Science Fiction Studies

#131 = Volume 44, Part 1 = March 2017


Social Spaces.

Peter Dickens and James S. Ormrod, eds. The Palgrave Handbook of Society, Culture and Outer Space. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. xiii + 480 pp. $215 hc.

The Palgrave Handbook of Society, Culture and Outer Space is a far-ranging study of social and cultural dimensions of the production of outer space. Envisioning it as a follow-up to their Cosmic Society: Towards a Sociology of the Universe (2007), editors Peter Dickens and James S. Ormrod adapt Henri Lefebvre’s approach to abstract spatial orders of representation in pursuit of critically examining the “new outer space” of the twenty-first century. They have organized fifteen essays into three clusters under Lefebvre-inspired headings, “Locating Outer Spatial Practices,” “Locating Represen-tations of Outer Space,” and “Locating Outer Space as Representational Space.”

Part 1, “Locating Outer Spatial Practices,” opens with Jason Beery’s overview of geographical space and social relations, which observes the way in which the placement and construction of observatories, as well as efforts to map various celestial bodies, reflects political-economic discourses; as satellite orbits have multiplied they have produced a new form of globalism, as Dickens, Jocelyn Wills, and Nayef R.F. Al-Rodhan examine in timely essays on capitalism, class, and surveillance. As global space transmits immaterial capital (millions of transmissions of monetized value) on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars, Dickens wonders if the latticework of satellites might offer an emancipatory form of cosmic socialism, and Wills carefully works through a case study of a satellite-information-system multinational corporation that dramatically shifted its treatment of its workforce as it became increasingly involved with global power plays. Al-Rodhan examines competing theories of astropolitics situated within a shell of space increasingly marked by space debris and seeks a new understanding of the economics and legal measures associated with the geopolitics of space. The final essay in this cluster is Christopher Pesterfield’s discussion of cosmofeminism, which focuses on the lopsided gendering of astronauts and on women in STEM fields.

The second part of the book takes up competing cosmological theories of the nature of the universe, opening with Peter Mason’s jargon-heavy dialectical approach to juggling the contradictions between Newtonian physics and the theories of (and scientific findings supporting) the Big Bang theory. Next is Felicity Mellor’s interesting study of the narratives that are produced in the scientific writing of cosmologists, which complements Mark R. Johnson’s subsequent study of scientists as authors of wonderment, an examination of some of the non-scientific effects on areas such as public policy and commercialization. Christy Collis bookends this cluster by parsing the legal geography of outer space, comparing the ways in which both oceanic space and outer space are treated by groups such as the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

Perhaps the best-integrated cluster is the third one, “Locating Outer Space as Representational Space,” with essays on how astrological and cosmological histories have shaped modern social systems. Beginning with Lionel Sims’s approach to charting some of the fascinating cosmologies of Amerindian and Polynesian culture, the handbook then offers Allen Abramson and Martin Holbraad’s timely discussion of the ethnocentrism in anthropological studies, articulating a path for future anthro-cosmological studies. Pivoting back to race and culture, Sean Redmond’s essay on whiteness in film surveys prominent sf entries such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Alien (1979), and Blade Runner (1982), as well as more recent productions such as Elysium (2013). In turn, De Witt Douglas Kilgore critically historicizes the ways in which the search for extraterrestrials influenced the science fiction of scientist-writers Fred Hoyle and Carl Sagan and conditioned the ways in which we read first-contact tales. The two final essays of the book are both retrospective and forward-looking, including Ormrod’s own plumbing of the fantasy formations empowering pro-space movements. In the final essay, Nicola Triscott probes the space imaginary and reviews how a number of artists worldwide have responded to the changes in space exploration since the 1960s, and how contemporary art challenges mainstream scientific and cultural assumptions about the future of space power.

Bracketing these essay clusters are Dickens and Ormrod’s nuanced introduction and conclusion. They summarize the key recent publications that have shaped the transdisciplinary discussion of outer space. A limitation of the book, one acknowledged in part by the editors, is a disciplinary barrier that separates the socio-cultural effort of the book from the broadband of critical work enumerated in complementary fields of study. For instance, the editors imagine that “beyond issues of gender and race, the body in outer space has received little attention” in recent years, though many readers here will quickly point out any number of examples where bodies or even breaths of air in space are commoditized in sf. Readers may find that some of the book’s earnest observations—that American astronauts are often aligned with the masculine myth of the pre-twentieth century explorer, that space is treated with an overt reinscription of the western frontier—feel dated. Additionally, many symbolic and thematic elements covered in the handbook have been acknowledged, satirized, and replicated as pastiche in sf and popular culture for decades. And the transdisplinary approach to the handbook remains bound by a gallery of aging institutionalized theorists from the 1980s and 1990s. Radical spatial geographies are read in response to Lefebvre, myth and social readings evoke structuralism à la Claude Lévi-Strauss, racial whiteness of the Homi K. Bhabha order is contrasted with alien otherness, cosmic capitalism is viewed through a portal of Marx and David Harvey, and then we are borne back, ships against gravitational currents, to Darko Suvin’s Skylab-era theory of the sf novum. For many readers, however, The Palgrave Handbook will offer a range of succinct insights into specialized disciplinary fields that might otherwise be off the beaten track for the fiction-heavy readers of the future, though the cost of this sturdy academic tome may be out of reach for most earthlings.—Alan Lovegreen, Orange Coast College

Capacious yet Devoid of Real Analysis.

Patricia Garcia. Space and the Postmodern Fantastic: The Architectural Void. New York: Routledge, 2015. 204pp. $145 hc.

In Space and the Postmodern Fantastic, Patricia Garcia tries to unpack the role that space plays in the shift between modern and postmodern fantastic literature in several languages. In so doing, she pursues an often incoherent line of formalist analysis suffused with a troubling insistence on humanism, Eurocentrism, and realism. Garcia’s thesis seems to be that space is a crucial node at which postmodern fantastic literature challenges conceptualizations of reality. Unfortunately, the analysis does not specify any stakes beyond this general claim that conceptions of reality as a referent are affected by the transgression of space in the postmodern fantastic. Repeated banalities about “reality” in a “postmodern context” represent the extent of the cultural, political, and economic analysis in this book, and as a result Garcia loses the opportunity to pursue a really interesting comparative project about the cultural construction of space in different culturally situated literatures. Garcia seems either entirely unfamiliar with literary theory following what she calls “the Language turn,” or neglects to address how her theoretical positions diverge from it. Portions of Space may be of interest to practitioners of formalist analysis or reader-response theory and the book provides a bibliography full of apparently fascinating, if obscure, twentieth-century non-Anglophone fantastic literature. Scholars who work with contemporary theory, however, will likely find this work frustrating in its wasted potential and convoluted theoretical approach.

The introduction of Space sets the foundations for what could have been an interesting analysis. In it, Garcia seems to confront a philosophical tradition that understands space as a container that is pre-subjective and pre-social. She explains that space is “constructed,” and this at first seems to mean that “space” does not exist prior to its socially mediated production. The introduction thus suggests that the book as a whole will engage the role of the fantastic in the social construction of space: not the spaces we produce in space, but spatiality itself, our being in and making of livable space, or what Heidegger would call dwelling, and the social implications of these different constructions of space. Such a project would acknowledge that constructions of space are not neutral, but are instead always political. Her initial claim, that the postmodern fantastic disrupts “positivist” accounts of space as a given outside that can be grasped empirically in its objectivity, supports this reading. That, however, is not the project Garcia pursues and the next five chapters consist of typology, bare explication, and some brief moments of analysis.

In Chapter 1 Garcia defines some of the boundaries and characteristics of the postmodern fantastic (see below). Chapter 2 deals with how “the human experience of reality” depends on the human experience of space and the “transgression of body and space” achieved in postmodern fantastic literature (49). Chapter 3 focuses this line of thinking on “the boundary” as a tool for constructing the coherent representations of space as something “conquerable and containable, ” something she suggests all humans depend upon (81). In Chapters 4 and 5 she attempts to theorize the ways in which the spatial hierarchies of “the container and contained” (132) are violated in a postmodern fantastic text’s internal reality and the ways this internal reality contains multiple possible worlds that interact with the referential world outside of the text to “challenge the notion of a single referential reality” (132). Unfortunately, the challenge is never applied to the theoretical approach she adopts in discussing it. Although the quality of the discussions is not high, Garcia’s range of texts goes beyond the expected. In addition to focusing on the more well-known work of Jorge Luis Borges, she incorporates into her discussions a number of other interesting non-Anglophone authors and auteurs of the fantastic, including José B. Adolph, Jean-Paul Beaumier, Cristina Fernández Cubas, and Jérémy Clapin.

Garcia defines the fantastic, following Todorov, as the genre characterized by the intrusion of the impossible into an otherwise realistic narrative world. It is, in essence, the literature of the uncanny. She establishes a potentially generative division between what she calls “the fantastic in space,” in which the fantastic intrusion merely occurs in certain kinds of spaces (e.g., the haunted house), and “the fantastic of space,” in which space itself is the fantastic intrusion. The postmodern works she examines are characterized by the latter form of fantastic space. Garcia concludes that we should be more rigorous in our typology of the fantastic so that we might pursue “a more precise examination of the genesis and evolution of its narrative form” (14) rather than, for example, a more precise examination of its social or material effects as a facet of cultural production. Garcia’s neglect of cultural and political stakes is apparent by the end of the first chapter.

Garcia’s reading of “La Casa” by José B. Adolph in Chapter 2 exemplifies this problem. She interprets the sexualized consumption of a male protagonist by a mysterious house in this story as having a horrifying effect on “the reader” (58). For her, the joy and sexual arousal the protagonist exhibits in his supposedly horrifying disembodiment are merely a “fantastic oxymoron” (58). She ignores the gendering of space at play here, in which masculine fantasies of being a point in space imply a Freudian/Lacanian sexist construction of space. The story seems to reproduce the spatial paradigm in which women are relegated to a passive interiority around which men orbit, the comforting or “cozy” inside that both offers to contain and threatens to devour masculinity, but Garcia does not discuss this. Instead, she merely notes that the description of the house devouring the semi-erect protagonist is “a clear example of the transgressive relationship between space and body” in the postmodern fantastic that troubles the nature of the text’s external reality (57).

In addition to her disregard of the role of culture, Garcia also struggles to use a theory that spatializes literature in order to examine the way texts violate that very spatialization, as though this spatialization were not itself a product of its theorization and proliferation in discourse, producing the very problems she raises.—Graham Hall, University of California, Riverside

Guattari the Film Maker?

Félix Guattari. A Love of UIQ. Trans. and ed. Silvia Maglioni and Graeme Thomson. Minneapolis: Univocal, 2016. 211 pp. $24.95 pbk.

While his frequent collaborator Gilles Deleuze was publishing influential works of film theory, French activist and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari was cogitating his own contribution to the cinematic world: a screenplay for an experimental sf film. Lost for thirty years, the manuscript was only recently discovered among the author’s papers in the archives of France’s IMEC (Institute for Contemporary Publishing Archives) by filmmakers Silvia Maglioni and Graeme Thomson. They published a critical French edition in 2012 and now present their English translation in a handsome little volume from University of Minnesota Press’s affiliate Univocal. Given Guattari’s significance as a late twentieth-century thinker and his massive influence on early twenty-first century theory via the widespread application of his two-volume collaboration with Deleuze, Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972 and 1980), this unusual work should be of interest to film scholars in general, but most particularly to those of sf film.

Maglioni and Thomson offer readers a detailed scholarly introduction as stylishly written as it is rigorous, tracing the connections between Guattari’s theoretical writings and his earlier interest in experimental film, to set the stage for the screenplay itself. It begins: “Imagine an autopoeitic entity whose particles are constructed from galaxies. Or, conversely, a cognitivity constituted on the scale of quarks. A different panorama, another ontological consistency” (13). That entity, they explain, is the “UIQ,” “l’Univers Infra-quark” [Infra-quark Universe], “the formless intelligence at the core (and periphery) of Guattari’s script” (15). This extra-human intelligence provides Guattari with a platform to explore his own theoretical paradigms for individuation and identity outside the Western, phallogocentric, capitalist models that he and Deleuze are so famous for critiquing.

Going beyond the screenplay itself, the translators/editors tease out the as- yet relatively unplumbed science-fictional depths of Guattari’s thought, describing his Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Esthetic Paradigm (1995) as wielding “terminology … akin to the technotopian prophecies of a cyberpunk novel” (14) and applying the metaphor of the Calibi-Yau manifold to that dense theoretical work. They also recount how the author’s life trajectory led him to the project of an experimental sf film, including Guattari’s earlier proposals, such as a Project for a Film on Free Radio (1977, reproduced in the French-language edition of UIQ), his collaborations with counterculture documentarian Robert Kramer, and a “Project for a Film by Kafka” (30-31; emphasis in original). Furthermore, Guattari participated in the Italian Autonomist Movement and was politically engaged in the Free Radio/Post-Media Era movements in Europe, which sought to wrest broadcast media from state hands. Reading this discussion of the movement’s goals reveals its particularly visionary nature, given the role of social and other alternative forms of media beyond traditional broadcast, cable, and satellite networks in the recent US elections and their aftermath.

In addition to a brief discussion of Guattari’s own writings on minor cinema, the translators describe the three versions of the script at hand, developed across the 1980s, the first two in collaboration with Robert Kramer. They decided to translate and publish the final 1986-1987 third version, authored by Guattari alone, as definitive, at the same time noting that a screenplay is an ambiguous work of art since it is never meant to be a final product but rather the template for visual realization on film. They return to the discourse of science to offer a metaphor for such a genre, asserting that “[i]n quantum terms, wave function has the advantage over particle, and process over product” (37), invoking as well Pier Paolo Pasolini’s essay, “The Screenplay as a Structure That Wants to Be Another Structure” (1986). Coming full circle back to Guattari’s politics of subjectivity, Maglioni and Thomson view the screenplay as a genre that expresses the “desire of becoming” (42). They then plug their own documentary film referred to as an “un-making of” the film, In Search of UIQ (2013) (13).

As its translators assert, “The story of UIQ is pure science fiction” (16); Guattari’s brief synopsis prepared for his 1987 (unfunded) request for financing to produce the film submitted to the French CNC (National Center for Cinematography) confirms this. The scientist Axel discovers an infinitesimally small universe and installs a device to make contact, resulting in sometimes tragic Hertzian disturbances on a global scale. The residents of a cooperative squat find a way to make verbal contact with the entity, thus ending the upheaval. After a “phase of reciprocal learning and exchange,” UIQ’s adoption of a human identity (and bodily form), motivated by his developing love for a human woman, Janice, wreak havoc on this temporary state of calm (49). Neither the government’s nor Axel’s efforts can achieve a happy ending for UIQ or Janice.

Guattari’s goal, according to the editors, is to respond directly to commercial sf film embodied in such blockbusters as Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), thus proposing a new kind of sf film. In some ways, perhaps, his scenario foreshadows today’s alternative sf films Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007) or Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2014). His goal is laudable, but Guattari’s paratextual apparatus (a synopsis, preamble, principle objectives and themes, and cast of characters) reveals a perhaps less-than-thorough knowledge of sf literature, certainly, and even of sf film and television, when he argues:

Unlike traditional science fiction models, what we have here is a Universe that, though all-powerful and prodigiously intelligent, is completely helpless when confronted with human realities such as beauty, sensuality, jealousy, and love.... This leads to the creation of a new type of character, a manifold entity that calls into question the very notion of the individual. (50)

In addition to the many prior examples of sf literature that do deal with this theme, we might also look to film, e.g. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), and even various episodes of Star Trek (Gene Rodenberry, 1966-1969) that reach toward such a thematics. (The most obvious example of such an entity I can readily recall is Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation [Gene Rodenberry, 1987-1994], airing in the US about the same time that Guattari was working on this project.)

In spite of the intellectual interest of the document published here, in terms of the screenplay itself I think contemporary Anglo-American readers will find it disappointing. As with some French-language sf literature from the 1970s and 1980s, it reveals a puerile obsession with heteronormative models of sexuality, including a male subject-in-development’s linkage of the maternal instance and the female sexual object. Although Guattari’s intent is apparently to critique psychoanalysis, the screenplay actually thus reinscribes the Freudian-Lacanian model of development. That said, I truly hope that this review will encourage sf scholars to pick up the volume, if only for its scholarly introduction and for its ability to inspire further readings of Guattari’s work and the secondary literature on him. For, as Gary Genosko’s Félix Guattari: An Aberrant Introduction (2002) and other studies reveal, if not a visionary sf filmmaker, Guattari was definitely a thinker ahead of his time. Deeply engaged in rethinking humanity’s relationship to technology, interested in finding alternative models to subjective development outside capitalism and psychoanalysis, his work has much to offer to today’s discussions of posthumanism and the field of technology studies in general. —Amy Ransom, Central Michigan University

Two Useful Books.

Judith Merril. The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism: Judith Merril’s Nonfiction. Ed. Ritch Calvin. Seattle: Aqueduct, 2016. iii + 349 pp. $22 pbk.

Michael R. Page. Frederik Pohl. Modern Masters of Science Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2015. xii + 246 pp. $85 hc; $24 pbk.

Frederik Pohl and Judith Merril are among the dozen most consequential individuals in the history of American sf. As authors, editors, and critics, they helped transform the field from a niche genre centered on the pulp magazines into a broadly popular cultural form. During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s in particular, their efforts were well nigh protean. Pohl edited numerous professional magazines, ran a major book series that released such New Wave classics as Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) and Samuel R. Delany’s Triton (1976), helped found the World SF organization to promote international cooperation among writers and fans, and wrote a number of award-winning novels. For her part, Merril edited one of the first—and most significant—“best of the year” anthology series, wrote a review column for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and generally worked to advance the agenda of cutting-edge speculative fiction. These two new books, which cast a synoptic gaze back at their long and consequential careers, are thus quite welcome.

The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism, edited by Ritch Calvin, is a compendium of Merril’s nonfiction, including the summations and story notes from her Year’s Best S-F anthologies (1956-69), her F&SF “Books” columns (1965-69), her profiles of Theodore Sturgeon (1962) and Fritz Leiber (1969), and her important essay “What Do You Mean: Science? Fiction?”—originally published in two parts in Extrapolation in 1966 before being gathered into Thomas D. Clareson’s SF: The Other Side of Realism (1971). The critical-historical value of this material, otherwise scattered among long-out-of-print venues, is very high, and Calvin deserves plaudits for putting it all between two covers. Well, not literally between: the contents have been abridged in the print version of the book, but they can be accessed uncut in the epub edition, which is available gratis to all who purchase hard copies. This excision was done for purposes of space, although the effect is to make the physical book rather a redundant artifact.

It is also worth noting what this volume does not collect: absent are Merril’s introductions to other anthologies and collections, such as her own Path into the Unknown: The Best of Soviet SF (1968) and Barry N. Malzberg and Martin H. Greenberg’s The Science Fiction of Mark Clifton (1980), her essays and guest editorials for such magazines as Marvel Science Fiction and Impulse, and her extensive writings on Canadian science fiction. (A full list of Merril’s nonfiction can be found on the bibliography page of her official website: <>.) Calvin does not clearly state the rationale for his incomplete selection, save for implying that these contents give the best sense of Merril’s developing worldview; and, indeed, Calvin’s brief introduction does a competent job anatomizing her aesthetic and political commitments. This introduction is, however, Calvin’s only real contribution to the volume; given how many of Merril’s references, inside and outside the genre, have become dated since she wrote, some judicious notes and annotations would also have been welcome. But, despite its skimpy critical apparatus, The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism is a worthwhile acquisition for any scholar or student of Anglo-American sf.

The same can be said for Michael R. Page’s bio-critical study, one of the best volumes yet in Illinois’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series. It is not the first book devoted to Frederik Pohl’s work, but it is superior to Thomas Clareson’s 1987 entry in the Starmont Reader’s Guide series, not only because it covers the entirety of the author’s output—including the two dozen books published after Clareson’s study appeared—but also because it is more sure-footed in negotiating the multiple roles Pohl filled throughout his long career, from writing for fanzines to working as a professional agent to collaborating extensively with other authors (especially C.M. Kornbluth and Jack Williamson). As Page says, “very few, if any, [persons] can claim to have had an impact on the field, in all its facets, that matches Frederik Pohl’s” (2). No one other than Pohl has nabbed Hugo Awards for fiction, editing, and fan writing.

Page’s discussion is organized chronologically into four substantial chapters. Chapter 1, which focuses on the period 1930-1951, examines Pohl’s connection with the Futurian fan group, whose left-wing perspectives colored much of his later fiction, as well as his apprenticeship assembling fanzines and professional magazines (a wunderkind, he edited two minor pulps at the age of twenty). While his early science fiction was at best “workmanlike” (28), his ambition and artistry grew during the subsequent two decades (1952-1969), covered by Chapter 2, during which he was closely aligned with the vein of social-satirical sf pioneered by Galaxy (which Pohl himself edited, along with its sister magazine Worlds of If); such classics as The Space Merchants (1953, with Kornbluth), “The Midas Plague” (1954), Slave Ship (1957), Drunkard’s Walk (1960), and The Age of the Pussyfoot (1969) were featured first in Galaxy’s pages. Chapter 3, canvassing 1970-1987, sees Pohl’s steady maturation as an author and editor, transforming the field with novels such as Man Plus (1975), Gateway (1976), and JEM: The Making of a Utopia (1979), as well as with his editing for the “Frederik Pohl Selects” series released by Bantam Books. As Page astutely observes, although Pohl was overtly hostile to the New Wave movement, his own professional development was significantly accelerated by its innovations in content and form. Finally, Chapter 4 looks at Pohl’s late-career work from 1988-2003, offering valuable assessments of such important but neglected efforts as Homegoing (1989) and Outnumbering the Dead (1990).

Throughout, Page draws effectively upon critical studies, reviews, memoirs, and letters (some held in the sf archive at the University of Kansas), and the result is a well-rounded and appealing portrait of an intellectually fertile and sophisticated talent. The volume is capped with the transcript of an interview Page conducted with Pohl (and his wife, Elizabeth Anne Hull) shortly before the author’s death, with Pohl as engaging and lively as ever. Frederik Pohl is highly recommended for all college and university libraries.—Rob Latham, Los Angeles

“You Can’t Trust Planets.”

Chris Pak. Terraforming: Ecopolitical Trans-formations and Environmentalism in Science Fiction. Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies 55. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2016. x + 243 pp. £80/$120 hc.

“I find it is a very good thing to begin thinking that we are terraforming Earth—because we are, and we’ve been doing it for quite some time,” remarked Kim Stanley Robinson during an interview with the website BLDBLOG in 2007. “We’ve been doing it by accident, and mostly by damaging things.… People kind of shrug and think: a) there’s nothing we can do about it, or b) maybe the next generation will be clever enough to figure it out. So on we go.” In a year where average global concentration of CO2 has now crossed 400 parts per million—a threshold long heralded as a “point of no return” for the climate—Robinson’s remarks are utterly chilling. In 2017, terraforming emerges for us as an urgent location in contemporary ecopolitics, in multiple registers. We need to understand terraforming to understand what we have already done to the planet, as well as consider what we might do to (begin to) (partially) (hopefully) fix it—not to mention to take seriously what it might mean to inaugurate permanent human settlement of Mars, a long-desired feat that every year seems ever more tantalizingly close to attainment.

Terraforming, Chris Pak’smagisterial study of terraforming-centered science fiction, takes up all these concerns and more as it traces the history of terraforming as a concept in US, British, and global sf. Pak’s study shows not only the longevity and persistence of terraforming as both fantasy and thought experiment but also its centrality to the development of sf as a genre, establishing terraforming as a point of commonality that unexpectedly links diverse works. (One brief section, for instance, impressively reads Dune [1965], The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress [1966], and The Dispossessed [1974] against each other—works one might not otherwise think to compare outside this context.) In Pak’s hands we find that works of ecological sf focusing on terraforming “offer imaginative spaces for reflection on fundamental issues regarding our place in relation to Earth, the planets in the solar system and the universe, reflection that in turn feeds into our practical attitudes and behavior towards those spaces” (8); such works thus raise provocative questions not just about the practicalities of terraforming the planets (or the Earth itself) but also about who should have the right to do so and under what circumstances. These works thus become not simply abstract fantasies but vivid premediations of the sorts of near-term, large-scale terraforming projects that now seem imminent, either in the name of colonizing a lifeless Mars or more likely, and in desperate panic, trying as best we can to geoengineer back into existence a stable climate for the Earth.

Terraforming is articulated through a mostly chronological, semi-progressivist internal logic that runs from “living planet” fantasies of the 1930s and 1940s (chapter one) through space-frontier pastoral nostalgia in the 1950s (chapter two) to the consolidation of environmentalism as a political, economic, ethical, and legal opponent to unchecked capitalism in the 1960s and 1970s (chapter three). The book then considers what it calls the “eco-cosmopolitan” visions of the 1980s—most of which are in one way or another considerations of James Lovelock’s famous “Gaia” hypothesis—before concluding with a chapter on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1993-1996). This organizational scheme reveals, incidentally, the only aspect of the book that I would characterize as a significant flaw: it is simply too short and ends too early. One could imagine full chapters on the 2000s and 2010s as well, in lieu of the comparatively brief discussion of works such as Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2013), and Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013) in the conclusion. In particular, the chapter on Robinson’s Mars books, while smart and very welcome, seems to come to us already out-of-date, given Robinson’s own sustained reconsideration (and even out-and-out revision) of the Mars trilogy’s foundational assumptions in works such as Galileo’s Dream (2009), 2312 (2012), and especially Aurora (2015)—as well as his geoengineering-centered Science in the Capital trilogy (2004-2007), recently released in a slightly abridged, single-volume edition as Green Earth (2016). Terraforming’s incredible usefulness both as a history of terraforming sf and as a theoretical schematization of terraforming as a form is unhappily disrupted by the book’s too-early temporal cut-off.

Likewise—as with any work of great scholarship—one immediately begins to craft a shadow version of the book composed of all the things that went undiscussed, wondering what Pak might have had to say (for instance) about a geoengineering-gone-horrifically-wrong narrative such as Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-Ho, 2013), or the brutally inventive survivalism of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (2015), or the many varieties of terraforming as tool and as weapon in Star Trek (1966-), or about the way the Gaia-infused idea of Galaxia emerges as an unsolvable conundrum in Asimov’s later Foundation books (1981-1993), or about Octavia E. Butler’s highly ambiguous terraformers in her Xenogenesis (1987-1989) and unfinished Parables trilogies (1993-1998), or…. One must hope that Pak and other scholars continue to move this construction forward, using Terraforming as a strong foundation.

Alongside its history, philosophy, and close readings, the book also introduces and introduces helpful interdisciplinary frames to organize its study, derived from disciplines both inside and outside the humanities, from philosopher Keekok Lee’s axioms on nature to NASA’s Chris McKay’s ruminations about whether Mars might in some sense have a right not to be terraformed, alongside more popularized thinkers such as Rachel Carson and the aforementioned Lovelock. Readers of SFS will likely be delighted to see sf writers being used not simply as objects of study but as theorists of terraforming and the environment; the book takes seriously sf’s capacity not simply to distract and entertain but to intervene in social controversies (in ways that can be both beneficial and deeply distorting of the appropriate course of action). In particular, Terraforming articulates the different ways that science fiction has both reinforced and resisted technocractic ideology, as well as the more general sense in which Western culture has tended to frame humanity and nature against one another in a war for domination. In many cases reframing these positions requires reconsideration of the most beloved assumptions of sf and of our ideas of progress more generally. “You have to beat a planet at its own game,” announces one of Bradbury’s memorable characters, whom Pak discusses in chapter two: “Get in and rip it up, kill its snakes, poison its animals, dam its rivers, sow its fields, depollinate its air, mine it, nail it down, hack away at it.… You can’t trust planets. They’re bound to be different, bound to be bad, bound to be out to get you” (qtd. in Pak 66-67). Is that revulsion we feel reading these words, or the horror of self-recognition? Can there ever be terraforming without some anthropocentric, species-narcissistic imperial violence at its core? And if not—if terraforming is always already tainted by our selfishness—what does that suggest for the future of Elon Musk’s happy Martians or, for that matter, for the rest of us, stuck down here on Earth? How can we ever begin to balance human needs with nature’s independence without placing our own thumbs on the scale, and without giving up any hope for a better, more prosperous future for humans?

In the case of terraforming—as with genetic engineering, nuclear weaponry, cybersecurity, algorithmic and artificial intelligences, and other cutting-edge discourses of emerging futurity—we thus find a clear and indisputable case for the relevance and pragmatic value of both science fiction and sf studies as means of framing debates about emerging technologies. Science fiction, after all, has always been a site for speculation about the world we are collectively bringing into existence, both deliberately and without any thought at all. Pak’s Terraforming certainly rises to the challenge, making a strong case for ecological science fiction not simply as an important subliterature worthy of attention by English specialists but also as a mode of creative mythopoesis that, in a very real sense, has now become able to bring into actual existence the worlds it once dreamed up—and wonders if it should.—Gerry Canavan, Marquette University

Perfection vs. Progress.

Patrick Parrinder. Utopian Literature and Science: From the Scientific Revolution to Brave New World and Beyond. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. ix + 222 pp. $90 hc.

Patrick Parrinder’s astute examination of utopian writing begins with the premise that imagined utopias of the modern period are inextricably linked to science. Theoretically, humankind’s increasing ability to understand and manipulate the environment will bring about a period of plenty. Competition and the struggle over limited resources will be eradicated in the future, allowing a harmonious society to evolve. There is a tension, however. Parrinder notes that from as early as Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1627), science has been recognized as a “destablising force” (2). The culture of nineteenth-century science in particular, while steeped in older mythologies of transgression and rebellion, uniquely positioned itself in opposition to the status quo. Attempting to contain the subversive potential of science, H.G. Wells argues that utopia must be “kinetic”—i.e., in a constant process of development. Parrinder, building upon Wells’s distinction “between classical and modern utopias—utopias of perfection and utopias of progress” (3)—emphasizes in his study the seemingly irreconcilable impulses of restless humanity nevertheless yearning for perfect balance. The scientist, as the embodiment of this anti-authoritarian, disruptive perspective, is not a natural fit for utopia, and it is this essential conflict that is explored in Parrinder’s study.

Part I, “Sciences of Observation and Intervention,” focuses on two aspects of scientific inquiry: the first discerns the movements and guiding principles of the material world and the second manipulates these conditions for the benefit of humankind. The telescope is one optical hypostatization of “observation” and the microscope is another—both making visible what was once invisible and, potentially, revealing human possibility and future utopic worlds. Yet while the telescope looked to the cosmos for existential clarity and the possibility of engaging with advanced extraterrestrial life, the microscope, according to Parrinder, is “associated with dirt, disease, and bodily shame” (11). In his examination of the microscope and the scientists who employ it, both fictional and real, Parrinder identifies the “satanic” impulse not only to pursue buried (perhaps forbidden) knowledge, but beyond that to assume the role of creator—to unseat God. Unlike a cosmic, benevolent creator, however, these earthly scientists working with coarse material threaten to unleash a race of beings that will destroy/replace humankind. Parrinder considers Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and several stories by Hawthorne, including “The Birthmark” (1843) and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844), to have marked “a decisive turn in early scientific romance from the sciences of observation to those of destructive intervention in human life” (52). 

Beginning where Part I ends, in Part II, “The Human Animal,” Parrinder asks, “[c]an we imagine a better society without imagining and wishing to create better people?” (67) Tracing the ubiquity of eugenics from the earliest utopias of Plato and Thomas More to Francis Galton, the figure most recognizably associated with modern eugenic theories, Parrinder examines the utopian fiction of Edward Bellamy, Grant Allen, H.G. Wells, and, surprisingly, William Morris, distinguishing between the imposition of top-down eugenics programs (Plato, Galton, and, to a lesser extent, Campanella and More) and a “libertarian” implementation driven by improved working and living conditions, liberation from restrictive Victorian sexual mores, and individual sexual selection (Wells, Morris, Bellamy, and Allen). Moving to the “speculative anthropology” that informed certain strands of science and imaginative writing, Parrinder looks at the fixation on human evolution, specifically those moments of transition from human to less or more than human. This focus on liminality is particularly evident in the adventure stories of Samuel Butler, Edward Bulwer Lytton, and W.H. Hudson, all of which portray futuristic societies in which humans transgress boundaries of space and time to confront the “capacity for civilised development (and, ultimately, progress towards utopia) and irredeemable animality” (15). The progress that humankind has made suggests what we can be, but the tendency to recursive devolution adds an unnerving twist. Ending with Wells and Kafka, Parrinder explores the modern fear of our inevitable return to an animal state, but not a healthy one in which we are in sync with our environment and free from self-consciousness and ego. The future is filled with the monstrous and grotesque legacies of both humankind’s animal and human past.

Part III, “Modern Utopias and Post-Human Worlds,” analyzes well-known dystopias—Huxley’s Brave New World (1931), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)—as experiments in utopian ideology. All of these works propose ideal organizations of society based on a particular conception of the needs and drives of human beings. One primary challenge is that according to Parrinder, “utopian fiction and anti-utopian satire have to take account of the fact that a utopian world is, almost by definition, a world at peace” (143). Containing competitive and aggressive tendencies, particularly in youth, is a recurring theme, then. Even more problematic is the intellectual equivalent of this biological/physiological drive—the restless, relentless probing of the scientist (physical and theoretical) and the philosopher into the nature of things. Aside from space exploration (militaristically conceived), Parrinder determines that literary utopias and dystopias have not found a satisfactory answer to these disruptive urges—athletic exercise, labor, and drugs all fall short.

Parrinder then considers those texts that ask whether humans can evolve past these human “limitations.” The possibilities explored—in some cases via the notion of the Singularity—consider what will need to happen for humans (or some future variant of humans) to actually achieve utopia. Looking again at Wells, particularly Men Like Gods (1923) and Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (1920), to pursue this line of thought, Parrinder determines that visions of the posthuman remain problematic. For both Wells and Čapek, whatever progress has been made by our future selves, our descendants nevertheless retain a “haunting sense of imperfection and spiritual discontent” (153). Even the hope of extra-terrestrial intervention fails to provide a way out. As Parrinder notes, in Olaf Stapledon’s sf “we embark on a journey throughout the cosmos, but at every turn we encounter ourselves. The post-human is the already human, and what seems to be the utterly alien becomes, on further inspection, uncannily familiar” (173-74). Beyond this, the destruction of the human race seems to be inevitable—either built into the conditions of the universe or into our own DNA. Even as utopia (or any definitive future) remains elusive, there is nonetheless something life-affirming, according to Stapledon in the passage with which Parrinder concludes this chapter, in the “brief effort of animalcules striving to win for their race some increase of lucidity before the final darkness” (174).

In his study, Parrinder offers a concise yet complex overview of utopian writing, tracing a set of recurring tensions that have their origin in our inability, embodied in the figure of the scientist, to tame our seemingly insatiable need to know more and, beyond that, expand our mastery of the material world—our Nietzschean will to power. Parrinder concludes that we, as we are currently constituted, have no place in utopia, but this does not invalidate what is admirable and optimistic about pursuing a better world. It merely highlights, perhaps tragically, the paradox of wishing to have what, of necessity, must exclude us in order to exist.—Elizabeth Corsun, Transylvania University

A Fabril Imagination.

Tom Shippey. Hard Reading: Learning From Science Fiction. Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies 53. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2016. xvi + 334 pp. $120 hc.

Tom Shippey is probably better known as a critic of fantasy literature than of sf. His influential study of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Road to Middle Earth, was first published in 1982, and for many years Shippey was Professor of English Language and Medieval Literature at the University of Leeds, a chair previously held by Tolkien himself (3-4). In Hard Reading, however, the focus is largely on sf, as Shippey brings together a collection of his previously published critical essays from the late 1960s to the early 2000s, and in so doing confirms his status as an authority in both genres.

This collection is organized under three broad themes. The first of these, “What SF Is,” will seem familiar to anyone who has taken part in the perpetual debates over the definition of sf. Yet Shippey’s contribution here is innovative, providing the theoretical background against which the rest of the collection should be understood. His discussion of the “fabril” tradition of literature in particular offers a thought-provoking commentary on the historical place of sf within the greater literary traditions from which it has largely been excluded (as Shippey notes repeatedly and with ever-growing ire). This “fabril” mode of literature, a term coined originally by James Bradbury, comprises “the dark, alien, Other of pastoral” (41). It is literature of “the faber, the maker: often the blacksmith, the metal-beater, but also the Moreau, the manipulator of biology and even of society” (42); it finds its “paradigm story,” according to Shippey, in Wells’s “The Land Ironclads” (1903). With this terminology, Shippey attempts to conceptualize sf, not as an insignificant offshoot of literature proper but as a legitimate aesthetic response to the dilemmas that arise from the age-old human urge to refashion nature in its own image or for its own purposes.

It also serves to highlight a recurring target of Shippey’s analytical fire: namely, the “linguistic turn” or the “deconstructive movement” in the contemporary literary academy, derisively referred to as the “MLA” (38). Science fiction, Shippey insists, is well situated to oppose any poststructuralist claims that there is “nothing outside the text,” since the primary subject of sf—that is, science itself—is deeply rooted in the material, the objective, the actual. It is thus also the ideal genre, he argues, in which to “recover the lost euphoria” of structuralist literary analysis, with its attendant embrace of positivist scientific discourse (139).

The rest of the collection in part takes up this “lost” project of structuralist analysis. Divided into “SF and Change,” which examines the place of history in sf texts, and “SF and Politics,” the essays generally take the shape of an examination of a variety of novels linked by some common theme. These essays demonstrate the potential value still to be found in broad generic analyses of this kind. “Science Fiction and the Idea of History,” for example, applies a structuralist matrix to a variety of alternative history novels in order to chart the desirability of changing the past with the possibility that such a change could have occurred; in so doing it sheds light on the contrasting forms of historicism at work within these texts. The discussion of cultural relativism is more problematic. He defines cultural relativism as the view that “cultures can be rated according to how well they correspond with … non-relative truth” (86), which can be understood to mean scientific truth; he gives an approving description of Jack Vance as a writer standing up against the “do-gooders” who refuse to pass judgement on other cultures (119). Shippey is far from being a cultural chauvinist (he even highlights his own earlier limitations in this respect in the introduction to the essay on “Cultural Engineering”). Yet, although he is careful to include western culture among those susceptible to “cultural failure … to be neither excused nor admired,” it is hard to escape an historical image of the traditional imperial powers as being the ultimate arbiters of such cultural evaluation (119). Nevertheless, the strengths of Shippey’s analytic mode here outweigh its weaknesses: he reveals, in closely argued passages, the thematic intricacies of works all too often dismissed for their simplicity, with the exploration of language and ideology in Orwell’s 1984 (1949) being a particular standout.

The essays discuss a fairly familiar pool of sf writers, with certain authors cropping up in a number of essays. (Heinlein, for example, is discussed at some length in five of the fifteen essays). Despite Shippey’s criticisms of the exclusion of sf from the “respectable” literary canon (and here his insightful essay exploring the bewildered mainstream reactions to Kinglsey Amis’s sf novels is particularly notable), there nevertheless emerges from this collection a clear sense of a “canon” within sf itself, with all the attendant pitfalls that the notion brings. Hence female writers, for example, are poorly represented, with Le Guin being the only woman with whom Shippey engages to any great extent. This is particularly notable given Shippey’s own retelling of an incident in which he was challenged on BBC radio for the minimal female representation in the Oxford Anthology of Science Fiction (1992), which he edited. The defense that Shippey gave at that time—that “female authors were under-represented” (274) in sf as a whole—may have been more acceptable a quarter of a century ago, but such a lack of diversity is less easily dismissed now. The essays also rarely venture outside the “core” sf geographical hubs of North America and Britain. This potential weakness, however, can also be viewed as a strength: Shippey’s easy command of this Anglophone tradition is impressive, and his ability to situate texts in their historical contexts and read them as responses to contemporary events is one of the highlights of the volume.

If the collection reproduces a view of sf as a largely masculine, Anglo-American genre, this may also be a result of the era in which these essays were produced. And indeed, the true value of this collection lies precisely in its retrospective nature, the snapshot it gives of the evolution of sf criticism. In the “Personal Preface,” Shippey outlines his own “first contact” in the 1950s with the genre of sf, while the newly written introductions provide an insight into the biographical background of each essay and its genesis in Shippey’s own intellectual evolution. The most important contribution of this collection may thus be the account it offers of the development of an sf critic whose maturation parallels the emergence of sf criticism itself, as well as its valuable argument concerning sf as a “fabril” genre that deserves more critical attention than it has hitherto received.—Thomas Connolly, Maynooth University

SF Mythmakers.

Jennifer Simkins. The Science Fiction Mythmakers: Religion, Science and Philosophy in Wells, Clarke, Dick and Herbert. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016. x + 190 pp. $35.00 pbk.

In the preface to Last and First Men (1930), Olaf Stapledon defined a “true myth” as a narrative that “expresses richly, and often perhaps tragically, the highest admirations possible within [its] culture,” adding that his book was “an essay in myth creation” (9-10). A similar concept underlies Jennifer Simkins’s description of myths as “narratives that are significant to humankind in that they articulate powerful statements about the universe and humanity’s place in it” (10). In this ambitious study she focuses on four sf writers—H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and Frank Herbert—whose narratives are “myths” that address crucial aspects of human experience in relation to the universe. In each of the main chapters, Simkins argues for interpretations of novels that are grounded in a given author’s response to such thinkers as T.H. Huxley (for Wells), J.B.S. Haldane (Clarke), Herbert Marcuse (Dick), and Martin Heidegger (both Dick and Herbert). The result is a strong set of approaches to these writers and their fiction.

In the main chapters, Simkins outlines and traces the sources of social, philosophical, or religious ideas that are central to a given author’s works. Thus “Wells examines nineteenth-century religious, moral, political and scientific discourses, challenges established beliefs, and ultimately suggests moral modes of conduct through the construction of new spiritual myths” (20). Beginning with novels such as The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), Wells searches for a scientific basis for morality to replace Christianity and other ideologies, including social Darwinism, that create or reinforce social inequality. The chapter on Clarke examines his interest in the competing claims of vitalist and materialist explanations of life and consciousness. Although many of his works (Childhood’s End [1953], The City and the Stars [1956], the Space Odyssey novels [1968-97]), involve a quasi-religious quest for connection with a higher power, that does not imply any endorsement of religious institutions or their ideology: Simkins notes that, like Haldane, Clarke regards religion as a problem because its myths cannot be tested in the way scientific “myths” (theories) are but must be accepted on faith (72). (She might have mentioned that in Part II of Childhood’s End a device that allows historians to view past events anywhere in the world, including those that led to “all the world’s great faiths,” shows what might happen if religious myth could be tested [74].) Dick seems to have been particularly well-read in philosophy from the pre-Socratics, especially Heraclitus, to the twentieth century, and his books show the imprint of his reading in their explorations of the nature of reality and the validity of being. Thus, Simkins quotes Wade Frazer’s observation, in A Maze of Death (1970), that Kant proved “Nobody sees reality as it actually is” and notes that this statement repeats what Dick himself had said in a 1964 interview: that “reality ‘in itself,’ as Kant puts it, is really unknown to any sentient organism” (100). Both Dick and Herbert were influenced by Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, or being-in-the-world, which is connected to the theme of empathy in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and, more fundamentally, to the anti-messianic theme of Herbert’s six Dune novels (1966-85).

Simkins is principally concerned with tracking and explaining major ideas that are central to these four writers’ novels, and her analyses of individual works are limited to explanations of how their ideas are developed. This is inevitable in a work that attempts to cover the “myths” of a large number of novels as well as to provide information about their sources. In that respect, the book is quite successful. Simkins provides generally clear explanations and amasses a wealth of evidence: with sixteen pages of explanatory notes and an eleven-page Works Cited list, Mythmakers is an exemplary study. It is also well organized, with a preface that summarizes the basic arguments about each of the sf authors; an introduction that addresses broad issues that will be central to the argument (how sf is to be defined, how the term “myth” will be used, and the relationship of religion to science) and then provides much longer overviews of the argument to come about each author. Its four chapters focus on the authors in chronological order, and its conclusion reiterates the arguments. The organization is not quite as mechanical as it might sound from my description, since in each part of the book Simkins views her subject from a new perspective. In the conclusion, for example, she returns to her basic argument in the light of the detailed analyses in chapters 1-4 as well as introducing new material on the relationship of film and television adaptations to the novels. Prior to that, the emphasis is almost entirely on the novels, even in the case of Clarke’s Space Odyssey series. (Stanley Kubrick’s surname appears only once in the entire book [p. 80], as far as I can tell; he is not even in the index.)

This is a good book, but it is not without flaws. I will conclude by pointing to two places where I believe Simkins presents material without fully developing, checking, or clarifying it. First, she quotes Herbert as saying that John F. Kennedy “successfully invoked the Camelot myth” in which he played the part of King Arthur and thereby encouraged faith in savior figures (137). I have no doubt that Herbert said this, but the evidence seems to be that the “Camelot” parallel began with a remark Jacqueline Kennedy made after her husband’s assassination, not with any messianic intentions on President Kennedy’s part. Also, how do we take seriously a statement such as “Herbert argues that this entrapment within social expectations ‘did as much to kill [Kennedy] as anything’” (138)? Whatever Herbert meant, I would not take his statements about Kennedy and Camelot at face value. Second, and far more seriously, it is curious that in the author’s many references to the influence of Heidegger on both Dick and Herbert, Simkins never mentions Heidegger’s anti-Semitism and his association with the Nazi regime. She says that Herbert’s concerns about “the dangers of hero worship” were in part due to two friends, Ralph and Irene Slattery: Ralph “introduced Herbert to the works of Heidegger and [Karl] Jaspers,” while Irene Slattery recounted her horror at seeing how Germans in the 1930s worshipped Hitler as a hero (123). Simkins then says:

Herbert frequently expresses fears that a desire for stability sees humans willingly forfeit their powers of critical thought to heroic leaders…. [T]his notion that humans tend to submit to established systems and authority figures draws on Heideggerian philosophy, which posits that our existence is enacted within a specific social context and that we largely fail to recognize the structures that inform our selfhood. ( 123-24).

Perhaps neither Dick nor Herbert knew that when Irene Slattery saw Hitler—in fact, from 1933 until the end of World War Two—Heidegger was a member of the Nazi Party. This is conceivable because, although there had long been reports of Heidegger’s Nazi connection as early as the period of denazification (1946-1951), the most damning evidence came from studies published after Dick and Herbert died, starting with Victor Farías’s Heidegger y el Nazismo in 1987 [Heidegger and Nazism, 1989]. Whatever Dick and Herbert knew or did not know, however, it no longer seems adequate to discuss their debt(s) to Heidegger alongside their detestation of Nazism without providing some explanation of how they managed this balancing act.—Patrick A. McCarthy, University of Miami

Back to Home