BOOKS IN REVIEW
A Genuine Engagement with Reality.
Greg Egan. Modern Masters of Science Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2014. xii + 190 pp. $85 hc; $23 pbk.
On 13 February 2015, while I was in the midst of writing this review, the 2014 British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Awards were announced, and they included Karen Burnham’s Greg Egan on the shortlist for Best Non-Fiction Work. It is a nomination that is richly deserved. Burnham’s book is an informative, illuminating, and in-depth study of an author who is one of the preeminent voices of hard sf. The depth of Burnham’s analysis, coupled with the fluency she exhibits moving from short story to novel and back again, help establish Greg Egan as a definitive work of Egan scholarship that will prove invaluable to anyone interested in this notable sf author.
Greg Egan is organized into detailed chapters that address thematic foci structuring Egan’s short and long fiction. For example, Chapter Two addresses Egan’s exploration of ethical issues, and Burnham further divides this chapter into sub-categories: Medical Ethics; Uneven Benefits of Technology; Money and Politics in Research Science; Ethics in Relation to Created Life; and First Contact Situations. Key stories such as “Blood Sisters” (1991), “The Caress” (1990), “Yeyuka” (1997), and “Mitochondrial Eve” (2001) allow Burnham the opportunity to provide carefully focused analyses, although she is equally meticulous in covering as much of the breadth of Egan’s fiction as possible. A similar pattern is evident in Chapter Three’s focus on identity and consciousness and its sub-categories (Neurochemical Consciousness, Digital Consciousness, and Consciousness as Information), Chapter Four’s focus on scientific analysis and its sub-categories (Subjective Cosmology, Alternate Physics, Alternate Cosmologies, Process of Science, and Science in Culture), and Chapter Five’s focus on Science and Society, including such sub-categories as Science vs. Religion, Postmodern Silliness, and Critics of “Pure” Science. The content in these four chapters is remarkably consistent and informative, including connections between Egan and his contemporary hard sf luminaries, although the “Alternative Cosmologies” sub-category in Chapter Four seemed out-of-place, chiefly because Burnham spends too much time focusing on Ted Chiang’s work while only sporadically making connections with Egan’s corpus.
Chapter Five is particularly compelling as it addresses key social-political issues; thus, readers are provided an account of how Egan’s fiction has engaged in culture wars over the course of his career. Burnham shows how Egan’s fiction steadfastly privileges “the side of science and the rationalist, materialist universe” (129), while also exploring Egan’s disdain for morally corrupt religious beliefs and the hijacking of science for religious purposes; similarly, readers are also shown Egan’s disgust for a postmodernism that is simply lazy intellectualism when compared to the truths available through well-disciplined scientific inquiry. For example, Burnham writes that “the best way to make sure that science is not purely Western and patriarchal is to get as many people as possible around the world involved in its practice. Bias can never be eliminated in any one individual…. However, because of the scientific method, where hypotheses are testable and experiments replicable, even gross errors of judgment and bias can eventually be straightened out” (146). As a scientist herself who works as a physicist and engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Burnham clearly aligns herself with Egan in such instances and seems to be writing as much for the broader science community as for Egan himself.
In the same vein, Burnham mounts a spirited defense against accusations that Egan routinely fails at characterization or that his novels, particularly Incandescence (2008), Diaspora (1997), and Schild’s Ladder (2002), are largely incomprehensible (and quite boring) to anyone without advanced degrees in mathematics and science. Regarding characterization, Burnham provides a thorough account of the “Egan Defense” that stipulates that “it is acceptable for characters to be flat, bland, non-existent, or indistinct because the ideas are the important thing” (39; emphasis in original). Again aligning herself with Egan, Burnham writes that the extent to which flat characterization “represents a failing of Egan’s writing depends on how much a reader appreciates Egan’s strengths and is willing to overlook the weakness” (40). Shortly thereafter, Burnham appears irked, if not defensive, when she writes that “there are those, and one may speculate that Egan is among them, who would find no better pastime for their future experiments over extremely long timescales or to work out new mathematical theorems. While that is not most people’s idea of a fun eternity, those who do think that way needn’t be dismissed out of hand” (42). Defending against criticism of Egan’s indecipherability, Burnham is quite clear that any deficiencies are to be found in the reader, not the writer:
Only a few readers are willing to put that level of work into reading a novel. For them, Egan is perhaps the most rewarding, challenging author publishing today. However, the stories have plenty to offer even those readers who are less scientifically dedicated. Readers and critics who are less inclined to space-time diagrams are still impressed by his work. Egan is a respectable craftsman at the sentence level, and the sense of wonder is accessible even to those who don’t grasp all the details of the mathematics. The resonances between science and society that he illuminates are meaningful to a broad swath of readers. (103-104)
While Chapters Two through Five represent the meat of Burnham’s analysis, the highlights of this stellar book are found in Chapter One and Chapter Six. In the former, Burnham undertakes a creative exercise by combining Egan’s short stories and novels to “map out a rough future-history framework in which to place Egan’s technologies and themes” (31). Although Burnham acknowledges Egan’s eschewing of a fixed future history or shared universes (in spite of the narrative intersections of “Learning to be Me” , “Closer” , and “Border Guards”  or “Luminous”  and “Dark Integers” ), Burnham’s creative mapping demonstrates the depths of her knowledge about Egan’s shorter and longer fictions while simultaneously placing divergent narratives into dialogue with one another. She effortlessly moves between short story and novel by beginning her future history with “technology that alters people’s fundamental personality/beliefs through neurochemistry” (32) and concludes with distant futures “in which the galaxy has reached something resembling stasis” (33). This is a striking and wholly original way of grasping the larger thematic contexts of Egan’s fiction and can serve as the backbone for anyone looking to develop a course explicitly devoted to Egan’s oeuvre.
Although it is not technically identified as a distinct chapter, the second highlight is the lengthy interview with Greg Egan that concludes the volume (i.e., Chapter Six). Burnham has quoted extensively from this interview (as well as other interviews) throughout the preceding five chapters, so reading the entire conversation provides the most thorough-going examination into this enigmatic author. Burnham covers all the typical biographical expectations, including Egan’s influences and early (often failed) forays into publishing, as well as his thematic foci and his staunch belief that sf “is wasted when it’s used simply to crank out metaphors for familiar things” (174). Ultimately, Burnham concludes Greg Egan with Egan’s hopeful optimism about the impact of his own humble contributions to science fiction: “Art that’s blind to the true landscape we inhabit—physical reality in this case—is just absurdly, pathetically blinkered and myopic. So while I’m sure that the individual works I’ve written have only succeeded to varying degrees, I’m still proud to have done something to nudge the center of gravity of contemporary SF some microscopic distance toward a genuine engagement with reality” (180).
If any critique can be leveled against Greg Egan it would have to do with the paucity of Egan-specific critical work. As noted, Burnham relies extensively upon interviews, particularly her own material; in addition, she does provide general context by drawing upon N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999), Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (1993), and Bill McKibben’s Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (2003), to name a few. Nevertheless, there is no real sense of the growing scholarship devoted exclusively to Greg Egan; thus, academic work by Wayne Daniels, Andrew Macrae, Ross Farnell, Neil Easterbrook, or my own humble contributions are absent (Burnham does quote from my entry in Mark Bould et al.’s Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction , but misattributes the content to the editors). It would have been helpful had such scholarship been referenced or included in a more thorough bibliography gathering secondary works in tandem with primary materials and interviews. In the end, such an oversight does not detract from what is an otherwise stellar piece of scholarship. As part of the University of Illinois’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, the affordable Greg Egan not only deserves to be on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the author’s oeuvre or sf scholars and aficionados in general, but it is also a fantastic template for anyone writing on any other authors for this increasingly illustrious series.
—Graham J. Murphy, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology
Speculating and the Spectacle.
Projecting Tomorrow: Science Fiction and Popular Cinema. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2014. xiv + 240 pp. $25 pbk.
Sf cinema is rich with the history of cinema itself. For instance, it is often pointed out that Georges Méliès created Le Voyage dans la Lune [A Trip to the Moon, 1902] with a camera that was science-fictional at that time. Still, sf film has been studied primarily within the confines of its own genre and not placed more broadly within the history of film as such. This approach has certainly led to many groundbreaking publications from film scholars such as John Baxter, Vivian Sobchack, and Annette Kuhn, to name but a very few of the contributors to this discourse. Related studies have yielded histories of the genre, thematic-oriented analyses, and important and insightful applications of critical theory, despite the latter being referred to in this book as a “voguish trend” (7).
Projecting Tomorrow aims to widen the critical reception of science fiction to include a broader array of films than the “same narrow array of examples (Alien, Blade Runner, The Terminator)” and to demonstrate how these films influenced and were influenced by films in other genres. It presents twelve case studies that situate the chosen films within the framework of popular cinema and the cultural anxieties of the day. The result is a “contextual cinematic history” (xiii). The film selection covers a broad range of subgenres from the science-fiction musical to the literary adaptation and from the space opera to the documentary. The films come from the United States and Great Britain. Titles discussed include, in order of appearance: Just Imagine (1930), Things to Come (1936), The War of the Worlds (1953), The Quatermass Series (1955, 1957, 1967), Forbidden Planet (1956), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Planet of the Apes (1968), The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971), Logan’s Run (1976), Star Wars (1977), RoboCop (1987), and Avatar (2009).
Projecting Tomorrow is a follow-up to Chapman and Cull’s earlier Projecting Empire: Imperialism and Popular Cinema (2009), which looked at the portrayal of imperialism in British and Hollywood cinema from the 1930s to the twenty-first century. Both this earlier publication and Projecting Tomorrow are based on extensive archival and empirical research. Each chapter contains a detailed analysis of production history based on interviews with actors, directors, producers, and writers, studio records, scripts, personal correspondence, film reviews, publicity materials, censor reports, legal records, and autobiographies. The authors split the chapters between them. Altogether, there is remarkable consistency in the topics they cover from the pre-history of the project through to each film’s afterlife.
The collection’s overarching narrative is tied to the growth of the cinema as spectacle, from Hollywood of the thirties, then by way of Star Wars, and culminating in James Cameron’s Avatar. It is not a coincidence, then, that the book begins with a closer look at Just Imagine, one of the few sf musicals, which was not inspired by “what if” but by Broadway. Much time is spent on the difficulties of adapting the more speculative and introspective sf literature to a visual medium. Things to Come and 2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance, provide examples of sf authors, H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke, who embraced film as a medium and collaborated with their respective directors. Logan’s Run pushed the boundaries of what could be displayed in film at that time and were censored by the “guardians of taste and decency: the Production Code Administration” (84). Certainly, the chapter on Star Wars was a necessary inclusion as a milestone due in part to its special effects, the strength of its story, and the arrival of the Hollywood science-fiction blockbuster. RoboCop then documents the growing influence of comic books on the silver screen, while Avatar is presented as the merging of Cameron’s childhood musings and a special-effects industry that had finally attained the ability to represent them.
The book also clearly links science fiction to other film traditions and genres. For instance, chapter three explains why Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein considered filming War of the Worlds in 1930 and then ultimately moved to another project. It points out that both Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous Triumph of the Will (1935) influenced Star Wars. A number of genres are represented, including Hammer Films’ The Quatermass series (horror), Star Wars (western and adventure fantasy), The Hellstrom Chronicle (documentary), and RoboCop (comic books), among others. Many chapters outline the broader accomplishments of those who worked on the film at hand. The lyricists Buddy DeSylva and Lew Brown and the composer Ray Henderson, who wrote for Just Imagine, went on to write a number of musical standards (e.g., “Button up your Overcoat”). Rod Serling, Pierre Boulle, and Charlton Heston all worked on The Planet of the Apes. The Hellstrom Chronicle’s David Wolper produced Roots (1977).
As film history, the book traces a number of common themes in the development of Anglo-American cinema: the influence of the Cold War and later of Vietnam, the fear of nuclear war, the social revolutions of the Sixties, the growth of mass media and its focus on young audiences, the dominance of television, the coming of film merchandising, etc. It does this in the compelling detail that comes from intense archival research. For instance, Prohibition is mocked in Just Imagine. Sf film is integrated into the discourse on McCarthyism in the chapter on The Planet of the Apes series, as its two blacklisted screenwriters, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, worked on the film uncredited. Quatermass 2 points to the “enemy within” in its dark vision of an increasingly authoritarian state and RoboCop brought the genre of cyberpunk to the “rust-belt” city of Detroit. Transnational elements occur early on in multiple discussions of Hollywood studio strategies to benefit from British film subsidies.
While the volume provides a fascinating view of each film through the archival microscope, sometimes the book itself becomes a bit myopic. It fails to come up for air from time to time and make an wider observation to help situate its current chapter in the broader context of (sf) film history. Chapter 8 ends with the question: “What does the The Hellstrom Chronicle tell us about the development of the SF genre?” (143) Although each chapter finishes with the post-history of each film, most chapters should have asked a similar question. Even a paragraph of conclusions at the end of each chapter would have been useful. Certainly Planet of the Apes has “remained a touchstone in American culture” (127) and the final section on the film relates how this is so. Yet it would have been helpful here to have similar observations reminding the reader not only how important the film was to popular culture, but also why it had been chosen in the first place. The “Afterword” tries to do this, but in a perfunctory way and much too late in the book.
That said, the collection is full of fascinating revelations and details about the chosen films that only this type of exacting research can produce. The authors were aware of their limited selection of films and suggest other films that they might have included (7). Yet the depth attained via the case-study format required the smaller choice. There is no fan-edited or other audience-influenced film in the list of possibilities. This type of chapter is essential to a collection that focuses on production history in a time when digital cinema has revolutionized filmmaking. What does this innovation mean for the theme film as spectacle? Overall, the book is a welcome addition to the scholarship on popular cinema and is bound to bring a broader audience to the study of sf film as the story of cinema.
—Sonja Fritzsche, Illinois Wesleyan University
Furthering Second-Order Systems Theory.
Neocybernetics and Narrative. Posthumanities 29. Minnesota: U of Minnesota P, 2014. 248 pp. $75 hc; $25 pbk.
Neocybernetics and Narrative is intended to articulate a second-order systems-theoretical basis for reading narrative texts, specifically the social and technological interactions among characters. The first, third, and fifth chapters develop the details of the theory in conjunction with readings of film and literature, including Octavia Butler’s Mind of My Mind (1977) and the film Avatar (2009). The second and fourthchapters are readings of theory, specifically work by Michel Serres and Bruno Latour.
Systems theory understands the world as an environment composed of closed systems. These systems may be biological, such as cells; psychic, such as consciousness; or social, such as nation states. Systems produce and reproduce themselves through internal processes of self-reference. This process of “self-making” is called autopoiesis. Self-reference and closure are essential because, for second-order systems theory, “circular recursion constitutes the system in the first place” (4; emphasis in original). Clarke extends his focus to media and narrative theories because media and narrative often serve as the embodied environments where psychic and social systems interact; they are “additional environmental resources for” the information processing and interpretive operations “of psychic and social systems” (6).
The first chapter provides an overview of systems theory, explicating the technical vocabulary of the field with clarity and precision. Systems theory uses a wealth of technical terms that can obfuscate their own utility if not well presented. Clarke’s success comes from his frequent habit of defining some terms in opposition while also showing where they overlap. For instance, he offers a distinction between “the biotic autopoiesis of living systems and the metabiotic autopoiesis of minds and societies” (12). Defining machines and “technical objects” as non-autopoietic but functioning within metabiotic systems “to convey meaning” offers a conceptual tool for readers concerned with technology and its mediation of meaning between different forms of life (14; emphasis in original).
Throughout the rest of the book, a recurring argument is that other systems theories outside of the specific field of second-order systems theory suffer from their lack of insistence on operational and self-referential closure. Clarke focuses on this theme most fully in his second and fourth chapters. The second chapter is particularly appealing because it articulates the theoretical differences between Michel Serres and Niklas Luhmann. Even though both thinkers refer to systems, Serres emphasizes that energy and information open systems up to universal integration instead of constituting a system’s operational closure. In Clarke’s view, this means “notions of structural self-organization have to patch up the conceptual lacunae that can be properly filled in only by operationally closed autopoietic self-production” (64). As such, Serres’s open theory can account for neither the distinction of living beings from one another nor from their environment (75). Clarke provides a genuine service to readers familiar with, but not yet fluent in, Serres or Luhmann’s work by clarifying what is privileged and useful for each of them.
In the thought-provoking fourth chapter, Clarke critiques Bruno Latour’s “discursive and novelized resurrection” of a failed public transport project in Paris known as Aramis (112). Latour eventually wrote a book about the project, using fictive engineers to discuss the real endeavor. For Clarke, the lack of closure in Latour’s actor-network theory results in the text sometimes treating Aramis as autonomous and sometimes not, creating “an irony suitable to the treatment of something that never existed as something that also did exist” (131; emphasis in original).
Clarke’s critiques raise useful questions for articulating posthumanist theoretical priorities in reading texts. Do texts concerned with human/nonhuman interface offer an account where distinct systems relate through some form of media? Or does the text celebrate play in dissolving boundaries? The latter may be the more familiar state of cyborg creation, but Clarke’s reading of Avatar relies on systemic closure, and his articulation of a mind’s movement between bodies and social systems is more successful for doing so (166).
There is one concept that seems worthy of more than the brief mention Clarke gives it: structural coupling, which functions as substitute for communication by transmission. Transmission is untenable because “autonomous social and psychic systems construct their own meanings” internally, so communication between systems only emerges when they are “coupled to the other in their respective environments, and mediated by the medium of meaning” (48). This comes across as an essential concept, but is not treated beyond a brief reference. If transmission of meaning between systems is impossible, then different forms of life must emerge together in an environment to share mechanisms of internal meaning-making. Readers of science fiction can look for the ways structural coupling leaves transmission behind in favor of depicting a mutual growth that both maintains systemic closure and highlights shared media. Given the wealth of conceptual tools it provides, Neocybernetics and Narrative succeeds in its goal to “sharpen second-order systems theory’s scholarly profile and enhance its intellectual cred” (ix).
—Walter Merryman, University of California, Riverside
Apocalyptic Discourse in Contemporary Culture: Post-Millennial Perspectives on the End of the World. Routledge Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Literature.New York: Routledge, 2014. xv + 244 pp. $140 hc.
From academic texts such as Žižek’s Living in the End Times (2010) and Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) to the range of (post)apocalyptic films as varied as Wall-E (2002) and Snowpiercer (2013) and the continued popularity of television adaptations such as The Walking Dead (2010), it is clear that apocalyptic discourses are both lucrative storytelling and academically rich terrain. As part of Routledge’s Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Literature series, Apocalyptic Discourse in Contemporary Culture: Post-Millennial Perspectives on the End of the World contributes to discussions about the appeal of apocalyptic narratives and their changing significance in our contemporary global moment. Editors Monica Germaná and Aris Mousoutzanis note that the purpose of such a collection is two-fold: first, it examines the cultural and historical development of apocalyptic narratives through an interdisciplinary lens. Thus, essays in the collection utilize a variety of theoretical frameworks, highlighting the ways ecocriticism, feminism and gender studies, trauma studies, and critical globalization studies might be read into, and supplemented by, analysis of apocalyptic narratives. The collection’s secondary aim is a consequence of the ways such interdisciplinary work can unsettle previously established claims—thus, the editors note that the collection also “interrogates the theoretical foundations of the apocalypse’s linearity … in order to highlight its complex intersections with the current contextual terrain outlined by late capitalism, globalization, and twenty-first-century technology” (2). This is, to me, a particularly exciting aspect of the collection.
The book’s collection of fifteen essays is divided into four sections on theory, space, time, and language. Accordingly, the first section on “theory” is the most philosophically dense and considers how apocalyptic discourse might reveal “immanent” rather than “imminent” dimensions. This is a question the editors already set up nicely in the introduction by challenging the implicit linearity associated with the term. Lee Quinby’s chapter sets the tone for the section by historicizing the apocalypse as both a “geopolitical phenomenon and … also increasingly a biopolitical one” (19). Quinby asserts that theorizing the apocalypse requires paying attention to why certain apocalyptic visions are encouraged and how this might relate to structures of governmentality, thus leading Quinby to outline the emergence of a form of contemporary “apocalyptic security.” Chapters two (by Sophie Fuggle) and three (by John Vignaux Smyth) share many similarities as both focus on the contradictions inherent in Slavoj Žižek’s and Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s work on apocalyptic discourses, though Smyth’s chapter is more conceptually sophisticated in thinking about apocalypse as both ruse and revelation. The section concludes with Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik’s “The Apocalyptic Sublime,” which provides a strong reading of the relationship between apocalyptic narratives and the developments of modern science. This chapter might be of particular interest to sf scholars, as Horner and Zlosnik also outline the emergence of a “New Gothic Sublime,” which they argue challenges the promises of post-Enlightenment economic progress.
Part two (“Space, Place, and Environment”) and part three (“Time and History”) move away from theorizations of the significance of the apocalypse to focus on the ways specific texts utilize apocalyptic discourse for their own purposes. Emily Horton’s chapter convincingly argues that the postapocalypic vision in John Burnside’s Glister (2008) uses qualities of the sublime to foster increased environmental awareness. Next, Joanne Murray’s chapter on J.G. Ballard and New Brutalism examines the significance of space in relation to witnessing and the aesthetics of aftermath. Focusing on gendered futures, Elizabeth Russell’s chapter examines transnational representations of dystopian and apocalyptic futures that foreground the horrors of violence against women in our own present. In “‘Soul Delay’: Trauma and Globalization in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003),” Mousoutzanis performs an insightful analysis of the ways apocalyptic narratives mediate the traumas of globalization.
In the third part of the book, Christopher Daley’s chapter historicizes British disaster novels by examining the ways Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard rework “cozy catastrophe” themes in the context of 1960s counterculture and the Cold War. Following this, both Magdalena Zolkos and Francesca Haig examine the continuities between post-Holocaust testimonial, memory, and contemporary apocalyptic narratives. Though there is already an overwhelming amount of theorization of zombie apocalypses, David Cunningham and Alexandra Warwick’s chapter is an excellent re-reading of these texts as products of the cultural logic of late capitalism, in which “the zombie is less a consumer of commodities, or a figure of the collective living labor that produces them, than it is the horror of the human being taking on the very form of the commodity itself” (186; emphasis in original). The horror of the zombie apocalypse, then, lies not in the sense of an ending but in the horrific repetition of the same in which capital continues to “[lurch] ever onward of its own accord” (186).
The book concludes with a section on “Language and the End of the World.” Will Abberley’s chapter traces the ways supposed language degeneration in early apocalyptic narratives reflects Victorian ideologies regarding the progress of civilization, while later fictions—such as Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980)—view postapocalyptic language as offering transformative ways of thinking and being against increasing global homogeneity. Germaná’s chapter continues with the focus on language as both symbolic system and fundamental social structure. Germaná argues that Oryx and Crake (2003) reveals the ways the apocalypse can be viewed as circular, immanent rather than imminent, as a result of our language systems and the problematic disjunction between the real and the symbolic/Other. Concluding the book is Adam Roberts’s chapter, which focuses on language creation as a significant form of rupture (or defamiliarization?) that is a critical part of thinking the world otherwise in science-fictional texts.
As with any collection, the essays here are of mixed quality. In my opinion, the book’s interdisciplinarity is simultaneously its major strength and its greatest challenge. While the many good essays offer a variety of perspectives on the meaning of “apocalypse” in the twenty-first century, some chapters are highly specialized and will appeal only to those interested in their specific topic. Murray’s chapter, for instance, has interesting implications for those thinking about ruins and the aesthetics of aftermath, but its primary focus is really on the relationship between Ballard and New Brutalism. Such breadth, however, is simultaneously a part of the book’s strength, as such diverse chapters also share several insights. Hence, despite addressing a wide range of topics across fields such as literature, film, and philosophies of time, a few central thematic threads are woven through several of the chapters, including an emphasis on the ways apocalyptic discourses continually function as uneasy and intentional points of rupture in the process of globalization. The collection performs, in essence, what Fredric Jameson (drawing on Marx) notes is the role of the cultural critic, in which “the urgency of the subject demands that we make at least some effort to think the cultural evolution of late capitalism dialectically, as catastrophe and progress altogether” (Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism [Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991, 47]). In this way, the book’s methodology mirrors its thematic drive, where the dialogue that emerges between chapters is one that plays with the dialectic between catastrophe and progress, stasis and change, absolute endings and liminal spaces.
Nearly all of the chapters will appeal in some way to sf scholars as they address several topics that are of interest to the field, including the relationship between sf and representations of globalization, monsters, and contemporary biopolitical structures. Because of my own scholarly bias, I wish there were more chapters on global/transnational apocalyptic narratives (only Russell’s chapter really addresses this), that could have included, for instance, the perspective of Latin American dystopian fiction. Though several chapters in the collection perform a strong and insightful analysis of the ways contemporary apocalyptic narratives are particularly attuned to the context of global capital, most focus primarily on texts from the Global North. Alas, this may be a digression on my part, but only because the collection does a good job of inciting such questions and in this way fulfills the editors’ note that they “[do] not claim to offer a universal kind of revelation” and “hope instead that the richness of this volume might encourage readers to keep interrogating ‘the end’ and pursue further unveilings of their own” (11). This compelling collection will provide many starting points for thinking further about the significance of apocalyptic narratives in contemporary sf and would be a useful addition to any library.
—Malisa Kurtz, Brock University
Science Fiction, Alien Encounters, and the Ethics of Posthumanism: Beyond the Golden Rule. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. xi + 232 pp. $85 hc.
To read Elana Gomel’s fascinating book Science Fiction, Alien Encounters, and the Ethics of Posthumanism: Beyond the Golden Rule is to find oneself lost—enjoyably, mind-alteringly, other-sentiently—in a Borgesian meditation labyrinth designed precisely to lose the reader’s “self” by misplacing the reader in the self’s absence. The result: approximately 200 pages of continuous intellectual suspense. Enigmas proliferate. What is the other’s self? What is the other’s other? Insofar as the other’s other turns out to be one’s own self, then which one of us is the actual Other? To the extent that we live in a posthuman era, have “human rights” become obsolete? Is empathy a misguided form of anthropomorphism? Is it possible to empathize with an entity incapable of empathizing back? These are the kinds of questions that Elana Gomel explores with insight and wit through three “Parts” (“Confrontation,” “Assimilation,” “Transformation”) consisting of vibrant sections framed by titles that are often instructively wacky: “Us Are Them” (9), “Ethics of Metamorphosis” (27), “The Monster Next Door” (100), “Identity on Ice” (101), “Utopian Frogs” (134), “A Loquacious Broccoli” (165), “The Zombie in the Mirror” (176). Alive with what might be called xenopathy (other-feeling) and metapathy (beyond-feeling), the pages of Science Fiction, Alien Encounters, and the Ethics of Posthumanism ultimately guide the reader to a space where one discovers a reflective surface. What one finds in the depths of the reflective surface is not the grammatical subject (or even object) that one might expect, but rather a series of science-fictional pronouns.
What do I mean by a “science-fictional pronoun”? Science-fictional pronouns can assume various shapes under various circumstances. The first-person singular “I,” for instance, takes on a science-fictional charge (thereby becoming, in effect, a science-fictional pronoun) whenever it is placed immediately before a comma, a space, and the noun for something to which subjectivity is not ordinarily ascribed: “I, Robot,” “I, Vampire,” and so on. By contrast, the absence of pronouns such as “I” in the science-fictional language that Samuel R. Delany conjures in his novel Babel-17 (1966) virtually amounts to a science-fictional pronoun in itself. The plural first-person narration in (among other texts) William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” (1930) and Ed Park’s novel Personal Days (2008)—the subtle use of “we”/“ours”/“us”—elicits an eerie sense of other-humanly consciousness, consciousness distributed elusively across individual identities, consciousness disembodied (or perhaps meta-bodied), consciousness difficult to locate in space or in time. Meanwhile, in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We (1924), the central pronoun is not the first-person plural (as the title might suggest) but the square root of minus one—the imaginary number “i” that erupts from within D-503 (the narrator and protagonist of We) in a narrative voice identifiable as the square root of the negative first-person singular (or the √-1st-person singular). Hence the novel has an invisible and “unreal” subtitle: not “I, Robot,” but “i, D-503,” which is to say: “√-1, D-503.”
Although Elana Gomel does not present her argument in exactly these terms, Science Fiction, Alien Encounters, and the Ethics of Posthumanism is a book mindful of and preoccupied with science-fictional pronouns and pronouns more generally. “Torn between attraction and revulsion, we are watching the skies,” Gomel writes in “Invasions of Discourse Snatchers” (the opening of “Introduction: Why Do We need Aliens?”) before immediately interrogating her own use of the first-person plural: “‘We,’ perhaps, is the wrong pronoun to use here since it assumes the uniformity of audience and response” (1). The readership she has in mind, Gomel goes on to explain, consists of those of “us” who follow literary science fiction. Refreshingly, and mind-openingly, Gomel has “made a conscious choice” to analyze “less-known writers and texts,” among them Michael Bishop’s Transfigurations (1979), Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass (1989), Nancy Kress’s Steal Across the Sky (2009), Paul Park’s Celestis (1993), Housuke Nojiri’s Usurper of the Sun (2002), Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961),and Amy Thomson’s The Color of Distance (1995). As for the book’s purpose, Science Fiction, Alien Encounters, and the Ethics of Posthumanism “focuses on literary SF as a testing-ground for the ontological, epistemological, and especially ethical issues raised by the possibility of the existence of alien intelligence—entities that defy our cultural and psychological conflation of reason and humanity” (2). The “testing-ground,” however, is more than merely experimental: “While aliens may, or may not, exist,” Gomel writes, “the nonhuman is already here, inhabiting and undermining our most cherished verities of humanism. We need aliens because we are already alien to ourselves” (4). In other words, “we” and “we” (let alone “we” and “I” or “you”) are not identical. “We” does not equal “we.”
Through close readings that are engaging and rich in detail, Gomel probes the ethical implications of the above-mentioned non-equation. In particular, she investigates works of literary science fiction that defy the symmetrical ethics of reciprocity and challenge the “Golden Rule” referred to in the book’s subtitle. She draws attention, for example, to a giant “brotherhood in arms” in Adam Roberts’s novel New Modern Army (2010) that chants: “I, I, I, I, I, I, I am most myself when I am fighting” (qtd. 68). What kind of pronoun is claiming here to be most itself (himself? themselves?) when fighting? Does “I” count as human? If so (or even if not!), can he/it/they be held accountable for war crimes? Or (Gomel wonders) does the first-person singular “remain locked in the hall of mirrors where the ‘I’ fights its own shadows?” (68). Moreover, when the first-person singular is preceded by the word “the” (as it is in Gomel’s query above), does “I” not then transform into a third-person “it”? What if the grammatical third person is in fact another pronoun for the grammatical first person? What if consciousness—of other selves, of one’s own self—is unavailable for any kind of narrative experience? This last speculation is one that Gomel addresses with special astuteness. “The plot of alien infestation inscribes an intratextual transformation of a human being into an alien,” she writes:
Thus, it poses significant theoretical questions about the narrative representation of subjectivity. Narrative voice and focalization are the standard tools of such representation. Can these tools cope with an alien subjectivity located in a human body; that is, lacking the external, corporeal signs by which nonhumans are ordinarily marked in SF? And if they fail, what does this failure tell us about the limits of psychological realism and its underlying assumptions about human ontology? (95)
As Gomel argues persuasively, the brilliance of science fiction resides in its power to reveal “the basic disparity between the narrative techniques used to represent the human subject and the thematic concern with the posthuman.... Novels of alien infestation are textual sites where the narrative techniques of humanism splinter under the thematic impact of dealing with the ontological Other” (100). This may be the most striking lesson that Gomel’s provocative book has taught me: alien figures expose the rift between conventional narrative techniques and posthuman issues. Perhaps along similar lines, science-fictional pronouns expose the rift between conventional grammar and a posthuman ethical system—a system capable of comfortably answering questions such as “What if the Other is a moral agent but with a morality different from mine? What if compassion backfires when my own intuitions provide no clues to the desires and needs of my interlocutor? How do we navigate in a world where forms of agency are as multiform as the biological configurations of posthuman bodies?” (5). While such questions are not theoretical—cybernetic organisms, for example, already exist, and there have always been fundamental limits to the self’s ability to identify with the other—“posthumanism” remains more “theory” than “practice.” What will it take for posthumanism to become an applied way of life? Will it take a new science-fictional grammar? An alien invasion? Both?
—Seo-Young Chu, Queens College
Reinventing the Wheel.
Religion in Science Fiction: The Evolution of an Idea and the Extinction of a Genre. Scientific Studies of Religion: Inquiry and Explanation. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. ix + 225 pp. $112 hc.
As critical work on science fiction becomes more mainstream across multiple disciplines, we see more and more scholarship that does not take the disciplinary assumptions and well-worn thematic concerns of “science fiction studies” as its starting point. As a development this is, paradoxically, both very welcome and very frustrating: welcome in the sense that such new approaches have the potential to breathe new life into our sub-discipline, but frustrating in the sense that such work often feels like an unnecessary attempt to reinvent the wheel—or, perhaps worse yet, that it treats itself as a landmark expedition into virgin territory without taking any note whatsoever of the extensive work that has already been done in the field. Such as it is, for better and for worse, with Religion in Science Fiction, a book whose focus on the genre’s uses and abuses of religious thinking both benefits from and is significantly harmed by its independence from decades of sf scholarship. Neither the words “Suvin” nor “Jameson” appear anywhere in the text; “Le Guin” is mentioned only a few times in passing, once in a reference to her anthropologist father; “Atwood” appears only in the context of her famous frustration with the science-fiction label; nor is there any reference to Samuel R. Delany, Stanislaw Lem, James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon, Kim Stanley Robinson, Nalo Hopkinson, or any of a host of other writers who have rightly become inevitable references within our field.
This deeply odd principle of selection extends even to authors who would seem absolutely unavoidable touchstones for a book on this subject; Philip K. Dick, for instance, appears only in a footnote about the comparatively much more obscure Roger Zelazny—and even then the reference is to the book he co-wrote with Zelazny, Deus Irae (1976), rather than to VALIS (1978), or to Dick’s famously bizarre “Exegesis” of his own myriad mystical experiences. Isaac Asimov, president of the American Humanist Association and in some sense the poster child for the often tense relationship between science fiction and religion, barely appears in the text, primarily in the context of a close reading of the comparatively obscure story “Trends” (1939)—and his successor-president at the AHA, Kurt Vonnegut, again does not appear anywhere in the text at all.
This striking independence of Hrotic’s work from mainline “science fiction studies” sometimes produces interesting quirks in the text, like his creation of the opposing categories “gSF” (for genre SF, by which he means the literary, “niche” sf of specialist fandom) and “mSF” (mainstream SF, your blockbuster hits)—essentially a replication of Suvin’s decision to throw out “95%” of what is published as sf, a posture long since been reconsidered by the field—or his prolonged development of the term “metanarrative” to identify, in the end, exactly what Damien Broderick had already named the “megatext” twenty years ago. In other cases the lapses seem much more severe: it seems extremely hard to credit Hrotic’s claim that there has been no significant “evolution” of science fiction’s use of religion since The Sparrow (1996) with Robinson, Hopkinson, Atwood, and so many others still hard at work, much less to admit his final conclusion that the category he calls gSF—the very category on which SFS still publishes three times a year—has thus become “extinct” altogether!
The deep disjuncture between the form of Religion in Science Fiction and the subfield of scholarship to which it would seem most naturally at home is all the more regrettable insofar as much of the book in isolation is quite admirable, shining light on an area of sf that has perhaps become so naturalized to us that we do not talk much about it. With notable exceptions such as Clifford D. Simak—another author I find surprisingly underdiscussed in this treatment—science fiction of the so-called “Golden Age” really did generally predict the near-term extinction of religion, and really has proven to be spectacularly wrong on that account. And more recent science fiction really has had to come to terms with the persistence (and to a large extent radical resurgence) of religion, as it has to varyingly successful degrees in some of the more recent work Hrotic does take up late in the book (such as the aforementioned The Sparrow, or Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (2008), or Octavia E. Butler’s Parable novels [1993, 1998]).
Hrotic’s tracing of the contours of gSF over the decades also resurrects some unjustly neglected texts from authors who have tended to fall out of the familiar discursive habits of “science fiction studies,” such as Fred Barclay, Arthur Jones, and Leigh Brackett—authors we might very well take up and begin to read again, or perhaps read for the first time. Even Hrotic’s disciplinary standpoint as a cognitive anthropologist, as opposed to a literary critic or philosopher, marks his intervention as usefully distinct from our field’s usual patterns of inquiry; the approach is quite different from what we usually do, and quite usefully so, and the book surely worth reading. But I suspect many of Hrotic’s readers who originate within our academic sub-specialty will find themselves reading Religion in Science Fiction with the same sour mix of enjoyment and frustration I experienced, with the same bemused grimace on their faces, and with the same half-uttered “Okay, but what about…?” on the tips of their tongues.
—Gerry Canavan, Marquette University
Historicizing the Human.
Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2014. xi + 256 pp. $27.95 pbk.
The first image in Anatomy of a Robot, Despina Kakoudaki’s engaging new study on the “cultural work of artificial people,” occurs on the second page. In it, an anonymous technician stands over Yul Brynner’s disassembled head. Brynner’s face, as cleanly removed from the rest of the head as if it were nothing more than a protective plate, sits on the chest of his supine body as the technician attends to the head’s exposed circuitry, itself sandwiched between a clean white bedsheet and a black cowboy hat. This screenshot from Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld, taken before the robot’s haywire programming causes him to six-shoot his way to the junk bin, is an apt opener for a book that proposes to analyze the cultural significance of the robotic body, especially in terms of how such anatomies call attention to “interior” and “exterior” notions of physical functioning, to the often porous boundaries between public and private ownership, and to the complicated assumptions we have about individual identity. As this striking image of Brynner’s piecemeal cowboy suggests, the artificially constructed physiology functions as a stage upon which these tensions might play out. Kakoudaki excels at providing close-up examples of robotic bodies, such as this one, and using them to crystallize one of her most interesting arguments: “everything that usually takes place inside the body is externalized; processes of conception and gestation are transformed into visible and instantaneous events … technological promises of clarity and control” (29).
There is much to praise in Anatomy of a Robot. Through an introduction, four chapters, and a brief conclusion, Kakoudaki grapples with the cultural significance of artificial people across a great swath of time ranging from antiquity to the present day. She attempts to offer a transhistoric account of not just the physical appearances and functions that artificial bodies have possessed throughout the ages, but also a nuanced consideration of how such bodies—still—align with ancient and pre-modern philosophical notions of vitality, animism, and humanism.
The first chapter, a close reading of Frankenstein (1818), pays special attention to the novel’s embedded narrative form as well as its language of animation and de-animation. This is a fresh and original reading—no small feat for a text that has itself been animated, de-animated, and re-animated across different epochs of critical attention. Particularly convincing is the argument that Shelley’s “animating and de-animating language shifts between Victor and the monster numerous times” (36) and consequently creates a parallel between the human being and his artificial creation. From Frankenstein, Kakoudaki looks back to the Renaissance philosopher Paracelsus, and then even further back in time to Ovid’s Galatea, Hesiod’s Pandora, and the Old Testament account of creation. Through this genealogy, she demonstrates how moments of coming-into-consciousness prove that animation, rather than imitation or verisimilitude, is what vouchsafes the newly-conscious identity, a crucial insight for the line of reasoning that the second chapter explores.
In the second chapter, the author again reaches back to antiquity for her framework, not to Ovid or Hesiod this time, but to Aristotle. Again, her temporal scope is sweeping. After starting with an analysis of Ironman (2008), The Terminator (1984), Ghost in the Shell (1995), and other contemporary narratives about mechanical bodies, she returns to Aristotle. In Aristotle’s framework, the soul is not, as Plato would have it, a strange remnant of a transcendent realm, ultimately incompatible with physical reality. For Aristotle, the soul is quite conversely a thing that emerges in correspondence with—and even as a consequence of—physical laws. Aristotle’s hylomorphism, she argues, illuminates ancient notions of vitality and motion that persist to this day in discourse about artificial persons.
The third chapter moves away from robotic bodies per se, in order to discuss how narratives about artificial persons help clarify issues of human rights and social justice. Once again, her examples are wide-ranging in temporal scope. She begins with a reference to Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man” (1976), moves on to Blade Runner (1982), returns to Frankenstein, jumps forward to Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), and then takes us back to the text from which, arguably, all narratives about enslaved robots stem, Čapek’s R.U.R. (1920), demonstrating through these wide-ranging examples that enslaved robots often stand in for all-too-real-world practices of racial discrimination.
In her fourth and final chapter the author discusses several robot stories in the post-WWII environment that question subjective boundaries and, hence challenge the integrity of the human subject. Kakoudaki hopes through her analysis not simply to point out moments where anxiety about subjective dislocation occurs but also to prepare a way for us to think about how such stories might encourage a model of subjectivity that is not undermined by perceived threats to its cohesion. She begins with an analysis of Dick’s “Imposter” (1953), an excellent specimen of paranoia, linking it to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” (1816), Clifford Simak’s “Good Night, Mr. James” (1951), and Alfred Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit” (1954), among others.
As a whole, the book does a wonderful job of calling attention to long-enduring questions about what it means to be a human being and makes a strong case for the importance of historicizing them. With that said, the problem of historicizing is one from which the book at times suffers. In the introduction, Kakoudaki positions her transhistoric approach in contrast to other critical studies that have attempted to draw a through-line between pre-modern, modern, and contemporary works of art that deal with similar issues. Such works, she contends, are so focused on making connections between fictional works and contemporary scientific practice that they fail to pay attention to the larger historic contexts that inform them and suffer from a “voracious ahistoricizing” (14). A transhistoric approach would be welcome for the reasons she provides, but in practice her approach is more selectively historic than it is transhistoric, and it is often unclear why certain texts and time periods get more attention than others.
The theoretical framework that she employs instead—in her own words, a structuralist approach informed by Vladimir Propp and Claude Lévi-Strauss (26)—often forecloses more urgent and contemporary matters in favor of tracing the “isomorphic” narrative patterns that occur in stories about artificial persons across time (41). Such an approach is surprising, given that the author is clearly very interested in tracing contemporary problems. Her chapter on the depictions of robotic enslavement is timely and urgent. And yet here is where her sweeping trans-historicizing falls most short. The author reads Asimov’s “Bicentennial Man” as an allegory of American slavery and then moves on to discuss slavery in relation to the class-conscious satire that is R.U.R. To be sure, these are not mutually exclusive readings; however, by moving from a reading of the historically specific practice of American slavery to another, wholly distinct form of oppression as it was viewed and criticized in the tumultuous pre-Soviet Czechoslovakia era (the “enslavement” of a workforce within a capitalist context), the author elides extremely important differences and subsumes them all under the term of “metalfacing,” a term that at once references blackface and erases racial difference.
There is also throughout Anatomy of a Robot a peculiar lack of engagement with other critical works that have taken on similar topics. For example, Jessica Riskin’s Science in the Age of Sensibility (2002) gets only the briefest of mentions. This is surprising, given that text’s detailed analysis of Madame du Coudray’s eighteenth-century “birthing machine,” an object that would have helped complicate Kakoudaki’s description of the “artificial birth” in chapter one, and that same author’s analysis of Jacques Vacaunson’s defecating duck, which reveals its inventor’s fascination not merely with verisimilitude but also with the animation and re-creation of physical bodily functioning. Additionally, the chapter on slavery makes no mention of Kevin Lagrandeur’s Androids and Intelligent Networks in Early Modern Literature and Culture (2012), which goes all the way back, as Kakoudaki does, to Aristotle. Finally, given the author’s ambition to look back to the past to help conceive of “new” ways to think about identity in the present, especially in terms of how artificial persons trouble the boundary between lived experience and inert material, it would have been useful to provide more than only a quick, offhand reference to “thing criticism” (16). A discussion of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010), which also reaches back to the past in order to inform the present, would have been welcome, as would any number of other works within the field of Object-Oriented Ontology or Actor Network Theory.
If one can set these concerns aside, one can more readily accept the important, even profound, insights that Anatomy of a Robot offers. As Kakoudaki writes in her final chapter, “whatever we imagine the artificial person to be, that is what we know or suspect that we are” (211). In other words, the great strength of Kakoudaki’s new study is not only its lucid demonstration that the robot—that quintessentially modern, constructed, human-made entity—has a pre-modern history, but also that this history is eerily and inextricably tied up with our own.
—Lisa Swanstrom, Florida Atlantic University
No Fantasy after Auschwitz?
The Fantastic in Holocaust Literature and Film: Critical Perspectives. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014. x + 232 pp. $40 pbk.
Theodor Adorno famously prohibited imaginative representation of the Holocaust (“no poetry after Auschwitz”). Seldom has a prohibition been more honored in the breach than in the observance. In 1967 George Steiner wrote that the “world of Auschwitz lies outside speech”—and violated the rule himself in his 1981 novella The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. in which a speech about “the world of Auschwitz” is delivered by its miraculously resurrected creator, Adolf Hitler himself. Other writers, artists, and critics who in various ways echoed Steiner’s statement were Elie Wiesel, Claude Lanzmann, Berel Lang, and Dominick LaCapra. And like Steiner, they all proceeded to speak of Auschwitz, often at great length, as in Lanzmann’s monumental documentary Shoah (1985).
This paradox lies at the heart of this collection. On the one hand, the Holocaust is seen as such an exceptional event that it commands artistic restraint. On the other hand, its very exceptionality challenges the imagination. In his chapter, Eric Sterling summarizes the attitude that would censor the very body of works to which the collection is dedicated: “because creativity, art, and language cannot adequately express the suffering and horrific acts during the Holocaust, it is better to say nothing and be respectfully silent” (51). But the ever-growing volume of Holocaust literature and cinema demonstrates that the more we are asked to be silent, the more we are inclined to speak. And moreover, like Steiner, we speak in fables and fantasies.
Critics have often argued that realism is the only morally respectful way to relate to the suffering of the victims. Berel Lang insisted that Holocaust literature must be “prosaic,” “non-figurative,” and “authentic” (84). But in fact, Holocaust literature and film tend to the fantastic, the science-fictional, or the grotesque. Famous examples abound, from Art Spiegelman’s comic book Maus (1980-1991) and Robert Harris’s alternative-history Fatherland (1992) to Quentin Tarrantino’s burlesque Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Martin Amis’s time-reversal fantasy Time’s Arrow (1991). In fact, the mutual attraction of the Nazi genocide and fantasy makes it unique among historical atrocities. This collection barely scratches the surface of its theme, yet a volume on the fantastic in representations of, say, the Gulag or the Great Leap Forward would run out of texts to discuss pretty quickly.
One would expect this collection to engage with this cultural paradox. But instead it is still trying to answer the question asked by Gary K. Wolfe in his Introduction: “can the Holocaust be represented with sensitivity and historical verisimilitude in an imaginative mode”? (7) Every single essay debates whether the texts it discusses are ethically “legitimate.” Some contributors, such as Joan Gordon in her discussion of Maus, frankly acknowledge their own moral ambivalence. Others, such as Judith Kerman in her overview of uses of the fantastic in Holocaust literature, unenthusiastically endorse the genre because it can “provide serviceable approaches, however partial” to understanding the enigma of the atrocity (23). Still others, such as Michael McCleary in the essay that was the impetus for the present volume (it appeared in a special issue of The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts in 1993 devoted to the topic), go further in arguing that “not only is the fantastic appropriate for depicting the Holocaust, it may indeed be, paradoxically, the most ‘natural’ way to represent this age of extremity” (27). But besides pointing out that there was something “apocalyptic” about the event, he does not explain why this should be so.
Some solutions are offered by other contributors. In his essay on Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (2002), Paul Eisenstein suggests that Holocaust fantasies underscore the human freedom to make ethical choices. But such an anodyne conclusion tells us very little about the imaginative pull of the Holocaust as a specific historical event. In several essays dealing with Jane Yolen’s young-adult Holocaust fantasies, The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988) and Briar Rose (1992), Ellen R. Weil, Vandana Saxena, and Carol A. Senf suggest that these novels fulfill an essentially pedagogical function by combating forgetfulness and/or indifference. But the question remains: why the fantastic?
Jane Yolen herself, in her brief Foreword to the volume, suggests an answer. Rather than discussing her own writings, she talks about the German fairy tale of Rumpelstilskin and argues that it is a covert anti-Semitic allegory. Yolen’s Foreword shifts the emphasis from the experience of the victims to the motives of the perpetrators, from trauma to ideology. Wolfe makes a similar point when he reminds us how the “the whole self-imposed myth of Nazism” generated a body of fantastic and science-fictional literature before the Holocaust became a historical benchmark—indeed, before the Holocaust even happened (9).
The exceptionality of the Holocaust lies not so much in its atrocity as in its phantasmagoric genesis. Motivated by a delusionary racial anthropology, it is the purest (though not the only) example of an ideological genocide, in which the perpetrators impose a fantasy of their own making upon the reality of their victims. It is this aspect of the Nazi genocide that obsessed Stanislaw Lem, himself a Holocaust survivor, and that was brilliantly exposed in Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (1972), in which an alternative-history Hitler writes the history of the Third Reich as a Tolkienesque fantasy novel (unfortunately neither Lem nor Spinrad is discussed in this collection).
The issue of the Holocaust as an ideological atrocity is addressed indirectly in some of the essays in the collection. Leon Stein discusses the representation of Nazism in Stephen King’s novella “Apt Pupil” (1982) but eventually faults King for focusing too much on the perpetrators rather than the victims. In the essay dedicated to the 1980s TV serial V (1983-85), John Edgar Browning touches on the intriguing question of the “teratology” of Nazism: the way in which the Nazi has become a monster figure, merging with the traditional icons of the zombie and the vampire. But while this trend is noted, it is not theorized.
Ultimately it seems that the prescriptive still overwhelms the descriptive in this collection. Kristopher Mecholsky in his essay on Martin Scorcese’s movie Stutter Island (2010) reiterates Adorno’s injunction: “It would seem that in the case of Holocaust narratives meant to reach a wide audience, ‘authenticity’ … may be impossible. Not only might such attempts be in ‘bad taste,’ they may be unethical and immoral” (178). This implies, as do the arguments of Lang, LaCapra, and others, that the only ethical approach to trauma is emotional rather than intellectual. But arguably, in focusing on the pain of the victims rather than the responsibility of the perpetrators, we reify the actual historical event of the Holocaust into a mystical icon. The search for “authenticity” becomes profoundly inauthentic.
We cannot do justice to the victims by trying to relive their suffering. But we can make sure that we understand why they suffered in the first place. Fantastic literature and cinema have a special role in exposing the ideological phantasm that caused the Nazi genocide. Unfortunately, the essays collected in this volume have little to say about it.
—Elana Gomel, Tel-Aviv University
Fierce, Intelligent, Passionate Engagements.
Call and Response. Essex, UK: Beccon, 2014. 381 pp. £16 pbk.
Paul Kincaid began writing reviews for the British Science Fiction Association’s magazine Vector in the late 1970s, later moving on to venues as diverse as the Times Literary Supplement, Bookslut, Foundation, Interzone, and this very journal, as well as writing a number of entries for reference works. He has long been one of the more thoughtful and informed contributors to that non-academic, essentially belletristic tradition of sf criticism that has always seemed to flourish more in the UK and Australia than in the US, which means that an understanding of his critical methodology has to be derived mostly from shorter pieces such as reviews rather than from extended monographs or theoretical essays. Fortunately, England’s tiny Beccon Publications has made available a generous selection of these shorter pieces, as they have done previously for John Clute and (full disclosure) myself. Call and Response is Kincaid’s second collection for Beccon. The first, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, appeared in 2008 and was organized into broadly thematic categories (“Theory,” “Practice,” “Britain,” etc., with individual sections on only two authors, Christopher Priest and Gene Wolfe). That inevitably involved a bit of shoehorning, as disparate essays and reviews, most not written with the idea of developing a single cohesive argument, were more or less fitted together like puzzle pieces that do not quite reveal a big picture at the end.
Call and Response seems to me to be organized in a much more straightforward and useful way, simply author by author. Kincaid covers 27 authors, mostly through reviews but with a few pieces drawn from Kincaid’s contributions to Masterplots and Richard Bleiler’s Supernatural Fiction Writers (1985), and a few not previously published anywhere. In addition, three essays focus on various kinds of anthologies: best-of-the-year annuals (including his widely discussed review of the 2012 annuals, where he questions whether sf has reached a state of “exhaustion”), anthologies purporting to make everything new again (The New Space Opera [2007; ed. Gardner Dozois], The New Weird [2008; ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer], The New Wave Fabulists [2002; ed. Bradford Morrow and Peter Straub], The New Uncanny [2009; ed. Sarah Eyre and Ra Page]), and anthologies meant to reconsider historical developments (Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology [2007; ed. John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly], The Secret History of Science Fiction [2009; ed. John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly], The Secret History of Fantasy [2010; ed. Peter Beagle]). These overviews, which often touch upon classic stories that show up in such anthologies, afford Kincaid an opportunity to provocatively question some of the widely accepted views of the genre, including the idea that it has a single coherent history, let alone a “secret history.” And as for the “new,” Kincaid tends to view such collections as largely “genre propaganda.” Citing Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint’s concept of “enrolment,” he writes that “If a work is science fiction, then it has to be claimed for the heartland because otherwise it might drift away in the on-going boundary changes and be lost forever” (230).
And yet Kincaid himself does not hesitate to look outside the traditional genre in order to find insights about it. What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction included a fine piece on the work of Steven Millhauser, and Call and Response includes an equally substantial series of pieces on Paul Auster, including Kincaid’s entry on Auster from Bleiler’s Supernatural Fiction Writers. Obviously, entries originally written with the more or less generic constraints of reference works such as Masterplots (there are only a handful) are less personal than Kincaid’s reviews or journal essays, but they have the advantage of providing a contextual overview of the author’s work that individual reviews cannot. By combining such an overview essay with three reviews of Steve Erickson novels, for example, Kincaid produces what is the most enlightening overview I have seen of the work of this author’s rather intimidating output. And the same might be said of Kincaid’s treatment of his close friend Christopher Priest, which begins with a reader’s guide called “Christopher Priest 101,” providing a thorough grounding for a section that otherwise includes only two novel reviews and two pieces on the film of The Prestige (2006).
With other authors—presented in simple alphabetical order—Kincaid tries to provide such overviews with brief introductions to each section but faces the unavoidable problem that no working reviewers for multiple venues can cover everything, or cover what they do in a systematic manner. (It is a problem I myself am all too familiar with.) So it would be a mistake to expect a summative essay on Brian Aldiss, when what we get are short reviews of two novels, two story collections, and one nonfiction collection, scattered over more than two decades. But this is enough to build a portrait of a writer who, in Kincaid’s term, has always been “restless,” and Kincaid’s insights into, for example, Aldiss’s affinity for Thomas Hardy or the novel HARM (2007), which Kincaid likes slightly better than I did, are undeniably useful in approaching this author’s work. Similarly, Gene Wolfe is covered only in books published since 2007 (including a disappointingly brief review of The Best of Gene Wolfe ); but the best pieces here, reviews of An Evil Guest (2008) and Home Fires (2010), deserve to be regarded as among the more salient approaches to Wolfe’s later work, which has barely begun to make a dent in academic considerations of sf’s arguably most significant writer. There is also occasional attention paid to critical or nonfiction works; the section on H.G. Wells includes reviews of three critical studies, a biography, and David Lodge’s novel about Wells, A Man of Parts (2011). The result is less an overview of Wells than a somewhat spotty but insightful discussion of the difficulties modern readers and scholars still have in trying to make sense of Wells’s many facets.
But this sort of scattershot approach, as much as anything, is the chief value to scholars of review and essay collections such as this. Kincaid may not cover the standard canon of Philip K. Dick, but when he points out that the dread and incipient paranoia of characters from his early mainstream novels prefigure his more classic sf works, it is an invaluable insight for any student of Dick. His view of Jon Courtenay Grimwood as a postcolonial writer should be brought to the attention of all students of the many recent variations on postcolonial fiction, since Grimwood is one of those important authors who seems to escape academic attention. And when Kincaid recounts his enthusiasm in discovering new writers such as Christopher Barzak or Ian McDonald, he is sharing one of the great thrills of the front-line encounters with literature that are the stuff of reviewers’ lives. There are, of course, plenty of assessments here that one could take issue with—if there were not, the book would hardly be a significant work of criticism—and there is an inevitable piecemeal effect when you try to read the book from beginning to end, but the individual pieces are marked by a fierce, intelligent, and passionate engagement with the field that marks Kincaid as one of our most reliable critics.
—Gary K. Wolfe, Roosevelt University
More—and Less—of the Same.
Deep Ends: The J.G. Ballard Anthology 2014. Toronto: Terminal P, 2014. 198 pp. $39.99 hc; $24.99 pbk.
Last year, Pedro Groppo’s review of The J.G. Ballard Book (2013) for this journal considered the collection a “grab bag,” containing “all sorts of things, none of which could be considered essential” (SFS 41.2 [July 2014]: 450) Deep Ends, editor Rick McGrath’s second Ballard anthology in as many years, could be described using the same language, but even more so, and much less politely. Most will find something to like here, but that may be as much as to say that everyone will find something to dislike, from the tonal inconsistency to the elevation of minutiae to the status of esoterica-plus. Some quality art and incisive essays will recommend this to the Ballard completist, but it ultimately exists as a sort of unnecessary B-side to The J.G. Ballard Book, itself a shadow of the forward-looking concept-art piece that was 1984’s RE/Search issue on Ballard.
The first problem with this offering is its stated main attraction. Whereas the 2013 collection boasted “over 60 pages of handwritten JGB memorabilia” from the collection of Ballard biographer James Goddard, as well as personal letters between Ballard and McGrath, the analogous draw in Deep Ends is “a previously unknown Ballard composition called Crystal of the Sea,” the foreword to a book of Japanese art-photography, which McGrath straight-facedly describes as “the first hieroglyph in the deep of any large, drained swimming pool of a book” (6). The great discovery, two columns of New Age prose-poetry on page 33, would be best forgotten as it represents Ballard at his most ineffectual. To wit: “After the infinite dimensions of the sea, we realise that space is flat, and that its apparent limitless depth is in fact an illusion, a dream of our waking minds. A powdery light clings to our waists, the crystal of the sea dissolves in a silken froth,” etc. (33). This is not representative of the Ballard of 1980, nor of any time in his career. Far from being essential, it represents the current state of picked-overness in critical treatments of Ballard, right along with interviewer David Pringle’s long-winded attempts to coax Fay Ballard into pinpointing the exact locations visited by her father on family trips to Europe during her childhood, or trying to make obscure biographical connections between Ballard’s schoolmates and his written work (“Even if you don’t recall hearing the name Helliwell, do you remember your father ever referring to an old school friend who had died in a crash?”  She did not.).
I suppose my distaste for this type of generalized privileging of trivial ephemera (Volume 3 will no doubt come with fingernail clippings) is ultimately personal; however, that it is done in the name of an author whose work repeatedly eschews the personal for the archetypal is especially bothersome. The concept of the “assemblage” is deployed throughout the anthology as an oblique self-justification, but there is a difference between Ballard’s aggregation of the signifiers of a techno-corporatist media landscape in service to work that is ultimately conceptual, and depersonalized, and digging through the rubbish bin of his personal history. It is not wholly a waste of time: Bea Ballard, for example, shares amusing anecdotes about her adoption of the gerbil-impostor “Ratty George” (10), and of her father’s surprisingly sure-handed single-parenting of his teenage daughters (12).
Ultimately, what succeeds in this anthology are the artworks and some of the critical essays. Ana Barrado’s photo-series, “Neotropic Cyphers,” immediately follows “Crystal of the Sea” and almost redeems it through stark post-apocalyptic images of coastal mundanity, photos taken in Florida but seeming as if they were ripped from Ballard’s own mind. The editor includes high-quality images of Feroze Alam’s “Landscapes of the Dream” series, paintings inspired by scenes from or titles of Ballard’s works, which are like the movie posters for Ballard books you never knew you wanted. Less successful are the interpolations of Atrocity Exhibition-inspired “advertisements” throughout the collection, as these seem designed merely to copy the form, not the spirit, of the originals, a spirit captured more effectively in variously entertaining prose parodies by D. Harlan Wilson (“Geometry of Mourning”) and Christopher Cokinos (“Why I want to Fuck Rupert Murdoch”).
It is hard to say whether the collection’s tonal inconsistency is a result of the materials available to the editor or his decision to include everything he found. The shift from the biographical to the critical appears to be signaled by Umberto Rossi’s unwieldy, long-form “Is the War Inside Your Mind” (97) about halfway through, but even after this the stronger entries tend to be the more pop-critical short essays on beloved Ballard works, such as Paul Green’s “Dreaming of the Towers” (120) on Ballard’s enigmatic “The Watch-Towers” (1962), and Cokinos’s “Book Review, Meet JG Ballard” (156) on A User’s Guide to the Millenium (1996), a collection of book reviews and brief essays (including the by-now classic New Worlds manifesto “Which Way to Inner Space?” ). Rounding out this selection of academic and non-academic pieces are forgettable interviews with artists loosely inspired by Ballard’s work, and a few very good scene/shot analyses of the films Shanghai Jim (1991) and Empire of the Sun (1987), by Pippa Tandy and Pedro Groppo, respectively.
No doubt the target demographic of serious Ballard aficionados will appreciate this collection, and the editor should be commended for gathering in one volume a few of these pieces that previously existed scattered across the ’net, but none of this is essential, and none of these critical thoughts or biographical facts are unavailable elsewhere—2013’s The J.G. Ballard Book might be a good place to start.
In D. Harlan Wilson’s faux-biographical style-parody “Geometry of Mourning,” there is an uncanny moment of Ballard-mythologizing that archetypally sums up our obsessive fascination with the trinkets and ephemera surrounding the massive void his passing left in the world: “There is only one giant, however, drowned like a jungle yeti, beached like a white whale…. Bystanders and scientists and police officers observe and inspect the marvel…. Tourists huddled on the dunes stare through binoculars with expressions of shocked reserve…. Then the giant is ‘stripped of all flesh’; and remembered not as a Nephilim but as a ‘large sea beast.’ Soon no collective memory of the giant remains” (81). That anthologies like this one represent a pitched battle against such disappearances is no doubt true; it would be better, however, to not only care for the memories entrusted to us, but also to be more discerning about the new myths we assemble in this literary giant’s absence.
—Michael Jarvis, University of California, Riverside
Revisiting Bradbury’s Mars.
Orbiting Ray Bradbury’s Mars: Biographical, Anthropological, Literary, Scientific and Other Perspectives. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014. ix + 253 pp. $40 pbk.
As heralded by the title, this anthology focuses on Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) through interdisciplinary approaches to his canon, conscientiously homing in on biographical, anthropological, literary, scientific, and educational aspects of his work. From the alien deserts of Arizona to the remote trenches of Mars, Bradbury’s sf tales emphasize the parallels between the Western frontier and the final frontier. The similarities between American and Martian terrain highlight the colonizing fantasies of our expansionist civilization, decisively establishing the author as a forerunner in social-critical and ecocritical themes within science fiction. These essays, through varied perspectives, effectively illuminate Bradbury’s critical vision and his biographically influenced cosmology.
The anthology begins by detailing Bradbury’s formative years growing up in the American Southwest. The contributors utilize the trope of Western expansion to identify recurring themes within his work and, indeed, within science fiction itself. The essays primarily concern themselves with issues of alienation and Otherness; however, like Bradbury’s stories, they subvert boundaries by crossing over into multiple fields of inquiry. A distinguished cast of scholars contributes to this powerful and intricately knit exploration. Some, such as Jonathan R. Eller and Wolf Forrest, reveal obscure details of Bradbury’s fascination with geographical isolation and his “excitement of exploration” as a boy (21). Exploring the dawning of his writing talents and awareness of the universe’s vastness and mystery, Eller and Forrest show how Bradbury’s omnivorous reading of classic works of fantasy in Depression-era Arizona created the blueprint for a social consciousness expressed through science fiction.
In addition to noting the geographical analogies in Bradbury’s work, many of the contributors pay special attention to his commentaries on cultural marginalization. Some of the anthology’s strongest essays—such as Marleen S. Barr’s “Prescient Border Crossing,” Adam Lawrence’s “A ‘Night Meeting’ in the Southwest,” and Francisco Laguna-Correa’s “Illustrating Otherness”—meticulously deconstruct the invisibility and social paradox of the native “alien” within his own homeland in Bradbury’s short stories. This section provides a strong anthropological foundation for the remainder of the volume’s essays. Those that employ a literary lens invoke the Southwest through critiques of realism (Aaron Barlow’s “Loss in the Language of Tomorrow”), the American Dream (Kimberly Fain’s “Bradbury’s Mars”), and the “frontier process” of ecological conquest (Christopher Cokinos’ “The Desert is Earth and Mars”).
The interdisciplinary aspect of these essays becomes even more apparent in subsequent sections. Ari Espinoza’s “Why Does Mars Beckon Us?”—along with David M. Acklam’s “The Exploration of Mars,” Charles L. Dugan, Jr.’s “A Martian Chronicle,” and Christopher P. McKay and Carol Stoker’s “The Naming of Names”—pinpoints the physical parallels between burgeoning scientific knowledge of Mars and Bradbury’s descriptions of the Red Planet. And, in yet another analytic shift, Paul Cote (in “De-Alienating the Alien”), Howard Allen (in “The Illustrated Man Illustrates Our Future”), and Martin R. Hall (in “Silver Locusts on the Silver Screen”) investigate the transference of Bradbury’s social commentary to cinema and television. Despite this range of approaches, each essay complements and builds upon preceding themes, so that the authors at times appear to directly address each other’s arguments (and some actually do interact as part of the book’s “conversation”). McMillan, as editor, rounds out the contributions by concluding with a reflection on her Tucson students’ responses to classes themed around Bradbury as a local author who conscientiously defamiliarizes Western expansion and historical definitions of human progress.
This anthology would be a valuable academic resource for teaching The Martian Chronicles or as a companion text in courses that incorporate a humanities approach to science and anthropology. Each essay is packed with astute analysis and extensive research. Navigating the sf master’s migratory status as a “generic border crosser par excellence” (41) and a pioneering genre explorer, the book provides a lasting contribution to Bradbury studies.
—Paris Brown, University of California, Riverside
Post- and Transhumanism: An Introduction. Beyond Humanism: Trans- and Posthumanism. New York: Peter Lang, 2014. 313 pp. $51.95 hc.
In the Paradiso, Dante retells the Greek myth of the fisherman Glaucus, who, when granted a boon by the gods, “transhumanates”—i.e., becomes a god himself. Dante may have been punning on the Italian transumanza—literally “between earths”—in which shepherds guide their flocks between hillsides and valleys according to the shifting seasons. Thus Glaucus’s apotheosis mirrors Dante’s spiritual journey, moving from Hell to Heaven. With the Commedia, rooted in medieval Christianity, enlightenment was a spiritual, religious affair. With the ascendancy of the scientific revolution, enlightenment became true knowledge of the world; the human, no longer an image of God, would instead be defined by ideals, achieved by improving oneself through one’s actions and knowledge. In time, as education has improved not only knowledge, but also the capacity for artifice, our powers to manipulate the physical world have come to include the power to change ourselves.
The present volume examines the heritage of both the scientific and the spiritual concepts of enlightenment, as expressed in the two apparently similar (though in fact quite distinct) terms “posthumanism” and “transhumanism” —the former a critical approach, the latter a techno-utopian ideology. Added to the confusion that they are often used interchangeably, posthumanism is a term so contested that several of the authors append modifiers to distinguish it further: cultural, critical, philosophical, and speculative posthumanisms. Some say transhumanism is merely a subset of posthumanism, and others that transhumanists speak of the posthuman as a future state of being, achieved when a period of physical and spiritual transition (transcendence, transgression) is past. One thing is clear, however: at stake is the “human”; where the transhumanists place their faith in the Enlightenment’s humanistic ideals as a transcendental truth, to ground our species’ future technological evolution, posthumanism takes to heart Foucault’s suggestion that the human is a discursive category, historically situated and soon to be overcome.
The book is intended to serve as an introduction to the topics of post- and transhumanism, as well as to be the first book in a series from the publisher, Beyond Humanism: Trans- and Posthumanism. It is divided into five sections and 19 chapters, as well as an introductory chapter. The sections are “Confessions,” “Lands of Cockaygne,” “Neo-Socratic Reflections,” “Ontologies of Becoming,” and “Paragone of the Arts.”
The first section opens with co-editor Stefan Lorenz Sorgner’s “Pedigrees,” which provides a “general philosophical map” (18) of the two -humanisms, the first of a series of definitions that, over the course of the book, becomes repetitive. Sorgner also takes the opportunity to argue for his own version of humanism, “metahumanism,” which combines the strengths of both trans- and posthumanism—the prefix meta, meaning both “between” and “after” semantically unifies the two. Hava Tirosh Samuelson’s chapter on “Religion” highlights the influences of religion on transhumanism, with particular emphasis on the eschatological, highlighting Julian Huxley’s spiritualism. Huxley, who first used the word “transhumanism” in a manner similar to its contemporary meaning, spent much of his life championing what he eventually came to call “evolutionary humanism,” aiming to preserve a moral dimension in a secularized world. In Trijsje Franssen’s “Prometheus: Performer or Transformer?,” the myth of the Titan who stole fire from the gods is used as a framing device to examine how the two -humanisms differ from classical humanism—and each other. Posthumanism is performative, while transhumanism is, appropriately, transformative, though cryptically this means the two philosophies are “post-humanist and posthuman-ist” (81-82; emphasis in original). Yunus Tuncel’s chapter on “Nietzsche” analyzes the philosopher’s importance and inspiration for the two -humanisms, providing an interesting overview of how a single philosopher has inspired such different yet similar approaches. As Tuncel acknowledges, however, “there are many philosophers or philosophical movements that have inspired these movements” (83), and unfortunately for such a philosophically oriented collection, Nietzsche is the only philospher who is examined at chapter length.
The next section examines the role of technological utopias, and Michael Hauskeller’s “Utopia” contrasts the transhumanists’ technological utopian visions with the posthumanists’ scepticism of both progressive narratives and the supposed superiority of humans. The following two chapters take on specific transhumanist utopias. Curtis D. Carbonell’s “Brave New World” offers a revisionist reading of Aldous Huxley’s classic 1932 novel, with a revisionist reading, adding nuance to the commonplace view of the novel as a warning of a technocratic future. Carbonell argues that Huxley’s satire shows both upsides and downsides of enhancement, while castigating the supposed virtues of a state of nature. Sascha Dickel and Andreas Frewer’s “Life Extension: Eternal Debates on Immortality” discusses a specifically transhumanist topic, describing the numerous proposed methods for life extension—nanotechnology, mind uploading, cryonics—as well as a brief overview of the arguments given for and against such extension, finally questioning whether any immortal being could still be considered human.
In “Neo-Socratic Reflections,” James Hughes’s chapter on “Politics” reflects his own organizing role within the transhumanist scholars’ community. Hughes defends transhumanism from the accusation that its adherents are mostly anarcho-capitalist libertarians, and uses the opportunity to promote the post-gender possibilities that novel technologies can lead to, claiming that, while posthumanists seek to dismantle old-fashioned binaries through critique, transhumanists are more active in trying to bring about a post-gendered society. Robert Ranisch’s “Morality” is more sober and, while remarking that there “is no comprehensive transhumanist morality or moral theory” (148), identifies ten claims of transhumanist morality to point out a tension between individual freedom and perfectionism. Ranisch’s discussion is grounded in the debate on human enhancement in bioethics, and effectively uses posthumanism to critique certain claims concerning human exceptionalism and the morality of enhancement.
Thomas D. Philbeck’s chapter “Ontology” engages with a central point on which transhumanism and posthumanism differ: dualism. Stressing the importance of modern technology for the question, Philbeck’s analysis shows that transhumanism seeks to amplify and preserve the traditional split between “large ontological structures such as ‘mind’ and ‘body’” (178), while posthumanist approaches question the validity of this ontological claim, concluding that while transhumanism has an outdated ontological framework, posthumanism is yet to come up with a satisfying alternative. In “Nature,” Martin G. Weiss furthers the philosophical argument to show that nature itself is a contested term that the -humanisms approach differently: where transhumanism seeks to escape nature, posthumanism would define it away. Particularly central to transhumanist ideology is that (post)humanity’s future will come about through an evolution directed through technology. In “Evolution,” Steve Fuller outlines an idiosyncratic evolutionary attitude, while categorically distinguishing posthumanism and transhumanism “on a point of logic”; for Fuller, “posthumanism is anti-humanist, while transhumanism is ultra-humanist” (201; emphasis in original). Fuller aligns the two with, respectively, Darwinian and Lamarckian theories of evolution, and while not taking sides outright, Fuller clearly sees the transhumanists’ intentional attitude towards evolution as the better of the two, citing recent years’ discoveries in epigenetics as a return to Lamarckism in biology.
The final section, “Paragone of the Arts,” constitutes five chapters, though with some overlap among the contributions. Andy Miah’s “Bioart” and Evi Sampanikou’s “New Media Art,” for instance, both refer to artists such as Stelarc and Eduardo Kac, but where Miah delves deeper into the explorations of enhancement and biological experimentation among certain recent artists, Sampanikou distinguishes between posthumanism and transhumanism as distinct artistic disciplines, combining a thorough knowledge of critical theory with a historical view on the development of posthumanist art. Similarly, the two chapters on literature, Marcus Rockoff’s “Literature” and Domna Pastourmatzi’s “Science-fiction Literature,” are arguably both about science fiction, but Rockoff uses readings of specific works as points of departure for discussions about the philosophical issues attendant to the -humanisms, while Pastourmatzi ably reviews the larger field of (primarily) novels that engage with technological enhancement. Transhumanist themes have become increasingly popular in cinema in recent years, and Dónal P. O’Mathúna therefore restricts his discussion of film to the mainstream, also bringing up the theme of embodiment, which, while central to posthumanist discourse, is only cursorily touched upon in other chapters. In the final chapter, on “Music,” Sorgner rehearses his philosophical distinctions, also stressing the performative aspect of metahumanism. Sorgner approaches the question of post- or transhumanist music first by looking, though cursorily, at how new musical technologies enable new ways of extending the human in creation. Sorgner’s main approach, however, is to study a selection of pieces—classical and modern—thematically, in showing how music becomes an essential part of the whole work in films and operas.
Throughout the book, the similarities between post- and transhumanism, even while they both engage with the emergent technologies of our age, are revealed to be superficial. I would have liked to see greater engagement with the technologies that these -humanisms, whether in breathless anticipation or concerned detachment, engage with, as the definitions are repetitively rehearsed in nearly every chapter, even as their similarities and differences vary according to the chapter author. One of the chapter authors even claims that transhumanism is a “philosophical posthumanism” and posthumanism is a “cultural posthumanism,” though it seems to me that the roles are in fact the reverse, as the former promotes a culture of enhancement, using philosophy as an argumentative prop, whereas the latter engages critically with the questions that are posed by modern technologies.
Dante took Glaucus’s story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. There, an overarching theme is that everything will and must change—and that we are powerless to control it. As this book reveals, transhumanism is, paradoxically, a doctrine that insists on preserving a human essence, all the while fetishizing change itself. Posthumanism, however, questions whether there is any such thing as the human to change at all.
—Hallvard Haug, Birkbeck College, University of London
Hidden Gods Revealed.
Les Dieux cachés de la science-fiction française et francophone (1950-2010) [The Hidden Gods of French and Francophone SF, 1950-2010]. Bordeaux: Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, coll. Eidôlon, 2014. 315 pp. 23€ pbk.
As I previously pointed out in a book review called “Good News from France” (SFS 40.3 [Nov. 2013]: 534-39), since 2012 there has been a growing corpus of top-notch criticism about sf generally—and Francophone sf in particular—being published in France and Québec. And what is especially notable about this development is where this scholarship is being published and who is producing it. Challenging a very long tradition of resistance to the study of sf in the academy, professors and graduate students at a number of universities in France and Québec are now leading the charge. And their university presses are joining the ranks. This book gathers together the papers given at an academic conference on sf—one of the first of its kind—that took place at the Université de Bordeaux in November 2012. A companion volume, called C’était demain [It Was Tomorrow] and focusing on Francophone sf from 1890 to 1950, is scheduled to appear in 2016; it will collect the papers from another academic conference on sf that took place at the Université du Québec in Chicoutimi in October 2013. Both conferences and the resulting publications were organized by the CLARE group of the Université de Bordeaux Montaigne, the University of New Brunswick, and the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC).
The title of the present volume refers to the famous book Le Dieu caché: étude sur la vision tragique dans les Pensées de Pascal et dans le théâtre de Racine [The Hidden God: A Study of Tragic Vision in the Pensées of Pascal and the Theater of Racine, 1955] by the Marxist-humanist Lucien Goldmann. In it he explores the “hidden” world-views that shaped the creative work of these two iconic writers of the French literary tradition. Further clarifying this intertextual reference, in a preface called “Au commencement étaient la religion, la métaphysique et la politique” [In the beginning was religion, metaphysics, and politics], the two editors Vas-Deyres and Bergeron identify these three ideological aspects as “hidden gods” embedded in Francophone sf from 1950 to 2010, themes around which both the 2012 conference and this book were organized.
But for those sf scholars unfamilar with French-language sf, the title of Les Dieux cachés might also just as easily be understood as referring to the many important but “hidden gods” of French sf from the post-WWII years to today—writers such as Gérard Klein, Nathalie Henneberg, Jean-Pierre Andrevon, Pierre Pelot, Serge Brussolo, and Pierre Bordage, among many others—who deeply influenced the thematic and stylistic paths that Francophone sf would take throughout this period.
The book is divided into five sections, with three to six articles per section. The first is called “Politique-fiction dans la science-fiction française et francophone” [Politics-fiction in French and Francophone sf]. It contains articles by Hervé Lagoguey on Andrevon and especially the latter’s ecological sf; by Alexandre Marcinkowski on French cyberpunk; and by Pierre-Gilles Pélissier on the dystopian worlds of Pelot.
The second section is titled “Singularités et marges de la science-fiction [Singularities and margins of sf]. It features articles by Isabelle Limousin on the sf exposition at the Musée des arts décoratifs [Museum of the decorative arts and design] in Paris in 1967-68; by Thierry Jandrok on Brussolo’s “hybrid” sf; by Cédric Cauvin on the representations of humanity in the works of Bordage; by Marc Atallah on the genre-bending and postmodernist work of Michel Houellebecq; and by Gilles Menegaldo on time and memory in two films—Chris Marker’s La Jetée [The Jetty, 1962] and Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime [I Love You, I Love You, 1968].
The third section, “Disharmonie des sphères dans la science-fiction” [Disharmony of the spheres in sf] offers essays by Jean-Loup Héraud on the future of humanity in the novels of Philippe Curval, Pierre Boulle, and Alain Damasio; by Danièle André on the sf cinema of Luc Besson; by Alain Sebbah on the treatment of time in several sf films such as Babylon AD (2008), Immortel (2004), and L’Origine du XXIe siècle [Origins of the 21st Century, 2000]; and by Patrick Bergeron on a variety of post-apocalyptic sf tales such as Stefan Wul’s Niourk (1957), Robert Merle’s Malevil (1972), Yves Thériault’s Si la bombe m’était contée [If the Bomb Were Told to Me, 1962), as well as the Québécois tv series Temps mort [Time Out, 2008-11].
The fourth section, “Dieux, spiritualité et religion: paradoxes de la science-fiction?” [Gods, spirituality and religion: paradoxes of sf?], as its title suggests, is explicitly focused on religious concerns. It also contains the largest number of articles—including some by well-known French and Québécois sf scholars and writers—such as the one by Simon Bréan on the “thousand deaths of god” in Francophone sf; by Roger Bozzetto on three short stories by Élisabeth Vonarburg; by Vonarburg herself, in response to Bozzetto, on world-building in her sf; by Laurent Bazin and Philippe Clermont on churches and religious belief in several modern sf uchronias by Alain Bergeron, Corberan and Eric Chabbert, Pelot, Alain Grousset and Dominique Martinigol, Vonarburg, and Ugo Bellagamba; by Claire Cornillon on spirituality in the sf works of Bordage; and by Samuel Minne on human mutation in two sf novels by Henneberg, La Plaie [The Plague, 1964] and Le Dieu foudroyé [The Thunderstruck God, 1976].
The fifth and final section of Les Dieux cachés, called “Planches hexagones et francophones: l’au-delà de la science-fiction” [French and Francophone drawing boards: the afterlife of sf], focuses on sf comics. It includes articles by Julien Baudry on sf bandes dessinées for the young created during the late 1940s and 1950s; by Jérôme Goffette on the French comic book creator and film director Enki Bilal; by Charles Combette on the Belgian comic series Les Aventures de Blake et Mortimer [The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, 1946-present]; and by Florence Plet-Nicolas on the place of God in the celebrated sf comics series Valérian (1970-2010).
In addition to these very interesting articles, the critical usefulness of Les Dieux cachés is enhanced by three items appearing in its appendix: a primary and secondary bibliography of the many references made in the articles, an index nominum (of proper names), and an index rerum (of things). Further, the book opens, right after its brief editorial preface, with an excellent introduction by legendary French sf author, editor, and publisher (and SFRA Pilgrim Award winner) Gérard Klein. Titled “La Science-fiction française des années 1950: Rupture ou hybridation? Non, retrouvailles” [French SF of the 1950s: a Break or a Hybridization? No, a Reunion], Klein’s essay refutes what he sees as a misguided trend in some contemporary French sf criticism:
Un mythe imprègne certaines recherches plus ou moins récentes concernant la science-fiction française de l’après-Seconde Guerre mondiale, celui de la rupture, ou de l’apparition inattendue d’un genre nouveau, venu d’Amérique, la science-fiction, ou exprimé de façon plus acceptable, celui de l’hybridation. Mais ce dernier lui-même impliquerait l’existence d’espèces quasiment différentes. Ce mythe, on le retrouve plus ou moins affirmé dans quelques thèses récentes ... et dans nombre d’articles et de déclarations. Ces auteurs attachent sans doute trop d’importance à leur propre découverte du domaine et aux canaux de leur découverte, collections et revues postérieures à 1950.
Ce mythe ne repose sur rien, mais sur des légendes.... (15)
[A myth permeates some of the relatively recent research on French science fiction of the post-World-War-II period: that of a break and the unexpected appearance of a new genre arriving from America called science fiction or, expressed in a more acceptable manner, that of a hybridization. But this latter term implies the existence of two essentially different species. This myth is more or less asserted in some recent dissertations ... and in a number of articles and other writings. These authors are no doubt attaching too much importance to their own discovery of this field and to the means by which they made their discovery—criticism and journals published after 1950.
This myth is built on nothing more than legends....]
Klein then goes on to argue that the young university researchers of today who claim that French sf dates from (and partially derives from) the postwar “American sf invasion” of the late 1940s and 1950s are simply ignorant of the long and rich tradition of French sf dating from before that period, as chronicled by Jean-Jacques Bridenne, Pierre Versins, Jacques Van Herp, and Brian Stableford, among others. Whether it was labeled “science-fiction” or anticipation mattered little—its content was the same. I must add that such historical short-sightedness in contemporary sf scholarship is not limited to certain members of the new generation of Francophone sf scholars. As I have described elsewhere (see “Histories” in The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction, ed. Rob Latham [NY: Oxford UP, 2014]: 47-58), there is also a growing tendency among young Anglophone sf researchers to attribute the origins of the entire sf genre not to Wells, Verne, Shelley, or the voyages imaginaires of the seventeenth or eighteenth century but rather to the American pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s—in other words, when the term “science fiction” was adopted as the genre’s official name. But this is another discussion....
Here is my bottom-line assessment: Les Dieux cachés de la science-fiction française et francophone (1950-2010) is a fine collection of stimulating and intelligent essays on modern French and Francophone science fiction. The quality of the scholarship is high; the price of the volume is low; and the material covered includes not only sf literature but also sf cinema, television, comics, and museum exhibits. I strongly recommend it for all university libraries. And I look forward to the publication of its sister volume, C’était demain: anticiper la science-fiction en France et au Québec (1890-1950), with much anticipation.
—Arthur B. Evans, DePauw University