#123 = Volume 41, Part 2 = July 2014
BOOKS IN REVIEW
The Transgressive Iain Banks: Essays on a Writer Beyond Borders. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013. viii + 198 pp. $40 pbk.
The prolific and tremendously popular Scottish writer Iain (M.) Banks died of gall bladder cancer on 9 June 2013 at the age of 59. His passing came as a great shock to his fans and admirers, including the editors of this book. “Instead of gesturing to potential changes of direction in his writing,” Katherine Cox explains in the Afterword, “we found ourselves considering his complete oeuvre” (179). While it is impossible to say whether or not Banks’s death had any impact on the final shape of this volume, it does lead one to wish he had been better served in this, the first posthumous survey devoted to his work. While not without its virtues and rewards, The Transgressive Iain Banks is a poorly edited and uneven collection.
Although Banks wrote many sf novels throughout his career (as Iain M. Banks), more attention is paid here to his mainstream fiction. This should not disappoint the sf fan—the exclusively Iain M. Banks reader—for the drift of the book is that Banks’s non-sf is an extremely hybrid kind of work, mixing realism, fantasy, and sf elements in a manner that renders it difficult to make easy distinctions. The collection is of a hybrid nature itself, with more specifically sf concerns and issues being consistently insinuated into the analyses of purportedly mainstream literary works. The book is divided into four parts: “Scottish Context,” “Geographies,” “Genre,” and “Gender, Games, and Play.” Part I begins with David Pattie’s “The Lessons of Lanark: Iain Banks, Alisdair Gray and the Scottish Political Novel,” an essay that usefully situates Banks’s first published novel, The Wasp Factory (1984), in the context of the “burgeoning Renaissance in Scottish literature” (13) sparked by Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981) in the early 1980s. Pattie suggests that the two novels constitute very similar “fables of power” (25), dark explorations of the individual’s subjection to political structures that do not speak to human needs. The second essay in the collection discusses Gray’s Lanark and Banks’s The Bridge (1986) in terms of their representations and analyses of Scottish postindustrial space. The essay, however, is just as much about the generic subversions (and perversions) that are necessary to meaningfully render such space in literary texts. As the essay’s author, Martyn Colebrook, writes: “The use of fantasy and speculative fiction characteristics allows the authors [Gray and Banks] to move away from the typically ‘working class’ representations of the city that are to be found in the work of novelists such as James Kelman or Jeff Terrington” (31). Colebrook assents to the label “fantastic realism” for Banks’s The Bridge. He also suggests that its conclusion is much more affirmative that Gray’s Lanark: the comatose Alex in The Bridge must fight his way back to the world of responsibilities and relationships, and readers are encouraged to interpret his struggle to consciousness as imbued with a distinctly ethical dimension.
This short unit on Scottish context is engaging, pressing as it does the importance of generic hybridity in Banks’s mainstream fiction. The next cluster of essays on “Geographies” suffers by comparison. The goal of the first essay by James Kneale is admirable: to get us “to think again about the taken-for- granted categories of space, place, and landscape” (60), but it does not get us far in that task. The essay misses key opportunities to explore critically and creatively Banks’s sf worldbuilding. The next two essays, by Tim Middleton and Bethan Jones, suggest connections between Scottish landscape and imaginary places in Banks’s mainstream novels, but they do so without clear critical or theoretical motivation. Part III, “Genre,” doubles back to the question of hybridity, although its initial approach is diffuse, reliant as it is on a vague and poorly theorized notion of transgression as an interpretive key to Banks’s fictions. The first essay in this unit, by Katherine Cox, reads like a second introduction and seems misplaced in the middle of the book. If its location makes any sense, it is to underscore the generic dimensions of Banks’s transgressiveness. His appearing and disappearing middle initial, we might productively glean from this essay cluster (and from the collection as a whole), does not differentiate Banks’s sf and mainstream works so much as it signals a pulsing alertness to the creative possibilities available in the elision of genres. As Kirsty A. MacDonald quotes Terry Eagleton at the end of her fine essay on “Banks and the Psychosomatic Supernatural”: “‘to be inside and outside a position at the same time—to occupy a territory while loitering skeptically on the boundary—is often where the most intensively creative ideas stem from’” (110).
The final unit opens with Sarah Falcus’s useful study of gender representations in Banks’s The Wasp Factory, Whit (1996), and The Business (2000). The lesson here is that while the female protagonists in these novels are delimited by the “patriarchal game,” they also “see the possibility of a different exploration of feminine identity” (134): Banks both is and is not one of the old boys. Less equivocally, as Will Slocombe suggests in “Games Playing Roles in Banks’ Fiction,” Banks is obsessed with games, even if patriarchy is not identified as one of them. Slocombe “endeavors to show that reality ... works through games,” and that “how we compete reveals our ethical stance towards others” (136). Even when Banks is not writing about games, Slocombe claims, he uses games and gamesmanship as structuring devices. The games in novels such as The Bridge, The Player of Games (1988), and Matter (2008) all point to the existence of a metagame that “matters above all others” (148), though Slocombe is reluctant to clarify this idea further. Whatever this metagame is, it ensures that “there is always a choice” to be made, no matter the circumstances. Special Circumstances operative Hyrlis’s dark meditation on the nature of reality in Matter would seem, contrary to Slocombe, to confirm that there are many “wretches” in the world (Hyrlis’s word) who can only dream of having choices; those for whom “the petty games of dominance and control” (148) are obscuring the metagame are in fact those that matter most.
The Transgressive Iain Banks concludes with two more sf essays: Joseph Norman’s “Digital Souls and Virtual Afterlives” and William Stephenson’s “‘Hippies with Meganukes’.” The first situates Banks’s Culture novels in a cyberpunk frame, foregrounding philosophical and theological considerations and ignoring political ones. The second is one of the very best essays in the collection, belatedly returning to the spirit of the opening essays, where the analysis of aesthetics and form is expertly coupled with political and ideological critique. The Culture is the West, Stephenson announces, “with its refined expertise in violence and its rapacious desire to hold onto global dominance and material prosperity” (166); it is “a disturbingly complacent symbiosis of war machine and state that offers an estranged metaphor for the British and American regimes of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries” (167). This sounds right on the money.
More critical activity on Banks’s vast and immensely creative oeuvre is sure to follow. In the meantime, the editors of The Transgressive Iain Banks do the sf community a great service in presenting this collection, flawed though it may be.
—Stephen Dougherty, University of Agder, Norway
The Physics—and Math—of Time Travel
Time Travel and Warp Drives: A Scientific Guide to Shortcuts Through Space and Time. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2013. xi + 268 pp. $18 pbk.
Allen Everett and Thomas Roman’s Time Travel and Warp Drives might be described as two half-books that merge into an uneasy but constructive whole: the first half is a fairly quick but detailed introduction to theoretical physics, the second half an exploration of contemporary time-travel research, a thriving subfield of physics for several decades now. Each part is useful and readable in its own way, and combined they epitomize both the pleasures and the pitfalls that a non-expert will encounter when exploring how scientists think about time travel or superluminal speed.
I will discuss the second half first, approximately chapters nine through fourteen, since it contains more of what is especially unique and engaging in the book. Everett and Roman are active participants in the area of time-travel research, and they communicate their enthusiasm for the topic in lucid and conversational prose, even when the science gets complicated. It may surprise readers that time travel and warp speed are subject matters at all outside of science fiction, but, as the authors note, “some physicists study these concepts very seriously” (2) both as real possibilities and as useful tests of physical theory. Everett and Roman describe a variety of scenarios that could conceivably permit one to break the “light barrier” or create a “closed timelike curve” (a shortcut to the past—future jumps are less problematic for current physics), and many of these scenarios will sound familiar to sf readers: wormholes, warp bubbles, infinitely long cylinders, Krasnikov Tubes, branching universes, and parallel cosmic strings. Like everyone who writes about time travel, Everett and Roman are also concerned with paradox, which they classify under two rubrics: “consistency paradoxes” (you go back and shoot your grandfather) and “information paradoxes” (you show young Edison the light bulb he will later invent). They analyze such paradoxes alongside the constraints the structure of spacetime itself places in the way of working time machines. Above all, any travel to the past, even if theoretically possible, would require the use of “exotic matter” (or “negative energy”), making a functional time machine about as feasible as a faster-than-light spaceship, and for many of the same reasons. Nevertheless, as a means of experimenting with conceptual relationships between matter, energy, spacetime, and causality, a time machine turns out to be a first-rate tool.
The reader’s ability to delve straight into the conceptual heart of these topics, as opposed to merely sitting back and watching the book’s cast of physicists do so, will likely depend on his or her level of scientific and mathematical training. While both active and passive readings may be worthwhile endeavors, they differ substantially in the comprehension required or achieved—and that difference brings me back to the book’s first half. Chapters one through eight lay out the groundwork in physics that one would need to understand the thought experiments explored in the book’s second half: thermodynamics, inertial and noninertial reference frames, and special and general relativity. Everett and Roman’s approach to this groundwork is distinguished from other lay accounts by its direct incorporation of a fairly large dose of mathematics, a strategy that demands from the reader a certain commitment to dealing with equations and calculations. While it is true that no especially tricky math is required to follow a demonstration of, say, special relativity or thermodynamics—Everett and Roman suggest that their reader needs only “high school algebra” (ix)—grasping what the equations themselves signify is quite another matter. For example, during a discussion of the “twin paradox,” a famous illustration of time dilation in relativity theory, the reader arrives at this sentence: “The invariance of the spacetime interval can be expressed as s2 = -?(ct ?)2 + (x ?)2 = -?(ct)2 + (x)2 where t ? will denote the proper time along the ‘bent’ worldline” (56). The algebra here may be high- school level, but the conceptualization conveyed through that algebra is decidedly more advanced. One may confirm this gap between math and concept either by recalling that a good many physicists have themselves been perplexed by the twin paradox or, if one feels more intrepid, by trying out oneself the “proof of the invariance of the spacetime interval” that Everett and Roman provide in one of their appendices (232-33). In any case, a layperson will inevitably encounter a threshold of comprehensibility at some point where numbers translate into concepts—or symbols into narrative.
Such a threshold marks the place in the text where a reader is prompted to ask why a certain physical phenomenon is permitted or prohibited, and the authors must make a decision about the combination of physical, mathematical, or purely narrative terms they will use to construct an answer. Every such decision incurs hazards. Everett and Roman generally lean toward mathematical explanations, an approach that steers clear of dubious analogies and simplifications but risks losing readers who may not be prepared to comprehend equations as fluently as their “high school algebra” should have enabled. Take the authors’ explanation of a famous sticking point of “hard” sf, the fact that “special relativity is generally believed to rule out travel at speeds greater than the speed of light” (39). Everett and Roman suggest that “[a] glance at the Lorentz transformation equations will indicate why this is so” (39), and for readers accustomed to the “why” of mathematical expressions, such a glance may indeed be enough. In effect, the Lorentz equation divides the right-hand side of the famous formula E=mc2 by a new denominator, (1-?v2/c2)-1/2, such that if the velocity (v) of a particle were to equal or exceed the speed of light (c), we would get either zero or the square root of a negative number in that denominator. The energy (E) of our particle (m) would then be mathematically undefined—in essence, “it would require infinite energy to accelerate such a particle to the speed of light” (39). So yes, “the form of the Lorentz transformations” explains why the velocity of a mass must remain less than light speed. But such a mathematical “why” is rather hollow unless one is able to intuit its conceptual significance—to get a feel for why a zero denominator or an undefined result connotes, in physical terms, a “light barrier.”
A reader bemused by the above vignette will remain likewise throughout Everett and Roman’s first eight chapters and will probably become more of a passive than an active reader in the final six. This should not be a reason to avoid the book, however, but rather an incentive to supplement its reading with other narrative accounts of current physics, of which there are a great many with varying levels of technicality. A good booklist might place the second half of Everett and Roman’s book alongside works on time travel by writers such as J. Richard Gott, David Deutsch, Igor Novikov, and (especially) Kip Thorne. The book’s more general first half would be complemented by recent works by Brian Greene, Sean Carroll, Paul Davies, Roger Penrose, and many others. Canonical popularizations by Eddington, Gamow, Born, Feynman, Hawking, et al., remain invaluable, and Einstein’s own Relativity: The Special and General Theories (1920) is a matchless foundation and a sheer pleasure to read. It should not discourage any reader that only a full shelf of texts will suffice as even a primer on “time travel and warp drives” and that the layperson’s endeavor to understand them is—not unlike the physicist’s, at least in this respect—lifelong.
—David Wittenberg, University of Iowa
Imagining Outer Space: European Astroculture in the Twentieth Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. xviii + 393 pp. $105 hc.
Imagining Outer Space is part of an ambitious effort by its editor, Alexander C.T. Geppert, to chart a new course for scholarly investigations of European space culture. The specific remit of the book is to expose and delimit how Europeans projected themselves into the new imaginative terrain opened up in the space age of the mid-twentieth century. Emerging from an international conference held in Germany in 2008, this scholarly collection seeks to establish a new interdisciplinary field: astroculture. It offers a generous sampling of work by both established and younger scholars who approach the cultural history of space exploration from a wide range of critical nterests and national contexts. Astroculture’s central disciplinary gesture is to allow a productive interchange among sf studies, the history of science and technology, and cultural history.
The great weight of space-age scholarship is focused on the political and technoscientific aspects of the Cold War-era space race. This is familiar territory for American historians from the general sweep of Walter A. McDougall’s pioneering study The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (1985) to the fascinating particularity of Nicholas De Monchaux’s Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo (2011). Similar work covering the achievements of Soviet space ventures includes Asif A. Siddiqi’s The Red Rockets’ Glare: Spaceflight and the Soviet Imagination, 1857-1957 (2010). While this research has been central to preserving and evaluating the domestic and international implications of the twentieth-century spaceflight movement, it vastly outweighs informed investigations of the artistic, literary, and cultural production that established, responded to, and made meaningful the characters, events, and machines of that era’s ambitious but abortive “conquest of space.” Imagining Outer Space seeks to redress the balance by presenting scholarship that accounts more fully for what Howard McCurdy and Roger Launius have identified as the imaginative resources of the “spacefaring dream.” Thus Imagining Outer Space centers our attention on the expressive, performative aspect of twentieth-century European astroculture as represented in comic books, science fiction, television and motion pictures, journalism, popular music, and public relations, as well as by scientists creating communicative artifacts and UFO enthusiasts founding new religions. These science/fictions offer us a record of the astroculture that made outer space more than a simple projection of terracentric superpower conflict.
For readers of SFS, the most important contribution of this volume may be its exhumation and exploration of some aspects of European science fiction as an integral part of twentieth-century space culture. This move is premised on implicit recognition of the persuasive role the genre has played in making outer space, its machines and projects, a commonplace of modern life. Imagining Outer Space’s engagement with sf scholarship is indicated by its use of my term “astrofuturism” as a conceptual paradigm with which and against which a broader astroculture may be defined.
Pursuant to this agenda, Geppert organizes the book into five major sections representing flanking approaches to astroculture: narration, projection, visualization, encounter, and inscription. Each division balances its presentation between exploration of a particular historical subject and examinations of more general ideas in science and fiction. To any reader familiar with the general mix of space science and spaceflight enthusiasm, much familiar ground is covered. We see particular luminaries such as Wernher von Braun and Arthur C. Clarke, the iconic television programs Star Trek (1966-69) and Space: 1999 (1975-77), the attempts at extratrerrestrial communication of astronomers Carl Sagan and Colin Pillinger, and so on. The collection also includes chapters on less familiar topics that mirror and define the public enthusiasm for spaceflight in Germany, England, France, and Belgium, as well as the United States and the Soviet Union. By invoking the familiar, Imagining Outer Space also prompts us to explore often overlooked aspects of twentieth-century astroculture.
The first section, “Narrating Outer Space,” establishes the imaginative hold that outer space has had on the Russian and European imaginations. Steven J. Dick’s “Space, Time, and Aliens” sets the stage, but it is Thomas Brandstetter’s “Imagining Inorganic Life” that best makes the case for science/fiction’s potential in speculations about extraterrestrial life. Claudia Schmölder’s account of the variety of fictive and nonfictional ways in which the 1908 Tunguska event has been recovered and understood suggests how this extraterrestrial incursion might change our writing of history. The following section, “Projecting Outer Space,” orbits around Michael J. Neufeld’s “Smash the Myth of the Fascist Rocket Baron,” a history of how East German writers and filmmakers sought to undermine the political value of the US space program by exposing von Braun’s war-time service in Nazi Germany. Rainer Eisfeld’s piece on the imaginative use of Mars and Thore Bjørnvig’s essay on the transcendent aspects of Clarke’s thought usefully frame the rocket engineer within mid-twentieth century science/fiction and its aspirations. The West’s willingness to forgive von Braun’s Nazi past is of a piece with his role fostering access to the free worlds of outer space.
The scholars featured in the next section, “Visualizing Outer Space,” recall the ways in which the last frontier was televised and drawn for earth-bound audiences. Bernd Mütter argues that West German media produced a popular image of spaceflight as apolitical and universal in the popular science and sf programs it televised. Guillaume de Syon grapples with the visual culture of space travel through the Francophone comic strips Buck Danny (1947-2008), Dan Cooper (1954-77), and Tintin (1929- ), arguing that they offered a way for audiences in Belgium and France to envision new “modes of technological life” (174). Henry Keazor claims that Space: 1999 demonstrates both a love for the utopian futurism embedded in the show’s design and special effects as well as a vision of the space future as a grim struggle for the “energy to survive and reproduce” (194-95). We are left with an astrofuturism that educates but is not always utopian.
The section “Encountering Outer Space” focuses on how UFO phenomena may be perceived and evaluated as important and necessary components of twentieth-century astroculture. Debbora Battaglia introduces a critique of the Raëlian religion’s desire for extraterrestrial contact as a recapitulation of a “colonialist technocratic order” (218). Raëlianism becomes a test case in her advocacy of a critical ethnography that seeks to avoid replication of the self- serving and predatory practices that followed European “discovery” of other peoples. Pierre Lagrange argues that the UFO debate in Europe and America was not a simple outgrowth of science fiction or Cold War politics, noting it was as likely to create skepticism as belief. James Miller’s chapter presents a fascinating account of how UFO phenomena may be seen as emblematic of the strains and hopes of mid-century French life
The book’s final section, “Inscribing Outer Space,” has a general focus on how spaceflight produced communicative art. William R. Macauley demonstrates the socially embedded nature of science through its transcription into visual media. In his hands, the Pioneer and Voyager probes are revealed as the products of a variety of sociocultural discourses imbricated in the historical moment of their production. They reveal not only their creators’ desire to craft communicative emissaries to extraterrestrial civilizations but also to offer a pan-cultural representation of humanity and its accomplishments. Tristan Weddiggen’s history of Colin Pillinger’s promotion of the ESA probe Beagle 2 provides insight into the way in which popular and fine art have been linked with science in the projection of a culture of capitalist consumerism in outer space. By contrast, Gonzolo Munévar’s piece on the technological challenges inherent in creating self-reproducing, autonomous machines argues that it may be harder to populate the universe with our artifacts than we might hope. The volume closes with Philip Pocock’s survey of the new space art that has been created on digital platforms accessible through the Internet—the implication being that the international cultural production of outer space is not confined to the heroic period of the 1950s and 1960s.
Imagining Outer Space is a brilliantly organized compendium of current scholarship at the intersection between space history and the popular cultures of science/fiction. It also sheds new light on the often underplayed European contributions to imagining outer space as a richly inhabited human realm. It successfully establishes “astroculture” as an energetic and growing area of scholarly production and debate.
—De Witt Douglas Kilgore, Indiana University
A JGB Grab Bag
The J.G. Ballard Book. Toronto: Terminal, 2013. 191 pp. $32 hc.
The title of the newest entry in the secondary literature on J.G. Ballard can be a little off-putting at first. It either implies some sort of definitiveness or it exposes the lack of an organizing principle. A quick look at the table of contents suggests the latter possibility: The J.G. Ballard Book is an impressive grab bag of essays, interviews, personal accounts, fanfiction, and memorabilia, designed with the Ballard aficionado in mind. The editor, long-time Ballard collector Rick McGrath, admits in his introduction that the volume has no theme: “if nothing else, let the contents be eclectic. No point being specific—let’s see what the wind from everywhere blows in” (7). And indeed it blows in all sorts of things, none of which could be considered essential.
The volume is fashioned after V. Vale and Andrea Juno’s groundbreaking RE/Search issue on Ballard, published in 1984, whose mixture of artwork, interviews, uncollected pieces, criticism, and fiction made it a perfect introduction to the author. The J.G. Ballard Book, while taking its design cues from the RE/Search volume, has its audience at the opposite end of the spectrum. Tom Hunter, in his online ’zine Arc: The Journal of the Future (<http://arcfinity.tumblr.com/>), shrewdly likens the collection to an exhibition catalogue of a contemporary art gallery that never took place, and this is apparent in the lavish devotion to archival materials, with full-page blow-ups of handwritten letters and annotations.
The main draw is two rediscovered interviews. One, from 1975, is Ballard at his most entertaining: he interacts with a dog that is trying to fellate himself and spins yarns about arguing with the hospital staff after his car accident over the copyright of his skull x-rays. Things get more serious with a discussion of electronic media in the future, ideas that would resurface a couple of years later in his short story “The Intensive Care Unit” (1977). The other interview, conducted by David Pringle after the release of Empire of the Sun (1984), is mainly about science and science fiction, and it is good to read Ballard’s takes on H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke, as well as his idiosyncratic views on Gerard O’Neill, Carl Sagan, and Freeman Dyson: “It seems to me [they] belong in the territory of flying saucer fanatics, Seventh-Day Adventists and millennial end of the world religious cults—a bizarre warping of the human imagination around some strange personal obsession” (11).
The most striking of the essays is Mike Bonsall’s “J.G. Ballard in the Dissecting Room,” in which illustrations from an anatomy manual Ballard probably had some familiarity with in his year as a medical student are juxtaposed with passages of anatomic description from his novels and stories. Bonsall’s piece fits well with the “exhibition” aspect of the volume, even if the accompanying collage is nothing new to Ballard fans (see, for example, Phoebe Gloeckner’s anatomy drawings for the 1990 RE/Search edition of The Atrocity Exhibition ). Ballardians will certainly be interested in Mike Holliday’s thorough history of the texts that comprise Atrocity Exhibition, which reveals a great deal about the relationship among the stories in that book, often considered a novel. Particularly revealing is the probable origin of the messianic motif of “You and Me and the Continuum” (1966), later echoed in Crash (1973) and The Unlimited Dream Company (1979): a suggestion by Kyril Bonfiglioli, the editor of Science Fantasy magazine, that Ballard write a story on the theme of “sacrifice,” which got the author thinking about “a botched second coming ... with the Messiah never quite managing to come to terms with the twentieth century” (106); as Holliday rightly notes, this is a core theme of The Atrocity Exhibition as a whole.
McGrath’s own piece, about his Shanghai pilgrimage to find Ballard’s house and the camp where he was interned, narrates an intriguing adventure, encouraged by none other than Ballard himself (his letters are faithfully reproduced). But what is left of Ballard’s Shanghai? Not much, as it appears: the Ballard home is now a restaurant and Lunghua camp a school. When Ballard visited the city in 1991 (an event documented in the poignant BBC special Shanghai Jim, available on YouTube), it still resembled the places he knew. The most interesting aspect of McGrath’s project is Ballard’s own recollections and how they might compare to their fictional counterparts. Another outstanding piece is Rick Poynor’s “Visualizing the Ballardian Image,” which analyzes the book covers and related visual material associated with Ballard’s fiction. This essay was previously published in two parts as “What Does J. G. Ballard Look Like?” in Design Observer, the online version featuring even more images (see <http://observatory.designobserver.com/feature/what-does-jg-ballard-look-like/24668/>).
The other pleasures to be found in The J.G. Ballard Book are the extensive, full-page reproductions of Ballard’s hand-written answers to an interview (he writes with a fountain pen, blue ink), and his edits to the James Goddard 1970 bibliography and the 1975 interview by Goddard and Pringle. Here we get a sense of Ballard the meticulous editor, certainly reinforcing the idea that his interviews are as painstakingly composed as his fictions. These are, however, minor documents that yield limited insights. As a visit to the Ballard archives at the British Library (one can get a glimpse of a page of a heavily annotated typescript of Crash on their website) will show, there is still a lot we do not know about the way Ballard wrote. What is in The J.G. Ballard Book is only the tip of the iceberg, and there is more to be learned here about Ballard fandom than about Ballard’s work itself. Nevertheless, this volume is an admirable achievement and proof that the interest in Ballard is as high as it has ever been, and that we “Ballardians” have still a lot to look forward to.
—Pedro Groppo, Universidade Federal de Viçosa, Minas Gerais
A Solid, if Limited Overview
Doctor Who and Race. Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2013. ix + 308 pp. $30 pbk. Dist. U of Chicago P.
The essays collected in Doctor Who and Race explore the presentation of race and racial identity in the BBC television series Doctor Who over its fifty years on and off the air. As the articles collected here cover both the original run of the series (1963-89) and the renewed series (2005- ), along with spin-off media related to the show, they are able to thoroughly discuss the often contradictory range of perspectives on race presented over the show’s lifespan. For people unfamiliar with the premise, Doctor Who follows a “Time Lord” called the Doctor who outwardly appears human despite his alien origin. He travels through history and in outer space with a series of human traveling companions. Although he is an alien, the Doctor is commonly read as a quintessentially imperialist British character, often espousing a liberal-humanist optimism about human nature and behaving paternalistically toward both the human and alien characters he interacts with, although the Doctor’s paternalism is occasionally subverted within the show. As editor Lindy Orthia points out in her introduction, this collection represents a much needed scholarly voice in an already rich and ongoing fan conversation about racial representation in the series, in particular conversations about the lack of diverse casting and the often problematic treatment of characters of color. Acknowledging the way the academic discussion of the show is indebted to ongoing fan discussions, Orthia has brought together both academic and fan contributors. The book also draws on fan discourse in its form, being divided between 6000-8000-word essays and shorter 1000-2000-word pieces meant to approximate blog posts, although these shorter commentaries were written by both fans and scholars.
The book is divided into five sections, each covering different reoccurring issues in the series. The first two sections cover the related issues of diversity and representation in casting and the racial dynamic between the central character and his human traveling companions. I found Mike Hernandez’s essay “‘You can’t just change what I look like without consulting me!’: The Shifting Racial Identity of the Doctor” particularly engaging, as he presents a compelling reading of how the character, particularly in the most recent incarnation, has taken on the characteristics of a diasporic intellectual in his attempts to mediate between his alien origin and his attachment to specifically British Earth cultures, showing how this promise has been left unfulfilled by producers and showrunners who refuse to cast an actor of color in the role. The next two sections are also closely related: the first is on colonialism, imperialism, slavery, and diaspora, the second on xenophobia and national identity. The book concludes with a section looking at the connections between race and science, an important focus for a series that often presents scientific advancements optimistically and unproblematically. Kristine Larsen’s “‘They Hate Each Other’s Chromosomes’: Eugenics and the Shifting Racial Identity of the Daleks” and Rachel Morgain’s “Mapping the Boundaries of Race in The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood” were both standout essays from this section. Larsen’s chapter explores the way the complex treatment of eugenics and hybridity in the “Dalek” alien species complicates their tendency to act as a somewhat overdetermined allegory for Nazism. Morgain performs a close reading of a two-episode storyline that depicts the Doctor mediating between humans and another sentient species indigenous to Earth, pointing out that the Doctor, despite his defense of and outward respect for the alien race, relies on a European Englightenment model of anthropological discovery and adopts a condescending attitude toward the racialized others that is not resolved at the conclusion of the story. The Doctor’s enthusiasm for meeting a new species results in his coining a series of Latinate names for this group, a choice that shows his failure to ask what the species calls itself, as well as indicating the ontological flexibility inherent in the language of racial identity.
Overall, Doctor Who and Race is an engaging collection that presents a solid overview of the connections to race, colonialism, diaspora, and xenophobia that occur within the show, but it is perhaps too focused on this particular topic to appeal to readers who are neither scholarly fans nor fan scholars interested in this particular series. Although all of the essays present excellent readings of individual episodes and storylines, their arguments are not as useful for looking at broader issues in film and television scholarship outside of Doctor Who. While this collection covers a range of racial issues across the entire run of the series, most of the essays could also address the way racial allegories become more complex when they occur in an encounter between humans and other fantastical species. More specifically, it would have been useful if at least some of the essays had addressed how recent animal-studies scholarship on human-alien contact stories could expand or complicate the way race functions in this subgenre.
—Stina Attebery, University of California, Riverside
Oltre la fantascienza: Paradigmi e intertestualità nella narrativa di J.G. Ballard [Beyond Science Fiction: Paradigms and Intertextuality in J.G. Ballard’s Fiction]. Roma: Aracne, 2013. 167 pp. €12 pbk.
One of the merits of Polcini’s exploration of Ballard-land is that it, unlike other recent monographs, does not ignore the vital connection between Ballard’s oeuvre and sf, especially at the beginning of his career. In fact she devotes a good part of the first chapter, “Contesti e intertesti letterari” [Literary Contexts and Intertexts] to a brief but original overview of the British New Wave and New Worlds. By connecting this literary milieu with contemporary French theories of intertextuality (Kristeva and her rediscovery of Bakhtin), Polcini shows that the idea of a “quotationist” literature—a textual collage of materials gathered by the author from literary and non-literary sources—was in the air during the 1960s. The rest of the first chapter tackles the issue of the border between sf and mainstream fiction, and there is a brief but rich survey of how Ballard’s commentators have dealt with the theme of intertextuality to date.
The second chapter, “Le ombre intertestuali del Vecchio Marinaio” [The Intertextual Shadows of the Ancient Mariner”] carries out a competent and original reading of two short stories by Ballard, “Tomorrow is a Million Years” (1966) and “Cry Hope, Cry Fury” (1967), along with two novels that have not been considered among Ballard’s major achievements, The Drought (1966) and Rushing to Paradise (1994). Polcini aims to trace the echoes of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) that resonate in these works, showing how Ballard used that masterpiece of visionary Romantic poetry to weave a complex and multi-layered literary texture. It is not only Coleridge’s sailor (and albatross) that haunt these pages, but also hints of the legend of the Flying Dutchman and Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). These citations of narratives of the sea might seem paradoxical inasmuch as, with the exception of Rushing to Paradise, all the other texts are set in arid landscapes of sand and dust, be they on the scorched earth of The Drought, struck by devastating climate change, or on faraway alien planets covered by seas of sand. But Polcini manages to prove that Ballard plays a complex game of inversions in all these works, a game that uses overt literary references as beacons that should invite readers into a complex game of decoding and interpretation. For example, Polcini rightly argues that “The hypotext of Coleridge’s Rime is inserted in Rushing thanks to the motif of the killed albatross, which assumes multiple and often mutually contradictory values. In the first part of the narrative, the albatross stands as an emblem of the animalist struggle led by Dr Rafferty” (63; translation mine), but it then acquires other meanings, no more an innocent symbol of environmentalist engagement, but (as in Coleridge) a sign of sin and guilt. “It is remarkable,” notes Polcini, “that the image opening and closing the novel is that of Barbara Rafferty standing among the torn and bloody carcasses of the slaughtered albatross colony” (65); but the meaning of the Coleridgean sea-bird has changed: at the beginning, it is an innocent victim, but then it turns into a projection of Rafferty’s deranged mind, prepared to commit acts of crazed violence. Polcini’s discussion of Ballard’s inverted use of Coleridgean images is a welcome contribution to criticism on the author, which too often focuses only on modern and contemporary references.
The third chapter, “Alla deriva dell’essere: Robinson Crusoe ‘alla rovescia’“ [Drifting in the Sea of Being: Robinson Crusoe Upside Down] deals with “inverted Crusoeism,” a concept Ballard himself introduced in his novel The Drowned World (1962). Polcini focuses on all those characters that isolate themselves in weirder spaces than Crusoe’s original tropical island, finding different reincarnations of Defoe’s castaway in “The Terminal Beach” (1964), “Deep End” (1961), “The Enormous Space” (1989), and Concrete Island (1974). Polcini explains how the phrase “inverted Crusoeism” is not just one of Ballard’s typical outbursts of irony but is also a quite straightforward description of his intertextual strategy, methodically applied to all texts, in which Robinson, the Puritan bourgeois hero of Enlightenment England, is stubbornly turned upside down, becoming a castaway in a metropolitan or suburban environment; far from establishing a rational and efficient control of nature, he surrenders to the deep drives of his unconscious. Having explored myself how Ballard reused Defoe in “The Ultimate City” (1976), I can appreciate Polcini’s exploration of the intertextual depth of these narratives, showing how their cartographies of inner space may have been triggered by Freud and Jung but are also animated by an iconoclastic deconstruction of the English literary tradition. I just wish she had been more radical in certain moments of her reading—as, for example when she contrasts Crusoe’s horror at the sight of the cannibals feeding on human meat with the deliberate descent into savagery of Ballantyne, the protagonist of “The Enormous Space”: she might have concluded that while Crusoe attacks the cannibals, Ballantyne, his Ballardian avatar, becomes a cannibal. Thus the inversion would have been complete, and absolutely Ballardian.
The fourth chapter, “La trappola del mediascape: Intertesti mediatici e culturali” [The Trap of the Mediascape: Media and Cultural Intertexts], deals with The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and Hello America (1971). This chapter is less original than the previous two, because Atrocity is a book that has been disassembled and reassembled by so many critics—including some of the best commentators, such as Andrzej Gasiorek and Roger Luckhurst—that it is really difficult to say something new about it (at least, in twenty pages printed in a rather large font). Moreover, this part of the book, in which what is analyzed comes from the media and not the literary tradition, demands a solid knowledge of recent US history, and there are at least two paragraphs in which the the author’s grasp is not so confident: calling Charles Manson “pluriomicida” [a serial killer] (121) means oversimplifying one of the most complex and contradictory figures in the American mediascape, while presenting the deranged President Manson in the novel as “heir to Howard Hughes’ economic empire” (122) misses the point, as Ballard’s character identifies himself with Hughes as the archetypal and iconic US tycoon.
The fifth chapter, “Dalla vita vissuta alla vita narrata: intertesti storici e autobiografici” [From Real Life to Narrated Life: Historical and Autobiographical Intertexts], deals with Ballard’s LIFE TRILOGY, including Empire of the Sun (1984), The Kindness of Women (1991) and Miracles of Life (2008), applying the concept of intertextuality to the complex interrelations among these three texts in a persuasive way by focusing on how Ballard’s variations of autobiographical episodes work together and link up with other items in Ballard’s oeuvre (such as the remarkable short story “The Dead Time”  and writings that should be included in the paratext—e.g., introductions to story collections and/or interviews). This part of Polcini’s monograph, though competently written and rich in interpretive insights, does not focus on the science-fictional part of Ballard’s production, even though it implicitly calls for a long-overdue rereading of Ballard’s early sf works that takes into account his later autobiographical output. Interestingly, Polcini takes at least a step towards that (144-45) by rereading an episode in Atrocity Exhibition—the display of crashed cars—in the light of Ballard’s treatment of an exhibition he actually organized in 1969 (as told in Miracles of Life).
I would like to end my review by pointing out one of the most important accomplishments of Oltre la fantascienza. Polcini manages to steer clear of a problem that dogs many booklength studies of the author—that is, focusing only on Ballard’s novels and neglecting his short stories. Ballard was a brilliant novelist, but it is above all as an original and powerful short fiction writer that he will be remembered, on a par with such masters as Hemingway and Borges. And JGB scholarship needs more works like Polcini’s, which connect Ballard’s short stories with his novels and nonfiction writings. I hope that Polcini will consider writing an enlarged version of her monograph, possibly in English for an international publishing house, so that it may be available to non-Italian- reading Ballard scholars.
—Umberto Rossi, Rome
Bridging the Ontological Divide
Tech Anxiety: Artificial Intelligence and Ontological Awakening in Four Science Fiction Novels. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013. vii + 242 pp. $45 pbk.
In Tech Anxiety, Christopher Sims attempts to use the philosophy of Martin Heidegger to explore the apparent anxieties over the threat posed to humanity by artificial intelligence in a series of well-known sf novels, arguing for a significant positive element in this anxiety. In particular, he argues that, in each case, the new perspectives provided by nonhuman intelligence potentially open up human beings to new ways of experiencing and understanding the world. He begins with a long and detailed introductory section discussing Heidegger’s views on technology, views that themselves have been the object of differing interpretations over the years, then proceeds to extended readings of four specific novels.
Sims’s use of Heidegger hinges on Heidegger’s discussion of the ontology of “enframing,” which involves the process through which humans have come to think of themselves as subjects and the rest of the world—including both technology and nature—as an Other to be treated as an object of domination and control. The crux of Sims’s project is to argue that artificial intelligences, by providing a clear Other that eludes this control and cannot be treated simply as an object, potentially provide human beings with an impetus for breaking through the ontology of enframing and establishing a new relationship with the world. Herein, however, lies the rub, because Sims never really demonstrates that you need his elaborate Heideggerian framework to produce the same results. In fact, the major flaw in this text (which nevertheless produces some thought-provoking readings) is that it seems almost slavishly devoted to Heidegger while ignoring other theoretical resources (such as Horkheimer and Adorno on Enlightenment reason) that might have worked just as well—or at least served as a useful supplement to Heidegger.
In his chapter on Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey (he ignores the film entirely, for greater clarity of focus), Sims argues that the harrowing experience with HAL actually serves the positive function of preparing astronaut Dave Bowman for his upcoming encounter with an alien intelligence. Indeed, for Sims, the advanced technologies with which various characters interact throughout this novel tend to inspire a genuine sense of awe and wonder that helps them to escape the ontology of enframing and thus to prepare for the next evolutionary step that is always on the horizon. In short, it creates fresh perspectives very much in the mode described by Darko Suvin as cognitive estrangement, a central concept in sf criticism that Sims fails even to mention in his book.
Sims next turns to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a novel that is, oddly enough, also from 1968 and also probably better known in its film version—Blade Runner (1982)—than as a novel. Here, Sims employs his Heideggerian framework to argue, against most conventional readings of the novel, that the real point of Dick’s narrative is to conduct a critique of individualism and to demonstrate “how technology can be used as a means to reclaim the essence of humanity” (111). For Sims, Rick Deckard’s encounters with androids cause him to re-examine human mastery over the non-human world, once again allowing him to break through the ontology of enframing. The advanced androids of the novel, perfectly designed to challenge the strict boundary between humans and their technological products, are a model example of the use of technology to shatter enframing, though Sims admits that this result is merely a side effect and that the Rosen Association designed the androids in this manner not due to some philosophical mission but in a capitalist quest for profit. Sims, however, seems little interested in following up on the implications of this fact, as indeed he has little interest in the economics of technology throughout the book. Meanwhile, he sees Dick’s fictional religion in the novel as serving a similar function, but Sim’s vision of Mercerism is also idealized, even though the religion is revealed in the story to be a sham, something Sims notes but then dismisses, presumably because it does not fit well within his Heideggerian scheme.
This scheme becomes even more imperious in the next chapter, on William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984)—a chapter that would, on its own, probably be the strongest and most useful in the book. Coming where it does, however, the inventive reading of Gibson’s novel in this chapter tends to reinforce a growing sense that Sims is more interested in his Heideggerian model than in the primary texts and that he is accordingly willing to shoehorn all of the novels he reads into a pattern that fits that model. Neuromancer, it turns out, is all about using technology to break free of the constraints of enframing; in other words, it sounds like pretty much the same novel as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The same thing also happens in the final chapter, on David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004), in which the perceived threat of an artificial intelligence once again simply turns out to provide a new perspective to shake humanity out of the bad habit of thinking of the relationship between humans and the world as one of self-versus-other. All of this might be fine, though surely Sims does not wish to argue that all novels about tech anxiety and artificial intelligence magically turn out simply to be illustrations of Heidegger’s ideas.
It would be helpful, therefore, to have some counter-examples, or perhaps to see a discussion of some works (such as the “Culture” novels of Iain M. Banks) in which artificial intelligence does not even appear to be a threat to humanity. But we have no such examples, so that Sims’s arguments often read as if he regards Heidegger’s theories as some sort of inexorable law of nature, the task of the critic becoming a demonstration of how all fictional texts necessarily obey those laws. This approach lacks the richness that might have been achieved by a more dialectical approach. What if, for example, Heidgger’s theories do not usefully illuminate the texts being read, or what if they illuminate them in a different way? All in all, Tech Anxiety is more about Heidegger than about Gibson or Dick; for those interested primarily in science fiction, it produces some intriguing perspectives, but they are a bit too narrowly focused.
—M. Keith Booker, University of Arkansas
Sweeping and Ahistorical
The Scientist as God: A Typological Study of a Literary Motif, 1818 to the Present. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2012. 263 pp. $66 hc.
Sven Wagner’s The Scientist as God surveys a number of nineteenth- and twentieth-century texts that, as the title suggests, deal with the theme of the scientist transgressing against or appropriating divine power or prerogative. This is a dissertation that has been “revised for publication,” and it reads like it. Wagner is, in several places, at pains to explain to the reader that he is engaged in a “typological study” of this theme. What this means is that he is primarily concerned with classifying individual texts as some combination of “tragic,” “comic,” or “theological allegory.” The book’s five main chapters are arranged according to this logic: we discover, for example, in chapter 2, that Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” (1843) is tragic, in chapter 3 that Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is tragic and theological, in chapter 4 that Vonnegut’s “Fortitude” (1968) is tragic and comic, in chapter 5 that Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) is tragic, comic, and theological, and finally in chapter 6 that Shaw’s Pygmalion (1912) is comic. This is about as exciting as it sounds.
It is difficult to see what is at stake in any of this, since Wagner’s only goal is to classify texts according to sweeping and ahistorical generic categories. His analysis rarely goes beyond the claim that stories that are funny are comic, and those that end badly are tragic; the former are therefore, according to Wagner, “satiric,” while the latter are “didactic.” His major theoretical references in this endeavor are Aristotle and Northrop Frye (along with a shallow bibliography disconcertingly full of texts whose titles include words like “dictionary” or “glossary”). Each chapter generally proceeds by discussing various definitions of the category at hand and then moves on to close readings (mostly just summaries) of a handful of texts in order to demonstrate that they belong to this category. These close readings are jammed together without any consideration for chronology or historical context: the first main chapter, for example, skips bizarrely from Michael Crichton to Herman Melville to H.P. Lovecraft, without any attempt to contextualize or place the texts in their historical relations to one another. For Wagner, this stubborn formalism is an explicit methodological program and, therefore, a virtue, but the effect is to make the book seem (at least to this reader) half- hearted and old-fashioned. Wagner deigns to consider history in a single paragraph in the conclusion, only to demur that there is “no discernible historical progression” other than “a trend toward increased ... complexity” (233). Although he claims that Atwood has invented a new form, he does not offer any explanation of what this means or why we should care (and really, all he manages to achieve in his discussion of her novel is a demonstration of the inadequacy of his own clumsy categorization, since he simply argues that the text contains elements of all three of his types).
Wagner’s other claims are similarly trivial: in reading The Scientist as God, we encounter such bold theses as “this suggests that a correlation exists in the genre of the scientist-as-God tragedy between didacticism and religion” (33) or “since the allegorical retellings paint a fairly dark picture of god, they can be described as theocritical” (187). I suspect that the problem might be that Wagner simply does not know very much about religion: he rarely, if ever, discusses religious texts or thinkers, and his presentation of the “religious viewpoint” is often a caricature. For example, Wagner makes the simplistic assumption that “the Bible” consistently presents God as a perfect being (98). This is, at best, a point of contention—indeed, it is hard to see how any attentive reader of the Hebrew Bible could come away with the impression that God is supposed to be “perfect,” since he makes mistakes, changes his mind, and succumbs to outbursts of irrational emotion. Later Christian thinkers may certainly have interpreted the text in this way, but Wagner’s discussion is oblivious to the inherent tensions and palimpsestic nature of the religious tradition. Similarly, Wagner claims at one point that “God’s chief attribute, certainly according to Christianity, is perfect compassion and love” (129). Though this is not entirely wrong, such a simplistic claim will sit uneasily with anyone who is familiar with texts such as Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), in which compassion and love are hardly the most salient attributes of divinity. The book is plagued by similarly shallow and completely unsubstantiated claims about the theological content of “Christianity” (or, worse, “religion” tout court), as though it were a self- contained monolith rather than a constellation of related but radically divergent and often contradictory strands.
Wagner redeems himself a bit in his discussion of atheist and deist thinkers (mostly Diderot and Hume), in which he makes the intriguing observation that the elevation of the scientist to the role of divine creator coincides with an increasingly skeptical attitude towards divine perfection in which the deity is presented as “uncaring and relatively incompetent” (100). But this thesis, though more promising than the rest of Wagner’s book, is never developed adequately. The main lesson to be drawn from this text is that not all dissertations deserve to be published; there might be a good book to be written about this topic, but this is not it.
—Colin Drumm, University of California, Riverside
Reading and Over-Reading William Gibson
William Gibson. MODERN MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2012. xi + 210 pp. $85 hc; $23 pbk.
Gary Westfahl is the prolific, Pilgrim Award-winning author of The Mechanics of Wonder (1998), Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction (2007), and more than twenty other books. He has been a significant and often controversial figure in sf scholarship for decades, in part because of his willingness to criticize harshly in a field where authors and academics are generally treated politely, and in part because of his own sometimes contentiously staked-out positions. His newest book, the second volume in the University of Illinois Press’s MODERN MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION series, gives us more of the same, often insightful, jargon-free readings of virtually all of Gibson’s work along with statements concerning the author’s unspoken intentions that may well annoy many critics. Westfahl himself, obviously aware of past criticism of his approach, even suggests that readers may find some of his arguments “overly speculative” (6).
In his Introduction, Westfahl discusses Gibson’s public persona as “a typical character” from one of his own novels, “a streetwise outsider … who takes to writing as an ideal alternative to a steady job because he knows precisely what his marks want and how to handsomely profit by providing it” (1). The truth is far more complicated, however. Gibson is also, Westfahl repeatedly and surprisingly suggests, “his generation’s equivalent of Robert A. Heinlein” (1)—both highly idiosyncratic men who “unintentionally became characterized as leaders of new movements within science fiction, though neither was comfortable in that role” (2). These ideas run throughout the book, with Gibson situated as a sort of trickster figure (as was Heinlein, of course) who paradoxically writes what he wants, uninfluenced by other authors or movements, while simultaneously keeping close watch on the commercial possibilities both within and outside the genre.
Ultimately, Westfahl has five specific points to make. First, Gibson “has always been and remains in his background and proclivities, a science fiction writer” (6). Second, he is interested in “the particular flavors of the world” (6), concrete details rather than theories about them. Third, he is interested in both people who create new technologies and artists who create new forms of art, seeing them “as chief avatars of the constant transformations now characterizing contemporary life” (6). Fourth, he is most at ease with characters who are neither particularly technophilic nor technophobic, but merely use the technology that is available to them. Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, Westfahl argues that Gibson is essentially a traditional, even conservative writer. He is a man who was so enmeshed in the counterculture as a youth that he became a central character in a documentary about hippie life in Toronto, a man who writes mostly about outsiders and countercultural types, an author whose books are famous for their up-to-the-moment pop- culture references, but at the same time a son of the mid-twentieth-century American South who has for many years lived a somewhat stodgy, relatively low-tech, determinedly middle-class lifestyle.
Westfahl begins his book with a brief biographical sketch that puts in place material necessary for some of his later assertions about Gibson’s authorial intent. We learn that the author was a fairly typical sf geek, who published several fan magazines, loved (and still loves) Fritz Leiber, and wrote genre poetry, who eventually moved to Toronto to avoid the draft, but after a period of drug use, wildness, and wandering, settled down in Vancouver to finish college, raise a family, and do serious writing. Westfahl then briefly examines Gibson’s early fanzine work, including reviews, critical essays, poetry, and cartoons, finding these materials energetic but minor, though he suggests that they deserve scholarly attention from others. Moving on to the author’s short fiction, he is often critical, though he praises “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981), stating that “Gibson was one of the first to anticipate a thoroughly globalized future wherein people and cultures would freely cross national boundaries” (36). However, he downgrades most of Gibson’s collaborative work, such as “The Belonging Kind” (1981) with John Shirley and “Red Star, White Orbit” (1983) with Bruce Sterling, calling the latter the “dullest work published under Gibson’s byline” (44). Westfahl is entitled to his opinion of the story, of course, but it is here that we first encounter the kind of critical gesture that most often annoys those who find him annoying by suggesting both that Sterling wrote the story and then, cynically, listed Gibson as a co-author so that it would sell to a better paying market—an arrangement with which “Gibson might have agreed for equally cynical motives” (44). My point here is not whether Sterling and Gibson actually did this—in fact, there is some evidence that this might partially be the case; rather, I am bothered by Westfahl’s habit, repeated throughout the text, of assuming that any story by Gibson that he is not fond of resulted from the author’s being cynical, or just wanting to make a buck, or doing work for hire in which he was not really interested. Westfahl also assigns such motives to any story that touches on themes he does not see as inherently Gibsonian. Sometimes he is probably right, but the repeated gesture quickly irritates.
Gibson likes to write his novels in groups of three, and Westfahl devotes a chapter to each grouping. He is at his best in interpreting the books he likes best. His discussion of Neuromancer (1984), one of the most widely analyzed texts in science fiction, is unfailingly interesting, particularly his brief explication of Case’s personality, and he is in fact particularly good at analyzing the major characters, including Bobby Newmark, Turner, and Marly Krushkhova in Count Zero (1986). He also clarifies some of the ways Gibson in effect revised the climax of Neuromancer in Count Zero in order to avoid dealing with the implications of alien artificial intelligence, a topic that he apparently did not want to pursue due, perhaps, to a lack of interest in outer space. Westfahl is keenly aware of Gibson’s sometimes negative interactions with literary critics and further suggests that Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) might usefully be read as “a novel about several individuals who are, essentially, critics trying to interpret Neuromancer” (79), which he sees as one of the problems that seriously undermines that later novel’s success.
The Difference Engine (1990), co-authored with Sterling, is Gibson’s only stand-alone novel, and Westfahl, unsympathetic to alternate history in general, does not like it at all, seeing it as “undoubtedly inspired more by Sterling’s interests than [Gibson’s] own” (86)—so he puts it in a miscellaneous chapter in which he also discusses the author’s poetry, song lyrics, screenplays, and nonfiction. There are some cogent points here, but Westfahl again displays his ability to make annoying assumptions about Gibson’s authorial intent that seem to go well beyond either the text’s or the author’s own published statements. The chapter on Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996), and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999), and the one on Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and Zero History (2010) are similar to what has come before, alternating often cogent readings with occasionally annoying over-readings. In a concluding chapter, Westfahl reprises his earlier argument concerning Gibson as an “unfashionably optimistic” (164) conservative, “a writer who was a little behind his times, still committed to values and beliefs being abandoned by his contemporaries” (165)—a writer who was so concerned about the present that in the final judgment he had very little to say about the future. This, of course, runs counter to much past criticism of Gibson’s work and is sure to provoke more of the controversy on which Westfahl seems to thrive.
—Michael M. Levy, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire