BOOKS IN REVIEW
Science Fiction. READERS' GUIDES TO ESSENTIAL CRITICISM SERIES. New York: Palgrave, 2014. x + 178 pp. $88 hc.; $29 pbk.
Palgrave’s Readers’ Guides to Essential Criticism series, which already includes volumes on Angela Carter, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and George Orwell, has now presented us with Brian Baker’s study Science Fiction. The book consists of eight chapter-length bibliographic essays and a useful bibliography. Baker makes no attempt to be comprehensive but covers as many of the relevant critical works as possible in the allotted space, some of them at length, others in little more than a parenthetical remark.
Baker begins with an Introduction, “At the Borders of Literature and Genre,” which discusses “Science fiction’s crises of legitimation” and argues that the genre “(and its criticism) remains a contested field” (vii). He then covers the standard arguments about sf’s feelings of illegitimacy, devoting space to Roger Luckhurst’s “The Many Deaths of Science Fiction” (1994), centering on his claim that “[t]he ultimate legitimation [of the field] would be to rejoin the literary mainstream, to end SF as a separate genre” (2), Baker also emphasizes that his book focuses on academic rather than fan criticism, though, he insists, not out of any disrespect; he does, however, devote a chapter to the criticism of sf writers such as James Blish and A.J. Budrys, and discusses the work of non-academic critics who simply cannot be ignored—for example, John Clute, Thomas M. Disch, and Paul Kincaid.
In “Definitions: What is Science Fiction?” Baker summarizes the numerous genre definitions formulated by such critics as David Seed, Adam Roberts, Luckhurst, Tzvetan Todorov, Rosemary Jackson, Christine Brooke-Rose, and Darko Suvin. Many of Baker’s readers will already know this material, but he is particularly good at pointing out how such critics’ definitions are often grounded in very different preconceptions about the genre:
Defining SF is therefore not a neutral activity. To define it in a particular way, in terms of its formal apparatus, its capacity for critique, its potential as a marginal cultural production to act as a form of cryptogram, its potential to imagine “the Other of what is” or even as a form of escape and entertainment, expresses specific political, ethical and literary conceptualizations of the genre. (9)
Such definitions will also have a deep effect on the critics’ ideas about the formation of the genre—whether an individual critic argues that it began with Lucian or Shelley or Poe or Verne or Wells, or even with Gernsback, is deeply predicated on that critic’s beliefs, political, ethical, aesthetic, or what have you. Is the utopian tradition, for example, at the heart of sf, as Suvin insists, or is it more marginal? To what extent is sf specifically a product of the Protestant mindset? Is real science truly a necessary constituent of the genre?
In “A History of Histories,” Baker examines how these same critics have assembled their various histories of the genre. Suvin gets first mention, in part because he “complicates the very idea of a history of the genre from the very beginning” (26) by proposing that it grew out of six different “clusters” of literary works: classical myth; the work of Virgil, Plato, and Lucan; the utopian and romantic writers of the French Revolutionary era; the late-nineteenth-century utopian writers such as Morris and Bellamy; the “fictions of technology and wonder” of Verne and others; and finally, the literature of cognitive estrangement, beginning with Wells and on to the present day (27-28). Adam Roberts, on the other hand, proposes that science fiction is a direct outgrowth of and response to the Age of Empire, and somewhat surprisingly centers on Paradise Lost (1667) “as a crucial antecedent for SF … because Satan emerges as a more vital and ‘powerfully conceived’ figure than God”—a true Other, a genuine Alien, rather than a one-dimensional representative of evil. There is much more that I simply do not have space to cover. Suffice to say that Baker also does justice to the theories of historical origin of Luckhurst, Disch, Roberts, Clute, and Brian W. Aldiss.
In “Science Fiction Writers on SF,” Baker surveys the critical work of Blish, Budrys, and Kingsley Amis, with emphasis on their importance as the creators of sf criticism, and then on criticism of and by such New Wave writers as J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, and Disch. Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick rate a sub-chapter here, as do Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany. Baker also devotes space to a discussion of the fanzines, with specific reference to the fan-studies publications of academics such as Constance Penley and Henry Jenkins. Oddly, he even devotes a paragraph to slash fiction.
The next chapter, dedicated to “British Science Fiction,” begins by discussing its relationship to empire and the role of H.G. Wells in its foundation. Baker starts with the criticism of Luckhurst and Edward James, with James pointing out that Wells was far from the founder of British sf. As he was writing The Time Machine (1895), “SF was in fact in the middle of its first important boom.” James describes Wells as “a writer who drew together and formalized many of the cultural and literary threads which were present in late Victorian culture to inform his ‘romances’” (61-62). Other critics whose work receives mention here include Patricia Kerslake, John Rieder, and a number of scholars who have written on Wells’s fiction, including Bernard Bergonzi, Patrick Parrinder, Robert M. Philmus, and Mark Hillegas. Baker then briefly surveys criticism on the fiction of Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, and C.S. Lewis before turning to studies of Ballard and the British disaster novel at length. He cites David Ketterer on John Wyndham, along with Nicholas Ruddick, H. Bruce Franklin, David Pringle, Jeanette Baxter, and others on Ballard, a writer who, along with Wells, clearly sits atop the heap so far as Baker and other critics of British sf are concerned. From Ballard, Baker transitions to the criticism of the New Wave, with emphasis on work by Colin Greenland, Andrew M. Butler, and Rob Latham, who, Baker tells us “reads the ‘rise’ of the [New Wave] as a cultural and generic phenomenon, not simply as an avant-garde moment or movement within the confines of the genre” (78; emphasis in original). Finally, he surveys criticism of the British Boom (Iain M. Banks et al.) by Luckhurst, Butler, Farah Mendlesohn, and Mark Bould.
Turning to “The US Tradition,” Baker begins with critical discussions of Edgar Allan Poe’s place in the genre, emphasizing the work of Aldiss, Franklin, Roberts, and Disch, who denigrates Poe as “most suitable for intellectually hyperkinetic teenagers” but nonetheless claims him as “the source” of what became sf (83-84). He then covers criticism devoted to the editors Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell, Jr. (noting with great understatement that Gernsback “has become something of a controversial figure in SF studies” ), and E.E. “Doc” Smith, whom he identifies as the key author of the pulp era. Oddly, Edgar Rice Burroughs isn’t mentioned here. Pulp sf has been examined in some depth by Mendlesohn, Clute, Gary Westfahl, Andy Sawyer, and others. Campbell’s Astounding ushered in the so-called “Golden Age” of sf, and Baker, identifying Robert A. Heinlein as the key author, concentrates on the criticism available of that author’s work, particularly his controversial novel Starship Troopers (1959), which Alexei Panshin, another notable author-critic, read “as equivalent to a military recruiting film” (93). David Seed, in a related reading, saw the book as Heinlein’s direct response to communism (95). Baker also concentrates on Dick, the subject of more criticism than any other American sf writer, devoting considerable space to Peter Fitting, who “proposes that ‘Dick’s work presents a model of a more subversive form of writing which undermines rather than reconfirms the repressive system in which it has been produced,’” and thus “acts as a kind of critical SF” (97). Finally, Baker devotes space to American hard sf as it has been theorized by critics such as Westfahl, John J. Pierce, and David Samuelson.
“Utopias and Dystopias” summarizes the criticism of Lyman Tower Sargent, Fredric Jameson, and Tom Moylan (on utopia), and of Moylan, Krishan Kumar, and Ruth Levitas (on dystopia), discussing studies on critical dystopias, the often unrecognized connection between utopia and totalitarianism, and the decline in recent years of actual utopian fiction, which Fitting argues has occurred “because we live in dystopian times” (117). “Feminism and Cyberpunk” are an odd couple to yoke together in one somewhat perfunctory chapter, and Baker makes few connections between the two. He mostly devotes space to sub-chapters on critical writings by and about Le Guin, with a nod towards Marleen Barr’s feminist criticism (Joanna Russ’s influential work goes unmentioned); Donna Haraway, Judith Butler, again fan fiction (apparently one of Baker’s own special subjects), and N. Katherine Hayles; and then the leading critics of cyberpunk and related topics, including Andrew Ross, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Brian McHale, and Veronica Hollinger.
Another brief chapter surveys the criticism of “Science Fiction Cinema,” centering on the work of Vivian Sobchack, J.P. Telotte, Christine Cornea, and others, with a final word on “genre hybridity after the millennium.” A short conclusion, “Science Fiction and World Literature,” mentions few actual critical works but suggests that “in a time when SF has once again been proclaimed to be ‘exhausted’, the genre still has the potential for transmission and to vivify the imaginations of writers in Africa, India, east Asia, South America and Australasia” (160).
Like any book of this type that attempts to discuss an enormous body of material in a small space, Baker’s Science Fiction has its faults and odd quirks, some of which I have discussed above, but all in all this is a useful book, particularly for advanced undergraduates or new graduate students looking for a quick way to get up to speed in the criticism of the field.
—Michael M. Levy, University of Wisconsin-Stout
Groundbreaking Guide to Arab-Language SF.
La fanta-scienza nella letteratura araba [Science Fiction in Arabic Literature]. Rome: Carocci, 2013. 293 pp. €29 pbk.
Ada Barbaro’s study of sf written in Arabic is an outstanding volume, probably the first book-length work on the subject. Whereas the cover, a shot of Larissa Sansour’s 2010 art installation Palestinauts, hints at the genre’s presence in the art scene, the book focuses specifically on written sf, including some borderline works. Aimed primarily at Arab-culture specialists, the study provides a wide-ranging array of references to sf scholarship, with usefully detailed plot summaries. As a cross-national survey, this is a very rare item in Italian sf/f studies, another recent exception being an equally brilliant volume on animals in the Spanish-American fantastic, Emanuela Jossa’s Raccontare gli animali [Telling the Animals] (Florence: Le Lettere, 2012).
The book opens strongly with a reference to Foucault’s The Order of Things (1966), considering genre as consubstantial with the birth of the modern notion of literature: new aesthetic values, denying or challenging the classic order, often marginalized and silenced, call for critical attention (11). In the same vein, Barbaro refers to Riccardo Valla’s 1975 introduction to the Italian edition of Jacques Sadoul’s Histoire de la science-fiction moderne [History of Modern Science Fiction, 1973], a plea for grounding criticism in literary history, rather than didactically pushing readers towards acceptable highbrow texts (54-56). Thus, Barbaro presents her study as more “descriptive” than “normative,” with a selection of representative texts that highlights their writings as social statements. The introduction by Isabella Camera d’Afflitto (9-10), possibly Italy’s most noted scholar of Arab culture, is evidence of an unprejudiced curiosity about sf within the discipline.
This book tries to show that, however delayed the emergence of the genre within Arab-speaking areas, many aspects of Arab and Muslim traditions were not hostile to imagining different spaces and times. A crucial turning point—vis-à-vis a standard Arabic language immutable by definition, whose supreme expression is the Quran (18-19)—was the coinage, around the 1980s, of a lexicon of neologisms, mostly calques and similar borrowings. Starting with sf’s Arab name al-ayāl al-’ilmī, the catalogue of sf subgenres and icons was an act of linguistic creation (23-27). An important strand of folklore-inspired tales of the marvelous is to be found in Medieval mirabilia (29-31). In twelfth-century Spain, Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzān was a proto-roman philosophique about the practical and cognitive explorations of a human living in a state of nature (33-34), an influence on later thought-experiments about “other” places, including tales in the One Thousand and One Nights (1704), in turn a lasting influence on works of the fabulous and the oneiric. A utopian tradition starts at the end of the nineteenth century, mixing in various degrees socialist and traditionalist stances.
In opening the discussion of modern times, Barbaro stresses the rise in the 1980s, especially in Egypt, of some tremendously popular action-adventure series consistently employing sf motifs largely aimed at a juvenile audience, mostly authored by the hyper-prolific Nabil Farouk (57-62). In the 1990s, the birth of criticism follows the emergence of sf; along with a standard stress on the genre’s role as bridge between the “two cultures,” Arab critics assign sf a broader task: in Egyptian author Nihad Sharif’s words, that of “driving minds to imagine more vast, boundless, free horizons” (qtd. in Barbaro 67).
Barbaro notes that whereas historians of Arabic sf have signaled the presence of sf titles as early as the 1950s, before the 1980s-1990s these pieces remained quite unnoticed, with occasional critical nods neglecting their generic specificity. On the other hand, some English-speaking critics paid attention to Arab themes and characters in Anglophone sf. Some awareness of world sf was necessary for the genre to develop, and the 1960s (when illiteracy and poverty dropped significantly) saw the growth of translations into Arabic—which included both Golden Age and dystopian classics, as well as some lesser-known items. In criticism, Jean Gattegno’s and Robert Scholes and Eric Rabkin’s studies appeared in the 1990s. Barbaro’s very convincing hypothesis concerning the “belated” rise of Arabic sf is that the spreading of foreign-language readers helped challenge traditional notions of belletrism. Also, post-1960s changes in English-language sf have contributed to shifting the genre’s perception away from Western-ness into postcolonial territory (76-84).
Groundbreaking critics include Mahmūd Qāsim and Muhammad ‘Azzām, both from Syria, who in the 1990s did much to promote awareness of the history of both Western and Arab sf, and Mahā Mazlūm, author of a 2001 map of Egyptian sf building on structuralism and Bakhtinian chronotopes. A further turning point was in 2007, when a special sf issue of the Egyptian journal al-Fusul was published, devoted mostly to Arab sf. This special issue, along with conferences on the topic in Casablanca and Damascus, engaged with current criticism.
An acknowledged point of origin for modern Arab sf is Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim; in a very long and productive career, plays and fictions mostly dating to the 1950s-60s, sometimes bordering on the absurdist, strongly built on sf tropes, especially rejuvenation and immortality, at times involving complex dystopian and space-travel frames. Partly meant as direct interventions in the domestic public arena like most of his work, al-Hakim’s drama is preoccupied with the disciplining of the sensorium and of human relations (with an arguable awareness of Orwell ), and a genuine fascination with space exploration as a metaphor for utopian daydreaming.
The father-figure of Arab sf was Egyptian author Nihad Sharif, whose 1972 debut novel Qāhir al-zaman [Conqueror of Time] is inspired by Wells (both his sf and his 1942 nonfiction work The Conquest of Time, alluded to in the title). Sharif assimilates to the Arab world a rationalist outlook that breaks with fantastic and dreamlike settings, foregrounding scientific knowledge. The novel is an intricate detection, set in multiple time frames, dealing with a journalist’s discovery of a scientist’s hibernation project as a way to save humanity from the threat of a nuclear war. Although the scientist intends this possible future as utopian, in limiting the benefits of cryosleep to a eugenic selection of the world’s brightest intellects, he displays a hubristic streak reminiscent of Nazism; indeed, the novel is a meditation on the possibilities and dangers of modernity. Sharif is also important in shorter forms, his stories focusing especially on contact with aliens (both explorations and visitations). Some stories also address political themes against the background of the war of 1967, as calls for national awareness. In addressing the Palestinian conflict, Sharif proves more nuanced than what might be the most famous Arab sf novel abroad, the Palestinian Emile Habibi’s The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (1974), which, although more surreal satire than sf, gets a mention here. Other novels and stories add gender, pacifism, and religion to Sharif’s repertory. His overall project, Barbaro concludes, is to create a specifically Arab genre aimed at exploring these issues (140).
Another section surveys in detail the themes of the “challenge to time,” as well as quests for and contacts with “other” spaces, where sf shows, in Barbaro’s view, stronger links to Arab/Muslim culture(s). This is a crowded section, with many parallel readings, in which some names emerging in the 1970s-80s stand out. Moroccan author Muhammad ‘Aziz al-Lahbābī, writing in Arabic and in French, explores reactions to the discovery of an elixir of eternal life. Eternal life features also in Egyptian writer Mustafà Mahmūd, who mixes sf with mystery and the gothic. The only woman in this group, Kuwaiti author Tībah Ahmad al-Ibrāhīm, writes a story of hibernation, with rejuvenation resulting in a tabula rasa of sorts in which family bonds are inverted, a granddaughter becoming a parent figure for her grandfather, who has become a disturbing and estranging figure lacking socialization. Other works by Mahmūd deal with cloning. Egyptian author Sabrī Mūsà is the most consistent dystopian, akin to Huxley in the focus on individuals opposing regimentation thanks to contact with nature (210-16).
The final part of the book surveys current times. After numerous works focusing on community-building in alien settings, Syrian author Tālib ‘Umrān produced a forceful response to 9/11 in the 2003 sf technothriller al-Azmān al-muzlimah [Dark Times], whose intricate plot stages a contemporary war-on-terror scenario (including a Guantanamo-like setting) and dreams about a threatening future the protagonist tries to prevent. Another crucial contemporary figure is ‘Abd al-Nāsir Muğallī, a prominent Yemeni writer who emigrated to the US in the 1990s; in his short stories, alien places are both estranging mirrors and opportunities to give new shapes to Arab culture. His masterpiece is the 2009 novel Ğuġrāfiyat al-mā’ [Geography of Water], the story of an Arab university biologist working in Michigan who is the first to detect an ominous drop in water levels and discovers that aliens are tapping into Earth’s supply. For the aliens, though, the threat is Earth’s own pollution, while for the Muslim scientist, water stands in for innocence, something that can still be achieved. In its complex, polyphonic structure, this ecocritical novel is the most ambitious piece discussed by Barbaro.
The study closes with a look at the overall sf scene as, from the mid-late 2000s on, it was emerging in Syria, Egypt, Algeria, Kuwait, and other countries, with magazines providing venues for new writers. Whereas recent tragic events have doomed some endeavors, the Arab scene (including various kinds of diasporic authors writing in other languages) is now an unerasable part of world sf/f. Ada Barbaro’s book deserves an English edition.
—Salvatore Proietti, University of Calabria
Implausible, Baroque, and Surreal.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. 252 pp. $40 pbk.
In this critical study, SimoneCaroti productively analyzes Banks’s effervescent and mordant series about a far-future, post-scarcity utopia called Culture that miraculously remains governed by benevolent hyper-advanced artificial intelligences. Despite Banks’s self-admittedly outré premise, Caroti makes the convincing case that the Culture series deserves serious scholarly study in part for its trailblazing work in developing the millennial sf subgenre popularly known as New Space Opera, where “the emphasis is on space opera as a work of art, an aesthetic construct to be enjoyed precisely because it’s implausible, baroque, and surreal” (156).
In a tone at once memorial, celebratory, and critical, Caroti’s text bridges biographical criticism based on Banks’s many interviews with chapter-length discussions of the novels, reviews of current criticism, and larger overarching points of contention. In the “Introduction,” Caroti contends that one of the chief merits of the Culture series is the way it deeply questions what constitutes the morally and ethically right thing to do in secular-progressive societies. To this end, the book analyzes the series for its critical-utopian impulses, chapter by chapter addressing each novel in the order of their publishing history. Each chapter also groups the novels in thematic arcs while folding in commentary on the slow accretion of Banks scholarship.
The first chapter concludes by briefly discussing some of Banks’s mimetic fiction—The Wasp Factory (1984), Walking on Glass (1985), The Bridge (1986), and Complicity (1993)—for the way these novels smuggle in fantastic elements as “Trojan horses” (39). In the second chapter, on Consider Phlebas (1987), Caroti performs an incisive close reading of this first Culture novel, contending that it strategically defies space-opera conventions. If at times notional as opposed to meticulous, the contrast between traditional space operas and the Culture series does serve to highlight Banks’s sophisticated reinvention and debunking of this most despised of sf subgenres. The third chapter examines Banks’s self-avowed use of games as metafictional and moral conceits, analyzing the second Culture novel, The Player of Games (1988). Citing Tom Moylan, Caroti suggests that this novel puts a clever twist on the standard utopian template of the displaced visitor from the present catapulted into a perplexing futuristic utopia.
Caroti organizes the fourth chapter around the recurrence of a specific Culture agent in the novella The State of the Art (1989) and what many consider Banks’s finest Culture novel, Use of Weapons (1990). Although Caroti suggests that many “morality gradients” are at work in the series, he notes that the central ethical strand of The State of the Art is the Culture Mind’s detached excoriation of the neoliberal capitalism that dominates its contemporary Earth setting. Banks’s signature twist is that, unlike the gung-ho militarism of Robert A. Heinlein or Orson Scott Card, his practically pacifist, anti-interventionist novella pivots on the rational decision to reject even making first contact with Earth, let alone the unthinkable atrocity of actually invading. Likewise, Caroti reads Use of Weapons as concerned with the Culture’s involvement in the weaponization of individuals either by pathological war criminals or as proxies in the dirty work of putatively enlightened artificial intelligences. Caroti insists that we take the Culture agent’s caution that “we deal with the moral equivalent of black holes” as high seriousness and not just self-rationalizing camp.
The fifth chapter discusses the essay “A Few Notes on the Culture” (1994), which Banks wrote during his six-year hiatus from writing the Culture series. Then, following the critic Nick Gevers, the sixth chapter discusses Excession (1996) and Inversion (1999) as companion novels that view the Culture from above and below, respectively. Caroti’s evident admiration of Excession seems warranted given the virtuosity with which the book hybridizes a postmodern multiplicity of genres—space opera, war fiction, romantic comedy, colonial parody, ship-to-ship transcripts between quorums of Culture minds, and a rhapsodic description of exotic, theoretical space-science phenomena such as hyperspace, energy grids, and impossibly sophisticated mathematics. Likewise, Caroti shows that in Inversion, Banks again displays a playful, metafictional use of narrative techniques—for example, found-manuscript textual frames, juxtaposed parallel plot-lines, archaic prose style, and unreliable points of view—to tell a story in which the reader must guess the Culture’s questionable involvement in two medieval kingdoms.
The penultimate chapter analyzes Look to Windward (2000) as a post-9/11 novel, even though its publication in the UK was a year before the World Trade Center attacks. The novel, respectfully dedicated to the first Gulf War veterans, concerns not only neo-colonial warfare but also the aftermath, justification, and prevention of a terrorist attack on a Culture orbital that will result in gigadeaths; it therefore is unsurprising that when the novel was published in the US in 2001, many American reviewers and readers received the novel as presciently addressing the 9/11 tragedy as it was unfolding. The novel, which ends with a terrorist and a bungling imperialist joining hands to jointly commit suicide in the last light of a dying star, suggests a refusal to settle for easy answers in our contemporary age of terror.
Caroti’s final chapter groups together the last three Culture novels—Matter (2008), Surface Detail (2010), and The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)—as expanding the galaxy of the Culture series with a vaster, more inclusive plurality of alien commonwealths. These topsy-turvy, plot-thick novels unspool shellworlds, sky whales, virtual hells, sentient tattoos, and hyperspace transcendence, all of which Caroti deftly delineates. Throughout these teeming books, as in the series as a whole, Banks remains faithful to his core critical-utopian agenda. Caroti concludes with a brief coda that calls for continued attention to Banks’s fiction by scholars of “utopian studies, political science, sociology, and philosophy” (212) as well as by those who wish to understand Banks holistically, breaking down the boundaries between his mainstream novels and his sf. Indeed, Caroti’s own volume is an excellent first step in that valuable scholarly enterprise.
—Jerome Winter, University of California, Riverside
Technologies of the Gothic in Literature and Culture: Technogothics. New York: Routledge, 2015. 197 pp. $140 hc.
The essays in Justin Edwards’s collection explore the technologies, broadly defined, associated with the Gothic as a concept and mode. The authors address “Frankensteinesque experiments, Moreauesque hybrids, medical and chemical experimentations, the machinery of Steampunk, prostheses, and technologies of the self” (15). With thirteen short chapters from mostly literary but also cultural-studies, film, and musicology scholars, the collection includes a broad array of approaches to a genre and discourse that for many critics is tied to the origins of sf.
In contrast to Frankenstein’s monster, the collection is not a malformed amalgamation of misfit appendages. This is not to say that it is seamless either; it does show some signs of scarring. As a stand-alone essay on the topic, Edwards’s introduction is successful and both historically and theoretically informed, citing the most relevant and influential scholars of the Gothic vis-à-vis technology, such as Fred Botting (who opens the collection with his chapter) and Judith/Jack Halberstam. This discussion is supplemented with examples from recognizably Gothic literary texts, such as Frankenstein (1818), along with less obvious examples, such as the original Godzilla (1954). Readers of SFS will likely welcome this synthetic treatment, which includes a brief “cybergothic” reading of the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94).
Edwards does not lay out an explicit organizational format for the selection and arrangement of the essays, although his introduction does group some of them thematically. The chapters appear to be divided into those pertaining to media, biomedicine, and neoliberalism, along with a final chapter that is more theoretical, with only a few brief references to literary texts. This concluding chapter, “Language Will Eat Your Brain” by Peter Schwenger, while provocative, is not thematically related to any other essays except insofar as it argues that some literatures manage to resist the “zombifying” effects of the self-replicating parasite of language. Edwards’s introduction also never clarifies what he means exactly by the term “technogothics.” Indeed, we do not discover, until we encounter the term again in Rune Graulund’s chapter “Nanodead: The Technologies of Death in Ian McDonald’s Necroville,” that McDonald expressly deployed the term to identify “a mix of science fiction and the Gothic” (128). This lack of coherence in the central concept produces dissonances across the collection.
At first glance, Edwards’s book seems likely to appeal more to technoculture than to sf scholars. There is, however, significant value in this volume for sf studies, especially given two influential critical views on the relation between the Gothic and sf: Darko Suvin’s suggestion that the two genres should be seen as opposites versus Brian W. Aldiss’s contention that sf was born from the Gothic mode. The two essays in this collection that directly deal with sf texts operate within Aldiss’s framework. Graulund’s “Nanodead,” for example, works through the convergence of nanotechnology and the Gothic in McDonald’s Necroville (1994), ultimately suggesting that nanotech is a contradictory technology: “it points to the past and future” (129). Linnie Blake’s chapter, “Neoliberal Adventures in Neo-Victorian Biopolitics: Mark Hodder’s Burton and Swinburne novels,” articulates how Hodder’s steampunk fiction draws on the imperial Gothic’s focus on degeneration and liminal bodies to critique not only the Victorian imperial project but also contemporary neoliberal politics. In addition, Roger Luckhurst’s chapter, “Biomedical Horror: The New Death and the New Undead,” includes a nuanced discussion of how Gothic tropes and sf “help shape reality” (91; emphasis in original), rather than merely reflecting it in monstrous form, specifically in terms of the liminal construct of brain death.
Three chapters on the topic of biomedicine will also appeal to sf scholars: Sara Wasson’s essay on organ transplant and alienation, Barry Murnane’s related chapter on media narratives of transplant technologies and extended death, and Alan Gregory’s treatment of monstrosity and disability. Murnane’s “George Best’s Dead Livers: Transplanting the Gothic into Biotechnology and Medicine” focuses on the normalization of the uncanny and the abject in modern transplantation and life-extension technologies; in this way, it follows Luckhurst’s suggestion that sf and the Gothic shape our contemporary experience with biomedicine. The five essays on media technologies also have significant implications for sf research. Joseph Crawford’s “Gothic Fiction and Evolutionary Media Technology” provides a concise survey of how the Gothic is intimately entangled with anxieties provoked by new media technologies, a linkage not unfamiliar to sf. Three chapters centering on sound technologies could also spark new avenues of sf inquiry, given the recent prominence of interdisciplinary approaches in sound studies. These chapters will prove particularly fruitful for those working with non-textual sf media, especially film and video games. That said, Kelly Gardner’s essay on zombies and mobile games, “Braaiinnsss!: Zombie-technology, Play, and Sound,” while it offers an enlightening reading of the Gothic and sound in video games, fails to make a strong case for The Walking Dead: Assault (2012) and Plants vs. Zombies (2009) in terms of the media specificity of the mobile phone by contrast with traditional console games.
These critiques aside, Edwards’s collection is a productive addition to research in Gothic studies, though those looking for a book devoted to a more detailed discussion of the bonds and tensions between the Gothic and sf might be better served by Sara Wasson and Emily Alder’s anthology Gothic Science Fiction: 1980-2010 (2011). As a pedagogical resource, the brevity of the essays in Edwards’s collection allows for easy integration into an undergraduate syllabus; as a whole, the book could serve as an ideal course reader on the subject for more advanced seminars. Clearly, there is no resurgence of the Gothic, as has sometimes been suggested; it never really died but has, instead, continued to live on in the technologies it animates and is animated by.
—Lorenzo Servitje, University of California, Riverside
. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. v + 189 pp. $40 pbk.
Reading through The Transhuman Antihero, a line from Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) came to me again and again: “Cryin’ shame. Another month, could’ve been your viable human.” Like Splendid Angharad’s baby, this book is terminally premature. Competent, professional academic publishers both demand and support the process of peer review, reorganization, research, and revision that allows dissertations to mature into successful books. McFarland & Company showed no such care in this case, and shipping this fatally underdeveloped book is plain professional negligence.
Grantham’s central question is a good one. “If the promises of transhumanism are to be believed …[,] technoscientific developments will, at some point, provide individuals with the capacity to become smarter and stronger, and to live longer, healthier, and more productive lives.” Yet Grantham notes that transhuman protagonists tend to “openly reject the normative moral and social conventions of social reality [and] enact or espouse undoubtedly immoral and/or extremist ideologies” (1). Why would boosting traits that appear positive and pro-social in themselves consistently lead to antisocial outcomes? This is a tension in the genre that is ripe for fresh analysis. I was especially excited to see Grantham’s final chapters on Richard K. Morgan: locating Morgan within a parabola arcing from Shelley and Stapleton through Bester and Moore seemed like a smart way to move beyond existing scholarship.
Unfortunately, key choices in the way Grantham structures his argument severely limit both the scope and the scholarly relevance of his discussion; these are limitations that any competent peer reviewer would have flagged. Almost all of these issues are on display in this mission statement from the preface: “This book offers a reading of selected examples of the antiheroic transhuman in speculative fiction and examines the duality—transhuman, yet also antiheroic—that renders them paradoxical” (1). First, there is Grantham’s election of “paradoxical” as the key term to think through the relation of “transhuman” to “antihero.” Grantham never explains his choice of “paradoxical,” nor does he give a working definition of it. In his haphazard usage, “paradoxical” indexes any kind of “duality” that features some “blurring” between elements (3). But labeling the particular mixture of transhuman and antisocial as “paradoxical” is symptomatic of Grantham’s biases in this investigation. Grantham’s investigation of transhuman antiheroes proceeds from a position that preemptively rejects as absurd any implication that desires for human perfectibility might entail negative social outcomes. It comes as no surprise, then, that Grantham preemptively absolves transhumanism. “Ultimately, what the paradoxical protagonists come to demonstrate is that while technological development might enable us to transcend the limitations imposed upon the human condition, it won’t enable us to transcend human nature” (1). Here, as throughout The Transhuman Antihero, social and historical analysis is short-circuited by appeals to a transhistorical discourse of morals and essences.
This leads to the second major limitation: neither the texts nor the Grantham’s “paradoxical” reading of them are located in clear theoretical, historical, or sociopolitical contexts. There is little explanation given for why these examples were chosen over others, how they are connected to each other, or why this reading of them contributes to a larger critical discourse. Are these texts representative or exceptional? Do they trace a line of development or exhibit the recurrence of a stable figure? When did the “paradoxical protagonist” they contain first appear? Grantham’s skeletal introduction gives little guidance on these framing questions, and his chapters do not answer them. Some context filters in from secondary sources, but even then, it doesn’t inform the substance of the argument. This is The Transhuman Antihero’sthird and most fatal limitation. Despite the dutiful literature reviews Grantham provides for his central analytic terms “antihero” (4-7, 79-81) and “transhuman” (7-10, 13-19, 144-49), his application of those terms is so broad as to render them—and so his argument—vague to the point of meaninglessness. When “antiheroic” is applied to any inclination to violent action, resistance to institutional authority, deviation from conventional morality, or inclination to personal weakness or vice, it denotes nothing but an abstract state of moral imperfection. To find it “paradoxical” that literary protagonists—let alone sf ones—might not be morally perfect demands a degree of naïve faith in transhumanist perfectibility that any thorough literature review ought to have dispelled.
Throughout the book, Grantham’s usage of “transhuman” is woefully uninformed. Grantham doesn’t seem to be aware that transhumanism and posthumanism are distinct critical discourses and fundamentally different technopolitical projects. Donna Haraway and N. Katherine Hayles are frequently cited as if they are fellow travelers, rather than critics, of transhumanism. A typical example of this deafness to critical context is Grantham’s breezy assurance that, according to Hayles, “a cyborg is essentially a transhuman and thus superior to human individuals” (103). This displays Gratham’s understanding of transhuman beings not as products of or participants in a distinct philosophical, historical, and political project, but simply as anyone who has gained “skills, powers, abilities, and attributes that far supersede those of everyday individuals” (6). This broad definition specifically elides both the means and ends of that empowerment, as well as the intentionality of the change. In short, it both depoliticizes and aestheticizes superiority in itself. The Transhuman Antihero reproduces the Nietzschean ethics of transhumanism, naturalizing the aesthetics of power at the center of the sf parabola he traces rather than critically interrogating it.
Each of The Transhuman Antihero’sseven chapters is fatally compromised by these limitations. The first, on Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), makes sense as a dissertation chapter but serves no purpose in a critical volume: it is neither succinct nor comprehensive enough to serve as a teaching text, nor original enough to contribute to existing scholarship. The second chapter gives a Nietzschean reading of Olaf Stapleton’s Odd John (1935), Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (1953), and Alfred Bester’s The Stars my Destination (1957). While competent, these readings contribute little to the overall argument. How are the Nietzschean ethics of human overcoming in these texts related to contemporary social, political, economic, and technological developments? How do these readings build on the discussion of Shelley or set up the discussions in subsequent chapters? These are questions a competent editor would have demanded the chapter address before going to press.
The next two chapters focus on the work of Alan Moore, examining V for Vendetta (1988-89) and Watchmen (1986-87),respectively. The discussion of V is a derivative mess, but the chapter on Watchmen contains one of the strongest moments in the book: Grantham’s discussion of how vanilla humans Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Rorschach, and the Comedian illustrate M.P. Woolf’s definition of antiheroic fiction as the drama of abject individuals coping within a society they cannot understand and do not have the power to meaningfully influence. In contrast, Grantham’s discussion of the superhuman Dr. Manhattan is a meandering rehash of established theological readings of the character. Perversely, Watchmen’sonly genuine transhuman, Adrian Veidt, receives only a half-page of attention.
The fifth chapter offers an uneven overview of cyberpunk that is inadequate to serve as a standalone chapter in a published volume. While addressing the central role of Jameson, Baudrillard, and Suvin in cyberpunk criticism means Grantham has to situate cyberpunk as a literature of late capitalism, most of the chapter remains within an individualistic, moralizing framework that reads the “drugs, violence, theft, and vice” in the genre as evidence of antiheroic moral imperfection (101). At the same time, the importance of film noir and detective fiction as influences on cyberpunk goes unacknowledged, with dire ramifications for the subsequent discussion of Morgan’s work.
This deeply flawed construal of cyberpunk sets up the final chapters, focused on the post-cyberpunk sf of Richard K. Morgan. Chapter six, on the Takeshi Kovacs series (2002-2005), adds little to existing scholarship by Paweł Frelik, Graham Murphy, and Sherryl Vint. Having ignored cyberpunk’s indebtedness to pulp and noir, Grantham misreads Morgan’s emphasis on amorality, violence, and revenge as a radical departure rather than a return to the genre’s taproots. The final chapter offers a comically literal take on Black Man (2007, a.k.a. Thirteen) that is totally deaf to satire and hyperbole. Grantham excessively quoted Alan Moore interviews in earlier chapters, but here he leaves out Morgan’s consistent description of his work as dramatizing how “violence is never actually a solution to anything…. [S]ometimes it happens, and sometimes it’s unavoidable, sometimes it feels good even, but the truth of the matter is it’s not a good thing” (Jason B. Jones, “An Interview with Richard Morgan,” Clarksworld [Sep. 2008]). One can argue about the extent to which Morgan’s fiction critiques rather than simply performs violent masculinity, but it takes a truly myopic approach to read Black Man and come out arguing, as Grantham does, that the novel’s “hyper-masculine posturing … is not without credibility. Violence and aggression are not simply the means by which one demonstrates superior strength over another, but the catalyst for social, political, scientific, and philosophical progress” (166). This sentence is the closest we get to the politics animating The Posthuman Antihero,because thescanty four-page summary that concludes the book gives no synthesis or closure.
I do not object to this volume simply because I disagree with The Transhuman Antihero’s politics. I am objecting to the implicitness of those politics. It is impossible, in fact, to debate Grantham’s project on a political level when confronted with all the slippages and lacunae of structure and terminology. I don’t think I would have agreed with Grantham’s conclusions in a reworked and revised version of this book,but it would have—and should have—been a productive and provocative contribution to critical conversation about transhumanism in sf, the springboard to a substantive debate. I look forward to seeing Grantham’s work in other venues, where his ideas receive the editorial support they deserve. By neglecting to help scholars refine and develop their arguments, the publisher McFarland is failing the sf community as a whole.
—Joshua Pearson, University of California, Riverside
Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015. xv + 179 pp. $75 hc.
Aaron John Gulyas’s book focuses on the culture of conspiracy and belief in the paranormal that fed into sf television during the 1990s. Gulyas argues that society was primed for a period of such dark, sinister works by previous decades of government cover-ups such as Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, and the many conspiracy theories surrounding UFO sightings and alien abductions. Gulyas begins by stating that his book is “neither solely about science fiction television in the 1990s nor just about conspiracy and paranormal culture but rather about the interconnections and the sporadic but significant dialogue and interplay between the two” (xiii)—and Gulyas does convincingly outline the dialogue between these areas.
The book begins by describing the cultural forces that inspired the 1990s boom in conspiratorial television, particularly UFO conspiracy culture. Chapter one discusses prominent UFO theories and abduction stories, including the Roswell crash and the abductions of Betty and Barney Hill. The chapter also looks into organizations that focus on UFO sightings and cover-ups, such as NICAP (National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena) and the governmental organization MJ-12. Gulyas dubs all of the cover-ups and government conspiracies regarding UFOs “Cosmic Watergate,” a term referring to a general atmosphere of cultural paranoia that came to permeate sf television during the 1990s. Prior to this time, tv shows such as The Twilight Zone (1959-64), The Outer Limits (1963-65), and Unsolved Mysteries (1987-2002) produced episodes that dealt with UFOs, alien abductions, and government conspiracies, setting the stage for later treatments.
Gulyas’s decade of conspiratorial and paranormal television begins in 1993 with the debut of the X-Files (1993-2002) and ends in 2001 with the collapse of the Twin Towers. The X-Files is the quintessential paranoid and paranormal sf show of the 1990s, and it remains the focal point throughout Gulyas’s book. Every other show mentioned in the text hinges upon or emerges from The X-Files. Throughout the book, Gulyas examines various shows in relation to real-life events that manifested the mood of suspicion and paranoia pervading American society. Aside from the X-Files, Gulyas examines many other shows including Dark Skies (1996-97), various episodes and thematic elements from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-99), and Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001), as well as Chris Carter’s Millennium (1996-99), The Pretender (1996-2000), and The Lone Gunmen (2001). Gulyas does an excellent job tying together the shows and the culture that inspired them. His focus on the paranormal, however, remains largely on UFOlogy, although he occasionally delves into the world of supernatural cults and Satanism.
In the end, one may question the real cultural impact on mainstream society of conspiracy theories and UFOlogy. Were they as prominent as Gulyas suggests? Gulyas argues that the rise of television programming that focused on the paranormal and the conspiratorial suggests the popularity of such ideas; yet the fulcrum of his argument, as noted, is the X-Files. Many of the other programs, such as Dark Skies and Millennium, had very brief runs, and Harsh Realm (1999) lasted only three episodes. Gulyas does touch on the wildly popular Star Trek series; he only analyzes isolated episodes, however, that contain conspiratorial themes. In the final analysis, The X-Files was the start, the climax, and the end of the conspiratorial and paranormal boom that Gulyas discusses, which suggests that conspiratorial thinking may not have been as pervasive or powerful as Gulyas would have us believe. When the Twin Towers came down, the cultural focus shifted to issues of terrorism and global conflict, and conspiracy-theory television went into decline. All in all, despite its limitations, Gulyas’s book offers some provocative insights into the brief heyday of paranormal conspiracies in sf television.
—Sarah M. Gawronski, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
To Be or Not To Be: This Is the Metaphor.
New York: Cambridge UP, 2015. xii + 192 pp. $90 hc.
The premise of this volume seems rather peculiar at first: why suicide and sf? A grim and morally problematic topic, suicide seems more at home in realist fiction. Indeed, the most famous literary suicides, from Anna Karenina to Arkady Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment (1866),are firmly embedded in the psychological exploration of regret and despair, focusing on the individual rather than the world. Sf, an “ontological” genre, more concerned with the external rather than the internal, seems ill-suited for such an exploration. Gutiérrez-Jones’s study does have an explanation for its premise but it arrives at this explanation by a circuitous route. To begin with, the author claims that he is more interested in suicide than in sf. He frankly concedes that his engagement with sf theory and criticism is limited and superficial: the book “does not offer a new theory of science fiction, nor does it provide a comprehensive history of the genre” (18).
But his definition of suicide is “science-fictional”: he regards self-destruction as a strategy for coping with the Other. Moving beyond the contemporary therapeutic approach, in which suicide is seen chiefly as a symptom of mental illness, Gutierrez-Jones reaches back to Emile Durkheim’s sociological study and Georges Minois’s investigation into the history and significance of self-killing to suggest that suicide may be a way to transcend cultural or ontological limits. He proposes a paradoxical definition of “the creative self-destruction,” in which an (aborted) suicide becomes the occasion for characters in crisis to reinvent or “reboot” themselves in order to meet new challenges (7).
The book discuses a number of key sf texts, from H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1897) to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961) and Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy (2003-2013), to show how this process of self-reinvention through self-destruction is triggered by the protagonist’s confrontation with the Other. Particularly interesting in this context is Gutierrez-Jones’s appropriation of Philip Fisher’s taxonomy of “rare experiences,” which draws a distinction between the sublime and the sense of wonder: the sublime is “the anesthetization of fear,” while wonder is “the anesthetization of delight” (28-29). This offers a useful framework for conceptualizing the trajectory of Kris Kelvin in Solaris,as Hari’s suicide shatters his helplessness and hostility toward the Ocean and propels him toward the acceptance of further “cruel miracles” (unfortunately, Gutierrez-Jones follows the old translation of the novel in which Hari is called Rheya). The sense of wonder may be seen as “modulating between self and other” and, as such, is necessary for the character confronted with the radical Other of sf. Suicide, then, becomes the ultimate rejection of anthropomorphism, in which an attempt to destroy oneself separates the would-be suicide from “defensive, solipsistic humanness” and opens him/her up to the wonder of the universe (45).
This general scheme is applied to a selection of sf texts, each chapter focusing on one novel or one author (with the exception of Chapter 4, which stands apart because it deals with two films: Christopher Nolan’s Inception  and Rian Johnson’s Looper ). The discussion of Solaris is the best in the book because suicide is an explicit theme in Lem’s novel. Hari is a suicidal copy of the suicidal original, and Gutierrez-Jones presents a strong argument linking the dynamics of self-destruction with Kelvin’s transcendence of the strictures of bureaucratic science.
The discussion of Wells’s Moreau, on the other hand, has more to say about the conflict between anthropomorphism and evolutionary theory than about suicide. The reading of Wells’ novel abounds in illuminating insights, such as the juxtaposition of Wells’s portrayal of the human/animal divide with Gustave Moreau’s famous painting Oedipus and the Sphynx (1864). Considering the important role the sphinx plays in Wells’s imaginative universe (e.g., the White Sphinx of The Time Machine ), this juxtaposition is both startling and logical. Moreau’s name, echoing the name of the famous painter, becomes a clue to the powerful challenge the novel issues to the Victorian belief in human superiority to animals. But the relevance of suicide to this challenge is dubious, not least because Prendick is such a problematic narrator. His response to his experiences on Moreau’s island testifies to an unresolved trauma rather than to any decisive transformation. While he declares his willingness to kill himself several times, it seems to be more an hysterical posturing than an actual determination. Suicide is a side issue in the novel, no matter how much Gutierrez-Jones tries to move it to the center.
Similar problems occur in other chapters. Where the author’s discussion is most illuminating, it seems to have little to do with his overarching theme; and where suicide comes to the fore, it obscures the actual content of the text. The engaging analysis of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), for example (originally published in SFS in 2014), focuses on issues of “kinship” between humans and AIs and the ways in which the tension between the disdain for the body and the need for physical connection plays out in the novel’s depiction of cyberculture. But apart from the dubious inference that Case’s risk-taking is “suicidal,” there is little to connect this tension to the problematic of self-destruction. The situation is somewhat different in the chapter on Inception because a dream suicide is indeed a means of waking up in the movie’s plot. Thus, suicide becomes part of the movie’s complex web of epistemological uncertainty and ontological collapse, in which dreams are commodified into “mediascapes.” But since we do not know whether the protagonist’s “awakening” at the end is real, suicide as a conduit to an existential transformation is itself problematized, along with all the other components of the movie’s fictional world.
Ultimately, in my view, Gutierrez-Jones’s book both succeeds and fails in a way different from what the theoretical introduction leads one to expect. The author makes it clear that his goal is not to make a significant contribution to sf theory; rather, he is using the genre as a way to explicate his concept of “creative self-destruction.” And yet his readings of individual sf texts, even such classics as Solaris and Neuromancer, are often fresh and exciting, integrating an overview of existing criticism with a new perspective. On the other hand, in these discussions, suicide retreats into the background, relegated to a minor detail or reduced to a vague metaphor for risk-taking.
Perhaps the problem originates in the very definition of suicide that underpins the study. In order to function as a catalyst for self-reinvention, suicide, by definition, has to be unsuccessful. When Anna Karenina kills herself, her eponymous novel comes to an end. In all the texts Gutierrez-Jones discusses, the protagonist goes on living after his literal or metaphorical attempt at self-destruction. Prendick, no matter how traumatized, survives the island; Kelvin does not follow Hari’s example; Case continues more or less as usual after his inadvertent creation of the godlike Wintermute; and the protagonists of Inception and Looper are forced by Hollywood conventions into some sort of happy ending. If indeed “suicidal crises may provide an opportunity to break with problematic habits of thought and feeling” (152), what makes them suicidal rather than simply crises? The author convincingly demonstrates how an encounter with the Other can shift the worldview of an sf character from fear to wonder. But it seems to me a little too extreme to call this shift suicide.
—Elana Gomel, University of Tel-Aviv
Transhumanism and Its Ethical Dilemmas.
Encylopédie du trans/posthumanisme: L’humain et ses préfixes [The Human and its Prefixes: An Encyclopedia of Trans/Posthumanism]. Paris: Editions Vrin, 2015. 512 pp. €28 pbk.
At the Twelfth World Conference on Bioethics in Mexico in 2014, Belgian philosopher Gilbert Hottois presented his vision of transhumanism in a talk entitled “Is transhumanism a humanism?” In it, he contended that transhumanism “provides the possibility to articulate, in a coherent way, a wide range of ideas and issues: anthropological, epistemological, ethical, political, and even ontological.” The encyclopedic endeavor of this new book, directed by Hottois and two researchers at the CRIB (Center of Interdisciplinary Research in Bioethics at the University of Bruxelles), L’Humain et ses préfixes [The Human and its Prefixes] mirrors this constructive and multidisciplinary approach to current transhumanism that “rejects fanaticism, intolerance, superstition and dogmatism.” (These quotations derive from Hottois’s 2014 talk, which can be viewed online on Vimeo.) This encyclopedia presents the facts about and ethical questions raised by today’s technoscientific innovations. It is an ambitious project, and despite some organizational and stylistic problems, it is a successful one.
L’Humain et ses préfixes reads like a book of wonders, each chapter telling an episode of human innovation and the power of imagination. The volume combines technical descriptions, philosophical probes, and artistic explorations to offer a widescale, but not diluted, picture of how technoscientific applications reconfigure, challenge, and enhance the human body. The concept of the human constantly changes as each innovation “pose la question éthique de la transgression des limites naturelles” [asks the ethical question of the transgression of natural boundaries] (67). Thus, the reader will not find a fixed definition of the human or an exhaustive definition of transhumanism; rather, the book offers several definitions from different angles of interpretation. The focus throughout is on the facts and potential outcomes of technoscientific innovation.
The counterpart of a wide range of approaches and topics is an arbitrary categorization of all entries into three parts: Philosophie et éthique, Technoscience et médecine d’amélioration, and Techniques, arts et science-fiction [Philosophy and Ethics, Technoscience and Enhancement Medicine, and Techniques, Arts, and Science Fiction]. This seeming separation of techniques and their ethical “counterparts” is surprising because the theme of ethics permeates the book from beginning to end. As a result, there are redundancies. For example, the second entry in Part One discusses “Anthropotechnie,” while Part Two starts with “Amélioration-Enhancement.” Anthropotechnie and enhancement refer to the same concept—the medical techniques used to augment the human body. Some information is repeated. Moreover, the author of “Amélioration-Enhancement” starts his first paragraph by dismissing the term anthropotechnie because, he says, it is rarely used in practice. These inherent contradictions are two-sided: one can read them as a weakness in the book or more generously as a dialogue between articles and authors that underscores and performs the contentious nature of all technoscientific concepts.
What are transhumanism and posthumanism? The introduction presents the transhuman subject as “un humain en transition cherchant à transcender son humanité” [a human being in transition who is looking to transcend his or her humanity] (8). The article “Posthumain” places it in a historical trajectory:
le transhumanisme s’impose, malgré le disparate de ses versions, comme le symptôme de la démesure moderniste et la tentative pour lui donner une issue: être moderne, c’était en un premier temps «vouloir le perfectionnement indéfini», mais bientôt ce fut «vouloir l’augmentation des facultés innées», et c’est à présent «vouloir être relevé par les machines» [transhumanism, despite its many versions, is a symptom of modernist excessiveness and the attempt to provide an outcome for it: to be modern meant first “wanting indefinite improvement,” but soon became “wanting to enhance innate abilities,” and now means “wanting to be replaced by machines”] (108).
This entry is a good example of the varied viewpoints on transhumanist techniques, whether cognitive enhancement, robotics, prosthetics, doping, or nanotechnology. The discussion opens up to infinite applications in terms of well-being and better-being, as well as the dangerous excesses they can unleash; it also epitomizes the genealogical approach developed in many other articles. Indeed, one of the strengths of this book is the wealth of background information on technoscientific realities we no longer question because they are now part of our daily lives (e.g. doping, plastic surgery, body-building).
Posthumanism, the book suggests, still has to be defined because “aucune homogénéité doctrinale ne se dessine dans les courants intellectuels qui en admettent la référence et la dignité conceptuelle” [one finds no homogeneous doctrine in intellectual circles that accepts the term and its conceptual integrity] (106). One must understand the concept as a continuity from human to transhuman to posthuman, without a clear breaking point between each stage (167). Posthumanism is thus a form of the transcendence of the human (8). On a darker note, according to Hottois, it can also feed the apocalyptic imagination and thus “flirte avec le nihilisme” [flirt with nihilism] (8).
There are fifty-nine articles in the encyclopedia, from the expected “Transhumanisme,” “Chirurgie esthétique” [Plastic surgery], and “Cyberpunk” (respectively in Parts One, Two, and Three), to the lesser known “Neuroéthique” [Neuro-Ethics], “Mutation,” and “Technopsychédélisme” [Techno-Psychedelia]. The authors of technical articles succeed in presenting information in ways that invite the reader into their fields of research. As mentioned earlier, articles come in different styles, approaches, and lengths. Most entries by Pierre-Frédéric Daled are opaque, notably because he uses too many quotes without context or analysis, which makes it difficult to understand him without a solid philosophical background. “Mutation” is two pages long, while “Prolongation de la vie” [Prolongation of life] runs to eighteen pages. Oddly, the topic of doping is divided into four separate articles by three different authors.
Despite these awkward organizational choices, the quality of the content is undeniable. There are many wonderful articles in this book, not all pertaining to the technical aspects of transhumanism such as nanotechnologies and cyberbodies. The article “Corps humain” [Human body] is a clear and organized discussion of the history of and quandaries surrounding a concept that has changed much throughout the ages. As the author rightly puts it: “Rien de plus « naturel » que le corps, et rien de moins « naturel » [Nothing is more “natural” than the body and nothing is less “natural” than the body] (46). This quote underlines the intrinsic volatility of the term “natural.” In the third part, longtime readers of science fiction might not learn much from the entry “Science-fiction” or “Cyberpunk.” However, the articles “Art et Bio-corps” and “Art et Techno-corps” [“Art and Bio-body” and “Art and Techno-body”] offer interesting perspectives on the issues sf also explores. Indeed, the author of both entries, Chloé Pirson, supplies many references to contemporary transhumanist art forms by visual and plastic artists around the world and offers excellent in-depth analysis of several art pieces.
What will become of the human body is not only the business of scientists, philosophers, and artists. L’Humain et ses préfixes makes clear that transhumanism is omnipresent. Although we cannot know what the human body will look like, what it will do, or what it will think thousands of years from now, the changing process has already begun and it touches us all.
—Annabelle Dolidon, Portland State University
Exploring Contemporary Italian SF.
Distopie, viaggi spaziali, allucinazioni: Fantascienza italiana contemporanea [Dystopias, Space Voyages, Hallucinations: Contemporary Italian Science Fiction]. Milan: Mimesis, 2015. 363 pp. €30 pbk.
This dense monograph by Giulia Iannuzzi came as a surprise. What I was expecting was the second volume of her Fantascienza italiana: Riviste, autori, dibattiti dagli anni Cinquanta agli anni Settanta [Italian SF: Magazines, Authors, Debates from the 1950s to the 1970s], also published by Mimesis in 2014, which mapped the complex world of Italian sf magazines from 1952 to 1980. By focusing on the story of six important Italian magazines, that volume offered readers a widescale and well-wrought picture of the history of Italian sf before 1980, showing how narrative models were imported, mostly through translations, to be assimilated, reused, and mutated by Italian writers. Iannuzzi thus showed that the Italian sf tradition cannot be understood in terms of a nation-based model of literary history but rather must be seen as a non-linear story of chasms and geological faults, where the development of science-fictional devices and narratives is absolutely not self-contained. No wonder, then, that some of the key figures in this story (e.g., Vittorio Curtoni or Roberta Rambelli) were translators—that is, cultural mediators who grafted English-language scientific imagination onto a culture whose models were the ancient Greek and Roman classics, the great authors of the Italian middle ages, plus the French, German, and Russian modern classics.
Iannuzzi’s Fantascienza italiana was a welcome contribution to the study of Italian sf, a field in which solid academic works are rare and amateur critics abound; and in the Italian scene, divided by a spirit of campanilismo [excessive civic pride], non-academic critics and experts all too often tend to overestimate the importance of local heroes and downplay or ignore the achievements of authors from other parts of the country (or belonging to other groups of an exceedingly sectarian fandom). What was needed was a balanced picture depicting all the threads of Italian sf’s complex tapestry, and Iannuzzi began to paint it with her Fantascienza italiana. Yet Distopie, viaggi spaziali, allucinazioni is not the second part of her history of Italian sf magazines; this time, the focus is on four authors who have played an important role in the development of Italian sf and sf in Italy.
[Contemporary Italian SF: Historical and Critical Frame], presents us with an 80-page overview of Italian sf from its origins to the present day. Iannuzzi suggests Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320)and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1532) as forerunners, notwithstanding that the former’s spaceflight is allegorical and the latter has more to do with heroic fantasy than sf. What follows, however, is a good introduction to the history of sf in Italy, covering literature, cinema, and television, and proving Iannuzzi’s wide-ranging knowledge of both primary and secondary literature (including up-to-date English-language academic criticism). Iannuzzi competently covers the field of Italian sf, also depicted by Salvatore Proietti in the introductory overview included in the July 2015 SFS special issue on the subject; of course, having a lot more canvas than Proietti (his survey was fourteen pages long), she can tell the multi-faceted and non-linear story of how Italian sf was incubated and born at a more leisurely pace. Interestingly, she details how this development did not follow an autonomous line of growth but was repeatedly subject to the influence of external forces, such as the politics of cultural autarchia [self-sufficiency] enforced by the Fascist regime during the 1930s or the abrupt exposure to the sf produced in the United States and United Kingdom after 1945. Iannuzzi shows quite clearly that the consecutive waves of English-language sf (from the Golden Age to cyberpunk) turned into shockwaves that hit Italy and deeply affected the core community of sf fans and practitioners, the wider readership of the genre, and the publishing industry.
Iannuzzi also discusses how Italian sf survived in a tremendously hostile cultural environment, ostracized by academia, ignored or ignorantly berated by non-academic literary critics, snubbed by the most prestigious presses. Distopie puts the blame on the anti-scientific bent of Italian culture, plus the hostility towards non-realistic genres of the two strongest cultural traditions in post-WWII Italy—the Roman Catholic Church and the Communist Party. The lack of a scholarly community focused on sf made the situation even worse—though there were interesting episodes, especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s, accurately recorded by Iannuzzi.
The introduction is followed by four monographic chapters dealing with four representative figures of Italian sf: Lino Aldani (1926-2009), Gilda Musa (1926-1999), Vittorio Curtoni (1949-2011), and Vittorio Catani (1940- ). Of course, this is only a brief sample of the Italian sf canon (ifsuch a canon really exists); yet these four writers are representative enough, as they are both sf authors and sf critics (Aldani and Curtoni), editors (Curtoni and Catani), or translators (Curtoni). Musa, on the other hand, is, as we shall see, both an interesting author and part of a complex network of sf experts, editors, practitioners, etc., so that Iannuzzi can present readers with a whole literary environment through her portrait of the author.
Chapter two is devoted to Lino Aldani, considered “the father of Italian sf,” not only for his stories and novels, but for having written the first Italian book-length critical discussion of sf, La fantascienza [Science Fiction, 1962]. Iannuzzi does not offer readers a complete overview of Aldani’s oeuvre but focuses on a selection of his short stories and novels, preceded by a short biographical introduction; hers is a thematic approach, as she explains in the introductory section of this chapter, by pointing out three main directions in Aldani’s fiction: “[one] of adventurous sf, of revisited space opera; a dystopian direction, of sociopolitical reflection on modernity and its perspectives, often carried out in a satirical key; an introspective direction that tackles the unease of modernity from the point of view of the single individual and often comes to deal with the theme of madness” (103). Iannuzzi first manages to show how Aldani initially refashioned classical sf plots and devices coming from the English-language tradition; she then discusses short stories in which Aldani proves to have learned the lesson of the sociological sf of the 1950s, applying it to the fast-changing society of the Italian economic miracle (1950-63)—a tumultuous period of industrialization with deep and tearing contradictions. Then she tackles a few stories in which Aldani focuses on the issue of psychopathology as a by-product of modern society, plus the novel La croce di ghiaccio [The Ice Cross, 1989], where the theme of madness is tied up with religion. The story of a Roman Catholic missionary visiting other planets, the novel echoes James Blish’s A Case of Conscience (1958) and Ray Bradbury’s story “In This Sign” (1951). Iannuzzi correctly suggests J.G. Ballard as an important influence on Aldani, especially in his 1963 short story “Nemico invisibile” [Invisible enemy]; had she dealt with Eclissi 2000 (1979), which draws much from Ballard’s “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1962), she might have better depicted how Aldani managed to rework, in an original way, the narratives of the British author. She has, however, managed to show how Aldani’s career ran parallel to the evolution of Italian sf from the early 1960s to the 1990s, providing readers with a solid and extensive introduction to the author’s fictional worlds, and offering several interesting interpretive insights.
Chapter three contains a discussion of Gilda Musa, a very interesting figure who deserves more critical attention. Aldani was a math teacher in secondary schools, but Musa was educated in the humanities and had a more cosmopolitan upbringing, having graduated in Milan but then specialized in German literature at Heidelberg and English literature at Cambridge. Before starting to write sf, she was a respected poet, translated Brecht and Wiechert, and married writer, critic, screenwriter, and editor Inisero Cremaschi (1928-2014), who introduced her to a network of literati and intellectuals. No wonder that the magazine her husband edited, Futuro, strove to publish literarily conscious sf and to involve such renowned authors/critics as Libero Bigiaretti or Mario Soldati in the debate on sf and its artistic value (163).
Interestingly, in the February 1978 issue of the Italian sf magazine Robot, a short story by Musa, “Gli ex-bambini” [The Former Children, 1978] was published with the translation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s story “Intracom” (1974) and James Tiptree Jr./Alice Sheldon’s “The Women Men Don’t See” (1973). The names of these three female writers are printed large on the cover of the issue so that a connection among them is evidently suggested by the editor, Vittorio Curtoni: specifically, their common interest in the theme of contact with alien species and its transcultural dimension. Most of Musa’s short stories and novels discussed by Iannuzzi deal with the contact/clash between humans and alien species, in a fashion that reminds readers of Le Guin’s anthropological approach to this theme. Musa is also interested—just like Le Guin—in ecology; her style is as elegant and only apparently simple as Sheldon’s; and the three writers use alien civilizations as touchstones to expose the ills and contradictions of humankind.
Iannuzzi also discusses “Trenta colonne di zeri” [Thirty Columns of Zeroes, 1964], an interesting variation on the theme of the insane spaceman that stands comparison with the treatment of this figure by such authors as John Wyndham, James E. Gunn, and Ballard. And I am grateful to her for having made me discover Musa’s first sf short story, “Memoria totale” [Total Memory, 1963], an impressive stylistic tour de force that uncannily anticipates one of Philip K. Dick’s best stories, “The Electric Ant” (1969). Musa, who is relatively neglected today, represents a very interesting case study illustrating how Italian sf writers managed to import themes, devices, and ideas from US and UK works and refashion them in original ways.
The fourth chapter deals with Vittorio Curtoni, arguably an inescapable choice. The role he played as editor and translator of English-language sf into Italian was absolutely crucial. Suffice it to say that in a time when Urania—the most important sf paperback series—often cut the translations of US and UK sf novels to fit its size, Curtoni published integral translations in the paperback series he edited with Montanari, Galassia. Moreover, Galassia published those New Wave writers (e.g., John Brunner, Dick, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, Thomas M. Disch, Barry N. Malzberg) who had been banned by the editors of Urania, Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini. Moreover, Curtoni was the editor of Robot, a short-lived (1976-79) magazine that accepted works also by Italian authors and hosted important discussions on sf in general and the peculiarities of Italian sf in particular. In comparison with Curtoni’s activity as a translator and editor, his literary production pales; yet his only novel, Dove stiamo volando [Where Are We Flying, 1972], a gloomy post-holocaust story of persecuted mutants, is representative of the taste of a decade—the 1970s—characterized by an atmosphere of impending (political, social, economic, environmental, demographic) catastrophe.
Curtoni’s best works are his stories, however, and the selection of short fiction discussed by Iannuzzi is well chosen. Once again, Curtoni manages to draw much from the American authors he translated and successfully “applies” them to the Italian scene; his narratives are often embittered and haunted by an overwhelming pessimism that surely has much to do with the grim atmosphere of a country torn by political terrorism, but also with the declining popularity of sf itself (the end of Robot due to insufficient sales in 1979 being part of this story). Curtoni’s bleak tales mirror those years in a vivid manner: hence, one wishes that Iannuzzi had gone deeper into the political aspects of his fiction. Though this chapter is scattered with hints at the social, political, and historical context of Italy in the 1960s and 1970s, no organic connection is made between the stories and their wider sociopolitical context. A paradox that should have been explored is the undeniable fact that Curtoni’s fiction is imbued with anti-Americanism, yet he was powerfully influenced by American authors (Malzberg first and foremost). May this be just a matter of distinguishing the (evil) American imperialism of the Cold War era from the (good) American counterculture? A more in-depth discussion of this aspect of the author’s work would have been appreciated.
The fifth chapter deals with the only living author, Vittorio Catani, even though at 76 he cannot be considered as belonging to a “new” generation. Probably Iannuzzi, by choosing authors whose lives began even before the term fantascienza was invented in 1952, aimed at discussing four figures endowed with an established reputation, whose long careers allowed the scholar to go back over the history of Italian sf. As for Catani, one must necessarily underscore the fact that he is the first winner of the Premio Urania with his 1990 novel Gli universi di Moras [Moras’s Universes], a solid story of alternate realities set in the region where the author lives, Apulia.
Catani, who published his first stories in the early 1960s, also gives Iannuzzi the opportunity to deal with themes and problems of the twenty-first century, especially in her discussion of his latest novel, Il quinto principio [The Fifth Principle, 2009]: “In his longest work, Catani has depicted a remarkably large scenario, rich in details and inventions on every scale, from the macroscopic dynamics of global economic markets to the technologies we use every day” (300). Drawing from his knowledge of finance (Catani worked as a bank manager), from the discourses about globalization and late capitalism, from the projections of cyberpunk, and from the forecasts about global warming and water scarcity (the novel features a tycoon who manages to purchase Antarctica for 1025 Euros), Catani depicts a not-very-far future world by means of a novel whose multiple plots span the globe, with a believable display of technologies that may be under development today.
Iannuzzi stresses Catani’s interest, during the course of his 50-year career, in both the “hard” and the “soft” sciences (something that differentiates him from the other three writers, who generally favored the latter, or even the humanities). She also examines the political implications of his stories and novels and the recurring theme of sexuality (often graphically depicted). As in the previous chapters, Iannuzzi does not claim to have offered a complete overview of Catani’s oeuvre, yet her choices allow readers to picture it quite accurately. What is sometimes missing is a connection with the wider realm of world sf (especially English-language sf, which exerted such a powerful influence on the generation of Catani and Curtoni); for example, when Iannuzzi discusses Catani’s 2006 short story “Sboccerà il crisantemo” [The Chrysanthemum Will Bloom], she does not reconnect it to its quite evident model, Robert Silverberg’s 1974 novelette “Born with the Dead,” which Catani managed to rework in a rather original fashion (especially the ending).
A very short chapter of final remarks makes Iannuzzi’s purpose in writing her monograph explicit: her aim is “to prove … the general capacity of the science-fictional repertoire to lend itself to a constant, fecund rewriting, in which the value and purpose of single works depend on the ability and the will of each author” (329): that is, to show the literary and cultural potential of the genre. Evidently such an inquiry is addressed to the general public and, above all, to Italian academia, which has not shown much interest in Italian sf so far. No wonder that the foreword to the volume, “Archeologie del futuro” [Archaeologies of the Future] has been written by Pierpaolo Antonello, an Italian studies scholar who teaches at the University of Cambridge.
All in all, Iannuzzi’s monograph (like her previous book, Fantascienza italiana) is a precious contribution to the study of sf in Italy. This is a fair-minded, well-documented, scholarly, and reliable monograph.
—Umberto Rossi, Rome
A Blurring of Themes and Genres.
MODERN MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2015. xiii + 201 pp. $85 hc; $25 pbk.
As a literary form, science fiction has gradually worked its way into the global networks of academic discourse, but its infiltration has not prevented the persistence of certain head-scratching exclusions. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Lois McMaster Bujold, who has won four Hugo Awards for best novel (an achievement matched only by Robert A. Heinlein) and attracted a far-reaching, dedicated fan base, all while remaining largely ignored by academic critics. Some authors and texts are overlooked for understandable—if not entirely justifiable—reasons. This is not the case with Bujold, something Edward James makes abundantly clear in this first full-length study of her work. Along with the 2013 collection of essays edited by Janet Brennan Croft, Lois McMaster Bujold: Essays on a Modern Master of Science Fiction, James’s text signals a growing (and long overdue) recognition of an author who has been critically neglected since her emergence in 1986. What comes through most vividly in James’s study is the intricacy of Bujold’s world-building, the psychological depth of her characters, and the complexity of themes that are never simplified for the sake of easy consumption—features that make her absence from scholarly debate all the more perplexing.
After an introduction that functions as a truncated biography and a scan of literary influences, James launches into an exhaustive set of summaries covering Bujold’s extensive sf output, primarily novels belonging to the Vorkosigan Saga (1986- ), which centers mostly on the popular Miles Vorkosigan and his family tree. The summaries are heightened throughout by James’s perceptive analyses, anchored firmly in a set of eye-opening considerations vis-à-vis the genre. It may be the case that “the Vorkosigan stories were usually branded as ‘space opera,’ and that label has tended to stick” (19), but as James makes clear, the sequence is best understood in terms of its subversion of sf subgenres, including the military sf that was so popular during the 1980s: “Bujold has mused that her fiction might better be called ‘medical sf’ than ‘military sf’” (23). Though her characters are embedded within military structures, and though the “military sf” label often clings stubbornly to her work, her focus is more firmly on complex ethical dilemmas, not theatrical violence or blind obedience to the chain of command. In Shards of Honor (1986), my personal favorite of her books, “we encounter the agony of ethical choice, which defines Bujold’s characters and frequently acts as a major plot driver” (28). This is not a consideration one encounters often in traditional military sf.
James pays close attention to Bujold’s fantasy novels as well, following the sf chapter with a similar survey of her fantasy works. Most interesting is the way he links these novels to her broader oeuvre, highlighting concepts, character types, and recurring interests that cut across the boundaries of her fiction. The “medical” focus that Bujold attaches to her sf, for instance, is on clear display in The Sharing Knife series (2006-2009), with the early novels following a central character as he develops his “groundsense,” an ability to read the details of living things, for “medical purposes” (68). James’s reading of The Sharing Knife novels is illuminating; for him, “[t]he sequence describes the prehistory of the revival of science in this world” (69), which connects the books to concerns about technology and its social impact found in the Vorkosigan Saga. The kind of blurring of themes and genres uncovered so effectively by James is one reason, perhaps, for Bujold’s absence from the academic canon: her narratives lack the explicit flags that enable neat and tidy labeling.
The five remaining chapters build on James’s textual surveys by examining themes central to Bujold’s writing, focusing on culture, character, disability, gender, and finally war, though these themes are tied to related ideas as well. If the case for Bujold’s relevance was not made earlier, it is unassailable here. I found the chapter on “Disability and Genetic Modification” particularly compelling, as it positions Bujold as one of sf’s most accomplished writers in the exploration of these subjects. After a failed assassination attempt on his parents—events dramatized in the Hugo-winning Barrayar (1991)—Miles is born with several physical impairments: brittle bones and a hunched, four-foot-nine frame. Over the course of the sequence, he is forced to rely on his manic intelligence and tactical flair, and on his home planet Barrayar, where physical irregularity is reviled, he must confront social prejudices that are both pervasive and culturally ingrained. Genetic modification (relying on “uterine replicators” to regulate fetal development) is utilized in these technologically advanced societies to eschew such problems in the first place, but Barrayar is steeped in centuries of feudal tradition. The slow transformation of these structures at the hands of Miles and his father Aral functions as a kind of narrative backbone tying the series together.
As James illuminates in his chapter on “Women, Uterine Replicators, and Sexuality,” Bujold associates Miles’s plight with issues of gender and sexuality as well: “being disabled and being female are often closely linked concepts” (125), with Miles positioned as a symbolic figure who stands against discrimination and misogyny in several of its guises. In “The Mountains of Mourning” (1989), for instance, he seeks justice for a “mutant” infant who is murdered for her deformities, a mission that, once accomplished, gives Miles “the symbol of what he is fighting for” (128).
Considering the strength of James’s commentary and the wonderful connections he draws among Bujold’s narratives, I would have liked to have seen a dedicated conclusion, one perhaps gesturing towards unexplored territory for future study. Still, the final chapter, “War, Leadership, and Honor,” brings the book full circle by describing Bujold’s focus on concepts central to military sf. Though thematic and generic “blurring” is a defining feature of her work, James reminds us that she still grapples with military sf’s established concerns—with tradition, duty, honor—only filtered through a lens accentuating moral, ethical, and cultural complexities. The chapter satisfyingly concludes what is a rigorous, instructive text, one that stands as indispensable reading not only for those familiar with Bujold but for students and teachers of sf in general.
—Chad Andrews, Trent University
Everything is Gothic.
Palgrave Gothic. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. vii + 176 pp. $95 hc.
Sian MacArthur’s monograph opens with the well-known account of the composition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), which MacArthur argues is the first instance of the Gothic being linked to science fiction. Her purpose in the book “is to explore this link between the Gothic and science fiction, and to explain just how a genre as seemingly traditional and rigid as the Gothic can combine so deftly with science fiction, a genre celebrated … for … its absolute freedom with regards to subject matter and theme” (2). The coverage extends to the present, the item most analyzed being the 2014 Doctor Who episode “Death in Heaven.”
I was surprised to read that “by definition the Gothic and science fiction are two very different genres” (2), because Frankenstein (as MacArthur acknowledges) is one of the first sf texts, showing that the genres were connected from sf’s inception. This would seem to indicate that sf is intrinsically linked to the Gothic, recalling Brian W. Aldiss’s assertion that sf “is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode” (Trillion Year Spree [Gollancz, 1986], 25). Of course, one might disagree with that, and indeed, Darko Suvin takes the opposite tack: “less congenial to SF is the fantasy (ghost, horror, Gothic, weird) tale, a genre committed to the interposition of anti-cognitive laws into the empirical environment” (Metamorphoses of Science Fiction [Yale UP, 1979], 8). But MacArthur provides no real definition of either science fiction or the Gothic, making it hard to follow any of her assertions. When MacArthur does define her terms, it is with definitions so broad as to be meaningless; for example, she claims that “‘monster’ does not necessarily mean a literal and physical ‘other’ within the text, but should be interpreted to encompass the theme of threat in its broadest sense” (73), removing anything that makes the term “monster” meaningful or useful.
A lack of engagement with previous criticism plagues the project, which does not cite Aldiss, Suvin, or any other theorist of science fiction except in small asides (e.g., half a sentence from David Seed’s Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction ), nor the massive body of criticism about the Gothic. Indeed, the book’s engagement with criticism is minimal at best: although MacArthur cites a few academic articles, most of her secondary citations come from sources such as the introductions to Penguin Classics, online study guides, and blog posts.
The lack of a definition of “Gothic science fiction” makes following the book’s argument and trajectory difficult. The first chapter, “Early Science Fiction and the Gothic,” includes both H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) and Isaac Asimov’s “The Billiard Ball” (1967) as Gothic texts, neither of which would have occurred to me, but I am prepared to be convinced that reading them as Gothic could have some merit; MacArthur presents no such arguments, however. Of War of the Worlds, she says, “That this [human-Martian] battle manifests itself within the text through the depiction of the desire of the Martians against the suffering of the humans is only the first of many ways in which this particular text demonstrates heavy Gothic influence” (9). Her claiming of “The Billiard Ball” as Gothic hinges on the fact that its villain “[i]n true Poe style, displays both cunning and patience in exacting his revenge” (14) and that Asimov “creat[es] characters that are not all together [sic] what they seem” (14-15). None of these attributes feels uniquely Gothic, yet that is all the evidence MacArthur presents for the stories’ allegedly Gothic nature.
Aside from the fact that this chapter, ostensibly about “early science fiction,” goes up to Stephen King and Peter Straub’s 1984 novel The Talisman, its biggest flaw is that it never says anything about these texts; it identifies each as Gothic sf, provides some small synopsis or a couple of quotations, and then moves to the next item. Criticism that works with genre has to do something more than just identify texts as members (or not); to be useful, it should say something about what that genre does and what it means, and use that to reveal something about the texts in question. But MacArthur provides no implications to her observations; the chapter functions as a mere catalogue—an unconvincing one at that. A related difficulty is MacArthur’s very simplistic understanding of the Gothic; when discussing Henry Kuttner’s The Dark World (1946), for example, she claims that it is “more than just another Gothic yarn” because of “the large part of the plot that focuses on the boundary between perception and reality” (17). I haven’t read The Dark World, but I would have thought that playing with this boundary was an important quality of the Gothic. MacArthur repeatedly refers to the Gothic as a very rigid genre, but the diversity of the uses of the term she assembles here belies her own point.
The remaining chapters tackle subgenres of sf that “demonstrate the successful link between traditional Gothic writing and pure science fiction form” (24), including mad-scientist stories, novels of apocalypse, monster stories, Doctor Who, Star Wars, and superhero fiction. MacArthur makes exaggerated claims of stories as Gothic science fiction throughout. For example, in Chapter Two, MacArthur seemingly claims all stories featuring mad scientists as Gothic sf: aside from the expected citations of Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), she discusses George Griffith’s Olga Romanoff (1894), the James Bond novel Dr. No (1958), Spider-Man comics featuring Doctor Octopus, and the 2004 film adaptation of I, Robot, none of which I would consider Gothic science fiction, and none of which MacArthur makes a compelling case for as Gothic science fiction, beyond the fact that they contain mad scientists. Some critics have suggested that the Gothic is a mode that a text can use in part, rather than a genre that it must belong to in toto, and I could see how that would apply to some of these works, but this is not a distinction MacArthur makes: for her, works are either Gothic science fiction or not.
The long-running BBC sf series Doctor Who (1963-89, 1996, 2005- ) is a repeated example throughout the book, culminating in Chapter Five, “‘One Day, I Shall Come Back. Yes, I Shall Come Back’: Immortality and the Fight for Humanity in Gothic Science Fiction,” which—despite its title—is not about immortality in Gothic sf, but about the character of the Doctor and heroism. It periodically makes vague statements about Gothic sf: “as one would expect from a science fiction [sic] that has such strong Gothic influence, things are not always as they seem” (98), with most of the episodes under discussion not being very obviously Gothic—until the chapter’s last few pages, which finally discuss some of the stories that are more clearly Gothic, such as “The Brain of Morbius” (1976) or “Hide” (2013). This chapter also makes some basic errors about the series, including dating story elements introduced in the 2005 revival to its 1963 premiere: “The secrecy surrounding exactly what the Doctor has done in the past, specifically the fall of Gallifrey and the role that he played in the Time War, has been a feature of the series as far back as when William Hartnell held the role of the mysterious time traveller” (100). At other times, MacArthur is merely misleading: for example, she supports her discussion of the character of Davros from the 1975 serial Genesis of the Daleks, in the chapter on mad scientists, by citing dialogue from the 2005 episode “The Parting of the Ways,” without making it clear (except in the endnotes) that the dialogue is from an episode written thirty years later by a different writer in a story that does not feature or mention Davros.
I was looking forward to reading this book because my primary area of research is nineteenth-century British science fiction, an era with a number of sf texts undeniably influenced by the Gothic, and I wanted to see how these motifs tracked forward from there. But Gothic Science Fiction gave me no sense of this: it is primarily a random catalogue of examples with no underlying argument. One might hope it would have some kind of utility as a catalogue, but whenever MacArthur discussed texts I was familiar with, such as nineteenth-century sf or Isaac Asimov or Doctor Who, her claims did not convince me, which means I am not inclined to trust her claims about the books I have not read. MacArthur’s lack of meaningful definitions, dearth of engagement with preexisting criticism, tendency to over-claim texts for the subgenre, and inaccuracies in her discussions mean that Gothic Science Fiction is a monograph best avoided entirely.
—Steven Mollmann, University of Connecticut
A Useful if Ungrounded Study.
Palgrave Pivot, New York: Palgrave, 2014. 106 pp. $45 eBook (PDF); $67.50 hc (on demand).
What makes us human? And how are we to be human under conditions of rapid technological change, especially when the forces of transformation may also upend conventional norms about what counts as human in the first place? According to Sylvie Magerstädt in her book Body, Soul, and Cyberspace in Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, these questions—which are arguably core to the development of sf throughout its history—have galvanized a set of films produced since the turn of the millennium.
As part of the Palgrave Pivot line of short-form monographs, the book is compellingly streamlined and compact. Each of the main chapters explores the thematization of a particular concept—body, soul, and cyberspace, respectively—to indicate how recent sf films question, modulate, and shore up the notion of humanness. The first chapter argues for a shift in cinematic representations of the human body and organic matter. Whereas earlier sf films predominantly featured the human in opposition to the machine, the natural and organic in opposition to the artificial and the technological, according to Magerstädt, recent films have reformed such dichotomies through more systemic or hybrid articulations. Magerstädt describes a transition within the genre: postmodern, dystopian narratives that focus on confrontation or painful juxtaposition of bodies and machines have been gradually evolving into posthumanist, utopian narratives that understand nature as always already cybernetic, organic bodies as fundamentally reorganizable, and distinctions between materiality and virtuality as quite blurry. She illustrates this trend through a number of critical analyses that highlight the philosophical and ethical affordances of popular cinema. The argument for a shift in representational concerns emerges from her nuanced readings of two film series—The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003) and The Terminator saga (1984-2015)—along with parallel analysis of films such as eXistenZ (1999) and Avatar (2009), alleging that earlier films in this cluster relied on assumptions of innate differences between the human and the technological, the real and the simulation, whereas later films pose such differences only to put them in question or to reformulate them entirely. Altogether, this group of films would suggest an increasing endorsement of materiality over and against fantasies of immaterial transcendence, a posthumanist striving for physical and moral enhancement that grounds itself in materialistic, scientific ways of thinking.
If mortality, as Magerstädt shows, remains a consistent and even defining feature of humanness in recent sf films, these narratives simultaneously represent aspirations to overcome human limits in alignment with spiritual motifs and religious symbolism. The second chapter of the book focuses on spiritual themes in recent sf films, arguing that they instantiate an explicit desire to reconstitute the boundaries of humanness even as the flesh itself becomes increasingly mutable: “The use of religious concepts, which are immersed in high-tech narratives, reflects our own struggles with the notions of embodiment, power and mortality in a world of (almost) endless possibilities” (33). Indeed, Magerstädt suggests that sf films variously stage ethical dilemmas and spiritual metaphors to test the conditions of humanness when those conditions are no longer secure—when death itself is no longer an absolute end of the human: “If death is not a real issue, if everything is possible, where are the moral boundaries of our actions?” (49). Films such as The Thirteenth Floor (1999), Aeon Flux (2005), and Transcendence (2014) reaffirm the significance of human life in relation to a capacity or a choice for death—especially when new technologies have made death less inevitable, which is to say, less self-evidently natural—and a capacity or a choice for love. Magerstädt observes that the complementary relations of love and death in the films under consideration enable a reconceptualization of nature in a post-natural environment, a reconceptualization of the human in a posthuman culture. In this way, these sf films explore what it means to be human in a high-tech world by affirming the soul: an inwardness of human being, a locus of reason and morality that is both material and spiritual. In Margerstädt’s analysis, the soul as measure of humanness can potentially expand the range of who counts as human: defined as the seat of reason and morality, the notion of the soul “can be extended to include non-human cybernetic entities, particularly where morality is concerned” (30). Nevertheless, it seems that non-human animals remain without reason or morality in this perspective— apparently by definition (30)—and thus the soul persists as a means of propping up human exceptionalism even when the skin of humanity is elsewhere eroding.
In the third chapter, the book adds another cluster of films to the mix—Tron: Legacy (2010), Inception (2010), and the 2012 remake of Total Recall—to consider the boundaries between the simulation and the real, the virtual and the actual, as precarious zones where the meanings and the ethical capacities of the human are negotiated. Magerstädt distinguishes between two different forms of virtuality: the reality-generating potential of technology (“external VR”) and the reality-generating potential of cognition (“internal VR”). Rendered as narrative tropes, both forms of virtuality enable recent sf films to interrogate assumptions about the so-called “real world” and our relationship to it. Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the “crystal image” as an intercalation of the virtual and the actual, where past and present coexist even as they split in the process of temporalization, proves key here, for it enables a way of understanding the human involvement in simulated worlds not as a threat to the real world but as a reminder of our moral responsibility to all the worlds we inhabit, whether in the here and now, the there and then, or the yet to come.
To scholars in the fields of sf studies, science and technology studies, technocultural studies, new media studies, and posthumanist theory, some of these issues may seem rather familiar. To be sure, they have been at the heart of discussions going back to Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” (1985) and Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981) through Scott Bukatman’s Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (1993), Allucquére Rosanne Stone’s The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (1995), Anne Balsalmo’s Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women (1995), Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston’s Posthuman Bodies collection (1995), Chris Hables Gray, Heidi Figueroa-Sarriera, and Steven Mentor’s The Cyborg Handbook (1995) collection,and numerous other studies of cyberpunk fiction and cyberculture, reaching a kind of watershed moment with the publication of N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics in 1999. Since then, research on various aspects of posthuman narratives, posthumanist theory, and the ethical implications of posthuman culture have been legion. Elaine L. Graham’s Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens, and Others in Popular Culture (2002), Rob Latham’s Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption (2002), Neil Badmington’s Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within (2004), Thomas Foster’s The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory (2005), Sherryl Vint’s Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction (2007), Bruce Clarke’s Posthuman Metamorphosis: Narrative and Systems (2008), Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.’s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (2008),Robert Geraci’s Apocalyptic A.I.: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality (2012), Joshua Raulerson’s Singularities: Technculture, Transhumanism, and Science Fiction (2013), and many other works have examined the philosophical, narratological, spiritual, and social significance of science fiction and futurological narratives that depict fundamental transformations of the human condition in relation to advanced technoscience. From another direction, works such as Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman (2013), Patricia MacCormack’s Posthuman Ethics: Embodiment and Cultural Theory (2012), and the Posthumanities series from the University of Minnesota Press, edited by Cary Wolfe, have vigorously explored the constructedness of the human, challenging the philosophical privileging of the anthropic subject by taking account of nonhuman, ecological, and neocybernetic perspectives. While Body, Soul and Cyberspace in Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema engages with a select number of other critics, there is little sense of the history or the scope of these broader conversations; in some ways, despite all the echoes and uncanny convergences, Magerstädt’s book feels oddly like a separate discussion.
I found Margerstädt’s interpretive readings of all the films to be quite absorbing, in many cases exceptionally insightful. The book represents a provocative critical study of recent films whose thematic concerns are suggestive of subtle modulations in cultural discourse around new and emerging technologies. Yet I found myself wondering about the stakes of these particular films relative to wider currents of high-tech culture over the last few decades. Connecting more extensively with the evolving scholarly conversations on cyborgs, posthumanism, and technoculture could have been fruitful in this regard. Likewise, I often wondered how the thematic trends and representational shifts claimed for these films—and the degree to which they might be said to index “changes in our relationship to technology” (4)—would look in the context of a longer history of sf media, not only earlier films but especially literature. Margerstädt’s project is to understand recent trends in sf film, of course; but I couldn’t help but think that trends and themes in cinema, as much as concepts and theories in scholarship, might look different at a different scale, against a different background.
—Colin Milburn, University of California, Davis
Latin American and Caribbean Series. Calgary: U of Calgary P, 2015. xii + 281 pp. $41.95 pbk.
Joanna Page’s Creativity and Science in Contemporary Argentine Narrative explores how recent Argentine literature appropriates mathematical and scientific models as tools to analyze its own development. Contrary to American and European metaphors of epistemological exhaustion, Page demonstrates how, for some Argentine writers, the hard sciences provide not only the vocabulary but also the thrust to think critically and proactively about art, politics, and social issues. Page explores how, by engaging with science, literature does “not simply register, or even reshape, imaginaries that derive in part from the dissemination of scientific ideas within culture, but instead experiment with those ideas as models for creating fictions and for evolution and innovation” within itself (13).
This is a meticulously researched and exacting work that explores what knots together literature with scientific theories and their philosophical and conceptual frameworks. The discussion is grounded in contemporary Argentine literature and in the complex ideological debates that allowed writers to break away from the radical political models prevalent in the country since the 1950s. Noting the persistent negative effects of the binarisms embedded in Romantic thought (i.e., oppositions such as subjective vs. material), which have survived not only in Latin American but also in postmodern literature and culture, Page attempts to develop a different approach to how culture thinks its own processes and materials. In this sense, the book analyzes the long, spectral life of Romantic thought in Argentine ideological and cultural history and its imbrication with scientific discourses. It does this by exploring how “the literary text becomes a paradigmatic instance of how newness is generated through a series of processes observed by science” (21).
As Page points out, epistemological issues regarding science and technology have appeared in Argentine literature at least since the early nineteenth century. This dialogue has been at times very loud (e.g., the musings of the Positivist generation at the end of the nineteenth century) and occasionally very quiet and understated (e.g., Borges’s exploration of mathematical concepts). Creativity and Science examines why such dialogue has become increasingly more important since the mid-1970s. The novels analyzed here—by Ricardo Piglia, Marcelo Cohen, and Guillermo Martínez—address how epistemological shifts emerge in literature, how knowledge (all forms of knowledge) can shape what literature sees and says. Divided into four main chapters (not counting the introduction and conclusion), the book explores four key questions that showcase not only the deep differences in the emergence of postmodern thought in Latin America when compared to Europe or the United States, but also how those differences have underscored the transformation of the Argentine cultural field.
The book’s first chapter shows how Russian Formalism offered the conceptual grounds from which to break away from the philosophical framework of Romanticism during the 1970s and 1980s. Here, the main focus is on “themes of artistic exhaustion and renewal” (27) in the context of the literary canon’s own processes of dialectical transformation. At the same time, chaos theory offered an escape from linear readings of historical processes, a way to understand how disjointed connections make a whole in a literature built under censorship and exile, at odds with itself. Although Page does not discuss the matter, it deserves to be pointed out that literary theory arrived early in Argentina as part of a wave of theoretical and methodological transformations that swept intellectual circles during the postwar years. With many teachers fired, disappeared, or in exile during the 1970s and 1980s, literary theory became a common subject for “talleres literarios” (private seminars) taught by those excluded from academia: literary theory became in many ways a language of intellectual resistance and survival. Page seems to understand this underground history in her analysis of novelist Ricardo Piglia’s work with formalism as a way to re-frame literary history and politics. (Piglia’s novel La ciudad ausente [The Absent City, 1992]) is a dystopic narrative whose first excerpts were published in the sf magazine El Péndulo in 1991.) The line Page traces here—from Russian Formalism to Deleuze and Guatarri—is closely associated with her readings of the cultural magazine Punto de Vista, whose director, Beatriz Sarlo, championed Piglia from his early years. This is probably my only point of contention with this excellent book: even if I fully agree with Page’s reading of the uses of literary theory in the Argentine context, I find Piglia’s ideological perspective more closely aligned with the legacy of the Argentine Romantic generation than she does.
The second chapter analyzes how uncertainty and chaos theory provided a renewed vocabulary to reorganize and update utopian imagery in Argentina during the 1980s and 1990s. This chapter explores the “use of mathematical and scientific theories as models to construct allegories of reading,” as well as the way key concepts are “employed in part to express a suspicion of metanarratives and so to point to the limits of human reasoning” (69). Contrary to North American postmodernism, the books analyzed here do not offer a nihilistic perspective on history; instead, uncertainty and chaos offer a path to knowledge without teleology, a possibility for self-reflection and new, open-ended sources of meaning. As Marcelo Cohen ponders, is the world in which we live “analogous to an open or a closed system in thermodynamic terms”? (90). Are meanings fixed and anchored, or forever movable? What is the relationship between accident and design? The answer, for Page, is optimistic: literature, as it experiments with the conceptual framework of science, offers “a set of narrative forms and patterns that seem to transcend the individual and all idea of intentionality” (105). Hence, “literature should not be read as an archive of the past or as a record of the present, but as a map of the future” (114).
At this point, the book analyzes why the defense of rationalism had to be mounted with the vocabulary of science and not, say, the vocabulary of philosophy or of literature itself. Such a turn is not farfetched: both Cohen and Martínez share in it, although from different perspectives and with different goals. As clearly explained by Page, Martínez—a mathematician as well as a novelist—“recuperates the antagonism between Romantic inexpressibility and Reason as a battle that takes place within mathematics itself” (121), while Cohen addresses the nature of reality as he reflects on the ontological existence of mathematical concepts. Here, Page recuperates the Romantic celebration of the uncertainty of a chaotic universe as a point of departure for inquiry—and for these writers, inquiry into the unknown, without constraints, without set end goals, is the foundation of freedom. These are arguments in defense both of intellectual autonomy and of scientific rationalism; thus, the literary uses of science and mathematics showcased in the narratives of these Argentine writers emphasize an intellectual allegiance to technoscientific knowledge that most American postmodernism disavows.
The last and final chapter explores how metaphors of biological machines and open systems were used as new models for reading and for intertextuality. The book does not examine how literature “represents” scientific theories, but rather how questions of complexity or incompleteness “manifest” in the very structures of the texts. For Cohen, entropy—in his fictional sf universe, the Panoramic Delta—is a metaphor for both “a potential elimination of difference” and “an encounter with radical and irreducible difference” (162). For Piglia, the concept of autopoiesis aligns, via the Formalists, with Deleuze and Guatarri’s notion of assemblage. Invention is born out of these encounters with otherness and in the chance to recombine, mix, re-do; randomness is the foundation for variety, growth, and transformation. As Page stresses in her conclusion, science and literature are, in this way, allies in their inquiry into the unknown, into what might be.
—Silvia G. Kurlat Ares, Potomac, Maryland
An Interesting Muddle.
. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014. vii + 175 pp. $80 hc.
Relativism, Alternate History, and the Forgetful Reader: Reading Science Fiction and Historiography, a dense and eclectic book, argues that there is an “inherent connection between what I shall term relativist historiography and the alternate history genre” (1). For Theiss, placing them side by side shows the limitations of relativist historiography, even though it is an approach that he does not reject tout court. In this comparison, alternate history (sf) comes out on top, for relativist historiography is more formula-bound when compared to alternate history, which offers greater historical variation. In what some might find a rather romantic view of commercial literature, Theiss claims that sf plays with counterfactuals but does so “without reliance on—in fact in direct defiance to [sic]—its own basic formula” (15). By contrast, relativist historiography ends up in an ultimately ahistorical and pernicious religiosity. How does this curious argument develop?
Theiss begins Chapter One with alternate history. In an overly ambitious claim, he suggests that alternate history asserts an ontological pluralism that challenges the very notion of cause and effect (26). Others might just as easily claim that alternate histories uphold those notions and seek to work out their consequences. In any case, Theiss claims more convincingly that alternate history is limited in at least one sense: it is forced to rely on a “fairly limited set of ‘watershed’ historical events for their inspiration, events that must be somewhat familiar to the readership” (26). When it comes to relativist historiography, Theiss embraces the poststructuralist notion that “history is literature, even fictional literature and … this literary nature calls into question the determinacy of history” (36). And yet, unfortunately, this indeterminacy results in a forgetful reader, one who focuses on the language and lets external referents “slip away.” The reader is free to disbelieve anything, and indeed, relativist historiography is “antithetical” to memory; as a result, it is ahistorical and perhaps even unethical.
Chapter Two develops the notion that relativist historiography relies more consistently on generic formulas than sf does. This formulaic nature overwrites “narrative history … for reasons of personal psychology,” in particular a fundamental religiosity. Indeed, the forgetting of “history” is what reconciles “a discord between the historical record and a religious world view” (49). Here, Theiss focuses on a comparison of Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowicz (1959) and the philosophy of Pierre Duhem (1861-1916), both of which refuse the traditional opposition of science to religion. For Duhem, there is indeed continuity between modern scientists and Catholic natural philosophers (readers might here discern an echo in Carl Schmitt’s claim that political theory takes its concepts from theology). In an original claim, Theiss sees Duhem as a precursor of relativist historiography who creates his own system based on the forgetting of disputes between science and theology. Thus, Duhem’s account of Galileo functions as an “alternate history” (68), and this method influenced later relativist historiographers, who “excuse the [Church’s] punishment” of Galileo and other scientists (74). Readers might here challenge Theiss’s arresting but rather unlikely history of relativism. Duhem is sometimes claimed as one of the forefathers of relativism, though usually in science rather than historiography. A more typical history stretches from Nietzsche through Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, Judith Butler, and others. Yet another more minor vein might run from Althusser and Poulantzas to Laclau and Mouffe. Neither of these more common lineages suggests that there is any necessary connection between relativist historiography and religion, though no doubt it is an interesting connection to make on Theiss’s part, even if he limits his analysis to those, like Steven Shapin, who support his point rather then contradict it.
Chapter Three argues against the myth of the “techno-pagan Nazi,” who is equally interested in the occult and technology. Indeed, the chapter seeks to show that, in popular modes, such myths are enforced through repetition. Through an analysis of the techno-pagan in feature films and novels—Hellboy (2004), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Man in the High Castle (1962), Fatherland (1994)—especially those that depict the Germans having won WWII, Theiss argues that sf “sharply contrasts with narratives that are more actively revisionist” (84). Here sf’s refusal of formula gives it a decisive advantage. By contrast, Theiss presents a reading of Adorno and Horkehimer’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) as a relativist text, which suggests “there is no independent reality” (83) and that the “laboratory produces no knowledge”(101), thus reaffirming the pernicious notion of the “techno-pagan” Nazi. Again, there seems to be a certain imprecision in Theiss’s summary. Adorno and Horkheimer, after all, might have been surprised to discover that their historiographic approach was relativist rather than more properly romantic and anti-scientist.
The fourth chapter continues to argue for the causal connection between religion and relativist historiography: “relativist historiography employs the literary, counterfactual history as a means to construct or protect a personal and often collective religious identity” (113). Importantly, this method becomes “dogmatic in its protection of what one might call orthodoxy” (113). Paradigmatic of this approach are the responses to Dan Brown’s 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code, which, Theiss claims, insist on “an adherence to an orthodox, religious interpretation of history” (115). Relativism here, in Theiss’s eyes, becomes absolutism. Relativists rely on such terms as “complexity, design or even intelligence,” and each of these terms is a euphemism for God (134). Again, we might question the necessary connection of religion with dogma and orthodoxy; theology is, after all, as diverse as any other field of inquiry.
The final chapter examines alternate histories that step out of the remembering/forgetting dichotomy by emphasizing no real-world external referent. Thus, the “history” is no longer concerned with real history or the real world at all. One example of such texts, Theiss claims, is Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936), which spurns history for the sake of the reader’s pleasure but shares with relativist historiography an emphasis on forgetting (140). Using a psychoanalytic approach, Theiss argues that this forgetting, for relativist history (and, indeed, history itself for the protagonist in Lovecraft) is a process of repression and can be read in terms of “madness” (153). The problem with this disordered thinking is that it “runs the risk of losing track of history” (157).
The main targets of Relativism, Alternate History, and The Forgetful Reader are thus relativist history and religion, which Theiss sees as complicit with one another. There are a number of objections we might make to the book’s claims, some of which I have noted above. Two more problems must be raised here. Astute readers will notice that Theiss’s definition of alternate history is rather elastic. Is A Canticle for Leibowicz really an alternate history? Are Hellboy, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Da Vinci Code alternate histories of the same kind as The Man in the High Castle? Most importantly, it is never quite clear what attitude Theiss takes towards the foundations of relativist historiography—at one point he seems to accept certain of its claims, only to later denounce its conclusions. This too is an ambiguity that works its way through the book, magnified by certain infelicities of form and expression. In terms of methodology, one might finally ask if Theiss could have mounted his argument without use of alternate history at all, though of course the limits of relativist historiographies have long been examined on a theoretical level. Nevertheless, if Theiss’s argument remains unconvincing, it is also interesting and should provide scholars of alternate history with food for thought.
—Rjurik Davidson, Victoria, Australia
F/X vs. Narrative in SF Films.
Film and Culture Series. New York: Columbia UP, 2015. xiii + 362 pp. $90 hc.; $30 pbk.
Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2014. 224 pp. $84.95 hc; $23.95 pbk.
While many film scholars have come to view special effects as mindless spectacle, Kristen Whissel and Julie A. Turnock’s books situate the subject within a more critical and historical context. Published a year earlier than Turnock’s Plastic Reality, Whissel’s Spectacular Visual Effects focuses mostly on blockbusters released in the past twenty years. Most of the films she analyzes deal with issues central to science fiction, most notably the relationship between the human and “new technologies and technological change” (4). To narrow her scope, Whissel begins by employing the tradition of the “emblem,” a visual illustration that historically enhanced printed texts ranging from the Bible to scientific publications. Linking the historical emblem to more contemporary CGI, Whissel makes a distinction between the visual effects in films “meant to go relatively unnoticed” (171) and digital effects that have “emblematic” value—that is, those having allegorical significance on the level of a film’s narrative and therefore reflecting “the broader historical contexts in which the films were produced and exhibited” (4). In part inspired by film scholar Miriam Hansen’s foundational work on classical cinema’s relationship to modernity and modernization, Whissel’s book considers the concept of F/X emblems as a window into popular films’ relationship to postmodernity in their capacity to evoke “the experience of late capitalism and its instabilities” and “the experience of radical scientific and technological change” (19).
Whissel structures her four chapters around the trends she identifies in contemporary visual effects, including what she calls the vertically oriented spectacle, digitally produced multitudes, digital creatures in live-action films, and the human morphing sequences in sf and fantasy genres. In each chapter, Whissel provides fascinating and detailed readings of several well-known films, lending credence to her belief that they ought to be understood as more than “empty spectacle” (172). Chapter 3, “Vital Figures: The Life and Death of Digital Creatures,” presents the most compelling analysis regarding the cultural anxieties emblematized in films’ digital effects; here, Whissel studies cinematic creatures that combine human performance and CGI, from Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) to Vincenzo Natali’s Splice (2009). She argues that while such digital creations often serve to mediate the life and death of their film’s human protagonists, the hybridity of the human and the digital in these films simultaneously speaks to the larger cultural ambivalence around “changing relationships to, and definitions of, life and death in an era of technological change” (121). Both within the narrative and beyond it, such digital creatures therefore “emblematize” the blurring of the line “that once separated the living from the machine, biology from technology, the organic from the inorganic, and embodied materiality from code” (129). She persuasively ends the chapter by anchoring her analysis to real-life examples of this blurring, including stem cell research, fertility technologies, and animal cloning—“no longer the stuff of science fiction” (129).
Unlike Whissel’s focus on more contemporary texts, Turnock’s book takes a more historical approach to special effects in popular film. For Turnock, the genres of science fiction and fantasy played a central role in the development of special effects in the late 1960s and 1970s, prompting filmmakers to develop new ways to create the imaginary environments they sought to portray. To frame her later discussion of the handful of films she identifies as historical markers, Turnock dedicates her opening chapters to the technical side of special effects, offering an impressive crash course for a wide audience. She then applies this technical knowledge to the groundbreaking and painstaking effects in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which she claims set the bar for later sf films, specifically George Lucas’s Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both 1977).
Throughout her study, Turnock recounts a few counter-cinema filmmakers who understood Hollywood’s burgeoning F/X industry as having revolutionary potential in its ability to expand audiences’ senses and thereby imagine alternative realities. Unlike earlier sf films of the 1950s that typically featured slow-moving miniatures shot by a stationary camera, the films of the 1960s and 1970s framed special effects within a hyperkinetic mobile camera, eliciting “the glee of bodily stimulation” and “bodily transcendence, together with rest of the audience and the characters” (169). Such a visceral and communal cinematic experience of “different worlds” could potentially make audiences “think about [their] world’s own transformation and alteration” (263). She terms this fleeting cinematic movement “the expanded blockbuster—a popular successful film that is equally simulating to the mind and senses” (17). While George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have since become synonymous with mindless entertainment, for instance, Turnock insists that their early work reflected an auteurist approach to filmmaking, one that “valorized personal expression in resistance to the industrial machine” (105). As she later demonstrates, however, the expansion of Lucas’s powerhouse Industrial Light and Magic in the 1980s eventually thwarted such revolutionary possibilities by absorbing countercultural styles into commercial interests.
A highlight of Turnock’s work is her treatment of photorealism in relation to the sf films she discusses. She reminds readers that Hollywood films during the studio system famously worked to conceal their technological infrastructure on screen; if the camera remained invisible or “unobtrusive,” the audience would theoretically feel more immersed in its fictional narrative (106). By contrast, Turnock traces filmmakers’ attempts during the post-studio era to draw attention to the camera and the act of filming, not to draw the viewer out of the diegesis but instead to make that which appeared in front of the camera more believable. Shaky camera movements, gritty film stock, and lens flare—all of which lay bare the filming process—lent to the viewer’s investment in the film, as though a film camera actually traveled to and captured distant or fantastic landscapes. The more “scrupulously photoreal” the films appeared (that is, the more they appeared actually filmed), the more the viewer “recognize[d] and accept[ed] the ideas that they conveyed” (130). According to Turnock, by making the filmmakers’ alternative world-views appear more convincing and therefore more achievable, the photorealistic effects of these post-studio sf films entailed subtle political undertones.
Aside from their methodological approaches, Whissel and Turnock’s books differ with regard to their views of the relationship of special effects to classical Hollywood storytelling. Whissel argues that visual effects adhere to the conventions of linear narrative, “rely[ing] heavily on dialogue, narrative, and characterization in order to function emblematically in the films in which they appear” (173). In her view, the persistence of narrative conventions productively allows a popular audience to identify with and recognize the films’ thematic concerns regarding technological change. For this reason, Whissel pushes against the polarization of narrative and effects, advocating instead for “another model—one that defines the complex relationship between spectacular effects, story/narrative, and character development” (6). On the other hand, no longer thinking of special effects as working toward narrative clarification, Turnock argues that F/X technology of the 1970s often determined a film’s narrative in its ability to expand cinematic possibilities to unprecedented heights. For Turnock, therefore, not all effects were “directly in support of the narrative” (7) or “the primary organizing factor of diegesis” (107). Instead, filmmakers such as Lucas thought of their films “graphically” instead of “linearly” (118). In her conclusion, Turnock goes so far as to imply that conventional narrative structure limits and even oppresses cinema’s potential (266), raising provocative questions regarding narrative’s relationship to changing technologies and how these technologies can both support and disrupt cinema’s potential to evoke critical spectatorship.
Finally, while Whissel and Turnock each insist that special effects extend “beyond the realm of science fiction” (Whissel 40) or “beyond an interest in science fiction” (Turnock 2), both books more often than not turn to popular sf films to illustrate their claims, including 2001, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), The Matrix (1999), and Avatar (2009). Both also note in passing that some films not typically known or remembered for their special effects nevertheless use an extensive amount of digital manipulation to achieve their desired aesthetic. Still, given the two books’ arguments dealing with the power of effects when audiences understand them as effects, the role of science fiction and fantasy evidently remains central to both the study and the cinematic expansion of special effects, providing a platform for filmmakers to articulate their thematic views, implicitly and explicitly. In addition, as each study would agree, such narratives provide audiences with a sensorial experience that invites them to imagine new worlds while offering a way to come to terms with the rapidly changing technoscape.
—Justin Gautreau, University of Colorado, Boulder
Topical and Immediate.
1869. Early Classics of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2015. Ed. Arthur B. Evans. Trans. Frederick Paul Walter. xxxi + 357 pp. $35 hc.
As Jules Verne has been famously one of the most widely translated authors (alongside Agatha Christie and the Bible), it might be surprising, at first, to be so enthusiastic about a new translation of Verne’s first published novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon (1869), which launched his immensely popular series of novels grouped under the title Extraordinary Journeys. Verne has been such an essential part of so many youthful libraries that readers of many countries are initially incredulous when they find out that Verne was actually a French writer writing in French and not a Spanish, Russian, or English one (depending on which translation one grew up with). Yet, thanks to Arthur B. Evans’s beautiful and painstaking new translations and editions of so many either lost or bowdlerized versions of Verne’s works, Anglophone readers can finally read his novels in their intact and original forms. As Frederick Paul Walter writes in his informative introduction to his own translation of Five Weeks, the many translations that preceded his were either abridged, sloppy, slanted, or erroneous. Although seven translations have been previously published, from the initial nineteenth-century ones to I.O. Evans’s in the 1960’s, “a complete, accurate, reader-friendly translation of Verne’s early masterpiece is long overdue” (xxix). Indeed, this rehabilitated American edition of Five Weeks is thoughtful and well put together. It is filled with interesting notes and illustrations from the original Hetzel edition, and it contributes wonderfully to the list of other new editions of Verne’s works in Evans’s prestigious Early Classics of Science Fiction series, which have pleased scholars, casual readers, and bibliophiles for many years.
Walter and Evans should be especially commended for having the courage to tackle as beloved a classic as Five Weeks. In addition to providing a now accurate version for Verne lovers to enjoy, however, Walter and Evans will certainly attract new readers to Verne’s corpus who might otherwise have dismissed him as an adventure storyteller for young adults. What is striking about Five Weeks is how effective Verne is in combining his readers’ love of adventure with scientific and geographic discovery. With such novels as Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870) or From the Earth to the Moon (1865), readers of all ages have come away with a greater understanding of the world and how it functions. Five Weeks is no exception, as it crisscrosses the African continent in its effervescent explorers’ balloon. As Walter shows, balloon travel was, from its beginning, always a daring enterprise and dangerous affair, yet it was one that captured Verne’s imagination at a very young age. He had, in fact, written a harrowing short story entitled “A Journey by Balloon” in 1851—“an unsettling performance, among the darkest, fiercest things Verne ever penned. For one thing, it showcases two primordial fears—fear of heights and fear of falling” (xi-xii). Verne, of course, would continue to be fascinated by air travel, not only by balloon, but also by proto-spaceships, such as the one in From the Earth to the Moon or unique airships such as Robur’s Albatross in Robur the Conqueror (1886). In each case, Verne, as with all his other novels, remained scientifically accurate and plausible. As Walter confirms, “the educational matter in ‘A Journey by Balloon’ tallies with accounts by today’s scientists and historians” (xv).
Yet what makes Five Weeks such a good read today is not its scientific accuracy but its literary elements, which shed so much light onto visions of colonialism at the time, as well as the hints of pessimism that would overtake Verne’s later works. Despite its exuberance and male bonding, Five Weeks is literally a birds-eye view of European colonialism in Africa and the havoc it created among both the colonized and the colonizers from its most embryonic days. To be sure, the early Verne’s point of view is decidedly that of the colonizer, meant to ignite national pride among his readers. As the balloonists fly over the African continent, a symbolic act that accentuates their position of superiority over the unruly natives, Fergusson, for example, begins by admiring a baobab tree but ends up framing a diametrical opposition between the Europeans’ “civilizing mission” and the savage Africans:
By Jove, the trunk on that one could be a hundred feet around. Maybe it was at the foot of that same tree that the Frenchman Maizan lost his life in 1845, because we’re above the village of Deje-la-Mhora, which he ventured to alone; a chieftain in this region captured him and tied him to the foot of a baobab tree—then that brutal Negro slowly amputated his limbs while a war song echoed in the background; after that he began to slit his captive’s throat, stopped to sharpen the dull blade of his knife, then tore away the poor man’s head before it had been cut off! That unfortunate Frenchman was just twenty-six years old! (69-70)
When Kennedy, Ferguson’s co-explorer, asks, in shock, “And France didn’t demand vengeance for that crime?,” Fergusson answers in disgust: “France filed charges; the Sultan of Zanzibar did everything he could to apprehend the murderer, but he wasn’t successful” (70).
Indeed, Verne does not shy away from describing how Africans were viewed by Europeans at the time, as Joe comments at one point about a tribe called the Nyam-Nyams: “Anyhow it’s perfectly natural! If savages had the same tastes as aristocrats, how could we tell ’em part? At least, by jingo, you wouldn’t have to coax these fine folks to eat the Scot’s raw steak—or the Scot himself on top of it” (189). Sometimes it even seems as though Hergé, Tintin’s creator, was thinking of Five Weeks when he wrote his now banned but once very popular Tintin in the Congo (1930), which was filled with racial stereotypes and exaggerations. Often the balloon uncovers a historical palimpsest of dead or murdered explorers in a manner that is similar to the evolutionary traces the heroes of Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) discover during their descent. After Fergusson describes how Clapperton and Oudney “died of exhaustion and deprivation” before reaching their goal, Kennedy is forced to ask, as if to do justice to their deaths: “So this part of Africa … has sacrificed many lives on the altar of science?” (200). Fergusson continues to list a series of other young explorers who had disappeared or died during their quests. “By Jove, you’d be right in calling this immense region the European’s graveyard” (201), he concludes.
From a modern standpoint all too familiar with the disasters of colonization, there is a wistfulness to Verne’s description of the lost and fallen and a prescience wrapped within the exciting action of the novel. Throughout even the most optimistic of Verne’s works there has always run at least a trace of sadness. As such, when Fergusson flies over a region of Africa named the “Land of the Moon,” he bemoans the fact that Europe had been figuratively on top the world for 2000 years before depleting itself of its vitality and resources. He then goes on to predict how immigrants will flock to a “new world” (America), which “will grow old in her turn; her virgin forests will fall under the axes of industry; her soil will weaken from meeting the excessive demands placed on it” (98). As with the greatest of Verne’s novels, Five Weeks is a beautiful book filled with layers of narrative, insight, and poetry. Verne has never been more topical or immediate.—Peter Schulman, Old Dominion University
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