BOOKS IN REVIEW
The Science in SF.
Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Science Fiction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2014. xi + 378 pp. $29.95 hc.
This well-organized book combines science and science fiction as a teaching tool and could work as a text for an imaginative course. Adler mixes up sf and fantasy, but sticks close to what is plausible—using equations, real numbers, and estimates—and generally conveys the way constraints work in stories. He uses specific stories to carry forward detailed explanations of physical phenomena in ways helpful for physics instructors looking for examples for their classrooms. He does “back of the envelope” calculations evoking the basics: conservation of mass and energy, basic gravitation, simple equations, estimates of orders of magnitude, how to use time dilation, and much else. There are no exercises included, only a note indicating that homework problems can be found on the publisher’s website.
So there are neatly done treatments of space travel—orbital vacations, colonies, space elevators, the challenge of interstellar travel, advanced propulsion systems, the Fermi “paradox,” world-building, and alien communication. Adler even explores the prospects for the survival of human civilization. He cites an abundance of sf and fantasy authors, including concise story summaries, as well as an appendix on Newton’s laws of motion. His treatment is quite entertaining and scientifically sound. The stumbling block with space travel is expense and fuel, matters seldom treated in fiction. Adler makes clear calculations of about how much everything currently costs. The limitations of chemical energy in interplanetary travel lead him to consider nuclear power (ignoring antimatter). The US and USSR both developed rockets using a nuclear reactor to heat hydrogen gas, expelling it directly as exhaust at four times the efficiency of a Saturn V, for example. The biggest engineering issue emerges: material science—do not melt the reactor or blow it up. With all the formulas given, a writer can work out scenarios, just like venerable hard-sf authors Poul Anderson and Robert Forward, not to turn stories into physics lectures, but to make solid the underlying knowledge. This echoes Hemingway’s principle that what you know about a story and can leave out remains a kind of echo in the text that readers can sense. For example, starships do not really need weaponry, because they already command vast energies: powerful engine exhausts. Do not worry about alien starships’ weaponry but rather the size of their engines.
Mermaids and dragons and their impracticability make for some fun. If mermaids are mammals, would they not have gills as well as lungs to supplement breathing underwater? And mammalian breasts would be impractical in open water since mermaids’ size would mean smaller lung capacity, making them only capable of shallow-water breathing. Dragons could fill their body volume with hydrogen sacs to reduce their body weight, to provide thrust, and to use as a weapon—an idea I used in the 1970s, but which nature seems to have neglected. Adler is annoyed at authors who make things up without considering pesky matters such as cause and effect, basic conservation laws, or plausibility. J.K. Rowling, for example, has events happen in the Harry Potter series (1998-2007) for no reason at all, just accidents of timing, right up to violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics: the“reparo” spell puts broken things back into order, disregarding the fact that an arbitrary order of something complex in the past may be incalculable in the future. In one chapter, titled “Fantastic beasts and how to disprove them,” Adler casts a skeptical eye at media sf’s love of special effects and huge creatures. Giants would not be proportionally larger humans, but rather squatter. Adler remarks, “Elephants don’t look like scaled up horses” (42). (But tigers do look a lot like scaled-up house cats and move that way.) On planets: “Each lifeless planet is different from each other in its own way; all planets with Earth-like life on them will be fundamentally the same” (238).
This book’s coverage and depth is best fit for those who already know a decent amount of math and physics. In this regard, it will suit academic libraries that feature popular science or science fiction, large public libraries, and many high school libraries. It is also a good gift for anyone who loves sf and has some scientific background.
—Gregory Benford, University of California, Irvine
A Magisterial Anatomy of Fantasy.
Stories About Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. vii + 240 pp. $29.95 pbk.
There is an inherent problem involved in reviewing Brian Attebery’s new book in SFS. This is a work largely devoted to fantasy and myth, one that demands recognition in any scholarly journal devoted to the fantastic, yet SFS specifically centers its coverage, as its title makes clear, on just one aspect of the fantastic, science fiction. Nonetheless, I want to emphasize at the outset that Stories about Stories is a deeply useful and enormously intelligent book, for scholars of sf as well as fantasy, exactly what one might expect from the author of The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature (1980), Strategies of Fantasy (1992), and Decoding Gender in Science Fiction (2002).
Attebery’s central concern here, as may be deduced from the title, is to examine “the way writers use fantasy to reframe myth: to construct new ways of looking at traditional stories and beliefs” (2-3). The great myths, he suggests, “come down to us stripped of context” (3), and it is the role of the fantasist to create new contexts and, essentially, “spin stories about stories” (3), thus distorting the great originals, perhaps, but also making them relevant to contemporary readers. Although fantasy does not and cannot claim the validity of absolute truth, as does religion, it still, by its own admission that it is in a sense a lie, creates symbolic truths that can be enormously valuable. Attebery sees the development of fantasy literature as “a history of mythopoiesis, modern myth-making” (4), moving from the discovery of myth as a scholarly discipline by the Grimms, Andrew Lang, and others, to the use of myth in fiction by such great nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fantasists as George MacDonald, William Morris, C.S. Lewis, and, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien, particularly in their self-defined positions as specifically Christian writers.
One of Attebery’s most valuable contributions, in a short chapter on taxonomic considerations, is his introduction of the concept of the “memorate,” a term coined by the folklorist Carl von Sydow that refers to a “firsthand account of an experience, usually a supernatural or paranormal one, that links the teller to a traditional belief or legend” (35). These include retellings of nightmarish experiences in which the teller cannot move but is certain that some “Thing” is standing right behind him, or sitting on his chest, or perhaps drawing him up into a flying saucer. These are personal, firsthand stories, usually oral in origin, which become cultural property in the retelling and thus move towards the mythic, while at the same time connecting the audience to the mythic world the stories invoke. Attebery sees the oral memorate as similar in function to fantasy literature, because both give the listener or reader a point of entry into the fantastic and suggest the possibility that our daily lives may intersect with the numinous. This function of fantasy literature is invoked to good effect throughout the book.
Attebery has what may seem to be an unusual take on the relationship between the modernism of Eliot, Woolf, Joyce, and other writers who came of age in the early-twentieth century and the fantasy of Tolkien, Lewis, E.R. Eddison, Charles Williams, and Hope Mirrlees, writers who are, after all, part of that same Lost Generation that was so deeply influenced by the horrors of World War I. Applying Raymond Williams’s concept of dominant, residual, and emergent cultures, Attebery notes that the modernists would generally be classified as emergent (that which will come to dominate), while the Inklings et al. would tend to be seen as residual (that which will fade away). This, however, is not the case. Far from fading away, The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) and its many compatriots and descendants “threaten … to take over not only as entertainment but as a serious challenge to realistic models of fiction…. The residual might turn out to be the emergent, or at least another face of the emergent” (42). In short, Attebery argues that the fantasy of the early twentieth century was in fact another, generally unrecognized, face of modernism. He then goes on to interrogate Eliot’s use of myth to demonstrate his point, suggesting that there are close similarities between the poet’s mythic method and that of his friend the Inkling Charles Williams. Much of what he says about Williams’s work is also true of the work of Lewis, Tolkien, and Hope Mirrlees, the last a little-known fantasist whose masterpiece Lud-in-the-Mist (1926) is prized by the cognoscenti and whose thoroughly modernist poetry was actually published by Virginia Woolf.
In other rewarding chapters, Attebery examines George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis as specifically Christian mythmakers, with an emphasis on Lewis’s need to rewrite MacDonald’s radical faith along more traditional lines; the role of Romance in modern fantasy; the often deleterious effects of Joseph Campbell’s concept of the monomyth on generic fantasy; the role of memorates in the fiction of Alan Garner; what Attebery calls “Colonial Fantasy”—that is, the sometimes controversial attempts by western writers such as Roger Zelazny and Patricia Wrightson to write fiction set in mythic universes of cultures not their own; the varied roles of angels in fantasy literature; the hatred of fantasy among many fundamentalist Christians; the postcolonial fantastic—that is, fantasy written by writers of color such as Nalo Hopkinson, Amitav Ghosh, and Archie Weller from their own religious or mythic backgrounds; and what he calls “Situated Fantasy,” stories such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” (1987) that “use … narrative structures that mimic the disjunction of two or more worldviews” (192).
So, where is science fiction in all of this? Attebery’s most extended discussion of what is often thought of as a work of sf would probably be in the chapter on Situated Fantasy, where he spends a good bit of time on Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985). He also devotes space to various works he considers to be science fantasies, particularly those by white authors that play with the mythic structures of colonized people, for example Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969) and Terry Dowling’s Rynosseros (1990). Other works of science fiction (or science fantasy) that come in for at least brief scrutiny for their use of mythic devices include Burrough’s Barsoom series (1912-64), Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary (1991), Lucius Shepard’s Green Eyes (1984), Zelazny’s This Immortal (1966) and The Dream Master (1966), Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950), Bradley’s Darkover series (1958-99), Emil Petaja’s Saga of Lost Earth (1966), and Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer (1980). Sometimes these references are very brief, occasionally a complete sentence or even a few paragraphs, but they invariably add something to Attebery’s argument and say something useful about the work being mentioned.
At this point in a review, it is customary to bring up a few of the book’s flaws, a minor factual error or two, perhaps, or a theory that could have been expounded with greater clarity, but what can I say? I have nothing. Stories about Stories says important things about the relationship between the mythic and modern fantasy, not just asserting that relationship but also showing exactly how it works and clearing out much of the underbrush that has obscured the details and led previous scholars astray. Attebery may be, as Le Guin suggests in her cover blurb, “the least quarrelsome of critics,” but in his own polite way he is perfectly willing to point out where such major figures as C.S. Lewis and Joseph Campbell got it wrong, and he does so very convincingly. Moreover, he also does it in clear, easily understandable English that gives the lie to any notion that profundity must necessarily lead to obscurity. I highly recommend this book to all those SFS readers who swing both ways, appreciating a brilliant analysis of how fantasy works every bit as much as they value a fine critical work on science fiction.
—Michael Levy, University of Wisconsin-Stout
New Wave At-itudes.
Eduardo Paolozzi at New Worlds: Science Fiction and Art in the Sixties. Manchester, UK: Savoy, 2013. 181 pp. $36 pbk.
Sf and fantasy art deserves more attention. Our standard accounts of sf tend to exclude the complex cosmologies of William Blake, the apocalypses of John Martin, and so on. A 2014 Tate Modern exhibition, Ruin Lust, included John Gandy’s picture of a destroyed Bank of England (1830) and Gerard Byrne’s 1984 and Beyond (2005-2007), a filmed dramatization of a Playboy interview with several sf writers. That’s just the tip of an iceberg. At Pallant House (Chichester), an Edward Burra show noted that he was “Fascinated by the supernatural, horror movies, and science-fiction novels by cult authors such as HP Lovecraft” (Simon Martin, Edward Burra [Burlington, VT: Lund Humphries, 2011]. Online), and one devoted to John Tunnard, “Inner Space to Outer Space,” followed his “journey from the ‘inner space’ of the imagination through works such as the Surrealist ‘Fulcrum’ (1939, Tate) to his later preoccupation with ‘outer space’ in the age of space exploration in the 1960s as depicted in paintings such as ‘In Many Moons’ (1966)” (Simon Martin, John Tunnard: Inner Space to Outer Space [Chichester: Pallant House Gallery, 2010]. Online). Neither artist is mentioned in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Now Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi is being discussed in the light of his work at New Worlds in the late 1960s.
Born to Italian immigrants in Leith, Scotland, in 1924, Paolozzi was interned in 1940, while his father, uncle, and grandfather were killed on a ship taking them to Canada. He was already drawing and, on release, he enrolled part-time at Edinburgh College of Art. During a brief spell in the army, he studied at Ruskin College, Oxford, and at the Slade, temporarily also in the city. After the war he continued studying sculpture at the Slade in London, where he discovered and became influenced by modernism, and then moved to Paris where he met, among others, Dadaist Tristan Tzara. On his return to London in 1949, he taught textiles at the Central School of Art and Design.
In 1952 he was a founding member of the Independent Group, along with Peter Reyner Banham, Theo Crosby, Richard Lanoi, Toni del Renzio, Nigel Henderson, Ronald Jenkins, Sam Stevens, Colin St John Williams, William Turnbull, and Edward Wright, who discussed art, advertising, car design, cybernetics, popular music, and science fiction under the auspices of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. At a lecture there, “Bunk!,” Paolozzi fed collages from American magazines into an epidiascope while grunting. The following year they were joined by Lawrence Alloway, Richard Hamilton, John McHale, and Peter and Alison Smithson, and staged Parallel of Life and Art at the ICA, drawing on science fiction as much as futurist and surrealist imagery. The Group held further meetings, effectively culminating in This is Tomorrow (1956) at the Whitechapel Gallery. At one lecture Paolozzi valorized low art and popular culture—including sf pulps—over the avant garde, indeed wishing to erase distinctions between high and low even though (or because) Pop Art was the label coined by Alloway for the group’s work. Among the attendees of This is Tomorrow, unknown to each other, were a teenaged Michael Moorcock and a twenty-something J.G. Ballard (who may also have been to Parallels). Both were inspired by the work they saw; although the influence upon Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) is easier to see, the British Pop Art sensibility was to play into Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius works (1968-79) as well. This conjunction of artist, writer, and editor is at the heart of David Brittain’s Eduardo Paolozzi at New Worlds: Science Fiction and Art in the Sixties—a stunning book, one that demands to be bought by anyone interested in the era, but not necessarily a good one.
In what sense was Paolozzi “at” New Worlds? Brittain states that “Paolozzi was never directly involved in the editorial process of New Worlds, but his association with the title was nevertheless significant for all concerned” (120). The Arts Council grant partly brokered by Brian Aldiss allowed Moorcock to redesign the magazine and improve the print quality. He could then include illustrations to articles about surrealists such as Dalí and to an appreciation of the fantasist and artist Mervyn Peake. New Worlds issue 174 had a Charles Platt montage of Paolozzi’s work to accompany the article on him by the magazine’s art editor, Christopher Finch. The same issue added Paolozzi’s name to the masthead as Aeronautics Advisor; Finch had introduced the artist to Moorcock, who in turn introduced him to Ballard. Aside from two illustrations—one of which was used as an illustration for the serialization of Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron (New Worlds 178)—Paolozzi had no apparent input into the magazine. In 1969 he was in California at Berkeley and visited both Hollywood and road safety centers. Conversations about his experiences in L.A. no doubt fed into Ballard’s exhibition, Crashed Cars, held in 1970 at the Institute for Research in Art and Technology on Robert Street, Camden, London—Peter Reyner Banham, formerly of the Independent Group, was one of the trustees of IRAT. Paolozzi was also to work alongside Ballard on Martin Bax’s Ambit, a British example of the little magazine.
Brittain’s account is one for which the phrase “lavishly illustrated” falls short—it is worthy of a major exhibition. Along with the Polaroids of the meetings of Moorcock, Paolozzi, and Ballard, and cover shots and layouts from New Worlds, there are ample reproductions of Paolozzi’s graphic work and some of his statues. Hardly a page is not illustrated. An appendix has interviews with some of the key surviving players such as Moorcock, Finch, and Platt, along with John Clute and Michael Butterworth, although in some ways they end up revealing the vagueness of everyone’s memories of events from five decades ago. Further appendices reproduce works by Ballard and Moorcock, and a fourth contains “Katzville,” Paolozzi’s very brief attempt at a novel constructed using cut-up techniques.
Brittain’s book itself suffers from a degree of cut and paste. Paolozzi’s biography is not as clearly delineated as it might be: after a foreword and Rick Poynor’s introduction, the Scottish artist vanishes again until page 46. On pages 30-31, Richard Hamilton and the Pop Artist Peter Blake are suddenly mentioned in a paragraph, before the discussion turns to the New Worlds relaunch. Hamilton’s Swingeing London 67, a representation of an arrested Mick Jagger handcuffed to Hamilton and Paolozzi’s art dealer Robert Fraser, has a feel of Jerry Cornelius about it, but there is no obvious link between these pages. Note 36 begins “In 1968 the contents of Spinrad’s serialized novel caused the British newsagents Smiths and Menzies to refuse to stock New Worlds on grounds of ‘obscenity and libel’” and it records that The Daily Express led a campaign against such filth, with the following note suggesting that “After the British newsagents, Smiths and Menzies refused to stock New Worlds, deeming it ‘obscene,’ the Arts Council was lobbied to withdraw a modest grant” (56). The two footnotes do not quite overlap, but they do feel a little repetitive. Accounts of The Atrocity Exhibition recur, before and after the account of the meeting with Paolozzi. Brittain’s decision to present the monograph in a single chapter rather obscures his double narrative. In fact, the story of New Worlds dominates, and the rest of the Independent Group and Pop Art come in as apparent interruptions.
Occasionally, I was squinting at the detail. The suggestion that sf’s “repertoire has expanded to include worlds and situations that we can identify with the present … such as The Matrix, Robocop, Source Code and novels such as Perdido Street Station by China Miéville” (21) had me scratching my head. Why that novel rather than others? It is true to a large extent to say that “The origins of New Worlds go back to 1946, in the midst of what is sometimes called the heyday or ‘Golden Age’ of SF as a literary genre” (22), but that is to write the fanzine Novae Terrae (1936-39) out of the history and John Carnell’s retitling of it New Worlds in 1939; “literary” is perhaps not the right word to use in this context.
There is perhaps no “at” for Brittain to write about beyond attitude. Richard Hamilton, for example, apparently hated what Moorcock was doing at the magazine, while using Robbie the Robot in his imagery and making copies of Marcel Duchamp’s work for shows in Britain. By the time of a Tate retrospective in 1971, Paolozzi was in his mid-forties and wanting to reinvent himself. Major sculptural commissions contradicted his self-perception as outsider. I suspect that he, Hamilton, and others of his circle had a greater respect for the imagery of the Golden Age than for Moorcock and his. Paolozzi needed to take sf seriously in order to use it—his collages are tear-ups, not tear-downs. The art critic and Independent Group member Lawrence Alloway wrote approvingly about pulp illustrations and robots. In a critique of auteurist film criticism, he notes in passing that “Science fiction … has a body of expert opinion which is authoritative within the field, but unknown and unusable outside it” (Violent America: The Movies 1946-1964 [New York, NY: MOMA, 1971], 55). We still have to trace how, say, Finch’s art criticism within New Worlds connects to both New Wave sensibilities and the wider history of art criticism.
In an introduction to a book on Paolozzi, Keith Hartley, then an assistant keeper at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and now Chief Curator, cites a 1971 interview in which Paolozzi says, “What I like to think I’m doing is an extension of radical Surrealism” (see Eduardo Paolozzi, J.G. Ballard, and Frank Whitford, “Speculative Illustrations,” Studio International 182 , 136-143). Hartley does not gloss who Ballard is, nor does Ballard discuss sf in that conversation. Meanwhile, Hartley goes on to assert that
“it was in the Surrealist reviews (Minotaure, Variétés and especially Documents) that serious scholarly and artistic attention was paid to popular culture: to comics, science fiction and fantasy novels, to popular entertainment, music and films. The subjects, previously considered merely shallow and derivative, were now being treated on a par with so-called ‘high’ art in a quasi-anthropological manner” (Fiona Pearson, Paolozzi, introduction by Keith Hartley [Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 1999], 10)
It would be interesting to trace—has someone already done it?—what these novels were and what was said about them. All this suggests that some of our narratives about the reception of sf are too tied to what we see as the radical and the disruptive, rather than to the pulps and the Golden Age.
Brittain offers us a starting point, and in the unavoidable absence of Paolozzi and Ballard to speak for themselves, it is the only at-ness we have to date. There is much fascinating information here, although reading something about Paolozzi first helps. There is more to be said on the science-fictional nature of his art, and he surely deserves an entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Further trawls of the archives in Brittain’s footsteps would be useful—the Scottish National Galleries of Modern Art, the Tate Library, the British Museum, I suspect also the Whitechapel Art Gallery and Pallant House—before we can fully map the intersections of British Pop Art, Surrealism, and science fiction, let alone the wider history of sf art.
—Andrew M. Butler, Canterbury Christ Church University College
How Early is “Early” SF?
Vintage Visions: Essays on Early Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2014. ix + 433 pp. $75 hc; $29.95 pbk.
There can be no doubting the quality of the critical essays collected in this anthology. Indeed, editor Arthur B. Evans insists upon precisely this point. The first sentence of the preface is: “Vintage Visions brings together some of the finest essays ever published on early science fiction” [vii]. It is refreshing to see an academic so bullish (or maybe it only seems so to my more timid English sensibilities), and if Vintage Visions does not quite live up to this hype, it comes close—helped, to be frank, by the paucity of good critical material on this fascinating area. An increasing number of scholars argue that sf began not with Hugo Gernsback, nor even with Wells and Verne, but that it goes back at least to the seventeenth century and arguably even earlier. A collection of critical writing on this period is a welcome thing. All of the essays here are interesting; some are exceptionally good.
Vintage Visions does, however, raise questions of readership. Wesleyan has produced a characteristically handsome physical book: large format, rich paper, lovely typeface, illustrations—with a price tag that reflects the quality ($75 in hardcover). In the age of Google and JSTOR, is this really the best way to ensure that previously published essays in a scholarly journal (all of these essays appeared in SFS between 1976 and 2010) remain accessible to scholars and students? Evans adds a certain amount of value with afterwords to the essays and with an absolutely stunning 80-page bibliography of “Criticism on Early Science Fiction.” Is that enough? It is hard to say. Regular sf fans with an interest in this area might not have the tenured academic’s access to JSTOR, but neither are they likely to want to shell out the cost of this book.
Questions of audience are also raised by some of the essays themselves. The first, Sylvie Romanowski’s “Cyrano de Bergerac’s Epistemological Bodies: ‘Pregnant with a Thousand Definitions,’” is an elegantly written and intelligent discussion of L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune (The Other World: or the States and Empires of the Moon, 1657) and Les États et Empires du Soleil (The States and Empires of the Sun, 1662). Romanowski argues that rather than being mere jeux d’esprit, these books engage in complex ways with contemporary debates about materialism and orthodox religion. It is a compelling case, but the essay is also supplied with a lengthy summary of the works (“since these novels may not be familiar to many readers, I will summarize briefly their content” ) and the timber of the whole errs on the side of the introductory to—rather than the fuller critical analysis of—Cyrano’s science fiction.
Paul Alkon’s “Samuel Madden’s Memoirs of the Twentieth Century” first appeared in SFS in 1985 and was then reworked as part of Alkon’s excellent Origins of Futuristic Fiction (1987). I greeted its third reprinting here as an old friend, although a less amiable reader might question the need for yet another reprint. Something similar obtains with respect to I.F. Clarke’s “Future-War Fiction: the First Main Phase 1871-1900,” published in SFS in 1997, which recapitulates the main points of Clarke’s various and invaluable studies of late-century “future war” writing. William Fischer’s essay on Jean Paul and Kurd Lasswitz takes the meta-path of discussing not their science fiction but their theories about science fiction. Josh Bernatchez analyses “Monstrosity, Suffering, Subjectivity, and Sympathetic Community in Frankenstein and ‘The Structure of Torture’”—the latter being Elaine Scarry’s important essay on bodily pain. There is enough there for a whole book, and Bernatchez struggles manfully with his thesis, although his meager thirteen pages means he can only gesture in the direction of the complex and involved discourses of eighteenth-century “sympathy” and the even more complex metaphysics of subjectivity.
Allison de Fren’s insightful essay on Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s L’Ève future (The Future Eve, 1886)—here called L’Eve future, an error so trivial as hardly to be worth noting—and it is worth noting that overall the book is commendably typo-free—won the SFRA Pioneer Award for 2010. Its discussion of the “cyborg” artificial human manages to range widely from the Renaissance to The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009) without losing control of its material or dissipating its main thesis—about the peculiar shape this mode of commodification of the female body has taken. Andrea Bell’s 1995 essay on “Desde Júpiter: Chile’s Earliest Science Fiction Novel” can hardly help taking an introductory tone: I, for one, have neither read nor (to my shame) ever heard of this novel before reading Bell’s account. I must take on trust her judgment of this 1878 story about “the Curious Voyage of a Magnetized Man from Santiago”: namely that its “entertainment value is both enhanced and compromised by frequent digressions into scathing social criticism” (165). Rachel Haywood Ferreira’s lengthy essay “Latin American Science Fiction Discovers Its Roots” ranges more widely through the early sf of Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico and is full of interest.
By the time we get to the tenth essay here—Nicholas Ruddick’s “‘Tell Us About Little Rosebury’: Topicality and Temporality in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine” (2001)—the suspicion starts to dawn that the category “early science fiction” is being drawn in an unusually capacious manner. Evans appends a timeline to his volume, “150 Key Works of Early Science Fiction,” which ranges from Lucian of Samosata in the second-century AD (Evans calls him “Lucien,” which strikes me as an Anglicization of Λουκιανὸς unwarranted by the Greek) up to John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” (1938). Is there any meaningful sense in which Campbell’s tale counts as “early” sf? The final six essays firmly inhabit the twentieth century, a periodization to which we no longer belong, of course; but still—hardly an “early” epoch. Kamila Kinyon’s 1999 essay on “The Phenomenology of Robots” in Čapek’s R.U.R. (1920) gets a little bogged down in the linguistic minutiae of inadequate English translations of this great play but has some interesting things to say about Hegel’s “Lordship and Bondage” and robots. Patrick McCarthy’s essay on We (1921)—“Zamyatin and the Nightmare of Technology,” originally published in 1984—is not long but does a good job of establishing how far Zamyatin’s rather spiritual late Romanticism informs his writing.
Gary Westfahl’s “‘The Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allen Poe Type of Story’: Hugo Gernsback’s Idea of Science Fiction” is another old friend, being the rougher-edged version of work that later became chapter 5 of his invaluable The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction (1998). The author adds a strangely deflating afterword (“while it is flattering to have one’s works republished, I could initially discern little reason for reprinting this particular article” ). William J. Fanning, Jr.’s “The Historical Death Ray and Science Fiction in the 1920s and 1930s” is an informative if rather encyclopedia-entry-style article tracing early attempts to develop an actual death ray, presenting various examples of this sf trope. I was sorry Fanning failed to mention Victor Rousseau’s The Messiah of the Cylinder (1917), the first text to use the actual phrase “ray gun,” but he mentions a lot of interesting and obscure texts. Susan Gubar’s “C.L. Moore and the Conventions of Women’s Science Fiction” (originally published in 1980 when, the editorial note rather sweepingly insists, “it was generally assumed that women did not read, write, or study science fiction” ) is solid on Moore but reads rather like the volume’s token exercise in feminist sf criticism. More of such might have been nice to see. The final essay in the volume is an old Stanislaw Lem piece on Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937), which he praises a little but also calls “a monstrous torso” rather than a novel. This is more a Lemian meditation on the possible nature of the Supreme Being than it is a specific engagement with Stapledon’s novel, although no less stimulating for that. There is no index.
—Adam Roberts, Royal Holloway College, University of London
A Cinematic Companion.
The Liverpool Companion to World Science Fiction Film. Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies 47. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2014. xii + 277 pp. $120 hc.
I thought I knew what to expect from The Liverpool Companion to World Science Fiction Film. I assumed that it would offer brief backgrounds and commentaries on a variety of global sf films, after the model of several other similarly titled “Companions.” It does not. Nor does this anthology follow the model of the venerable Oxford Companion series—weighty books that function as all-purpose disciplinary encyclopedias. And it does not resemble another model, typified by the Routledge Companion to Science Fiction (2009), which offers extended studies by subject-area experts of key themes, approaches, and historical periods in sf, ranging across various media. Rather, the new Liverpool volume is a bit of a grab-bag, composed of essays of different levels of specificity that represent selected international sf cinemas. Some of them offer brief historical surveys of a country’s sf production, some focus on specific films or themes that the authors see as exemplary, and one case—and unfortunately, this is the book’s lone representation of African sf—examines a single recent short film, Pumzi (2009) that, it is vaguely argued, points toward the thematic potentials of a developing African sf cinema. The result is a somewhat peculiar “Companion,” less guidebook or background resource than a set of varied explorations of films, themes, and histories, somewhat uncertain in aim, uneven in accomplishment, and yet still welcome for its efforts at filling a major gap in the history and criticism of the film genre.
The book takes its start from the not uncommon yet important observation that “visual science fiction,” specifically film and television sf, “is quickly becoming the dominant expression of the genre” (2). While some might challenge that notion, the visual-media experience is certainly where most audiences today make their first contact with the genre, and because of the dominance of American film, that first contact has tended to be predominantly American in nature and thus embedded in American cultural contexts, identified with American actors and story types, and presented in a way that sets an economic agenda for how visual sf should be done. Acknowledging this cultural and generic hegemony, editor Sonja Fritzsche has gathered together essays the goal of which is to redirect our attention to the variety of sf emerging from Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America, while also oddly including a single contribution representative of “North American” sf that examines black women’s roles in several films, as well as a “Digital Cinema” piece that explores how the digital regime has not only revolutionized filmmaking but also helped to make a truly global sf cinema more possible.
The most noteworthy and indeed welcome of these contributions are those focused on two of the relatively neglected yet also most important national cinemas (thanks to the size of their audiences and increasingly global reach)—Chinese and Indian film. While the title of Jie Zhang’s “Death Ray on a Coral Island as China’s First Science Fiction Film” suggests that it might be a simple reading of a single film, it accomplishes much more. The piece sketches a broad political context of post-revolutionary China that helps explain the starts and stops in the country’s sf production, as it has sought to accommodate the official policies of the Communist Party—policies that at times have pushed the genre as a tool “to popularize scientific knowledge and inspire youths interested in scientific research,” but at other times have discouraged sf production as offering “false science” to the masses (39). Zhang then unpacks what he claims is China’s first true sf film, Death Ray (1980), to show how it is embedded in this context: both its use as a political tool, advocating a “state-supported utopian vision” of a new China, and its status as a text that reveals the “unsettled contradictions innate” to that vision and, more broadly, to sf in China (40). The result is an insightful use of a single text to paint a complex portrait of the genre’s conflicted role in a culture struggling with its past and present.
Like the volume itself, Jessica Langer and Dominic Alessio’s “Indian Science Fiction Cinema: An Overview” struggles with a misleading title. While it provides a brief historical review of Indian sf efforts, distinguishes between the Hindi-language “Bollywood” cinema and Tamil-language “Kollywood” films, and quickly surveys the influence of specific American films on both industries, this piece offers much more than an overview. It provides a discussion of the big-budget sf production Koi ... mil Gaya [I ... Found Someone, 2003], as well as its sequels Krrish (2006) and Krrish 3 (2013), parsing out their borrowings from Hollywood productions while noting their distinctly Indian elements, particularly their “strong religious and Hindu nationalist references” (57-58). Langer and Alessio also offer an extended commentary on Endhiran [The Robot, 2011], the highest grossing Indian film of all time. Its climactic fight sequence, in which a robot replicates itself hundreds of times and then links those replications to form ever-more-imposing robotic figures—a massive ball, a great snake, even a giant robot made of smaller robots—is already familiar to many because of its viral presence on the Internet. But Langer and Alessio nicely place that bit of special-effects notoriety in the larger context of Indian sf cinema, as they describe its “exuberance,” its “sense of excitement and of play that is both characteristic of Indian cinema” and, ultimately, a sign of its fundamental difference from Hollywood productions. Helping us to recognize that sense of difference, and thus encouraging us to read these films on their own terms, is a significant accomplishment and marks this piece as probably the stand-out contribution in the volume.
The next strongest—and with six essays by far the largest—section of this collection is that devoted to European sf. While none of these articles manages the difficult mix of general cultural overview and individual film analysis found in the two pieces cited above, most of the essays in this group are solid efforts, addressing important elements of their respective national sf cinemas. Derek Johnston considers the impact of “transmediality” in British sf films of the 1950s, particularly the importance of BBC radio serials as sources for television and film, as well as the impact of British sf television on feature film production. The prior media existence of texts and characters, such as those for the various Quatermass television serials (1953, 1955, 1958) or for the first British sf feature Spaceways (1953), Johnston argues, “played a key part in the construction of the idea of ‘science fiction’ as a genre in Britain” (100) as it was being deluged with a host of quite different American sf films in this period. In his discussion of the East German-Polish collaboration Silent Star (1960), the first major sf film made in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, Evan Torner tracks how the film’s early adaptation from a Stanislaw Lem novel, its casting, and its final form were all shaped—and reshaped—by various political imperatives. As Torner notes, the novelist, various scriptwriters, the director, “and myriad officials in fourteen distinct departments with a vested interest in” the film’s vision of a socialist future (126), all contended to produce a work whose plot was largely submerged by a tide of officially imposed racial, gender, and nationalistic concerns. Other pieces in this section focus on humor in Italian sf, on the relative paucity of Irish genre films, on the lack of a “consistent body of work” (138) in French cinema (due largely to production practices and budget limitations), and on gender and apocalypse in Eastern European cinema. While some are weaker efforts than others, this group provides a useful overview of an obviously quite diverse corpus, as well as of the various sorts of industrial imperatives, political pressures, and nationalistic issues that have marked its development —while also signaling its difference from that dominant American sf cinema.
While the volume also provides brief contributions to the study of South American sf, the two essays in this section again demonstrate the volume’s problems of direction. One, on Argentine sf, is essentially a reading of a single, “largely ... neglected” (211) film, Goodbye Dear Moon (2005), which the author explicates as a mirror of the difficult political situation the country faced in the 1990s. The other, offering a “short history” (225) of Brazilian sf, argues that the genre has not established itself in the country, partly because most of Brazil’s filmmakers view it “as a big budget enterprise” (234), inevitably involving, after the American fashion, elaborate and “sophisticated special effects” (235), but also partly because many moviegoers see sf’s associations with modernity as linked to “attacks on national identity” (236). While the latter piece offers some interesting insights into the Brazilian cultural situation, both essays finally seem almost apologetic treatments. As with the other articles in this collection, though, the hope is that these pieces might spur more interest in these neglected national cinemas, as well as more nuanced investigations.
Despite its mixed achievements, a volume such as the Liverpool Companion is a welcome addition to the literature on sf cinema. Much like the genre itself, the book ranges widely, challenging the boundaries we have too often drawn around sf—boundaries that, even in many of the countries surveyed here, have often suggested that cinematic sf is largely an American, British, or more generally Western form. Fritzsche notes that one purpose of her volume is “to provide a framework in which to rethink the pasts and futures of science fiction cinema” (14). While this vaguely conceived collection might not be the best model for such a framework, its attempt to sketch a more comprehensive portrait of sf cinema offers a much needed start in that direction.
—J.P. Telotte, Georgia Institute of Technology
Quick, Easy, Good for Teaching Criticism.
The American Imperial Gothic: Popular Culture, Empire, Violence. Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2014. xi + 211 pp. $109.95 hc.
Johan Höglund’s The American Imperial Gothic: Popular Culture, Empire, Violence begins with a very personal preface in which Höglund describes his youthful consumption of and admiration for British and American imperial gothic texts and culture. Even though he is Swedish, Höglund confesses to the appeal of those texts that connected to the kind of person he wanted to become: “strong, fearless in the eyes of horrific danger, always on the side of goodness” (ix). He explains that imperial gothic texts provided his teenage self with a “form of purpose” and a “sense of entitlement.” He explains the “the sense of prominence and privilege that these narratives conveyed was seductive” (ix). Of course, in his adult life, Höglund resists the ideology of those narratives that position white men as the sole harbingers of justice. I note the preface here because I believe it sets the tone for Höglund’s analysis. It offers a subtle reminder, through the use of anecdote, of the draw of imperial gothic texts, of the stealthy ways that ideologies of power, entitlement, violence, and xenophobia are nurtured and accepted without being acknowledged for what they are: stories of imperialism. While American Imperial Gothic is a fairly easy and quick read, it successfully takes on the complicated workings—across a nation’s lifetime, no less—of the web of politics, history, popular culture, and power in the United States.
In his introduction, Höglund defines his key terms, sets up his main ideas, and lays out his structure, which is helpful given that he is entering into a nexus of two of the most theorized areas of culture and literature: the gothic and empire. The term “imperial gothic” comes from Patrick Brantlinger’s analysis of the British Empire immediately before its decline and the gothic aesthetic that developed in the British novel at the time. Höglund grounds his analysis of American imperial gothic in the idea that, as an empire enters into a period of decline and waning power, gothic narratives that articulate anxieties about the loss of that power—specifically to Others—begin to appear, both in fictional (films, novels) and non-fictional (political rhetoric, news media) popular culture. Höglund clarifies that his use of the term gothic is not meant to refer to a specific genre of literature but rather to a cultural “mode capable of infecting and informing a number of media and genres” (5). Thus, Höglund gives himself space to analyze not only obvious gothic texts—such as Frankenstein films—but also “texts … which can be said to have grown out of this genre: horror [and] science fiction” (10). Ultimately, Höglund proposes the concept of the imperial gothic as a mode of narrative that either tells the story of modernity’s expansion to colonize the “primitive” world or of the “primitive” world invading the modern world and the modern world’s justified violence to protect itself. These two narratives, both of which suggest a crisis of modernity, are identified as the extroverted gothic and the introverted gothic, respectively (7). The American imperial gothic is essentially a master narrative of US power that justifies colonization of and violence toward non-white Others across the life span of the nation. Höglund argues that these imperial gothic narratives operate through myth and metaphor, which anchor all stories in a black-and-white structure of absolute good versus absolute evil. He claims that these narratives are reflected in entertainment media, serving to simplify and dramatize all actual confrontations or interactions with those beyond the borders of the United States.
Höglund structures his chapters chronologically, beginning with the original colonies and westward expansion, moving into slavery and Reconstruction, followed by the Cold War, post-Vietnam, and 9/11. The last four chapters, devoted to the twenty-first century, move away from chronology and are thematically organized around the types of narratives produced in the post-9/11 era: renewed frontier narratives, first-person gaming, torture porn, and the post-apocalypse. This chronological structure of the colonial frontier through the twentieth century, which brings us to the thematic structure of the twenty-first century, establishes Höglund’s main concern with the way that the imperial gothic works in our contemporary era. As the fictional world of entertainment and the real world of domestic policy and foreign relations converge, the “military-industrial-entertainment-complex” develops (116). This complex identifies the way in which the military and militarism are supported and advertised through the entertainment industry. While Höglund does analyze the relationship between imperial gothic narratives such as Batman and the attendant consumerism that follows, his primary example of the workings of the “military-industrial-entertainment-complex” occurs in his chapter “Militarizing the Virtual Gothic,” in which he analyzes the media moment when President George W. Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln in a premature declaration of the end of major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (118). He notes that the media at the time identified this as a “Top Gun” moment, which not only gestured to “an imagined closure of war” but also illustrated just how “interdependent institutions of politics, military and entertainment had become” (118). Throughout the previous chapters, Höglund does a good job documenting the way entertainment becomes more and more integrated into the way the US understands itself, ultimately nurturing spectacles such as Bush’s premature apotheosis.
While much of Höglund’s focus, from the early days of colonization to the post-9/11 era, illuminates the way in which entertainment serves ideologies of conservative power, one of his strengths is drawing out the differences between the imperial gothic and the traditional gothic as certain narratives are adapted at different moments in US history. The most compelling analysis is the evolution of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from 1974 to 2003. Within his chapter “Post-Vietnam Gothic,” Höglund positions the 1974 version of the film with gothic and other horror films that “allow[ed] for potentially anti-imperial sentiments to surface” (75). Höglund argues that the film’s depiction of “the mechanized slaughter of innocents” “launch[ed] a powerful critique against a society that is somehow able to accommodate the killing of (at least) hundreds of thousands of civilian Vietnamese in the name of democracy” (76). Later, in the beginning of his chapter “11 September and the Gothic War on Terror,” Höglund returns to Chainsaw in its 2003 adaptation, which, he claims, “removes the critical and anti-capitalist subtext of the original” (102). Yet what is more significant to Höglund about this film adaptation is that, amidst the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, “film critics are disappointed, but the audience is enthusiastic … [as the film] is very successful at the box office” (102). The mass public easily buys into the renewed narrative in which modernity—represented by the final girl—uses a justified violence to preserve itself against a clearly inferior Other. Höglund’s analysis illustrates the way in which the imperial gothic mode appropriates the anxiety of subversive gothic narratives and harnesses it for the purposes of reifying boundaries through the use of entertaining violence. The analysis of Chainsaw represents one of Höglund’s most impressive critical patterns—the analyses of adaptations over time. While the discussion of Chainsaw is of particular note, he also illuminates the manipulation of gothic subversion for imperial agendas in King Kong (1933), The Exorcist (1974) and its prequels, as well as in I Am Legend (2007), among others.
In revealing the complicated webs of connection among narrative, history, politics, and empire, Höglund’s literary criticism also develops an underlying argument, never explicitly stated. While he does refer throughout his text to the means by which the imperial gothic operates—myth and metaphor—he never expounds upon the reality that mass audiences cannot or do not deconstruct such symbolism that simplifies gothic confrontations with Others into absolute good versus absolute evil. Thus, I believe that one of the most significant arguments in this text is about US media literacy. Höglund demonstrates the ease with which the mass public accepts narratives that reaffirm hierarchies of race, gender, class, and nationality because myth, metaphor, and symbolism are all read at face value. The work Höglund does in his text is opposite of the “tacit support” expected of the public (x), and he thus demonstrates the power of critical reading. As Höglund argues, “American imperial gothic is a form of culture seemingly designed to stimulate this type of quiet acceptance of US imperialism” (x)—or, in other words, a form of culture that refuses critical literacy. Of course, Höglund does not need to make this argument in his text, which is focused on the stealthy relationship between an imperial nation and its entertaining means of garnering support, despite waning power.
—Liz Gumm, University of California, Riverside
Technoscience, Philosophy, and Science Fiction.
Généalogies Philosophique, Politique, et Imaginaire de la Technoscience. Paris: Vrin, 2013. 288 pp. €25 pbk.
What will become of men a hundred thousand years from now? For Belgian philosopher Gilbert Hottois, philosophy has shied away from this fundamental question while science fiction has thrived on it by embracing or anticipating technoscientific innovations. We are already cyborgs, Hottois argues, and we might mutate to become posthuman in the distant future in ways we cannot yet foresee, but we must nevertheless question the implications of these possible mutations today. In this intelligent and at times dense book, Hottois convincingly makes the case for a new philosophical journey that he embarked upon fifty years ago.
Since the 1970s, Hottois has extensively published on science, technology, and ethics. With Généalogies philosophique, he presents an intellectual autobiography that promotes science fiction as the transcending space in which philosophy and technoscience meet to project people into the distant future and explore their relationship with the cosmos. The table of contents reflects the hybridity of the project, which opens philosophy to the question of the future while simultaneously promoting science fiction as a vehicle for philosophical inquiry—a narrative space that explores “un champ de possible où les paramètres de l’humain naturel … sont reçus comme manipulables, transformables” [a field of possibilities where one accepts that the parameters of natural human beings can be manipulated, transformed] (139), and that raises awareness about the dimension of the future (250). Hottois’s approach challenges readers to think outside of the box, beyond a philosophical tradition that, for the author, remains overly anchored in discourse.
In his first two chapters, Hottois recapitulates thirty years of research and publications, connecting science and bioethics to the humanities, before progressing to a densely philosophical chapter entitled “Philosophie et futur” [Philosophy and the future], originally an unpublished chapter of his 1976 PhD dissertation. “Philosophie et futur” is a fascinating chapter in which Hottois argues that technoscience has transformed the world (74) and that the future is material; however, traditional philosophy only understands technoscience as discourse and is thus unable to envisage human-machine connections that might make linguistic communication obsolete (85) and change humans ontologically. Philosophy should break away from tautological language to come back to referential language in order to explore posthuman non-linguistic modes of relationality. Speaking about the future, Hottois insists that: “il s’agit bien d’une question qui concerne l’homme et son destin. Et n’est-ce pas là, la préoccupation qui a toujours été centrale pour la philosophie?” [this is about Man and his destiny. And hasn’t this always been the central concern of philosophy?] (108). One may object that Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, or Marc Augé did in fact write about materiality, albeit to theorize modes of its erasure, but it is true that they did not move beyond present forms of subjectivity, as Hottois compels philosophers to do.
In “La Technoscience illustrée” [Technoscience illustrated], Hottois makes the case for the study of science fiction as a narrative space for technoscientific exploration. This chapter lists many examples from space travel to “trans/ab/posthumanist” [sic] characters. It provides a concrete image of how science fiction uses technoscience in ways that best trigger critical thinking and is thus a good addition to the more theoretical discussion that precedes it. Readers unfamiliar with the metaphysical concepts of time and human-in-the-cosmos might want to read this chapter before “Philosophie et futur.” Hottois raises fundamental questions that he claims philosophy does not currently address. While arguing in favor of technoscientific materialism (264), the question of relationality—discursive and material—remains at the core of his argument. Hottois does not claim to know anything about the distant future and warns against transforming science fiction into an omniscient form of extrapolation or a futuristic utopia. His objective is to remain open to the unknown. He writes: “Depuis plusieurs décennies, la SF ne se situe plus sous le signe dominant de l’anticipation technoscientifique optimiste, mais sous ceux de l’ouverture des possibles, de la contingence, de la diversité et de la précarité des futurs souhaitables” [For several decades, science fiction has not been dominated by tropes of optimistic technoscientific anticipation, but by openness to what is possible, to contingency, diversity, and the instability of desirable futures] (259). The study argues that science fiction is a referential language about humans in the distant future, interrogating possible futures outside of literature.
Unfortunately for French readers and scholars, Hottois relies almost exclusively on English-language novels with the only (brief) exceptions being the work of Jules Verne and Maurice Renard. It is disappointing that Hottois did not include more French texts in his study because it has come at a time when, in France, science fiction is gaining recognition in academic circles and major (Denoël, Gallimard) and specialized (L’Atalante, Bragelonne, Le Bélial) publishers have in their catalogs many excellent novels and short story collections. In 1996, George Slusser declared French sf to be “the occluded genre” (SFS 23.2 [July 1996]: 276), but this is no longer the case. Thus, for the benefit of French readers, I would like to suggest a few authors and texts that Hottois could have used to illustrate how science fiction integrates technoscience in ways that stimulate our imagination and push us to ask what will become of us in the distant future.
Ayerdhal is a prolific French sf author who, along with Jean-Claude Dunyach, published Étoiles mourantes (Dying Stars, 1999), a novel in which humanity is divided into four branches of cyborg-type humans in contact with AnimauxVilles, enormous organic cities that travel through space and welcome posthuman visitors. Sylvie Denis, author, translator, and editor of sf literature, has published several short stories and novels that encompass the concept of the human-machine. Her novel La Saison des singes [The Season of the Monkeys] and its sequel L’Empire du Sommeil [The Empire of Sleep, both 2012] are complex space operas, in which some humans have been modified [“les grands modifiés”] to merge with spaceships in order to control them. In her short-story collection Jardins Virtuels (Virtual Gardens, 2006), she also explores the concept of bodies hooked up to control systems in schools and hospitals. Last but not least, readers should (re)discover a classic, Le Voyageur imprudent by René Barjavel [The Imprudent Voyager, 1944]. This novel is best known for articulating the “grandfather paradox” in time-travel narratives. In one of his travels, the protagonist Saint-Menoux jumps ahead 100,000 years. Upon his return, he reports on an eerie world with sexless, senseless shepherds, mutant warriors, and other humans whose bodies have evolved based on their function within society.
Science and technology have already changed the way we perceive and understand our environment, as well as the way we communicate with each other. We often do not see that they might change our bodies in such fundamental ways that we may one day communicate without a linguistic system, rely on new cognitive abilities, and sustain or repair our bodies with non-organic methods and parts. Having explored our origins by searching for what we were 10,000 years ago, why not wonder what we will be 10,000 years from now? If we think in those terms, then what it means to be human will no longer be just a metaphysical question.
—Annabelle Dolidon, Portland State University
Latin American Cyberpunk.
Futuro Esquecido: A Recepção da Ficção Cyberpunk na América Latina [Forgotten Futures: The Reception of Cyberpunk Fiction in Latin America]. Brazil: Rizoma Editorial, 2013. 290 pp., $4.99 ebook (Kindle).
Predicated on Fredric Jameson’s view of American cyberpunk as the “supreme representation of late capitalism,” Rodolfo Londero’s Futuro Esquecido searches for the “utopian elements of Latin American cyberpunk ... in marginalized places and discourses.” For him, the “forgotten futures” of Latin America “can imagine utopias because they go unseen in the vastness of the world capitalist system.” Latin-American cyberpunk is, according to the author, unique because of the region’s socioeconomic alterity, and its writers use and subvert North American models of cyberpunk to create a rich and marginal sf.
Readers of this e-book will probably be interested in the lesser-known (at least to Anglo-American readers) Latin American cyberpunk novels. In his study, Londero discusses José B. Adolph’s Mañana las ratas [Tomorrow’s Rats, 1984] as a “Catholic-communist utopia”; the ecological utopias of Alfredo Sirkis’s Silicone XXI (1985) and Dario Oses’s 2010: Chile en llamas [2010: Chile in Flames, 1998]; the “phallic utopia” of Diego Muñoz Valenzuela’s Flores para un cyborg [Flowers for a Cyborg, 1997]; the post-capitalist utopia of Rodrigo Antezana Patton’s El viaje [The Trip, 2001]; the “cyber-hacktivist utopia” of Edmundo Paz Soldan’s El delirio de Turing [Turing’s Delirium, 2004]; the indo-feminist utopia of Alison Spedding’s De cuando en cuando Saturnina [Occasionally Saturnian, 2004]; the steampunk utopias of Octavio Aragão’s A mão que cria [The Hand That Creates, 2006] and Sergio Meier’s La segunda enciclopedia de Tlön [The Second Encyclopedia of Tlön, 2009]; and the singularity utopias of Fábio Fernandes’s Os dias da peste [The Days of Fever, 2009] and Richard Diegues’s Cyber Brasiliana [Cyber Brazilian, 2010]. Londero has done an impressive amount of research, but it is rather disappointing to find he has little to say about literature. In what ought to be one of his book’s main draws, the author misses the opportunity to incite the reader’s curiosity about these novels, and one leaves the text with little sense of what they are about or whether they are worth seeking out. Instead, the novels are treated not so much as literature but as sociological documents, properties to be checked against his thesis that Latin American cyberpunk differs from its North American counterpart simply because, in the former, there are utopias instead of dystopias. In his all-too-brief conclusion, the author concedes that his corpus does not really support this thesis, since “novels such as 2010: Chile en Llamas, La segunda enciclopedia and Os dias da peste show the limits of our hypothesis, as they do not feature utopias or imagine failed utopias.” Londero comes up short of an explanation or of a more refined thesis.
The text could benefit greatly from some editorial direction: it is evident that it was written with an examining committee in mind, and much of it is devoted to summarizing graduate-level theory. It is a hallmark of the author’s style that virtually every point finds a reference in the secondary bibliography, even in the case of a commonsensical remark about Blade Runner (1982). All this puts the reader in the unfortunate situation of having to navigate through long stretches of paraphrase and in-line citations to find the author’s voice. These shortcomings are expected in the case of a dissertation, but they are inexcusable in a book supposed to reach a wider audience. Despite these limitations, Futuro Esquecido should still be of interest to students of Latin American sf and as a token of the academic study of sf in Brazil.
—Pedro Groppo, Brazil
Brilliant, Thought-Provoking, and Original.
Singularities: Technoculture, Transhumanism, and Science Fiction in the 21st Century. Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies 45. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2013. x + 254 pp. £70.00; $99.95 hc. Distributed in the US by Oxford UP.
As far as the sf world is concerned, it all started in 1993, with mathematician and sf writer Vernor Vinge’s presentation at the VISION-21 Symposium sponsored by NASA’s Lewis Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute. In wide circulation ever since, “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-human Era” famously predicted that “[w]ithin thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended” (online). In the years following, engineer-inventor Ray Kurzweil developed a more comforting version of the Singularity as exponential techno-evolution into an increasingly powerful posthumanism. By now, the imaginative grip of the technological Singularity, whatever its tenor, is evident in a wide variety of cultural formations—fictional, theoretical, and material—and it is more than time for a full-length study that will do justice to this complex technocultural phenomenon.
Singularities succeeds brilliantly in being that study. It is gracefully written, effortlessly wide-ranging, and always interesting. It is thought provoking and original, at once a theoretical study of a multi-faceted concept and a work of literary criticism. In the first instance, it examines the Singularity as a metaphorical figure that “signifies the aspirations and anxieties of millennial technoculture across a range of discourses and contexts”; in the second, it aims “to highlight contemporary sf’s dialogue with nonfiction Singularity discourse” and “to identity and theorize” a subgenre of sf novels and stories as imaginative responses to an event whose very nature necessarily forecloses insight into the future (19-20).
Singularities ranges widely, given—as its title suggests—that the Singularity comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. In Part 1, “Naked Singularities,” Raulerson introduces the two most influential versions of Singularity as propounded by Vinge and Kurzweil, and then usefully maps some of their implications for science fiction (problems of extrapolation when faced with a completely unknowable future, for instance). He also introduces the critical analysis of Transhumanism that forms one of the main strands of his study. Part II, “How We Became Post-Posthuman: Postcyberpunk Bodies and the New Materiality,” is focused on debates about embodiment and the posthuman in both real-world and sf speculations. These include Transhumanist dreams of abandoning the body as well as influential critiques of those dreams such as N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman (1999). Raulerson’s nuanced discussion of Egan’s far-future Diaspora (1998) in this context does justice to a very complex text, focusing on its challenges to the idea of mind as “pure substrate-neutral information” (59).
Part III, “Economics 2.0,” is perhaps Raulerson’s most original contribution, as it examines possible futures of significant difference in both theoretical and fictional constructions of political economy. As Raulerson is careful to note, Singularity fiction is neither necessarily conservative nor left-leaning in its politics. He offers an eye-opening reading, for instance, of Tom Purdom’s “Bank Run” (2006), a post-Singularity story in which free-market economics functions virtually like “a transcendent Natural Law” (98). In contrast, a novel such as Charles Stross’s Accelerando (2005) subverts the very idea of political economy. Raulerson points out the similarities in Stross’s novel to “radically alternative theories of value and scarcity” (117) such as Jean Baudrillard’s “symbolic exchange” and Georges Bataille’s “general economy,” as well as more recent theories of Free Culture and open-source production. Part IV, “The Last Question” (a nod to the title of Isaac Asimov’s classic 1956 story), appropriately concludes Raulerson’s study by exploring the Singularity as a kind of eschatological vision responding in part to the entropic anxieties of the twentieth century. He examines such midcentury novels as Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and contrasts these expressions of entropy to the escapist techno-fantasies of contemporary Extropians, radical transhumanists who are convinced that technology will eventually deliver us from all the ills of the flesh, including mortality. Raulerson reads Singularity fictions by writers such as Neal Stephenson, Rudy Rucker, Stross, and Cory Doctorow as “the satirical conscience of the transhumanist movement,” reintroducing “the entropic metaphor in ways that contest and subvert eschatalogical fantasies of technological transcendence” (198).
Echoing critic John Clute’s comments about the fate of “First SF,” Raulerson suggests that “the Vingean crisis marks the end of a particular science-fictional mode” of “logical-positivist predictioneering” associated, for example, with earlier writers such as Asimov. Singularity fictions in Raulerson’s construction are more phenomenological than extrapolative: “they echo and amplify the subjective experience of readers living in a period of extraordinary historical flux and crisis” (16-17). For Raulerson, these fictions have their roots in cyberpunk, and he examines their imaginative constructions of embodiment, politics, economics, and technological development as both influenced by and signalling a rupture with the classic cyberpunk texts of the 1980s. Among other things, Raulerson sees a renewed commitment to embodiment in “postcyberpunk,” as well as “a new postsingular materiality, radically transformed and revitalized by a kind of digital fluidity” (73). Although I was a bit skeptical at first about such a genealogy, Raulerson makes this case very convincingly, and the trajectory he traces from cyberpunk to Singularity fiction provides an enlightening cultural history within which to reread texts such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix (1985), as well as constructing a very useful framework through which to read novels such as Egan’s Diaspora and Stross’s Accelerando.
As suggested by the list of writers in whom Raulerson is most interested, postcyberpunk Singularity fiction is overwhelmingly a male-authored subgenre. Raulerson is to be credited for calling attention to gender issues throughout Singularities but, at the same time, I would have liked to see what he would make of the posthuman world of Justina Robson’s Natural History (2004). I also wish that he had not relegated “postcolonial” Singularity fiction such as Geoff Ryman’s Air (or, Have Not Have) (2004) to the margins of his study, given its astute examinations of gender and sexuality. Singularities’s center is crowded with stories about the post-Singularity future that tend toward the surreal and the absurd, such as Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (1993), Sterling’s “Maneki Neko” (1998), Stross’s Singularity Sky (2003), and Rucker’s Postsingular (2007). I do not think that my own “canon” of Singularity fiction would have the same center but, then, this is not my book. And any disagreements I might have with Raulerson’s selections are negligible given the many brilliant insights he develops in this exciting study of science fiction as contemporary cultural discourse.
It is not surprising that Singularities was a runner-up for the 2014 Science Fiction and Technoculture Studies Book Prize presented through the SFTS Program at the University of California, Riverside. I recommend it unreservedly, no matter what your interests are in science fiction in particular or contemporary technoculture in general. Even (or perhaps especially) if you consider the very idea of what Vernor Vinge famously referred to as “the coming technological Singularity” to be a load of hooey—that infamous “rapture of the nerds”—you should read this book. The real interest in the idea of the Singularity is what it tells us about ourselves at this particular moment when we have left behind one century and are still uneasily trying to fit ourselves into the current one. The Singularity is the shape of our own particular apocalypse, at once the dream and the nightmare of science-fiction writers, transhumanists, artificial intelligence researchers, nanotechnology proselytzers, and techno-transcendentalists of all stripes. It is firmly ensconsed at the intersections of speculative fiction and technoscientific discourses about the real. As Istvan Csicsery-Ronay notes in his own commentary on the Singularity, “it is the quintessential myth of contemporary technoculture” (The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction [Wesleyan UP, 2008], 262) and “the consummate imaginary novum” (264). It is an epochal event of global proportions, an inexorable cataclysm “latent in the techno-economic mechanics of our civilization” (Raulerson 94). In other words, to quote Csicsery-Ronay, “the Singularity is not the next step, but this step” (265; emphasis in original).
—Veronica Hollinger, Trent University
A Beautiful Mosaic of Words.
Conversations with William Gibson. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2014. xxviii + 260 pp. $50 hc.
In his 1989 interview with William Gibson and Tom Maddox, Darren Wershler-Henry described a conversation with William Gibson as akin to a “full-immersion baptism in all the weird and disturbing gomi that comprises the late twentieth-century culture” (57). He saw Gibson’s literary oeuvre and artistic aesthetic as a fusion of the “random, abandoned fragments of our shattered society” into a “strange and beautiful mosaic of words” (57). The interviews assembled in Patrick A. Smith’s Conversations with William Gibson provide an equivalent “mosaic of words” that is a “full immersion” into the gomi that comprises William Gibson and his intuitive impressions of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century that have fueled his literary oeuvre. It is an engaging, entertaining, and illuminating exploration of William Gibson that provides insight into the topics that have motivated his writing, balanced with more personal details, including his affection for Vancouver, his distance from the United States and growth towards an as-yet-undefinable Canadian identity, and self-reflective critiques of his own talents in spite of the hype surrounding his iconic celebrity status. Conversations with William Gibson is a treasure trove of discoveries for those who wish to understand the different facets of the author.
Conversations with William Gibson assembles twenty-three interviews that, with the exception of Andy Diggle and Iain Ball’s previously unpublished interview, have appeared in print and online journals, as well as newspapers, fanzines, blogs, and podcasts. It covers approximately twenty-four years’ worth of interviews, beginning with Takayuki Tatsumi’s “Eye to Eye: An Interview with William Gibson” (1986) and concluding with Charlie Jane Anders’s “William Gibson: The Complete io9 Interview” (2012). Interviewers include Wershler-Henry, Timothy Leary, Larry McCaffery, Cory Doctorow, Tim Adams, Andy Diggle, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Mary Ann Gwinn, and Tim Adams, to name only a handful. As might be expected, some of the interviews are quite short and more superficial than the longer, more in-depth pieces, such as David Wallace-Wells’ 2011 offering that, at 30 pages, is the cream of the crop and covers a range of topics from Gibson’s writing method to the impact of his first television set, living in a post-9/11 world, the importance of bohemia, and the cultural influences of J.G. Ballard, Fritz Leiber, Dashiell Hammett, Len Deighton, Bruce Springsteen, and Joseph Cornell. As might also be expected, there is significant repetition in the interview content, notably when it comes to Gibson’s biographical details as a founding father of cyberpunk, the person responsible for coining the word “cyberspace,” the first author to win the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards (for Neuromancer ), and related details that, by the fifteenth iteration, get rather irksome, but this is arguably a necessary evil given the nature of interviews.
While there is significant repetition in content, one of the pleasures of Conversations with William Gibson is the gems that are typically clustered around particular time periods when Gibson was writing his various sequences. For example, Gibson’s father’s purchase of the family’s first television set when Gibson was a young child is nostalgically evoked several times in the later-2000s interviews when Gibson was promoting the various books in the Hubertus Bigend or Blue Ant trilogy (2003-2010), a series informed in part by the traumatic absences and nostalgia incurred in the aftermath of 9/11. The mid-1990s interviews find Gibson repeatedly turning to the image of a Radio Shack that was trashed during the post-Rodney King L.A. riots as a benchmark for understanding the relationship between social class and accessible/affordable technologies, topics that are addressed in the earlier Bridge trilogy (1993-99). Finally, the eighties-era interviews often address future shock and Gibson’s now-famous ambivalence towards technology that have become a hallmark of the Sprawlsequence (1984-88). These moments help contribute to the time-travel effect of Conversations with William Gibson; namely, with the benefit of hindsight, we can read earlier interview content as the foreshadowing of what will emerge later in Gibson’s oeuvre. For example, as early as the 1986 interview with Larry McCaffery, Gibson was contemplating the “lateral moves” he wanted to take to avoid “being typecast if I make SF my permanent home” (44). Those lateral moves later resulted in the Bridge trilogy that is decidedly closer to our contemporary moment than the Sprawlsequence, and the Bigend trilogy, which is set in the recent past. Similarly, in his 1997 interview with Andy Diggle, Gibson describes his work as explorations of an “unspeakable present.… To me, this is the future, and it’s only going to get weirder” (133; emphasis in original), an aesthetic that will again inspire the Bigend trilogy’s focus on the years immediately following 9/11. What therefore emerges from Conversations with William Gibson is both a palimpsest of a man who has remained remarkably unchanged when it comes to his artistic vison as well as a mapping of the nodal points that find Gibson continually repositioning himself amidst the ever-changing fluctuations of the technocultural age.
Conversations with William Gibson is not without its flaws. In spite of the breadth of the interviews, Smith’s rationale for which interviews to include and which ones to exclude remains unclear. As a result, there are perplexing gaps in the chronological coverage: between 1986 and 1999, Smith has included interviews from nearly each of the intervening years; however, there is a four-year gap between 1999 and 2003 and another four-year gap between 2003 and 2007 before some regularity again appears in the collection. As Gary Westfahl’s online William Gibson bibliography clearly shows, there were available interviews in these intervening years that could have been included in Smith’s collection, so the absence of interview material from these periods is noticeable and does result in a collection that pays much more attention to the Sprawl and Bridge sequences of novels than it does to the Bigend trilogy. Smith’s introduction also provides an extensive biography of its subject, but much of that material will be later repeated in the interviews, so there really is not anything substantially new to offer. Finally, there are a few editorial glitches, notably taking Mary Ann Gwinn’s final line in her interview and accidentally reprinting it as the final line of Tim Adams’s interview. On the whole, however, the book holds up quite well in spite of the omissions and editorial gaffes.
Finally, Conversations with William Gibson retails for approximately $50 US, pricey for a book whose content can largely be found for free simply by doing some Google searches or consulting other Gibson bibliography websites, notably the Westfahl site I noted earlier; thus, it is unlikely Patrick A. Smith’s book will reach the status of a “must have.” It is certainly recommended for library purchase, but unless a softcover is released, then the average consumer (and academic) does not need to clear space on the bookshelf for this volume, unless s/he truly values having an extensive number of interviews handily available in one location. In the end and in spite of some minor problems and a hefty price tag, Conversations with William Gibson certainly succeeds in offering its “readers a map to the territories that the author explores, a primer to his influence on SF, and a guide to the ways he has changed our thinking about technology” (xviii).
—Graham J. Murphy, Seneca College
The Future of Viddying the Future.
Science Fiction TV. Routledge Television Guidebooks. New York: Routledge, 2014. viii + 223 pp. $80 hc; $29.95 pbk.
I suspect I am far from alone in having lost count of the fine books on film and television that J.P. Telotte has published. I’ve even lost count of how many of those books I have read—but it would be most of them. Indeed, Telotte has become much more than just a highly influential sf media critic—he is a brand! Which means that someone tapped for reviewing a new Telotte book can pretty well expect it to be an enjoyable and instructive experience. And that is certainly the case with his most recent book, Science Fiction TV, the well-chosen lead-off study in the Routledge Television Guidebook series, as this book displays Telotte’s characteristic and reader-friendly combination of rigorous critical theory and scholarship, impressive readings, cultural contextualization, and engaging prose. In some ways, this is Telotte’s most timely book, as it explores the exploding world of sf television (SFTV) experience across a range of digital media, offering a “guide” as “a kind of roadmap to the evolving world of SFTV” (10) rather than just a nostalgic index to the past, and as it transcends media boundaries to celebrate the cultural importance of science fiction in all its forms.
While Telotte’s warp-speed but richly textured first chapter, “A Brief History of American SFTV,” is a marvel in itself, satisfyingly compacting 60 years and countless programs (mainly American, with nods to obvious BBC shows such as Doctor Who [1963-89, 1996, 2005- ] or Torchwood [2006, 2010-2011]) into just over 20 pages, and subsequent chapters exploring aspects of SFTV “Industrial and Narrative Models,” “Cultural Issues,” “Audiences,” and “Boundary Crossings” all deserve both more description and praise than I have space to give, it may be his Introduction and Conclusion that give this book its greatest value. His introduction, partially in reaction to the suggestion by M. Keith Booker that SFTV may have reached not only “maturity” but “exhaustion” (2) (yet another obituary in the “many deaths of sf” canon), offers three compelling explanations for why SFTV “has become big-time” and deserves our serious consideration and study. Declining to go with the “800-pound gorilla” or “elephant in the room” accounting for redoubled production of and critical attention to SFTV tied simply to popularity, Telotte suggests first that “we can do it” (4), noting the developments in production technologies and consequent funding advantages that encourage its proliferation. His second, and more important, reason is that “we have to do it” (5), explaining that our increasingly science-fictional world, ever more shaped by inescapable science and technology, means that science fiction has become the new realism, forcing our narratives and our critical inquiries to take note. And his third—and best of all—reason is “because we simply should do it,” since SFTV and its study “helps us make sense—of ourselves, our world, and our futures” (5; emphasis in original). As he reminds us, “SF film and television fans generally also tend to be readers and thinkers,” and because “we do not have nearly enough readers and thinkers,” good SFTV “tends to lure some of those fans to the books that we write about their projections and fantasies,” drawing fans and readers “into a serious discourse,” and situating “the role of science and technology in our fast-evolving culture into another level of popular discussion, thereby helping to make us aware of how these things are impacting our lives” (9; emphasis in original). Or, as Telotte boils down this explanation, SFTV may well be “good for us” (8).
Telotte’s subsequent discussion of the reasons why SFTV “may be good for us” offers a powerful brief not only for the value of his book, but also for the cultural importance of science fiction across all media—particularly for the self-reflexive nature of sf film and TV, both “driven by technology” in a way “different from sf literature” (5; emphasis in original). Having initially combined sf film and TV in their common cultural contributions, however, Telotte then offers a welcome distinction between the two media, built around the ability of SFTV to explore issues and develop character in long form narrative, around the twin opportunities unique to SFTV to exploit the advantages of both series and seriality, and around the experiential affect of televisual flow, with the consequent implications of these narrative mechanisms for the television audience. Siding with David Bianculi’s concern that many people “simply do not take television very seriously” (14), in part because it is so pervasive and omnipresent in our lives, Telotte also agrees with Bianculi that “television, like many of our time-honored arts, ‘has done its part, like fairy tales and classic literature, to satisfy certain needs and explore certain themes’” (14). One of the most important of those needs, of course, is our deep-seated desire for a “sense of wonder.”
The Introduction closes with the recognition of the increasing participation of fan culture in the megatext of SFTV, as the television experience has been exported to new digital platforms, the new media experiences providing viewers “with an expanded relation to SFTV, in the process contributing their own distinctive impact on the proliferation of SF fan cultures” (19). Telotte’s equally important Conclusion develops and details this claim, noting the expansion of “traditional” SFTV narratives into “sf-ish” or slipstream-like “reality” shows such as Ancient Aliens (2009-), UFO Hunters (2008-2009), and Chasing UFOs (2012-), airing on such diverse venues as The History Channel, The Science Channel, and National Geographic—channels also introducing genre-bending shows combining “factual” information with re-enactments or dramatizations that appear patently science-fictional, suggesting “a level on which the real and the science fictional have begun to merge, as our own world seems to have become ever more fantastic” (41). And then there are shows, such as the Syfy Channel’s Face Off (2011-), where make-up artists compete to design alien others, thus offering a fractal glimpse of sf world-building.
But it is the proliferation of platforms on which SFTV may be experienced or that experience may be expanded and/or made interactive that is the real news in Telotte’s Conclusion, as he considers the impact on viewing of new networks and channels, of DVRs, of DVD “extras,” smart phones and smart tablets, podcasts, streaming and downloadable content, “webisodes,” “phonisodes,” vlogs, fanfic, SFTV-based video games, websites, and even the more radical interactive possibilities explored by the Syfy Channel’s Defiance (2013- ), which connects the TV series to video-game developments. These transmedia developments have expanded the diegetic worlds of SFTV in dramatic ways, “thickening our SFTV experience” (183), which Telotte identifies as representing the “spreadable media” theorized by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, “a combination of textual materials and communication technologies that allow—even encourage—material to be ‘shared across and among cultures in a far more participatory way’” (183). And Telotte closes with a reference to Intel’s “The Tomorrow Project,” which specifically asks its “scientists and technicians to read SF, to view the best of SFTV, to mine the genre for ideas” (187).
In between his forward-looking Introduction and even more visionary Conclusion, Telotte offers chapters featuring detailed readings of touchstone or “key” SFTV series, including Captain Video (1949-55), The Twilight Zone (1959-63), Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009), Farscape (1999-2003), and Fringe (2008-2013), along with more limited, but no less insightful, discussions of the Star Trek universe, Lost (2004-2010), a carefully measured analysis of Joss Whedon’s troubling Dollhouse (2009-2010), Babylon 5 (1993-98), Eureka (2006-2012), Warehouse 13 (2009-), Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009), Firefly (2002-2003), Roswell (1999-2002), and The X-Files (1993-2002). Following Chapter One’s flying “history” of American SFTV, Telotte’s typological second chapter first presents the broadcast TV, but not sf, narrative models that organize SFTV. This chapter then also recognizes the need to consider aesthetic as well as industrial models, borrowing the organizing narrative protocols from sf literature suggested by Edward James—“the extraordinary voyage,” “the tale of the future,” and “the tale of science”—then adding Todorov’s categories of the fantastic—“the marvelous tale,” “the uncanny tale,” and “the fantastic tale,” as useful categories for differentiating among SFTV narratives. Chapter Three explores three significant cultural issues foregrounded by SFTV, race and racism as interrogated by Star Trek, gender roles and rules as interrogated by Dollhouse, and class and culture as interrogated by Babylon 5.
The historical first chapter and the largely typological second and third chapters provide a solid context for the greater contributions of Chapter Four, which examines the development and fragmentation of SFTV audiences in the context of sf fandom, and Chapter Five, which considers the nature of and reasons for the hyper hybridity of SFTV, yet another distinction from sf film. Telotte locates SFTV audiences within the broader history of sf fandom, explaining the passion of these fans in terms of the broad cultural “turn” associated with the recognition of the increasing importance of science and technology and the somewhat elitist sense of a shared community of cognitive superiority over fans of other genres and readers and viewers who “don’t get” sf. He notes several changes as these fan audiences have developed over the years, starting with a diminished sense of advocacy for science and technology and an increased enthusiasm for broadly based speculation, the spectacular, and the fantastic. Other changes have to do with an increasing sense of empowerment in the market arena (initiated in part by the fan protest that “saved” Star Trek) and a growing recognition of opportunities to respond to texts through what Jenkins terms “textual poaching” in the forms of fanzines, fanfic, and other expressions of opinion and interest. As the sf audience expanded, Telotte notes, it also underwent some fragmentation, as evidenced by a growing female audience and consequent feminist critique of “purported capitalist, sexist, and bourgeois attitudes” (125), leading to “a recent wave of more gender conscious SFTV” (125). This development and fragmentation of sf audience into sf audiences has its limits, however: “If no longer fans with a simple technocratic social purpose or utopian agenda, if no longer united by a kind of scientifically based optimism, they remain linked by a fascination with the visionary power of the imagination, by what we might term the lure, and indeed the pleasure, of speculation” (128; emphasis in original).
Roger Luckhurst has made the extended case for the hybridity of sf literature, and Telotte’s fifth chapter builds on Luckhurst’s argument, exploring the material reasons why SFTV offers such noteworthy examples of generic hybridization, “demonstrating far less generic coherence than film—and moving far more quickly to adopt change” (149), leading him to the view that “we might also think about SFTV not simply as a form that because it does ‘participate’ in various genres, lacks singularity, but rather that, by its very nature, plays at and with boundaries, more readily blending with other forms” (149). Examples of this frequently playful generic hybridity can be seen in the SFTV Western Firefly, in the SFTV teen melodrama Roswell, and in the SFTV mystery/detection series The X-Files—each of which Telotte situates in the history of the mash-up formula and reads impressively. His “Key Series” for this chapter is Fringe, his extended reading of this complicated series a compelling capstone to the hyper-hybridity arguments of the chapter.
Science Fiction TV also features 25 illustrations, “Questions for Discussion” for each chapter, and “A Select SFTV Videography” that will amaze most readers with its listing of a number of unknown shows, and a comprehensive-seeming “Select SFTV Bibliography.” All you really need to know, however, is that this is a new book about sf media by J.P. Telotte!
—Brooks Landon, University of Iowa
An Essential Classroom Resource.
. Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. vi + 210 pp. $80 hc; $24.95 pbk.
My initial thought upon finishing Sherryl Vint’s primer for perplexed would-be aficionados of science fiction was, “Well. I’m never going to teach an introduction to science fiction class again without assigning this.” Its primary aim is to answer the question, “what is science fiction?” by exploiting the requisite elements of any good “textbook.” Vint manages to accomplish much in a small space, creating an appealing resource for students and teachers alike: sleek, straightforward, and surprisingly comprehensive given the manageable page length and price (both attractive considerations when I select textbooks). She reviews the history of the genre, offering a formal chronology that runs from Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) to Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion (2011); complements this “greatest hits” approach by providing a line-up of must-read authors and other TV and film artists; offers a useful appendix on further readings covering a range of approaches including history, references, theoretical studies, and thematic studies; and ends each chapter with discussion questions that will steer conversation on the salient parts of her arguments. Most impressively, though, Vint manages to sneak in insightful close readings of specific works in order to illustrate her observations about the cultural and political contexts that, in her words, make sf so difficult to define “because the genre shifts not only in relation to the preferences and investments of those defining it—an emphasis on science versus one on social change, for example—but also over time as new writers respond to published work and as new perspectives such as feminism and antiracism are brought to the field” (135). In this way, she offers a text that provides a factual overview as well as exemplifying best practice in how to analyze sf works.
Let us consider just a few of these thematic wellheads that take readers on divergent courses toward an understanding of the complexities that put the “perplexing” into that apparently simple question, “what is science fiction?” Her critique of colonialism offers a good example of how Vint uses sf to explain a theoretical movement that some students might not even know about, much less in the context of alien invasions from outer space! She accomplishes this by tracing the origins of colonial critique from stories such as H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898), “a critique of British imperialism accomplished by reversal: devastating the imperial centre of London, portraying the British as overwhelmingly outgunned by superior Martian technology, and pointedly reminding the reader at several points that, although the Martians appear monstrous to human experience, from their own they are not doing anything particularly heinous or indeed different from British actions in its colonies” (21). She then moves chronologically to contemporary offerings such as the anthology So Long Been Dreaming (2004), in which coeditor Nalo Hopkinson points out that “postcolonial sf stories take the meme of colonizing the natives and, from the experience of the colonizée, critique it, pervert it, fuck with it, with irony, with anger, with humor, and also, with love and respect for the genre of science fiction that makes it possible to think about new ways of doing things” (Hopkinson qtd. in Vint, 129). Parallel discussions of race and racism in sf echo the tensions that cause this reviewer, for example, to question where in the world (literally) the “post” in “postcolonialism” has gone, a decolonizing impulse that tempts some scholars to use the orthographic non sequitur (post)colonialism instead. Vint’s discussions recognize that “the project to achieve a more ethnically and racially diverse sf is far from over” (130), pointing out perhaps more importantly that “a racism-free, but by default white, sf future is not an inclusive utopia and only the arrogance of white privilege can produce this illusion” (130).
I will detail only these two themes in my brief review while advising that there are more, and while conceding that my selections likely reflect my own pedagogical biases (the chapters I would make sure to have students brand into their brains), I encourage readers to investigate further. Vint comprehensively introduces the “basics” that those coming to sf for a first look should appreciate, including feminist sf; the feminist/masculinity (false) dichotomy; sf sexualities; the “what is the difference between sf and fantasy” debate; artificial intelligence and life forms; androids, robots, and cyborgs (oh my!); biotechnology; sf apocalypse; “aliens” in their myriad guises, symbolic and otherwise; and the amalgam of religion and science in sf, among others.
But what about the book’s central question, “what is science fiction?” Because SFS readers sampling this review will realize that there really are no right answers, only well-reasoned positions on this topic, they will appreciate Vint’s deft treatment of the riddle that the book takes on. More than that, SFS readers who consider adopting the text for a course will appreciate how her management of the topic will clarify the complexities of the question for students rather than making it even knottier. Posing the question as an exercise in critical thinking rather than as a test toward achieving a “right answer,” Vint embraces historical method, appropriately launching the playful reliance on ambiguity in the observation that William Wilson is typically credited with coining the term “science fiction” in 1851 while Hugo Gernsback gets credit for popularizing the term through venues such as Amazing Stories and Science Wonder Stories in the 1920s. She goes on to cite luminaries in the field whose attempts at clarification have created sf as an amorphous, evolving matrix that thrives today rather than as a static artifact of belles lettres: for example, Roger Luckhurst’s positioning of sf as a genre of late modernity reflecting cultural shifts toward proliferation and dependence on science and technology; Darko Suvin’s discussion of cognitive estrangement; Carl Freedman’s privileging of sf as “a canon of texts that use sf scenarios and techniques to question our assumptions about a taken-for-granted reality and often to promote other possibilities for community, subjectivity, and social meaning” (49); Samuel R. Delany’s argument that “science fiction is defined by a specific way of using language to create meanings different from the meanings possible in realist fiction” (56), a proposition that leads to the popular sf trope of “literalizing the metaphor” and shifts the analysis of sf as metafiction toward “megatext,” or the “interplay between familiarity and novelty that is created by interactions between individual texts and sf’s larger history” (58); Ursula K. Le Guin’s invocation of the term “thought experiment” to describe how sf authors strive to describe a world that might emerge if, for example, gender (as well as other elemental narratives) were not so foundational to our construction of culture and power dynamics; and, ultimately, Brooks Landon’s ameliorating assertion that sf is simply “the literature of change,” exploring changes in technoscience, certainly, as well as in the human condition, in philosophy, and even changes in the idea of change itself. “This characterization of sf as the literature of change captures the genre’s orientation toward a variable surrounding world and explains its vast range of styles, settings, plots, and themes,” says Vint. “More a way of thinking about reality than a set of formulaic conventions, the conceptualization of sf as the literature of change allows us to see the genre’s response to changes in contemporary culture and anticipation of places where change might take place. In all its many manifestations, sf is interested in something different from commonplace reality, in what can be changed” (157).
Vint has managed to pack the majority of relevant sf themes into a readable book that conveys nimble research, credible tone, and a gracious voice that surely will put the perplexed at ease while gathering novitiates into the host.
—Grace L. Dillon, Portland State University