BOOKS IN REVIEW
Bradbury and Hollywood.
Ray Bradbury Unbound. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2014. xiv + 324 pp. $34.95 hc.
As the title of this biography suggests, Eller narrates Ray Bradbury’s work outside of the narrow world of sf, detailing Bradbury’s career after moving to California—work that included screenplays, television scripts, plays, and poetry. The use of “unbound” in the title carries an ironic weight, as this book often acts as an apology for Bradbury’s lack of fictional production after the move. Indeed, Eller shows how the constraints of Hollywood politics irked Bradbury and limited his creative output. Replete with details from correspondence and journal entries, the narrative focuses on the relationships Bradbury developed with important role models and father figures without psychologizing the man or attempting to interpret his need for such figures in his life.
The book has five sections chronicling the few successes and many failures of Bradbury’s projects from the early 1950s to the end of the 1960s. In the first of these sections, “A Place in the Sun,” Eller relates the tumultuous relationship Bradbury had with director John Huston during the writing of the screenplay for the 1956 film of Moby Dick. Eller alludes to, but never makes explicit, the parallel relationship of Starbuck and Ahab in Melville’s narrative. Eller paints this ordeal as a distraction from writing the novel about small-town Illinois that Bradbury had planned to follow Fahrenheit 451 (1953) while also noting the creative challenges that he had to overcome during the many revisions of his adaptation of a novel that did not lend itself easily to the screen. This section ends with Bradbury’s first European vacation, in which he met one of the greatest influences on his aesthetic sensibility, art historian Bernard Berenson (who had written him a fan letter after reading Fahrenheit 451).
The second section, “The End of the Beginning,” narrates Bradbury’s frustration with his first screenwriting venture as his revisions were rejected and he fought for sole credit for the screenplay, eventually sharing it with Huston. Meanwhile, Bradbury’s correspondence with Berenson grows into a form of introspection and retrospection that Eller uses to elaborate Bradbury’s internal struggles and dilemmas. Eller also details Bradbury’s reading habits as a way to better understand what the man was thinking and how his ideas evolved. During this time, Bradbury began the other great mentor relationship of the book, his friendship with Charles Laughton. I must admit that I felt something lacking in this aspect of the biography. Spending a great deal of time at Laughton’s house, lounging around the pool with a notorious Hollywood lavender couple, and attending parties at James Whale’s, this Midwesterner caroused a great deal with Hollywood’s queer elite, but Eller only mentions Laughton’s and Whale’s homosexuality in passing to note that Bradbury was not homophobic. Considering the amount of ink Eller uses to talk about Bradbury’s relationship with Berenson, the lack of any insight from Laughton’s life besides his career in theater feels like a lapse. This section also describes the television work that Bradbury did for Alfred Hitchcock’s popular show and the growing amount of writing Bradbury produced that was not fiction.
The next section, “Dark Carnivals,” relates Bradbury’s vacillation between writing new short stories, working on radio and television shows, attempting to get his script (then called Dark Carnival and ultimately released in novel form as Something Wicked This Way Comes ) produced, making a film or television version of his Martian Chronicles (1950) and also Fahrenheit 451. A large part of the section deals with Bradbury’s failed endeavor to write a film that would have been directed by the eminent Sir Carol Reed. Eller details another European vacation as a great learning experience for the writer, adding pathos to his return home to failure after failure as his projects fell apart through the vicissitudes of the entertainment industry
The fourth section, “Cry the Cosmos,” examines the new playwriting that Bradbury did in the late 1950s, a time in which he also wrote more television shows. The death of Laughton affected him deeply, and Eller relates Bradbury’s loss well but, as stated previously, this event’s impact would make more sense if Eller had included more details about their relationship. During this period, Bradbury became more politically engaged and also began teaching seminars in creative writing. Eller explains the notorious animosity between Bradbury and Rod Serling as a misunderstanding, removing any personal rivalry from the relationship. The simple fact was that Serling borrowed ideas from many sf stories for his series The Twilight Zone (1959-64), and Bradbury was an outspoken critic of this practice.
The final section, “If the Sun Dies,” tracks Bradbury’s increasing involvement with the exploration of space, including publishing articles, giving talks at colleges, and appearing on television. Bradbury became preoccupied with the lunar mission. He also began to produce and publish poems. Meanwhile, François Truffaut released his film version of Fahrenheit 451 in 1966, and otherfilms followed. All of this, of course, contributed to a lack of new stories. Eller highlights Bradbury’s near-obsessive drive while weighing all of this work against the lack of new fiction, compellingly demonstrating Bradbury’s frustration and ambivalence with his new fame.
Eller’s narrative offers an intimate look at the working life of one of the most important twentieth-century writers. Although the scope of the book, covering two decades of history, is broad and thus lends itself to generalizations, the depth of insight supplied by Eller’s archival research imbues this text with a fresh inquisitive style that informs and inspires. Although at times the pace seems rushed (it could easily be two books), this biography maintains a respectable balance between investigations of Bradbury the person and Bradbury the writer. It would be a valuable addition to the library of any Bradbury fan or anyone interested in a writer’s creative process and ability to deal with constant adversity and failure.
—Ezekiel Crago, University of California, Riverside
A Neglected Writer Gets Her Due.
The Science Fiction of Phyllis Gotlieb. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. x + 227 pp. $45 pbk.
The Science Fiction of Phyllis Gotlieb is a comprehensive study of an author whose writing deserves recognition for its contributions to the genre of sf generally and Canadian sf specifically. While the book contains content drawn from seven previously published articles, that work is described in the acknowledgments section as “greatly expanded, updated and revised” (ix). Grace also lists ten conferences at which “embryonic versions” of portions of the book were presented, including the Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy and the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts (ix-x).
Despite her publication history beginning in 1959, Grace notes that during the 1960s and 1970s “Gotlieb was largely invisible during the years when women made significant inroads into the genre and began to receive serious commercial success and critical attention” (3). In considering why Gotlieb has been overlooked, Grace draws attention to her modest output, her place in between the genre of sf and mainstream literature, and her complicated status as a Canadian author whose sf works were published by American publishers. He notes that Gotlieb’s sf is “in many ways squarely rooted within the conventions of the genre. However, it is also unique or unconventional in several important ways, rooted in her experience as a woman, a Jew, and a Canadian, as well as in the ways she straddles generic and national lines—as a Canadian literary writer and an American genre writer” (9-10).
In discussing the central themes of Gotlieb’s sf, Grace explores her complex treatments of topics such as motherhood and reproduction, the creation of artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation, the figure of the alien, notions of family and community, and the animal/alien/human continuum. The book is arranged to be “roughly chronological, tracking Gotlieb’s development across her career” as an sf writer. (10) At times, this chronological order is sacrificed for the sake of considering related texts together, which admittedly allows Grace to explore more effectively important connections, particularly in Gotlieb’s novels.
Chapter one explores Gotlieb’s earlier sf stories, which Grace describes as offering “valuable insights into the genesis of her work.... The early stories also introduce, in concentrated and distilled form, many of Gotlieb’s characteristic themes and stylistic practices” (11). This chapter examines nine short stories published between 1959 and 1969, with a particular focus on Gotlieb’s first publication, “A Grain of Manhood” (1959). Over ten pages, Grace provides a detailed analysis of this story, which then leads into brief explorations of eight other stories and their important thematic elements. The second chapter examines the novel Sunburst, originally serialized in abridged form in Amazing in 1964. Grace introduces his examination of Gotlieb’s first sf novel by saying that “Sunburst remains Gotlieb’s best-known and arguably her most highly regarded novel” (41). In perhaps the richest portion of this chapter, Grace explores Gotlieb’s unconventional approaches to notions of the alien, animalistic, and monstrous, noting the complexity that Gotlieb brings to these figures, a complexity that will be further developed in her later work.
In the third chapter, Grace focuses his attention on the Dahlgren Diptych, consisting of the novels O Master Caliban! (1976) and Heart of Red Iron (1989). This chapter is one of the moments when the chronological exploration of Gotlieb’s sf works is abandoned so as to consider together a novel and its sequel, both set in the universe of the Galactic Federation and taking place on the planet Barrazan V. This proves to be a rich approach, particularly in the way it allows Grace to explore in detail one of the central themes of Gotlieb’s sf, wherein she “repeatedly insists on the commonality among all sentient creatures, not merely humanoid ones” (70). As he does in later chapters, Grace also skillfully weaves considerations of Gotlieb’s allusions to literary and biblical traditions into his analysis, providing thorough discussions of how those traditions influenced, and are reflected in, Gotlieb’s sf.
Chapter four examines Gotlieb’s mid-period short fiction, which includes stories published between 1970 and 1981, and is a mix of chronological and thematic analysis. For a number of stories Grace does not provide the years of publication in the body of his text, requiring the reader to hunt for these dates in earlier chapters and footnotes. There is also somewhat uneven consideration given to different stories in this chapter, with nine pages devoted to one story, three pages each devoted to many of the others, and a single paragraph devoted to one. Nevertheless, Grace delivers a nuanced discussion of most of the stories, particularly when he addresses how Gotlieb plays with questions of machine intelligence in “SCORE/SCORE” (1970), “The Military Hospital” (1970), and “Tauf Aleph” (1981).
In chapters five, six, and seven, Grace explores the Ungrukh Chronicles, consisting of A Judgment of Dragons (1980), Emperor, Sword, Pentacles (1982), and The Kingdom of the Cats (1985); the Lyhhrt Trilogy, consisting of Flesh and Gold (1998), Violent Stars (1999), and Mindworlds (2002); and Gotlieb’s poetry as it relates to the genre of sf. Grace effectively connects the thematic concerns of Gotlieb’s sf novels to those expressed in her short stories and poetry. He not only notes moments of similarity but also discusses the emergence and refinement of repeated themes. In his examination of Gotlieb’s poetry, he gives equal attention to thematic and stylistic elements, providing an analysis that considers content as well as form.
The eighth chapter focuses on Gotlieb’s final fictions, including short stories published between 1986 and 1998, and her final novel Birthstones (2007). In examining these works, Grace concludes his exploration of key themes of Gotlieb’s work, paying particular attention to the sexual politics and identity politics explored in her final works of sf. He explores how Birthstones resonates with Gotlieb’s earlier works, suggesting that considerations of motherhood and reproduction in particular are explored in complex and nuanced ways throughout Gotlieb’s sf. Grace notes that “Gotlieb’s works rarely end with cheery promise but instead with a sense that while much might have been accomplished, much remains to do.... Perhaps this uneasy balance between positive and negative possibility is itself a factor in the relative neglect Gotlieb’s work has suffered. She is ambiguous” (201). He goes on to say that “Gotlieb does not depict a comfortable world” (202). In Gotlieb’s sf, Grace concludes, the struggle to survive is paramount, even while various animal/ alien/human forms interact in complex ways.
In the end, The Science Fiction of Phyllis Gotlieb presents a thoughtful and detailed analysis of each of Gotlieb’s sf works, though one caveat is that the text is so detailed in its analysis that it would be beneficial for the reader to already have a strong familiarity with the author’s sf output in order to get the full effect. Even if readers do not yet possess that strong familiarity, Grace’s text describes the historical and thematic contexts of Gotlieb’s fiction in such a way that they will be left wanting to explore her work further. More experienced readers will return to her work with a new and enriched perspective.
—Adam Guzkowski, Trent University
Ambitious but Underwhelming.
Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2014. viii + 250 pp. $60 hc.
The intended purpose of this collection of essays focusing on race in sf is to “[show] what SF criticism means when joined with critical race theories and histories of oppression” (8). Nebulously stated as that goal initially is, we can glean from Black and Brown Planets, as it unfolds, what is being aimed at versus what is actually achieved. The collection hopes to be an encompassing account of the politics of race in sf and a re-examination of the sf canon with an eye to including overlooked or excluded works that foreground race and racial domination or that reconfigure the way we think about race and enact material and epistemic violence. Each essay attempts in its own way to unpack sf’s (or a particular sf work’s) usefulness in exploring the manifold ways race has operated and continues to operate in global and local asymmetries of power and to propose and illustrate ways that sf can help us come to terms with radical difference while imagining futures in which the mistakes of the past are not forgotten but nonetheless potentially overcome. While it ultimately falls far short of being the collection the subject deserves, a number of the essays make valuable contributions to this effort.
The collection is divided into two sections. The first, “Black Planets,” foregrounds sf treatments of blackness and the oppression confronted by the black diaspora. The second focuses on sf’s exploration of indigenous peoples and their dispossession, as well as the antinomies of strictly demarcated difference and racial hybridity or borderlands existence in Latin America. These sections are followed by a brief coda on the racial composition of sf fandom that attempts to draw on Internet communities to draft a more nuanced ethnocultural and geographical typology of the genre’s readership. Lavender’s introduction, “Coloring Science Fiction,” seems to get tangled up in the effort to be accessible to a general audience and scholarly at the same time. It ultimately winds up being neither. I found myself disappointed that there was not a more nuanced and engaging theoretical framework in this opening to tie all of the essays together and to outline, even if only cursorily, what exactly Lavender imagines to be “the politics of race in sf.”
Throughout his introduction, Lavender often makes observations on race in sf that open up a number of potentially illuminating avenues of discussion, but readers are left on their own to unpack precisely what these are. To put it simply, the “so what” of observations is too often left unexplored. For example, it is observed that Africans are nuked in Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle (4), that blacks migrate to Mars in the face of racism in Ray Bradbury’s 1950 tale “June 2003: Way in the Middle of the Air” (5), that the “only black viewpoint character” in Lauren Beukes’s 2008 novel Moxyland dies horribly (7), etc., but the questions “what exactly do these things mean in the context of sf?” and “what are their larger implications?” are often left without even an attempt at an answer—only an “I wonder at the meaning” (7). It would perhaps be forgivable if this fault were limited to the introduction, but the problem echoes throughout the collection. That being said, it does not prevent particular essays from standing out.
In “The Bannekerade: Genius, Madness, and Magic,” Lisa Yaszek mounts an intervention into the early sf canon by pointing out the presence of an excluded story type that functions as both a parallel to and inversion of the Edisonade. Whereas the Edisonade typically draws on the life and myth of Thomas Edison to tell the story of a white, male, technoscientific genius/inventor/hero who uses his intelligence to save himself and his community from peril (often found in the guise of the monstrous Other), Yaszek claims that the Bannekerade (a term she has coined) extrapolates from the life of oft-forgotten black scientist-inventor Benjamin Banneker, and typically involves a young black male using technoscientific genius and ingenuity to save himself and a broader black diasporic community from white hegemony and oppression. Perhaps most importantly, the Bannekerade inverts the Edisonade’s implicit assumptions regarding the inherent benevolence of technoscientific genius and calls into question exactly who is being imperiled by whom. Yaszek foregrounds the work of Martin R. Delany, Sutton E. Griggs, Pauline Hopkins, Edward A. Johnson, Roger Sherman Tracy, and George S. Schuyler, convincingly arguing for the inclusion of their select Bannekerades in the study of early sf. Her work is of interest to sf scholars looking to understand the contours and exclusions of the old canon while doing the reparative work of exploring early black sf.
De Witt Douglas Kilgore’s “The Best is Yet to Come” provides another worthy intervention, this time into critical appraisals of Star Trek (1966-69). Not only does Kilgore usefully parse the numerous and at times arcane academic Star Trek hang-ups to isolate and explain some of the ideological dead ends the show presents—including its general failure to imagine “a future that is more than merely an extension of Euro-American hegemony into the final frontier” (31)—but he also offers the Deep Space Nine (1993-99) iteration of the series as a sort of minor sf that takes up the liberal-humanist “postracial” Star Trek narrative and subverts it from within. In what is one of the collection’s more engaging analyses, he outlines the ways in which, under the influence of actor-director Avery Brooks, the show was able to open up a space within its Eurocentric narrative to more thoroughly explore the inextricable imprint of racial subjugation on world/galactic history.
Also drawing on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in his essay “Far Beyond the Star Pit,” Gerry Canavan notes parallels between the racism encountered by Samuel R. Delany as a midcentury sf writer and the Benny Russel character in the “Far Beyond the Stars” episode of DS9, which he uses as a prelude to his close reading of Delany’s 1967 novella “The Star Pit.” Canavan’s essay shares a minor fault with many of the essays in this collection, however (and, to be fair, in sf scholarship as a whole), in that it insists on a didactic and limiting allegorical reading. Rather than focusing on a story’s multiple effects on the reader, Canavan works to decode an assumed sociopolitical allegory by fitting each piece of the story’s estrangement into a representational map of our own world that presumably teaches us some kind of overt lesson. Many of the essays in this collection are concerned with what a story is attempting to say, what it is teaching us, what its hidden message is, and so on, rather than what aesthetic and psychological effects it might have on us—or, to put it another way, how it might change our thoughts and actions not pedagogically but experientially.
One essay that escapes this trend and stands out from the rest in Black and Brown Planets is Patrick B. Sharp’s “Questing for an Indigenous Future.” Sharp treats Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977) as an indigenous rewriting of the apocalypse narrative, one in which what seems to be a “cognitive estrangement” is in fact a reality; we need not necessarily construct dystopian futures when they are already among us in our present, and our uncovering of them can be as strange and discomfiting as any speculative narrative. He suggests that Silko’s story of the exploitation of native lands and peoples presents an ongoing nuclear apocalypse (the land in question has in fact been rendered largely useless by uranium mining and contamination), which calls into question the ideology of Western technoscientific modernity as progress and undermines the “common SF assumption that a nuclear catastrophe has not already happened in the United States” (120). Rather than taking the typical Jamesonian tack that would ask what latent social meanings are to be found in Ceremony or what kind of cognitive maps it offers us for the purposes of better grasping our own situation, Sharp focuses on the way the text grasps us (he likewise acknowledges that the effect is contingent on which “us” is being discussed). To be more specific, Sharp highlights how the distinctive chronotopes in Ceremony—which is to say, following Bakhtin, the formal devices that construct spatial and temporal relations—create a “chronotopic confusion” (121) for readers embedded in a Western technoscientific episteme, ultimately re-orienting them toward alternative conceptions of space and time as well as alternative epistemologies and ways of being (foregrounding interconnectivity in particular). These kinds of analyses are too few and far between in sf studies, despite the fact that, in my estimation at least, they unpack sf’s most significant and valuable contributions. In this respect, Sharp’s essay is a breath of fresh air in the miasma of rote-Marxist allegorical readings.
Ironically, the keystone of Black and Brown Planets is an essay published twenty-five years ago: Edward James’s “Yellow, Black, Metal, and Tentacled: The Race Question in American SF” (originally published in a 1990 anthology). James’s essay finishes the collection, rounding off all of the previous essays with a more encompassing look at the old sf canon’s treatment of race. It is an essay with the kind of broad scope I had hoped to see in some of the other assessments of more contemporary and diverse sf (most of the works in this collection are close readings of single novels, which makes the book come across more like a really long special issue of a journal). James maps the evolving treatment of race in twentieth-century American sf, surveying earlier analyses of race in sf before undertaking his own examination of the figures of the monster, the alien, the robot, and the android as they refract racial anxieties and hopes. James touches on early Yellow-Peril texts, the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert A. Heinlein, Buck Rogers narratives (noting their changing language regarding race in later iterations), and a variety of short works, including those collected in Groff Conklin and Allen DeGraeff’s often overlooked Human and Other Beings (1963). He charts both the racism and optimistic humanism in sf’s evolving treatments of race, concluding that “inherent in most of the stories from [the 1950s and 1960s] is the message that humanity is one race, which has emerged from an unhappy past of racial misunderstandings and conflicts” (218), adding that this message has become muted in more recent years (many would likely disagree with his optimistic interpretation of this waning). Aside from a smattering of intentional fallacies, this essay is a very impressive and compact approach to race in canonical American sf that is necessary reading for scholars in the field.
Though Black and Brown Planets claims to be “the most complete study of sf’s color lines” (8) to date, as a collection it is underwhelming. There are very few essays that attempt comprehensively to grasp the role of race and racial politics in sf (or even a particular area of sf), and unfortunately the cumulative effect does not really give us a clear picture or bearing on race in sf either. Perhaps this is merely an indication of the emergent nature of this kind of study and the work yet to be done in the field. Regardless, the collection is useful (if at moments tiresome) reading for scholars focusing on race in sf as well as those scholars not yet exposed to the work being done exploring alternative futurisms and a more inclusionary global-oriented sf canon.
—Graham Hall, University of California, Riverside
A Useful Guide to American Science Fiction.
The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction. New York: Cambridge, 2015. xxx + 254 pp. $27.99 pbk.
One index of the increasing amount of serious critical attention devoted to sf is the appearance, over the past decade or so, of several substantial guides and companions to the genre from major scholarly publishers. Examples include Cambridge’s The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003; edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn), Blackwell’s A Companion to Science Fiction (2005; edited by David Seed), Routledge’s The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction (2009; edited by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint); and Oxford’s Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014; edited by Rob Latham). As its title indicates, the book under review here is a more specialized effort, and the editors explicitly describe it as an “unofficial sequel” (1) to the James/Mendlesohn volume, which they praise highly. Still, though important sf (and sf criticism) has been produced in many countries, there is a strong case (a version of which is somewhat hesitantly adumbrated by the editors in their introduction) that the US remains the genre’s real homeland. The proper adjective in the title is therefore less limiting than might superficially appear. The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction ranges quite widely, and the contributors include some of the most accomplished senior scholars in the field, together with several promising newcomers.
The critical companion is an unusual sort of book, its generic identity falling in a hard-to-define space between the pure reference work and the ordinary essay collection. Typically, it is meant to be read straight through, unlike a reference work, and yet it attempts more comprehensive coverage of its subject matter than most collections of essays do. The editors here have recruited contributors to tackle fifteen diverse topics, ranging from American utopias (Mark Bould) and Afrofuturism in American sf (Lisa Yaszek) to the sf cinema of Hollywood (Sherryl Vint) and American “slipstream” fiction (Rob Latham). All fifteen are important categories of American sf, though of course not the only fifteen such categories that a book like this might properly include.
The tension between the encyclopedic and the essayistic is manifest not only in the structure of the book as a whole but also among and within the individual chapters. For example, Mark Bould’s chapter, “The Futures Market: American Utopias,” represents the volume at its most encyclopedic. This essay displays the awesomely wide learning characteristic of its author: Bould ranges from an Iroquois text nearly a millennium old to novels published during the past couple of years, while gesturing to an almost uncountable number of other works in between. Wisely, he includes many texts that have important utopian elements even if they are not necessarily thought of as utopias in the strictest generic sense. The inevitable drawback to this erudite approach is that Bould has very little space for detailed critical analysis. He does, however, manage to devote an interesting page to the most eminent of all American utopias, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), challenging the notion that the socioeconomic arrangements described by Bellamy should be considered socialist. It is a pity that its British provenance deprives Bould of the opportunity to discuss William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890)—for me the greatest utopia since Thomas More’s—since it was self-consciously written as a revolutionary Marxist alternative to Looking Backward.
In contrast to Bould’s encyclopedic approach, “After America” by Rebekah Sheldon (evidently one of the volume’s more junior contributors) focuses on only a few texts in order to develop an interesting and powerful argument. She finds that some sf projections of a post-American future—that is, a future in which almost nothing immediately recognizable as the US that we currently know seems to survive—actually trace the fairly recent past, as neoliberal economic and political practices have hollowed out institutions of American collectivity. Substantiating her thesis with detailed readings of Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Tamarisk Hunter” (2008), Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (2008), and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993), Sheldon maintains that what we confront in such works is not just “the unequal distribution of wealth” or “the waning of affective investment in national power” but, more radically, “the abandonment of the social as such” (208)—something, I would add, that might be understood as the ultimate negation of utopia.
Few of the chapters in The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction are quite as essayistic as Sheldon’s, though most are somewhat closer to that pole than to the opposite, encyclopedic pole represented by Bould’s. Inevitably, part of the interest of following the arguments that many of the contributors construct lies in occasionally taking issue with them. For example, Rob Latham, in “American Slipstream: Science Fiction and Literary Respectability,” offers an exciting, well-informed discussion of sf aspects in “postmodern” fiction by such authors as Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, and Michael Chabon, who operate outside the traditional publishing and marketing venues of American sf. But Latham misleads, I think, when he favorably refers to Gary K. Wolfe’s designation of the current literary situation as “the ‘evaporation’ of genre as such” (108). Genre cannot evaporate; for genre is the syntax of narrative, and there could no more be stories without genre than there could be writing without the arrangement of words. Just, however, as innovative poets may fashion new and unfamiliar kinds of syntax (the Language poets are a notable instance), so innovative storytellers may combine and recombine the generic elements of narrative in fresh and unusual ways; and that is precisely what many of the novelists discussed by Latham have done (and are doing).
I take even sharper exception to what seems to me David Higgins’s trivialization, in “American Science Fiction after 9/11,” of Ernst Bloch’s crucial concept of the novum. Though Higgins’s account of sf as refracted through the prism of the al-Qaeda attacks is interesting in several ways, his apparent notion that banal technoscientific developments in the service of global capital have caused “science fiction’s novum” to be “internalized within the fabric of everyday life” (52) wildly misunderstands what the novum is all about. The novum is inseparable from the Blochian principle of hope (or, in a better translation of the German, the Blochian “hope principle”) and as such necessarily involves an at least potentially revolutionary challenge to the capitalist status quo. When Darko Suvin, in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979), first incorporated Blochian philosophy into sf criticism, he expressly—and rightly—described the sort of trivial technical novelty to which Higgins seems to be referring as an (unrevolutionary) pseudo-novum.
There is much else worth discussing in The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction. I will note, in passing, my judgment that John Rieder’s “American Frontiers,” which contains the most penetrating comparative analysis of sf and the Western that I have seen, is probably the single best essay in the volume. But I will conclude by considering Patrick Jagoda’s informative survey, “Digital Games and Science Fiction,” in order to address a mistake that is (I suppose) uniquely annoying to me and that I am uniquely qualified to correct. Engaging the much discussed question of the origins of sf, Jagoda writes, “Carl Freedman dates modern science fiction, including the term itself, to ‘the American pulp tradition established in 1926 when Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories’” (141). The quotation from Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000) is accurate, but Jagoda gets my point exactly wrong. I acknowledge that seeing sf as beginning with Gernsbackian pulp is one possible view, but it is a view that I explicitly and emphatically reject; and I go on to maintain, as many others have done, that sf is most plausibly dated from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).
To sum up: though not all the chapters of The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction possess the same kind or degree of value, each is intelligent and useful in its own way. In addition, the editors have compiled two substantial lists: a bibliography of sf criticism and a chronology that records, year by year, many of the notable texts and events of American sf from 1820 to 2014. Both lists are necessarily selective—it would be easy to play the reviewer’s game of, “If X is included, how can Y possibly be left out?”—but well-chosen and a pleasure to consult. The volume adds up to one that can be confidently recommended to anyone interested in American sf. Beginning readers will find it an excellent vade mecum to the subject, while I doubt that even the most experienced scholars know the field so well that they will be unable to learn from the efforts of Link, Canavan, and their contributors. The front-cover design—a picture of Abraham Lincoln as an android against a background of stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud—wittily implies a promise that the book itself keeps.
—Carl Freedman, Louisiana State University
The One Culture.
Mondo Nano: Fun and Games in the World of Digital Matter. Experimental Futures. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2015. 424 pp. $99.95 hc; $28.95 pbk.
Sending the prospective readers of a book to another title may not be the best strategy, but in many ways, those sitting down to Mondo Nano will benefit from first reading, or re-reading, Colin Milburn’s previous study. Nanovision: Engineering the Future (2008) illuminated the practices of nanotechnology by looking at a broad range of materials from scientific papers to science-fiction narratives, compellingly demonstrating how important the cultural context is for otherwise arcane scientific disciplines and how convoluted the power lines running between the cultural imaginaries and hard sciences are. Erudite and serious, Nanovision was also very systematic in disentangling the cultural myths that had grown around the field of research that Bill Joy identified in his April 2000 Wired article “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” as one of the three technologies threatening to make humans an endangered species. Mondo Nano is not a molecule less informative, but it is also supremely free-flowing and playful—a form that is very appropriate given its central argument.
Building on Nanovision’s survey of nanotechnology, Mondo Nano proposes that one of the most fruitful approaches to its discourses could be—and perhaps even should be—through the concept and practice of play. Historically, one of the most influential definitions of play was offered over 60 years ago by Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1944), in which it is defined as “a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own ... within which special rules obtain” (London: Routledge, 1949. 8, 10). Milburn does quote Huizinga early on, but in many ways his argument transgresses the argumentation of the Dutch ur-father of game studies. Milburn sees games—particularly video-games—as much more than a useful mode of representation. They are a medium that not only remediates but also premediates—scripts in advance—the cultural discourses of nano by establishing a two-way flow between scientific imagination and popular culture (149). In fact, driving the whole book is a conviction—but also very much a real-life observation—that “laboratory objects, modes of experimentation, and forms of technical knowledge are fashioned more through participatory play than the idealized distance of objectivity—more through the creative performance of gaming than the venerable, stepwise protocols of the ‘scientific method’” (36). The vocabulary of fun and games is thus used to describe the coming future, a playful world in which narrative may be “spare, [but] it burgeons with meaning” (2).
Milburn is certainly not the first scholar to appreciate the usefulness of the gaming medium. In a number of his texts, including How to Do Things with Videogames (2011), Ian Bogost connects games to serious aesthetic and philosophical issues; in Reality is Broken (2011) and her 2010 TED talk, “Gaming Can Make a Better World,” Jane McGonigal campaigns for games’ potential to restructure individual lives as well as social relations; and scholars such as Edward Castronova, in Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games (2005), have argued for the usefulness of virtual worlds in modeling complex economic processes. In retrospect, these connections seem to be self-evident, but they were not when first proposed. It could be argued, though, that Milburn’s proposition goes against the far more entrenched cultural valuations that construct scientific endeavor as somber, humorless, and kept as far from fun as possible. Milburn has a much harder lock to break in his project of demonstrating that ludic metaphors and the spirit of playfulness have always been at the heart of cutting-edge nanotechnological research and practice, however nascent the latter may still be. Sure enough, by the end of Mondo Nano, the connection between games and nanotechnology becomes so obvious, so pervasive, and so ubiquitous that one wonders how it was possible that we did not see it earlier. Needless to say, this is exactly how a really compelling argument works, and the elegance with which Milburn maps the terrain only adds graceful transparency to his discussion.
Summarizing more specific points of this playful cartography would take too long, but among Milburn’s many insightful observations I was particularly drawn to two points. The first comes relatively early in the book and reads as follows: “Nanotechnology envisions, or rather discovers, that the world has always been digital, and therefore endlessly reprogrammable” (41). The lexical choices of this wording at once harken back to the seemingly oxymoronic “digital matter” from the book’s title and establish yet another plane of connectivity between the science and the medium. Still, the idea of the programmability of reality, which is material and digital, connects Mondo Nano’s argument to yet another cultural imaginary. For there is a certain absence in the long title of the book—while it name-checks nanotechnology and games, hovering over them is science fiction, both as a broadly defined cultural discourse and a more narrowly circumscribed genre. This does not mean that Milburn begrudges sf its proper place in discussions of nanotechnology; I suspect that its nominal absence is caused more by the economy of titling than the author’s desire to overlook the genre, an appreciation for which he has demonstrated in virtually all his writing. After all, the very first image used in the book is a frame from the playful film A Boy and His Atom (2013) created by scientists at the IBM Almaden Research Center, whose title consciously alludes to Harlan Ellison’s story “A Boy and His Dog” (1969), as well as L.Q. Jones’s film adaptation of same (1975). The very last two screenshots in Mondo Nano come from the independent puzzle game SpaceChem (2011), which, even if not considered properly science-fictional, involve the use of waldos, an sf parabola that immediately triggers cascading associations. In between these citations, almost all name-checked and discussed gaming titles are science fiction, as are numerous stories, novels, films, and comics invoked in the argument. Beyond establishing the link to science fiction, however, the conception of digital matter also heals a schism within some of the genre’s imaginaries, which have long seen “cyber-” and “bio-” as representative of two opposing thematic and philosophical positions.
The second point that I found particularly interesting is buried later in the book, in the discussion of the influential Crysis gaming franchise (2007-2013), in which Milburn invokes the “crysis mode” of the first game’s nanowarrior protagonist, a condition of being “smeared between the poles of maximally hard and maximally soft” (183). To my mind, this is the controlling metaphor of Mondo Nano that very aptly reflects the continuity, rather than rift, between polar perspectives, states, and regimes of meaning. The crysis mode spells—or rather, sounds—out “the condition of rupture” (183), in which the mutually exclusive binaries cease to yield any usefulness and in which the postmodern, Pynchonian “excluded middles” become the most interesting terrain. This is, of course, how Milburn describes nanotechnology, but, arguably, the same perspective informs the medium of video-games and the genre of science fiction, with both forever struggling between their make-believe fictionality and their relevance as cognitive and experiential models of reality; it also informs the many antonymous binaries addressed in the book: play/research, cyber/bio, and offline identity/online subjectivity.
The very same sense of modal plurality is even reflected in the range of cultural material used in the book. Mondo Nano is deliciously eclectic in its choice of primary and secondary sources. From online-forum posts and virtual-world chat logs, to scientific reports, critical articles and books, AAA and independent video-games, Colin Milburn surfs a sea of material with admirable ease. Given that the book comes with close to a hundred pages of notes and bibliography (almost one-fourth of the entire volume), it could be very easy to lose the reader in the minutiae of the nano-world, but this never happens. Perhaps part of the credit for the natural flow of the argument rests on the slightly unorthodox division: while there are larger chapters here, some of them are interrupted with lines imitating computer commands, while others are subdivided into sections with catchy subtitles. Mondo Nano is also richly illustrated with over 130 images ranging from photographs of nano-particles to gameplay screenshots. Although all images are black-and-white, their crisp quality helps break up what could otherwise be an awesome wall of facts, case studies, and conclusions.
Very appropriately, the flow of Mondo Nano’s argument emulates its major assumptions. From Hindu scriptures to Michel Serres to superhero comics to Pac-Man, Milburn effortlessly switches between cultural and scientific imaginaries, segueing from the descriptions of gameplay in obscure games to the politics of large research grants; but there is, of course, a structure to his argument. The core of the book is constituted by six long chapters, the first five of which focus on the insular imagination resurfacing in nanotechnological discourses (“Tempest in a Teapot”), massively multiplayer games and virtual environments (“Massively Multiplayer Laboratories”), the pervasiveness of weaponry (“Weapons-Grade Cartoons”) as well as soldier figures in many nano-narratives (“Have Nanosuit—Will Travel”), and the visions of utopian urbanism (“Nanopolitanism”). But it is in the last chapter, rather inconspicuously entitled “My Little Avatar,” that Milburn goes on a true tour de force. The chapter is an account of his actual—we are given to understand—experience of meeting, in the virtual world of Second Life, a stranger, “an accomplished DIY scientist” (240), whose queries prompted him to organize his ideas and concepts that predate and undergird the actual practice of nanotechnology. To that end, Colin Dayafter (the name he uses in SL) sent PerkyPat Sorciere (the Dickian-nicknamed interlocutor remains forever anonymous) nine lengthy emails, in which he discusses what he calls “incarnations,” conceptual clusters of ideas explaining nanotechnology.
That the proper name for “incarnation” is “avatar” is widely known, as is the fact that this Hindu term has long been used in the gaming world to describe a construct that mediates between the player’s real-world subjectivity and the in-game-world’s virtuality. For Milburn, avatar is more than that—it is a medium in its own right, whose long history is tied to what, in How the World Became a Stage: Presence, Theatricality, and the Question of Modernity (2002), William Egginton describes as the everyday performativity of self. These conceptual constellations already drop illuminating bridges between gaming and life, but there is more. Those more knowledgeable about the Hindu religion may also remember that Vishnu, the restorer of cosmic order, is described in the scriptures as performing his duties in the form of ten avatars. Among them, the fifth was the first fully human (the first three being animals and the fourth half-man and half-lion); his name was Vamana, which means “dwarf.” The prefix “nano-” is derived from “nanos,” the Greek word for ... “dwarf.” Thus, to assume an avatar means, quite literally, to experience “nanomorphosis” (240), to become dwarfed, nano-transformed, in order to enter a different world. More bridges drop, connecting the seemingly isolated islands of science, ancient imagination, and contemporary modes of play. Summarizing all communiqués from Colin Dayafter to PerkyPat Sorciere would be pointless here, but Milburn’s meditations on the nine incarnations revolve around and involve, among others, Madame Blavatsky, Maxwell’s Demon, Thomas Alva Edison, Robert Oppenheimer, Robert A. Heinlein, Poul Anderson, the Golem, and Eric Drexler. There are few better passages in Mondo Nano than these emails, and the resultant cognitive overload can best be described with a phrase that PerkyPat used in her exchanges with Colin Dayafter: “My head just exploded” (274, 293). (Incidentally, I find it interesting, but also understandable, that Milburn’s “incarnative”  parables total only nine. After all, the tenth and final avatar of Vishnu was Kalki, the destroyer of filth but also the harbinger of end times, a vision all too familiar from sf narratives and video-game scenarios involving nanotechnology but whose specter would have cast an uneasy shadow on Mondo Nano.)
Mondo Nano is cultural scholarship at its very best, and it sets the bar very high for similar projects. If all goes well, next year we will see an analogous project in Steven Shaviro’s study of the connections between science fiction and cognition, but one can only wish surveys of similar depth and insight were written for other sciences and technologies. Of course, as scholars of science fiction or game studies, we are gladdened to see books like Mondo Nano vindicate what we have always known, or intuited, about science-fictional imagination and playful pursuits. More importantly, however, Mondo Nano forcefully and elegantly—but also not without much jouissance—drives the last nail into the coffin of C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” lecture.
—Paweł Frelik, Maria Curie-Skłodowska University
Space Age Art.
Past Futures: Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2015. 128 pp. $29.95 hc.
This volume is designed to accompany and illuminate an exhibition of the same name mounted at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, from 3 March to 7 June 2015. Profusely and gorgeously illustrated, it chronicles the aesthetic and ideological response to the burgeoning of Western technoscience, and especially the technologies of the Space Age, in Latin American art during the 1940s-70s. Attentive both to US neo-imperialism in the region and to local forms of oppressive politics, the book’s four chapters show how Latin American artists responded, in both positive and negative ways, to the visionary possibilities opened by spaceflight and increasing human-machine interaction and inter-dependency. At once critical of an alienating technocracy, these artists also saw “the wondrous possibilities of space travel” (19), as editor Montross puts it in her chapter, and the power specifically of science fiction as a mode of imagination uniquely suited to grasping the promises and perils of this new world. Indeed, as Montross argues, their work deserves to be seen as a powerful form of “visual science fiction” (16) that uses the resources of the genre to develop “utopian plans for social change across the Americas” (26). Montross canvasses a wide range of artistic responses to postwar technoscience, from Chilean Juan Downey’s explorations of cyborg possibility—such as his 1965 pencil drawing Cosmonaut, which depicts space-suited figures complexly linked via tubes and other apparatus—to Argentine Gyula Kosice’s designs for La ciudad hidroespacial [The Hydrospatial City, 1946-72], architectural diagrams and models for deliriously weird space habitats. As Montross shows, contemporary Latin American art often harkens back to these postwar precursors in a retrofuturistic way, less interested in themes of spatial expansion and possibility than tropes of “technological obsolescence and nostalgia” (30).
Miguel Ángel Fernández Delgado’s chapter continues Monstross’s discussion, often repeating her formulations and covering many of the same artists and works. (Indeed, the main drawback of the volume is this repetition across chapters, which fail to develop any particular historical or thematic trajectory.) Interesting observations in Delgado’s chapter include the ways in which the 1910 reappearance of Halley’s Comet signaled to some artists and poets an apocalyptic imminence, soon realized in the Mexican Revolution, and the fact that NASA in 1963 instituted an art program that invited such Latin American luminaries as Mexican Rufino Tamayo and Chilean Roberto Matta to visit Cape Canaveral. This international cooperation was part and parcel of the Cold War promotion of a trans-American solidarity against Communism, a historical backdrop gestured at by the chapter authors but not developed in any coherent way. Delgado, incidentally, is one of the consultants for the forthcoming exhibition at UC Riverside’s ARTSblock, “Critical Utopias: The Art of Futurismo Latino,” which will further explore some of the themes covered in this volume.
Rodrigo Alonso’s chapter focuses closely on Argentinian artists and Rory O’Dea’s specifically on the work of Robert Smithson. These chapters are more argumentatively cohesive, but they also raise questions about coverage: why a chapter on Argentina instead of, say, Mexico or Cuba, and why Robert Smithson, the only US artist explored at any depth? The latter chapter in particular provokes concerns about the geographic scope of the exhibition itself, which purports to examine “Postwar Art of the Americas” but basically takes Smithson alone as representative of the ways in which US artists responded to postwar technoscientific development. That said, both chapters are superb, especially in the ways they trace connections between the work of artists, sculptors, and installation designers and larger technocultural contexts: Alonso is excellent on the links with the interdisciplinary field of cybernetics, while O’Dea shows how Smithson’s inner-spatial works share affinities with the New Wave sf of J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick. Indeed, according to O’Dea, Smithson was a huge sf fan, a fact (he claims) that tends to be under-emphasized in art-historical studies. O’Dea’s chapter is the most informed when it comes to science fiction as a literary genre, the other authors tending to view sf as a diffuse pop-cultural matrix of Space Age imagery (robots, cyborgs, spaceships, etc.). All the authors, alas, use the grating term “sci-fi,” but I suppose that cannot be helped.
The main strength of the book, however, are the numerous illustrations, all in stunning color, including 41 full-page plates and dozens of other figures interspersed within the chapters themselves. Browsing through the volume is a delightful and invigorating way to spend a few hours, and for the sf scholar or fan is sure to evoke echoes not directly addressed in the volume’s text. For example, I was struck by how closely Argentine Raquel Forner’s paintings of stunted, varicolored, wide-eyed human figures trapped in technological landscapes resembled the woodcut illustrations Leo and Diane Dillon produced during the 1960s and ’70s, especially for Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthologies (1967, 1972). Such connections would be worth developing further, I think, since Montross and especially O’Dea essentially argue that Latin American “Space Art” of the 1960s-70s deserves to be seen as allied with the Anglo-American New Wave in its perspectives. In any event, I highly recommend purchasing Past Futures, which at less than $30 is a bargain for what amounts to a high-gloss exhibition catalog.
—Rob Latham, University of California, Riverside
Philosophy over Film.
Philosophy and Blade Runner. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. xiii + 217 pp. $27 pbk.
It must be a fairly daunting task to try to come up with something new or useful to say about the film Blade Runner (1982), one of sf’s most celebrated texts. With the several articles about the film that have appeared in this journal and an extensive entry in the Oxford Online Bibliographies project (edited by Rob Latham and myself), one might think there was no room for an additional book-length text dedicated to the film. Luckily, Timothy Shanahan’s Philosphy and Blade Runner is not trying to re-invent the wheel. This is not a work of film criticism. Neither is it a work of sf criticism in that it does not attempt to place the film within a larger context of existing sf or analyze science fiction’s relationship to philosophy. Instead, Shanahan’s text uses Blade Runner as an object with which to explore and challenge our understanding of basic philosophical concepts. In this way, the book is less an analysis of the film than it is a tool that uses the film to work through observations about humanity, personhood, life, and death. Philosophy and Blade Runner is—not surprisingly—first and foremost a work of philosophy.
The book is divided into ten chapters and a short epilogue, with the first chapter serving as an introduction and subsequent chapters each dedicated to a major philosophical theme (“Identity,” “Consciousness,” “Death,” “God,” etc.). Chapter one provides a basic history of the production of the film and its origins in Dick’s novel, but it also includes a lengthy section outlining Shanahan’s assumption that Rick Deckard is most definitely human and not a replicant. Here Shanahan presents ten of the more common pro-replicant theories and eliminates each one based on a combination of observations about the film and previous research. To a Blade Runner scholar, the entire chapter might seem unnecessary, but treating Deckard as “human” is central to a number of contentions Shanahan makes about the differences and similarities between Deckard and the replicants.
Chapters two through six follow the same basic pattern. After introducing a key scene from the film, Shanahan walks the reader through a limited history of philosophical concepts ranging from personhood to free will, ultimately bringing the reader to the theory he believes best explains his view of the film and our best understanding of each concept. The strongest of these chapters do a competent job of integrating scenes from the film into Shanahan’s take on philosophy and of questioning Blade Runner’s stance on humanity and personhood. For instance, chapter two, “Being Human,” walks the reader through a number of specific scenes from the film in order to propose a more flexible definition of what it means to be human, using Descartes and observations from Ridley Scott to flesh out the analysis. Although this topic is far from novel, Shanahan’s choice to focus on a more ontological discussion of humanity and consistently to tie his observations to specific scenes from the film makes his arguments compelling.
Yet even these first few chapters sometimes show an uneasy balance between a clear focus on the film and Shanahan’s desire to make a tentative conclusion about one or another philosophical concept. For example, chapter five, “Consciousness,” uses Sebastian’s desire to see the Nexus 6 replicant in action to question whether consciousness resides in the body or in the mind. Shanahan connects the replicant Pris’s reply to Sebastian—“I think therefore I am”—to a history of thought about the “mind-body problem.” This history begins with Descartes and ends with an advocacy for Non-Reductive Physicalism as a way of imagining a mind that depends on a brain to exist while still retaining extra-physical properties. Throughout the chapter, Shanahan works to eliminate unsatisfactory or incomplete theories (Cartesian Substance Dualism, Reductive Physicalism, Eliminative Physicalism) by first outlining their principles and then enumerating their flaws. This quasi-Socratic way of directing the reader’s thoughts works well to connect a cursory account of philosophy to key questions posed by the film, but it also opens Shanahan up to somewhat subjective readings of Blade Runner. Shanahan seems to miss Roy Batty’s use of sarcasm when speaking to Sebastian and the contempt he seems to feel towards some of the human characters in the film. Some of the conclusions Shanahan reaches about character motivation seem forced, as he attempts to fit individual scenes from the movie within a larger and more conclusive discussion of philosophical concepts. In this way, Philosophy and Blade Runner simply tries to accomplish too much. As Shanahan admits, these chapters are too short to create a complete analysis of complicated philosophical issues, and the more he focuses on the philosophy the less he focuses on an analysis of the actual film. By the time the author gets to his chapters on “Death” and the meaning of life, he might have substituted any number of sf works for Blade Runner with equal results. Chapter eight, “God,” focuses more on an examination of Sartre’s view of creation than it does on the film. At this point, Shanahan seems to be more invested in philosophy than in Blade Runner.
Philosophy and Blade Runner ends with an epilogue that attempts to validate the study of film in itself, regardless of authorial intent. This inclusion of a section I have to believe most readers of this journal would find unnecessary sums up Shanahan’s work as a whole. While scholars of Blade Runner, film, and sf will not really find anything new here, the book might work to introduce philosophy scholars and students to the film and to show readers that Blade Runner is easily connected to questions about the definition of humanity itself.
—Jeffrey Hicks, California State University, Los Angeles
The Freshness of Ruins.
Apocalypse in Japanese Science Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. xv + 189 pp. $85 hc.
The representation of apocalyptic destruction, whether of Tokyo or of Japan or of the whole world, is a common motif in Japanese science fiction, so much so that it has become something of a cliché. The fixation with world-shattering catastrophe in Japanese culture is typically attributed to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which marked the demise of the Japanese empire in the Pacific but also heralded the end of Japan as an independent nation-state in command of its own destiny. In her study Apocalypse in Contemporary Japanese Science Fiction, Motoko Tanaka analyzes the preoccupation with the end of the world in relation to the historical trajectory of Japan since the end of the Second World War. She gives a chapter each to cover what she presents as the four distinct phases of post-World War II Japanese history: the first runs from the end of the war to 1970, the second from 1970 to 1995, the third from 1995 to 2011, and the final one spans 2011 to the present. The first period covers the occupation of Japan by the US military and the reconstruction and recovery of the country from wartime devastation. During the second period, Japan emerged as one of the world’s leading economies. The third period encompasses the stagnation of the Japanese economy and is punctuated by the Kobe earthquake and the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. The fourth period is inaugurated by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Fukushima in March 2011.
Some readers are likely to find this sort of approach overly reliant on external events and not attentive enough to the literary and cinematic narratives under consideration. But what emerges most forcefully in Tanaka’s readings of texts from a variety of media—literary novels, live action films, anime, and manga—is not so much a sense of crisis in Japanese society as it is of the inadequacy of imaginative attempts to grapple with both Japanese history, especially the legacy of its wars of imperial expansion, and an interminable present that thwarts the efforts of writers and artists to advance a meaningful vision for the future of the country. Certainly the period from the end of the war to the present can be regarded as an anomaly both for Japan and for much of the rest of the globe, as Japan and many other countries fell into the orbit of the American superpower, in many instances disarming themselves while receiving military protection from the US. While the dissolution of the wartime regime and the introduction of a new liberal constitution raised hopes for social and political change among the younger generation, the postwar years came instead, in a familiar twist, to be defined by disillusionment and anxiety. The type of change sought by the young is, as Tanaka points out, premised on an encounter and engagement with alterity, but the dimension of otherness has been in short supply in postwar Japan, giving rise to narratives that are monotonously escapist and a culture that is marked by stasis and stunted in its outlook.
Tanaka narrates the unfolding of the apocalyptic narrative in postwar Japan as a history of loss. In the fiction of the 1960s, one can find a “positive vision of reconciliation” in the aftermath of war and in relation to continuing ethnic conflict in the novel The Silent Cry (1967) by Kenzaburo Ōe. Alternately, the novel Inter Ice Age 4 (1958-59) by Kōbō Abe offers a rejection of a new and inhuman future, prepared by scientists in response to catastrophic climate change, by its doomed protagonist. The search for resolution and the effort to assert a positive identity, whether in the form of a restored balance between human beings and nature or a defense of the humanistic subject, characterizes the narratives as late as the 1980s, such as the film adaptation of the manga Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” (1980) by Haruki Murakami. But the sense of unity and boundedness achieved by these works proves to be not fully convincing: Murakami, notably, disowned his story, and it is not included among his collected works, while Hayao Miyazaki, writer and director of Nausicaä, brings the manga (1982-94) to a conclusion that is at once open-ended and pessimistic, and thus dramatically at odds with the happy ending of the film. If the inability, according to the formula of Fredric Jameson, to produce convincing resolutions to apocalyptic narratives corresponds to the loss of the capacity for social and political transformation, the period that succeeds the first two stages of Tanaka’s historical scheme is one characterized by a withdrawal into the imaginary and the dissolution of the symbolic. The absence of otherness defines the genre called sekaikei, which focuses on characters who are unable to achieve maturity or develop relationships outside of the immediate family.
Featuring a passive male protagonist who is constantly saved from danger by a heroine who cares for him, works of sekaikei enable their predominantly male viewers to enjoy fantasies of omnipotence without having to face the risk of rejection inherent in the pursuit of romantic relationships. The sekaikei narrative is influenced by the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-96), which focuses as much on the anxieties of its nervous teenaged protagonist Shinji as it does on the efforts of Shinji and his fellow teenaged mecha pilots to fight off attacks on Tokyo by powerful mysterious entities known as angels. The crux of the narrative is the relationship between the protagonist and the clone of his deceased mother, with whom he achieves a psychic and physiological union as part of a sinister project to eliminate the social and psychic boundaries separating all human beings. Although Shinji ultimately repudiates the technologically manufactured unity of mother and son, he is not able to enter into a romantic relationship with his attractive fellow pilot Asuka, either. The final scene of The End of Evangelion (1997), in which Shinji is at last alone with the girl as the last two surviving humans on earth, shows him trying to strangle her as she lies prone on a beach. The inability of Shinji to establish a relationship with Asuka, even when he has no other romantic rivals, underscores for Tanaka the psychic paralysis at the heart of sekaikei. But Evangelion, in Tanaka’s view, is also characterized by weak symbolic networks: the other characters may express desires and drives counter to those of Shinji, but the series also proves in the end incapable of relaying a vision of otherness that is credible in its transformative capacity.
Tanaka thus finds that contemporary Japanese culture is trapped in an inescapable circuit, in which the absence of “meaningful confrontation between opposing values and unknown Others” keeps young people in a state of “suspended adolescence” and prevents them from developing “independent identities” (59, 56). Apocalyptic narrative has become the apocalypse of narrative, in which growth, maturation, and metanoia have lost force and meaning. This cultural crisis may appear little different from the predicament that has overtaken the US or more broadly the West, as a popular comic and TV show such as The Walking Dead (2010- ) also exhibits a repetitive character in terms of returning constantly to conflicts and dilemmas of survival above which the narrative cannot rise. But in the Japanese context, it is possible to attribute the predicaments of postmodernity and neoliberalism to the policies and actions of a foreign Other that has deprived Japan of sovereignty and compelled it to become shackled to a fragile and possibly sinking global economy. While the disparity between viewing the predicaments of postmodernity as the more or less logical consequence of economic processes and technological advances and regarding them as the impositions of an external power might be the subject of another monograph, nevertheless the limits of relying on distinctions between historical periods to explain and interpret texts becomes emphatically clear in the sparseness of the chapter on the apocalyptic imagination after Fukushima.
It is likely that the publishing schedule did not permit Tanaka to bring her study properly up to date just as Japan appears to be entering an entirely new historical phase. It is not only the tsunami and the earthquake that caused the meltdown of the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant that marks this new era, but also the waning of American influence abroad, which has led the Japanese to prepare for a future in which they will be responsible for defending their country themselves. The key apocalyptic narrative of this new phase could well be the manga (and TV adaptation) Attack on Titan (2009- ), which depicts humanity being threatened by giant man-eating humanoids that have destroyed much of the world and driven the survivors into the refuge of a walled city. Strikingly, for the purposes of Tanaka’s argument, the series does stress the symbolic in depicting the relationships between the hero and other members of the military units charged with fighting the giants, as well as highlighting the corrupt and destructive practices of the governing authorities. While it is unfortunate that Tanaka is not able to bring her argument up to date as recent events would dictate, nevertheless her book is an engaging, if at times frustrating, study that manages to transcend the schematic character of her analytic framework by highlighting the tensions between Western theory and its reception in Japan.
—Peter Y. Paik, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
Standing at the Edge of the Crowd but Still with It.
The Works of Tim Burton: Margins to Mainstream. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. ix + 261 pp. $100 hc.
Distinguished Gothic scholar Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock introduces The Works of Tim Burton: Margins to Mainstream—the first-ever volume of essays centered on the outré visions of subcultural-cum-mainstream artist Tim Burton—by working through a series of readings that surveys Burton’s filmography through Frankenweenie (2012) and its investment in pastiche, citationality, adaptation, assemblage, and, of course, revivification. With these exegeses—chronologically moving from the stop-motion short Vincent (1982) to the big-budget flop Dark Shadows (2012)—Weinstock isolates some of the more significant themes and motifs that repeat throughout Burton’s oeuvre. These include a collapsing of the boundaries between the real and the supernatural, a rejection of grim-faced pessimism through an embrace of both nostalgia and irony, the artist-genius figure qua outcast, a childlike sense of wonder, the renewal or transformation of the Oedipal family, a clearly defined (and bold) aesthetic, and monstrous hybridity. According to Weinstock, Burton’s films revel in the Gothic tradition, “but they do so in the context of films that persistently undercut the horror of the Gothic mode through humor and sentimentality” (26). This distinctly postmodern sensibility helps to explain the ease with which the book’s contributors mobilize the auteur’s work in a multiplicity of directions.
Indeed, throughout the collection, a most exciting ensemble of bleeding-edge scholars working within a wide range of fields elaborates upon each of the above-mentioned elements, often moving into uncharted terrain and therefore inviting future scholarship on Burton’s films, poetry, and illustrations. Put simply, much like Burton’s open-ended works of bricolage, which have been embraced by and subsequently influenced the mainstream, the entries within this volume disavow heavy-handed critique in favor of innovative augmentation, thereby forming a welcome resource for scholars working within an appropriately broad spectrum of disciplines. The volume also strikes a refreshing balance between sophistication and accessibility, gesturing toward potential readerships beyond the bounds of the academy, although its current price is an unfortunate impediment to such user-friendliness. (Happily, a paperback edition has been announced as forthcoming.)
Composed of thirteen entries, the book is, like Frankenweenie, “a kind of textual Frankenstein’s monster” (1). But Weinstock’s adept organization tends to vitiate this tendency toward fragmentation in its subject. It is divided into three parts: 1) “Aesthetics,” 2) “Influences and Contexts,” and 3) “Thematics.” Although the three sections are clearly labeled, the divisions among them are remarkably fluid, once again emphasizing the volume’s unique versatility. Margins to Mainstream functions both as an accommodating reference work—complete with a meticulously designed index—and as an immensely enjoyable interpretive piece. This accomplishment is isomorphic with Weinstock’s articulation of Burton as a “mainstream outsider,” an idea that emphasizes the artist’s paradoxical position within Hollywood, rendering the volume a fitting companion piece to the Burton phantasmagoria.
In the “Aesthetics” section, Murray Pomerance investigates Burton’s fascination with the black line and its ability to scramble our gaze in its voluminous depths, while Catherine Spooner follows Stella Bruzzi and disinters the oft-overlooked importance of Colleen Atwood’s costume designs in delineating the figure of the outcast in Burton’s films. Both essays are wonderfully inventive, historically grounded, theoretically rich, and ultimately useful to media-studies and fashion-studies scholars. Similarly, Isabella van Elferen’s impressive analysis of Danny Elfman’s otherworldly music in a number of Burton’s films is a valuable resource for scholars parsing out the convergences and disjunctions between musicology and film studies, while J.P. Telotte’s contribution on Burton’s use of spatiality and its implications for social context outlines the philosophical optimism with which the filmmaker conceives his aesthetic. Taken together, these four essays throw into sharp relief the artist’s intrepid imagination, paving the way for a series of entries that explore the influences behind Burton’s art.
“Influences and Contexts,” the volume’s longest section, begins with Aaron Taylor’s study of cult spectatorial practices and how they resonate with Burton’s affinity for adaptation and intertextuality. For Taylor, contra fidelity criticism, Burton’s cinematic “reimaginings” are perhaps better understood hypertextually in relation to their source materials. In other words, Taylor, following Robert Stam, develops a dialogic reading of the filmmaker that responds again to the question of aesthetics in Burton’s corpus and speaks to cult spectatorship writ large. It makes sense, then, that the subsequent piece by Stephen Carver views Burton through the lens of horror-film icon Vincent Price and his influence on Burton’s penchant for intertextuality, while Rob Latham’s essay sheds light on the influence of trash cinema on Ed Wood (1994) and Mars Attacks! (1996). Latham’s astute analysis of the satirical subtexts of these films calls attention to Burton’s fondness for postmodern subversion while reflecting the cult sensibility that gives rise to politically relevant pastiche. These three entries are of definite importance to film and cultural studies and present powerfully original readings of an artist whose influence on contemporary popular culture cannot be overstated.
The remaining essays in this section depart from Burton’s films to provide coverage of his other creative endeavors and of fan culture as well. Eden Lee Lackner’s contribution, for example, investigates the influence of Edward Gorey on the artist’s The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories (1997), a collection of poems and illustrations that offers affirmative depictions of monstrosity and childhood. Cheryl Hicks’s piece on Burton’s much-lauded art exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art provides a compelling synthesis of firsthand account and critical analysis, highlighting the artist’s subversion of suburbia and, by extension, of “the code of conduct typical of the more introspective, church-like museum experience” (168), while Matt Hills’s essay privileges the role that passionate fans play in shaping the auteuristic mythology surrounding Burton. As expected, each entry is delightfully perceptive and carefully researched, thus ushering the artist’s non-cinematic works into the zone of subcultural communities.
“Thematics,” the volume’s final and shortest section, zeroes in on three themes at the heart of Burton’s films that have already received some attention within the previous entries. First, Carol Siegel’s inspired contribution adopts a Deleuzian-Muñozian perspective, arguing that Burton’s films present affirmative articulations of non-normative sexual identities and perversity, epitomizing a radical break from Aristotelian categorization as it relates to sex and gender. Second, Dominic Lennard’s forward-thinking essay offers numerous insights into the complexities of the artist-hero in Burton’s work, remaining sensitive throughout to the processes of subjectification that repress and therefore provoke social rage with respect to artistic production. Third, Katherine A. Fowkes’s piece examines the significance of the trickster in Burton’s films and concludes that the auteur’s inclination toward repetition clears space for creative ontological transformation. Put another way, the trickster’s movement away from binary thinking and toward what she calls “re-articulation” is also a movement toward the new. “Thematics” thus carries with it a philosophical import that should be productive to scholars invested in post-Deleuzian thinking and in what it might mean for queer and affect studies.
Tim Burton: Margins to Mainstream is a rare accomplishment whose diverse, peerless readings and open-ended configuration overwhelm potential weaknesses through sheer quality. In the introduction, Weinstock explains that “Burton’s peculiar vision—his characteristic style and thematic preoccupations —has arguably seeped into Western culture and his productions tell us a story about shifting tastes, values, and social expectations” (28). The story contained within these pages makes perfectly clear just how substantial Burton’s impact has been while remaining true to the idiosyncratic weirdness that brought him to popular attention in the first place.
—Sean Matharoo, University of California, Riverside