BOOKS IN REVIEW
Science, Gender, and History: The Fantastic in Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2014. xi + 157 pp. $71.99 hc.
One of Victor Frankenstein’s most obvious follies lay in believing that individual human features, chosen for their discrete beauty, might be sown together into a cumulative harmony, failing to anticipate their grotesque culmination. Thankfully, despite the wide topical variety in its title and the reach of centuries and continents in its subtitle, Suparna Banerjee’s critical studymanages to bring its various components into a refreshing degree of harmonious symmetry.
Much of this accomplishment lies in the text’s strict formal adherences. Separated into four chapters, the study moves chronologically: Chapter One examines Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818),Chapter Two considers her The Last Man (1926), Chapter Three leaps to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), and Chapter Four analyzes her Oryx and Crake (2003). Chapters One and Three resonate with each other along thematic and theoretical lines, as do Chapters Two and Four. Though the guiding concerns of the study are sustained throughout, these chapter pairings provide the most substantial conversations between the two authors. The odd-numbered chapters focus on issues of gender (specifically, the politics of procreation) and the themes of rebellion, revolution, and tyranny. The even-numbered chapters, guided by their post-apocalyptic source materials, focus more on scientific-historical arcs as they explore themes of colonialism and global eco-politics.
Taken together, the terms science, gender, and history do not provide a cohesive argumentative through-line, but I would argue that such is not actually the study’s aim. Instead, the terms serve more as a constellation of concerns among which Banerjee draws important and compelling connections. These terms also help to draw dialectical correspondences between the two novelists. Banerjee shows the disruption of binary logic that undergirds the social contexts from which the books emerged and that are even occasionally replicated in their critical afterlives. She continually shows how both Shelley and Atwood complicated such binaries: in Frankenstein’s “subversion … of the thematic of nature-versus-culture” (13), in The Last Man’s “dialectical interaction of public (masculine) history-making and the realm of the domestic-familial” (47), in A Handmaid’s Tale’snegotiation of feminist praxis in terms of “isolationism” versus “involvement” (61), and in Oryx and Crake’smeditation on the connection between preserving difference while resisting other-ing (97).
The perhaps strange-seeming pairing of these two authors from dramatically different times and countries is implicitly justified in about as simple and elegant a fashion as one could hope for: the texts and concerns of the authors bear striking similarities. This simple fact holds this project together. The natural correspondences among the study’s three main concerns seem unforced and organic, allowing for nuanced close readings that unpack the most significant moments in the texts. As Banerjee makes clear, these four novels are about gender, science, and history (whatever else they are also about), and this is a study of how those ideas function in each text alone and then in conversation across their milieux.
Banerjee’s writing is thoroughly conversant with theoretical methodologies and critical treatments of the four primary texts. Indeed, her book displays a thoroughness of research and a robust engagement with many of the major critical voices that have come before it. There is an almost appreciative, even generous, acknowledgment of the tradition of scholarship in the chapters’ multitudinous quotations and citations. These chapters provide a solid foundation for scholars hoping to get a sense of the critical legacy of these four novels, even as Banerjee provides new and insightful observations and connections in her own readings.
The sprawl and scope of this project is not without its costs, however. The breadth that allows the book to speak to each of its major themes, and to forgo the more tedious analytic maneuver of tying everything to a particular line of inquiry, also means that there are times when the reader becomes a bit lost. The problem often lies in the many chapter subtitles and subdivision titles, and the argumentative flow is notably inconsistent. Likewise, the generous quotation and reference to critical discourses is occasionally overdone. The justification of the study’s dual-authorial focus also attempts too quickly to establish correspondences between the historical and social contexts of Shelley and Atwood. As a result, the transitional sections between the chapters are often the most difficult to follow. These attempts to establish confluence (even when acknowledging significant differences) between the authors, their contexts, or their artistic achievements, often rely on a process of rhetorical back-and-forth that saps the momentum of the chapters. Banerjee’s study is at its best in the middle of the chapters, once the inherent strengths of the texts under consideration and their particular investments in the study’s overarching concerns have been brought to the fore.
Aside from these slight problems, this is a rich and satisfying exploration of two powerhouse figures in science fiction and their best fictions. Anyone with an interest in these authors, these texts, or the topics that guide this study cannot help but find insight here. LikeVictor Frankenstein, Banerjee has breathed new life into these novels and their critical conversations.
—Justin Cosner, University of Iowa
The (Heretofore) Lost World of Irish SF.
Irish Science Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2014. viii +263 pp. $110 hc.
Irish Science Fiction is a timely study in more ways than one. A chronological examination of two centuries of Irish sf, it is a groundbreaking and long-overdue work, coming in the wake of much recent interest in other “national” sf traditions (Ukrainian, Italian, and Israeli, among others). Covering texts in both English and Irish Gaelic, the book is both an analysis of a surprisingly diverse selection of Irish literature and an important injection of sf into the field of Irish literary studies. It is a book very much concerned with time: tales of alternate history, future war, and the reimagined present feature throughout; a distinctly Irish focus on the past, at the expense of a natively-imagined future, is seen as both helping and hindering the development of a national sf; and the collision and blurring of tradition, myth, and modernity are at the core of Fennell’s readings.
A work of this type will necessarily encounter definitional issues, and Fennell confesses that his designation of “Irish” is “instinctive or emotive rather than logical” (2), a choice that will surely be familiar to anyone attempting genre definitions in the field of sf. To this end, he includes Northern Irish writers, an astute decision as becomes clear, but excludes foreign authors resident in Ireland. What is in no doubt, however, is the remarkable abundance of Irish sf. The texts chosen are admirably wide-ranging: more familiar authors, from Robert Cromie to C.S. Lewis to Ian McDonald, are studied alongside Irish authors not generally associated with sf, such as George Bernard Shaw and Flann O’Brien. The majority of the texts, however, will be far less familiar to most, and Fennell gathers together an impressive selection, including Thomas Greer’s A Modern Daedalus (1885), in which the protagonist invents a pair of mechanical wings and creates an Irish flying brigade to win an independent Ireland; Charlotte (“L”) McManus’s The Professor in Erin (1912), a utopian alternate history in which a professor awakens in a “nationalist wonderland” (94); Seosamh Ó Torna’s “Duinneall” (1938), a paranoid account of machine-like beings; and Cathal Ó Sándair’s derivative space opera, Captaen Spéirling (1960-61).
There is always a danger in studies of this type that critical insight will get sidelined by excessive plot summary, and there are certainly times when this is the case—the section on C.S Lewis, for example, is simply a summary of Out of the Silent Planet (1938), while the McDonald chapter, examining a well-known contemporary author, feels overly burdened with synopsis. The overall balance of exposition to analysis, however, is handled skillfully, especially given the unfamiliar source material. Also, Fennell’s translations of the Gaelic texts are smoothly integrated (with the original Irish preserved in the endnotes), and the result is a work that cogently argues its case for the distinctiveness of Irish sf while introducing the vast majority of readers to a wide swathe of new sf texts. The introduction sees Fennell wade into the ongoing debate surrounding the definition and origins of sf, and while this is familiar ground for those working in the field, it will certainly serve scholars of Irish literature as a welcome overview. Most sf critics will also welcome the contextualization of the finer points of Irish history and politics woven throughout the discussion. More importantly, however, the introduction presents a concise outline of Fennell’s later ideas, particularly in relation to myth. Fennell contends that sf “is ahistorical in that it pretends to be history”(18; emphasis in original), and this insight will be crucial for a reading of Irish sf that is forged out of competing histories and alternative futures.
The opening chapters examine genre differentiation and the related blurred distinctions among religion, tradition, science, and modernity. Biographical readings of the work of Fitz-James O’Brien and Cromie highlight this section, along with the recurring theme of the “siege mentality.” This theme is revisited in the shape of future-war fiction, where Fennell argues that I.F. Clarke’s inclusion, in his critical work on future-war stories, of Irish texts within a UK tradition ignores important distinctions: “from within the island’s opposing political/cultural traditions … the anticipated combat was always clearly against a foreign or alien enemy”; to nationalists that enemy was Britain; to unionists it was a “secret network of rebels bent on total destruction of their community” (68).
Further connecting the chapters is the issue of colonialism, especially “the degree to which Ireland was colonised, or participated in the colonial project” (36), and the related concept of Ireland as a lost world. Lost-world literature, another staple of sf, may seem to be missing from Irish literature, but “though there are no nineteenth-century texts that depict dinosaurs grazing in Connemara, the colonial image of Ireland was a synthesis of the gothic and lost-world narratives” (39). This theme resurfaces throughout the study, so that in the 1930s, when “science and technology (all ‘objective’ forces) could only be interpreted as antagonistic to a nation trying to construct an ‘authentic’ (subjective) identity for itself,” Ireland is seen once again as a lost world, “a bastion of subjectivity in a world that was trying to become purely ‘objective’” (121). Of course, Ireland may be an island, but it was by no means immune from western popular culture, and Fennell highlights a number of these interactions. Particularly fascinating is the intermingling of sf and the Irish language. With dialects of Irish in each Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking area), the Irish Dáil (parliament) coining Irish words for new technology, and the sf propensity for neologisms, “the average reader would not have been able to tell whether the strange new words they were reading were supposed to be from Mars, a different Gaeltacht, or the Dáil” (135). A close look at the children’s adventure series Captaen Spéirling illustrates this point nicely, and Fennell notes that what makes the series original is the fact that it is soutterly unoriginal—it firmly integrates Irish-language sf into the traditions and tropes of pulp sf (except, of course, that Captain Spéirling is Catholic).
Pulp fiction reappears in a chapter on Bob Shaw and James White, whose work may seem “to be straightforward adventure stories in the pulp mode, but beneath this veneer lie some of the genre’s most profound meditations on violence, history, peace, prejudice and utopia” (157). Their work is read in very close parallel to Northern Irish political history, as with the following chapter on Ian McDonald, so that tribalism and racism, escapism and emigration, connect speculative worlds with the “Troubles” and back once again to nineteenth-century colonialism (170). The final chapters bring the study up to the present day, from Irish cyberpunk to works reflecting the Irish economic boom. While the originality of many recent Irish-language texts sadly “amount[s] to nothing more than the novelty of setting [various sf] tropes in Ireland” (198), Fennell is to be commended for exposing such a variety of fiction—the original alongside the more uninspired.
Irish Science Fiction is an extremely useful resource for scholars of sf. Engaging, insightful, and not uncontroversial in its reading of Irish history and politics, it confidently places Irish sf at the center of the genre and leaves us with no doubts about “Irish SF’s distinct literary personality” (31).
—Conor Reid, Trinity College Dublin
A Fruitful Miscellany.
Time Travel in Popular Media: Essays on Film, Television, Literature and Video Games. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. 336 pp. $40 pbk.
A new book sometimes prompts reflection as much upon the nature of academic publishing genres as upon the particular scholarly topic it covers. While Matthew Jones and Joan Ormrod’s Time Travel in Popular Media does not appear particularly unusual for a collection of critical essays, it does display a few tactics that other academic editors might profitably emulate. First, the relative brevity of the essays permits the contributors to engage in concentrated readings of specific texts or small groups of texts (these include film, tv shows, literature, and games, as the book’s subtitle suggests, although film is the predominant target). Second, most contributors end their essays with brief conclusions, somewhat reminiscent of research papers in the social sciences, a sensible custom that helps the reader collate and compare the medley of approaches to time travel, which is a narrative type that, as the editors observe, “sprawls across and bleeds into several other genres” and takes “multiple, fluid forms” (1). Third, a considerable number of the essays in the collection are co-authored, a practice that suggests real work-in-progress among and between scholars, and that humanities editors ought to encourage more often.
If I may keep in the foreground these innovative aspects, I can affirm that, although I did not learn a great deal new from the collection about the theory of time travel, reading it was nonetheless a valuable experience. What its contributors have to offer, chiefly in lieu of wholly original theory or methodology, is a miscellany of possible directions, interpretive targets, and recommendations for a canon of time-travel narrative types beyond straight-up science fiction—all worthy objectives, since the editors quite appropriately “intend that this volume serves not as a definitive guide to the genre (or sub-genre, motif or trope) but as a starting point for debates about the issues it raises” (16). Taking the editors at their word, I will concentrate on what I believe are the collection’s strongest individual pieces.
Matthew Kimberley and Jason N. Dittmar’s essay, “To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before,” employs terms from systems theory (“complexity,” “possibility space,” “attractor,” etc.) to analyze a number of relationships between J.J. Abrams’s recent Star Trek film reboot (2009) and the handful or trove (depending on how one reckons it) of precursors in the Star Trek franchise. Kimberley and Dittmar’s sensitivity to the myriad overlaps between the fictional universes of Star Trek and the nonfictional (or maybe quasi-fictional) world of its viewers enables an imaginative reading of the “generic cartography” (76) that Abrams both reveres and exploits. Time travel, in this reading, comprises a cross-pollination of layered prior narratives, multiple media types, and the intertextual expertise of generations of fans. But as Kimberly and Dittmar show, the myriad small differences that Abrams introduces in his “reterritorialization” (75) of Star Trek ironically result in an overall conservative turn, both in narrative and cultural-political terms, as though genre and cultural-historical inertia collude to reestablish the Federation and its rather predictable future: “the ship and crew seem ineluctably drawn together, not only through the conscious machinations of Spock but also through the random workings of the universe” (75).
Equally intriguing and similarly demanding in its analysis of the ways in which time travel’s radical potential is foreclosed by genre customs is David Blanke’s “Experiments in Time,” on Cecil B. DeMille’s early silent films. Like Kimberley and Dittmar, Blanke views time travel eclectically, which pays off in his nuanced reading of the variety of temporal manipulations DeMille employs. Blanke reconsiders the director’s narrative framing, cross-cutting, historical allegories, and various spiritualist modes (reincarnation, somnambulism, magic) for traversing historical epochs, all as species of time-travel narration. While DeMille invokes the “semantics of time travel” chiefly to set up moralistic claims about “the timelessness of passions such as love, patriotism, or faith” (103; emphasis in original), he “increasingly avoid[s] exploration of its syntax,” a reluctance that ends up eviscerating the “critical cross-epoch comparisons of faith, gender, and consumerism” that his avant-garde techniques potentially initiate. As Blanke points out, DeMille’s regrettable hesitancy to exploit the radical prospects of time travel arises partly from his personal conservatism and partly from the cinematic era to which he belongs—his silent films well precede the burgeoning of time-travel narratives in pulp and Golden-Age sf. But at least some of DeMille’s nonchalance about “syntax” is also endemic to the formal and moral sluggishness of genre narrative itself, a tendency also indicated if one juxtaposes Blanke’s reading with Kimberley and Dittmar’s analysis of Abrams’s generic conservatism nearly a century after DeMille’s silent heyday.
In my opinion, the highlight of the collection is Victoria Byard’s “‘I Belong to the Future,’” which analyzes the cultural and political significance of two children’s timeslip dramas from 1970s BBC television, The Georgian House (1976) and A Traveler in Time (1978). Carefully studying both the construction of historical plots and the minute action of cameras and viewpoints, Byard shows how time travel becomes “a way of troubling the binaries of knowing and learning, reality and fiction, belonging and exclusion, and childhood and adulthood” (158). The timeslip directly inserts, as it were, its adolescent characters into the dialectics of “labor, class and economy” (153)—history is “always-already there, not just as part of the heritage discourse but as part of everyday, domestic life” (159). The result is a rejoinder to more politically complacent narratives of British history and class consciousness: “[the characters’] understanding of the historical period through empiricism and the heritage space is challenged when they are made subject to and complicit in social, political and racial discourses antithetical to their 20th-century beliefs” (153). Moreover, as Byard shows, it is “the grammar of television” itself that generates the timeslip effects through which cultural history is simultaneously realized and politicized; the TV camera crafts “an aesthetic of mutable space and time, suggesting different perspectives on the mise en scène; a hidden history to be revealed depending on where the camera moves” (161).
Not all the essays rise to the level of Byard’s meticulous close reading and theoretical acumen, but there are several other pieces that deserve the reader’s attention—for instance: Jacqueline Furby’s analysis of “orphic rescue fantasies,” perhaps most interesting in its iconoclastic reading of the film Moulin Rouge (2001) as “a closed loop of spacetime” (88); Paul Booth’s interpretation of “mental time travel” in the video game Eternal Darkness (2002); and Matthew Freeman’s analysis of “transmedia storytelling” in the Planet of the Apes film series. Even though some other essays are fairly thin or routine, their exegetical diversity is beneficial—overall, the collection reads more like a fruitful miscellany than a sustained argument or assessment. That is fine, and appropriate to the slippery and adaptable nature of time travel itself in “popular media.” I am obliged to mention, however, alongside numerous copyediting and indexing errors, the most serious flaw in the book—namely, its botched bibliography, which omits a considerable number of entries for the author-date citations made by contributors. This is no small fault, since the bibliography’s failure substantially impedes one of the collection’s key functions, to facilitate further research via the references made to other authors and texts. But with the unpleasant task of mentioning these lapses out of the way, let me still recommend Time Travel in Popular Media,both for its several fine individual contributions and for its overall model of cross-disciplinary collaboration for humanities scholars.
—David Wittenberg, University of Iowa
Impossible Heights: Skyscrapers, Flight, and the Master Builder. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2015. 296 pp. $37.50 pbk.
In the opening pages of Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column (1890), protagonist Gabriel Weltstein gazes from an airship over the brilliant utopian mass of the New York City of the future. The unparalleled aerial splendor is not limited to Weltstein’s vision; later he also inhales sweet high-altitude oxygen that is piped into the tellingly named Hotel Darwin. Such an invigorating, elevated experience of the ideal metropolis is a fleeting one for Weltstein but predicts the aerial appreciation of futuristic cities that would come of age in the 1920s and 1930s. This particular aerial discourse, involving a bird’s-eye view and an ideal metropolis, is what architectural historian Adnan Morshed has termed the “aesthetics of ascension,” which is the subject of his new book on interwar America.
Impossible Heights displays for sf scholars the importance of aerial vision in the broader study of architecture and culture as science fiction. The book is organized into three main chapters, each focusing on an influential figure in American aerial design: illustrator Hugh Ferriss, innovator Buckminster Fuller, and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes. Morshed’s project is first and foremost a study of urban planning and technoculture, where the increased access to oblique views inspires dreams of gleaming metropolises, and as such the book is a chronicle of high-rise utopianism at its most unabashed. Morshed carefully places the works of Ferriss, Fuller, and Bel Geddes in conversation with a broad array of cultural materials, and even casual fans of science fiction can quickly appreciate Morshed’s ability to parse how prevalent the aerial aesthetic is among interwar architects, urban planners, artists, photographers, and sf writers. Fans of New Wave sf will be aware that such themes inform the subgenre (recall, for example, the Fuller-inspired “Buckmaster” character in the dystopian automotive city of J.G. Ballard’s “The Ultimate City” ). And the more recent rise of retrofuturism also recalls many of the same trends.
Also of particular interest to sf scholars are the plentiful illustrations: cover art from novels by H.G. Wells and the iconic Frank R. Paul covers from pulps such as Amazing Stories and Air Wonder Stories, advertisements for street lights and roof shingles, diagrams and scale models from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, chiaroscuro renderings of cityscapes, panels from comic strips, and, naturally, a welter of aerial photographs. Morshed’s tightly packed chapters further cross over into sf territory when dealing with the important social and governmental ramifications of high-angle vision, architecture, urban planning, and flight—just as Caesar’s Column’s does when its utopian high-rise façades reveal a thinly covered dystopian base. The interwar brand of urban aerofuturism reflects the widespread discussions of hygiene and eugenics, which are noted in chapters such as “The Master Builder as Superman,” and yet many social and ecological concerns in the chapter on Buckminster Fuller feel very contemporary when considering the challenges today’s sf faces regarding environmental degradation and social ethics.
While Ferriss, Fuller, and Bel Geddes, as well as a number of the sf trajectories under study in Impossible Heights have been covered in previous works, it is the careful, convincingly sustained focus on the aerialist approach to the city that sets Morshed’s project apart. Impossible Heights as critical air scholarship offers a site of rich cultural exploration regarding the architectural history of flight, a historical context for the development of science fiction that has to date been inadequately explored in sf scholarship.
—Alan Lovegreen, New York City College of Technology
A Valuable Reprint from Italy.
Il senso del futuro: La fantascienza nella letteratura americana. [The Sense of the Future: Science Fiction in American Literature] 1970. Milan-Udine: Mimesis, 2012. xiv + 315 pp. €26.
In a period when English-language classics of sf criticism by Tom Moylan and Darko Suvin are being reissued, Italy does its part. First published in 1970, Carlo Pagetti’s Il senso del futuro was a truly pioneering book, one of the earliest academic volumes on the genre in any language. Structured into twelve roughly chronological chapters, Il senso del futuro is divided into two parts, on nineteenth and twentieth century sf, respectively. The overall interpretive framework somewhat anticipates David Ketterer’s New Worlds for Old (1974), with Leslie Fiedler in lieu of R.W.B. Lewis as the crucial contemporary critic. Pagetti focuses on sf resulting from the American romance tradition’s nay-saying posture vis-à-vis national optimism—a posture jettisoned in the Gernsback era, only to be unevenly resumed in 1950s social sf. The final chapter, on “American Science Fiction in the Space Age,” concludes with a reading of John Barth and William S. Burroughs, taken as the most advanced strand in then-current sf.
Primarily aimed at familiarizing non-specialist readers with the US sf tradition, the book seems to pursue two apparently contradictory targets. On the one hand, the analysis challenges commonplace hierarchies by finding in canonical writers crucial signs of genre, and by providing a painstakingly detailed overview of the recent decades; sf displays what Pagetti calls “ambiguity,” in that there is no single overriding “formal and philosophical,” let alone ideological, world-view: “[e]very sf writer had and has a personal vision on the role of language, art, society, and reality” (14). Sf must be grasped in its own terms, avoiding pseudo-sociological generalizations. On the other hand, “traditional” readers are in part reassured: post-1926 genre writers (not even the best) seem never to match those canonical standards. In this regard, Pagetti’s book was to a large extent a direct intervention in the nascent Italian sf scene, to which the 1970s were to bring both a historical and a literary awareness, and it resembles the work of notoriously polemical reviewers of the same generation (say, Christopher Priest and M. John Harrison) expressing at once love for sf and a call for better writing. In later years, Italian sf readers found in Pagetti’s writings important work that challenged high-low boundaries and included analyses of “classic” sf. In a 1987 review-essay published in SFS (for which he has worked as both author and consultant), Pagetti precisely found a major fault in much Italian academic criticism: the tendency to approach themes such as dystopia without paying the slightest attention to the genre as such (see “Science Fiction Criticism in Italy, In and Out of the University,” SFS 14.2 [July 1987]): 261-66). Scholarly rigor, indeed, has made him an inspirational figure for many in Italy (this reviewer included).
The book is a full reprint, using the same plates as the original edition (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1970), retaining both a few typos and the final list of books in that pioneering series of American Studies, which included a 1957 collection of essays by its editor Agostino Lombardo (supervisor in Milan of the 1967 tesi di laurea Pagetti’s book was based on, later holder of important posts in Rome) on “realism and symbolism” in American literature. Lombardo’s volume made many things possible, including a scholarly book on sf. Arguing that the thickness of realism’s detail could house the “symbolic” principle of literariness was not an obvious move in a milieu dominated by Benedetto Croce’s aesthetic of ineffable, individual poetic intuition—New Criticism sans the urn—that privileged poetry over fiction, everywhere searching for isolated gems of poesy inside the unpoetical of the work’s form, vehemently shunning the notion of genre (and of literary history itself).
During and after Fascism, American literature and culture had for many years been an object of fascination for a number of unorthodox left-wing intellectuals such as Cesare Pavese and Elio Vittorini, constructing an Italian progressive version of American exceptionalism, their “America” embodying a democratic vitalism that Italy seemed to lack. “A committed intellectual and a literary formalist” (Donatella Izzo, “‘Appearing and Disappearing in Public’: James Studies in Italy, from Local to Global,” The Reception of Henry James in Europe, ed. Annick Duperray [London: Continuum, 2006], p. 80; emphasis in original), Lombardo acted as mediator between the two strands, adding a stress on historical rigor that often clashed with the canonizing impressionism still dominating the nonspecialized press, and promoted the opening up of the canon. Thus, in the Italian academy, American Studies was the fastest to respond to the challenge of sf: that step was indispensable to grapple with a genre inextricable from its “realist” chronotopes (icons, parabolas, world-building), and from the semi-autonomy of its own history.
When he originally published his book, Pagetti had done several reviews for the magazine Gamma, as well as a number of academic essays on US authors (including Lovecraft), and in 1970 he co-edited (with Riccardo Valla) a pioneering Ballard issue of the journal Nuova Presenza. Later, he would write many introductions to sf translations and edit both critical volumes and anthologies of sf/f classics. In English studies, he has worked extensively on Swift, Darwin, and Wells. His 1993 volume I sogni della scienza [The Dreams of Science] followed and updated Il senso del futuro to the era of cyberpunk; throughout, the main concern was to establish connections between genre sf (from Heinlein to Dick, Le Guin, and Gibson) and the “high” traditions of early sf (Swift, Wells) and dystopia (up to Vonnegut). This approach drives his introductions to volumes of Dick’s complete works, a project he has been editing since 2000.
The book’s title plays on Henry James’s posthumous and unfinished The Sense of the Past (1917), here analyzed as a time-travel tale focusing on the theme of illusory reality (102-104). The presence of such an über-canonical figure marks Pagetti’s strategy of inclusiveness. Building on H. Bruce Franklin, as well on the existing corpus of insider criticism (Sam Moskowitz to Kingsley Amis, Edmund Crispin, Brian W. Aldiss, etc.), Pagetti traces pre-twentieth-century ancestors as both writers of proto-sf and of stories with sf elements. Thus, his narrative is about a genre taking shape, starting with the utopianism in early settlers’ writings and sf motifs in Charles Brockden Brown’s gothic. The more occasional Hawthorne (whose scientist figures need to be carefully nuanced), and the consistent Poe (whose sf is mixed with satire, philosophical speculation, and exploration) are fascinated by hubristic “Faust-like” protagonists (83); after mid-century, sf authors include Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Fitz-James O’Brien, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and especially Bierce and Twain. The final strand is utopian/dystopian, from Edward Bellamy to Jack London, and includes a number of minor writers. In other words, although recent scholarship has included women’s and African American works (in later years, Pagetti himself wrote on Charlotte Perkins Gilman), this was at the time a thorough genealogy, highly readable and still usable for students.
The Gernsback years are at the same time a moment of involution and a time of self-definition, soon to become “more vital” than other, more formulaic popular genres. From early space opera on, the historical overview does not need to be repeated in SFS, and I will limit myself to a few observations. First, and despite a few short chapters on individual figures, Pagetti’s history is remarkably crowded, not restricted to better-known names, and references to numerous anthologies allow him to take into account short fiction, all too often slighted. On periodization, the book describes the post-Campbell generation as a more articulated scene than usual in current sf histories: so, along with Asimov, Heinlein, and van Vogt, Pagetti discusses Simak, Sturgeon, and Leiber, certainly outside “hard-sf” orthodoxy. Also, I am led to wonder whether historical models should not complement “dominant” schools such as Golden Age, social sf, and New Wave with some “emergent” or transitional strands: the alien landscapes of Blish, Farmer, Herbert, and others do not seem to fit into any of them. Possibly, the most far-sighted chapter addresses “Structures, Themes, and Mythologies” (153-85), going from a discussion on politics (e.g., highlighting anti-racist pieces by Leigh Brackett and Farmer, and later by Dick) and religion, to a survey of what Gary K. Wolfe later called “icons”—including mutants, aliens, robots, ESP, time travel, and parallel universes.
The first outstanding author Pagetti singles out is Bradbury, for his obvious literary awareness and his keen sense of contemporary alienation (188); among dystopian satirists, the best are Pohl and especially Sheckley—first for his short fiction and later for his Swiftian Journey Beyond Tomorrow (1962), one of the most “negative” assessments of the contemporary US (250)—and Dick, of course, closing with the “disintegration of the real” (264) in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965); finally, a reading of Vonnegut provides possibly the culminating metaphor of the apocalyptic strand privileged by Pagetti: the worldwide whiteness (270-71) of Ice-Nine in Cat’s Cradle (1963). In the concluding chapter, the historical overview stops somewhere in 1968—what was to be published at the end of the decade would have made for a very different ending to this literary history.
The author’s new introduction historicizes the book as the start for his career and for his ongoing commitment to sf. We can only hope for more work to come (and for reprints of so many uncollected essays); as among other things this book shows, Pagetti’s commitment to the genre was deep enough to allow him to detect, in the mid-to-late 1960s, Dick’s literary and cultural relevance. It is hard to think of a higher standard.
—Salvatore Proietti, University of Calabria
The Psychopathology of Postwar SF.
Germany: A Science Fiction. Fort Wayne, IN: Anti-Oedipus, 2014. 274 pp. $29.95 hc; $19.95 pbk.
Despite its rather misleading title, Laurence A. Rickels’s Germany: A Science Fiction is not about the history of Germany or even German sf; rather, it examines the influence of Nazi Germany on postwar Anglo-American sf. The book thus appears to be a continuation or elaboration of the third volume of Rickels’s Nazi Psychoanalysis (2002), in which he claimed that Nazi Germany was “one big science fiction” (Nazi Psychoanalysis, Volume III: Psy Fi [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002], 118) and that the psychopathology of Nazism informs the history of sf itself. The larger argument of this trilogy was that Nazism involved the implementation of psychoanalytic theory as psychological warfare, and the subtitle of the third volume, “Psy Fi,” directly refers to this merging of psychoanalysis, psychological warfare, and science fiction (which he also describes as the “aestheticization of politics,” borrowing Walter Benjamin’s famous phrase). The concept of “psy fi” was also based on a rather idiosyncratic understanding of sf as a distinctly German genre that was appropriated by the Allies following WWII:
Everyone thought science fiction … was a Cold War, U.S. versus them exclusive. Yes, everyone knew the distant precursors, ancestral friendly ghosts, lonely at the top, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. But in addition to the underground track from Kurd Laßwitz’s major Mars novel [Two Planets (1897)] (completely contemporary and up to comparison with Wells’s War of the Worlds) all the way to the outside and outer space of Nazi German rocket research, there was a substantial modern German science fiction tradition that qualified for the bulk rate by the twenties and went right on fantasizing during the Third Reich. (179)
Germany: A Science Fiction is similarly based on the idea that Nazi Germany was “the first realized science fiction” (113) and that all of the major themes in postwar sf—space travel, time travel, dystopias, alternate histories, etc.—reflect the psychopathology of Nazism. In other words, Rickels argues that the history of sf cannot be properly understood without taking into account its inherent yet (until now) overlooked Nazi component.
This argument may strike some readers as absurd, as the genre clearly predates World War II (a fact of which Rickels is obviously aware, although he seems to regard nineteenth-century sf as reflecting the psychopathology of Nazism avant la lettre) and there are numerous examples of “realized” sf that predate the rise of Nazi Germany (the same claim could just as easily be made for World War I, the Industrial Revolution, or virtually any event in the history of science, technology, medicine, etc.). The claim that sf was one of the spoils of World War II also requires some elaborate contortions, as it leads Rickels to conclude that the prevalence of atomic energy in postwar sf was also indebted to the history of Nazi science (126). Despite this tendency toward oversimplification and overgeneralization, there is a more fundamental ambiguity concerning the political content of postwar sf. At times, Rickels seems to describe the genre as a sustained attempt to cope with the traumatic experience of World War II. This interpretation is supported by James Godley, who argues that Rickels “follows the path of a traumatic wound that won’t stop (not) writing itself, that of the war’s catastrophic recent past that postwar science fiction attempts to escape, overcome, or reflexively absorb” (“Germany: Allegory of the Unmournable,” theory@buffalo 18 : 113). At other times, however, Rickels seems to characterize the genre as a continuation of Nazism by other means. In his discussion of Wernher von Braun, for example, Rickels describes how the fictional accounts of space travel written by this Nazi-rocket-scientist-turned-American-aerospace-engineer represented a form of Nazi techno-fetishism that was directly assimilated into American mass culture (32-34). In these moments, Rickels seems to imply that the US inherited not only Nazi scientists but also the psychopathology of Nazism itself—an argument that is clearly indebted to Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s famous description of the “culture industry” as an extension of German fascism. It thus remains unclear whether Rickels is treating postwar Anglo-American sf as a cultural symptom that reflects the trauma of WWII, a form of literary therapy that attempts to resolve this trauma, or an instrument of psychological conditioning that preserves and disseminates Nazi ideology.
This ambiguity informs nearly all of the major themes in the text. One of the principal aspects of Nazi psychopathology, for example, is the “techno-logization of the self,” which Rickels associates with the Freudian concept of the double:
Freud’s analysis of the doubling disorder … served as a blueprint for a series of applications in German military psychology; ultimately it became Nazi psychological warfare and mass psychology. The divisions of doubles that emerged from the experience-mutating changes brought about by World War I projected a new standard of survival of the fittest: the fit with technologization, a psychic fit now thought best secured through the unbalancing acts of dissociation, the new internal frontier of doubling. (22; emphasis in original)
Rickels thus argues that the Freudian concept of the double represents a form of techno-fetishism (blurring the boundary between humans and machines) that was incorporated into Nazism. This is most clearly evident in the Nazi obsession with rocketry, which represents “the ultimate android double” because it “takes over where the pilot leaves off as an auto-pilot merged with his machine” (40). Rickels then traces the influence of this idea on postwar sf by examining the prevalence of androids (primarily in the novels of Philip K. Dick). The theme of the double also appears in narratives of human replication, such as John Wyndham’s Plan for Chaos (written in 1951, but not published until 2009) and Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955), which similarly represent the incorporation of humans into technical systems.
Another aspect of Nazi psychopathology involves channeling the inherently violent tendencies of adolescents. Drawing on D.W. Winnicott’s psycho-analytic studies of juvenile delinquency, Rickels argues that sexual urges repressed during the latency period of psychosexual development return in adolescence with greater force, causing teenagers to exhibit violent and antisocial behavior. This discovery was then incorporated into Nazism, as the military sought to “harness adolescent energy to its project of total warfare” (37). Rickels also examines how these tendencies are expressed in postwar sf films: “If war once extended via prep work into the training and containing of adolescent energy, then without the ideology or rationale of future total war, adolescence was deregulated and, following the introduction of effective contraception, here to serve as the metabolic site of sex and violence” (37). In other words, Rickels describes these films as expressions of violence that “bear discrete connections with the German history of psychopathy” (75). Like Nazi military training, these films also serve to contain adolescent psychopathology and redirect it into more productive outlets, such as consumerism: “Teen industry was split off from the ruthless violence in the recent past and applied to economic recovery” (68).
Another key aspect of Nazi psychopathology is the role played by simulations, which can take two forms: “[T]he two tendencies in the organization and comprehension of mass media society, the behavioral and the psychoanalytic … are [in science fiction] the reigning orders of simulation. These orders can also be characterized as the Public Relations trajectory of adaptation to information or opinion and the advertising aspect of identification” (58). In other words, Nazism employed behaviorism and psychoanalysis as strategies of ideological indoctrination, as they enabled the manipulation and control of the masses. Postwar sf deals with similar themes by depicting dystopian societies in which information is manipulated and controlled to promote authoritarian thinking, as seen in George Orwell’s 1984 (1948). Rickels also argues that the educational system in Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) resembles the strategies of indoctrination employed in Nazi Germany: “In Heinlein’s novel … ‘Hitler’ belongs to knowledge embedded in the transference that schooling releases in the foreground” (218). He even notes the parallels between Heinlein’s war against the “Bugs” and the Holocaust, which was similarly “based on methods for the extermination of insect infestation” (218). As in the previous example, therefore, Rickels argues that postwar sf can be understood as perpetuating and reinforcing the psychopathology of Nazism.
But perhaps the most important aspect of Nazi psychopathology is the moratorium on mourning, which Rickels sees as endemic to modern subjectivity. This theme clearly informs Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985), which Rickels interprets as a response to Starship Troopers by illustrating the genocidal outcome of total warfare and the impossibility of mourning the dead following such atrocities. Rickels similarly interprets Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961) as a meditation on the impossibility of mourning after World War II: “Lem says the protocols of the Nazi death camps were only conceivable as the last stand or understanding of life split off from one’s own death. Throughout his work, Lem tries to convey the significance of the camps” (228). In these moments, Rickels thus appears to be arguing that postwar sf does not simply represent a continuation of Nazism but rather a privileged site where the psychopathology of Nazism can be scrutinized and critiqued
In addition to this ambiguity, readers unfamiliar with Rickels’s previous work may encounter some difficulty with his style of argumentation, which involves extensive plot summaries punctuated by mysterious allusions to psychoanalytic theories (which are never fully explained) and abrupt transitions from one topic to another. Indeed, Rickels consciously avoids making coherent arguments, and he often assumes that readers are already familiar with the works and theories under discussion. His supporters promote this style as an intentional technique that is designed to encourage active engagement on the part of the reader. In his introduction to Nazi Psychoanalysis, for example, Benjamin Bennett argues that Rickels employs this style because psychoanalysis defies straightforward explanation: “Rickels has excellent reasons for what he terms his ‘user-unfriendly’ procedure. Psychoanalysis, as Rickels means it, is not, strictly speaking, susceptible to being written or known ‘about’” (viii). Rickels thus expects the reader “to adopt a writerly point of view, to read without falling into the comfortably dependent relation of consumer to a presumed producer, to manage one’s handling of the text so that there is in the end no strict ‘user’ for anyone to be unfriendly to” (x).
Some readers may also be puzzled by the discussions of texts that seem unrelated to either Nazism or sf, such as Frederick Kohner’s Gidget (1957)—a realist novel about his daughter’s assimilation into teen surf culture in Malibu. Rickels also has a tendency to insert disconnected comments on seemingly random topics, such as the Obama administration and Germany’s World Cup victory in 2014. Some readers may also be frustrated by Rickels’s refusal to address existing scholarship in the field. While the book focuses on some of the most famous examples of postwar sf, which have received considerable attention from critics, Rickels seems to position himself as an explorer of uncharted territory—a position that often makes his work seem self-indulgent rather than path-breaking.
In short, readers of Germany: A Science Fiction are unlikely to learn anything about either Germany or sf, although readers familiar with psychoanalytic theory may find Rickels’s suggestions useful for developing their own interpretations of these texts.
—Anthony Enns, Dalhousie University
A Writer, Period.
Ray Bradbury. Modern Masters of Science Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2015. 222 pp. $85 hc; $24 pbk.
Veteran scholar David Seed’s excellent study of Ray Bradbury’s extensive and diverse corpus fulfills more than one essential function in critical writings on the author. The book analyzes Bradbury’s impact on American popular culture, on science fiction, and on mainstream literature, as his works transcended, expanded, and defied the conventions of the sf genre. Seed’s study is rigorous and comprehensive, yet it is affordable in paperback and accessible to undergraduate, graduate, and general readerships. It draws heavily on the meticulous textual scholarship of Jonathan R. Eller’s critical edition of Bradbury’s Collected Stories (2011-); Eller’s first installment of his biographical trilogy on Bradbury, Becoming Ray Bradbury (2013);Eller and William F. Touponce’s Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction (2004); as well as many critical essays about Bradbury and sf by such well-known literary scholars as Geoffrey H. Hartman, David Mogen, and Margaret Atwood, among others. Recognizing that Bradbury himself is often the most insightful critic of his own work, Seed sources over sixty interviews with—and a host of essays by—the author regarding his creative process and the scope and meaning of his writings, in addition to providing a sampling of Bradbury’s published correspondence. Seed’s 157 pages of text are buttressed by an impressive 48 pages of bibliography, endnotes, and index, all serving as essential guideposts for further, more specialized research.
Seed’s argument counters the statements of Harold Bloom, editor of Chelsea House’s Modern Critical Views series’ Ray Bradbury (2000), who argues, in his introduction to the collection that Bradbury’s “palpable failure is in style”; however, he “is an admirable entertainer, and deserves appreciation precisely as such” (1). A great strength of Seed’s book is that it demonstrates, in a short and concise manner, that while Bradbury’s writing certainly entertains, it not only is worthy of complex literary/historical analysis and appreciation but has also generated many such analyses. Seed’s near-encyclopedic command of the existing scholarship on Bradbury and the history of his development as a writer during his seventy-year career is packaged in a deceptively small container. By contextualizing Bradbury’s work and creative process, Seed is able to expose, explore, and explain complexities directly and simply. That ability is unusual and invaluable; it is one Bradbury and Seed share.
Seed limits his explication of Bradbury’s lifelong development as a writer to four representative themes: 1) Bradbury’s alternative definitions and incarnations of science fiction, and his role as a cultural historian of the Cold War and the Space Age, with its post-World War II anxieties, preoccupations, and frightening technological developments; 2) his Martian stories as mirrors of human flaws and desires; 3) the evolution of Fahrenheit 451 (1953) into an increasingly complex meditation on the erasure of history in a triumph of empty technological pleasures and government-enforced ignorance masquerading as health and happiness; and, finally, 4) his ambivalent dreams of space travel as a way of fulfilling our humanity, answering our spiritual questions, leaving the corrupt and war-ravaged Earth behind to begin new and better lives, and attaining immortality within the perpetual new beginnings afforded humankind by the power of flight.
Seed’s book is organized both thematically by chapter and chronologically within the chapters. Each chapter historicizes Bradbury’s most famous works in thematic clusters that address contemporaneous American preoccupations reflected in his imaginative writings, the influence of other works and other authors from many eras, and the evolution of each theme in Bradbury’s oeuvre. The first chapter, “Out of the Science Fiction Ghetto,” chronicles how remarkable it was that Bradbury was able to move into the realm of literary fiction in the first place, not to mention his extraordinary achievement in altering its geography by redrawing its boundaries. With no formal education beyond high school, where his academic achievements were mediocre at best, the early Bradbury was a working-class “everyboy” whose early intellectual and emotional roots were in Depression-era Illinois—and later Los Angeles, which would become his permanent home. He aggressively wrested his own version of higher education from the resources of public libraries; the popular media of comic books, film, radio, and television; and mentors whose friendships and collaborations he strategically cultivated. His haphazard and diverse self-education, combined with his expansive imagination, led to his successful literary work as well as his adaptations of that work into the popular media that inspired him.
Even Bradbury’s earliest sf stories reconfigure the conventions of the genre. Seed emphasizes Bradbury’s protean definition of science fiction and his broad creative reach through his long writing career: he wrote poetry, horror stories, murder mysteries, detective fiction, and uncanny domestic tales, many of the latter adopting a child’s perspective. Some of these, the Green Town stories of Dandelion Wine (1957) were set in a version of his beloved hometown of Waukegan, Illinois. Other, more mature domestic fictions were set in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles, in Mexico, in Ireland, and on Mars and in space. He wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956) and the original treatment for It Came from Outer Space (1953), along with numerous adaptations of his own works for radio, television, theater, and opera. In this chapter, Seed traces Bradbury’s first forays into publication in the sf pulp-magazine market of the 1940s and his publications in the later 1940s in mainstream magazines such as Mademoiselle and Harper’s. In order to recast popular perception of his work, Bradbury compulsively revised stories to suit the requirements of the more prestigious serials. He defined his writing as “philosophical Science Fiction” to friend and editor Anthony Boucher. Boucher’s positive review of Bradbury’s first story collection Dark Carnival (1947) was a pivotal moment in the young author’s self-definition. Boucher pronounced him “not only a fantasy writer, but a writer, period” (9). Successful collections The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man followed in 1950 and 1951, respectively, portraying possibilities and anxieties about space travel, isolation, and otherness, as well as the dangers of introducing advanced technologies and robotics into domestic situations. In that year, Bradbury redefined his science fiction again, classifying himself as an sf writer who tried to “think in human terms about human problems” (37).
Seed’s second chapter addresses Bradbury’s Martian stories. He notes that although Bradbury’s Martian tales were inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom books, The Martian Chronicles cycle in particular owes a greater debt to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), both in structure and theme. Bradbury’s focus indeed remains on human experience and human concerns. The stories reveal far less about Martians and Mars than they do about humans and Earth. Bradbury’s native Martians are seldom grotesque monsters; more often, they exhibit many characteristics of the humans who invade their planet. Bradbury’s real Martians are the space travelers themselves, attempting to realize mundane desires on a new planet: the desire to return to their childhood homes, the desire to reunite with deceased family members, the desire to understand the nature of spirituality, and the desire to open the first hot-dog stand on Mars. Seed contends that Bradbury’s Mars functions as a mirror for human beings, in which they can see their best and most terrifying aspects, but also in which they most often simply see themselves, isolated in their hopes and disappointments.
The third chapter, “Fahrenheit 451 in Contexts,” examines the chain of works that would ultimately lead to one of the most well-known and widely read dystopian novels. The completion of the mature Fahrenheit dovetailed with the height of Cold War panic and the McCarthy era in America. The Earth depicted in the novel is more alien and less humane than Bradbury’s Mars. Bradbury inverts the function of fireman as public servant: in the novel, the job of firemen is to obliterate history and culture by the ostensibly cleansing practice of book-burning and the criminalization of reading and readers. Seed points out that Fahrenheit was part of a body of postwar science fiction that operated as social critique, along with Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1952), and Orwell’s 1984 (1949). Fahrenheit’s dystopia is one in which technology has invaded private homes and wall-sized televisions anesthetize and isolate the residents. Bradbury’s novel brilliantly reflects the historical moment of its creation, and its science-fictional elements allow him both to push his social critique to an imaginative extreme and to retain future relevance by eliminating elements that might date the work and lessen its timeless impact. In this chapter, Seed analyzes François Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation of Fahrenheit, addressing what he rightly claims to be a long-neglected area in Bradbury studies, the connection between his writing and film. While Seed’s book was being written, the connection has been explored extensively in Eller’s Ray Bradbury Unbound, published in 2015, and in volume 5 of the New Ray Bradbury Review (Kent State UP, forthcoming), a collection of scholarly essays on the film guest edited by Phil Nichols.
The fourth and final chapter of this study discusses Bradbury’s lifelong fascination with space travel and its evolving meaning in his work. The teenage Bradbury was inspired by Alexander Korda’s 1936 film Things to Come, whose final message was that the conquest of space was humanity’s great destiny, the only way the human race could continue to survive in perpetual new beginnings. Seed notes that Bradbury’s early enthusiasm for space exploration was tempered with ambivalence about its many dangers. In this chapter, Seed situates Bradbury’s collaboration with Harry Essex on the screenplay of It Came from Outer Space within and against the then-familiar space of alien-invasion movies; the film inspired a young Steven Spielberg. The groundbreaking achievement of Bradbury’s original treatment is that the aliens in the film are not portrayed as entirely hostile, although they do kidnap and manipulate humans in order to repair their spaceship so that they can return home. Nonetheless, the humans are released unharmed before the aliens depart. Seed traces Bradbury’s symbiotic relationship with NASA’s mission during his later career.
The only criticism I have of the book is that it could have explored so many more of Bradbury’s themes, but its brief length is one of its best features. A longer book would have narrowed its appeal. Seed’s arguments are cogent and well-sourced enough for professional scholars, accessible and instructive enough for students at many levels, and clear and direct enough to appeal to a general readership. Seed has managed a difficult feat with the beautiful and deceptive simplicity of a Ray Bradbury story.
—Robin Condon, Indiana University–Purdue University
. Alternate History: Playing with Contingency and Necessity. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013. 312 pp. €94,95 hc.
The modern starting point of the alternate-history genre can be traced to the interwar period of the twentieth century, but it was during the past twenty or thirty years that the form has become clearly recognizable by readers and critics alike. Kathleen Singles’s Alternate History is the last of five volumes forming part of a larger project, Narrating Futures, a series of books aimed at exploring a new (sub)genre known as Future Narratives (FNs), developed by Professor Christopher Bode and his team at LMU München. While the first four volumes are focused on establishing a general theory of this new idea, Singles’s book, which was also her doctoral dissertation, tries to “situate and define alternate history in contrast to historical fiction and related genres; and second, to situate and define alternate history in relation and contrast to FNs” (6). In other words, Singles tries to establish the differences between FNs and traditional narratives, known as “past narratives” within the “Narrating Futures” project, by taking the alternate-history genre as a case study. And she does a terrific job of it.
There are two main parts: “The Poetics of Alternate History”—which serves as the theoretical framework—and a collection of “Case Studies,” bookended by an introduction and a short conclusion. While scholarly research on alternate history as a genre differentiated from historical fiction is gaining momentum, it is still taking its first steps. Many theoretical approaches to the analysis of the genre have been attempted and, as a result, many debates about its nature have arisen. Singles recognizes this issue, and instead of aligning herself with a particular critical position, she sets off to define the genre and its boundaries on her own terms, contrasting it with other genres such as the “secret history” or the “counterfactual history.” Singles grounds her version of the poetics of alternate history in Lubomir Doležel’s version of the theory of possible worlds, mainly laid out in his Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds (1997). Singles argues that the presence of contingency is an essential characteristic in the choice of the location of the point of divergence within the historiographical narrative, while the consequences following the divergence follow a pattern of necessity. The author does recognize that employing the theory of possible worlds in literary criticism invariably meets with staunch opposition, but she does her best to foresee and overcome possible objections. For instance, she convincingly deals with criticisms of the equivalence of fictional and possible worlds posited by the theory by explaining the influence of the “recentering” process defined by Marie-Laure Ryan, and shows how the identification of world-constructing texts and world-imaging texts, as outlined by Doležel, follows Brian McHale’s view that all fictions present a “double-decker” structure of reference, positing an internal field of reference that, in turn, refers to an external field of reference.
The second part of the book focuses on the practical applications of the thesis, demonstrated through seven case studies. The selected body of works comprise an interesting mixture between well-established works within the alternate-history canon—such as Dick’s The Man in The High Castle (1962) or Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004)—and new additions that are still in the process of being established within the boundaries of the genre—for instance, Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds (2009). At first glance, this mix may give the impression that Singles has decided to forego thematic coherence, but a closer look reveals that, even though the presence of titles such as Inglorious Basterds is surprising, the case studies are generally very consistent with the theories defended by the author. In fact, the discussion of Tarantino’s film is the strongest of the case studies: apart from being a rare analysis of an alternate-history film, Singles’s analysis of the diegetic use of languages is thought-provoking.On the other hand, the weakest case study, arguably, is the one focusing on The Plot Against America: Singles struggles to integrate Roth’s work within her poetics of alternate history due to its unorthodox ending in relation to the typical plots seen in other instances of the genre; as a result, the inclusion of the book comes across as somewhat forced and inconsistent.
Nonetheless, Alternate History is an important study, and the sheer number of multidisciplinary works cited throughout is overwhelming. In fact, one of Singles’s main achievements is to introduce non-English-language research and works of alternate history to an English-speaking audience: “For those interested in pursuing the poetics of alternate history as a whole—that is, not limited to literary works in a given context—there is an acute need to broaden the scope and look beyond literature in English” (13; emphasis in original). Since this is a book published in Germany, it is only natural that the main weight of the non-English research presented in it comes from German sources, even though its multilingual approach is thoroughgoing. Strangely, although Singles provides English translations from French, Italian, and Spanish sources, she leaves out the translations from the German, as if her work were exclusively directed to German speakers. Consequently, Alternate History comes very close to achieving its aim of helping to disseminate Germany’s research on the topic, only to, ultimately and unfortunately, fall a bit short. Still, Alternate History: Playing with Contingency and Necessity is recommended reading for those interested in the burgeoning field of alternate-history studies.
—Francisco J. López Arias, University of Coruña, Galicia, Spain
Long Live Dead Media.
The Dead Media Notebook: 20th Anniversary Edition. Ed. Tom Whitwell. Music Thing, 2015. 921 pp. Kindle Edition (free).
In 1983, the Alamogordo Daily News published “City to Atari: ‘E.T.’ trash go home,” which documents the American video-game and home-computer company’s once-secret mass burial in New Mexico of hundreds of thousands of obsolescent Atari 2600 video-game cartridges—including, of course, their infamous adaptation of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Six generations of home consoles later, the video-game industry has moved on to disc-based games—some with stereoscopic 3D support—in addition to controllers with feedback effects, cameras, and voice recognition software that allow for hands-free navigation, and even virtual-reality headsets (technologically “beyond,” say, Nintendo’s Virtual Boy). From a linear historical perspective informed by consumerist practices that valorize apparent technological newness, we might say that the Atari 2600 and its games exemplify dead media.
In 1995, cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling published an online manifesto entitled “The Dead Media Project: A Modest Proposal and a Public Appeal.” In it, he argued that “We need a book about the failures of media, the collapses of media, the supercessions of media, the strangulations of media, a book detailing all the freakish and hideous media mistakes that we should know enough now not to repeat, a book about media that have died on the barbed wire of technological advance, media that didn’t make it, martyred media, dead media.” From 1995 to 2001, Sterling—along with Richard Kadrey, the author of The Covert Culture Sourcebook (1993), and Queercore icon Tom Jennings—compiled hundreds of captivating submissions devoted to resuscitating a vast constellation of dead media technologies even as cyberculture was coming to grips with “a profound radiation of new species of media.” Sterling’s vision—called “the Dead Media Project”—emphasized a punk-rock spirit of creative collaboration that is reflected in its public-access form. (You can still check some of it out at <www.deadmedia.org>.) Always the anti-capitalist iconoclast, Sterling even offered “a CRISP FIFTY-DOLLAR BILL for the first guy, gal, or combination thereof to write and publish THE DEAD MEDIA HANDBOOK.”
Now, twenty years later, editor Tom Whitwell and Music Thing Press have digitally published The Dead Media Notebook: 20th Anniversary Edition (2015), an edited anthology composed of dozens of entries culled from the original site that is available for free from Amazon. So, if you have an Amazon-supported e-reader (including a computer), there is absolutely no reason not to download this timely compendium. Formed partly in response to heady promises of transcendence and disembodiment that in the 1990s imbued market practices with an alluring techno-utopian edge, these sobering “field notes” include historically grounded, materially intensive, and technically detailed notes about the Inca quipu, astrolabes, pigeon post, the Inuit Inuksuit, flame-based musical instruments, Japanese puppet theaters, magic lanterns and shadow theaters, Robertson’s phantasmagoria, the camera obscura, Hopi town criers, phonograph cylinders, Soviet bone music, the Scopitone, Heron’s Nauplius, Piesse’s Smell Organ, the Optigan, a human-tiger hybrid organ, defunct military technologies of communication, Victorian-era flower dictionaries, Luba memory boards, antiquated currency, Leary & Co.’s experiential typewriter, New Guinea talking drums, and the Vortex Theater —to name but a few.
In contesting historical obsolescence through the wild dissemination of information, types of forgotten media repeat, disappear, and reappear randomly throughout The Dead Media Notebook. Like Benjamin’s Arcades Project (1927-40), this impressive collection of notes resists linearity, homogeneity, and even stasis, instead embracing a rhizomorphic organizational style whereby users are given the freedom to plot anti-teleological movements across its highly differentiated “pages.” Put another way, its incongruous form results in what one might call an excavationary reading experience. The notebook itself, for example, contains no audiovisual aids, and so poring over countless technical details encourages the user to switch windows and search online for sounds, images, and videos pertinent to individual entries, thereby enabling experimentation, at once sustaining nonhuman complexity and enriching an already polyvalent project.
The Dead Media Notebook is an excellent resource for scholars and artists working across a wide spectrum of disciplines. Indeed, any one of these remarkable notes could be further developed or augmented, and the contributors have done a commendable job peppering their entries with secondary sources for future research. The entries on media technologies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, are of interest to cultural historians focused on the material relations between visual media and issues of modernity. It follows that students of new film history, including digital media, will benefit from learning about antiquated technologies that problematize persistent misconceptions informing the evolutionary style of writing cinema history. The emphasis given throughout to sensorial experience is also of note for film and media phenomenologists interested in theories of cross-modal perception. Similarly, scholars receptive to writing alternative histories of media that resist the dominant mode of ocular-centrism will find much to consider in their research. Perhaps most obviously, then, media archaeologists—operating in Kittlerian and Foucauldian registers—will find useful the notebook’s sustained attention on both materiality and technical detail and its structural investment in challenging the myth of temporal progress. Likewise, its idiosyncratic engagement with archival research is significant for scholars of Library and Information Science.
The entries detailing deceased musical synthesizers and video-production technologies are important to practicing artists who repurpose and remix so-called “old” technologies. In 2009, the California-based artist and writer Garnet Hertz published A Collection of Many Problems (In Memory of the Dead Media Handbook) and commenced work on the Dead Media Research Lab (<http://www.conceptlab.com/deadmedia/>), a project that picks up where the Dead Media Project left off. Impelled by the catastrophic rise of electronic waste in the US, Hertz proposes to resist the “planned obsolescence” of consumer electronics vis-à-vis the development of an ecologically conscious mode of creative reuse and community-based artistic production. Circuit-bending and toy-hacking workshops defy various access- control technologies such as digital rights management and allow a deeper communal understanding of media technologies and their entanglements with social and political processes. Hertz and new-media theorist Jussi Parikka have therefore argued for the existence of “zombie media,” those media that occupy liminal space-times on the technocultural map of sociopolitical reality and that are rich with potentialities for ecologically informed tactics of resistance.
To return to the Atari 2600, in 2015 a single copy of E.T. sold for $1,535 in an online auction conducted by Joe Lewandowski, who helped organize a 2014 landfill dig in Alamogordo to exhume hundreds of Atari 2600 cartridges, the profits of which went to the city of Alamogordo, New Mexico, and to the Tularosa Basin Historical Society. Much of the “Atari video-game burial” is explained in Zak Penn’s wonderful documentary Atari: Game Over (2014), which you can easily find and stream online. That said, you could just as easily Google-search any combination of the keywords above—“Alamogordo Atari E.T. landfill,” for instance—and experience firsthand how deep the digital rabbit hole goes. You might find that the Atari 2600 and its games have enjoyed a nice afterlife within retrogaming DIY subcultures since as far back as the early 1980s. Today, you can even emulate E.T. on your computer, in addition to hundreds of “classic” titles ranging from Space Invaders (1978) to the PAL-only Klax (1990).
As steampunk and the object-oriented subcultures that embrace it have shown us, the repurposing and remixing of dead media technologies offers productive critiques of and speculative alternatives to Enlightenment-style thinking and to the persistent ideologies of linear historical progress and technological determinism. The Dead Media Notebook similarly illuminates the wealth of possibilities available to scholars and artists open to reimagining the past and the present in engineering the future. Itis mutant media par excellence—part steampunk abstraction, part Dada art project, part random-access database, and part historico-technical archive. Long live dead media.
—Sean Matharoo, University of California, Riverside
Locating the Canadian Fantastic.
The Canadian Fantastic in Focus: New Perspectives. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014. viii + 245 pp. $40 pbk.
The Canadian Fantastic in Focus collects selected papers from the Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy (ACCSFF), organized biannually by York University’s Allan Weiss since 1997 with the help of the Toronto Public Library’s Judith Merrill Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation, and Fantasy. Following Weiss’s earlier Perspectives on the Canadian Fantastic (1998 and 2005), this installment offers New Perspectives on speculative fiction published north of the forty-ninth parallel. Living up to its subtitle’s claim, contributors approach Can-sf with the latest critical paradigms (posthumanism, diaspora studies, disability studies, and geocriticism, among others). Furthermore, many of the volume’s authors—the majority Toronto-area graduate students—represent new voices in sf criticism. Even if you are not interested in Canadian sf per se, the volume is worth a peek for a keynote in which Veronica Hollinger takes on J.G. Ballard.
The volume contains fifteen papers given between 2005 and 2013 organized into three “sessions,” two keynotes, and a compact introduction to Canadian sf/f by Weiss. The first session covers “Canadian Science Fiction,” featuring five chapters on William Gibson, Peter Watts, Robert Charles Wilson, and Nalo Hopkinson. By far the book’s largest grouping, “Canadian Fantasy and Dark Fantasy” includes seven essays exploring genre-bending works by eight clearly Canadian writers and an essay on the work of Nikki Ducornet, a US emigrant whose “Canadianness” remains undeclared on her own website. A third session titled “Media Expressions” (treated only briefly here for reasons of space) reveals the breadth of what we can call “Canadian speculative fiction.” In it, Chester N. Scoville discusses how the Toronto-based Scott Pilgrim comics (2004-2011) and their film adaptation (2010) reflect attempts to brand the Canadian metropolis with a hipster identity. Lisa Macklem’s look at female characters in the “American” television series Supernatural (2005-), filmed in British Columbia, exemplifies the difficulty in locating Canadian sf. Finally, Isabelle Fournier analyzes two Canadian versions of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (1969), including Anglo-Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s rendition broadcast from the International Space Station, an effort to bring space exploration to the center of Canadian identity, much like the recent redesign of the five-dollar bill, which substituted the space station for hockey iconography from Roch Carrier’s “The Hockey Sweater” (1979).
Cases like Ducornet and Supernatural raise the problem of defining the Canadian developed in Robert Runté’s 2013 keynote, “Why I Read Canadian Speculative Fiction.” Beginning as a typical coming-to-sf confessional, Runté admits his relatively late discovery that “some SF authors were Canadian” (16), which allowed him to combine the taste community of sf fandom with his national identity. Runté then discusses how the Can-sf community sought to define itself as distinct from the Anglo-American, indirectly revealing how fans and scholars deploy the national sf/f as a means of performing their own Canadianness. While on the one hand, Can-sf defines itself negatively, as not American, it also defines itself positively through its privileging of difference. Weiss’s introduction thus describes its “linguistic and cultural diversity, … a kind of aesthetic multiculturalism” (3) as reflecting Canada’s self-identification as a nation of immigrants.
Canadian-Caribbean-Indigenous writer Nalo Hopkinson who, after Margaret Atwood, may be one of Canada’s most studied speculative writers. Brecken Hancock’s 2005 paper applies postcolonial theory to Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000), andDerek Newman-Stille, in a 2013 presentation, deploys Smaro Kamboureli’s “diasporic identity” to Brown Girl in the Ring (1998). Peter Watts, a writer of hard sf who deserves greater attention than he has received to date, also merits two papers. Clare Wall reads his Starfish (1999) through the lens of posthuman theory, and Dominick Grace compares Watts’s self-proclaimed work of fan fiction, “The Things” (2010), to its literary and filmic precursors.
Weiss’s dedication signals the significance of women’s contributions to the Canadian fantastic: “To the memory of Judith Merril and Phyllis Gotlieb” (v). Appropriately, the volume explores dark fantasy cycles by Tanya Huff and Kelley Armstrong, both now adapted to television. Newman-Stille’s second contribution addresses blindness in the human-vampire detective team of Huff’s Vicki Nelson-Henry Fitzroy series, concluding that it ultimately reinscribes an able-ist discourse in spite of the author’s efforts to the contrary (196). Adam Guzkowski examines the witch as subaltern in Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld novels (2001- ) within the context of other contemporary novel and television series whose superficially feminist critiques are undermined by their essentialist discourses about femininity. Finally, in terms of women writers, Maude Deschênes-Pradet, a welcome new voice in the study of “SFQ” (sf from Québec), analyzes the imaginary place in Esther Rochon’s Vrénalik Cycle through the lens of geocriticism.
Cat Ashton, another two-paper contributor, looks at pioneer of dark fantasy Charles de Lint. Reworking the pastoral in earlier fantasy, de Lint uses “the fictional city of Newford to bridge the distance between magic and realism, urban space and wild space” (112), according to Ashton. Her second paper looks at the less-known Northern Ontario Gothic of Susie Moloney, Michael Rowe, and Brian Hareck as variously involved in writing Canadian identity according to a conservative model as white, male, and Anglo. Although the volume reflects some of the Canadian diversity it touts, a majority of papers treat white male Canadians. In addition to those on Watts, the first “session” includes interventions by David Milman on the intersections between William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Thomas DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821)and Michael Kaler on the revisionist Gnosticism of Robert Charles Wilson’s Mysterium (1994).
Although it appears toward the beginning, I have saved one of the volume’s best chapters for last: Veronica Hollinger’s 2005 keynote. An international sf scholar who happens to be Canadian, but also an engaged scholar of Canadian sf responsible for directing several young scholars published in the collection’s pages, Hollinger’s talk perfectly complements Runté’s. Whereas he discussed how reading science fiction promotes community building, she addresses the genre’s criticismas a similarly enriching task. In “The Body on the Slab”—and if you know Hollinger you are already imagining the delightfully clever ways in which she will wryly extend this metaphor—she confesses an initial fear of ruining the pleasures of her inner fan by applying the tools of the critic to the genre. Likening sf to the body of Frankenstein’s monster, Hollinger nonetheless counters J.G. Ballard’s assertion that academics have killed sf by dissecting it, arguing that knowing more about what’s inside rather enhances the pleasures of the textual body.
While I might have liked to see more essays about other titles in the Canadian multicultural mosaic, such as Eden Robinson, Tomson Highway, Larisa Lai, or Hiromi Goto (ACCSFF 2015’s Guest of Honor), this volume offers a nice introduction to a national sf that is frequently overlooked because of the ease with which the boundary between the US and Canada can be crossed and blurred. Like any conference volume, there are some uneven contributions in terms of the depth of analysis or the critical apparatus, but most are solid pieces of scholarship and engaging, accessible reads. The papers and keynotes collected here all underscore the significance of events such as the ACCSFF, which bring together a community of peers bound not just by taste but also often by a certain set of values associated with the genre, and in this case a shared national identity. Reading this volume offers a way of participating in that community, albeit from a distance, and it affords those who attended these events (as I did in 2013 and 2015) a deeper appreciation of papers already heard. Above all, it should inspire future readings of the Canadian fantastic.
—Amy J. Ransom, Central Michigan University