BOOKS IN REVIEW
. “Africa SF.” Special issue of Paradoxa, No. 25 (2014). 325 pp. $48 (institutions, professionals), $24 (students with current ID), pbk.
Africa SF is a comprehensive new volume of critical work on sf literature, art, and film from Africa and the diaspora, as well as science fiction and popular culture that adopts African settings and themes. Edited by sf scholar Mark Bould, Africa SF is the latest volume produced by Paradoxa, a journal that publishes critical work on popular genre literatures. Part of the burgeoning scholarship concerned with issues of race, colonialism, gender, and disability in mainstream sf, along with sf by people of color and non-First World writers, this collection brings together the fields of science fiction, Afrofuturism, and postcolonial literature. Africa SF sets itself apart by focusing on work produced in and about Africa, as well as by considering work by authors of African descent throughout the diaspora. It thus both departs from the persistently African-American orientation of Afrofuturism and helps to correct the lack of attention paid to African sf in studies of postcolonial literature. The division of the book into two sections, focusing on Africa and the diaspora respectively, also allows for the study of the distinct and specific engagements with speculative tools by both African and First World authors attempting to imagine the continent of Africa.
The issue, moreover, follows the line of inquiry launched by works such as Mark Dery’s “Black to the Future” interviews (1994), which coined the term Afrofuturism; Alondra Nelson’s online Afrofuturism forum and subsequent edited special edition of Social Text on the topic in 2002; Sheree R. Thomas’s Dark Matter anthologies(2000, 2004); Marleen Barr’s collection Afro-Future Females (2008); and special issues of journals devoted to Afrofuturism, such as one edited by Bould for SFS in 2007. Yet Africa SF also finds close affinity with work on race in science fiction more broadly, as well as critical work on postcolonial, Third World, and indigenous sf, fantasy, cyberpunk, and futurism. Along with texts such as Ailifu Nama’s Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film (2008), Ericka Hoagland and Reema Sarwal’s Science Fiction, Imperialism and the Third World (2010), Isiah Lavender’s Race in American Science Fiction (2011), and Eric D. Smith’s Globalization, Utopia, and Postcolonial Science Fiction: New Maps of Hope (2012), Africa SF forms an important part of a developing bibliography of critical and creative work challenging the ideological, technological, and racial boundaries of Western sf and futures industries.
While generally reflecting the optimistic tone that carries through much of the study of science fiction, Africa SF is also cognizant of the tensions that exist between colonized peoples and some of sf’s prized central concepts, such as technology and teleological progress. The volume calls into question many scholars’ frequent claims of sf’s inherent progressiveness and the field’s affinity with marginalized peoples. Africa SF also notes how many of sf’s classic themes—exploring lost civilizations, contact with exotic alien species, and the wonder and capacity of new technologies—reveal the genre’s complicity with colonialism, racial and gender hierarchy, and a futures industry that projects a world managed by technocratic capitalism as inevitable and desired.
Yet the work undertaken by this collection does not merely respond to Western sf; the various pieces use the mythologies and cosmologies of indigenous cultures, along with alternative histories and imagined technologies, to deeply interrogate the politics and histories of their own locations. The volume observes how the imperialism and racism embedded in some of science fiction’s themes might seem to put sf and postcolonial African literature at odds, acknowledging the problematic nature of applying the category and reading practices of sf to African literature. But the numerous works included here attempt to trace links between sf and African literary and cultural production, identifying both fruitful intersections and telling gaps.
In his essay “From Anti-Colonial Struggle to Neoliberal Immiseration,” Bould undertakes a study of three Francophone African novels, exploring how these works’ use of sf elements offer a lens into anticolonial struggle and the neocolonial condition. Noah Tsika’s “Projected Nigerias: Kajola and its Contexts,” on the other hand, examines the Nollywood sf film Kajola (2005) in the context of both the term’s complex etymology and Nigeria’s complicated sociopolitical realities. While nodding to sf classics such as Blade Runner (1982) and other films featuring dystopian cityscapes, Tsika reads Kajola as a potent political critique of the economic imperialism of the Nigerian state. Lisa Dowdall’s “The Utopian Fantastic in Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death” demonstrates the way that the Nigerian-American author rejects the binaries between science and magic, science fiction and fantasy in her imaginative interrogations of Africa’s most contentious contemporary issues, such as civil war, ethnic conflict, and violence against women. According to Dowdall, Okorafor’s “hybridized fiction” asserts both the value of African cultural traditions and the necessity for transformation.
One of the collection’s most important projects is its unflinching examination of the distinct labor that Africa, the so-called “Dark Continent,” has performed in the white sf imagination. In his introduction, Bould gives a brief review of the way that Africa has functioned in sf literature, pointing out how Africa has been utilized as a setting for adventurous expeditions, as a utopia for white (and sometimes African American) settlers, and as a site for lost-race tales. Concurring with the claims of recent work on Native American and Third World sf, Lisa Yaszek builds on Bould’s point by showing how the apocalypse imagined in so much of sf literature and film, the abrupt and violent transformation of all we know in this world, is not a future dread but a historical and continuing reality for indigenous peoples. In so doing, she calls into question the merits of Western science and civilization and demonstrates how their teleology has been taken for granted in much sf. Reviewing a wide range of African fiction and film and returning frequently to the words of cyberpunk blogger/author Jonathan Dotse, Yaszek showcases the diverse ways in which African science fiction’s engagement with the theme of apocalypse counters the futures industry’s projections of Africa as a dystopic wasteland requiring the intervention of Western technocracy.
Another notable piece, which takes on both white and black authors’ conceptualizations of the African superhero, is De Witt Douglas Kilgore’s spirited analysis of the Marvel Black Panther saga, “Welcome to Wakanda: Reforming African American Adventure the Marvel Way.” He traces the development of King T’Challa of Wakanda from a marginal character who did little to challenge the familiarly reductive “jungle” setting of many comics to a formidable genius-king of a technologically advanced, self-determining, and utopic African nation, and in the process engaging deeply with African diasporic and anticolonial struggles. Kilgore reveals how the Black Panther character shifted in relationship to the sociocultural context and greater visibility of racial concerns; however, he also notes with disappointment how Marvel rewrote its universe in the aftermath of its acquisition by Disney, retreating from the centrality and power that Black Panther and Wakanda had achieved in the hands of African American writer Reginald Hudlin. This backtracking raises the question of whether central black characters and storylines are sustainable in a genre perceived to cater predominantly to young white males. Also taking a non-purist view of science fiction that acknowledges the inevitable links between sf and comics, Gerry Canavan’s essay, “Bred to Be Superhuman,” examines the way in which Octavia E. Butler’s Patternmaster series (1976-84) uses the narrative structures of superhero comics to critique that genre’s preoccupation with whiteness and masculinity.
The greatest strength of this collection is that it neatly balances a tight thematic focus with treatments of a diverse range of cultural production: literature, comics and graphic novels, and film. By bypassing a preoccupation with definition that often obstructs more fruitful conversations about science fiction and Afrofuturism, and by considering but not prioritizing the traditions of the Western sf canon, the collection is able to give attention to the ways in which some African and African diasporic authors engage with and revise the tropes of Western sf, all while being uniquely informed by non-European cultures and their histories of colonization, slavery, and exploitation. In this, the collection might be seen as a testament to the entanglements and complexities of postmodern life.
There are some weaknesses in this mostly exceptional volume. Marleen Barr’s piece on Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City (2010) lacks the conceptual sophistication of an earlier article on the same text by Malisa Kurtz. Furthermore, despite a wealth of First World African diasporic authors to choose from, the second half of the issue is disproportionately made up of interviews and single-text book reviews. This includes two reviews of Samuel R. Delany’s erotic novels that seem to be included because of his canonical status as a black sf writer rather than for their thematic connection to other pieces in the volume. There are also missed opportunities to engage the work of Stephen Barnes and Tananarive Due, who are frequently mentioned as leaders of a growing cadre of black sf writers but whose work receives little critical attention. These oversights make one think that perhaps more book-length projects focused primarily on African American science fiction are in order.
Africa SF ultimately looks at the intersections linking the idea of Africa, the realities of Africa, and the work of writers of both African and non-African descent who engage these ideas and realities in a way that furthers the projects of cultural critics who began building Afrofuturism as a creative and critical field in the 1990s. But what is notable is that the volume does not rely on the mantle of Afrofuturism to capture—and perhaps overemphasize—the commonality of speculative cultural production in Africa and the diaspora. As science fiction from around the world and by peoples of color might still be said to be in a “discovery” phase, during which a good many of the anthologies produced are of primary texts, texts that combine creative and critical work, a book-length collection of sophisticated criticism on new texts, already canonized texts, and texts that have not been analyzed in the context of sf is certainly a major contribution to the field. While the density of most of the articles makes much of the volume too esoteric for popular readers, this is an important and useful collection for scholars and students of science fiction and postcolonial culture.
—Jalondra Davis Brown, University of California, Riverside
Useful and Dangerous.
. Technik in Dystopien [Technology in Dystopias]. Heidelberg: Winter Verlag, 2013. 272 pp. €38 hc.
Judging this book by its cover, one expects reflections on the role of techniques and technologies in fictional dystopias: HAL’s red eye stares balefully at the prospective reader, symbolizing the danger of initially helpful machinery gone mad. Like HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), this edited collection can and does deliver expected results most of the time—and, sometimes, hustles one into unexpected and potentially unsafe adventures that are hard to understand. Technik in Dystopien is a German-language interdisciplinary mixture of perspectives and analyses; it is a volume of proceedings, reproducing two-thirds of the lectures given at a conference in Ferrara, Italy, in 2011, supplemented by some further articles. The editors structure the book around the types of technology the articles discuss: social technologies, media and information technologies, and biotechnologies. I prefer to structure this review around the kinds of contributions—on the one hand, those that satisfy conventional expectations, and on the other hand, those that pull readers out of their comfort zones.
Some of the articles in the volume understand dystopia as existing in a fictional world, such as the One State in Zamyatin’s We (1924), Oceania in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), or the Republic of Gilead in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985); these totalitarian systems use various technologies to produce their subjects and reproduce their domination. Contemporary fictional dystopias move from these disciplinary techniques of subjection to control regimes that are more “liberal” but nonetheless still dystopian. Heribert Tommek elaborates on the cultural pessimism lingering in Reinhard Jirgl’s conservative dystopian novels, wherein Foucaultian technologies of governmentality deprive individuals of their identities. Similarly, Achim Geisenhanslüke relates the dictatorship of cleanliness in Juli Zeh’s dystopian novel Corpus Delicti (2009; in English as The Method) to sociological concepts such as Ulrich Beck’s risk society and Foucault’s biopower, but also to Sophocles’s Antigone (c. 441 BCE). Co-editor Heinz-Peter Preußer offers a comprehensive overview of the different uses of technologies in dystopian movies, and Domink Orth shows how video games such as Half Life (1998-2006), while intensely immersing players in the dystopian setting, fail to spark critical awareness because of their weak narratives.
These articles generally evince a blindness towards those positive aspects of dystopias that put them on a continuum with utopias: the One State trembles when its citizens start to riot, and both Oceania and Gilead are rather short-lived, as one can see in the respective appendices. Although Preußer cites Tom Moylan’s Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia (2000), his dialectical concepts of critical utopia and critical dystopia never appear in this book. Instead, utopia is understood as static and dead, dystopia as evil and alive. In my view, this is a serious drawback. So, for example, when Wolfgang Coy reads Daniel Suarez’s Daemon (2006) and Freedom™ (2010) not simply as technothrillers but as new variants of utopian writing, he could have related them to contemporary Anglophone utopian studies using the concept of critical utopia/dystopia. In what ways do these novels relate to, e.g., Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1991)—where the struggle of decentralized communities against a dystopian capitalist system is fought by humans, AIs, and cyborgs? What makes a new utopian variant possible after the alleged death of utopia? Has Suarez found a completely fresh way or does he follow Piercy—or Octavia E. Butler or Kim Stanley Robinson? Coy (and the other authors) could have answered questions such as these if they had used Moylan’s critical utopia/dystopia as keys to the post-classical utopia/dystopia; but, alas, this is not yet state-of-the-art in German scholarship on utopia.
Definitional weakness also vitiates one of the volume’s strengths—relating dystopia to the sciences. Niels Werber contemplates swarm intelligence in entomology and compares his findings to Michael Crichton’s Prey (2002), in his view a dystopia, and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004), finding the pessimistic view of Crichton more convincing than the almost utopian hope that the multitude will one day achieve self-government. Similarly, Andreas Böhn observes that swarm intelligence and ubiquitous computing in Philip Kerr’s Gridiron (1995), Frank Schätzing’s Der Schwarm [The Swarm, 2004], and James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) act as counter-strategies to discourses that try to popularize new technology. The best of these science-related articles in the volume is co-editor Viviana Chilese’s, which focuses on converging technologies (nano, bio, info, neuro) and transhumanism, contrasting their techno-optimism with several dystopias: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Zeh’s Corpus Delicti, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), Benjamin Stein’s Replay (2012), and Dietmar Dath’s Die Abschaffung der Arten [The Abolition of Species, 2008]. In her view, dystopia as genre is adaptive and renewable, and at least Dath’s novel seems to be both utopian and dystopian—again, a concept such as critical utopia/dystopia would have been very helpful here. That new technologies do not necessarily have the dystopian capabilities often imagined by sf authors may be a relief: André Steiner shows that neuroscience cannot be used for totalitarian purposes because neurological determinism does not result in determined human action, illustrating his point with a discussion of many sf movies on the theme, such as THX 1138 (1971), Blade Runner (1982), eXistenZ (1999), and The Matrix (1999). Fantastic films are the right place to speculate about what we do and do not want. But, as Sigrid Graumann reminds us, these questions have no place in bioethics, a philosophical field that must orient itself around actual scientific facts.
The remaining texts deal with utopian thinking that does not produce fictional texts but rather produces political or social visions, motivated by hope (à la Ernst Bloch) or desire (à la Ruth Levitas). Elena Esposito rejects such thinking entirely and advises political actors to muddle on aimlessly—a rejection grounded in systems theory, which allegedly sees utopia and dystopia as naïve, nonsensical, and irrelevant. Olaf Breidbach is pessimistic in a very similar vein: because of the complexity of the world, only small steps are possible, big visions are fatal—and predictions are impossible. But Breidbach misunderstands utopia and dystopia: they do not foresee what will happen; they help us find out what we desire or fear. In her essay on human-animal relations, Dagmar Borchers takes a more positive outlook, locating utopia in notions of individual “friendships between unequals” and dystopia in industrial livestock farming and animal experimentation. For her, the utopian thinking of vegan activists is of greater practical value than the academic discourse on animal ethics.
So do I recommend this book? It contains excellent pieces such as Wolfgang Krohn’s account of experimental thinking, which he traces back to Francis Bacon, as a mode of utopia and a root of modernity. It also contains pieces that barely touch utopia or dystopia, such as Peter Matussek’s essay on endings, doom, and apocalypse. Where the authors try unconventional approaches to dystopia and outright criticize utopian thinking and/or texts, their arguments deserve to be engaged with. Technik in Dystopien is, like HAL, useful and dangerous, smart and mistaken, inspiring and infuriating.
—Peter Seyferth, Independent Political Philosopher, Munich
Narrative Space and Time: Representing Impossible Topologies in Literature. New York: Routledge, 2014. 226 pp. $125 hc.
Elana Gomel’s ambitious book is about how the “two cultures” of science and the humanities are actually one, “a complicated semantic ecosystem, in which mathematical formulae and narrative templates feed on each other” (9). While interdisciplinary studies in recent years have been far more eager to understand how narrative is nurtured by science and mathematics, Narrative Space and Time is a welcome rejoinder in its two-way approach. Science does not accrue all the glory here, although it does provide much of the scaffolding upon which the book is built. It is mainly about science in its first introduction (there are two of them), and it is mainly about literature, narratology, and literary typology thereafter. This general separation somewhat undermines the one-culture-rather-than-two argument, but it also helps Gomel marshal a huge treasure trove of texts for discussion and analysis.
The science drama behind Narrative Space and Time is the feud between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. Newton thought that space and time were absolute and unchanging: we move in time and space as a bottle floats down a river. This static conceptualization, as critics have argued, was part of the basic template for literary realism. Homogenous Newtonian space and time authorized “the empty background to the unfolding of human histories and creation of human places” (10) that fills up the pages of nineteenth-century novels. It enabled the progressive view of history as elaborated in “the psychological bildungsroman no less than ... in the anthropological writings of Edward Taylor and the philosophy of Herbert Spencer” (11). If Newton looms over this respectable and forthright literary heritage, Leibniz is something like the godfather of a rebellious and darkly inviting counter-tradition. His non-absolutist, relational figuration of space and time (anticipating in some ways Ernst Mach and Albert Einstein) paves the way for Gothic, fantasy, and sf spaces—those “impossible narrative topologies” (11), as Gomel puts it, a little problematically, I think, since the use of the word “impossible” seems to cede the “possible” (the realizable?) to realism, Newton’s progeny. This is not the intention, as the second introduction seeks to establish, but it rankles a little in a book devoted to investigating the profoundly creative narrative techniques of the counter-tradition, as well as their embeddedness in the wider context of ideological and political struggles fought across many different grounds.
One of the great strengths of Gomel’s book is just how much information, both in and out of fiction and science, is gathered together in its pages. Narrative Space and Time is an immensely rich text, wide-ranging and wide-eyed. It is charmingly peripatetic, though at times it also feels frustratingly jam-packed, as if you might smother in the infodump. Newton and Leibniz give way to Darwin, and Marx, and Einstein, and quantum theory, and Foucault and heterotopia, all within the space of a few introductory pages. One must hang on for dear life, and then there is the payoff of grand vistas, as in the following passage:
Postmodern narrative topologies have evolved from many and diverse sources: the defiant antirealism of the Gothic and Victorian fantasy; the mystical universe of spiritualism; the physics of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Bohr; the philosophical challenge of Darwinism; and last but not least, the experience of social upheavals which undermined the comforting belief in progress. Not only is narrative capable of representing impossible topologies, contrary to many defenders of “natural” (i.e., Newtonian) space. In many ways, narrative is ahead of science, providing a semantic armature for imagining and representing new forms of space and time. (24)
This is vivid prose making the case for the significance of the literary in a world where science has become the authoritative criterion for knowledge. The lesson is that imaginative writers have always been there, right alongside the natural philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists, sifting and sampling experience in different but relatable ways. More pointedly, Gomel’s book makes the case for the importance of proto-modern, modern, and postmodern narrative in abetting the rebellion against Newton. This turns out to be a great struggle indeed; it is no less than that of contingency versus necessity, with the impossible topologies of Gothic, fantasy, and sf tracing out the lines of contingency’s counter-assault. The struggle is also for the efficacy of imagination over and against the reifications of industrial, post-industrial, and late capitalism. With the help of Mikhail Bakhtin’s chronotope and other narratological innovations and insights, Gomel argues for a leveling of the distinction between “the world” and narrative worlds in a manner very much conditioned by the precepts of postmodernism. Thus she writes appreciatively of a “world-centered approach to narratology [that] has revolutionized the study of narrative by shifting its focus from mimesis to poesis, the creation of independent ontological domains which may or may not correspond to the cultural reality” (28). Narrative worlds are elevated in value, while the “‘actual world’” (29) is revalued as “a set of storyworlds which the contemporary culture believes accurately describes the physical universe we inhabit” (29).
While much of this polemic will be familiar to SFS readers from contemporary literary theory, what is noteworthy here is the typology Gomel uses to organize the vast amount of textual data she has assembled. Although she feels she must defend her decision to use typology, she really need not, because given the task she has set for herself, some sort of taxonomy seems essential. Thus, she identifies five distinct ontological strategies that non-realistic authors have used to shape their “impossible” storyworlds: “layering, flickering, embedding, wormholing, and collapsing” (33; emphasis in original). “Sidestepping” is later added to the mix as further elaboration on flickering. Very briefly, “layering” involves a fantastic space situated on top of a realistic space (e.g., Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge  and A Tale of Two Cities ). “Flickering” describes an undecidability between the realistic and the fantastic (e.g., H.G. Wells’s “The Door in the Wall”  and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” ). In “embedding,” the “real” storyworld contains an impossible world within it (e.g., Borges’s “The Aleph” , Theodore Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God” , and Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad ). “Wormholing,” which Gomel identifies as a distinctive feature of utopian discourse, is defined by the inclusion of heterogenous spaces in the very heart of utopian space (e.g., Ivan Efremov’s Andromeda Nebula  and the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic ). “Wormholing,” she suggests, “pockmarks utopian stability with hidden carceral zones. Heterotopia is a disease of utopia” (35). In “sidestepping,” the spatial axis of narrative is projected onto the temporal axis (e.g., Algernon Blackwood’s “A Victim of Higher Space”  and Rudy Rucker’s White Light ). And in “collapsing,” multiple spaces are superimposed on one another within a single diegetic framework (e.g., Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere  and China Miéville’s The City and the City ).
Gomel warns at the outset that Narrative Space and Time is not about sf, or fantasy, or postmodernism. It is a strange caution because her book is about precisely these things, and more. The book succeeds most of all as a wide-ranging fantasy and sf reference work—“a series of sketches,” as she suggests more accurately, “multiple snapshots exploring the emergence of what I see as the new narrative imagination of time and space” (37). This emergence might otherwise be described as the ascendance of the fantastic in narrative art, a process hugely accelerated in recent decades, though connected to the old rebellions against Newton, rationalism, despotism, God, and master narratives in general. Such an impressive assembly of critical “sketches” or “snapshots” devoted to Gothic, sf, fantasy, psychological, and sundry speculative fictions going back to the Victorian period deserves to find many avid readers.
—Stephen Dougherty, University of Agder, Norway
Proto-SF Media as Metaphor.
Gothic Machine: Textualities, Pre-cinematic Media and Film in Popular Visual Culture, 1670-1910. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2011. Gothic Literary Studies Series. ix + 240 pp. $120 hc. Dist. in the US by U of Chicago P, 2012.
David J. Jones’s Gothic Machine investigates popular visual media’s role as both metaphor and formal technique in Gothic fiction, exploring the way that Gothic literary texts and tropes influenced magic lanternists, phantasmagoria projectionists, and filmmakers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The examination of Gothic influences is well-trod territory in visual media studies—as Jones notes, Robert Miles has posited a “deep-structural affinity” between the phantasmagoric and the Gothic (7)—but Jones pushes beyond Miles’s cautious proposal to argue that the two structures are actually inseparable, that “the term Gothic, as we know and inherit it, is the recurrent coalescence and subsequent collective operation of these media” (7; emphasis in original). Thus, up until they were assimilated into the film industry, pre-cinematic visual media and Gothic print media evolved together as constitutive parts in a “Gothic machine” of terror.
Beginning with the magic lantern craze in seventeenth-century Germany and ending with the release of Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein in 1910, which Jones cites as the moment when the “Gothic machine subset has been fully assimilated into the new medium (of film)” (17), Jones paints the history of Gothic machines with a broad brush, in the process surveying more than two centuries of British, German, American, and French literary traditions. Chapter One locates a “distinctly new cultural agglomeration” in Johann Griendel’s and Johann Schröpfer’s phantasmal shows (173-77), wherein the popularity of earlier motifs from German memento mori coalesced with new, wider access to scientific toys to create the preconditions for the magic lantern’s spectral occupation. Chapter Two moves to England, where Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1795) initiated a number of Gothic “spin-offs and crossovers” (45) onstage and in print. Chapter Three takes us to Paris for Etienne-Gaspard Robertson’s immersive phantasmagoria, spectacles that appealed to both audiences’ preexisting “taste for all things Gothic” and their “fears engendered by the Revolution” (49). In Chapter Four, Jones moves to Victorian England for a glancing survey of visuality in Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and (even more briefly) Charles Dickens. Chapter Five connects writers of French Symbolist horror—Villiers de L’Isle-Adam and J.K. Huysmans—to early cinema by thinking about narrative “scope” as a visual concept; the chapter moves on to pinpoint the Gothic elements of irony, diabolism, and bodily fragmentation in Georges Méliès’s and Alice Guy’s films. In Chapter Six, Jones works against S.S. Prawer’s claim in Caligari’s Children (1980) that Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) predicted cinema, instead arguing, convincingly, that the text was a response to pre-existing proto-cinematic technology with which Stevenson had interacted. Jones performs a strong reading of the novellaas a Gothic critique of consumerism, staged as a crisis of the fragmented body. Finally, in a forward-thinking but all-too-brief coda, Jones references what he calls “the most emphatically Gothic film ever produced in France,” Xavier Gens’s Frontière(s) [Frontier(s), 2007],which “exhibits a remarkably full and intense registration of forces which converged in its creation” (193), hinting that the film contains the afterlife of the Gothic machine. His gesture to this continuity between nineteenth century Gothic and New French Extremity suggests that film-studies scholars will find in this study some historical contexts for understanding today’s horror cinema.
While Jones’s expansive approach seems appropriate for the study of a genre as enduring and widespread as the Gothic, Gothic Machine at times goes too far in sacrificing depth in favor of breadth, skimming over the surface of complex texts and contexts in a breathless recitation of titles and rarely settling into a generative close reading or sustained argument. His refusal to “simplify the extremely diverse cultural spectrum at any one time” (17) by making a too-cohesive claim results in a complexly knotted and rigorous history that could nevertheless benefit from smoother transitions and deeper exegesis. Jones does take the time for a more substantive analysis in Chapter Four, in a virtual walk-through of E.G. Robertson’s phantasmagoria show. Here, he offers a rigorous and insightful narration of the space, allowing us to imagine audiences “disoriented in a blind labyrinth” (64), witnessing religious statuary, simulated thunder and lightning, dead frogs revivified by electrical charges, and a blasphemous assemblage that mimicked and paganized the rituals of the Catholic Mass. The narration is accompanied by stills from Howard Wood’s digital reconstruction of Robertson’s performance space, which was itself based on Jones’s discovery of floor plans from the now-demolished cloisters where the phantasmagoria show was held.
It is worth noting that, in a significant sub-argument that runs throughout the text, Jones invests significant energy in rebutting influential work by Terry Castle. In The Female Thermometer (1995), Castle claimed that, by the nineteenth century, ghosts were “internalized and reinterpreted as hallucinatory thoughts” (80)—that is, that the supernatural was no longer an external spiritual presence but the product of mental disturbances. Jones refutes this, proving that “many of the people who viewed phantasmagoria shows, and indeed many members of the literate classes who wrote about phantasmagoria and the existence of spirits, were anything but atheistic rationalists” (83). His complication of Castle’s thesis underpins his concept of the Gothic machine, since “hybrids of Gothic writing and phantasmagoriana … relied heavily on a rich field of signifiers for the numinous, a potent and ongoing sense of external supernatural agency, for their full effect” (85).
In pursuit of understanding how specific types of fear fueled the machine, Jones points out how the Gothic has interacted with period-specific cultural anxieties. Despite his stated disinclination toward the psychoanalytic, his occasional speculations about the anxieties and sensations that historical audiences would have experienced are among the more compelling moments in the text. I was intrigued by the way, for example, that he reminds readers of how Robertson’s show was fueled energetically by the residual historical traumas inflicted by Robespierre in the very site where it was staged, as well as the fear of these terrors reoccurring.
Sf scholars will find Chapters Five and Six, where Jones touches on the work of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, particularly useful. Jones emphasizes Gothic thematics in sf, focusing on narratives that portray a superstitious fear of new technology rather than the idealism sometimes associated with the nineteenth-century scientific romance; in his words, certain “fin-de-siècle Gothic fictions … dramatized the more menacing, unknown aspects of contemporary science, drawing on the language of visual projection” (179). For example, he claims that Wells used The Time Machine (1895) to “re-Gothicize recent developments in optical science” (178) by suggesting that the temporal mastery associated with Muybridge’s photographs, as with time travel, cannot forestall the threat of atavism embodied in the cannibalistic Morlocks. Jones’s discussion of Villiers’s L’Eve future [The Future Eve, 1886] interestingly reframes the sf trope of the female android by locating the creation of the novel’s robotic Hadaly among the fragmented (and, for Jones, Gothicized) bodies of early cinema, reading the fictionalized Thomas Edison, her creator, as a diabolical projectionist. Jones’s choice to read L’Eve future without reference to its bizarre gender politics is indicative of his larger tendency to avoid using texts as documents of class, race, or gender ideologies, instead opting to illustrate the complexity and specificity of the media environment that germinated new outgrowths.
With its ambitious scope, excellent bibliography of current scholarship, and impressive conjuration of literary references both canonical and obscure, this study will serve as a valuable—if slightly unwieldy—sourcebook for anyone interested in the history of the Gothic or of popular visual media.
—Mackenzie Gregg, University of California, Riverside
Close Encounters Since the Cold War.
Extraterrestrials and the American Zeitgeist: Alien Contact Tales Since the 1950s. Jefferson, NC:McFarland, 2014. 250 pp. $40 pbk.
Beginning in the early 1950s, some American citizens claimed to have experienced contact with anthropomorphic extraterrestrial visitors who delivered warnings and advice to prevent the imminent destruction of Earth. Aaron John Gulyas offers a complex and detailed overview of this contactee movement. Gulyas’s solid, well-researched, and accessible account explores the longstanding continuities apparent in contactee tales while also identifying some of the key ruptures that separate them. Importantly, Gulyas does not just trace the movement’s beginnings during the Atomic Age (as previous discussions have tended to do) but he also looks at its more nuanced and expansive incarnations as they have continued to appear into the twenty-first century. While his main focus is on the hub of the movement in the United States, Gulyas also examines some of the significant cross-cultural accounts of alien contact, linking these tales to their broader cultural, social, and historical contexts.
Gulyas’s chapters are organized chronologically. The first two provide background on the history of UFOs and American political and social conditions during the Cold War. In chapter three, Gulyas turns to the origins of the contactee movement and discusses the first famous example, the Polish-born American George Adamski. Adamski’s contactee tales would establish a legacy tying extraterrestrial contact to tangible concerns of the time—notably, atomic testing. Gulyas’s next chapter traces connections between Adamski’s pioneering story and those of later contactees, such as Truman Bethurum and George Hunt Williamson, among others. The next few chapters examine the more recent incarnations of the contactee movement from the New Age 1970s to the present. In chapter five, Gulyas shows how contactee tales underwent a more personal transformation, with channeled psychic messages and religious overtones coming to dominate many contact writings of the time. Gulyas also explores the global expansion of the contactee movement as it evolved through Billy Meier’s stories in Switzerland and Dr. George King’s tales in England. He ends this chapter by discussing the “exopolitics” movement, which blends contactee sentiments for reform with political conspiracy narratives that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. Like the contactee movement, the exopolitics movement believes that extraterrestrials hold the solutions to the problems of humanity but that conspiring governmental and industrial forces prevent us from advancing. Chapter six examines the negative and more sinister aspects of contactee tales, particularly through Albert Bender’s darker “Men in Black” narrative, wherein the visitors are far from friendly; yet this narrative maintains continuity with earlier contactee stories by expounding societal concerns and aspirations. Chapter seven explores the role of sex and gender in contactee narratives, as Gulyas carefully examines the peripheral but significant role women have played in the movement. His final chapter summarizes the continuities and ruptures that have characterized the phenomenon across the past six decades.
Throughout, Gulyas argues that there is a deeper dimension to contactees’ fascination with extraterrestrials that echoes the hopes, fears, and desires of our own species. Rather than focusing solely on the tropes of sinister invasion scenarios and alien abductions, Gulyas looks at the generally more positive interactions of contactees with “space brothers” and “space sisters,” exploring how those claiming extraterrestrial contact use their narratives to disseminate their own political and philosophical ideas. Pointedly, Gulyas affords contactees a great deal of agency. Whereas other literature often relegates contactees to a fringe sphere, seeing their behavior as an escapist reaction to social fears and traumas, Gulyas instead argues that contactees used—and use—their narratives as a strategy to convey relevant political messages and to encourage social change in America, Europe, and all over the globe. From warnings about the dangers of nuclear weaponry, to criticisms of capitalism, to fears of environmental degradation, to anxieties about mandatory vaccin-ations, to concerns over race relations, contactee stories have consistently conveyed messages of political commentary and social protest.
Occasionally, Gulyas’s writing is somewhat repetitive. At other times, intriguing topics—such as the relationship of contactee tales to evangelical Christianity—are raised briefly only to be left undeveloped. Overall, however, Gulyas is successful in exploring the political and philosophical aspects of contactee stories. Thus, while his chronicle may reveal little about life in the universe, it offers a strikingly important commentary about life here on Earth.
—Laura Thursby, Trent University
Compelling but Uneven Collection.
The Culture of Disaster. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2012. ix + 261. $45 hc.
Marie-Hélène Huet is an emeritus Professor of French at Princeton. Her first book, in 1973, was on Jules Verne and she later wrote Monstrous Imagination (1993),which weaves Mary Shelley into the contexts of biological and political revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. Monstrous Imagination also dealt with Diderot, Hawthorne, Balzac, and Villiers de l’Isle Adam: this list indicates that she has an interest in the scientific and the fantastic while resolutely staying within the canon of acceptable literary taste. The same is true for The Culture of Disaster,which has a sustained chapter on Jules Verne and a section on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982),but these are hardly treated in any science-fictional context, appearing alongside elegant treatments of Rousseau, Michelet, Chateaubriand, and Michelangelo Antonioni. You are, in other words, in for a high-art, high-French-theory ride.
Huet’s book of loosely connected essays aims to pursue the thesis that post-Enlightenment modernity is marked by a passage from religious interpretations of disaster towards not so much natural explanation (the secularization argument) as thoroughly imbricated social explanations, in which disaster becomes “an administrative problem of political containment” (2). Huet explores how classical thought about the dis-astro—the unlucky star, the star out of alignment, the comet in the sky that brings or portends catastrophe— leaves a trace in the thought of modernity regarding natural and political catastrophes. The book explores this thesis most compellingly in the opening section, which tracks in three chapters how the eighteenth-century approach to outbreaks of plague shifted from the treatment of the disaster that entered France via Marseilles in 1720, through the famous impact of the Lisbon Earthquake in 1755 on Enlightenment philosophers, ending with the global cholera epidemic of the 1830s. This was the first plague whose path (if not epidemiology) was entirely predicted as it came out of India, through Turkey and the Balkans, into France and England by 1832 but which the authorities nevertheless proved powerless to prevent. These are not chapters of cultural history and are not much interested in the history of science either, instead proceeding with an old-school “history of ideas” method that offers close readings of one or two relevant texts (Kant’s “On the Use of Earthquakes”  or Chateaubriand’s Conditions in France ). Huet convincingly details how natural disaster and the political eruption of the French Revolution become thoroughly intertwined, using Chateaubriand’s lurid accounts of “choleric riots” (2)—where conspiratorial rumors of targeted infection led to lynch-mobs and social cleansing in Paris—to illustrate how biological contagion and the social fear of contamination have repeatedly merged.
Although these chapters might feel a long way from science-fictional concerns, they provide a useful context for anyone dealing with contemporary apocalyptic texts. It helps to have these long historical ranges to counteract the presentism of so many accounts of zombie apocalypse or eco-disaster. There will be little jolts of recognition: I particularly like Chateaubriand’s vivid descriptions of a crowd infected by what sounds rather like the rage virus: “the black waves of a sea of men surges through the streets … and they rumble and howl wordlessly, like demons or the damned” (qtd. 73).
After this strong start, I found the rest of the book considerably less compelling—indeed, somewhat bewildering in its eclectic range of sources, meanderings through time, and zig-zags of argument. The main thesis of the introduction and first part is largely abandoned, and while Huet remains an always careful reader, honing some lovely aperçus, the volume comes to feel like a diffuse rag-bag of essayistic adventures. Part II, titled “Political Disasters/Time in Ruins,” deals first with Rousseau, then with Gilbert Romme (the mathematician who invented the decimalized, post-Revolutionary Calendar, starting at the end of Year One in 1793, only to commit suicide before his execution in a revolutionary purge), and then Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe (1849-50), the “impossible” utterance of his memoirs “from beyond the grave,” which are obsessed with the tombs and catacombs of Rome. The thesis on the time of disaster and the disaster of time sputters here, occasionally giving off some light, but these pages remain the most narrowly focused, offering textual exposition of classical French texts.
Diverging even further, Part III, “Tall Ships and Falling Stars,” consists of two chapters on shipping disasters: first, the famous case of the wreck of the Medusa in 1816 and, second, the catastrophe of the John Franklin expedition in search of the Northwest Passage in 1845—the wholesale disappearance of which (and speculations on its likely grisly end in cannibalism) was one of the enduring sensations of the nineteenth century. Huet uses the famous 1818 painting by Théodore Géricault, “The Raft of the Medusa,” to focus her discussion in the first chapter, including the artist’s obsession with drawing severed heads and body parts in preparation for his final masterpiece, but the argument tends to be more interested in finding the mythic underpinning of the Medusa myth. The second, longer chapter plots a perhaps rather predictable trajectory from the cultural impact of Franklin to subsequent polar fiction, including Verne’s Adventures of Captain Hatteras near the beginning of his career in 1866 and Sphinx of the Ice Fields near the end in 1897. She certainly knows the Verne scholarship, but I’m not sure the chapter has much new to add, veering off into Greek mythology with the Sphinx of the Ice Fields and its debts to Wells’s The Time Machine (1895),rather diluting the focus on maritime catastrophe. Huet is willing to let Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838)into the discussion here, and I briefly entertained the notion that she might consider Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936)—Lovecraft after all has his own French fan club as a poète maudit—but I knew how impossible this was likely to be in such a tasteful study. More grit in the oyster would definitely have helped.
The final part is called “The Culture of Disaster,” but it consists of a single chapter that reads Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as texts that (I think) are meant to exemplify the way in which disaster is lodged in subjective memory as traumatic repetition and belated reconstruction—although these are not quite the terms used in the study. Again, these are thematic accounts of the films, with no interest in specific media forms, that typically end with poststructuralist reflections on how to translate Maurice Blanchot on the naufrage of Paul Celan’s death (wreck or disaster, or the disaster,or (the) disaster?). An abrupt end, without a conclusion, seems problematic indeed for a book that has ranged so widely across the centuries and covered so many different media. There is no inclination to pull these strands together again at the end—which contributes to the sense that these are spin-off essays from an eminent and illustrious career, never quite cohering convincingly. Readers of SFS are likely to find this book frustrating, but there are some superb insights worth pulling from the strong opening section on natural and social disaster.
—Roger Luckhurst, Birkbeck College, University of London
Revolutionary Experiments: The Quest for Immortality in Bolshevik Science and Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. xv + 258 pp. $74 hc.
Trespassing and transgression are wonderful descriptors for this illum-inating, thought-provoking book. The author invokes the terms on the very first page as a kind of apologia to disciplinary order; yet how else could one tackle the fascinating, fantastic subject of Revolutionary Experiments without ranging widely across “the history of science, literary studies, the history of medicine, cultural studies,” and, compellingly, “the history of Russia” (1)? Krementsov’s monograph is a brilliant new addition to the emerging body of recent work that performs precisely this kind of interdisciplinarity—or should I say trans-disciplinarity?—in exploring the relations between scientific, social, political, and creative imaginations in Russia and the Soviet Union. Such an orientation is particularly relevant to the context of early twentieth-century Russia, where, to a much greater extent than in the West, scientists and scientific institutions were deeply entangled with visionary speculation; indeed, a remarkable number of scientists also wrote science fiction.
Happily for this reader, the trespassing and transgression evident on every page of the book proved to be most rewarding. For Revolutionary Experiments positions itself at the confluence between the great political experiment of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and a coeval constellation of what the author calls three “scientific revolutions”: the transformative effect of experimental methods on the sciences of life; the emergence of “big science” at the institutional level and the consequent professionalization of its practitioners; and, last but not least, the unprecedented burgeoning of popular engagement with biomedicine via mass media and the literary vehicle of science fiction. The quest for eternal vitality and immortal life, which defined the common aspirational horizon for all of these intertwined revolutions, provides the narrative platform and conceptual armature from which Krementsov develops four essays on the particular “ideas, techniques, individuals, institutions, promises, and premises” (10) that most successfully captured the imagination of Russia’s roaring twenties.
This book performs an important historiographical intervention in the understanding of life in revolutionary Russia. The utopianism pervading the institutions and cultures of biology in the decade immediately following the October Revolution disrupts a long-standing teleology of violence, destruction, and trauma. This telos seamlessly connects the “decade of death” between 1914 and 1923, encompassing WWI, the Bolshevik revolution, and the Civil War, with the ensuing decades of terror, famine, and Gulags under Stalin. As eloquently articulated in the first chapter, appropriately titled “The Ray of Life,” the intense preoccupation with creating, preserving, and bettering life in the 1920s provides a compelling counter-narrative to this received notion of Russian history. The ensuing essays elucidate how the enthusiasm for life did not emanate unilaterally from any one of the multitude of actors involved in “visionary biology” (25). Commissars, social and political activists, journalists, writers, artists, filmmakers, even philosophers and theologians, together with scientists themselves, participated in the co-production of biomedicine and what can only be called, avant la lettre, biotechnology in revolutionary Russia.
As the author cautions in his prologue, however, this counter-narrative can hardly be reduced to its own version of a grand narrative. The focal points of the four essays—isolated organs, anabiosis (a.k.a. suspended animation), hormones, and rejuvenation—may all embody revolutionary experiments in the quest for immortal life, but each essay reveals distinct and sometimes very divergent relationships among the actors, channels, and methods involved in their scientific and social production on the one hand and their cultural reception and creative representation on the other. Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5 present fascinating, complex portraits of the ways in which isolation and transplantation of body parts, suspension and reanimation of organisms, hormone therapy, and sexual rejuvenation became both metaphors and mechanisms for imagineering life in a country emerging from a decade of devastation. It is particularly gratifying to see how, as promised in the prologue, Krementsov refuses to isolate hierarchically the so-called real and imaginative aspects of the hopes, anxieties, and fears invested in the life sciences. Instead, he engages in a rich, multidimensional “parallel reading” (7) of scientific papers, newspapers and magazines, advertisements and pamphlets, government documents and artistic manifestoes, philosophical treatises and popular manifestoes, films, poetry, and fiction. The book is full of new archival material, some of which is reproduced in the form of stunning visuals interspersed throughout the text.
Science fiction is put to creative use in teasing out historical complexities. A representative work of science fiction from the period serves as the frame for each chapter. “The Fatal Eggs” (1924) and “Heart of a Dog” (1925) by Mikhail Bulgakov—best known outside Russia for his politically provocative fantasy The Master and Margarita (not published until 1966, long after his death)—and Professor Dowell’s Head (1925) and “Neither Life nor Death” (1928) by Alexander Belyaev, a lesser known but tremendously popular sf writer, provide potent portals for entering and exploring the highways and byways of the scientific revolutions featured in each chapter. Anabiosis and hormones, furthermore, are connected through an additional bridge between science and fiction: Belyaev’s imaginary biologist, who resuscitates organic life from a state of suspended animation in “Neither Life nor Death,” turns out to have a real-life model in the person of Porfirii Bakhmet’ev, the protagonist of the following chapter. Bakhmet’ev the scientist, in turn, penned his own revolutionary dreams via “The Billionaire’s Last Will” (1904), a futuristic novella that provides the point of departure for the next section on hormones. Other related examples of fiction, film, and even poetry are skillfully interwoven as supplements and occasionally foils for the strange, provocative, but utterly engrossing institutional, biographical, and cultural history of the life sciences. To be sure, Krementsov does not engage in traditional literary analysis of these works. But what science fiction does in his project is, in my view, far more interesting and significant: it illuminates the deep-seated, all-pervasive science-fictionality of the ideas, institutions, discourses, and cultures of immortal life in early Bolshevik Russia.
This review would be incomplete without a brief discussion of why such a book would matter to us, so far removed in space and time from the upheavals of Russia in the 1920s, other than bringing to vivid life personae and phenomena that the author himself notes would be “unknown to Western audiences and little known even to Russian ones” (9). Its relevance lies in the fact that, a century later, we find ourselves living in a global condition of the science-fictionality of life itself. In the past forty years, genetics and genomics have again radically transformed the institutional, epistemological, and cultural boundaries of what used to be perceived as the life sciences. The study of life has merged with engineering and informatics, its most ambitious frontiers defined by the futuristic horizons of nanotechnology and synthetic biology. While biomatter and bioinformation evolve into globally exchangeable commodities and the management of life merges with the management of a market ripe with speculative potentials, the ontological terrain of life itself has become increasingly future-oriented, rapidly changing, virtually science-fictional. As we struggle to distinguish science from hype even while participating in the revolutionary experiments of our times, utopian dreams from a bygone era might prove particularly instructive.
—Anindita Banerjee, Cornell University
Servant-Systems and the Social Life of Demons.
Androids and Intelligent Networks in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Artificial Slaves. Routledge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2013. $125 hc.
Early in this fascinating and original book, Kevin LaGrandeur notes that most of his readers are likely to assume that the dream of creating an artificial servant (or robot, or android) is a distinctively modern one, the product of twentieth- and twenty-first-century technological advances, especially in the area of cybernetics. The aim of his book, however, is to show how old this dream really is. Novels such as Asimov’s I, Robot (1950), Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966), and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) have roots in a much longer tradition of fictional and nonfictional creations, stretching back through what LaGrandeur terms “pre-empirical times” and illustrated by a wide range of ancient, medieval, and early Renaissance examples. Moreover, LaGrandeur argues, stories told about the ambitions and anxieties associated with the artificial servant have taken remarkably similar forms throughout this long history. Artificial servants and other self-operating machines function as prosthetic devices to “expand the natural limits of those who make them” (1), represent the far-reaching powers of the scientific mind, and display the god-like skills of their creators, but they are also associated with the dangers of scientific hubris, dystopic catastrophe, and disturbing reversals of the master-servant relationship.
The book’s early chapters provide an overview of ancient and medieval automata and stories about them, drawing especially, for a theoretical foundation, upon Aristotle’s writings on slaves as “intelligent tools” (9). Examples include speaking statues, miniature theaters with dancing figures, intricate clocks and tabletop devices, mechanical singing birds, humanoid dolls with working parts, prosthetic limbs, and many other self-operating artifacts designed to produce wonder, display the artisan’s skill, and associate religious or political authorities with an awe-inducing power over nature. As the title indicates, the book concentrates on the early modern period, especially the sixteenth century, when the idea of the artificial servant as part of a humanist quest to attain godlike powers was elaborated in a wide variety of alchemical texts, works of natural philosophy, and stage plays. Chapter 3 examines the idea of the homunculus in the writings of Paracelsus, Agrippa, and Arabic sources, connecting it to stories about the golem from the Jewish Cabala and elsewhere. These versions of the “artificial servant,” as LaGrandeur points out, were often associated with an undercurrent of fear and disapproval and, sometimes, actual charges of black magic or blasphemy, yet they also demonstrated a new interest in experimentation and in expanding human understanding of and dominion over nature. LaGrandeur devotes most of the last half of the book to extended readings of Robert Greene’s The Honorable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1589), Marlowe’s Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604), and Shakespeare’s The Tempest (c. 1610-11). The notion of the artificial servant who resembles a modern robot or android is broadened in these chapters to include the “intelligent network” of an interactive group of artificial servants, resembling a networked computer system. The book’s final chapter (building on an article that first appeared in SFS in 2011)is a reflection on the connections between these key early modern texts and their modern counterparts.
Thus, in Chapter 5, LaGrandeur offer a fresh, richly suggestive reading of The Tempest via the concept of the “artificial network” and Aristotle’s writings on slaves as “tools” that are extensions of the master’s body. For LaGrandeur, the Renaissance magus, through his esoteric knowledge, is able to bind spirits into a servant-system that functions like a “networked computer system or superorganism,” artificial in the sense that this “ethereal prosthesis” or “supernatural engine” operates as an extension of the magus’s will (105). Prospero’s network of spirits and slaves (LaGrandeur includes Caliban here) is also “intelligent,” introducing a potential for intractability and rebellion into the servant-system, making its members similar to Aristotle’s enslaved captives of war who resist the slave role because they were once aristocrats in their home countries. As a result, Prospero’s control requires vigilance and constant effort. His redemption and renunciation of magic at the end of the play are crucially caused by “his recognition of the dangerous tensions built into the system he has created,” LaGrandeur concludes (126).
By contrast, Doctor Faustus misunderstands the nature of the servant-system he tries to produce through his magic. In LaGrandeur’s provocative reading (Chapter 6), Marlowe’s play is a satire of “lazy thinking” and “flawed orthodoxy,” not an orthodox morality play or tragedy about a heroic over-reacher: Faustus flirts with innovative ideas but does not “fully commit to his daring nor dare wisely enough” (129). Rather oddly, LaGrandeur downplays Mephistopheles’s claim in the play that magicians have no real power to conjure or control devils. Instead, LaGrandeur argues that Faustus’s conjurations could have been successful if only he had “taken the time to study and use the proper ‘white’ magic that Cornelius and Valdes tried to teach him” (137), a magic associated with the occult science of Pico, Ficino, and other early modern humanists (150). In other words, Faustus’s crucial mistake is to choose necromancy over natural philosophy—which leads him also to misunderstand the potential for resistance in the “intelligent” servant-system he attempts to create.
For some, the repeated comparisons to robots, androids, computer systems, and “intelligent networks” in these chapters will seem anachronistic—or, at the very least, insensitive to the complex relationship between “science” and “magic” in the period and to the variety and depth of early modern beliefs about demons, spirits, and occult forces. Indeed, to call Ariel and Mephistopheles “prime nodes in the networks that Prospero and Doctor Faustus fashion” or “interface[s] between the mage and his supernatural machine” (106) seems to go too far in denying the autonomy of these characters and eliding the agency broadly attributed to demons or spirits in much early modern discourse. (Similarly, in his discussion of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, the brass head is described as if it were purely an android-like human invention animated by a “mysterious natural force” rather than as a container for a demon [97-98].) LaGrandeur perhaps underrates the element of bargaining or negotiation in transactions between magicians and spirits and the extent to which conjuration could resemble supplication or prayer. Notably, the devil is conspicuously absent in almost all of his discussion. Yet at the same time, LaGrandeur’s analogies often seem uncannily apt: certainly the ambition of many magicians was to control demons to such an extent that they would carry out orders in a subservient, machine-like way. Viewed en masse, demons often do operate much like a networked system in many Renaissance descriptions; the agency of any particular demon can be difficult to discern. By reading these texts through the lens of cybernetic theory, LaGrandeur calls attention to understudied questions about demonic agency and what we might call the social life of spirits and demons.
Ultimately, LaGrandeur offers an original and thought-provoking perspective that has the bracing effect of “making strange” these very familiar texts and producing arresting new connections and genealogies. Such connections, or “points of contact,” are the subject of the book’s final chapter on artificial servants in both past and present. LaGrandeur identifies three of special importance. First, early modern and contemporary texts about artificial servants support Katherine Hayles’s claim that “we have always been posthuman”—or, as LaGrandeur puts it, that “humans have never really been autonomous entities, but rather have always been intimately linked with their environments in an interdependent way” (153). Paradoxically, this interdependence not only enhances human capabilities but also increases vulnerability to breakdowns within the system. Second, as artificial servant-systems become more complex and “intelligent,” they also become harder to control, threatening to reverse the power relations between human master and servant-machine. Third, the dream of creating and controlling artificial servants is also a dream about the power of language or code. The culture of early modern magicians and alchemists strongly parallels the culture of contemporary computer scientists; both groups wield power through mastery of a secret language, rely on books, and form “societies of initiates” who use “esoteric knowledge to do wonders” (174). The Tempest, Doctor Faustus, and early modern occult traditions provide the primary examples of “the past” here (leaving it to readers to forge their own connections to material from the earlier chapters), which LaGrandeur connects to a wide variety of twentieth- and twenty-first-century texts, including Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Blade Runner (1982), episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94),early writings in the field of cybernetics, Karel Čapek’s R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920), and the Terminator (1984-2009) and Matrixfilms (1999-2003), among others. The chapter successfully brings the book to a conclusion; by its end, few will dispute that “we have no monopoly, in our age, on the idea of blending the traits of the human and the machine or on the notion of creating artificial slaves” (177), nor that a generative mix of aspirations, fantasies, dreams, and fears have haunted these ideas over the centuries, continuously producing compelling new variations on old stories.
—Deborah Willis, University of California, Riverside
Women in Postwar SF Literature and Film.
Judith Merril: A Critical Study. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. xvi + 239 pp. $40 pbk.
. Gendering Science Fiction Films: Invaders from the Suburbs. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. xiii + 193 pp. $85 hc.
While you can still find vestiges of the myth that science fiction is and has always been a boy’s club, a number of recent publications have worked to debunk the idea that, from its inception, the sf genre was primarily populated by male fans and writers and that feminist sf only emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s. Recent books such as Justine Larbalestier’s The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction (2002) and Lisa Yaszek’s Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction (2008) have done an exemplary job of reclaiming the work of women sf writers and fans during the postwar period, laying the groundwork for other scholars interested in rethinking the contributions of women whose work has not been incorporated either into the canon of postwar science fiction or into the pantheon of feminist sf. Dianne Newell and Victoria Lamont’s Judith Merril: A Critical Study and Susan A. George’s Gendering Science Fiction Films: Invaders from the Suburbs take different approaches to this topic, with the former uncovering the often overlooked contributions of women writers and critics while the latter challenges the idea that postwar sf films were always conservative in their depictions of gender. Yet both books are responding to the need within the field to recover and rethink the feminist potential of these postwar sf texts.
Newell and Lamont focus their critical study on Merril’s many contributions to the postwar sf community as a writer, activist, essayist, and editor. Merril is one of the most critically visible women participating in postwar science fiction, making her one of the women writers least in need of recovery, especially when there are many others about whom virtually nothing has been written. Even though Merril is already seen as an “overwhelming presence in the inner circles of science fiction throughout the 1950s and 1960s,” Newell and Lamont justify their focus on this better-known figure by pointing out that many of her contributions to the field have been overlooked or erased (209). This is particularly true of her later work as a broadcaster in Toronto and her work as a translator-editor with sf communities in Japan. But even much of Merril’s work as a writer of science fiction has also been downplayed in favor of discussing her scandalous life. Newell and Lamont’s book is hardly the only attempt to reclaim Judith Merril as a feminist sf writer—and I would still like to see more attention paid to women writers whose work has been overlooked in the extant scholarship—but this book does make a compelling argument for seeing Merril as a key player in the evolution of postwar feminist sf.
The book is organized into two parts: a section on Merril’s postwar fiction and a section entitled “Shifting the Dimensions of Speculative Fiction,” which considers Merril’s work as an editor, essayist, activist, translator, and critic. Although these sections seemingly separate Merril’s fiction from her other writing, Newell and Lamont stress that these aspects of Merril’s life were always closely integrated. The section on Merril’s fiction is divided into chapters analyzing how her writing fits into the context of many of the dominant sf subgenres at the time. These sections cover Merril’s more better-known contributions to the field, such as her atom-age story “That Only a Mother” (1948), alongside lesser known works.
Although Newell and Lamont’s analysis makes clear their enthusiasm for Merril’s writing, they do a very good job of discussing how her exploration of gender in science fiction reflects her privileged viewpoint as a white woman. The first four chapters all deal in some way with Merril’s engagement with the myth of the frontier, including both the expansionist project of space exploration and, during the nuclear age, an atomic frontier tied to Cold War anxieties and problematic ideas about American exceptionalism. Newell and Lamont suggest ways that Merril’s approach to these two frontiers worked to destabilize ideas about gender roles and femininity that were typically part of such narratives while still acknowledging the problems inherent in her presentation—or lack thereof—of race and indigeneity in her frontier stories.
The second section of the book begins with what is essentially a continuation of Newell and Lamont’s exploration of Merril’s fiction, switching from discussing her short stories to the longer sf works she co-wrote with her frequent collaborator and fellow Futurian, C.M. Kornbluth, under the pen name “Cyril Judd.” While Newell and Lamont continue to give close readings of the novels they produced, this chapter on “Merril in Dialogue” is more concerned with theorizing the role that collaboration played in Merril’s work. The Cyril Judd novels are very conventional sf adventure stories, but Newell and Lamont argue that the collaborative writing style, with Merril and Kornbluth continually rewriting and revising each other’s drafts, serves as a microcosm of Merril’s sf career, which was largely made up of similar collaborations or “pseudo-collaborations” that necessitated the “frequent informal sharing of ideas and editorial suggestions and work that happened outside of formally acknowledged collaborations” (136). While the authors do not explicitly connect Merril’s creative process to larger discussions of the collaborative nature of the sf genre, their emphasis on this aspect of her work can readily be connected to theoretical concepts such as the sf megatext or, more recently, sf “parabolas,” because it suggests that women writers were not just involved with postwar sf but may have actively shaped it into the kind of collaborative, self-reflexive genre we are familiar with today.
Newell and Lamont’s collaborative critical study/biography of Merril concludes by looking at the author’s own account of her life in her posthumously published 2002 memoir Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril, co-written with her granddaughter Emily Pohl-Weary. While Newell and Lamont continue to discuss Merril’s memoir in the context of her penchant for collaborative projects, they also analyze the way other Futurian biographies present Merril and the responses to and reviews of her memoir from her sf contemporaries. Merril’s memoir is very different from what Newell and Lamont call the “sanitized” accounts written about the sf community in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s—accounts that often erased or downplayed Merril’s contributions to the field—and thus her messy treatment of the postwar era provoked very strong reactions (181). In light of objections that Merril’s memoir was “fragmented” and “frustrating” (204), Newell and Lamont argue that its “collaborative form” and “nonlinear content” were misread by readers unprepared for this level of formal experimentation in an autobiography (179). Ending with Merril’s own account of her life and career is a nice gesture for this critical study dedicated to reexamining Merril’s contributions to science fiction, and Newell and Lamont effectively reference Merril’s interpretation without replicating it.
While Newell and Lamont focus on women producers of science fiction and feminist writing practices, Susan A. George’s Gendering Science Fiction Films: Invaders from the Suburbs takes a closer look at the ways in which women were depicted in 1950s film. Although women were involved in the process of filmmaking, albeit in supporting roles, George’s study attends more to the films themselves and the ways they depict both femininity and masculinity. She focuses specifically on the sf invasion movie. Drawing on Patrick Lucanio’s discussion of 1950s invasion narratives in Them or Us: Archetypal Interpretations of Fifties Alien Invasion Films (1987), George considers both films that feature invading creatures from another planet—the “classical” alien invasion archetype—and what Lucanio calls the “Prometheus variation” that features “internal or terrestrial invasions” of creatures spawned by atomic testing or scientific hubris (21). These invasion narratives create a model for heroic white masculinity wherein the hero is alienated from a society that refuses to believe his insistence on an impending invasion and must then work alongside his male and sometimes female colleagues to battle the invaders. George finds these two categorizations for invasion narratives useful because they allow her to contrast this general model for masculinity and femininity with specific films that may not entirely follow this narrative structure or uphold this gender ideology.
We typically think of the film industry as being less subversive and less experimental in its depiction of gender roles in science fiction than literary examples. There is some truth to this claim, but George makes a compelling case for considering the subversive potential of often-overlooked Hollywood B, C, and D movies, which were able to slide more unconventional depictions of gender politics past the Production Code Administration than larger budget films (2). The PCA tended to be inconsistent in its censoring of controversial themes and images even when evaluating mainstream films in the postwar period, so it is not surprising that low-budget sf movies, particularly invasion films that are trying to discomfort the viewer, were able to trouble 1950s gender roles.
Even though George is interested in reclaiming the 1950s sf B movie as a potentially subversive form, she takes the time to discuss films that largely reinforce conventional gender roles before analyzing the outliers. In her first two chapters, George lays out the “Cold War blueprint” for masculine and feminine behavior often upheld by sf B movies and the negative examples that served as cautionary tales for the viewer. The Cold War masculine subject— what George calls the “team player”—contrasts directly with previous “rugged individualist” models of masculine behavior, reflecting a cultural need for men in the postwar economy to become part of the suburban consumerist culture. Team players cooperate with other men to form groups of specialists to combat the threat of invasion and are shown to be unable to solve the problem on their own. This is contrasted with the Promethean scientist figure, who often has altruistic goals but inevitably causes the disasters that the team of specialists must fix because he is too attached to his individualism and social isolation (48). Ideal masculine behavior in these films is linked to cooperation.
The Cold War blueprint for femininity—the “mystique model”—is similarly contrasted with the more sexual and sinister sf vamp. The mystique model is a devoted wife and mother, but she can never be shown having a strong emotional reaction to any of the bizarre apocalyptic events going on around her during the invasion. George uses the minor character of Mrs. Lodge from the 1954 movie Them! to illustrate this point, noting that even when her husband has been killed by giant ants and her children are missing, Mrs. Lodge remains calm and collected in her “shirtwaist dress with a crisp, clean white collar and pearl stud earrings” (24). George notes both in her discussion of the mystique model and in her later chapter on working women that this female archetype can be initially shown to have a career and that some characters even have scientific expertise relating to the invasion. Films that uphold the mystique model of femininity gradually shift these female figures into the background, showing them increasingly involved in domestic chores and removing them entirely from the final conflict. The mystique model featured in these films served as the end of a female character’s narrative arc as much as her archetype.
The sf vamp reverses nearly everything about the mystique model, being sexually voracious and personally ambitious. George points out that although the vamp as an archetype has been discussed at great length in other contexts, the sf vamp is largely unexamined in sf film scholarship (48). She also notes that the sf vamp differs from other screen vamps because her “deeds are inscribed on her body” (49), which is often subject to dramatic and monstrous mutations, invoking anxieties about radiation and nuclear technology that have as much to do with attitudes toward female sexuality and reproduction as they do with atomic testing. George notes that these sf vamps, even when they are monstrous mutants, are often engaging and compelling characters, and she argues that the vamp can open up a space for the frustrations and larger political concerns surrounding Cold War femininity before the narrative reasserts a more normative model for feminine behavior.
George continues to develop these four figures of “good” and “bad” femininity and masculinity throughout the rest of the book, suggesting ways that many 1950s sf films simultaneously subverted some gender roles while upholding others. I particularly enjoyed her chapter on the alien possession film, where George suggests that these films often deconstruct the team player archetype by cutting the protagonist off from any institutional support while still problematically depicting women as more easily susceptible to alien possession. George also does an excellent job of connecting 1950s depictions of gender to later invasion films, concluding with a chapter closely analyzing the two sf films she was able to find that actually had a female protagonist—I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958)and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)—and tracing out a quick genealogical overview of the invasion film as it developed after the Cold War.
Both of these books offer articulate and focused explorations of gender in postwar sf, and both take the time to identify topics and texts that still need to be written about. While many of the subjects central to postwar science fiction—atomic power and radiation, suburban domesticity, telepathy and psi powers, the space race—rarely show up in contemporary sf, the treatment of masculinity and femininity in these earlier texts paved the way for later explorations of gender identity in sf. There are obviously still problems with these postwar treatments that primarily focus on the experiences of white, heterosexual, middle-class women, but it is worth remembering that some of the experts battling possessed suburbanites, nuclear fallout, and giant insects did so while wearing heels.
—Stina Attebery, University of California, Riverside
Elusive Information about a Largely Untranslated SF Tradition.
Ukrainian Science Fiction: Historical and Thematic Perspectives. Bern: Peter Lang, 2013. 388 pp. $99.95 pbk.
Given the recent developments and protests in Ukraine as the country’s citizens struggle for independence from Russia, the publication of Walter Smyrniw’s Ukrainian Science Fiction: Historical and Thematic Perspectives in November 2013 provides a timely contribution to the larger discussions surrounding Ukraine’s rich—and, more importantly, distinct—national, cultural, and political traditions. Smyrniw is careful to consider the works of both Soviet Ukrainians and émigré Ukrainians living abroad in this, the first English-language history of Ukrainian science fiction—which, some brief remarks about earlier Western authors notwithstanding, covers primarily the years 1905 to 2000. Given the fraught history between Russia and Ukraine, which used to be part of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, it is refreshing that Smyrniw’s wide-ranging history presents the works discussed in their native Ukrainian contexts, diverging from a dominant trend in Slavic studies that has all-too-often claimed Ukrainian writers as part of the Russian literary tradition. Smyrniw’s work thus serves both to shed light on non-Russian Soviet history and culture, bringing attention to a vibrant literary tradition that has gone largely unstudied in the West, and to reinforce the image of an independent and distinctly Ukrainian national spirit at a sensitive time in Ukrainian-Russian political relations. Further, Smyrniw’s work has unearthed the names of many authors virtually unknown in the West, along with those whose works either never became popular in Ukraine outside of the sf genre or have long since been forgotten, creating an expansive resource for both scholars of science fiction and scholars of Ukrainian, Slavic, or global literature.
The task Smyrniw sets for himself, “to present an outline of the representative and the most imaginative Ukrainian science fiction works published by writers residing in Ukraine and abroad” (9), is both ambitious and critically needed in studies of non-Western science fiction. Inasmuch as Smyrniw’s work is the first of its kind, Ukrainian Science Fiction covers an impressive amount of ground when it comes to the number of works and authors considered. Divided into twenty thematically oriented chapters, the book considers the historical development and popularity of such themes as utopia, religion, solar energy, travels through time and space, technology, robots, androids and cyborgs, human nature, and humor. While the scope of thematic concepts treated is indeed broad, however, Smyrniw’s work lacks any structural variety and runs the risk of becoming monotonous. Nearly every chapter in this otherwise excellent resource is comprised of very long plot summaries, and Smyrniw often only features the works of one or two authors per chapter. The writer Oles Berdnyk, for instance, is the exclusive focus of three of the book’s twenty chapters and makes additional appearances in several others, leading to the impression that Smyrniw’s choices of authors for extensive discussion may not be as balanced as his stated aim. Additionally, because some works are discussed in more than one chapter, the book comes to feel a bit repetitive. The length of the plot summaries, at times running up to ten or twelve pages, contributes to making the work feel like more of an encyclopedia of plot points than a critical engagement with the cultural stakes and functions of science fiction in Ukraine.
By so greatly privileging the plot details of each work over every other consideration, Smyrniw misses the opportunity to put the works discussed in dialogue with each other, instead preferring lengthy paraphrases of each work’s narrational aspects, followed by sudden segues into other texts’ treatments of the same themes. In doing so, Smyrniw brackets each work off from the others discussed, restricting communication between the ideas these various authors are expounding and generally making for a disorganized reading experience. The cultural and political dimensions of these works are also seldom discussed, although several references are made to the exile and imprisonment of some of the authors, suggesting a more nuanced political subtext for some of these works than Smyrniw is prepared fully to explore. Additionally, he makes no attempt to excavate the cultural significance of Ukrainian science fiction as an aggregate discourse, despite the fact that science fiction became the most popular genre in Soviet-era Ukraine and many major figures—even some notable politicians—used it as a vehicle to disseminate their more radical ideas. Aside from the first and last few paragraphs of each chapter, very few connections are made between the various works discussed, their shared cultural and political contexts, or the works of non-Ukrainian science fiction writers contributing to discourses around the same themes. Further, when connections are made between Ukrainian and international treatments of similar thematic concerns, they are invariably comparisons only to Western sf. Given the close connections between and overlapping ideological structures of the countries within the Soviet Union, it seems strange that Smyrniw does not draw connections to other Soviet sf traditions—or indeed to any traditions other than those of the Western countries.
These structural weaknesses aside, Ukrainian Science Fiction delivers on its promise to provide an outline of representative Ukrainian sf works. Indeed, if treated more like an encyclopedia, Smyrniw’s book does an admirable job of providing a comprehensive guide to its subject. Smyrniw has taken much of the hard work out of unearthing rare, forgotten, and unknown works of Ukrainian science fiction for both newcomers to and veterans of this fascinating body of literature, and this comprises the book’s most valuable contribution to the fields of both Ukrainian studies and sf studies more broadly. While not necessarily an excellent resource for students of Ukrainian culture, it certainly draws attention to and catalogues the expansive presence of science fiction in Ukraine, providing an incredibly useful steppingstone for further work in an often overlooked literary discourse.
Additionally, because Smyrniw’s book is the first monograph devoted exclusively to Ukrainian sf, it is an important resource for anyone interested in broadening their understanding of science fiction in other cultural contexts. The book’s organization by theme will facilitate the research of those interested in particular subgenres, as Smyrniw covers a wide range of sf’s most classic modes; and, though rather tedious to read, the extensive plot summaries make it easy to identify texts for further study. Considered in its totality, Ukrainian Science Fiction: Historical and Thematic Perspectives offers a detailed and comprehensive guide to the science-fictional corpus of a country whose many talented and imaginative writers’ works have not often been made available to English-speaking readers. In researching and writing this book, Smyrniw has made an admirable effort to render these works visible to an international audience, in many cases for the first time.
—Brittany Roberts, University of California, Riverside
Postcolonial SF vs. the World.
Globalization, Utopia, and Postcolonial Science Fiction: New Maps of Hope. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. viii + 244 pp. $90 hc.
In his influential New Maps of Hell (1960), Kingsley Amis labeled a selection of satirical dystopias of 1950s literary sf as “comic infernos.” In this substantive new contribution to the study of globalization in recent sf, Eric Smith subtitles his book New Maps of Hope, suggesting perhaps that in our science-fictional world—in which an endless barrage of comic infernos, both real and virtual, have become the dystopian global norm—the mushrooming subgenre of postcolonial sf offers its world-weary aficionados a haven for disruptive glimpses of paradises lost.
In an introduction that neatly clarifies the close readings of the forthcoming chapters, Smith invokes the genre theory of Suvin, Freedman, and Jameson to align the cognitive estrangement of contemporary “SF writers of the ‘developing nations’ of the third world” with the anti-globalization project to undertake “an imaginative cartography of utopian possibility” (16). The first chapter attempts to recuperate the tarnished critical reception of Salman Rushdie’s Grimus (1975) as a prescient anticipation of the supplanting of postmodern ideological resistance by an emergent homogenizing globalization —which is opposed, rather feebly, only by what the French philosopher Alain Badiou calls “the void” of utopian excess. Likewise, the second chapter gives a plausible reading of Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000) as an interrogation of utopian-revolutionary promise in the social totality of the decentered network of globalization. What follows this compelling close reading are perhaps the most important and original scholarly contributions in the book—namely, the third and fourth chapters analyzing Indian sf: Vandana Singh’s The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet (2008), Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome (1995), and Manjula Padmanabhan’s Ghandi Toxin (2004). Relying on an eclectic mixture of theory culled from the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Slavoj Žižek, and Michel de Certeau, Smith convincingly claims that Singh represents the domestic space as spectrally haunted by the dialectic of globalization and utopian resistance, that Ghosh depicts tactical solidarity railing against draconian biopolitics, and that Padmanabhan restages Hegel’s cunning of history as reinterpreted by Marx. The final two chapters apply a sound analytic grasp of globalization theory to against-the-grain readings of the Hollywood extravaganzas I Am Legend (2007)and District 9 (2009). They productively explore the ways that Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland (2008) and Tobias Buckell’s Crystal Rain (2006) reconfigure the sf protocols of cyberpunk and steampunk into what Smith calls “third-world punk” (159).
Challenging the recently established priorities of Ericka Hoagland and Reema Sarwal’s critical anthology Science Fiction, Imperialism, and the Third World: Essays on Postcolonial Literature and Film (2010), as well as Jessica Langer’s Postcolonialism and Science Fiction (2011), Smith strives to correct the dearth of rigorous, critically materialist theory devoted to analyzing postcolonial fiction and media. But, in the process, he may have unduly restricted the field of Marxist-affiliated postcolonial criticism to the eccentric positions advocated by Jameson and Neil Lazarus, who (according to Smith) appropriately decry an “insidious developmentalism masquerading as the progressivist countenancing of cultural plurality” (14). For some inexplicable reason, the free-floating revolutionary-oppositional utopian desire and science-fictional cognitive mapping that Smith privileges does not succumb to this liberal-humanist scourge. Regardless of how trenchant his sustained interrogation of the multicultural premises of institutionalized postcolonial studies may be, Smith’s approach winds up simply replicating what Aijaz Ahmad (in his famous critique of Jameson) argues is a pernicious essentializing of distinct postcolonial sites, identities, and experiences into a monolithic insurgent or exploited multitude, a decontextualized Other. In a similar gesture, Smith also repeatedly adopts a premature post-nationalist stance oblivious to the rise of a counterhegemonic diaspora of homing desires and heterogeneous flows of nationalist ethnoscapes, as well as to the undiminished hegemonic imperatives of contemporary nation-states, especially in the developed North. His consistent dismissals of the “the logic of the outmoded juridico-political dispensation, the nation-state” (153), will seem hyperbolic, if not naïve, to many informed readers.
The danger of such a reductive analysis is glaring in Smith’s glancing discussion of Alejo Carpentier’s “real-maravillosso” (an antecedent to the diverse postcolonial cultural productions often labeled “magical realism”), where he borrows from Jameson’s “On Magical Realism in Film” (1986) to argue that such works allegorize the negotiation of pre-capitalist and capitalist cultural formations (9). With this sweeping gesture, Smith then concludes that magic realism has “calcified into the properly ideological institution” that “the imaginative capacities of postcolonial science fiction” (11) can finally put to rest. Are we to conclude, then, that Gabriel García Márquez (who published Love in the Time of Cholera in 1985), not to mention his myriad contemporary progeny, are irrelevant to globalization theory because they fail to register the impact of neoliberal capitalism, the new global dispensation that putatively emerged in the early 1970s? A detailed and substantive argument might convince me of such a tendentious claim, but this argument never materializes. Fortunately, Smith quickly surrenders his critical straw-man in the bulk of his close readings, which are much more nuanced and supple than such blanket rejections of the complex terms of mainstream postcolonial theory might suggest.
—Jerome Winter, University of California, Riverside
Another Verne Manuscript Translated.
Golden Danube. Trans. Kieran M. O’Driscoll. Ed. Brian Taves. Albany, GA: BearManor, 2014. 273 pp. $24.95 pbk.
This book is the first English translation of Jules Verne’s original manuscript for his novel Le Pilote du Danube, published posthumously in 1908 and appearing much later in English as The Danube Pilot (1967; trans. I.O. Evans). Verne’s title for this rough-draft version was Le Beau Danube jaune [The Beautiful Yellow Danube], no doubt a spin-off from Strauss’s famous waltz The Blue Danube (in French Le Beau Danube bleu). The manuscript was first published in French by the Société Jules Verne in 1988—along with the original drafts of Verne’s other posthumous novels, following the discovery that these works had been revised, edited, and in some cases entirely rewritten by Verne’s son Michel before their publication. At the time, Verne purists immediately denounced these “semi-forgeries” as a serious threat to the integrity of Verne’s oeuvre. Other Verne scholars disagreed, pointing out that in his later years Verne père often asked for Michel’s help in bringing his works to publication and that Michel’s revised versions are probably much closer to what Jules himself would have produced had he been alive to finalize his first drafts. The debate continues to this day. (For an overview of this controversy surrounding Verne’s posthumous works, see my two book reviews, “Protesting Too Much” [SFS 36.2 (Jul. 2009): 321-26] and “Re-Viewing Verne’s Invisible Man” [SFS 39.1 (Mar. 2012): 150-53].) The publication of this new manuscript translation, retitled Golden Danube, is part of the Palik Series—a collection of previously untranslated works by Verne sponsored by the North American Jules Verne Society (for more information, consult the NAJVS website at<http://www.najvs.org/publications.shtml>).
When discussing Verne’s published posthumous works, the inconvenient truth is that many if not most of Verne’s rough drafts were significantly improved by Michel’s rewrites. For example, although I prefer the Verne père manuscript version of his 1910 Le Secret de Wilhelm Storitz [The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz], mostly because of its conclusion, I consider the manuscript versions of his 1906 Le Volcan d’or [The Golden Volcano] and his 1909 Les Naufragés du “Jonathan” [The Survivors of the “Jonathan”] to be clearly inferior in quality to those that were edited and published by Michel. As for the present volume under review, after a detailed comparison of this manuscript version of Le Beau Danube jaune/Golden Danube with the posthumous, Michel-edited version of Le Pilote du Danube/The Danube Pilot, I am again forced to conclude that the latter seems to me far richer in plot, deeper in characterization, and overall more engaging as a fictional narrative than Verne’s rather flat rough draft.
The storyline of the manuscript Le Beau Danube jaune/Golden Danube (spoiler alert!) follows a simple and very linear design. A likable Hungarian fisherman and former river pilot named Ilia Krusch wins a fishing competition and decides to journey down the entire length of the Danube, living on the sales of the fish he catches along the way. He agrees to share this voyage with a mysterious stranger named M. Jaeger, who pays him a large sum of money in exchange for the proceeds that Krusch’s fishing will earn. During the trip down the river, they become good friends. But, as the reader learns near the end of the book (and probably guessed long before), M. Jaeger is actually police chief Karl Dragoch, who is using Krusch’s journey as a cover for tracking the activities of a gang of smugglers led by a certain Latzko, whom he eventually succeeds in bringing to justice with Krusch’s courageous help.
As for the manuscript’s narrative structure, the titles of most of the sixteen chapters serve to mark the duo’s slow but sure progress down the river: e.g., “At the Sources of the River Danube,” “From Passau to Linz,” “From Linz to Vienna,” “From Vienna to Pressburg and Budapest,” etc., up to the final chapter “From Galati to the Black Sea.” Apart from the (slight) mystery surrounding the true identity of M. Jaeger, the portrayal of the characters remains rather stereotypical: Krusch is the epitome of a nice guy (honest, strong, gentle, trusting, affable, etc.) and Latzko is the epitome of a bad guy (immoral, conniving, brutish, violent, etc.). As one might expect, Verne’s geographical pedagogy regularly punctuates the text: as the protagonists descend the Danube, a short description of each town and city they pass through along the way is dutifully offered. Finally, the tone of the story is invariably light, relaxed, and “mildly intriguing,” in the words of its English translator (35).
In contrast, the plot of the Le Pilote du Danube/The Danube Pilot is more complex and incorporates many action-packed twists and turns typical of a thriller or a detective novel. The opening chapters are nearly identical to those in the manuscript, although the main protagonist, now called Ilia Brusch, is in reality a renowned Bulgarian freedom fighter and arms smuggler named Serge Ladko, who is traveling in disguise and with a price on his head set by the Turkish authorities. (The historical backdrop of the story, outlined in chapter four, involves Bulgaria’s 1876 revolt against centuries of Ottoman rule, which led to the Russo-Turkish War the following year and eventually to Bulgarian independence.) The murderous gang of bandits being secretly chased by Jaeger/Dragoch is actually led by the cunning criminal Ivan Striga, a long-time personal enemy of Ladko, whose wife Striga kidnaps. Striga also uses Ladko’s name during his crime spree down the Danube, which leads to Ladko’s arrest and imprisonment. But Ladko manages a daring escape and, with the help of Dragoch who has now become his friend, they intercept Striga before he is able to load his ill-gotten booty (and hostage) aboard a freighter on the Black Sea. Striga is killed in a final battle, the hero and his wife are reunited, Dragoch succeeds in rounding up the remainder of Striga’s criminal gang, and (in the epilogue) Ladko enlists in the Russian army to continue fighting the Turks for the independence of his homeland.
Beyond its geopolitical context and travelogue aspect, there is little of Verne’s signature pedagogy in Le Pilote du Danube/The Danube Pilot. Rather than following a predictably linear pattern, the novel’s chapters tend to zig-zag among the different strands of plot and sub-plot. The portrayal of the characters also seems more “round” than “flat”—their individual personalities and the emotions triggered by their circumstances (especially in the case of Brusch/Ladko) add both depth and verisimilitude to the narrative. And the overall tone of the story alternates between moments of suspense and revelation, tension and high action, self-reflection and feats of derring-do. According to Olivier Dumas, president of the Société Jules Verne and author of the preface to Le Beau Danube Jaune (Paris: L’Archipel, 2000), Verne’s original manuscript was “a peaceful river promenade ... [resembling] a fisherman’s primer” (14). He opines that Michel ruined this “peaceful and cheerful work” by transforming it into a “somber and humorless police drama” (15). In my opinion, Michel’s rewrite also made it much more entertaining.
Apart from his unfortunate choice of Golden Danube as the title of the book—which remains wholly inaccurate despite his explanations that he found it “more appealing, elegant and poetic” and “more tasteful and attractive” (1)—Kieran M. O’Driscoll’s translation is very good and extremely faithful to Verne’s original text. It also reads quite smoothly, despite occasional Britishisms such as “I knew that I would get out of that distressing spot of bother” (214) for “je savais que je m’en sortirais de ce mauvais pas,” or “Ilia Krusch had a fruitful spot of fishing” (223) for “Ilia Krusch fit bonne pêche,” or “the great unwashed” (224) for “le commun des mortels,” or “kitted out” (225) for “outillés,” among others. Although the textual annotations are few and far between, I also found O’Driscoll’s 36-page introduction to be truly top-notch, not only instructive and critically aware but also (and in contrast to Olivier Dumas’s) ideologically balanced. It provides the reader with an in-depth look at the book’s publishing history, its major themes and characters, its possible homoerotic undertones, its humor, and how the current translation compares to the one done in 1967 by I.O. Evans.
At the end of his introduction, O’Driscoll concludes that, in his opinion, Verne père’s manuscript has “proven worthy of translation” (35). Despite my reservations about its literary quality, as a Vernian I must agree. But what I find most distressing is that, in the future, this much less interesting rough-draft manuscript will no doubt end up being the only “official” version of this posthumous Verne novel available to the reading public. Quel dommage!
—Arthur B. Evans, DePauw University
Researching the Apocalypse.
Abendländische Apokalyptik: Kompendium zur Genealogie der Endzeit [Occidental Apocalypticism: A Companion for a Genealogy of the End Times]. Kulturgeschichte der Apokalypse [Cultural History of the Apocalypse], vol. 1. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2013. 765 pp. €128 hc.
The apocalypse is sexy—not in a literal sense, of course, but academically speaking. Popular culture, for example, has engaged in an excessive amount of apocalyptic imagineering in recent years, including fantastic portrayals of end-time scenarios based on the Mayan calendar, tidal waves, ice ages, zombie apocalypses, and sundry alien invasions. As a result, research into the varied possibilities of apocalypticism has similarly flourished in a variety of academic disciplines, from history to theology, from literary studies to anthropology. Research on “Occidental Apocalypticism,” inaugurated at the University of Vienna as a three-year project providing interdisciplinary cooperation for five PhDs and gathering research from four different departments, has taken up the challenge of providing common ground for the many varied and somewhat discordant fields that deal with the subject. The present volume, a “companion for a genealogy of the end times” (as the subtitle reads) is the fruit of this effort and the first anthology in a newly established book series on the “Cultural History of the Apocalypse.” It brings together the findings of the Viennese project as a massive 765-page volume, with 33 articles (eight in English) that are grouped in six clusters, following the idea of a genealogy backwards from modernity to its Judeo-Christian origins in the 4th century. The first three clusters concentrate on modernity (eighteenth to twenty-first centuries) and deal with “Apocalyptic Knowledge,” “Media Regulation,” and “Possible Worlds, Possible Ends” respectively, while the fourth cluster focuses on pre-Enlightenment times (fifteenth to seventeenth centuries) and their “Apocalyptic Communities” and clusters 5 and 6, which reach back into medieval and ancient times (roughly the fourth through fourteenth centuries), deal with “Processes of Othering” and “Competing Horizons of Time.”
As the editors (who are the five project members) make clear in their introduction, their approach is not to intervene in discussions of terminology and definition, which seem to bog down research, in the end vitiating any useful perspective on apocalypticism. The problem, they argue, is that terms such as “apocalypse,” “apocalypticism,” “end times,” and “eschatology” are phenomena both on a “diachronic as well as synchronic level that are pluralistic, heterogeneous, and partly contradictory” (12). Finding definitions is problematic as the terms are rooted in their respective historical and cultural backgrounds, which change and overlap. Any academic negotiation of these phenomena thus promises results only if and when considered within this framework, necessarily providing “concretized perspectives” instead of “hermetic unity” (11). In keeping an open, interdisciplinary viewpoint, the editors are thus able to gather many different perspectives that together provide a multi-faceted (if incomplete) picture of apocalypticism. The only limitation they provide their contributors with is a topical concentration on the Judeo-Christian, occidental apocalypse and its appropriation in different cultural and historical frames—emphasizing reception, not conception.
Out of necessity with a project of this size and the sheer amount of articles, the quality and approaches vary, with some providing survey-like overviews on topics in as little as 10 pages while others develop specific readings of up to 30 pages in length. For sf scholars, only the first three clusters seem directly relevant. “Apocalyptic Knowledge” provides a theoretical commentary on the apocalypse, referencing and surveying key philosophical strains from Kant to Nietzsche. Robert Weninger, for example, ties the modern philosophical thought on the death of God to literary explications of the lone-survivor figure in early-nineteenth-century works such as Grainville’s Le Dernier homme [The Last Man, 1805] and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), arguing for a paradigm shift in apocalypticism based on Enlightenment secularization. Together with Eva Horn’s genealogy and literary overview of Romanticist notions of the apocalypse, these two chapters form a literary nexus that positions proto-sf in the larger theological and philosophical debates, thus providing science-fiction scholars with valuable connections to Judeo-Christian apocalypticism.
Of more direct import, the two following clusters on “Media Regulation” and “Possible Worlds, Possible Ends” move noticeably closer to contemporary sf material. These articles discuss modern progress and its central role in the cultural negotiation of apocalypse, considering especially media forms and technological advancement. Jörg Trempler’s article, for example, provides a historical account of the interconnection between real (or realistic) catastrophe and fictional representations, discussing its appearance in different media forms from the image-less news reports on the sinking of the Titanic to elaborate 1970s film scenarios of possible catastrophe. Frank Hartman gives an interesting (but unfortunately too short) overview of the apocalyptic discourse of computer technology and human cyborgization. Tying both of these articles together, Christian Hoffstadt discusses the fictional and factual representation of technologically induced apocalypse in the form of global catastrophe, focusing on the contemporary issue of nuclear power and its threat potential—the catastrophic accidents of Fukushima and Chernobyl functioning as reference points for his discussion. As these short summaries make clear, the science-fictional element is not central to the discussions in most of the articles, though it is not missing either. The only chapter that discusses an sf text in detail is Ingo Cornils’s “The Matrix Preloaded: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Welt am Draht,” in which Cornils gives an in-depth reading of one of Germany’s very few internationally successful forays into sf film. In his analysis, the film becomes a precursor to apocalyptic scenarios of shattered reality construction and a consequent escape into virtual alternate realities, as imagined by films such as The Matrix (1999), Inception (2010), and Source Code (2011).
In sum, Occidental Apocalypticism is a thorough and varied account of the divergent approaches that interdisciplinary studies of the apocalypse have brought forth in the last couple of years. Although it is a rather pricey volume, for those interested in the theological, philosophical, and historical dimensions of this subject (and if they are able to read German on a relatively high level), this compendium is probably worth its weight in gold. Individual scholars of science fiction will find therein some intriguing approaches and analyses that deal with apocalyptic proto-sf, as well as some chapters on the mediatization of—and technoscientific influence on—the apocalypse.
—Lars Schmeink, University of Hamburg
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