophical debates within each sub-topic and demonstrates how various aspects of Doctor Who advance a secular-humanist viewpoint.
Layton thoroughly proves his central thesis that “though the term ‘secular humanism’ never appears in Doctor Who, the show provides multiple case studies for defining, revealing, and testing secular humanist ideas” (43). Through his mostly cogent readings of individual episodes, he convincingly demonstrates that the Doctor Who universe is a materialist one, that the Doctor and the show value reason and critical thinking, and that the ethics of Doctor Who prioritize maximizing human freedom and happiness. He examines the “Voyage of the Damned” Christmas special (2007), for example, to consider the question of whether or not the universe is just, presenting the unfairness of certain characters’ deaths and others’ survival and reaching the conclusion that “the program opts for the small scale justice, at the level of people’s doing what they can to make each others’ lives better in a universe overwhelmingly indifferent to their fate” (305). In another of his most compelling analyses, Layton pairs the ethical dilemmas posed in “The Fires of Pompeii” (2008) and “The Waters of Mars” (2009), arguing that the Doctor’s decision to interfere with a fixed point in history by saving a seemingly inconsequential family in the former episode sets up his even larger intervention, an “ethical failure in judgment,” in the latter (243-46). These episode readings and many others mesh smoothly with the understanding of humanism Layton presents, and the organization of each chapter deftly weaves together theory and application.
My criticism of this study is not that it fails to prove its central point; it is that the project itself is rather tame. This study is a workmanlike application of theory to text that never moves beyond the argument that Doctor Who presents a humanist world-view to examine how the show speaks back to or challenges key tenets of humanism. The end of each chapter feels like a missed opportunity to say not only that Doctor Who’s view of politics or religion or mythology is a humanist one, but to say why that label matters to the show or to humanism.
Furthermore, Layton’s readings, if more fully considered, could have advanced his project in the direction of a more complex dialogue between theory and text. He contends, for example, that “Within the fictional universe of the series [the Doctor] is not ‘human,’ yet it is clear that he is a human character” and that the aliens on Doctor Who “are merely typified human configurations” (61). While it may be true that the Doctor is a remarkably humanoid alien, he is an alien. Instead of dismissing his outsider status and reading his perspective as a version of cultural relativism, what would it mean for the show’s humanism to pay close attention to the Doctor’s alienness? Some common critiques of Enlightenment thinking may even be present in Doctor Who in those very moments where the show seems least to fit Layton’s schema. Remembering that the Doctor is not an abstracted, perfected human but instead a member of a different species could open up space for a critical consideration of humanism’s anthropocentrism. A more nuanced engagement with the difficulties the series presents could not only make for a more significant study of Doctor Who but for a more comprehensive treatment of humanism as well.
Finally, the intended audience of this study is somewhat unclear. The diction and orientation of the argument suggest an academic audience, but not one with a strong background in philosophy or sf: every philosophical concept, including “philosophy” itself, is explained, sometimes at an elementary level, and Layton defines science fiction fairly simply as the unification of “those two apparently contending worldviews that dominate modern intellectual life, Enlightenment and Romanticism,” without even gesturing toward the perpetual debates within sf criticism surrounding how to define science fiction (14). Layton goes on to discuss humanism and science fiction as combinations of Enlightenment and Romantic values (24, 32), yet he also explains that he will limit his argument to the intellectual, Enlightenment aspect, or what he calls their “philosophy” (32). This does not invalidate Layton’s claim that Doctor Who is a humanist series, but it does make me ask what audience would both require these terms to be so narrowly defined and accept Layton’s definitions.
I would not recommend this book primarily to those looking for a critical study of Doctor Who, therefore, although such audiences might appreciate Layton’s analyses of individual episodes. I would instead recommend it to readers looking to learn more about humanism through the vehicle of Doctor Who—all in all, this book feels like a crash course in humanism that uses a familiar sf text to explain its key concepts.
—Elizabeth Lundberg, University of Iowa
Insightful and Engaging.
Dancing the Tao: Le Guin and Moral Development. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2012. x + 281 pp. $59.99 hc.
Sandra J. Lindow’s book consolidates several of her previously published articles on Ursula K. Le Guin along with five new chapters into a comprehensive and detailed overview of Le Guin’s engagement with morality and ethics. Defending Le Guin against the criticism that her fiction tends to be didactic and repetitive, Lindow argues that Le Guin’s “self-derivative metacognitive back stitching” (257) is actually one of the greatest strengths of her writing as it allows her to continually return to and expand upon moral issues in her work. In keeping with her argument that Le Guin’s treatment of ethics and moral development is best understood by looking at her work as a whole, Lindow tackles an impressive range of texts, analyzing Le Guin’s picture books and poetry alongside her better-known adult novels and tracing Le Guin’s development of a Taoist-influenced feminist moral philosophy from her earliest stories to her most recent novels Lavinia (2008) and the Annals of the Western Shore trilogy (2004-2007). This breadth of material greatly contributes to scholarship on Le Guin by placing some of her more obscure and more formally playful texts into conversation with some of her more frequently discussed sf and fantasy novels.
Dancing the Tao is organized roughly chronologically, starting with the initial three Earthsea books (1968-72) and The Dispossessed (1974) and ending with Lavinia. But Lindow’s interest in reading themes of moral development across a number of interconnected texts allows her to draw on previously discussed works in her analysis of later texts. As is evident from her title, Lindow is interested in tracing out the influence of Taoist philosophy on Le Guin’s writing, but Taoism is far from the only system of morality that Lindow addresses. Taking Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” (1986) as a model for the ways that Le Guin incorporates different belief systems and philosophies within her works, Lindow elucidates how Le Guin’s works join the Taoist idea of non-action to the work of feminist moral theorists such as Carol Gilligan, and to both Western and non-Western mythologies, to create a complex and subversive picture of what it means to be a moral subject. While I feel that Lindow’s analysis largely overlooks the way Le Guin’s enthusiasm for different mythologies may skirt the line of cultural appropriation, I found her overall reading of Le Guin’s incorporative moral philosophy compelling.
The chapters analyzing Le Guin’s depiction of childhood trauma are among Lindow’s strongest, especially her reading in Chapters 6 and 7 of Le Guin’s developing notion of trauma recovery in the later Earthsea books (1990-2001) and in the final two Catwings chapbooks (1994-99). Lindow makes good use of her background working with emotionally disturbed children and teenagers in these sections, pointing out similarities between Le Guin’s traumatized characters and the experiences of real children and, in her discussion of trauma and recovery in Catwings, looking at the potential beneficial impact of these books on a traumatized child reader. These chapters make the book especially relevant from the perspective of children’s literature studies. But Lindow covers a range of other topics throughout the book, giving similarly cogent readings of the moral implications of artistic expression, sexuality and family, and abuses of power in Le Guin’s work. Overall, Lindow’s writing is insightful and engaging and I enjoyed the attention she paid to some of Le Guin’s lesser-known works. Her analysis sparked new connections among texts that I had not previously thought of as interrelated, tracing out a literary lineage that aptly demonstrates Le Guin’s continued development as an ethically engaged writer.
—Stina Attebery, University of California, Riverside
1950s “Rocketman” TV Series and Their Fans: Cadets, Rangers, and Junior Space Men. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. xxiv + 270 pp. $90 hc.
Miller and Van Riper’s new collection of essaysis a mammoth volume dedicated to an analysis of the “Rocketman” TV series popular during the Cold War. As inspiration for America’s eventual domination of space and the space race, series such as Captain Video and his Video Rangers (1949-55), Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (1954), Space Patrol (1950-55), Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (1950-55), and Captain Z-Ro (1954-60) all contributed to the nation’s hopes for space travel. Not only did these series forge the way for science fiction on television in the 1950s, but they also acted a catalysts for further genre programming in the 1960s and 1970s—even as blueprints for the space opera franchises Star Trek and Star Wars well into the twenty-first century.As the editors point out in their introduction, 1950s sf television, though still in its infancy, foreshadowed some of the most memorable moments of space exploration history. “Rocketman” series preempted what was to come, what America was yet to do: “This volume takes readers back to that moment—to the days before astronauts like John Glenn, Alan Shepard, and Neil Armstrong were household names; before the ‘one small step’ that left America’s national footprint on the Moon; and before the wonders of science fiction became the wonders of science fact—to the heyday of the televised rocketman” (4; emphasis in original).
As well as providing an analysis of the series, the essays in this collection offer an appreciation of the long-lasting cultural impact they had on their childhood audiences and the extent to which those children have grown up with fond memories of being “cadets, rangers, and junior spacemen” (6). What strikes me as original and insightful is that the authors have attempted to understand television’s relationship with its audiences—that science fiction was not just confined to the comics, pulps, and books of adulthood but was also an important part of children’s viewing experience and leisure habits at home and among their friends: “Allegiance to a favorite space hero was often formalized in official or unofficial fan clubs that served as an extended ‘crew’ of the members’ favorite rocketman: earthbound members of the Solar Guard, Video Rangers, or Space Rangers” (6). Not only were American children inspired to write letters to their favorite heroes and join fan clubs that would invest them into their chosen space fleet, but the culture of “Rocketman” series also stayed with fans to the present day: conventions, nostalgia clubs, and other social gatherings allow older fans to reminisce and share stories about the shows, the 1950s, and what it was like to grow up in the most exciting and
The book is split into four main sections, each containing three chapters. Section one considers the inspirational aspects of rocket series, how children were driven to dream when watching their favorite heroes on television; the second section deals more specifically with how space series depicted the future and served as forerunners to the American space program. Section three unpacks the importance of the audience in the popularity of the 1950s “Rocketman” series, with interesting chapters on paratextual elements such as the fan clubs, merchandising, and marketing. The last section contains more traditional chapters on the social and political contexts of the series, inevitably tied to the Cold War and America’s ideological struggle to achieve dominance over the USSR in the space race and pursuit of nuclear supremacy. Henry Jenkins provides an insightful Foreword—entitled “To Infinity and Beyond!”—where he discusses the importance of the “Rocketman” series in contemporary popular culture. Standing as inspiration for myriad comic-book superheroes (e.g., Green Lantern), films (e.g., Toy Story )and television shows (e.g., The Twilight Zone [1959-64]),these series, Jenkins asserts, “whether you know it or not, still shape the popular culture we consume today—even if, in an era of digital effects, we can now create far more convincing representations of these fantastical worlds than could be conveyed by sparklers attached to the backside of toy rocket ships” (xxi).
Where Jenkins is right in asserting the continued influence of 1950s television on popular culture, I would contest that digital effects technology is necessarily superior to older techniques in representing the future. While science fiction is often considered a visual genre, the power it has to make us dream of a brighter future lies in the ideas, not the images—the fact that these space rangers and explorers were out there among the stars was the powerful catalyst for childhood aspirations, not the sparkling toy rockets. An Epilogue, “Confessions of a Commando Cody Addict (or, How the Flying Suit Changed My Life)” by Gary Hughes, offers a fan perspective on why Radar Men from the Moon (1952) attracted him as a child and still holds him in thrall as an adult. Making videos that honor his childhood hero, Commando Cody, and favorite sf series, is a typical fan practice and offers a modern take on how these series still motivate audiences to explore their own creativity and express their passion for television.
From nostalgic views of space adventure to the cultural importance of 1950s sf TV series, Miller and Van Riper’s anthologyis an informative read and a much-needed work on an often-overlooked period in television history. Understanding the cultural impact of these series—and the symbols of heroism and Americana contained within them—is an important step in learning why we care at all about sf media and the affective relationship we share with the genre. Yet such a wide-ranging examination of the subject (14 chapters) often concentrates too much on the general and not enough on the particular. While the volume suggests that fans are central to its overall thesis, examples of fan practices and productivity rarely appear. This collection talks about audiences and the consumption of “Rocketman” TV series but lacks an appreciation of fandom and the fan culture surrounding these kinds of television texts. I agree with Jenkins’s closing remark in his Foreword, “We still have much to learn from the era of the Rocketman” (xxii), and this collection provides the reader with a wonderful education. With a little more work, however, on the contemporary fan and how “Rocketman” TV series inform sf fandom and fan culture today (in the vein of Hughes’s Epilogue), it could have taught us so much more.
—Lincoln Geraghty, University of Portsmouth
Keen, Sober, and Smart.
Green Speculations: Science Fiction and Transformative Environmentalism. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2012. x + 152 pp. $44.95 hc.
“If you go home, turn on the laptop, the TV,” Kim Stanley Robinson told the Guardian in 2009, “almost anything could be reported. The world has become a science fiction novel, everything’s changing so quickly. Science fiction turns out to be the realism of our time, which is very satisfying.” For many people I suspect that satisfying registers a very specific brand of satisfaction, something like the sense of “interesting” in that famous Chinese curse—or the bitter joy Cassandra takes, perhaps, in having at least been right about everything all along. From catastrophic oil spills to flooded cities to apocalyptic winter superstorms, the world seems every day to become more and more like some dire sf film of the 1960s or 1970s, a cautionary tale about all the horrible things that will happen to us if we fail to change our ways in time.
In his book Green Speculations: Science Fiction and Transformative Environmentalism, Eric C. Otto taps into this sense that the immediacy and strangeness of real-life environmental crisis lends new urgency to the writing and study of environmental sf. Despite a still-lingering reputation for unseriouness, Otto argues, sf can successfully intervene in wider discourses around the environment because it not only “reflects” and “sometimes prefigures” our new reality of planetary ecological threat, but “in its finest moments theorizes transformative environmentalism and its assorted targets of criticism” (4-5). Otto further argues that the cognitive work required to read and write sf—estrangement, extrapolation, and world-building—mirrors the mental labor necessary for both documentary environmental writing and ecologically infused cultural critique. Via Patrick Murphy’s claim that “extrapolation emphasizes that the present and the future are interconnected,” (qtd. 11), Otto’s book shows how, in an age of ecological crisis, the border separating “realist” environmental writing from sf becomes ever more porous.
The “transformative environmentalism” of Otto’s title refers to that subgenre of radical, subversive, politically leftist ecological writing that is not content to leave science in the laboratory but seeks actively to alter the social conditions of the material world and our ingrained mental habits. The patron saint of transformative environmentalism is Rachel Carson, whose work metonymically stands in on page one of Green Speculations for the entire canon—and who, famously, began her own classic work, Silent Spring (1962), not with facts or figures but with a science-fictional “Fable for Tomorrow.” The writers Otto takes up in Green Speculations typically exhibit a similar desire to transform the conditions of the world through the interplay of fact and fancy, choosing a generally fictional register for their work instead of Carson’s generally nonfictional one. Accordingly, Green Speculations spends quite a bit of time investigating the familiar ground of utopia and dystopia that has been so constitutive of sf studies since the 1970s. Among Otto’s many keen observations here is his recognition of the disturbing character of so much ecotopian fantasy: its willingness to take up right-wing framings of overpopulation, excess, waste, and austerity in the name of environmental rationality and desperate bids to save the future. In environmental discourse, he suggests, dystopia turns out to be the far richer and far more trustworthy category of the imagination, as dystopia (as exemplified by the ecological disaster novels of John Brunner) can articulate boththe coming apocalyptic disasters we are bringing down upon our heads andthe traumatized, anti-utopian potential for “misanthropic aggression” of so much ecological activism. Dystopia, not utopia, may plot the safer course between Scylla and Charybdis.
A similarly dialectical inversion takes place around the sense of deep ecology and embeddedness-in-the-world that characterizes so much environmental sf. Embeddedness, Otto argues, is in many ways the crucial antidote to capitalism’s refusal to acknowledge the ultimate necessity of nature—and yet excess fidelity to embeddedness risks generating more dystopian misanthropy, the suspicion that the world might just be better off without us altogether. Reading this theoretical conundrum through the Fremen of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), Otto finds that the both/andof Arrakis offers a correction to deep ecology that allows it to break free of this paralyzing internal contradiction. “Perhaps to acknowledge and live today our ecological embeddedness is to acknowledge and live Dune’s implicit, more sobering lesson: we are a part of the bee and the GMO crop, the water cycle and the faucet, the forest and the lumber, the ocean and the oil” (43). Human beings exist precariously between radically nonhuman nature and radically unnatural technological artifice—and perhaps better than any other literary genre, sf has at hand the terms and tools necessary for thinking about how to live in this strange gap.
Chapter four, on ecosocialism, takes up most directly the political commitment to anticapitalism that the earlier discussions in the book had generally assumed implicitly, with savvy readings of Fredrick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953), Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest (1972), and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1993-96). Here Green Speculations is at its most radical—and indeed at its most transformative—seeking to find in science fiction some strategy for ending capitalism and thereby saving the world (a tall order!). And here the dialectical inversion of the priority of utopia and dystopia discussed above inverts a second time; Otto desires in the end some positive model for what ecotopia might look like after all. He finds it in Robinson’s Mars trilogy, particularly in the books’ articulation of an alternative, ecologically rational economics and its celebration of rational, democratic deliberation as a workable means to get there. In this regard Green Speculations frames its final intervention in “transformative ecology” in humanistic terms that turn out, unexpectedly, to be quite traditionally liberal. The fantastic speculations and rigorous scientific extrapolations of sf, the book ultimately argues, can heighten our appreciation of environmental crisis in order to motivate rational action in the present on behalf of the future; in essence, sf can make us better people, better citizens.
Of course, we should not go too far overboard with this: “I do not suppose,” Otto concedes, “that the subgenre itself will save the world.” Not in itself. But what environmental sf can do, Green Speculations insists, is to contribute to the growing canon of fictional and nonfictional environmental writing that is already generating “tools for thinking and building a new way forward,” and to help mobilize a collective desire for needed change in the face of neoliberal capitalism’s violent instinct for self-preservation at any cost (126). Sober and smart, Green Speculations nonetheless sounds an alarm. In a world looking more and more like some dark, depressing science fiction, and in a public sphere casting about for ways to somehow process this terrifying new reality, our expertise as critics is required.
—Gerry Canavan, Marquette University
Whimsical Avant-Garde Oddball.
Lesabéndio. Trans. Christina Svendsen. Cambridge, MA: Wakefield, 2012. xv +257 pp. $15.95 pbk.
German sf is strange: it sports that name but has never really hung together as a genre. It includes (or is made to include) works by highbrows and hacks, and it ranges from fantasy to “hard” science fiction—like other sf, yes, but even more so. But beyond that, as I have argued in my 1984 book The Empire Strikes Out: Kurd Lasswitz, Hans Dominik, and the Development of German Science Fiction, it is relatively lacking in what is such a distinctive feature of English-language sf: the close combination, in single works, of prominently featured science with an intricately depicted imaginary world—the “other place,” in one meaning of “utopia.”
Lesabéndio (1913), by Paul Scheerbart (1863-1915), belongs to the fantasy subgenre of sf. It is a cute but not shallow story of the semi-humanoid, almost Dr. Seuss-like beings who inhabit Pallas. Lesabéndio, the title figure, leads the Pallasians in building a great tower; there is much traveling around their planet and other such worlds; and Scheerbart describes his imaginary worlds and beings in considerable detail. De gustibus.
Svendsen’s translation is accurate without being slavishly unnatural. She handles well, for example, the innovative adjectives of sf, such as Lesabéndio’s “body, which consisted of nothing but a rubbery tube-leg [gummiartigen Röhrenbein] with a suction-cup foot [Saugfuß] at one end” (7). One might quibble at an occasional adjectival flavoring or even some brief clarifications that go beyond the German text. Thus chapter 4, like the other chapters, starts with a separate summary paragraph, in the style of some novels of earlier centuries. Svendsen’s additions to this paragraph are “In this chapter” and the expansion of Scheerbart’s “first” into “first thing in the morning” (33). This, I think, is license, not licentiousness, in translating.
Worth more discussion is how Svendsen handles verb tenses. This is usually a mundane matter of recognizing differences in aspect (avoiding Germanicisms like “She gets married soon”) and discrepancies in tenses (“I meet you this evening”). But in sf, the narrator’s relation to the imaginary world is not like that of the narrator of ordinary fiction to the real world of the past. Of course, the narrator recounts the events of the plot in the past tense—well, not quite “of course,” since at least one German sf novel, SYN-CODE-7 (1982) by Michael Weisser, recounts those events in the present tense. Often, though, the narrator will also provide background information about the imaginary world, thus adding veracity to the description of what is, after all, not true. Here Scheerbart uses the past tense, but Svendsen renders such passages in the present tense, as toward the end of Chapter 3, where German past-tense verb forms like schliefen and wuchsen are translated as present-tense English “sleep” and “sprout” (30-31). In effect, she transforms the narrator from a post-hoc observer to a voice within the time and place of what is narrated. I am pretty sure that Svendsen’s practice here is deliberate; she does have a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard. But while a Germanist discussing Lesabéndio would use the original text, of course, and thus avoid the distortion, a scholar of sf who might be examining Lesabéndio along with other texts, and in translation, might be misled. Fair warning, but for the ordinary reader: no foul.
Scheerbart was whimsical but also intense, a folksy but also avant-garde, multitalented, multi-genred oddball who … but read the Wikipedia bio or, better, Svendsen’s introduction to her translation. When I first worked with Lesabéndio, German literary scholarship (not just American but even—or especially. —German) had paid little attention to the works and authors outside the orthodox high-brow canon. Several decades later, the highbrow but previously non-canonical art of Scheerbart’s Berlin (and other centers of artistic heterodoxy) is much more familiar, and not only to Germanists. But Scheerbart is still not a name that trips readily off the lips of today’s scholars, whether of “normal” literature or of sf. Svendsen’s introduction briefly but sufficiently puts him and his novel into the larger cultural context. She also notes how “Scheerbart’s novel was ecological before ecology became a discipline” (x).
Another virtue of Svendsen’s book is that it reproduces the drawings that Alfred Kubin—much more famous than Scheerbart, then and now—contributed to the first edition of Lesabéndio. I am perplexed, however, that Svendsen’s introduction to the collection, though it is quite informative, is plagued by infelicities of English style, almost as though it had been translated, and not too skillfully, from German: “still already always” (223) and “came into disaccord with one another” (224). But no matter. Reviewers are also obligated to point out typos, especially where they find little else to critique. So I am happy to report an egregious typo—not in the book, but rather on the publisher’s website. Surely Wakefield Press did not mean to offer us this attractively produced book, and those illustrations, for a paltry $15.95!
Christina Svendsen deserves our thanks for her able translation of an undeservedly overlooked classic of … well, what shall we call it? Sf or just imaginative literature? Early twentieth-century German literature? And Wakefield Press deserves our gratitude (and patronage) for producing this attractive book with its bonus of illustrations. So buy two: one for yourself, one for some other impoverished fan of sf or student of German avant-garde literature. Or two for yourself: one for your library, and one so you can cut out and frame some of those Kubin drawings.
—William B. Fischer, Portland State University
Shanghai Jim Spills the Beans.
Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard, 1967-2008. London: Fourth Estate, 2012. 503 pp. £25 hc.
In his foreword to this sizeable selection of Ballard’s interviews, Simon Sellars presents us with figures that are rather startling: “Ballard published approximately 1,100,000 words in novels, 500,000 in short stories and at least 300,000 in non-fiction. The combined count of all the interviews he gave is around 650,000. In the Ballardian galaxy that’s a second sun” (xiii-iv). How can one disagree? Ballard seems to be Thomas Pynchon’s antithesis: while the taciturn author of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Against the Day (2006) seems to be totally interviewer-proof, just about anybody could ask the author of Crash (1973) and The Kindness of Women (1991) questions that he would answer with relish.
Ballard was a lover and connoisseur of the visual arts, including cinema, and he was always ready to talk about Ernst, Dalí, and De Chirico (not “Chirico” as Ballard too often called the Greek-born Italian surrealist; the editors should have corrected this typo in their well-made index). As for fiction, these interviews repeatedly present readers with Ballard’s favorite defensive trope—that he was not interested in literature, that psychiatry and anatomy had taught him more than Shakespeare and Milton, that he did not read much fiction at all, etc. One might then wonder why writers are so often quoted, especially in Ballard’s earliest work, and why he went so far as to rewrite Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a dazzling sf novelette, “The Ultimate City” (1976)—but we know that some writers are ill at ease when asked to talk about other writers. One has a feeling, reading these interviews, that Ballard would never have subscribed to Harold Bloom’s concept of “anxiety of influence” even though his methodical denial of literary precursors may bespeak an intense form of that affliction.
This volume is absolutely vital for sf critics, fans, and readers, as well as anyone who appreciates a bright mind in action. Critics who want to discuss Ballard’s literary achievements will have to browse this volume because (a) it is full of interesting information about his novels and short stories and (b) it is a literary achievement in itself. In fact, one has to admire the verbal texture of such passages as this, from a 1994 interview where Ballard comments on the TV coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, endowed as it is with that peculiar, unmistakable Ballardian tone:
It’s very difficult for an outsider to judge because looking at it, just glancing in on the thing as it were, you get the impression that these aren’t real lawyers. These are the inmates of some institution who are taking part in some sort of remedial psychodrama, where a tragically brain-damaged woman is being given a script and told to behave like a public prosecutor. The judge, it’s hard to believe this man is qualified, he seems so totally incompetent. You know he could be … it’s something like that play Marat/Sade—one of those plays that Sade put on in his lunatic asylum using the patients. (290)
One must also quote an example of the many moments in these interviews when Ballard comments on his own fiction as it seems to come true, as when the death of Diana Spencer abruptly materialized a psychical scene out of Crash:
a lot of people were ringing me up after Di’s death, more or less accusing me of stage-managing the whole thing. I didn’t say anything at the time, because I think there’s no doubting the fact that she died in a crashed car, pursued by the furies—like Orestes. A classical death, if there is one. The fact that she died in a car crash probably is a validating—in imaginative terms—signature. To die in a car crash is a unique twentieth-century finale. (373; emphasis in original)
All in all, I agree with coeditor Simon Sellars (who has for several years managed The Ballardian, more than your ordinary blog on the words and worlds of JGB) when he maintains that these interviews are more than your ordinary paratext (stretching the meaning of Gérard Genette’s term), belonging to Ballard’s oeuvre proper, as “an enormous parallel body of speculation, philosophy, critical inquiry and imaginative flights of fancy that … even goes beyond [his writing]” (xiv). It is precisely these things that we are looking for when we open a book by Ballard, and that is what you will find in these interviews. Sellars is absolutely right when he sees these conversations as extending rather than explaining Ballard’s fictions, and going beyond them. The whole corpus of Ballard is a sort of gigantic, proliferating Atrocity Exhibition II—a discourse that comments on such novels as Empire of the Sun (1984) or Crash (unsurprisingly the most discussed books in these conversations, along with The Atrocity Exhibition ), but also something layered, complex, networked in such a way that it asks to be commented upon and analyzed by critics. Here, however, readers will find Ballard’s clinically precise style, formed—as coeditor Dan O’Hara acutely notices in his afterword—by a former “teenage addict to Popular Mechanics, … student of anatomy at Cambridge, … and editor for the journal Chemistry and Industry” (487).
As one may expect, the psychological and sociological aspects of the interviews collected and commented on by Sellars and O’Hara are the most relevant; but Ballard also emerges as a fascinating theorist of science fiction. The first 200 pages of this volume contain interviews that Ballard gave from 1967 to 1984. In those years he was an author struggling to escape from a literary ghetto that had become too narrow for him, but was still generally seen as an sf writer. Only Empire of the Sun (and its success) changed his status. No wonder then that interviewers in the first half of Extreme Metaphors often ask Ballard to comment on the genre that he practiced for almost 30 years. Scholars interested in those crucial years in the history of sf (from the late 1950s to the early 1980s), the years of the British New Wave and its scattered but not negligible equivalents in the US, will find here a wealth of material that will help them to bring into focus those magmatic years. The earliest interviews are particularly interesting, inasmuch as Ballard repeatedly attacks “the Heinlein-Asimov-Clarke type of attitude towards the possibilities of science, which was completely false” (15). On the one hand, this is a matter of literary taste, with a younger generation of more sophisticated writers criticizing older practitioners, but it is also a manifestation of the fraught literary psychodynamic that ties the UK to the US. The American Empire might have superseded the British, but the then-young British sf writers nonetheless aimed at replacing the All-American outer space of Asimov, Heinlein, and others—including their visions of a Future History, where galactic empires anamorphically mirror the American imperium—with their own version of inner space. It should be added that these disparaging statements about American sf chime with the contents of five notepads recently found by Mike Holliday—another expert on the author and member of the same JGB mailing list that includes both Sellars and O’Hara—among Ballard’s papers at the British Library, wherein the writer jotted down notes for a future novel to be called World vs. America or An Immodest Proposal, or How the World Declared War on America, possibly inspired by the Second Gulf War and giving vent to Ballard’s ambivalent and contradictory feelings toward the United States.
But this book contains more than the polemics of New vs. Old Waves. There are also discerning remarks about the new sf media landscape, such as cutting put-downs of the Star Wars movies as “a completely self-contained world” that “has nothing to do with the future … what life is going to be tomorrow, or, for my kids, the day after tomorrow” (156). The ability to extrapolate, to conjure up possible (albeit unwelcome) futures, to anamorphically depict our world, never abandoned Ballard even in his non-sf work. These skills allowed him, in a 1991 interview, to warn us that the unification of Europe will be slow and cluttered with unpredictable difficulties: “There will be a two-tiered reality here: the old core nations with their languages and cultures superimposed on to this second tier, which will be this homogenised, internationalised, TV, airport culture” (261). What we Europeans are witnessing now, twenty-three years later, is precisely the clash between old Europe and the technocratic, globalized, internationalized culture of EU high-ranking officials, bankers, and businessman. And while protests rage in Athens, during Angela Merkel’s visit in Greece, one has to admit that—as usual—Ballard had foreseen all that. One more reason to read Extreme Metaphors.
—Umberto Rossi, Rome