BOOKS IN REVIEW
SF as Social Theory.
AMERICAN STUDIES—A MONOGRAPH SERIES, vol. 262. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2015. 238 pp. $57 hc.
2016 marked ten years since Octavia Butler’s untimely death, and in many ways it was the year of Butler: Spelman College and the University of California, San Diego, both hosted conferences dedicated to her work and legacy, while Clockshop (a Los Angeles arts group) held an extended—and ongoing—series of Butler-inspired events called “Radio Imagination.” Butler has been the recipient of critical acclaim at least since the 1980s, and certainly since she became the first sf writer to receive a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1995. The current explosion of interest in Butler’s work reflects a ramping up of critical attention to its value not just as powerful fiction but as a political intervention, even a kind of social theory. Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Activists (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2015) a collection of stories edited by activist leaders Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown, declared that “all organizing is science fiction” and asked the writers, activists, and writer-activists who contributed to the anthology to “carry on Butler’s legacy of writing visionary fiction” (3). A related Butler-inspired symposium, called “Ferguson is the Future,” was also held at Princeton University.
Florian Bast’s study, Of Bodies, Communities, and Voices: Agency in Writings by Octavia Butler, is an enthusiastic contribution to these expansive conversations about Butler’s wider relevance and utility. Bast frames Butler’s fiction as a philosophical intervention into the subject of agency—an intervention, he suggests, that complicates the contested legacies of the Enlightenment. In its insistence that Butler’s literary oeuvre performs theoretical as well as cultural work, Of Bodies, Communities, and Voices might be seen as a descendent of Carl Freedman’s Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000). In other words, Bast, like Freedman, contends that sf can constitute, not just illustrate, theoretical positions and interventions. (Surprisingly, however, neither Freedman nor Fredric Jameson is cited in the book.) Bast shows how Butler casts new light on debates around the uneasy category of agency within African-American, feminist, and intersectional studies, intervening in those debates in a way that is both particular to narrative form and relevant to philosophical discourse. As he does so, he argues for a new sense of how crucial the notion of agency has been within these fields—yet he also seeks to prove that Butler’s contributions are not confined to those fields. As he puts it, the insights from Butler’s work are “not just … reflections of the agency of the oppressed but … of agency in general from the perspective of the oppressed” (19).
The book begins with an introductory chapter laying out the scope of the project and a chapter introducing the concepts of agency (which he distinguishes from subjectivity) and of “agential acts” (28). Subsequently, each chapter addresses a pair of Butler’s works, comparing how they treat particular aspects of post-Enlightenment conceptions of agency. These textual readings are detailed and sensitive to the differences between particular stories. For example, Bast shows how Kindred (1979) and Dawn (1987) probe the limits of embodiment in explanations of agency, arguing persuasively that Kindred demands an integration of embodiment into Enlightenment-influenced accounts of agency as the expression of a rational social subject; by contrast, he suggests, Dawn dramatizes the unpleasant results that an entirely embodied theory of agency might produce. Survivor (1978) and Parable of the Talents (1998) are more complementary in Bast’s reading, with both texts emphasizing the overlooked importance of the relational aspect in individualistic visions of agency. Parable, he suggests,focuses on community-building,and Survivor on community-choosing; the distinction is nicely drawn and is particularly welcome given the relative dearth of criticism on Survivor, a text for which Butler later expressed dislike. In the final chapter, which compares “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” (1987) and Fledgling (2005), Bast takes a slightly different tack: rather than showing how these texts push back against Enlightenment assumptions about agency, he shows how they use a particular narrative technique—first-person perspective—to theorize agency in new ways.
These various readings are argued thoroughly and well, and Bast carefully avoids reducing Butler’s writings to any one philosophical stance even as he articulates their philosophical interventions. His point that Butler’s work writes back against Enlightenment-inspired histories of raced and gendered violence is well-taken, and his contention that agency is both a useful lens through which to read Butler’s work and a crucial category for re-examination within African American studies (“so closely connected to our very notion of identity and so fundamental to the discipline’s ongoing struggle for social justice”) is convincing (221). Still, the book would have benefited from a slightly less rigid understanding of “theory,” which Bastseems to define as claims that are general in nature, extending beyond historical or cultural particularity; as a result, his contention that Butler’s work is “theoretical” often leads to an elision of the precise contexts of her work. At times, the textual analyses are frustratingly isolated from the contemporaneous issues and events that so clearly inspired Butler’s writing. One need not reduce Butler’s novels to mere illustrations of their moment in order to suggest, for instance, that the growing preoccupation with biotechnology in the 1980s informed her increasing skepticism about the explanatory value of embodiment in the Lilith’s Brood sequence (1987-1989). Making such an argument would not have required Bast to suggest that Butler’s views on agency evolved in a linear fashion over time, or that her insights are less valuable for her engagement with contemporary politics and technology. Indeed, as Bast’s own critical account of Enlightenment ideas about agency show us, no theory is universal or ahistorical. Had that insight, and the context it demands, been extended to the readings of Butler’s fiction, the monograph would be richer for it.
Despite this limitation, Bast’s book offers a number of provocative and well-taken points: that agency is an important category for contemporary scholarship; that Butler offers significant corrections to legacies of the Enlightenment that persist in the contemporary moment; and, as a corollary, that speculative literature can do the work of theoretical intervention while resisting reduction to singular theoretical claims. Though its focus is narrow, Of Bodies, Communities, and Voices illuminates the range and depth of the issues that Butler’s work makes legible.
—Rebecca Evans, Winston-Salem State University
The Power of Fabulation.
New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. ix + 233 pp. $83.99 hc.
James Burton’s new book offers a compelling and careful reading of Philip K. Dick, embedded in a philosophical approach largely inspired by Henri Bergson but widened to include a number of contemporary European thinkers. The book is valuable for its discussion of Dick, but even more so for the way it connects theory to practice, or philosophy to literature. In what follows, I will discuss the former issue only briefly, in order to devote most of this review to the latter.
Burton discusses a number of Dick’s novels, arranged more or less chronologically. One chapter briefly looks at four early novels, Solar Lottery (1955), The World Jones Made (1956), Vulcan’s Hammer (1960),and Time Out of Joint (1959). There are more extended discussions of Galactic Pot Healer (1969) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). Entire chapters are devoted to The Man in the High Castle (1962) and to VALIS (1981), the latter read in conjunction with Dick’s Exegesis (wr. 1974-1981; pub. 2011). All in all, although Burton only looks at a small selection of Dick’s oeuvre, he gives a fairly compelling account of the writer’s obsessions and themes. He emphasizes Dick’s ontological uncertainty (as Umberto Rossi has called it), while rejecting attempts to circumscribe this uncertainty either in Marxist terms or in religious-transcendental ones. Burton defines Dick as a soteriological writer—one who is concerned with finding a path to salvation. But this quest is not a conventionally religious one: it is more a matter of process than of product. Especially with regard to VALIS and The Exegesis, Burton shows how Dick’s doubts and confusions are essential, and how his project would fail if the questions he asks were ever definitively resolved. Throughout Dick’s fiction, Burton says, although the prospect of salvation never definitively disappears, yet it “must be kept fragile and unstable.... Dick always ensures that the soteriological qualities of miraculous events are eroded or undermined” (165-66).
It is in relation to this never-complete quest for salvation that Burton finds affinities between Dick and Bergson. This is not a matter of direct influence: Dick never adopts Bergson’s vocabulary, and there is no evidence that he ever read Bergson in any depth. But Burton convincingly argues that there is a close affinity between the philosopher and the sf writer, having to do with their attitudes toward modernity and its technologies. Both authors are suspicious of the destructive effects of mechanization, best defined as “the reduction of the living to mechanical or non-living status” (32). This is, of course, one of Bergson’s great vitalist themes; while Burton never describes Dick as a vitalist, he notes Dick’s concerns both with the dangers of alienating technologies and with the importance of empathy as a basic requirement for what it means to be human. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, for instance, begins with the protatonist’s “sense of the absolute difference between himself and the androids he hunts” (152), because he supposedly has empathy that they do not, but ends with a resolution in which “the distinction between human and android is completely dismantled” (158).
Burton focuses his philosophical discussion on Bergson’s last, and probably least-known, book, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932). This is the only text in which Bergson explicitly focuses on the ethical, social, and political implications of his thought. The most familiar aspects of Bergson’s philosophy—his view of “creative evolution,” his account of the inner-time experience of duration, his distinctions among instinct, intelligence, and intuition, and his critique of science and “spatializing” thought—are left in the background. Instead, Bergson emphasizes two themes. One is the difference between closed and open forms of morality, religion, and other social expressions—these are the “two sources” referred to in the book’s title. Closed forms of morality and religion lead to social solidarity, but they are fatally limited by the way that they always define a privileged in-group; others or outsiders are excluded, often stigmatized as enemies to whom moral and religious obligations do not apply and against whom war is often waged. Bergson argues that these closed forms can never become universal; they can only define a social group on the basis of the exclusion of others. They are essentially static. Universalism is only possible in what Bergson calls open, or dynamic, forms of morality and religion. Open forms are expressions of creative process; closed forms are completed products, which tend to ossify as soon as they have been produced.
The other important theme in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion is the power of what Bergson calls fabulation: the “human capacity to believe in that which, from a materialist perspective, would be considered non-actual” (Burton 40). Fabulation involves both our tendency to produce fictions and our ability to place our credence in these fictions. From a literalistic point of view, our fabulations are false; but they are nonetheless real in the sense that that they do in fact mold, motivate, and influence our behavior. Without fabulation, there would be no novelty; we would be stuck in unending cycles of repetition. The important thing to ask about a fabulation is not whether it is true or false, then, but what effects it has: what it does to us, and what it allows and encourages us to do. For Bergson, both closed and open social forms are produced by fabulation; but the ability to fabulate is what makes openness possible in the first place. “Remaining ‘open’ to the as-yet-unknown or not-yet-encountered member of a non-exclusionary society requires an imaginative gesture that would be impossible without the capacity to fictionalize” (47). Without this capacity, human existence would be impossible.
Burton reads Dick’s fiction in these Bergsonian terms. Fabulation is a “machine which constructs gods and saviours in a fictional but culturally and psychologically effective mode” (57). Fictions in themselves may never be enough to bring about salvation, but the process of fictionalization is the only thing that allows us even to imagine the possibility of salvation, let alone to move partially towards it. Burton presents this dialectic of fabulation as the key to understanding both Dick’s earlier novels and the way that he writes VALIS and The Exegesis as part of his effort, in the last eight years of his life, to come to terms with his spiritual experiences of February and March 1974. We generally think of salvation and utopia as transcendent movements that abolish the contingency and ambivalence of the actual world. In Burton’s account, however, both Bergson and Dick seek an immanent form of salvation, one that remains open. As Burton defines it, “a philosophical position of immanence is concerned with arguing that there is only one plane of reality; that nothing exists in a separate dimension, exterior to this worldly plane” (51). Salvation, for Bergson and Dick, does indeed imply a “hint of something like transcendence”—but nothing more than a hint. Any completion, any attainment of transcendence, would mean a return to the closed forms of morality and religion.
Burton restricts his discussion of fabulation to the role it plays in Dick’s writing. But I think that the idea has broader relevance in relation to science fiction more generally. Fabulation is the basis of our ability both to produce fictions and to enjoy them. But science-fictional fabulation in particular is a way of addressing futurity, of imagining a future that can be apprehended as an extrapolation from the actual present but that at the same time is not merely a reprise of the present. Science fiction emphasizes the active, fabulatory dimension of storytelling as opposed to its merely representational aspects. The utopian and dystopian potentialities of sf alike are products of our basic capacity for fabulation.
—Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University
A Valuable Contribution to Miéville Studies.
SF STORY WORLDS: CRITICAL STUDIES IN SCIENCE FICTION. Canterbury, UK: Gylphi, 2015. ivx + 183 pp. $29.99 pbk.
China Miéville is, without doubt, one of the most exciting sf novelists of the last twenty years. His first novel, King Rat (1998), was published with modest success, but his second, Perdido Street Station (2000), went far beyond that and established him as an important new figure in fantastic fiction. Although his work is often difficult to categorize, it hovers on the borders of sf and fantasy, sometimes going over to one side or the other (Kraken , for example, is clearly fantasy, while Embassytown  is science fiction), but always playing with genre in some way. His own preferred term is the New Weird. Remarkably prolific, he has written nine novels so far, as well as numerous novellas and short stories, a nonfiction book on international law, comics, and more. The quality of all these endeavors is quite high, and he is deserving not only of substantive articles but also of this extended critical work, even though he certainly has a long and productive career ahead.
Carl Freedman is just the person for the task. Like Miéville, he is knowledgeable in Marxist criticism and theory, and he is an articulate and perceptive reader of genre fiction. Sf scholars are most familiar with his influential Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000). Here, after a brief “Preface,” Freedman offers six chapters on six major novels: King Rat, Perdido Street Station, The Scar (2002), Iron Council (2004), The City and the City (2009), and Embassytown—followed by a concluding essay, “The Dialectic of Art and Idea,” that explores three subjects: “Didactics”; “Estrangement, Cognition, and History”; and “International Law, Capitalism, and Remaking.” Although the book has bibliographic notes and an index, I was sorry that it did not have a bibliography of Miéville’s writing and of secondary sources. Perhaps this omission relates to limitations in the series’ format. Nevertheless, this book will be a valuable resource for readers and critics.
The preface announces Freedman’s straightforward thesis, that Miéville is “a Marxist novelist—with equal emphasis on the adjective and the noun” (xi; emphasis in original), and he adheres rigorously to this thesis, although perhaps with more emphasis on the adjective. The first chapter, “King Rat; Or, Towards a Marxist Urban Sublime,” first establishes what Freedman means as the urban sublime, differentiating it from Longinus’s usage as having instead the grandeur of the city rather than the countryside, being hybrid in its makeup, and, of course, Marxist. A detailed plot summary follows, sprinkled with frequent allusions to earlier literature from Robert Browning to Mervyn Peake, and that is just in one paragraph (3). Later, aspects of the novel are claimed to be “Adornian” (7), “Dickensian” (7, 10), “Wordsworth-ian” (11), Lukácsian” (15), and so on. These connections are at once erudite, informative, and a bit over the top. The chapter establishes Miéville’s political commitment to a Marxist analysis of contemporary Britain (Thatcherite, at the time of the novel).
Chapter two has a long and descriptive title, “Establishing Bas-Lag in Perdido Street Station: Peaceful Love, Capitalist Monsters, and Dialectic Hybridity Against Postmodern Pastiche.” The chapter opens with the kind of hyperbolic statement that makes me uncomfortable throughout the book, that Miéville’s “imaginary world of Bas-Lag [is] perhaps the most convincingly detailed and full [sic] realized alternative world yet created in modern fiction” (19). It is awfully good, but is it better than Gene Wolfe’s Urth of the New Sun, or Pynchon’s secret history in Against the Day (2006), or some other triumph that you may be thinking of? Freedman claims that it is better than Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which is fine with me, but these may be fighting words for someone else. Again, Freedman offers detailed plot summary and perceptive analysis, including an examination of the erotic relationship between the characters Isaac and Lin. This section is a bit too “Laurentian” (25) for me but is well worth the exploration. Freedman goes on to examine the creepy slake-moths, “perhaps the most memorably delineated monsters since the Cthulhu of H.P. Lovecraft” (31), offering a well-informed Marxist view (citing Steven Shaviro’s work) of Miéville’s brain-sucking beasts as “capitalist monsters.” As Freedman sees the novel’s conclusion, “[t]he dialectic at the core of reality makes possible the destruction of the capitalist monsters, and Isaac’s victory thereby allegorizes nothing less than the overthrow of capitalism itself” (41). He contrasts this to a bourgeois revolution in King Rat and suggests, as he goes on to support, a movement from an allegorical to an “actual political revolution” in the last volume of the Bas-Lag trilogy.
I found the third chapter, “The Scar, Pirates, and the Pressures of Imperialist Power,” particularly strong, perhaps because The Scar remains my favorite of Miéville’s novels, but also because of its supple reasoning. Freedman draws a brief but convincing parallel between the colony to which the novel’s protagonist Bellis Coldwine emigrates at the beginning of the novel and Australia or New Zealand. He goes on to discuss the novel as a sea story that offers, in the tradition of Melville and Conrad, “an unusual and in some ways privileged coign of vantage from which to consider the global system composed of distinct and competing land-based nation-states” (45). The chapter also explores the democratic nature of pirate ships, connects the ideas of the novel to those in Miéville’s Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law (2005), and moves the progress in social revolution from Perdido Street Station’s allegory to “a limited alternative to capitalist imperialism” (64).
In chapter four, “The Representation of Revolution in Iron Council,” Freedman’s strength as a Marxist critic shines as he analyzes the most politically programmatic novel in the Bas-Lag series. Here, he identifies the main thrust of the trilogy, “providing a locus where ideas of socialist revolution can be experimentally concretized” (69). What follows is a wide-ranging and convincing discussion of Iron Council, its place in the trilogy, and its Marxist vision of “revolutionary social justice” (81). Chapter five, “From Genre to Political Economy: The City & the City and Uneven Development,” continues to develop Freedman’s command of Marxism in service to Miéville’s sociopolitical commitments as he discusses the novel’s exploration of nationalism and the concept of uneven development (in which the exploitation of one country by another leads to the former’s underdevelopment). While this chapter has more plot summary than seems necessary, it is very helpful in showing that the novel illustrates “how uneven and combined development continues to function in the age of Empire” (101). The sixth chapter, “Embassytown; Or, Between Language and Language,” is quite short, with less to say about Marxism but a helpful description of the move from simile to metaphor in Embassytown. While it is certainly well informed, as one would expect of Freedman, without the Marxist focus the chapter is less substantive than previous ones.
The book concludes with the chapter on “Dialectic and Idea.” Its first section justifies didacticism in fiction, using examples from the ancients, the Renaissance, and beyond to preach, I am afraid, to the choir: sf has always had a strong didactic element. Next, Freedman takes on estrangement and cognition, taking the opportunity to refute Csicsery-Ronay’s and Miéville’s refutations of Freedman’s idea of “cognition effect.” Nevertheless, Freedman makes some excellent points about Miéville’s work, saying that, “in the Bas-Lag trilogy, world-building fantasy becomes the historical realism of an alternative universe” (151). The trilogy appears, he says, “to leave history behind; but only to return to history with renewed vigor and imaginative force” (152; emphasis in original). The last section of the conclusion takes on Between Equal Rights directly, explaining that central to Miéville’s argument in this book, as in his fiction, is the claim that “coercion is just as important in international relations” as it is elsewhere in capitalism, that “[c]oercion and violence are not mere ‘abuses,’ but precisely what capitalism is all about” (159).
Art and Idea in the Novels of China Miéville is indispensable for anyone who wishes to understand this brilliant writer’s philosophical and political approach. There is room, however, for other critics to go beyond Miéville’s grand thematic concerns. Certainly, looking at his work through the single lens of Marxism, as much of this book does, is limiting. Other approaches, whether intended by the author or not, might also prove rich: animal studies, ecocriticism, gender studies—all would be generative, I think. Miéville’s writing has enough depth and strength to be read against the Marxist grain as well as with it.
—Joan Gordon, Nassau Community College
An Eclectic Collection.
SCIENCE FICTION IN TELEVISION. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015. xviii + 280 pp. $80 hc.
Time-Travel Television examines, among other things, how various television series represent time travel, how time travel affects the narrative arcs of the series (and vice versa), and whether or not it is necessary for the science in time-travel series to be accurate. The essays survey a wide range of both well- and little-known series from the 1960s to the present day, employing an eclectic selection of scientific and literary theory. As a whole, this volume offers a comprehensive consideration of the history of time travel in television.
The essays are divided into three sections: “Examining Origins,” “Correcting the Past,” and “Exploring the Future.” Placed in its own category just before Part I, Michael G. Cornelius’s essay “On Disassociative Configurations of Time and Space” looks at various scientific and philosophical issues regarding time and time travel, as well as why time travel is such an integral part of science fiction. The essays in Part I consider either the philosophical/scientific problems of time travel or the use of time-travel as a storytelling technique. Essays such as “No Fate, or Is There?: Comparing Opposing Concepts of Time Travel in J.J. Abrams’s Lost and Tim Kring’s Heroes” by Heather M. Porter and “A Tempting Narrative or a Temporal Gimmick: A Look at the Use of Time Travel in Unconventional Series” by Pamela Achenbach consider fate versus free will and successful fictional portrayals of time travel, respectively. Other essays in this section deal with subjects such as postmodern perspectives, archetypal tropes, and the paradoxes inherent in time-travel stories. The last essay in the section, “‘The Last Best Hope for Peace’: Using Time Travel to (Re)Set the Future in Babylon 5” by Sherry Ginn explores the logical difficulties arising from time loops; more importantly it connects the representation of time travel to collective and individual identity.
“Part II: Correcting the Past” focuses on time travel into the past. Most of the essays in this section examine issues of causality and whether or not time travelers can alter the past and, if so, if it would be wise to do so. In addition to discussions about the “grandfather paradox” and the “butterfly effect,” this section also offers essays on the moral dimensions of time travel as well as the nature of pop culture’s representations of the past. In his essay “The Past Comes Back to Kill You: Ethical Reflections about the Past in Two American Telefilms, Bridge Across Time and Time Travelers,” Fernando Pagnoni Berns asks the provocative question of why the lives of people in the present are more important than the lives of those in the past? In the made-for-TV movie Time Travelers (1976), two men must travel to 1871 to find a cure for a disease that was lost in the Great Chicago Fire. In doing so, the men must take something from the past to save people in the present without doing anything to alter the timeline, which means they fail to warn the people around them in 1871 about their impending deaths. They even go so far as to steal blood from some of the people they meet. Berns asserts that this is an unethical colonization of the past, justifying the exploitation of previous times by anyone in the future with time-travelling technology (90). Other essays in this section, such as Gillian I. Leitch’s “Doctor Who and History: Time Travel and the Historical Narrative” and Caroline-Isabelle Caron’s “‘It’s All in Books!’: Time Travel Pedagogy in Television’s Voyagers!” delve into issues of historical interpretation. These essays point out that all too often, time-travel television follows the popular trend of conceptualizing history as merely major events in which “great men” shape the world and its future. This kind of interpretation not only dumbs history down but also tends to produce plot-driven rather than character-driven narratives. Caron argues that a show such as Quantum Leap (1989-93), in which Sam Beckett intervenes into the lives of ordinary people experiencing the effects of larger historical events, creates not only a more complex view of history but also offers greater opportunity for more nuanced character development.
The final section, “Exploring the Future,” focuses on time travel to the future. Kristine Larsen’s essay, “The Impossible Girl and the New World: Televisual Representations of the Scientific Possibilities and Paradoxes of Time Travel” offers a compelling scientific critique of time travel in sf television. Larsen notes that “screenwriters pick and choose which aspects of the ‘rules’ of time travel they wish to adhere to, largely based on convenience” (214). She argues that for time-travel narratives to exist at all, the science must be either ignored or simply fudged, something that many sf fans in their demand for accuracy find hard to accept. The collection ends with “‘Did I Mention It Also Travels in Time?’: Time Travel as Formula and Experience in Doctor Who,” in which Michael G. Robinson explores the evolution of the best-known television series about time travel. Robinson makes the astute observation that “watching the Classic era [of Doctor Who] is also a trip back into older practices of making television. Cultural references and thematic allegories also reveal past cultural meanings” (242). In this way, time-travel television records our own cultural journey of understanding time and our place in it—at least within the last fifty years or so. Future generations will no doubt look at the television of our time in order to understand who we thought we were.
While these essays offer many different viewpoints on time-travel television from scholars with an impressive array of backgrounds, there is at times a bit too much overlap among the essays. Some essays, in fact, say the same things about the same episodes of well-known series. Furthermore, it becomes tiresome to read repetitive, detailed explanations of phenomena such as the “grandfather paradox,” especially when it is relatively safe to assume that the audience for this volume would already be well-versed in such a cornerstone concept. Despite these flaws, the book is a valuable contribution to time-travel studies and studies of sf television, one that fans and scholars alike will find stimulating. Because of the show’s dominance throughout these essays, this book also makes a valuable contribution to Doctor Who (1963-1989, 2005-) studies. The big picture that this volume presents, however, is most aptly summarized by an assertion Kiernan Tranter makes in her essay, “Narrative and Paradoxes in Doctor Who ‘Time-Loop’ Stories”—that “these stories matter because they show the complexity of what it is to be a being-in-time” (232). Time-Travel Television demonstrates that the human fascination with time travel is not just about scientific discovery or adventure, but that it is also about finding meaning and significance in our own lives.
—James Hamby, Middle Tennessee State University
Science Fiction and/as Theology.
Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2015. x + 318 pp. $59.95 hc.
On the question of the existence or nonexistence of God, sf as a genre has mostly agreed with the famous words attributed to the mathematician and scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace: “no need of that hypothesis.” The Holy Trinity of the Golden Age—Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke—were all atheists, as were Kurt Vonnegut, J.G. Ballard, Stanisław Lem, Iain M. Banks, Douglas Adams, John W. Campbell, Boris Strugatsky, and so on, and as are Harlan Ellison, Samuel R. Delany, William Gibson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Greg Egan, Gregory Benford, Joss Whedon, et al. As one expands the scope of “atheism” to include those loose agnostic, deistic, and/or pantheistic conceptions of God that, while nominally still “religious” in some sense, are fundamentally at odds with the sureties of organized religion, one pulls in all the foundational authors of nineteenth-century sf—Shelley, Poe, Verne, Wells, Twain—as well as nearly all the prominent writers of twentieth-century sf not already named above, such as Octavia E. Butler, Gene Roddenberry, H.P. Lovecraft, and Olaf Stapledon (to name only a few of my own personal favorites). While of course important exceptions to any generally applicable rule exist, both the epistemological assumptions and the ethico-philosophical worldview espoused by sf—considered as a literary-cultural phenomenon and as a “way of life”—have tended to see religion not only as a “problem” but almost as the genre’s diabolical opposite, the bad historical force that technoscientific progress (championed, naturally, by sf) has finally and blessedly rendered moot.
Alan P.R. Gregory’s Science Fiction Theology: Beauty and the Transform-ation of the Sublime provides some important counterpoint to this narrative. Gregory—a reverend, and principal of the South East Institute for Theological Education in Canterbury—has written a book that links sf cultural productions to the religious imagination not only through the theological fixations of major writers in the field (especially Stapledon, Lovecraft, and the VALIS-era Philip K. Dick) but also through the genre’s constitutive aesthetic, that famous “sense of wonder” (what thinkers such as Kant and Burke once called “the sublime”). The constellation Gregory delineates among Christian theology and apologetics, the British and American traditions in sf, and the sublime is not an exhaustive exploration of any of the three, but rather serves as a useful illumination of the many unexpected points of contact among these three mutually imbricated discourses. Different chapters in the book focus on each of the three points of the triad, culminating in the final chapter’s presentation of a contemporary “theological critique of sublimity that has learned a good deal from science fiction” (1) and, therefore, the articulation of a science-fictional imagination that “calls thus to the Christian imagination, too” (236). This framework allows Gregory to name a sub-canon of religious and religion-infused sf that does not simply “stake its claim to sublimity, over the body of a dead god” (40), but instead has interesting things to say about, and to learn from, religion.
Gregory’s lucid and engaging readings of key texts in sf such as Star Maker (1937), Doctor Who (1963-1989, 2005-), the Cthulhu mythos, and the VALIS trilogy (1978-1982) is primarily grounded in the discipline of theology and does not engage much either with mainline sf studies in particular or literary theory more generally; it will fall to other writers to link this material to the sorts of utopian and countercultural critiques that have generally animated our discipline. Likewise, the book will likely fall short of many sf scholars’ expectations through its dedicated focus on the familiar, mid-twentieth-century white male sf “canon” that our field as a whole has largely moved on from, while ignoring the post-1970s demographic expansion and internationalization of the genre that has so vitalized contemporary sf and sf studies.
Still, from the perspective of an sf studies that has sometimes been guilty of reiterating—or, less charitably, regurgitating—the same core preoccupations over and over ad nauseam,the breath of fresh air can sometimes be exhilarating. I was particularly gratified by the detailed (and multiple) readings of Dick’s VALIS books, which benefit from taking seriously Dick’s Gnostic mysticism in a way that literary scholars generally have not. The result both elevates Dick by turning him into a theologically significant theorist of salvation (see especially 139-53), while also exposing the limits of his approach to mystical exegesis as his later novels produce a “tragic world … so sundered from the source of revelation that knowledge of the transcendent comes in spite of the world and as always strange to it” (235). It is no’t easy to find new things to say about such a well-loved and well-studied author, but Gregory’s complex reading of the late Dick through his career-long interest in the sublime somehow manages it, in the process finding PKD’s science-fictional and theological modes to be not really at odds at all, but each functioning instead as the necessary completion of the other. This is not a reading that many literary scholars would have produced—but it is a rich one.
Gregory’s book—along with Steven Hrotic’s Religion in Science Fiction (2014), perhaps not incidentallythe last book I reviewed for Science Fiction Studies—points towards a growing interest in science-fictional explorations of religion that are not oppositional in nature, and that have not preemptively and presumptively declared victory over a loathed enemy. They also point towards the rich and exciting project of rediscovering and re-contextualizing such beloved sf creators as Jonathan Swift, George Lucas, Orson Scott Card, James Blish, Margaret Atwood, and Clifford D. Simak—all of whom bedevil any reductionistic equation between atheism and sf—as well as encouraging us to interrogate more ambitiously the spiritualist bent of many contemporary writers working in sf (especially in the Afrofuturist, techno-Orientalist, and indigenous-futurist traditions) and the barely sublimated spiritualism of the transhumanist movement popularly known as Singularitarianism. But these books also point towards the ongoing problem of siloization among the different disciplines in the academy, and the continuing stasis in a popular conception of sf that seems entirely unable to move beyond the key names of two generations ago (even or especially among scholars becoming newly interested in the field). There are now myriad recent scholarly works making important statements on the contemporary relevance of sf to a wide variety of interdisciplinary questions, which by and large have not taken any notice of our community at all. The growing interest in sf on the part of academics outside our sub-discipline offers an exciting opportunity to expand the reach and impact of our work and of the work of the authors we champion—while at the same time regrettably exposing how precious little progress we have made towards that goal thus far.
—Gerry Canavan, Marquette University
Star Wars and Its Fans.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016. vii + 245 pp. $35 pbk.
Lee is a productive and capable scholar who has edited a useful volume of mixed quality. A Galaxy Here and Now explores themes largely familiar from other Star Wars (1977-) studies, and its contributions to the literature exist in tension with its occasional redundancies, superficialities, and unnecessary exposition of well-known material. The book is creatively edited, the essays following the sequence starting with the first movie, Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), but some of the chapters would have benefited from further copy-editing.
This collection is most valuable as a repository of fan knowledge. The first chapter, Tom Zlabinger’s “Hearing the Force: Manifestations and Transform-ations of Music from Far, Far Away” catalogues eight types of Star Wars music: “disco/electronic echoes, jazz echoes, rock/pop echoes, hip-hop/nerdcore echoes, comedic parodistic echoes, anomalous echoes, movie/television echoes, and ocular echoes” (8). Mara Wood’s “Feminist Icons Wanted: Damsels in Distress Need Not Apply” is, likewise, a catalog of female types in the Star Wars films and TV shows, with limited engagement with related ancillary texts. Because much of what Wood has to say about female characters in the films is common knowledge, her readings of the TV offshoots The Clone Wars (2008-) and Star Wars Rebels (2014-) are her primary contributions, with her one-page discussion of the possible function of relevant female representations (or “icons”) disappointing in its brevity. Instead of rehearsing the films’ depictions of Leia and Padmé, one wishes Wood had discussed some of the other important female characters outside the bounds of the primary filmic canon, especially in the now-uncanonical “expanded universe” of novelizations, comics, video-games, etc.
Paul Charbel’s “Deconstructing the Desert: The Bedouin Ideal and the True Children of Tatooine” makes the obvious point that Star Wars films have used and perpetuated Orientalist and anti-Semitic racial stereotypes, but Charbel also points interested readers to the Star Wars: Legacy (2006-2010) and Republic: Outlander (1998-2006) comic series, in which the depiction of the desert cultures and peoples of Tatooine is more nuanced and respectful. Indeed, these other works enrich the canonical Anakin story with fresh depth and tragedy. The final chapter, “Part of Our Cultural History: Fan-Creator Relationships, Restoration and Appropriation,” by Michael Fuchs and Michael Phillips, contains some suggestive theoretical gestures, but it, too, is primarily a fan resource articulating a perspective often at odds with Lucas’s attempts to control and progressively modify his films. The authors’ documentation of official opposition to gay fan fiction due to its alleged violation of the inherent “innocence” of Star Wars is just one of a number of valuable historical insights contained in the chapter; indeed, Fuchs and Phillips’s writing is probably the most enjoyable in the collection: their critical comments and close readings of fan edits intended to restore and improve the audience experience are good-humored and insightful, and their brief comparisons of fan activity to religious behavior are provocative and interesting.
Karin Hilck’s “The Space Community and the Princess: Reworking the American Space Program’s Public Image from ‘Miss NASA’ to Princess Leia,” the second chapter, is more of a historical than a cultural reading. As an account of how Leia failed to appeal to NASA for most of its history, Hilck’s account is informative but uninspiring, yet her note of hope relative to gender representation in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is appropriately encouraging. Other authors in the collection express similar anticipations that J.J. Abrams will rectify some of the harm Lucas has done with his gender stereotyping, bringing balance to the Force, as it were. Editor Lee’s own contribution, “Periodizing a Civil War: Reaffirming an American Empire of Dreams,” is also primarily historical, contextualizing Lucas’s nostalgic, consumerist, technophilic intentions in Cold War-era attitudes and ideologies. Erin C. Callahan’s chapter, “Jedi Knights, Dark Lords and Space Cowboys: George Lucas’s Re-Imagined and Redefined Masculine Identities” is indeed a “reading” of the filmic texts, but an unusually forced one, arguing that Luke’s mentorship by Yoda amounts to a new form of “gender socialization” designed to reinforce “normative masculine behaviors and attitudes” (91). The evidence adduced in support of this thesis is thin at best.
Although it fails to deliver on all its promises or substantiate all of its claims, Gregory E. Rutledge’s contribution—“Jedi Knights and Epic Performance: Is the Force a Form of Western-African Epic Mimicry?”—is provocative and theoretically interesting, arguing that Lucas’s films are illustrative of white appropriation of both black “coolness” and black struggles for liberation. The examples he cites fail to convince, but the argument itself, though somewhat unfocused, is compelling. Jessica K. Brandt’s “An Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age: Star Wars, Public Radio and Middlebrow Cold War Culture” offers a reading of the radio dramatizations (1981-1996) of the original film trilogy, simultaneously reflecting on Lucas’s nostalgic appeal to middlebrow consumers and on National Public Radio’s sometimes ambivalent relationship with its audience.
A Galaxy Here and Now should be used primarily for targeted research. It contains useful suggestions for fans and scholars looking for new Star Wars works and fan productions. On the other hand, although it does delve into some of the historical and cultural phenomena that produced Star Wars and its fan responses, its readings of specific texts are most often of rather limited interest.
—Nathan Fredrickson, University of California, Santa Barbara
BISON FRONTIERS OF IMAGINATION. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2015. xii + 398 pp. $26.95 pbk.
1908-1909. Trans. David Beus and Brian Evenson.
Prisoner of the Vampires of Mars, David Beus and Brian Evenson’s English translation of French polygraphe Gustave (Henri Joseph) Le Rouge’s Le prisonnier de la planète Mars [The Prisoner of the Planet Mars, 1908] and La guerre des vampires [The War of the Vampires, 1909], is a wildly imaginative, immeasurably influential, and persistently problematic volume of speculative fiction that should be of significant interest to scholars of sf and horror in its weird and cosmic registers, heroic fantasy, postcolonialism, and Francophone literature and culture. An entry in the University of Nebraska Press’s Bison Frontiers of Imagination series, this is the first unabridged English translation of Le Rouge’s internationally well-known bipartite epic, and thus a noteworthy addition to the ever-growing number of French sf works available to English-language readers. The volume also contains an excellent introduction by writer William Ambler, who provides some helpful biographical information about Le Rouge, a vastly erudite and proud anti-capitalist who was friends with Paul Verlaine and Blaise Cendrars.
Inspired by the sf of H.G. Wells and J.-H. Rosny aîné, the Gothic tales of Edgar Allan Poe, the Symbolist poems of Charles Baudelaire, and the alchemical fictions of Charles-François Tiphaigne de la Roche, Prisoner of the Vampires of Mars is an always intriguing and often baffling tale revolving around French engineer Robert Darvel, an exaggerated anticipation of the brawny scientist-hero of Burroughsian planetary romance. Following a failed attempt at communicating with Mars that leaves him bankrupt and unable to marry the love of his life, Alberte Teramond, Robert is invited by Brahman priest Ardavena to relocate to a Hindu monastery in India to help in the designing of a device that would fuse Eastern magic with Western science, thus making it possible to “transport oneself from one end of the universe to the other at the speed of thought” (53). Le Rouge, like Rudyard Kipling before him, reproduces the British exoticization of Indian knowledge systems common to imperialist literature of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. It follows that Ardavena cunningly betrays Robert by sending him to Mars, although the priest himself loses his mind following his becoming, for a brief moment, the “brain of all humanity” (61).
The sequences on Mars depict Robert’s colonization of the humanoid Martians, in addition to his encounters with winged vampires called the Erloor who prey on the defenseless Martians. Meanwhile, a more advanced species of invisible vampires keeps watch over both species in a labyrinthine glass tower, and an omnipotent Great Brain, that lives in a mountain surrounded by fire and storm, periodically demands sacrifices from the invisible vampires. Back on Earth, Alberte and a motley crew of secondary characters—often reduced to stereotypes of their gender and national identities—develop a plan to build their own pseudoscientific device to find Robert and bring him back home. The overflowing story—in which Robert narrates his confrontations with the ineffable, often losing himself in psychedelic reveries of metaphysical speculation—renders the volume generative for a wide variety of scholars, perhaps most obviously (given the Social-Darwinist depiction of life on the red planet) those interested in elaborating the intersections of sf and postcolonialism.
As suggested by Brian Stableford in the playfully subversive afterword to The Vampires of Mars (2008), his English adaptation of Le Rouge’s vampire books for Black Coat Press, Robert’s infantilizing of the humanoid Martians may be intended as parody, with the narrator’s megalomaniac faith in Western scientific rationalism confronting—and being challenged by—a phantasmagoric parade of cosmic horrors. Viewed from this perspective, Prisoner of the Vampires of Mars is less like Hergé’s colonialist Tintin au Congo (1931) and more like a prototypical New Wave subversion of the planetary romance genre. Indeed, Le Rouge’s use of nested, incomplete plots and rampant intertextuality allows for readings against the grain of the surface-level plot, including those that would emphasize its hallucinatory and supernatural elements, in addition to its collage-like form.
Beus, a cultural-studies scholar, and Evenson, author of many genre-bending works that play at the darker fringes of the weird, deserve special mention for their extraordinary translation, which is at once faithful to the intricacies of the original text and aware of the importance of sustaining the inexorable intensity of the author’s prose style. Like H.P. Lovecraft, Le Rouge is fond of breathless sentences full of adjectives and adverbs, perspectival shifts, and idiosyncratic combinations of words that result in widescreen, synaesthetic vistas, describing in meticulous detail the atmosphere and life-forms of otherworldly environments. Additionally, as pointed out by Arthur B. Evans in “Gustave Le Rouge, Pioneer of Early French Science Fiction” (SFS 29.1 : 1-14), Le Rouge the Bohemian and Decadent was equally fond of rhetorical ambiguity, which often disorients and encourages painstaking re-reading, thereby amplifying the psycho-speculative functions of his texts. This proto-Surrealist dimension of the author’s prose style permits Evans to situate Le Rouge as an important transitional figure in the shift from Vernian “scientific fiction”to Wellsian sf. Despite the various obstacles to accurate translation, Beus and Evenson do an admirable job adapting the challenging and vertiginous French of Le Rouge’s original, at once maintaining the author’s stylistic eccentricities and making the work accessible to contemporary English-language readers.
In sum, Le Rouge’s Prisoner of the Vampires of Mars is an important example of early French sf by an author who, sadly, remains relatively unknown in Anglophone circles. With Beus and Evenson’s new translation, however, English-language scholars can now access this densely layered work in its unabridged form.
—Sean Matharoo, University of California, Riverside
Practical Terraforming for SF Critics
ECOCRITICAL THEORY AND PRACTICE. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. xxx + 183 pp. $80 hc.
The relevance of ecocriticism to sf studies has never been greater. Patrick D. Murphy’s Persuasive Aesthetic Ecocritical Praxis proposes that ecocritical readings can inspire meaningful dialogue despite the very real threat of fatalism and disinterest in the current and quite possibly last chapter of the Anthropocene. The book is organized into nine short chapters, some of which are more directly tied to sf futures than others. Murphy spends the introduction and first chapter establishing whether ecocriticism can effect social change. Drawing on a broad array of incisive voices, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Friedrich Engels, Murphy questions how to read aesthetic production when today’s academic activists are required to shoulder decrees such as Stanley Fish’s Save the World on Your Own Time (2008).
With that background established, Murphy launches into an accessible eco-feminist approach to Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours (1850); the takeaway—that Cooper’s text offers an ethical prototype for conserva-tionism—is arresting, offering insight into a type of early eco-feminism that would come to the fore during the social movements of the 1960s. This attention to feminist approaches to environmentalism is sustained throughout the book, culminating in the final chapter’s reading of gender in Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975) and its prequel, Ecotopia Emerging (1981). The nine chapters demonstrate a robust interdisciplinary focus on new-materialist approaches to the Anthropocentric present, increasingly looking to film, television, and recent literary sf to examine modern problems with land-use rights, crop engineering, destruction of biodiversity, and the social effects of globalization. Chapter four, for instance, is a summary of meteorological concerns in recent film and television programs; moving through a collection of accessible examples (Waterworld , Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [2013-]), Murphy concludes that these popular media may offer the least persuasive format for an ecocritical agenda, depending more on compelling stories than on accurate climate science.
Sprinkled throughout the book are other recognizable sf texts: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1993-1996) and his more recent 2312 (2012), the film Silent Running (1972), and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). Few, however, receive any sustained attention. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Murphy’s short and sometimes uneven chapters is their broadly inclusive scope: chapter eight, for example, opens with a summary of Nickelodeon’s Animorphs series (1998-99), only to segue into an analysis of Jian Rong’s filmic fable of extinction, Wolf Totem (2004), developing themes derived from canonized eco-voices such as Gary Snyder and Rachel Carson. There is even crossover appeal for those interested in animal studies.
And yet, despite the book’s interdisciplinary approach and Murphy’s own longstanding interest in science fiction, many chapters address staple texts of recent “green sf” with little critical contextualization in terms of genre studies. This issue comes into sharp relief in chapter five’s discussion of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) as a cautionary tale about the contemporary global use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs): only ten pages in length, the chapter neither references nor tries to build upon important critical readings of the novel, such as Andrew Hageman’s 2012 article in this journal or Eric Otto’s extensive scholarship on Bacigalupi. That said, Murphy does cite relevant ecocritical scholarship extensively, and the book’s afterword and interview with Murphy offer additional points of interest for scholars and readers eager to understand the institutional politics of greening the future. The relatively high cost of the book, however, may prevent its perspectives from traveling far beyond the shelves of academic libraries.
—Alan Lovegreen, Orange Coast College
SF STORYWORLDS: CRITICAL STUDIES IN SCIENCE FICTION. Canterbury, UK: Gylphi, 2015. ix + 376 pp. $29.99 pbk.
A demanding task for Ballard scholars is finding a solid critical perspective allowing for a comprehensive analysis of the author’s heterogeneous oeuvre. David Ian Paddy has successfully taken up this challenge in his book The Empires of J.G. Ballard: An Imagined Geography, which offers a far-reaching and compelling atlas of the works and thought of the “Seer of Shepperton” by exploring the several inflections of a pivotal concept in his fiction, that of empire. Indeed, Ballard’s imaginary geography is linked to a focal spot on the real world’s map, Shepperton, the suburban town in the Thames Valley where the writer spent almost all his adult life and from where his imagination opened up to a global dimension.
Paddy introduces his readers to “Ballardland” by touching upon the much-debated issue of the way Ballard’s fiction’s resists attempts at taxonomy. Luckily, he avoids the deadlock to which such debates have led in the past, his witty, captivating style making his textual analyses enjoyable and straightforward. The bulk of Chapter 1, “Portraits and Maps: J.G. Ballard and the Imagined Worlds,” sets the navigational coordinates of Ballard’s literary geography (with helpful graphic representations by Patty Jula) and initiates a comparison between Ballard and Graham Greene, which is one of the abiding themes of the book. This chapter offers a portrait of Ballard that dwells on his colonial background (his birth and childhood in Shanghai, his detention in Lunghua camp, and his arrival in an exhausted post-imperial England in 1946), an experience that positioned Ballard between partial adhesion to and rejection of colonialist imagery. Chapter 1 also discusses the theme of “colonial conflicts and international politics” (36) in two underrated texts, “The Violent Noon” (1951), Ballard’s very first juvenile short story, and The Wind from Nowhere (1962), his first novel, which Paddy seeks to reinstate in the Ballardian canon (after the author disavowed both works). The discussion in subsequent chapters follows the chronological progression of Ballard’s career, showing how “Ballard’s oeuvre constitutes a sustained examination of the evolution of imperialism in the post-war period and of the cultural, social, economic and psychological dynamics of international imperial networks that persist today” (6-7).
Chapter 2, “Return of the Imperial Repressed,” examines the theme of intertextuality in Ballard’s disaster novels of the 1960s using Freudian theory, which was an acknowledged influence on the author. Paddy shows how Ballard persistently revises literary texts permeated by imperialist attitudes—boys’ adventure stories in The Drowned World (1962), Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611) in The Drought (1964), and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case (1960) in The Crystal World (1966)—and “inverts and subverts the ideals of civilization presented in [these] source materials” (47). Oscillating between anti-colonialist claims and confirmation of the racial stereotypes of colonial narratives, the landscapes of Ballard’s disaster fiction trigger the resurgence of “imperial stories and histories [that] have been repressed” and that “are made uncanny through the forces of natural destruction” (48).
Chapter 3 focuses on the forms of “Psychic Imperialism” exerted by postwar consumer capitalism and the electronic media. Paddy deploys Fredric Jameson’s studies of the 1960s and Guy Debord’s theory of “alienated consumption” to better understand short stories such as “Manhole 69” (1957), “The Overloaded Man” (1961), and “The Subliminal Man” (1963), as well as the novel The Atrocity Exhibition (1970). Ballard’s characters are depicted as “struggling to demystify a world befuddled by spectacular forms” subtly working on their unconscious (97). Particularly interesting is Paddy’s reading of The Atrocity Exhibition’s collage structure as “a new form of anti-colonial literature” (122) that deploys anti-mind-control tactics on the part of both the author and his characters.
Chapter 4 tackles Ballard’s “urban novels” of the 1970s, focusing on the notion of “Savage Modernity.” Seeing Concrete Island (1974) and High-Rise (1975) as “retelling[s] of shipwreck narratives” (131)—Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), respectively—Paddy highlights a subtle point: “It is not that Ballard’s characters exist in a ‘non-place,’ it is that they think they do, and this is precisely the problem Ballard wishes to address” (133). Marc Augé’s theory of “non-places” allows Paddy to explore the essential inversion inscribed in Ballard’s urban settings—i.e., the hyper-modern city as a site of atavistic savagery. “Through the restaging and inversion of the colonial/savage dynamic” (162), these novels show that modern cities, seemingly designed to facilitate anthropic activity and to satisfy the needs of their civilized denizens, instead function to activate their repressed instincts towards violence.
Chapter 5, “American Deserts: Fading Icons and the Dying Frontiers of Space,” shifts focus to Ballard’s imagined America, with Paddy underscoring a persistent ambivalence in the author’s early-1980s representations of the US as an empire in decline. The novel Hello America (1981) and short stories such as “News from the Sun” (1981), “Memories of the Space Age” (1982), and “Myths of the Near Future” (1982), Paddy asserts, appear to be “caught between a desire to criticize the US as the source of a new form of entertainment-consumerist imperialism and a wish to idealize the idea of America as a land that still believes in the possibility of a future” (176). A coda suggests that in unpublished notes dating to Ballard’s last years that outline a new novel tentatively titled “An Immodest Proposal, or How the World Declared War on America,” the author’s final vision of the US was wholly negative. Indeed, here is another merit of Paddy’s book: his analyses have benefited from consultation of the manuscripts, letters, and other papers in the Ballard Archive now housed at the British Library.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Ballard used a series of settings located all over the world, a choice that Paddy calls his “international turn.” The focus of Chapter 6, “This World Over,” is on The Day of Creation (1987) and Rushing to Paradise (1994), two novels dealing with politics and activism in a globalized society. The apparently irrational and deviant behaviors of Ballard’s characters are explained by the fact that globalization “replicates earlier imperial actions, attitudes and behaviors” (207). Chapter 7, in turn, examines the figure of “The Unknowing Detective in a World of Crime” in Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), and Super-Cannes (2000). In these works, Ballard subverts the conventions of crime fiction—for example, by introducing elements of “dramatic irony” whereby the amateur-detective protagonists are slower than readers in solving the crimes. Moreover, Paddy develops ideas from Slavoj Žižek, David Harvey, and Naomi Klein to show how Ballard’s treatments of systemic violence in these novels are linked to social forces presiding over our globalized world.
Finally, Chapter 8, “The Last of England,” which discusses The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), Millennium People (2003), and Kingdom Come (2006), returns to the first and foremost concern of Ballard’s imagined geography: his critical attitude towards England and Englishness. While a sense of uneasiness about the parochial English world accompanied Ballard throughout his life, in the last part of his career he depicted two faces of contemporary London suburbia: a “place of great inauthenticity, trapped in the worst forms of social and commercial conformity” on the one hand, and at the same time “the last place where the possibility of authentic lives and revolutionary impulses are possible” (303).
The Empires of J.G. Ballard maps the writer’s literary atlas at the intersection of autobiography, history, and geopolitics. Paddy effectively illustrates Ballard’s efforts to make sense of the mechanisms at work in contemporary society by putting his oeuvre in constant dialogue with other writers and texts, as well as with the theories of numerous philosophers and social thinkers. His perspective also contributes to a fresh reassessment of some aspects of Ballard’s fiction, especially its rampant intertextuality.
—Valentina Polcini, University of L’Aquila
SF Meets the Classics.
CLASSICAL PRESENCES. New York: Oxford UP, 2015. xiii + 380 pp. $99 hc; $35 pbk.
Classical Traditions in Science Fiction is the first book-length collection in English to address speculative fiction as an important site of classical reception. It offers a first mapping of the editors’ view of that cultural and intellectual terrain, arguing that, for all its concern for future, alien, and possible worlds, science fiction is deeply rooted in the past and in contemporary understandings of the ancient world. The editors address roots of science fiction that are—or can be attributed to—Greco-Roman areas of the ancient Mediterranean (hereafter, “classics”), and uses sf to illustrate one aspect of the classics in the contemporary imagination. Its fourteen chapters present examples from classical antiquity and the past 400 years of science fiction. It also contains an editors’ introduction and a very useful section on “Further Reading and Viewing.”
The book starts with the appropriate observation that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), widely credited as the origin of science fiction, was subtitled “A Modern Prometheus.” The editors emphasize that the original Prometheus myth was an origin story of human technology. They argue that “a wide range of modern sf should be of great interest to anyone already interested in the ancient world and its classics” in order to justify the joint study of classics and sf (6). Further, they argue that classics has a stake in the study of sf because of the urgent questions it raises about the best relations among the humanities, science, and technology.
The book is divided into four sections, beginning with “SF’s Rosy-Fingered Dawn,” which considers classical influences on foundational sf from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In “The Lunar Setting of Johannes Kepler’s Somnium, Science Fiction’s Missing Link,” Dean Swinford argues that Somnium (1634) draws on ancient sources, including Plutarch’s De Facie and Lucian’s True History, and that Renaissance philosophers used ancient texts to distinguish “religion” from “science.” In “Lucretius, Lucan, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” Jesse Weiner shows that the epics of Lucan and Lucretius provided explicit models for key elements in Frankenstein and also spoke to its dual interest in science and ethics. Benjamin Eldon Stevens’s “Virgil in Jules Verne’s Journey to The Center of The Earth” uses Verne’s reworking of Virgil to illustrate how sf authors juxtaposed classical and scientific narratives. But the juxtaposition was not even-handed: classical narratives were relegated to “tradition” while scientific narratives emerged as “knowledge.” In “Mr. Lucian in Suburbia: Links between The True History and The First Men in The Moon,” Antony Keen argues that H.G. Wells borrowed liberally from the satirical tradition of Lucian and that those borrowings help explain the distinctive tone of Wells’s novel. Taken together, these chapters argue for the importance of antiquity as a context for the study of sf.
The second section, “SF ‘Classics,’” turns to the classical influences on sf after its emergence into popular culture in the early- and mid-twentieth century. In “A Complex Oedipus: The Tragedy of Edward Morbius,” Gregory S. Bucher compares two “tragedies”: the film Forbidden Planet (1956) and Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, maintaining that both conform to the principles of tragedy described in Aristotle’s Poetics. In “Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Great Year, and The Ages of Man,” Erik Grayson examines Miller’s cyclical treatment of history, describing Canticle’sambivalence toward “the Ancients” as a reworking of contemporary ambi-valence toward received classical traditions. Joel Christensen’s “Time and Self-Referentiality in The Iliad and Frank Herbert’s Dune” addresses parallels in narrative and theme, as both texts question myth, history, and the language of epic. In “Disability as Rhetorical Trope in Classical Myth and Blade Runner,” Rebecca Raphael considers classical narratives of extreme ability and artificial life forms. The chapters in this section do not claim direct classical influences on sf targets but instead identify common tropes or features of genre. They move toward what the editors call a “transcultural poetics” and seek to “demonstrate the revelatory potential for readers that can come from setting these texts in dialogue” (22).
The three chapters in the third section, “Classics in Space,” explore utopia, dystopia, and hybridity. In “Moral and Mortal in Star Trek: The Original Series,” George Kovacs reviews the evocative use of myth in the original Star Trek series (1966-69), especially in themes of longevity and immortality. In “Hybrids and Homecomings in The Odyssey and Alien Resurrection,” Brett M. Rogers reconfigures the notion of nostos or homecoming, in a meditation on the nature of the human. Vincent Tomasso’s “Classical Antiquity and Western Identity in Battlestar Galactica” identifies several themes from Greek religion that play out in the series, and their implications for ideas about progress and tradition.
The final section,“Ancient Classics for a Future Generation?,” turns to other worlds. In “Revised Iliadic Epiphanies in Dan Simmons’s Ilium,” Gaël Grobéty assesses Simmons’s use of the goddess Athena in her appearances to Achilles in the Iliad. Marian Makins’s “Refiguring the Roman Empire in The Hunger Games Trilogy” links this dystopian future America to negative depictions of imperial Rome through the satirical voices of Petronius, Tacitus, and Juvenal. Finally, in “Jonathan Hickman’s Pax Romana and The End of Antiquity,” C.W. Marshall presents a different view of imperial Rome through a comic depiction of military aid through time travel, in which the Catholic Church tries to help Constantine defeat Rome’s “pagan” enemies.
The volume’s individual contributions are all well written and well argued, but the core argument, that science fiction is deeply rooted in classical traditions, is less convincingly demonstrated. The chapters in Part 1 draw on the classical educations of early sf authors and their explicit references to classical texts and themes: for example, Weiner’s account of Mary Shelley’s education and journal references and Stevens’s account of Verne’s Latin references. These chapters clearly support claims for the origins of sf lying in classical literature (see, e.g., Keen 105). But problems arise at some point in the twentieth century, where these claims become harder to maintain. The last three sections rely instead on ex-post-facto reconstructed parallels of genre or theme, absent any direct influence, where such influence is possible and available: for example, Bucher’s claim about Forbidden Planet, “that [Cyril] Hume [the screenplay author] consciously adapted the Oedipus as seen through an Aristotelian lens” (125), and that “nontrivial similarities in plot and action, then, will serve as controls, their complexity and number effectively ruling out chance as the cause” (126). Grayson’s claim that Miller’s cyclical vision of human history in A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959)is closer to that of the Pythagoreans and Stoics than to that of medieval Christians (146) is probably ineright, but resemblance is not influence. A similar problem occurs for Christensen’s claim that sf and what he calls “ancient narrative myth” occupy similar cultural positions and have significant parallels (162). An exception is Grobéty’s essay on Dan Simmons’s Ilium (2003),whose rebellious indebtedness is self-evident.
Other essays also attempt to address the issue of similarity. Kovacs points to explicit references to Greek antiquity in Star Trek, but these depictions of Apollo, Plato’s Republic,etc., are cursory and sometimes muddled, and go no further than the reworkings of American popular culture. Similarly, Rogers’s methodological move is to place the Odyssey “in dialogue” with the film Alien Resurrection (1997) in order to show similar concerns with “definitions, configurations, and hybridizations of the human and Other during the journey homeward” (222). Nonetheless, he states that no obvious relationship exists between The Odyssey and the movie, but he argues for the indirect or unconscious influence of ideas about hybridity (224). On the other hand, repeated claims for similarity rather than influence tend to undermine the volume, despite the interest of many of its chapters. An intriguing possibility is that the good classical parallels to good sf—and the authors study some of the best—might inspire some readers to explore the Greco-Roman classics.
One final point about this volume that deserves mention is its genesis and provenance. On the one hand, the active participation of the Oxford University Press Classics acquisitions editor Stefan Vranka testifies to an engaged interest in sf by an influential group of scholars of the ancient world as a new avenue for reception studies. A different perspective comes from the profiles of its fifteen contributors, of whom nine are untenured, either as Assistant Professors or in a range of temporary positions, including the editors of the volume. This balance tells us that the combined study of classics and sf is a young field, but also that it is the future.
—Lisa Raphals, University of California, Riverside
Obsession and the Aca-Fan.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. xii + 200 pp. $39.95 pbk.
Throughout his investigation of Michael Moorcock’s long and varied career, Mark Scroggins consistently claims that Moorcock—the creator of Elric, Jerry Cornelius, and the multiverse; the writer with pulp sensibilities and literary aspirations; the influential editor of New Worlds; etc.—set out, in all of his endeavors, to entertain his audiences. For this reason (among others), Moorcock’s work appeals more to the fan than the critic: the former can ignore or simply accept the difficulties Moorcock presents in the name of entertainment; the latter likely cannot. Scroggins himself writes from a double perspective: both that of a fan familiar with and tolerant of the contradictory minutiae of a vast and constantly evolving body of work and that of an academic steeped in one of the most fecund and abstruse fields within literary studies, modernist poetry. Such an “aca-fan”—Henry Jenkins’s term for this double perspective—might be in fact the best person to tackle a project such as this (regardless of any problems such a position creates), and Scroggins’s book might point the way towards further use of this complex subjectivity within literary studies, a field that increasingly confronts (or should confront) the indistinction between “proper” literary objects and generic, popular, and franchised forms.
The critic has a problem: as Scroggins observes, “[a]ny overall critical assessment of Moorcock’s achievement has to begin with three unavoidable facts: he has written a very large amount; his writings fall into a wide and often incommensurable variety of genres; and the literary quality of his work is extremely variable” (7). Moorcock’s oeuvre—which is not only large, varied, and rhizomatically interconnected, but also exhibits a nigh-Whitman-esque commitment to revising and repackaging extant texts seemingly every few years—presents a challenge to anyone who might read it. The fan and the critic (in their ideal forms) encounter this challenge in very different ways, however, under very different circumstances and with very different results. Moorcock’s complexity will surely delight the obsessive fan, not only for the stories he tells and the worlds he builds, but also for the relationships he draws among characters, storylines, and the many parallel dimensions that make up his multiverse. Such a fan might not even mind Moorcock meddling with and re-issuing his past work, thereby creating even more complexity by way of slight alterations to previous editions. At the same time, all of this will likely vex the literary critic seeking a stable, delimited, and above all interpretable object of study. For a critic of pre-twentieth-century literature, such a body of work (assuming it could even exist under an older regime of cultural production) would provide the starting point for definitive scholarly editions, intellectual labor valuable both as an end (e.g., for promotion and tenure) and as a means (e.g., as ground for further scholarly work).
Under the current regime of intellectual property law, in the context of residual academic disdain for low culture, and with regards to the work of a living writer, the production of authoritative scholarly texts—and thus the production of coherent objects of inquiry—is out of the question. All of this is to say that every reader of Moorcock must begin with the particular difficulties of his work enumerated by Scroggins, without recourse to an objective or even normative solution. For the fan or potential fan, this problem is (relatively) easily solved by way of whim, taste, or the limitations imposed by cost (whether the cost of books or the opportunity cost of spending time reading this book rather than that one). Critics may rely on any of these solutions but must do so within a disciplinary framework that could well prove inhospitable to them; even the choices sanctioned by expertise might not be enough. What to the fan represents an entertaining challenge represents to the scholar a project that—because it exists beyond the bounds of traditional, or even acceptable, scholarship—may not be worth taking up.
Thus, fans might ignore, in the name of being entertained, certain difficulties of a given text or body of work that the critic cannot, while the critic might ignore certain texts and bodies of work a priori because the difficulties they manifest exceed extant methodologies and disciplinary norms. Such critical ignorance is shortsighted in a world increasingly characterized by complex multimedia franchises and generic novels by literary writers. These franchises and texts, in a manner very similar to Moorcock’s work, can be difficult to approach under the assumptions of the ideal critic. Scroggins, by way of his position as an aca-fan, provides a way forward from this dead end. Whatever the potential pitfalls such a position might create, Scroggins makes use of the tension between the perspectives identified and joined in it.
The productive tension between scholar and fan manifests in Scroggins’s study in at least two ways. First, in a basic and practical sense, Scroggins’s attention to detail should provide anyone interested in Moorcock a solid basis from which to approach his work, whether as a critic or a fan. Scroggins notes that his own entry point to Moorcock was the novel The Silver Warriors (1970), even as he makes clear that there are multiple such entry points and comprehensively (if not exhaustively) reveals thematic, generic, and narrative threads within Moorcock’s fiction that will aid new readers in understanding texts on their own and in relation to one another. Of course, the attention to detail Scroggins pays to Moorcock’s work and the historical progression by which he defines Moorcock’s career necessarily come with certain limitations: specifically, there is little room left to consider Moorcock in terms of wider generic or literary contexts. However, Scroggins’s book—which begins with Moorcock’s creation of the multiverse and the Eternal Champion, moves through the period of Jerry Cornelius and New Worlds, and culminates with Moorcock’s efforts to consolidate much of his work into a single, overarching narrative—does not worry itself with this particular concern. In the process, the book implies that the critic, rather than being superior to the fan, is but a special form of fan, one whose concerns are irreducibly provincial.
Here we see the second way in which Scroggins productively makes use of the aca-fan subjectivity: as a method to reveal the natural, if disavowed, relationship between the two perspectives joined in this single term. Any scholarly pursuit (in the humanities at any rate), in the day of hyper-specialization, will appear to the non-specialist as an obsession, something that only concerns the scholar in question and a very small circle of like-minded people. Moreover, many scholars, especially those who have come of age since the 1970s, grew up reading not (or not only) the so-called Western canon, but also works that fall outside that tradition as it has been historically conceived. This “expanded” reading list includes works by Moorcock and similar “lowbrow” writers. Indeed, it is not too much to say that writers such as Moorcock—and genres such as science fiction and fantasy—provide the starting point in literacy for future readers and scholars of “serious” fiction. Moreover, cultural production has become increasingly geared towards objects with blurry borders: multimedia franchises such as Star Wars (1977-) and Game of Thrones (1991-) can neither be understood in terms of the “individual” texts nor in strict terms of generic type. Novelists once thought to contend for literary awards, such as David Mitchell, win World Fantasy Awards, while others who have won literary awards, such as Kazuo Ishiguro, write fantasies.
In such a world, the critic cannot afford not to be a fan, to ignore objects and discourses that fail to meet the requirements of established scholarly methods and perspectives. In the end, Scroggins may not convince anyone that Michael Moorcock is worth studying—although it is clear to this reviewer that he is. Nonetheless, Scroggins makes clear that such a figure can be studied and, in so doing, implies that an unwillingness to study such figures is a failure on the part of the critic who forgets that he or she is also a fan.
—Benjamin Robertson, University of Colorado at Boulder
The Unknown Lem.
Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2014. vi + 207 pp. $110 hc.
Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2015. 224 pp. $120 hc.
Since Stanisław Lem’s death in 2006, the Polish author has continued to attract critical attention from literature scholars, philosophers, and scientists, testifying to his broad appeal across academic disciplines and to the fecundity of his literary, philosophical, and critical legacy. As Peter Swirski and Wacław M. Osadnik show in their edited collection Lemography: Stanisław Lem in the Eyes of the World,and as Peter Swirski further argues in his monograph Stanisław Lem: Philosopher of the Future, the versatility of Lem’s work—its ability to speak at once to literature, philosophy, the sciences, and contemporary culture at large—has contributed greatly to Lem’s international stature as a major twentieth-century thinker. Bringing together perspectives from across disciplines and from around the globe, both Lemography and Philosopher of the Future aim to showcase the “unknown Lem” (Swirski17) by examining the author’s contributions to literature, philosophy, and science from a variety of disciplinary angles. Ranging from discussions of Lem as futurologist, ethical philosopher, mystery writer, humorist, postmodernist, and cyberneticist to explorations of his work through the lenses of game theory, adaptation studies, literary criticism, and philosophy, Swirski and Osadnik’s Lemography and Swirski’s Philosopher of the Future are multi-faceted and original contributions to the growing body of criticism available in English on this wide-ranging, demanding, and incredibly complex artist and thinker.
As Swirski and Osadnik note in their introduction to Lemography, which discusses Lem’s literary career in the contexts of twentieth-century Polish political history and the contemporaneous international literary and political scene, the book “collects original essays that introduce aspects of Lem’s work hitherto underrepresented or even entirely unknown in the English speaking world” (14). Diverging from the many fine analyses of Lem as an sf writer that have appeared in Western scholarship, the introduction and seven critical essays that comprise Lemography highlight Lem’s contributions to other fields that interested him, such as philosophy and science, bringing critical attention to some of Lem’s least-studied works, such as his last novel, Peace on Earth (1987). Though its essays never cohere into a thematically unified whole, Lemography, as its editors point out, includes several critical “firsts” in English-language Lem scholarship, including the introduction’s thorough recounting of Lem’s literary biography in the totalitarian context of postwar Poland; Swirski’s translated excerpts from and critical overviews of Lem’s earliest untranslated novels, Man from Mars (1946), The Astronauts (1951), and The Magellan Nebula (1955); Swirski and Iris Vidmar’s assessment of eLem’s The Futurological Congress (1971) and Lem as futurologist; and Victor Yaznevich’s retrospective on the cognitive and cybernetic issues posed by Lem’s 600-IQ superior artificial being, the supercomputer Golem XIV in his eponymous 1981 novel.
Despite the collection’s stated intention to explore Lem’s oeuvre from a variety of disciplinary angles, Lemography is at its best when it takes a literary-critical eye to Lem’s complex, self-reflexive works. David Seed’s “Investigating the Investigation: Mystery Narratives in The Investigation and The Chain of Chance” offers a detailed analysis of Lem’s innovative detective novels, which remain critically under-examined in Western scholarship. Seed’s essay isolates the distortion of information that haunts both The Investigation (1959) and The Chain of Chance (1975), arguing that “[t]he impossibility for the reader of arriving at a final explanation of events in [both] novels … results directly from Lem’s ironic foregrounding of the interpretive strategies traditionally central to the crime fiction genre” (64). Tracing reader uncertainty throughout both texts, Seed demonstrates how Lem manipulates the conventions of detective fiction to foreground his long-standing theses about the limits of human knowledge and the importance of the role of chance in cosmic affairs. Similarly, Kenneth Krabbenhoft’s “Lem, Cervantes, and Metafiction: Peace on Earth and Fiasco” highlights the playful, postmodern self-reflexivity that characterizes Lem’s unique style. Comparing the ways that Lem and his literary forebear, Miguel de Cervantes, engaged with narrative ambiguity in their works, Krabbenhoft offers a compelling and richly argued comparative reading of the roles of self-reflexivity and metafiction in advancing the tenets of moral skepticism in the works of both authors, articulating their “shared moral concern with the destructive forces that threatened to destroy Europe during their respective lifetimes” (169).
With Stanisław Lem: Philosopher of the Future, Peter Swirski again presents Lem from an interdisciplinary perspective. Noting in the introduction that Lem was “a science-savvy philosopher who, more often than not, saw his novels as narrative models of the sociocultural constants and statistical aberrations that bedevil our civilization in its inexorable technoscientific evolution” (1), Swirski argues that previous assessments of Lem’s work have been limited by the tendency to analyze the author in terms of his literary style or in relation to his literary peers rather than examining his original scientific and philosophical speculations, thereby obscuring his valuable contributions to cybernetics, evolutionary theory, and philosophy, and discounting his abiding engagement with the pressing ethical, ontological, and epistemological issues raised by twentieth-century technological progress. Swirski attempts to remedy this imbalance in Lem criticism by presenting “critical analyses of [Lem’s] ideas” (3) rather than his style, largely eschewing literary analysis in favor of examinations of Lem as futurologist, philosopher, cyberneticist, and ethicist in order better to draw attention to the “intellectual vistas” (3) offered by Lem’s fictional, critical, philosophical, and technoscientific work.
Swirski organizes his book into three parts. Two chapters on Lem’s biography and literary career comprise Part I, in which Swirski offers an overview of both Lem’s life and his literary, critical, and philosophical oeuvre, including synopses of Lem’s first novels, which remain relatively unknown in the West due to Lem’s refusal to have them translated into English. With the “critical and interpretive” Part II, Swirski offers four chapters that address Lem on his own ground, using philosophical, scientific, and cybernetic theories and models to open up the interpretive, ethical, and theoretical terrain of works that have received little critical attention in English-language scholarship. Chapter 3 reads Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1961) through game theory, modeling the outcomes of characters’ various decisions in several of the novel’s scenarios in order to uncover the logic behind the seemingly incomprehensible bureaucracy of the novel’s Third Pentagon. In Chapter 4, Swirski offers an ethical evaluation of the concept of mandatory de-aggression that Lem proposes in Return from the Stars (1961), drawing on Lem’s philosophical work Dialogues (1957) by structuring the chapter’s second part as a Berkeleyan dialogue about the ethical problems and possibilities posed by de-aggression. With Chapter 5, Swirski turns toward an analysis of The Invincible (1964) and of Lem’s abiding interests in cognition and the limits of epistemology and anthropomorphism. Arguing that “Lem uses his fictions to model not only cognitive problems in need of inquiry, but also problems of inquiry itself” (122), Swirski demonstrates how Lem uses self-reflexive narrative strategies to foreground the processes of human cognition. Part II closes with a chapter on Lem’s The Chain of Chance (1976), in which Swirski discusses Lem’s “nobrow aesthetics” (4) and the role of chance in both the novel and in Lem’s philosophical work. The book’s final two chapters, which comprise Part III and reflect on Lem’s career as a whole, provide analyses of Fiasco (1986), including its dominant literary and philosophical themes, and The Blink of an Eye (2000), Lem’s polemical collection of essays that speculate on the present and future of human civilization, science, technology, and evolution.
In Philosopher of the Future, Swirski does an admirable job bringing a wide range of disciplines to bear on the work of a thinker whose importance to fields as diverse as literature, science, and philosophy cannot be overestimated. This interpretive strength is also a weakness, however: as in Lemography, these diverse perspectives on Lem’s prolific output serve to undermine the conceptual unity of both volumes, resulting in chapters that feel disconnected from each other. Indeed, many portions of Philosopher of the Future have been previously published; though revised for their inclusion in this monograph, the resulting amalgam lacks a unifying thesis and a coherent organization. Despite these flaws, both Lemography and Philosopher of the Future advance many interesting and innovative analyses of Lem’s work, highlighting Lem’s virtuosity not just as a literary writer but also as a philosopher and scientific theorist. As many of Lem’s nonfictional philosophical and popular-science works have not been translated into English, with the exception of the prodigious Summa Technologiae (1964), Philosopher of the Future’s extended engagement with Lem’s nonfictional oeuvre provides a wealth of information about the author’s larger contributions to philosophy and science. Lemography and n Philosopher of the Future are worthy additions to academic libraries, where they are sure to be appreciated by scholars and students with interests in Lem’s work, in sf and popular genres, in Polish and European thought and culture, and in science and technology studies.
—Brittany Roberts, University of California, Riverside
A Topnotch Anthology.
New York: Routledge, 2015. xi + 309 pp. $145 hc; $52.95 pbk.
This is a topnotch anthology of theoretical essays bringing together writers from a number of scholarly disciplines: sf history and criticism, literary and film theory, technoculture studies, media studies, and several subfields of philosophy. Vint construes the domains of both “sf” and “cultural theory” broadly, such that neither appears here in anything like its most obvious generic form. The result is a set of texts unquestionably useful both for scholars and for teachers, but perhaps in different ways. The collection is also an exemplary work of critical editing and theoretical synthesizing, about which I will say more in a moment.
With several worthy exceptions (e.g., Brooks Landon, J.P. Telotte, and possibly Vint herself), the authors in the book are not chiefly full-time sf critics, but instead thinkers whose interest in sf is “amateur” in the best sense of the term. Included are writers (or excerpts—more on that below) whom anyone striving for critical and historical rigor in approaching sf literature and film ought to read: Tom Gunning on “the cinema of attractions,” Jean Baudrillard on “the ecstasy of communication,” Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” (1985), and some key sections of Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986; trans. 1999). These canonical pieces are accompanied by selections from other important theorists both friendly to sf and familiar to sf scholars, including Annette Michelson, Vivian Sobchack, Garrett Stewart, Barbara Creed, Colin Milburn, Scott Bukatman, Rosi Braidotti, and Steven Shaviro. Equally well chosen are pieces by cultural theorists with predilections well outside the arena of sf—e.g., Manuel de Landa, Jussi Parikka, Anne Balsamo. Finally, Vint includes a handful of recent texts from cultural-studies theorists especially focused on biotechnology, ethnicity, and gender: Eugene Thacker, Susan Squier, Nabeel Zuberi, Susan J. Napier, and several others. I have still not mentioned all the critics included—the collection overall contains twenty-four pieces, plus Vint’s own useful exegetical additions. Not included are some critics one might expect to see at first glance—namely, foundational thinkers of sf studies such as Darko Suvin, Fredric Jameson, Carl Freedman, John Huntington, John Rieder—a crew whom Vint identifies as the “long and important tradition of sf theory developed in reference to print sf.” (Rob Latham’s forthcoming anthology from Bloomsbury Press, Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings, will canvass this tradition.) Vint herself suggests that her editorial choices represent a calculated shift towards a “conversation about what a media-centric sf theory might look like,” with an understanding that, despite the ever-increasing richness of current sf criticism and theory, there is still “no comparable tradition of sf media criticism” and therefore “there is much work in this area yet to be done.”
Vint’s own broad rationale for reading sf and cultural theory together, initially made in her introduction through a reading of William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum” (1981), is that sf and contemporary technoculture mutually “suffuse” or “haunt” each other, a subtler and somewhat more provocative reformulation of a dogma of genre criticism—i.e., that science fiction “predicts” our cultural future. But what are really worth reading are Vint’s brief prefaces to the four individual sections, which achieve the coup of being simultaneously pithy and profound, and which might even have served in lieu of the general introduction. I have rarely seen brief encapsulations of theory done better, and one could recommend them as a model for, say, graduate students producing annotations for a research portfolio or a comprehensive exam. Vint succeeds in throwing light—not necessarily a single great illumination but rather a series of valuable small elucidations—upon several “parallel projects” in the critique of technology, media, human (and posthuman) embodiment, and biopower.
As with any good critical anthology, each individual reader will come away with his or her moments of beneficent frustration, where the selection or juxtaposition of topics cries out for, but does not directly deliver, some particular text, claim, or reference. For a research scholar, the collection may function—and this is thanks in no small part to Vint’s considerable skill as an editor—as the equivalent of an especially detailed annotated bibliography, and in turn as a goad to seek out the original texts and the contributors’ other writing (this is what I meant above by a “beneficent frustration”). The extra-textual apparatus of the collection is, in this respect, vital: Vint’s table of contents and careful organization of the four sections, the brief but valuable “Recommended Further Reading” sections following the contributors’ bibliographies, the excellent brief prefaces by Vint already mentioned, and, above all, the care and perspicacity with which Vint goes about the task of slicing up books and essays into excerpts, for which both the authors and Vint’s readers can be grateful.
In my view, however, the collection’s very best prospect might be as a teaching tool, a goal both editors and publishers often strive for but rarely accomplish. Anyone planning a course on all but the most generic sf could do well to incorporate this book—perhaps supplemented by some of the canonical sf theory mentioned above, or by other foundational texts depending on pedagogical tastes—as the core of a syllabus on technoculture, sf, and media, suitable for either undergraduates or graduate students. I will definitely consider doing so myself.
—David Wittenberg, University of Iowa
A Wide-Ranging Raconteur.
Kent, WA: Fairwood, 2016. 280 pp. $16.99 pbk.
Traveler of Worlds is a book of conversations between sf master Robert Silverberg and his friend and recent collaborator on the novel When the Blue Shift Comes (2012), Alvaro Zinos-Amaro. Part autobiography, part statement of opinions, part leisurely stroll though a series of related topics, Traveler of Worlds presupposes an interest in Silverberg as a man and a writer. Without this, the book might have the quality of a pleasant and stimulating dinner party conversation. Knowledge of Silverberg’s work anchors these discussions, since he is one of the most important sf writers of last half of the twentieth century. As is the way with most conversations, the structure is winding and loose, with topics often revisited over the span of the text.
Overall, Silverberg comes across as a pleasant and erudite conversationalist. His tone is reserved and formal, marked with a patrician touch, but he is capable of breaking into a more vernacular style. For his part, Zinos-Amaro is a thoughtful interlocutor, whose understanding of Silverberg’s work is sensitive and whose knowledge of the broader culture is wide enough for the task at hand. There is a certain elegiac tone that underlies some of these conversations, a mood that emerges from Silverberg’s acknowledgement that he is closer to the end of life than the beginning. As he says, my “whole life is a series of farewells now” (79). Later in the book, when the wistful tone sets in once more, there is an admirable matter-of-factness that accompanies it: old age does not depress or worry Silverberg—what can one do about it?
Who then is this virtuoso writer? Widely acknowledged as an urbane man of cultivated sensibilities, Silverberg is also a person of routine and particular predilections. He is confident in his likes and dislikes, and “chaos” seems to be particularly shunned. In one section of Traveler of Worlds, we are offered a brief glimpse of his daily schedule, culinary habits (he keeps a restaurant diary), and penchant for tailored clothes. Silverberg evidently has remained unchanged: he is the same man he was at “sixty, at forty, at twenty” (239). First among his interests is, of course, the type of science fiction for which he is recognized, a type of writing that emerges from Silverberg’s abundant curiosity, which he claims is part of his nature. Wonder, he claims, requires “a certain amount of strangeness” (138). The exact nature of this strangeness is hard to pin down, but we do get a sampling of some of the writers Silverberg finds especially interesting—Lovecraft, Verne, Dickens, Sturgeon, Stapleton, Borges, Kuttner, Vance, Dick, and Faulkner, among others. Silverberg’s curiosity put him on the path to becoming an sf writer early, resulting in the exotic worlds of Nightwings (1969), Son of Man (1971), Star of Gypsies (1986), and others—work animated by a refined, recursive aesthetic, far from the bangs and crashes of plot-driven genre.
Essential to the wondrousness of Silverberg’s fiction has always been the strange landscapes and customs he creates, inspired by his real-world interests in traveling and pursuing archeological, artistic, and culinary tastes. There are discussions here of his discovery of various national cuisines and his collection of artifacts from Africa, South America, and elsewhere. As he explains, “the more I saw of the world, the more I could transform the differences from New York’s life into invented ones” (19). He insists travel is essential to the arsenal of the sf writer, and many of his destinations have made it into his stories. By contrast, Silverberg notes that Isaac Asimov’s fictional worlds all look like the Manhattan he barely left. Silverberg’s interest in archaeology, especially of the classical world, can be discerned in a number of his major works, such as Nightwings or Up the Line (1969) or Roma Eterna (2003). Silverberg’s tastes in visual art—from the Romans to Picasso and the Surrealists—along with his fondness for opera, in particular Wagner, has influenced the tones and textures of his fiction as well.
What does Silverberg consider the essence of his storytelling philosophy? At one point, he repeats the arguments he has made in Science Fiction 101 (2001; a.k.a Robert Silverberg’s Worlds of Wonder ) and elsewhere, that a “story involves a protagonist struggling with a problem and breaking through to perception” (47), a trajectory that results in catharsis for both character and reader. Later in the book, Silverberg and Zinos-Amaro analyze several novel openings: Hardy’s Jude The Obscure (1895), Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), and Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory (1940), offering compelling dissections of the various literary techniques on offer. Yet, as Silverberg observes, the publishing industry has changed radically in recent decades, making it much more difficult to build a career in the way that he did. Silverberg bemoans what he sees as the general ignorance of contemporary culture, with its “political condemnation of the past” (112), which has affected sf and literary writing in equally pernicious ways. Politics proper makes an emergence here, and Silverberg’s fiscal conservatism and social libertarianism can be clearly perceived in his pronouncements. He was, for example, opposed to the “occupy movement,” because it carried within it the seeds of class warfare (118). Silverberg, the erstwhile counterculture hero, now fits within the longstanding tradition of right-libertarians in American sf, from Heinlein on down.
In addition to canvassing these various themes, Traveler of Worlds adds a wealth of autobiographical details, including information about Silverberg’s vast book and magazine collection, which includes Silverberg’s own immense oeuvre (spanning several hundred volumes, many pseudonymous). At one point, the book offers a transcription of Silverberg’s responses to questions from the public, posted via email and Facebook, which provide context for his early collaborations with Randall Garrett, his working relationship with John W. Campbell, and his early competition with Harlan Ellison.
For all Silverberg’s urbanity and erudition, he is also a pragmatist, his commentary seldom rising to a rarefied philosophical level—except in the case of narratology, where he holds incisive and informed views. He is thus more of a plain speaker than his theoretically inclined contemporaries such as Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin. His conversations also lack the polemical edge of a J.G. Ballard, always eager to stir up controversy. Silverberg is a generalist and a matter-of-fact intellectual; he theorizes but is not a theorist. The book is valuable for scholars and fans of his work, and is as close to an autobiography as we are likely to get. Nonetheless, Silverberg’s legacy is first and foremost in his fiction, those impressive fabulations for which Traveler of Worlds provides important context.
—Rjurik Davidson, Melbourne, Australia
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