BOOKS IN REVIEW
The Science Fictionalization of Linguistic Invention.
From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. vi + 294 pp. $19.95 hc.
A Dictionary of Made-Up Languages: From Adûnaic to Elvish, Zaum to Klingon—The Anwa (Real) Origins of Invented Lexicons. Avon, MA: Adamas Media, 2011. ix + 293 pp. $16.95 hc.
The urge to tinker with language is probably inextricable from the capacity to think about language. This restless spirit of linguistic reinvention is most obvious in the verbal play of poets; it also inspires great disciplinary social projects such as the official normalization of national languages and the visionary utopian projects of constructing international languages that will transcend vernacular politics. In seventeenth-century Europe, philosophers experimented with ways of recovering the language of Adam before the fall into Babel. In the next century, the project mutated into a quest for a fully rational transhuman language free of irrationality and irregularity. By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it had mutated yet again into the visionary International Auxiliary Languages (IALs) such as Volapük, Interlingua, and Esperanto, whose goal was to create global peace by facilitating communication across linguistic boundaries. It is hard to tell whether our age has become less interested in language invention. While there are said to be over a million speakers of Esperanto today, the unquestioned dominance of English in the post-World War II era appears to have stifled some of the romance of IALs. The success of structural linguistics and cybernetics in detaching language from personal agency has reinforced the notion that languages are essentially games, not conveyors of meaning. The folks who in the past might have labored to construct a universal language are more likely now to be constructing alien dialects to make fantastic fiction and computer games more immersive. The emphasis in language invention seems to have shifted from projects of consolidating actual human communication to dispersing it—or, rather, to representing its dispersal, either in alien tongues or future evolutionary mutations. These two dispersal zones—the alien and the future—are of course the zones of sf. More and more examples of contemporary language invention appear as what the constructed-language (or conlang) community calls “artlangs”—games, aesthetic devices, or artful exhibits for coteries of fans; and these artlangs seem increasingly rotated through the metatext of sf. This emphasis on aesthetic play, historical volatility, and the artistic fascination with cultural difference reflects the rapid extinction of languages and the domination of one imperial tongue, English, in the postmodern era. As real cultures go extinct, they are supplemented, effaced, and mourned by imaginary ones. This, too, is in the zone of sf.
The title of Michael Adams’s From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages points in that direction. Three of the first four essays are sf-curious. Arden R. Smith’s “Confounding Babel: International Auxiliary Languages” gives a clear, useful history of IALs, from the early experiments in “a priori languages” such as John Wilkins’s “philosophical language” to modern, simplified, natural languages. Howard Jackson’s “Invented Vocabularies: The Cases of Newspeak and Nadsat” and E.S.C. Weiner and Jeremy Marshall’s “Tolkien’s Invented Languages” are both excellent introductions to the classical sf/fantasy artlangs. “Wild and Whirling Words: The Invention and Use of Klingon,” co-written by Mark Okrand, the originator of the Star Trek tongue, and Adams, Judith Hendriks-Hermans, and Sjaak Kroon provide an authoritative history of the franchise-evolution of Klingon and explanations for its pseudo-structure and phonology (“be alien-sounding” .) Regrettably, there is no discussion of the cultural baseline that determines what does or does not sound alien.
Things get interesting with “Gaming Languages and Language Games” by James Portnow, a game designer with a background in Classics. (The volume includes no contributors’ bios—an irritating lack in a scholarly book, which may be a tactic to conceal that not all the authors are practicing academics. Not all of them are easily googleable.) Portnow observes that artificial languages in fantasy-based games are important tools to “help players accept the strange and the foreign, to willingly suspend their disbelief” (136-37)—i.e., to create fantastic plausibility. While some game-languages such as Myst’s D’Ni and Final Fantasy 10’s Al-Bhed are systematic and fully integrated in the game-play, most are flavor languages, incomplete tongues “often comprised only of a few sentences that operate unsystematically, that is, without following strict rules” (140). Portnow provides a useful list of principles that guide language design for computer games: the language “should be rewarding for the novice” (i.e., not too difficult to learn), “learnable in the context of the game,” and “inessential to game play” (i.e., a player uninterested in the language should be able to just get on with play); it should fit “into the creative property,” part of the commodity-universe of the game-brand; and players should be able to learn it “at unknown intervals”—i.e., it should not become an externally imposed discipline. Although Portnow does not extrapolate beyond the professional requirements of game design, his essay illuminates how the interest in artificial languages is increasingly defined by sf and computer gaming—in both cases by the aesthetic representation of transformed communication, rather than by attempts to intervene in, or to actually transform, interpersonal communications.
“Oirish Invention: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Paul Muldoon” by noted Joyce scholar Stephen Watt is another succinct and intelligent introduction into a well-researched subject: the creative enhancement/deformation of imperial English by modern Irish writers. The innovative aspect of Watt’s essay is not in its content, but in its placement. In the context of From Elvish to Klingon, Watt’s argument that Joyce’s, Beckett’s, and Muldoon’s stylistic experiments are responses to “the inadequacy of English to the modern Irish writer’s project” (162) becomes less a matter of cultural politics and more of discursive adequacy—i.e., the conflict of language games.
The overarching thesis implicit in the anthology can be detected in the placement of the essays. Moving from the great historical projects of linguistic invention in IALs through fictional and ludic experiments that also become proprietary commodities, the book concludes with Suzanne Romaine’s “Revitalized Languages as Invented Languages,” a dazzling tour de force that demonstrates that attempts to revitalize languages such as Hebrew, Hawaiian, and Cornish are games of linguistic invention, however bloody serious their politics are. Romaine describes, through dozens of linguistic revival and renovation projects (in addition to the languages listed above, she refers to Neo-Breton, Quechua, Mâori, Galician, Welsh, and Irish), the ironies inherent in trying to anchor national or ethnic identity in contested natlangs that are actually artlangs. It is one step from this to see modern “natural” languages as disciplinary games continually enforced, reinvented, and renormalized by their players.
Another dimension of this science-fictionalization of linguistic invention shows up in Stephen D. Rogers’s A Dictionary of Made-Up Languages. Purporting to be a dictionary, this peculiar book is more a hybrid between a handbook and a big list of 125 invented languages. The languages are apparently chosen at random from among IALs, fictional tongues from works of fantasy and sf, idiosyncratic DIY constructions, and computer games. Each entry is organized under a set of subheadings: “Spoken by” (the actual or fictional users); “Documented by” (the originator or author); “Behind the words” (the actual or fictional context of its invention); “Derivation of the language” (a rarely used category identifying the historical origins); “Characterization of the language” (grammatical features); “A Taste of the Language” (a list of vocabulary words); “Some Useful Phrases” (without reference to whom they might be useful and why); “Philological Facts” (factoids, actually); and “For More Info” (references primarily to Internet sites devoted to the languages or texts in question). A carefully designed handbook with these rubrics might be useful and entertaining; even if it did not shed light on the history of language invention, it might help to map out the territory shared by earnest projectors and world-imaginers.
A Dictionary of Made-Up Languages does not do this. The book does not target a demanding audience (its publisher, Adams Media, lists The Part-Time Vegan  and Why Men Love Bitches  among its featured titles). The included languages are arbitrarily selected to represent different kinds of “made-up” languages. Classical IALs are well-represented (Esperanto, Volapük, Interlingua, Loglan, Solresol—though not Wilkins’s Philosophical Language). There are just as many fly-by-night contemporary experiments in personal eccentricity, seemingly lifted directly from some Internet conlang site (of which there are many): Brithenig, Spocanian, Talossan, Teonaht, Toki Pona, Verdurian, Wenedyk. The vast majority of Roberts’s examples are from sf and fantasy literature, films, and television shows, selected without any evident method. Several of Tolkien’s, Le Guin’s, Poul Anderson’s, and C.J. Cherryh’s tongues make appearances, but these too are random selections: Kargish is there, but not Karhidish; Pravic, but not Athshean. Newspeak, Nadsat, Láadan, and Babel-17 are represented, but not Riddley Walker’s future Kentish, Xemoahoa-B from Ian Watson’s The Embedding, the Vril-ya tongue from Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, or any of Poe’s or Haggard’s mysterious languages. Roberts includes Amtorian, the Venusian language from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Carson Napier novels (1934-64), but leaves out Barsoomian and, stunningly, Tarzan’s Mangali, the apes’ master tongue and origin of all human languages. There are entries for Klingon and N’avi, but the majority of pop-sf examples are flavor languages used only for décor in films and tv shows such as Stargate (1994), Land of the Lost (1991), Alien Nation (1988), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), The Adventures of Tintin (2001), The Fifth Element (1997), Earth: Final Conflict (1997-2002), Babylon 5 (1994-98), and Quest for Fire (1981). Not even the desire to appeal to Lumpenkultur explains such bizarre inclusions as several examples from the Carreña series, books self-published by one Gerard K. Martin and reviewed nowhere; or Molvanian from the Rough Guide-parody Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry (2003);or the sublimely loopy Enchanta from a 2005 Filipino television serial.
Even if one could look past this hodge-podge, the ostensible sober apparatus of subheadings falls to pieces instantly. What might work for carefully designed systems like IALs or Tolkien’s myth-languages shuts down entirely when dealing with flavor languages. There are no philological data or historical contexts for jumbles of sounds intended only to evoke oddity and alienness. The “philological facts” about Dothraki, the language of the nomad warriors constructed for the television adaptation of Game of Thrones (2011-), include a paragraph on the Language Creation Society and one on George R.R. Martin (who, incidentally, did not invent the language); philological facts about Poul Anderson’s Anglic include the fact that the author’s daughter is married to Greg Bear. The “Documented by” entry on the DIY conlang Teonaht reads: “Sally Cave started developing Teonaht in 1962 when she was nine years old. The idea of constructing a language had come to her when she was given a kitten four years previously and she invented a winged feline race called the Feleonim” (224). I do not kid.
A Dictionary of Made-Up Languages is basically a “flavor book,” designed to entertain folks who do not care a fig about method or design. In more serious hands, a book like this could be an important reference work—or even an engaging Borgesian chaography of Babel. Roberts’s book does even so have a guiding sensibility: it takes for granted a contemporary worldview that From Elvish to Klingon develops through careful accretion—namely, that all language is a social construction, and the more consciously it is pursued, the more it resembles sf.—Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., SFS
Seeing to Ballard.
J.G. Ballard: Visions and Revisions. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. x + 255 pp. $85 hc.
How do you talk about a writer as prolific as J.G. Ballard, a writer whose proudest accomplishment was to be declared “beyond psychiatric help” by a publisher’s reader of Crash (1973), who relished the sublime contradictions and violent intervals of modern life, who wanted “to Fuck Ronald Reagan”? As editors Baxter and Wymer note, there is no easy or coherent way to approach Ballard. This volume emerges at a moment of (much-deserved, long-awaited) intense and sustained academic interest in the author’s work, and it wisely offers no totalizing system for approaching the man or his fiction. Rather, Visions and Revisions gathers thirteen essays that collectively sketch out the many frontiers of Ballard scholarship.
As a whole, this collection does an admirable job of tackling the complete Ballard. The usual suspects among his novels are well represented: Roger Luckhurt’s essay pairs Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) with Bruce Conner’s work as a video artist to argue for Ballard’s place in the “assemblage” tradition; Jen Hui Bon Hoa focuses on The Atrocity Exhibition as well, reading it through the lens of Antonin Artaud’s and Walter Benjamin’s theories; Emma Whiting’s essay “Disaffection and Abjection in J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash” situates Ballard’s two most-studied works in the context of Julia Kristeva’s ideas; and Sebastian Groes reads Crash alongside its companions in the urban disaster trilogy, Concrete Island (1973) and High-Rise (1975).
But many of Ballard’s lesser-known works are also covered. Alistair Cormack’s essay draws on the visionary poetry of William Blake to assess Ballard’s delirious 1979 novel The Unlimited Dream Company. David Ian Paddy and Simon Sellers each look at “Violent Noon” (1951), Ballard’s first published story. Co-editor Jeanette Baxter makes use of Freud to analyze a broad selection of Ballard’s articles and essays. Finally, Ballard’s later novels are, if anything, overrepresented in this collection: Super-Cannes (2000) figures prominently in J. Carter Wood’s essay; Ballard’s last few novels are the focus of David James’s “Late Ballard,” which defends their “anodyne” prose as having “a strategic purpose” (161)—namely, to perform “Brechtian lessons in spectatorial alienation” (166); and Jake Huntley’s essay “The Madness of Crowds: Ballard’s Experimental Communities” focuses on the political implications of Ballard’s last four novels. Paddy’s essay, “Empires of the Mind: Autobiography and Anti-Imperialism in the Work of J.G. Ballard,” is perhaps the strongest in the collection. Arguing that Ballard is (and always was) a post-imperial author, Paddy compares his little-read first story to a wide variety of texts from the author’s oeuvre, claiming that the “interest in international politics” evident in Ballard’s more naturalistic work, such as Empire of the Sun (1984), is not a digression but a central—if hidden—theme in his fantastic works as well. Paddy makes an especially convincing case for reading Ballard’s inner-space fiction as “the literary method whereby he took the familiar and worked it ‘in disguise’” (186).
The collection’s opening essay by co-editor Rowland Wymer is probably the most valuable for readers of this journal. It carefully unpacks some of the distinctly Ballardian images and concerns contained in the author’s key 1960 short story “The Voices of Time” (drained swimming pools, mandalas, zero points, entropy), putting these figures into a broader context that includes Ballard’s place in the development of sf, his work as an editor for the trade journal Chemistry and Industry, and his position in the canon of British literature. From these many sources, Wymer develops a compelling reading of the Ballardian problematic as a simultaneous quest for identity and oblivion. This essay is valuable both for its interpretation of a key text and for its broader claims, which can usefully be brought to bear on Ballard’s entire body of work.
The same can be said of many essays in this collection: Jen Hui Bon Hoa’s essay on The Atrocity Exhibition looks at embodiment and cognition, forming an interesting counterpoint to Wymer’s essay as it offers us a Ballard who embraces “the very technologies that generate the experience of alienation” (81), arguing that he uses them to “make our unavoidable psychological implication in the media landscape work in our favour” (85). Dan O’Hara’s “Reading Posture and Gesture in Ballard’s Novels” offers an intriguing way of understanding Ballard’s dialogue and characterization: “Every word is purely functional in Ballard’s best writing,” and so special attention must be paid to “the precise descriptions of the actions and gestures” (113; emphasis in original). Groes’s essay elucidates Ballard’s concern with the effects of postmodern spaces to argue that he can be thought of as a “literary anthropologist” who “speculates on current social and cultural trends by imaginatively projecting them into extreme situations” (123). Wood, by contrast, sees Ballard as a “historical sociologist” (212) in the vein of Norbert Elias. Simon Sellars, in the final essay of the collection, offers a new way to read those classically Ballardian spaces—malls, motorways, supermarkets, airports—as a combination of “micronations” and “non-places.”
With the publication of this volume, editors Baxter and Wymer have offered a series of compelling approaches to the works of J.G. Ballard, and no essay has the final word. This is a generative collection, which should seed the field for years to come.—Taylor Evans, University of California, Riverside
Encyclopedia of 1970s SF.
Solar Flares: Science Fiction in the 1970s. Science Fiction Texts and Studies. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2012. $99.95 hc.
Solar Flares is an unusual book that offers a virtual encyclopedia of 1970s science fiction. When one reads an academic monograph, one usually expects to encounter a thesis-driven analysis that makes some central claim about its object of study; but the opening argument in Andrew Butler’s Prologue—that the “metaphor of the Invisible Enemy [can be used] to describe the ideological battlegrounds of the 1970s” (1)—is really more of a broad conceptual framework that allows him to map the sf of the period in wide-ranging strokes. After an overview of the existing scholarship on the subject (basically, there is not much), he suggests that early 1970s sf reflects cynicism and pessimism regarding the invisible and uncontrollable forces that seem to have cast Western societies into chaos; by the end of the 1970s, however, blockbuster films such as Star Wars (1977) exemplify a more optimistic attitude, emphasizing heroes who are able to triumph over these unseen forces.
Butler asserts that his study “offers readings of how the real-world politics of ethnicity, sex, gender, sexuality, class struggles, environmental [sic] and imperialism encourage certain narratives and downplay others” in order to show how “sf addresses the issues of these invisible enemies as litmus tests of the time” (7). He suggests that much of the period’s sf is “radical,” though there is also “a strain of conservatism and anxiety” (7). This focus on “invisible forces” suggests an alignment with Timothy Melley’s Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America (2000), an excellent literary analysis that investigates a similar trend. Yet it quickly becomes apparent that the critical apparatus cobbled together in the Prologue exists merely to satisfy the generic demands of an academic monograph, rather than providing a consistent analytic lens to be developed throughout the book. Indeed, Butler cheerfully abandons this framework in order to offer a more general survey of the breadth of 1970s science fiction.
Each chapter of Solar Flares follows an identical template: Butler first introduces an issue or topic (imperialism, feminism, postmodernism, etc.), then offers a concise snapshot of the cultural history and theoretical context of this issue or topic, then dives into an exhaustive catalogue of seemingly every sf text during the period that reflected this issue or topic (with examples ranging from literature and film to music and fan fiction). The final result, as I observed at the outset, is more like a narrative encyclopedia than a cohesive study—in essence, this is a comprehensive reference volume masquerading as a topical analysis, and each chapter feels like a long encyclopedia entry. On the one hand, such an approach has extraordinary breadth: if you are researching environmentalism and science fiction, for example, Butler’s chapter on this topic provides a detailed catalogue of how environmental concerns are reflected in different ways within sf imaginings during the period, attending to both popular and neglected texts. On the other hand, the chapters offer little more than voluminous plot summaries, along with very brief reviews of the notable critical perspectives brought to bear on these texts. Like most reference works, there are few (if any) original insights about the primary sources—or, indeed, 1970s SF as a whole—and the reading experience can be a bit dry, depending on one’s interest in the topics.
This critique aside, Solar Flares functions as a superb work of narrative reference. Following the Prologue, Butler offers a chapter examining early sf pioneers (such as Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke) who were still publishing in the 1970s, a chapter on the impact of the New Wave on 1970s SF, a chapter on sf following the moon landing, a chapter on sf as self-parody, and a chapter on science-fantasy. Each of these is extremely knowledgeable, packed with useful information conveyed by a critic well-grounded in sf history. Butler then proceeds to offer a series of chapters centered on how 1970s sf reflected dominant critical themes or trends of the period, such as race, the Vietnam war, postwar countercultures, imperialism, environmentalism, feminism, gay liberation, the emergence of children’s literature, the emergence of cinematic blockbusters, pseudoscience and the paranormal, architecture, and postmodernism. Butler’s use of critical theory to frame each chapter is solid, coherent, and appropriate.
In sum, I do not feel that I have learned very much about 1970s science fiction other than the fact that there was a lot of it, and this actually seems to be one of Butler’s goals: his central task seems to be to correct an erroneous notion that nothing much really happened in 1970s sf, that it was a fallow period lying between the respective ferments of the New Wave and cyberpunk. Butler’s accomplishment is to show the sheer volume of work produced during the period and the range of diverse and relevant topics upon which it focused. Other studies delving deeper into the period’s sf remain to be undertaken, but Butler’s book serves as a useful launching point.—David M. Higgins, Inver Hills College
A Conjectural Study.
Cordwainer Smith: Lord of the Afternoon. Valletta, Malta: Guid P, 2012. iv + 260. $20.00 pbk.
Originally published in 1984 as El Señor de la Tarde: Conjeturas en torno de Cordwainer Smith, this was the first full-length critical study of Smith and it appeared in Argentina, not in North America. Translated into English for this 2012 reissue (the sometimes maladroit translator is not named), the work features updating of scholarly references in the form of new titles in the bibliography and additional notes. Capanna’s discussion of the chronology of Smith’s Future History in some ways disagrees with J.J. Pierce’s in his edition of The Best of Cordwainer Smith (1975): Capanna also discusses biographical elements in the stories, offers plot summaries (sometimes too full) of Smith’s sf and non-sf writings, and concludes with a bibliography covering Smith’s fiction as well as the secondary scholarship. The illustrations are delightful family photos seemingly drawn from <www.cordwainer-smith.com/>, the excellent website of Cordwainer Smith’s elder daughter, Rosanna Hart.
Professor Capanna is a philosopher, and a phrase in his original subtitle (“conjeturas en torno”) suggests his approach through speculation or conjecture about Smith’s character and writings. There is nuance but also a certain tenuousness in this approach. Sentences are often equivocal: “The power that the Instrumentality wields over the true men is more spiritual than political, though [it] involves some of both” (37). Some early assertions are much revised in later discussion. The introductory statement that Smith was “organizer” of “the first intelligence service of the United States ... precursor to what would become the CIA” (1), for instance, is contradicted by Capanna’s later and more detailed close-up of Smith’s activities early in World War II in two agencies. The first of these, the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service, was founded in February 1941 and after the war was indeed shifted under a new name to the newly minted CIA; yet Linebarger’s main activity was not organizing the bureau but monitoring and helping to translate Japanese radio broadcasts. A second agency, the Office of War Information, was created somewhat later (June 1942) and controlled the publication of war news as well as producing posters and propaganda. The OWI was led by newsman Elmer Davis (as Capanna points out in this later chapter) and Smith worked there alongside Murray Leinster and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and FDR speechwriter Robert Sherwood. Most of his colleagues there were notable for skill in languages rather than espionage. Russian-born Reginald Brentnor was also among Linebarger’s coworkers at the OWI and like Linebarger would begin to publish sf soon after the war.
On a question that divides critics—was the character of Cordwainer Smith’s imagination predominantly social or religious?—we are told rather nebulously that Smith’s “vision of history [was] more theological than philosophical, as it has no imminent end: its goal is outside time in the realm of eternity” (25). Yet Capanna’s best discussions (along with those that trace Smith’s characters’ names to historical sources) involve political and social elements in the Underpeople stories. Capanna argues, for instance, that John F. Kennedy, for whom Linebarger wrote speeches, was the model for Smith’s Lord Jestocost and that Marilyn Monroe inspired C’mell, Smith’s seductive, cat-derived “girly-girl” (161-63). I could not follow, however, how the name E’telekeli, leader of the Holy Insurgency of Underpeople, “bears a phonetic resemblance” to Martin Luther King (163).
Also on the issue of contemporary politics as echoed in Smith’s sf, Capanna briefly mentions that during the early 1960s, at the same time that he was adding the great Underpeople stories to his fiction portfolio, Linebarger was elected president of the “American Peace Society, ... oldest pacifist organization in the United States” (16). I was sufficiently startled by this information, which was new to me, to look up Linebarger’s first speech as President of the Society in 1962, which makes points eerily parallel to Smith’s sf of this period:
The problem of a real “peace” is no mere tendentious political cause to be kidnaped by the Left or stolen by the Right in any country: it is part of our obligation to be people. We were people before nations were dreamed of and we shall still be people long after nationality, democracy, and Communism have vanished alike into the limbo of useless and forgotten things. (World Affairs 125.3 [Fall 1962]: 150-55; italics in original)
Some of the bold-but-elusive argumentation in Prof. Capanna’s book may simply stem from the enigmatic nature of his subject. Smith’s speech to the Peace Society, with its dismissal of all ideologies as inimical to the peace of individual persons, is difficult to align with his profession of political science (though it helps to explain his bipartisan speechwriting). The speech downright mirrors Smith’s late sf, with its equally emphatic focus on people, a category expanded to include animal-derived and cyborg hybrids as well as human beings, living and dead.
Though thoughtful and painstaking, this book is often hampered by wayward translation: Smith’s six months of study at Oxford become six years; “colonel” becomes “coronel;” “USSR” becomes “URRS,” etc. Overly open-ended chapter titles (“Pieces of the Puzzle,” “Figures of Rupture,” “Some Clues”) might have been recast to supply readers with a more directed discussion, more of a sense of sequence and development. After stating that Smith’s sf universe is “a vast allegory of his times” (19)—a great point—there is little follow-up until the later chapter about the Underpeople.
To read through, then, this is something of a jumble. Yet there are many felicitous moments, as when Capanna (reading Smith’s sf in contrast to futuristic technology in most postwar American sf) sees the strange planoforming and light-ships of Smith’s early space-age as being “romantic as a galleon” (77). There is much helpful background information as well. The name of the planet “Henriada” in “On the Storm Planet” was probably inspired by Henriade (1723), an epic poem by Voltaire with a strong political/satirical subtext (71). J.G. Ballard and Paul M.A. Linebarger, some years apart, attended the same Anglican school in Shanghai, China, the Cathedral School for Boys, and may have endured the same headmaster (90). The MacArthur family on Norstrilia (ancestors of Smith’s hero, Rod McBan) probably are an allusion to historical MacArthurs, the family who introduced merino sheep to Australia (167). Olaf Stapledon’s Last Men in London (1932), with its hesitant protagonist named Paul, was a text with special significance for Smith (124) and may have some bearing on whether Paul M.A. Linebarger was “Kirk Allen,” the sf writer in Robert Lindner’s best-selling psychiatric memoir The Fifty Minute Hour (1954). Such insightful details, scattered but numerous, would be easier to track if the Index were more complete. Still, they are worth the culling, despite an often puzzling translation that makes for a difficult read.—Carol McGuirk, Florida Atlantic University
Cyberpunk Women, Feminism and Science Fiction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013. v + 204 pp. $40 pbk.
This book is a well-researched, accessible discussion of feminist retakes on cyberpunk. In the introduction, Carlen Lavigne defends the special category of feminist or “women’s” cyberpunk, which she defines specifically as “women’s novels and short stories that show evidence of cyberpunk influence while simultaneously changing the paradigm” with “a feminist slant” (6). As a fan and scholar of feminist cyberpunk, I support her project of bringing attention to this fiction, and despite some unclear definitions and unnecessary repetition in its early chapters, I recommend this book for those interested in cyberpunk, feminist or otherwise.
In her first chapter, Lavigne draws on all the big-name authors (Gibson, Sterling, Rucker), theorists (Jameson, Baudrillard) and scholars (Larry McCaffery, Scott Bukatman, and others) associated with cyberpunk, competently sketching the history of the movement during the 1980s. After discussing the many positive and negative critical takes on cyberpunk, Lavigne concludes that while the original movement “may not have been as paradigm-shattering as originally promised, it has had a notable impact on our perceptions of technology and on science fiction as a whole” (19). Lavigne goes on in Chapter 2 to trace the history of feminist cyberpunk in comparison to both masculinist cyberpunk and feminist sf in general. Here, she examines the work of Pat Cadigan, the only woman in the original cyberpunk group. Lavigne agrees with other critics that Cadigan’s fiction does not “fully engage” with feminism (38, 85) but argues that it points the way for later, more feminist cyberpunk. I appreciate how Lavigne contrasts Cadigan’s work with that of her male counterparts but am not convinced that Cadigan is not writing feminist cyberpunk. I also have trouble with Lavigne’s comment that Cadigan “writ[es] like a woman” (37) and with her definition of “women’s” cyberpunk, a category that seemingly both includes and excludes Cadigan’s fiction. Lavigne asserts that she is not making essentialist claims but rather arguing that “different societal contexts in which men and women are raised” affect the fiction that they write (40). Yet her statements imply that all women in Western society have similar cultural experiences and that Cadigan’s stories hint at feminist themes simply because of that shared experience and not because of Cadigan’s own explicit views regarding gender and technology. In many ways, Lavigne’s arresting readings of the political implications of Cadigan’s work undercut her own claim about Cadigan’s non-feminism.
The next three chapters contrast common cyberpunk tropes in two generations of cyberpunk writing. In Chapter 3, Lavigne examines the depiction of alternative communities in the subgenre, arguing that while Gibson, Sterling, and Neal Stephenson use othered “primitive” cultures as potential sites of resistance to corporate power, the ultimate triumph belongs to the lone male hero. In contrast, as she demonstrates in her readings of Lisa Mason’s Arachne (1990), Misha’s Red Spider, White Web (1990), Melissa Scott’s Trouble and Her Friends (1994),andMarge Piercy’s He, She, and It (1991),“[i]n feminist cyberpunk, the hero seldom stands alone” (60). Chapter 4 focuses on issues of the body; using Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) as the prime example of masculinist cyberpunk’s desire to “escape from the meat,” Lavigne argues—as many critics have before her—that feminist cyberpunk portrays such disembodiment in a negative light. Focusing on Scott’s Trouble and Her Friends, Laura J. Mixon’s Proxies (1998), Edith Forbes’s Exit to Reality (1997), and Sage Walker’s Whiteout (1997), Lavigne goes further than previous critics by arguing convincingly that these novels link an acceptance of embodiment to the process of growing up. Chapter 5 tackles cyborgs and artificial intelligence, with Lavigne pointing out that while the cyborgs and AIs in male cyberpunk are clearly defined by gender codes, those in women’s cyberpunk—specifically in Piercy’s He, She, and It, Amy Thomson’s Virtual Girl (1993),and Lyda Morehouse’s LINK Angel series (2001- )—question such gender boundaries.
The next four chapters investigate themes introduced into cyberpunk by its feminist practitioners: environmentalism, religion, motherhood/reproduction, and queer rights. First, Lavigne demonstrates, via readings of Raphael Carter’s The Fortunate Fall (1996) and Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz (1994), that feminist cyberpunk does not equate women with nature—as some earlier feminist sf did—but instead presents ecological destruction and conservation as the responsibility of men and women equally. Lavigne then looks at the place of religion and spirituality in cyberpunk. She accurately notes that the original cyberpunk authors often appropriated religious or mythological systems, as Gibson did with voodoo in the Cyberspacetrilogy (1984-88), to explain the seemingly magical properties of virtual reality, but they did not engage with the actual context of such systems. Lavigne sees Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), a book she aligns with the original cyberpunks despite its later publication date, as one of the first to investigate religion as “more than a source of convenient narrative tropes” (123). She implies that the feminization of spirituality implicit in much cyberpunk writing is invidious but never fully explains how this relates to the handling of spiritual themes in feminist cyberpunk, though she does detail feminist cyberpunks’ unease with traditional patriarchal religious institutions. In short, this chapter delves into an intriguing topic but does not treat it in sufficient depth. An analysis of Goonan’s use of voodoo myths and beliefs in Crescent City Rhapsody, her 2000 prequel to Queen City Jazz, in comparison to Gibson’s handling of the topic in Count Zero (1986) would have been fascinating.
Lavigne goes on to explore a suspicion, present in all cyberpunk, regarding reproductive technologies—which puts feminist cyberpunk in direct opposition to the celebration, in 1970s feminist sf, of the freedom such technologies promise. Lavigne’s readings of feminist cyberpunk uncover a fear that reproductive technology will lead to the capitalistic control of reproduction and women’s bodies. She further investigates the position of mothers in the cyberpunk world, noting how they are typically absent in works by male writers and, though present in feminist cyberpunk, often have troubled relationships with their cyborg children. This discussion points to potentially fascinating aspects of mothering in our highly technologized world, but Lavigne misses the opportunity to address them; for example, while she discusses motherhood in Piercy’s novel, she fails to mention the character of Nili, who is both a mother and a cyborg. Lavigne next highlights how cyberpunk’s queer potential is neglected in original cyberpunk, which was “unrelentingly straight” (145), only to be explored in 1990s cyberpunk, not only in the critiques of straight marriage in Cadigan, Piercy, Mixon, and Morehouse but also in the inclusion of bisexual characters and lesbian protagonists in feminist cyberpunk.
Lavigne’s final chapter, which examines cyberpunk’s effects in the broader culture, opens by noting the influence of early cyberpunk on tech companies, the gaming industry, and the language of computerization. Lavigne admits that women’s cyberpunk has had fewer visible effects, and she interviews five authors—Mason, Morehouse, Goonan, Scott, and Forbes—to uncover this fiction’s impact. Her interviews showcase the variety of fan responses these writers received and the motivations behind their fiction, though she again misses an opportunity by not comparing the musings of these female authors with extant interviews with male cyberpunk writers. This chapter also seems ripe for an explicit application of fan-studies methodologies, which would have provided a more direct assessment of feminist cyberpunk’s impact, within the sf field at least.
Overall, Lavigne achieves her goal of shedding light on the underexposed and under-examined subgenre of feminist cyberpunk. While I take issue with some of her definitions and readings, I applaud her notion that the conversation about “how the digital age relates to women’s issues ... must include the feminist cyberpunk writers who have already spoken, and the feminist science fiction writers who are still speaking” (185; emphasis in original).—Rebecca Holden, University of Maryland
Painted Cakes Do Not Satisfy.
The Postmodern Sacred: Popular Culture Spirituality in the Science Fiction, Fantasy and Urban Fantasy Genres. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. vi + 188 pp. $40 pbk.
Emily McAvan opens her book with the anti-Nietzschean assertion that “God in no longer dead” (1). Nietzsche was referring to the Judeo-Christian God, but McAvan widens the scope to include a whole pantheon of traditional and novel deities and powers. She begins by examining the failed prediction that “God and religion would die under the rational atheist onslaught” (1) ushered in by the Enlightenment and consolidated in the twentieth century. She astutely points out that postmodernity, despite emerging out of the logic of modernity, resurrected that which the preceding era had killed: the ability to believe in divinity and a world defined by its effects. Specifically, McAvan reminds us of the “collapse of the scientific meta-narratives that made atheism so powerful,” a deconstruction caused by “[t]he postmodern critique of Enlightenment universalism” (1). The result has been the creation of a cultural space in which doubt itself allows for the resurgent presence of various spiritual and religious ideas and systems, manifested in popular texts and media and largely indebted to the 1960s counterculture and its New Age heirs. All the texts that McAvan chooses to read are grouped under the umbrella term “unreal,” which she takes to refer to “science fiction, fantasy, and urban fantasy (a kind of fantastic horror hybrid)” (2).
The book proceeds to explore the possibility that “[c]onsuming religiously inflected texts is a way of accessing spiritual experience divorced from real-world practice or belief” (15), wherein religious and spiritual beliefs become consumer products, leaving the postmodern sacred “inextricably entangled with the mechanics of postmodern global capitalism” (10). Decontextualized and commodified, the postmodern sacred—a term marking the textually mediated appearance of the divine or supernatural—is paradoxically “a corporeal experience” when “consumed” (29). That said, the concept of the postmodern sacred, which the first chapter is devoted to defining, proves rather slippery. McAvan claims that “the sacred [is] modified through its interaction with virtual, media culture” (3-4) and is thus “inevitably a simulacra [sic]” (24), superficial and depthless (here she deploys Jameson’s and Baudrillard’s theories of postmodernity). Yet the postmodern sacred also “describe[s] pop-culture spirituality” materialized in specific media texts (5). The second chapter discusses how contemporary media production techniques, especially CGI, create the postmodern sacred through a confused boundary between reality and appearance. Complicating Derrida’s notion of the “transcendental signified,” chapter three demarcates New Age ideas of personal/personalized spirituality from the monolithic and hegemonic idea of God found within Judeo-Christianity, showing how this individualized spirituality is used in pop culture through a clever reading of the Oprah show.
Chapter four fleshes out the idea that the postmodern sacred as virtuality can become confused with reality through the presence of embodied gods in TV shows such as Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007). Chapter five shows how postmodern texts use a potpourri of gods, taken à la carte and divorced from their mythic traditions, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001). Chapter six moves the arc of the argument back toward Christianity in a takedown of Dan Brown’s casual admixture of New Age and Christian beliefs in The Da Vinci Code (2003). Chapter seven offers an expected reading of Christ figures in The Lord of the Rings film adaptations (2001-03). Returning to the emphasis on late capitalism, chapter eight reads didactic Christian entertainments, including Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series (2005-08), foregrounding the possibility of their failure to instruct by becoming mere items of consumption instead—which may be McAvan’s strongest summary of the postmodern sacred’s ability to render religious experience into simple sensory experience. A welcome chapter on Islam in a post 9/11 world follows, offering readings of Stargate SG-1 and Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009). The discussion is provocative but some of the threads pursued feel too loose at times. Chapter ten, on the Harry Potter book series (1997-2007) and film franchise (2001-11), as well as the conclusion consider ethical issues raised by racism and the totalizing power of capitalism. McAvan ultimately declares the postmodern sacred to be a failure in terms of offering genuine religious experiences as opposed to commodified simulacra, where profit stands behind every prophet.
McAvan’s tendency to give the postmodern sacred autonomous agency (“the postmodern sacred … announces itself as sacred” [28; emphasis original]) misses the opportunity to critique the capitalist actors behind the illusion. Also, McAvan omits any mention of the role of psychedelic drug use in precipitating the rise of New Age beliefs; indeed, her treatment of the counterculture in general is fairly perfunctory. But perhaps the most substantial problem is her superficial description of the major religions and belief systems. She assumes the reader’s knowledge of the basic tenets of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., and so only remarks the cultural manifestationsof these beliefs, making them seem as depthless and superficial as the postmodern texts that appropriate them. Maybe that is the point: the book is about the virtual sacred that only appears to carry metaphysical presence, produced by and for a culture that “disconnects the sign from the context” (5). That said, this well-researched book offers an acute diagnosis of an important cultural phenomenon and would function well in survey courses in both sf and religious studies.—Matthew J. Bond, University of California, Riverside
Political Future Fiction: Speculative and Counter-Factual Politics in Edwardian Fiction. 3 vols. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013. xxxiv + 254; xvi + 305; xxxvii + 340 pp. £275 hc.
Volume 1 of this set, The Empire of the Future, reprints Samuel Barton’s The Battle of the Swash (1888) and Robert Cole’s The Struggle for Empire (1900), the latter having been virtually unobtainable up to now. A general introduction contextualizes these works briefly within the evolution of science fiction in the late nineteenth century, discussing generic labels such as “scientific romance”—widely used after the 1860s thanks to Verne—and “scientific fantasy.” Samuel Barton, a nephew of Cornelius Vanderbilt, worked as a stockbroker, which is directly relevant to his novel of imminent war. And Cole describes how war breaks out between Britain and the US over trade with Canada. Directly influenced, as reviewers recognized, by Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871), Barton’s novel made a case for greater naval preparedness on the US eastern seaboard, a topic that was being debated at the time. Cole’s politics became complicated by the publication of a Canadian edition of his novel, prefaced by a statement from the author claiming to respect Canadians, reprinted here along with a patriotic speech by a leading Canadian. The Battle of the Swash was an intensely strategic novel, like Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903), and a chart of the approaches to New York would have been very helpful for visualizing the action. Barton’s conclusion is strikingly ambivalent: Britain wins the naval war, but only by compromising with American know-how in the form of self-destroying torpedo boats, and ultimately loses her empire.
Information on British author Robert Cole’s life is minimal, and the introduction to his novel duplicates the general introduction, merely speculating on possible influences. Again very few reviews appeared of The Struggle for Empire, one complaining about its “disordered nonsense.” Cole’s military career is reflected in the magazine articles and letters included here debating the best method to educate officers at Sandhurst, though the novel concerns itself more with large-scale strategy. Displacing imperial competition onto the solar system and beyond, in one of the first space-opera narratives, it describes a quasi-naval war between Earth (essentially Britain) and the Sirians, who drive the home fleet back to base and then bombard London. At this point, a handy scientific device is perfected called the “Electro-Ednogen machine” whose use brings about the speedy defeat of the enemy. London becomes the capital of the world, the Anglo-Saxons having “absorbed” all other races, and the imperial future is secured. A “discussion essay” closes this first volume of the set, focusing mainly on Verne’s innovations to the literary lunar voyage.
The set’s second volume, Fiction of a Feminist Future, reprints Allan Reeth’s Legions of the Dawn (1908) and Una L. Silberrad’s The Affairs of John Bolsover (1911). Despite their dates, Kate Macdonald argues that both works are essentially Victorian in their contrast with the technology-centered fictions of the following era. Her introduction surveys contemporary feminist utopias, many of which suffer from the fault of turning their narratives into didactic tracts. Accordingly these two novels are selected partly for “sheer entertainment” and also because they can be read against the background of increased suffragette militancy. In the commentary on both works, another connection emerges in the lack of information about either writer. Reeth is a complete mystery, probably female, possibly American. Silberrad was a prolific and successful novelist, but Bolsover appears to have had no reviews at all. Accordingly, there is no secondary material for an appendix here; what we have instead is a brief commentary highlighting common themes such as gender-role reversal, militarism, and patterns of courtship and marriage. Reeth’s utopia is a gynocracy set up in southeastern Africa that invites comparison with Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883). Even though its African setting is unspecific, the context of empire complicates its dramatization of gender issues by adding concerns about race. Bolsover, by contrast, is set notionally in 1960, after suffrage has been granted “well into the twentieth century.” It opens with a journalist fleetingly glimpsing the British prime minister dressed in women’s clothes one night. As the mystery unfolds, it transpires that “he” is indeed a woman, coping ingeniously with the political conservatism of her society, hence the logic of her role reversal.
In Volume 3 of the set, Speculative Fiction and Imperialism in Africa, we turn to two explicitly political novels—Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford’s The Inheritors (1901) and John Buchan’s The Lodge in the Wilderness (1906). Both works stand apart from traditional fiction of empire in consisting largely of dialogue. Both are romans à clef, so an edition such as the present one is particularly helpful in identifying the many thinly disguised portraits of contemporary figures. Both novels focus on Africa and grow out of crises such as the Boer War. Of the two novels, The Inheritors has the strongest connection with science fiction when the narrator meets a young woman from the fourth dimension, who warns him of the old order being superseded by people with greater vision. The narrative satirizes the formation of the Congo Free State through a cynical scheme to set up a colony in Greenland and in that sense, as the editor suggests, functions as a kind of fable. The reviews incorporated here testify to the difficulties critics had in dealing with a novel that had visibly moved away from orthodox realism. Most agreed that it was clever, one found the plot a “ridiculous hotchpotch,” and another expressed unease about its “Nietzschean mysticism.” Their responses were more straightforward towards Buchan’s novel, several recognizing its kinship with W.H. Mallock’s The New Republic (1877). The host of the gathering, Carey, is modeled on Cecil Rhodes and the country house setting based on the latter’s African estate, which establishes imperialism as a prosperous fait accompli for the ruling classes before their discussions get under way. The novel was occasioned by the 1908 general election, the thought of British conservatives losing power apparently alarming Buchan, just as The Inheritors expresses anxieties about posterity.
All the works selected for this edition concern themselves in different ways with change, whether desired or dreaded. This is a scholarly collection with helpful and informative annotations throughout, and it adds significantly to that body of available fiction from the turn of the twentieth century, when writers began turning away from conventional realism to experiment with new narrative techniques.—David Seed, Liverpool University
Body Horrors of the Bourgeoisie.
Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. 2011. Chicago: Haymarket, 2012. x + 296 pp. $28 pbk.
David McNally’s insightful and compelling Monsters of the Market opens with the by-now-familiar observation that we “live in an age of monsters” (1), exemplified in particular by the seeming ubiquity of zombies. Along with a number of other recent critics, McNally understands our fascination with zombies as a symptom of the predatory ethos of neoliberal capitalism and its willingness to dehumanize and sacrifice anyone no longer contributing to the “health” of the economy in a culture in which market logic has colonized all aspects of human existence. McNally’s book, originally published in 2011 and winner of that year’s Deutscher Memorial Prize for most innovative criticism in the Marxist tradition, traces a longer history of the links between capitalist social relations and voracious cultural monsters. As well as providing context for and commentary on the recent zombie craze, McNally explicates and contextualizes Marx’s own references to the vampiric nature of capital, a dead thing sucking the life from living workers, and links the origin of all such tales of monsters to early-modern struggles to separate peasants from the land and force their dependence on wage labor. While not explicitly about sf, Monsters of the Market provides an essential critical framework that builds on and extends the Marxist tradition of sf criticism for understanding the cultural work done by fantastic texts.
The book is divided into three sections and is itself somewhat monstrous in its transdisciplinarity, composed of an uneven mix of “social history, cultural studies, political economy, and literary theory” (x). Section 1, “Dissecting the Labouring Body: Frankenstein, Political Anatomy and the Rise of Capitalism,” argues that early public anatomy demonstrations conducted on the bodies of executed criminals were more than just displays of scientific knowledge. In addition, these events—and the often-violent struggle for possession of bodies from the gallows that preceded them—were theaters of both the working class’s “profound senses of corporeal vulnerability” (2) and the capitalist class’s project of “disciplining and punishing proletarian bodies” (19). Section 2, “Marx’s Monsters: Vampire-Capital and the Nightmare-World of Late Capitalism,” provides less analysis of cultural representations and resistances, focusing instead on carefully explaining Marx’s theories of value and the commodity fetish to establish why vampires are such apt metaphors for capitalist social relations. McNally uses the example of Enron’s spectacular rise and crash in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries to educate readers about delusional beliefs in fictitious finance capital that seems able to generate money simply from itself. His point is that images drawn from the supernatural and spectral so perfectly convey the monstrosities of life under capitalism because of the invisibility of capitalism’s source of exploitation. Finally, Section 3, “African Vampires in the Age of Globalisation,” shows how African folklore regarding witchcraft is shifting from understanding magic as a source of social leveling and kinship relations to a force that enables certain individuals to accumulate massive stockpiles of wealth at the expense of others. McNally convincingly argues that these shifts are indicative of changing social relations prompted by neoliberal globalization, seeing in them responses to these traumas similar to those evident in the early-modern culture of England suffering the social dislocations of enclosures and urbanization.
The word “abstract,” as in abstract labor, is key to McNally’s theorization of the ways certain kinds of monsters express the traumas produced by capitalism. The root meaning of the word is to detach or cut off, he notes, and detaching peasants from the land was essential to compelling them into wage labor. What is more, alienation from one’s own laboring body and from the products of one’s labor under capitalism finds its symbol in the monstrous and mutilated bodies of early modern theater, such as Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (1605-1608), and ultimately in the stitched-together pieces of Frankenstein’s monster. This creature’s birth through electricity also connotes the subjugation of human labor to machine time and mechanization, with anatomy demonstrations of limbs animated by current presaging the reduction of worker’s bodies to interchangeable machine parts fantasized by capital. Cutting off or separating is central to the themes of Frankenstein (1818) in ways that go beyond the image of the creature’s fragmented body, McNally suggests, and thus a critique of the fragmented society of capitalist social relations can be perceived in the novel’s depiction of social isolation, “an inherent feature of the enclosing, separating and privatising tendencies of capitalist society” (94).
McNally’s readings of texts in Section 1 are deeply contextualized in relation to changes in land use, peasant uprisings, and proclamations of Parliament and the courts that eradicated public rights to the commons. Reading various cultural representations of monsters, he discerns a distinct break between the monsters of medieval culture, “interpreted in theological terms, as created by God in order to warn or punish humankind,” and the secularized monsters of emerging capitalist society, “human creations, symptoms of degenerate social action and relations” (61). Similarly, Section 2 provides a detailed overview of changes in the currency system from the gold standard to the decommodification of money under President Nixon, who refused further conversions of dollars for gold, thus ushering in the new era of currency exchanges, derivatives, and other futures markets. McNally provides a good overview in this section of various ways Third World debt was increased—and Third World assets appropriated—by contemporary policies of the World Bank and IMF such as Structural Adjustment Programs (requiring nations to privatize their resources and privilege debt repayment over service to their citizens) and debt-for-equity swaps that radically increased foreign ownership of resources and assets while increasing local poverty.
This book is an excellent and accessible primer in Marxist theory— especially the theory of value—for anyone seeking to understand its nuances. The separation of use value from exchange value mirrors separations of the worker from human vital spirit or creativity (viewed by capital as a quality of the commodity, not the labor that made it) and of the sensuous, material world of things from the invisible, abstract world of circulating money. Drawing on a range of Marxist theory, McNally shows how the notion of the fetish emerges in colonial discourse as a projection of primitive belief in the supernatural and immaterial cast onto Africans by Europeans, who themselves were caught up in worshipping the invisible, intangible thing called “value” by which all objects are stripped of their concreteness and become exchangeable with each other. In cultural images and discussions of capital as vampiric, McNally argues, Marx seeks to “defetishise capital’s logic of abstraction and disembodiment” (134) by restoring to our vision the laboring bodies whose contributions are erased by commodity fetishism. Indeed, the real fetish lies with Europeans so troubled by Africans’ attachment to certain objects that they would not exchange them for any amount of money, a choice that exposes “as fictive all claims for the universality and naturalness of the European market-economy” (203). And herein lies the power of certain speculative monsters to defetishize capitalist social relations and return to visibility the broken bodies and blood from which capitalist accumulation is made.
Building on these insights in Section 3, McNally explores the new folklore of the Global South. Such fantasies—e.g., rumors among the Chipaya people of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile of human fat being exported to the US to lubricate cars, computers, and other machines—speak to the astonishing truths of life under global capitalism, realities that fantastic genres are best suited to address. This is the claim made by China Miéville in a 2002 special issue of Historical Materialism on fantasy and sf, which McNally cites. Indeed, he goes on to claim that Marx’s frequent references to fictional texts—by, e.g., Balzac and Dickens—did a similar kind of work, defetishizing the invisible extraction of surplus labor. McNally’s final section explores a number of contemporary African works of folklore, film, and literature that use speculative techniques, focusing on the work of Nigerian novelist Ben Okri, which “de-naturalises commodified relations by presenting them as both bizarre and mysterious” (187).
My one critique of this book is that it fails to extend its analysis to abject zombies in such texts as The Walking Dead comic (2003- ) and tv series (2010- ) or the “mainstream” zombie film. McNally traces the history of zombies back to their Haitian origins as exploited labor and suggests that today’s zombies are “creatures of consumption, brazenly mobbing stores and malls and consuming human flesh” (210; emphasis in original). As work by scholars such as Gerry Canavan has shown us, this image of the Western zombie is now passé and today’s new zombies are the unwanted remnants of a global order that no longer requires even their labor-power. McNally ends with a dream of awakened zombies, “hopeful monster of popular revolt from below” (251; emphasis in original), that might emerge from defetishizing fictions. I fear zombies remain images of the poor dissected for our entertainment. —Sherryl Vint, SFS
Breaking with Suvinian Formalism.
Locating Science Fiction. Science Fiction Texts and Studies 44. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2012. xi + 244 pp. £70 hc.
Andrew Milner’s Locating Science Fiction maps the what, when, and where of science fiction. The fifteen-page-long list of primary works cited—most of which are simply referred to rather than discussed in any detail—includes print, stage, film, television, and radio as well as British, French, German, Czech, Polish, Russian, North American, Australian, and Japanese texts. Milner’s book conducts an argument concerning the proper theoretical and methodological orientations for mapping sf, offering a good deal of lucid exposition and deft application of a range of theoretical approaches, especially the work of Raymond Williams. The project is organized around four questions: What is sf? What is it not? When was it? Where was it? This simple plan leads to a lively, engaging discussion of each question.
Milner answers the first question, what is sf, in several stages. First, he undertakes an autobiographical account, from his childhood to his professional life in the academy, of his exposure to sf in comics, radio, television, print, and film, one point of which is that sf operates across all these media as well as across the border between high and low culture. The more important theoretical point is that sf, in contrast to modernist art, is defined by its content rather than its form: “The SF ‘type’ was established in nineteenth-century Europe through a radical redistribution of interests towards science and technology within the novel and short story genres of the narrative mode” (12). He then turns to the question of definition, working his way through the variously (though neither simply nor straightforwardly) formalist attempts to define sf in the work of Darko Suvin, Fredric Jameson, Carl Freedman, and Phillip Wegner, finally turning against an approach to genre that seeks to classify textual objects based on their properties. Milner suggests instead the notion, derived from Raymond Williams, that sf should be considered an ever-shifting “selective tradition, continuously reinvented in the present, through which the boundaries of the genre are continually policed, challenged and disrupted, and the cultural identity of the SF community continuously established, preserved and transformed. It is thus essentially and necessarily a site of contestation” (39-40). Since approaching sf as a site of contestation involves asking what are the stakes in the contest, Milner next maps the “selective tradition” of sf onto the field of cultural production as analyzed by Pierre Bourdieu, for whom it is precisely a field of contestation over the capture of economic and cultural capital.
Some of the most interesting material in Locating Science Fiction emerges from Milner’s use of Bourdieu to map relationships between economic investment, cultural prestige, and different sites of sf production. For instance, Milner emphasizes the importance of stage adaptations of Verne in the 1890s in establishing the commercial success of the genre, and he also argues that the stage adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) from the 1820s on are critically important. In doing so, he suggests an interesting continuity between the nineteenth-century beginnings of the genre in an overlap of print and theatrical media and its twentieth-century fortunes on stage and in film. He stresses elsewhere in the chapter the importance of fan culture, devoting a section of his discussion to the early fan group, the Futurians. Most interesting and useful, perhaps, is his long discussion of radio drama in the fourth chapter: Milner’s attention to this fascinating but largely neglected site of sf production could have well turned into a book in itself.
The next section takes up the question of what sf is not. The discussion here is devoted to sf’s relation to fantasy and utopia. The unsurprising, commonsense position Milner takes is that the three genres are distinct from one another but overlap significantly. The real question might be what purpose was ever served by policing the boundaries among these genres as zealously as, Milner reminds us, Suvin did; but the question surely might extend to commercial and professional contexts as well as academic ones. The best material that comes out of these two perhaps unnecessary chapters is Milner’s persuasive defense of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) from Jameson’s reading of it as an anti-utopian recipe for political despair.
The next question—when was sf?—yields the argument that it is a modern genre, not an ancient one as some (e.g., Suvin and Adam Roberts) have argued. Much more to the point, Milner suggests that its emergence “was overwhelmingly conditioned by the dialectic between Enlightenment and Romanticism” (154) and, more particularly, tied to a “structure of feeling” based on the lived experience of technological change in the specifically modern sense in which “the Industrial Revolution decisively and definitively redefined science into an intensely practical activity inexorably productive of new technologies” (139). This leads straight to the fourth and final question: where was sf? Clearly, given Milner’s sense of the structure of feeling that conditioned its emergence, sf should be found predominantly in the industrial core countries, and its global diffusion should have some relationship to the worldwide but uneven distribution of industrial technology and the culture of technological innovation. Milner proposes that the best methodological approach available for understanding the emergence and diffusion of the genre is provided by Franco Moretti’s modeling of world literature on the structure of the world market elaborated by Immanuel Wallerstein and other world-systems theorists. The global diffusion of the genre can thus be mapped to include a core (first Anglo-French, later American), a periphery (almost everywhere else), and a crucial semi-periphery. Formal innovation disseminates outward from the core and is passively received on the periphery, but at semi-peripheral sites, a structural compromise takes place between the dominant form and local cultural resources (Milner proposes as candidates Fritz Lang’s Weimar Republic, Karel Čapek’s Czechoslovakia, Hugo Gernsback’s 1920s US, Stanisław Lem’s Poland, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Russia, and the Japan of anime and manga). There is a lot of food for thought here, and Milner is to be commended for providing it, whether one is ultimately persuaded by Moretti’s methodology or not.
Milner concludes his book with a chapter on the uses of science fiction, particularly the political uses of sf criticism. The “category mistake” that he attacks—of predefining the content of sf according to the political orientation of the works in question—is made in reference to the theories of Suvin, Jameson, and Freedman but is not particularly relevant to the great bulk of work being done in the field of sf studies. Nonetheless, Milner makes a strong case for combining a “value-free” practice of study with a “value-relevant” choice of topics, and then performs an excellent reading of two Australian catastrophe fictions, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) and George Turner’s The Sea and Summer (1987), informed by an eloquently expressed commitment to environmental issues. It is a good ending for a good book, one that is worth the attention of all sf scholars for the range and acuity of its conception of the genre as well as its theoretical rigor.
Locating Science Fiction does have some shortcomings, however.Despite—or rather in contrast to—the impressive range of his references to primary works and his grasp of issues in cultural-studies theory, Milner focuses on a quite narrow range of discussion within the field of sf studies, circling back again and again to the work of Suvin, Jameson, and Freedman. Sometimes, too, positions that have become commonplaces are presented as if they were controversial breakthroughs, for instance: “Genre is thus not the dirty secret of popular culture, but rather an important part of the truth of all art.... It is not a matter of retrospective academic classification, conducted with prescriptive intent, as Suvin, Jameson, and Freedman believe, but rather a prospectively productive set of techniques and devices for the creative use of readers and writers” (107). As a statement about genre this is no news, while it reduces Suvin, Jameson, and Freedman, for the moment at least, to straw men.
A related problem is the sometimes unnecessarily polemical cast to the argument. For example, at the end of the chapter proposing the usefulness of Moretti’s methods, Milner writes, “although postcolonial theory can produce some limited insight into particular aspects of the genre’s history, especially its early years in Britain and France, world-systems theory provides a more generally persuasive theoretical account of the cultural geography of SF” (176). Why should world-systems theory be posed in opposition to postcolonial theory rather than as a complement to it? It is not as if the many critics currently pursuing colonial/postcolonial topics in sf studies are all trying to construct a “cultural geography of SF,” or as if they could not make productive use of such a cultural geography to continue pursuing their postcolonial agendas. And why should either approach have to bear the entire burden of providing a “persuasive theoretical account” of sf’s global production, distribution, and reception?
Finally, despite Milner’s rejection of Suvinian formalism, he continues to insist that there is one defining set of characteristics that correctly, properly identifies the genre: “None of these [colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism] can define what is distinctive about the genre, however, that is, how it differs from the realist novel, the romance or the detective novel. Such differences can be addressed adequately, it seems to me, only through the questions raised in the previous chapter, that of the relation between science and technology and its place in the dialectic of Enlightenment” (160-61). Telling science fiction apart from detective fiction, realism, and romance is something many people have no trouble doing. Why there should be one distinctive and definitive way of doing so is not so clear, though, and contemporary genre theory would do better to attend to the multiplicity of practices than trying to be king of the hill of genre construction. Compared to the opposition between postcolonial and world-systems theories, this imagined contest among critics to define what is distinctive about the genre seems not so much unnecessary as fundamentally misguided. The decisive break from Suvinian formalism comes not by finally announcing the real, true version of sf, but only by admitting that one’s construction of the genre is just one among many such practices, located at only one among many sites of “selective tradition.”—John Rieder, University of Hawai’i, Mānoa
Under the Shadow: The Atomic Bomb and Cold War Narratives. Kent, OH. Kent State UP, 2013. 384 pp. $60 hc.
David Seed’s American Science Fiction and the Cold War (1999) analyzed the imaginative reshaping of the world’s future by nuclear technology, providing incisive readings ranging from classics such as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) to more obscure texts such as Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo (1952). This follow-up volume draws on many of the same texts but differs from its predecessor in narrowing the focus to “challenges to expression posed by the nuclear subject and the narrative contortions that resulted” (1) and to texts that directly describe the use of nuclear weapons. As in the previous book, Seed’s theoretical outlook grapples with the nuclear criticism of Jacques Derrida’s 1984 essay “No Apocalypse, Not Now,” mainly the idea that because a nuclear war never actually occurred, the premise exists only as a signified referent rather than a reality. Seed is consonant with Derrida on this point: “Nuclear war is always imagined as a major rupture, a fissure that challenges the survivor’s capacity for reconstruction and even understanding” (200), but he turns his attention to a body of fiction that Derrida explicitly rejects, texts that actually confirm a view of nuclear war as elusive.
Despite a brief theoretical contextualization in the introduction, Seed’s approach is predominantly historical. The first four chapters trace a history of atomic energy, representations of Hiroshima, and the debate over nuclear refuge and survival. The connections between literature and science begin with H.G. Wells and radio-chemist Frederick Soddy, who believed the atom to be a sublime, inexhaustible energy source—a belief not shared by writers such as Wells and Čapek, who were wary of how that energy could be put to use. Seed presents reports that after Hiroshima, the press implied that Wells was the one who predicted the atom bomb in his 1914 novel The World Set Free. This observation was more than just imaginative foresight: the Manhattan Project’s own Leó Szilárd, a Hungarian physicist who was a fan of Wells, said that “all the things which H.G. Wells had predicted appeared suddenly real to me” (qtd. 19) and he later became a writer himself. Seed’s breadth of research is impressive, and he expertly weaves the discussion of nonfictional reportage and other documents (such as the magazine coverage of Hiroshima and official reports) with lesser-known novels and stories of the period. He cogently argues for the interplay of these discourses, shedding light on the presence of novelistic elements in the nonfiction, as in the case of John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946),akey collection of reports that was modeled after the fiction of Thornton Wilder and Ernest Hemingway.
The second part of the book is devoted to more in-depth interpretations of key nuclear narratives, tackling topics such as the death wish in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964),the dangers of automation in Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7 (1959), allusions to Moby-Dick (1951) in the film The Bedford Incident (1965), and apocalypse and religion in the novels of Philip Wylie. The final three chapters consider the aftermath of nuclear war, representations of World War III, and what has remained of the nuclear threat after the Cold War. These analyses are at their best when they evoke the book’s main thesis of the challenges to representation brought forth by the bomb. For example, Seed discusses “how the military-industrial system becomes a deforming force” (140) on language and semantic registers in Limbo and Level 7. “Mapping the Postnuclear Landscape,” one of the stronger chapters, discusses geographical representations of post-nuclear America, and how nuclear fallout causes a massive rupture in spatialization, narrative, and language, as in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980):every word reads like a “deformation of English, as if nuclear war has attacked the language itself, not just the terrain and its inhabitants” (212). The perception of time also becomes narratively and textually troubled, exemplified in the ending of Dr. Strangelove, where the discontinuity between the music (Vera Lynn’s syrupy 1939 song “We’ll Meet Again”) and the images (of global nuclear holocaust) signifies how the present can no longer “be read as an outcome of the past” (192). Seed observes that this disjointedness owes a great deal to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), a novel that provided Kubrick “a model for burlesquing the McCarthy era” (192); the filmmaker even asked Heller to write a draft of the screenplay.
It is not Seed’s intention to convince readers that his subject is a relevant one, but a study of the Cold War today would seem to require some sort of qualification since the context is now a bit remote in terms of contemporary cultural fears and anxieties. Here Seed misses an opportunity to bridge the gap and make his work pertinent to our “age of terrorism,” with its threats of suitcase nukes and dirty bombs. For example, the most popular text discussed in the volume is assuredly Dr. Strangelove, a cultural landmark but also very much an artifact of the 1960s whose depiction of nuclear annihilation is now rather dated. Some of that paranoia may still be with us, but in a mutated form, and in the conclusion Seed acknowledges a considerable “difficulty in identifying the new enemies of the United States” in post-Cold War fiction (231). Moreover, three major writers of the period whose work has been centrally engaged with Cold War concerns—J.G. Ballard, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo—are only briefly mentioned: two short stories by Ballard and one by DeLillo explicitly about a nuclear aftermath, plus some passing remarks on Pynchon. And Seed’s selection ultimately excludes a number of relevant texts that are precisely about a break in modes of expression after the bomb but that are not genre narratives directly featuring nuclear weapons (e.g., works by Beckett). While this break was influenced by the bomb, it was not defined and exhausted by it, but rather was a more wide-ranging feature of postmodernism, as Alan Nadel’s Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age (1995) has outlined. The rationale behind Seed’s selection of his fictional corpus—genre (as opposed to mainstream) works that deal directly with nuclear warfare and the use of atomic weapons—should have been a little clearer. Still, despite these criticisms, Under the Shadow is a fine study that provides a vast amount of historical research and eloquent readings of genre narratives of the Cold War. It is recommended as a more up-to-date supplement to Paul Boyer’s authoritative By the Bomb’s Early Light (1985), Nadel’s book, and Seed’s previous work on the subject.—Pedro Groppo, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (Brazil)
Trepanning Fin-de-siècle Popular Fiction.
Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 225 pp. $90 hc.
While scholars have read the famous transformational elixir that summons Dr. Jekyll’s demonic alter-ego as an allegory of everything from queerness to addiction, Anne Stiles suggests in her new book that Stevenson’s text challenges the objectivity of medical case studies and intervenes in contemporary debates surrounding bilateral brain asymmetry. Through a reading of late-Victorian Gothic romances such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Stiles explores how late-Victorian fiction was influenced by neurological discourse and, conversely, how the beginnings of popular conceptualizations of neuroscience were influenced by figures such as Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, Stoker’s Van Helsing, and Wells’s extra-terrestrials. Stiles burrows into contemporaneous popular and medical discourses to answer these questions, arguing that late-Victorian fiction presents “deep-seeded fears spawned by cerebral localization” (3) and suggests that humans are “more than the sum of neurological impulses” (24).
Stiles provides a sound organization by grouping authors who touch on similar themes with respect to cerebral localization (i.e., the specification of brain functions). Stevenson and Stoker are grouped together because of their Gothic similarities; however, Stiles also categorizes them by having them comprise the “Reactionaries” section, which speaks to their anxieties about cerebral localization. While Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde critiques problems pertaining to the soul and bilateral brain asymmetry, Stoker’s Dracula (1897) materializes the fears of cerebral automatism that resulted from vivisectionist research. In the third section, Stiles typifies H.G. Wells and Marie Corelli as “Visionaries” due to their forward-looking views on the implications of neuroscientific developments on the human race—dystopian and utopian, respectively. The chapter on Wells examines many of his texts, from The Invisible Man (1897) to The First Men in the Moon (1901), focusing on the issue of brain hypertrophy at the expense of bodily atrophy and moral insanity. In contrast, the Corelli chapter focuses on her linkage of Christianity with the scientific materialism of the communication between neurons. Her misunder-standing of electrophysiology engendered an “Electric Creed” that preached a telepathic connection between humans and God. Stiles’s shortest section, “Materialists,” centers solely on Grant Allen and primarily on his text Recalled to Life (1891), examining how the protagonist typifies the biomechanical metaphor of the eye as a camera and the brain as a picture gallery. Stiles suggests that Allen was overtly materialist and “comfortable with biological determinism,” even though the seeping in of the Gothic ultimately betrays his espousal of “the human machine” (135) by giving the protagonist depth and complexity.
Stiles asserts that recent scholarship on “the intersections between Victorian physiological psychology and literature” has limited its scope to realist novels (4), and she challenges the notion that realism is a more productive genre to convey Victorian medical discourse than the intersecting genres of the Victorian Gothic and the Scientific Romance. She makes room for genres that, perhaps, might be excluded when discussing “literature and medicine,” in much the same way an uninformed observer might suggest that Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (1977) has nothing “realistic” to say about the surveillance technologies or psychoactive drugs of its day. Stiles speaks specifically for the Gothic Romance’s unique capacities to reflect on contemporary debates surrounding cerebral localization, biological determinism, and the existence of the human soul.
The focus on the biographical history and intention of each respective author vis-à-vis late-Victorian neuroscience provides a solid foundation for this study; indeed, the meticulous investigation into each author’s engagement with neurological discourse is impressive. Stiles demonstrates how an author’s overt stance on neurological debates can be betrayed by the text’s sometimes contradictory positions. While she effectively shows the impact of neurological technoculture on late-Victorian fiction, her discussion at times lacks a substantial treatment of how the fiction reciprocally influenced medical and popular-science discourses. In particular, the concluding section on Recalled to Life,which describes the text’s foreshadowing of “Freud’s understanding of a narrative break in consciousness” (115), does not substantiate the impact of fiction on culture to the same degree that other chapters do—for example, her suggestion that Dracula shows the vampire’s ability to help us both confront and evade anxieties about biological determinism, which remains valid and relevant for popular fiction today, especially considering the proliferation of vampire and zombie stories. This deficiency is due to the “Materialist” section not cohering as fluidly with the overall argument as the other two sections do. Perhaps if another text had been added, a stronger link could have been made to the influence of “materialist” fiction on neuroscientific discourses. Nonetheless, the Allen chapter could prove useful to sf scholars looking for late-Victorian examples of the conceptual metaphor of “the body as machine,” and Stiles’s analysis of the connections among vision, photography, the brain, and memory is excellent.
Ultimately, though, this text is likely to appeal more to the Victorianist or the medical historian looking for innovative work on the interactions among literature, culture, and medicine. Yet Brain Science still proves a valuable resource for the sf scholar looking to trace the lineage of certain sf tropes and generic influences. The chapter on Wells is particularly striking, showing the influence of Lamarckian evolution on his thinking and conveying a sense of the social anxieties surrounding the increasing power of scientists at the fin de siècle. The description of Wells’s extraterrestrials as having overly developed brains with weak bodies foreshadows future posthumanist tendencies in sf, a prioritizing of neurological over corporeal evolution. Brain Science’s epilogue provides a number of springboards to twentieth- and twenty-first-century sf, such as fears of cerebral automatism and new forms of biological (genetic and neurochemical) determinism, that recur in cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk writing. Overall, Brain Science is a welcome addition to both Victorian and sf studies.—Lorenzo Servitje, University of California, Riverside
Another Excellent Verne Translation.
The Sphinx of the Ice Realm: The First Complete English Translation, with the Full Text of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe. Trans. and ed. Frederick Paul Walter. Albany: State U of New York P/Excelsior, 2012. xix + 413 pp. $24.95 pbk.
The past couple of decades have witnessed a resurgence of interest in Jules Verne and the appearance of a host of new English translations of his legendary Voyages Extraordinaires. For example, Oxford University Press’s “World’s Classics” series has published several fine translations by William Butcher, including Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) in 1992, Around the World in 80 Days (1873) in 1995, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (1870) in 1998, and The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (1866) in 2005. Wesleyan University Press has published six Verne novels in its “Early Classics of Science Fiction” series: Invasion of the Sea (1905) and The Mysterious Island (1874) in 2001, The Mighty Orinoco (1898) in 2002, The Begum’s Millions (1879) in 2005, The Kip Brothers (1902) in 2007, and Travel Scholarships (1903) in 2013 in translations by Edward Baxter, the late Stanford L. Luce and Sidney Kravitz, and Teri Hernandez. The “Bison Frontiers of Imagination” series of the University of Nebraska Press has published English translations of some of the original manuscripts of Verne’s posthumous novels such as The Meteor Hunt (1908) in 2002, Lighthouse at the End of the World (1905) in 2007, The Golden Volcano (1906) in 2008, and The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz (1910) in 2011, by translators Butcher, Baxter, Walter James Miller, Frederick Paul Walter, and Peter Schulman. And in 2011 the North American Jules Verne Society sponsored the publication (in its “Palik Series” through BearManor) of several never-before-translated, unpublished early works by Verne such as The Marriage of a Marquis, Shipwrecked Family, Mr. Chimp and Other Plays, The Count of Chanteleine, and Vice, Redemption and the Distant Colony, translated by Baxter, Kravitz, Kieran M. O’Driscoll, and Frank Morlock.
One of the newest shining stars to be added to this constellation of recent Verne translations is The Sphinx of the Ice Realm, translated by Frederick Paul Walter and published last year in the “Excelsior Editions” series of SUNY Press. Following on the heels of their excellent omnibus collection of Amazing Journeys: Five Visionary Classics (2010; reviewed in SFS 37.3 : 515-19), Walter and SUNY Press have partnered again to bring this “First Complete English Translation” of Verne’s Le Sphinx des glaces (1897) to an Anglophone reading public.
In 2005, I published in these pages a lengthy article on Verne’s English translations—the good, the bad, and the very ugly—and I identified three general criteria to use when judging their quality: completeness (has the translator abridged the original?), accuracy (has the translator added to the original, mistranslated it, or censored it?), and style (has the translator captured the “feel” of the original in terms of its discursive structure, narrative voice, word-play, humor, and overall tone?). I shall refer to each of these criteria in my comments about The Sphinx of the Ice Real.
Before this book, there existed three other English translations of Verne’s Le Sphinx des glaces: the first, retitled An Antarctic Mystery, was by Mrs. Cashel Hoey and published in London by Sampson Low in 1898 (reprint by Gregg Press in 1975); the second, called The Sphinx of Ice, or An Antarctic Mystery, was edited by Charles Horne and published in New York by Vincent Parke in 1911; and the third, The Sphinx of the Ice-fields, was done by I.O. Evans and published in London and Westport, Connecticut by Arco and Associated Booksellers in 1961. Ironically perhaps, the first was the least bad of the three. It contained 26 chapters compared to 32 in Verne’s original; the second (a radically abridged rehash of the first) reduced the story to only 15 chapters; and the third contained 27 chapters, but the content of each chapter was severely chopped. Judging it by its overall completeness, the Frederick Paul Walter (FPW) translation—which contains not only all of Verne’s original 32 chapters but also a complete reprint of the work on which Verne’s novel was based, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1837)—is hands down the best of the lot.
In terms of its textual accuracy, the FPW translation is also much superior to the others. The following example is representative. Verne’s original novel often quotes passages from Poe’s text, from the famous French translation of Poe done by Baudelaire. When rendering Verne into English, instead of quoting Poe directly, Hoey translates Baudelaire’s version of Poe back into English:
Nevertheless, I did not fail to take into account the share that belongs to chance in human affairs, for it is wise, as Edgar Poe has said, always “to reckon with the unforeseen, the unexpected, the inconceivable, which have a very large share (in those affairs), and chance ought always to be a matter of strict calculation.” (7)
In contrast, the FPW translation uses Poe’s own words:
However, I didn’t forget to make allowances for the role that chance plays in human planning, because it’s smart, as Edgar Allan Poe has said, to always “calculate upon the unforeseen ... the unlooked for and unimagined.” Which means that it’s worth taking “collateral, or incidental, or accidental events” into serious account in your decision making, and chance should always be “a matter of absolute calculation.” (10)
FPW also gives a detailed explanation of this (mis)quote by Hoey in his “Textual Notes” at the back of the book—a highly useful source of textual oddities.
In addition to paraphrasing or abridging their original text, bad translators often seek to “improve” their author’s prose by adding to and/or embroidering upon it. Take, for example, the following passage from early in Verne’s novel:
“Why do you say the antarctic seas?” he went on, clutching me.
“But I could just as easily have said the arctic seas, or the North Pole instead of the South Pole....” (22-23, FPW)
This same passage in the Hoey translation now features an elaborate literary reference that did not exist in Verne’s original (complete with footnote at the bottom of the page to identify its source, Thomas D’Arcy McGee):
“Why do you speak of the Antarctic seas?” he asked, taking my hand.
“Well, just as I might have spoken of the ‘Hyperborean seas’ from whence an Irish poet has made Sebastian Cabot address some lovely verses to his ‘Lady.’ I spoke of the South Pole as I might have spoken of the North.” (24)
Or consider the following description of one of the species of fish caught by the sailors on board the schooner Halbrane:
As for fish, the schooner’s anglers got busy with their lines and tridents and laid in an ample supply, out of which some dolphinfish deserve special mention—they’re a sort of giant sea bream, three feet long, with firm, tasty meat. (120, FPW)
The same passage in the Hoey translation is supplemented by a lengthy footnote at the bottom of the page explaining the etymological (and religious) lineage of the fish’s name:
Among the denizens of the deep captured by the crew of the schooner with line and net, I noted more particularly a sort of giant John Dory1 (dorade) three feet in length, with firm and savoury flesh….
1 The legendary etymology of this piscatorial designation is Janitore, the “door-keeper,” in allusion to St. Peter, who brought a fish, said to be of that species, to our Lord at His command. (145)
Note also the phatic “our” in “to our Lord” where the translator speaks directly to the—presumably Christian—Anglophone reader. As these few examples demonstrate, in terms of its accuracy and faithfulness to Verne’s original text, this new FPW translation of The Sphinx of the Ice Realm is by far the best available. Even the “least bad” of the other translations (the Hoey) has some serious problems.
And then there remains the question of style. Does this new translation capture the important elements of Verne’s narrative recipe—his tongue-in-cheek humor, his play on words, his mixing of technical jargon with literary tropes, his “zest, irreverence, and storytelling virtuosity” (xix), as Walter explains in his preface? Yes, infinitely better than the previous translations. For example, unlike the others, FPW does not systematically censor Verne’s more salty passages, as in: “The weather was abominable” (Hoey 20) versus “It was weather for dogs, as the French say—or, in our vernacular, a bitch of a day” (FPW 20). And he makes an effort to reproduce the full range of Verne’s colorful—and sometimes offbeat—similes instead of watering them down, as in: “At all events the Halbrane will make more degrees of latitude than any other ship before her” (Hoey 91) versus “In any event the Halbrane’s going to cover more degrees of latitude than she has reef points in her spanker sail or ratlines in her rigging!” (FPW 76). I do have mixed feelings about how FPW adapts all of Verne’s metric measurements to US equivalents in order to appeal to American readers. And I also confess to having reservations about the appropriateness of FPW’s word choice whenever I see a twentieth-century American colloquialism coming out of the mouth of a nineteenth-century fictional character (as in “scramming out of Christmas Harbor” ) or when I encounter a term where, in my opinion, the translator goes over the line in attempting to enliven Verne’s vocabulary (as in “gasbag”  for “causeur” [talker, conversationalist] or “kicked the bucket”  for “mort” [died]). But these linguistic disagreements aside, my assessment of the overall quality of this English-language version of Verne’s novel—in its completeness, accuracy, and reproduction of Verne’s style—is that it is first-rate.
Finally, The Sphinx of the Ice Realm offers a very informative critical apparatus to accompany its fine translation: an introduction, an appendix containing a chapter from Verne’s published essay on Poe, an extensive set of “Textual Notes” (many of which offer insights into Verne’s manuscript variants), an analytical afterword that surveys what a number of contemporary literary critics have had to say about the novel (nicely located at the end of the book to avoid spoilers), and finally a “Recommended Reading” list consisting of critical works about Verne and Poe, other books by Verne available in modern translations, and a limited number of Internet resources related to Verne and Poe (although the website for the journal Verniana seems to be inadvertently missing: <http://www.verniana.org/>). A noteworthy addition to the ongoing international revival of Jules Verne, this book is highly recommended for all aficionados of Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires. And I believe it would be of strong interest to fans and scholars of Edgar Allan Poe as well.—Arthur B. Evans, SFS