BOOKS IN REVIEW
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2016. xlvi + 228 pp. $87.50 hc, $25.00 pbk.
In the dim and distant 1990s, when everyone seemed to be writing about cyberpunk, I wanted to examine the other 1980s: steampunk and Tim Powers, K.W. Jeter, and James Blaylock. Not everything they wrote was steampunk —but then much of the contents of Mirrorshades was not cyberpunk. The label seemed more an attempt to divide the two than a serious taxonomy; neither grouping was especially punk, a word that seemed to differ in meaning on each side of the Atlantic. Of course, there had already been Michael Moorcock’s A Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy (1971-1981) and his Dancers at the End of Times series (main trilogy, 1972-1976), there were various sequels to Wells (of which Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine was the best), a number of quasi-Victorian episodes of Doctor Who,and various loose adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs from Amicus Films. My research never came to fruition, even as through the 1990s and 2000s steampunk continued far beyond those original authors and mutated in a varity of ways. Victorian London, in particular, was repeatedly rewritten in science-fictional terms. The retrofitting aesthetic that both cyberpunk and postmodernism shared bore new fruit in imagining clockwork technologies—analog resurrected to perform digital jobs. Computer pioneers Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace inspired in the electronic age.
In 2010 Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall co-edited a steampunk issue of Neo-Victorian Studies (3.1), in the introduction to which they suggested that the subgenre’s punk sensibility is “a politics of taking back control” (Bowser and Croxall 21; emphasis in original), a sentiment that feels rather less enticing in the age of Trump and BREXIT. The two editors now offer a nine-chapter collection with a substantial introduction. They divide their book into three sections of three chapters each: “Steampunk Spaces and Things”; “Steampunk Bodies and Identities”; and “Steampunk Reading and Revising.”
One question they attempt to answer in their introduction is why steampunk has emerged now. One suggestion is that 9/11 is the key—the trauma of the terrorist attack has inspired a series of Freudian Fort-Da games, as we return to what might appear to be more comfortable times but were also times of crisis: “steampunk functions as a model for trauma. It encapsulates the temporal oddities and juxtapositions spurred by an event that happens too soon” (xxxviii). The two Charleses, Lyell and Darwin, had decentered humanity within the universe, stretching the notion of history by millions of years. Steampunk allows an engagement with this new vision of the world with more basic technologies than we have now. The nineteenth century experienced vertiginous technological development to a degree that I am never quite convinced the Internet has yet trumped—the telegraph, the train, and the still and movie camera rewrote time and space.
I am a little skeptical about the impact of 9/11—I have read too many articles where it is the go-to answer. Without wishing to minimize the horror, I fear it is one among many moments of rupture. Compare Fredric Jameson on the postmodern, ambivalent, nostalgic returns to a past before ruptures in Blue Velvet (1986), Something Wild (1986), and Time Out of Joint (1959) (“Nostalgia for the Present” [South Atlantic Quarterly 88.2 (1989)], 517–37). I might be more convinced by Bowser and Croxall’s invocation of steampunk as fun, and surely one thing we need in the aftermath of 9/11 is fun. It may simply be that there has been a slow dissolution of genre boundaries in the eras of Star Trek, Star Wars, and superhero movies, an explosion of textual poaching with a mainstreaming of fan culture and a collapse of the highbrow. It is perhaps easier to be inspired by the past than by new technology. All I can say is that when I was a young sf reader there was teasing that I might begin dressing up as a character (I never did) and now there is disappointment that I do not. It has become cool. Indeed, much of it is. Even if traditional sf fans have seen it before. (Get off our lawn!)
In his interesting account of “Seminal Steampunk,” Michael Perschon looks back to the works of Moorcock and Jeter, finding them rather different and being rightly skeptical about their punk natures. Contemporary steampunk has diverged from this, and Perschon insists that “we are the ones who determine what it will become and who will determine what steampunk is today, regardless of what it was thirty years ago” (175). Perschon suspects that readers expect Morlock Night (1979) to be radical “because of Jeter’s early cyberpunk novel, Dr. Adder (1984), ignoring the obvious temporal distance between the two” (161). Does Perschon know that Dr. Adder actually dates from 1972 and does that have an impact on his argument? But Perschon’s chapter is never less than thought-provoking and I would have started with it rather than leave it to the final third of the book.
Perschon is not the only contributor to discuss Jeter—Joseph Weakland and Shaun Duke do as well in “Out of Control: Disrupting Technological Mastery,” which reads Jeter’s work against Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air (1971), the first novel of his Nomads trilogy. The rest of the trilogy is passed over, and other Moorcock novels are relegated to the endnotes. (It should be acknowledged that this volume has scores of endnotes for each chapter that eat into the word counts and limit the scope for substantive readings of texts. I recall being advised that if something is important, it should be in your argument; if it does not fit your argument, kill your darling. Or perhaps this is evidence of the coolness of steampunk.) China Miéville gets a few mentions throughout the book, not only for the Bas Lag novels, but also for Un Lun Dun (2007)and Railsea (2012), as does Cherie Priest. These feel too much like an opening critical salvo rather than the last word.
Alongside the late discussion of the battle for definition and control, for me the most interesting chapters are in the section on steampunk, the body, and performance. The clockwork arm of the steampunk fan is an obvious updating of the cyberpunk prosthesis, and the fancy dress of the Victorian dandy is a recurrent fashion (cf. the teddy boy and, indeed, various Time Lords). Steampunk as cosplay is discussed but I am intrigued to hear more, and perhaps a stronger sense of ethnography needs to be unpacked rather than returning to a textual reading of how-to-be-steampunk magazines. In “Punking the Other: On the Performance of Racial and National Identities in Steampunk,” Diana M. Pho introduces readers to various performers, filmmakers, and masqueraders who pick at the colonial and imperialist roots of the British Empire that underpins steampunk. There are layers of irony and of ironic irony here that would keep a critical Lyell occupied for decades. I want to know more.
In the end this book is a sampler for the critical work that many of us should be doing rather than churning out another article on cyberpunk. Steampunk’s diversions into complex ethnic identities and non-print forms, as well as its embrace by readers far beyond the traditional sf market, suggest that a new narrative needs to be told about it, and this book is only one start. It might no longer be our lawn to defend.
—Andrew M. Butler, Canterbury Christ Church University College
It’s a Big Tent After All.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017. vi +196 pp. $35 pbk.
As Gerry Canavan has pointed out in his review of Alan P.R. Gregory’s Science Fiction Theology, sf and theology co-exist uneasily (2015; SFS 43.3: 582-84). According to Canavan, the reasons for this unsettled relationship are the lack of spiritual/religious affiliation of the genre’s best-known practitioners and the perceived role of religious institutions in generating the problems (war, famine, environmental destruction, etc.) often addressed in sf. To that I would add a perhaps innate desire to avoid crowding the heavens. Where God is, the logic goes, astrobiologists and terraformers dare not tread.
The Madeleine L’Engle who emerges in the ten essays that comprise editor/author Suzanne Bray’s Dimensions of Madeleine L’Engle: New Critical Approaches is refreshingly unconcerned with turf wars, terrestrial or otherwise. Realist and fantasist; northerner and southerner; humanist, exegetist, and science lover, L’Engle probed the material in search of the transcendent, a quest congruent with the mid-life turn she took toward the universalist Christianity that informed her fiction and memoir. In the collection’s preface, Bray argues that L’Engle’s work has been regarded as too commercially successful and perhaps too religious to take its rightful place in the academic canon.
Indeed, the essays in Dimensions of Madeleine L’Engle are haunted by questions about whether or how L’Engle’s religious identity should inform critical interpretations of her writing. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century American and British religious history and commentary foreground six of the essays, including Naomi Wood’s “Discarded Image and Expanding Universe: The (Meta)physics of C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle” and Emily Louise Zimbrick-Rogers’s “Of God and Women: The Evolution of Theology in L’Engle’s Biblical Reimaginings.” Wood’s essay identifies and catalogues L’Engle’s resistance to anthropocentric and other reductive models of moral agency; Zimbrick-Rogers traces the author’s ever-widening inquiry into the role of biblical tradition in liberal democratic societies by viewing all of L’Engle’s essays and narratives that address the Bible as creative supplements to that text. By this logic, much of L’Engle’s post-conversion work can be viewed as “reimaginings” that update ancient teachings for contemporary audiences. In the essays that open and close the collection, Bray considers L’Engle’s use of setting, a critical focus that situates L’Engle somewhat surprisingly (and tantalizingly) in a place-based tradition of Southern literature. This interpretation is echoed in Gérald Préher’s “A Problematic Sense of Place: Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘White in the Moon the Long Road Lies.’” Elsewhere in the collection, critics consider L’Engle’s representations of alterity, masculinity, and femininity, as well as intertextual elements in her novels, including borrowings from classical, early modern, romantic, Victorian, and of course Biblical literature. Examinations of her use of scientific tropes also recur in this collection.
Because Bray’s goal is to reveal the overlooked diversity of L’Engle’s writing, especially in terms of genre and setting, essays about L’Engle’s science fiction are present but not dominant in this anthology. Many Waters (1986), the fourth book of the Time Quintet (1962-1989), features in three of the essays because L’Engle’s religious and scientific dimensions intersect in this re-telling of Noah’s Ark as a time-slip narrative . Scholars of sf will likely not be surprised to find sf authors drafted into conversations that might formerly have seemed beyond the ken of the religious study.
Some of these essays, however, devolve too readily into long plot summaries and, although typos are an unfortunate fact of publication, the misprinted title of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) is an error that could widen the very divide Bray seeks to bridge, akin to adding a third “b” to Bible. Anyone passionate about Darwin’s book will note it immediately, but anyone lacking such passion will consider the error minor. Despite such flaws, this collection argues successfully for a more plural and equitable academic literature that encourages writers, including Madeleine L’Engle, to risk displeasing the powerful in their pursuit of knowledge, a goal that should unite devotees of sf and religion alike.
—Joan Menefee, University of Wisconsin-Stout
Ballard: The Next Generation.
Leiden: Brill, 2016. 160 pp. $108 ebook or print-on-demand.
This slender e-book/print-on-demand collection has emerged quickly from a conference of the same title held at the University of Leeds in May 2014. The academic weight comes from Richard Brown, a key figure in making the study of contemporary literature legitimate at Leeds over the last thirty years, and from the well-known Ballard scholar, Jeannette Baxter. There is also a brief prose poem contributed by Fay Ballard, the artist (and Ballard’s daughter), as a preface. The majority of the essays are from early career academics—indeed, four are still studying for their PhDs. This makes for sparky and energetic if quite insular writing at times. This is not an essential collection (and Brill has priced it for libraries, not individuals), but it is indicative of a shift in studies of Ballard as the author’s archive becomes available to scholars.
The introduction is brief and rather underpowered in its gestures toward teasing out possible meanings of “landscape” in Ballard’s work—a term the author used repeatedly in both his fiction and non-fiction. There is not much theoretical elaboration or interrogation of the term “landscape,” however, despite a large body of emergent ecocritical work that has prompted a major push to rethink what this might mean for writing in the Anthropocene. Ballard is full of potential for such approaches. Instead, the collection looks initially as if it will steer toward familiar Ballardian territory: Shanghai, post-catastrophe landscapes, and the mediascape and infrastructural architectures of modernity that form the subject of The Atrocity Exhibition (1971), which gets three essays, and Crash (1973); Baxter’s contribution takes the collection up to Ballard’s final book, Kingdom Come (2006).
Ballard’s Surrealist impetus was constantly to transpose outer and inner space, translating the industrial or ecological landscapes of catastrophe into the psychological articulations of his obsessive central characters. The sense that this collapse of inner/outer space is autobiographical was encouraged by Ballard himself in Empire of the Sun (1984), a novel that offered itself as a key to interpret the ciphers of the abandoned cities, empty swimming pools, and flooded plains that had already filled his fiction for thirty years. The first essay, by Graham Matthews, starts—without too much surprise—with the landscape of Ballard’s Chinese childhood. The innovation here, however, is to examine seriously the contexts of travel writing and ethnography about China in the 1920s and 1930s, and particularly the collection of Chinese myths and folktales about rivers and water. This decision pulls into discussion an impressive range of largely forgotten writing that is nevertheless indicative of the kind of imperial mind-set that would have informed the residents of the International Settlement in their “discursive construction of Shanghai” (14), Ballard’s formative home. This spadework allows Matthews to offer a suggestive reading of Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) not simply as a timeless archetypal space of the unconscious, but also as a landscape overlaid by colonial memory and colonial critique. It is a promising start.
Taken as a snapshot of Ballardian Studies (which is a large critical industry these days), the collection reveals tensions and pulls in different directions. On the one hand, Ballard’s lifelong implacable resistance to EngLit recuperation is steadfastly ignored in essays in which his work is now slotted into a series of carefully detailed sets of literary legacies, debts, and echoes. Thomas Knowles writes about the influences of Coleridge and Wordsworth in his discussion of “Aeolian Harp” imagery in Vermilion Sands (1971),and Richard Brown carefully sifts through Ballard’s often quite contradictory statements about James Joyce, tracing a much more serious engagement and indebtedness to Joyce than anyone had yet suggested. Elsewhere Conrad and T.S. Eliot become important reference points. These are interesting and valid exercises in professional EngLit criticism, but I felt they needed to address Ballard’s roots in mass cultural form and the belligerence of Ballard’s refusal of “literature” as such throughout his career. Rather like Andrzej Gasiorek’s otherwise excellent book on Ballard (J.G. Ballard [Manchester UP, 2005]), the fact that he was a science-fiction writer is completely ignored. I wanted more awareness of the routinization or canonization that this kind of criticism produces. Is this inevitable, as writers’ reputations are re-assessed after their deaths? Or is there something specifically problematic about applying such acts of literary recuperation to writers from the era of avant-garde countercultural resistance in the 1960s and 1970s?
On the other hand, a second strand in the collection does acknowledge this. Several essayists—particularly Elizabeth Stainforth and Catherine McKenna —pick up on Ballard’s term “invisible literature” as an important route into an understanding of Ballard’s own writing practice. Ballard defined invisible literature as “market research reports, pharmaceutical company house magazines, the promotional copy for a new high-energy breakfast food, journals such as Psychological Abstracts and the Italian automobile magazine Style Auto, the internal memoranda of TV company planning departments.…” (qtd. by Stainforth 100). Ballard’s experiments in collaging this kind of material were clearly at their strongest in the “condensed novels” of The Atrocity Exhibition in the late 1960s, and they demand that readers disable their EngLit frames to hear all the noise of the entire media landscape as well as the signal: to hear the noise as signal, the kind of noise Ballard repeatedly claimed had exploded the conventional niceties of the English novel. This inevitably pulls Ballard toward more interdisciplinary cybernetic, postmodern, art-historical, and media theory approaches.
These two very different Ballards co-exist in the collection and never quite engage in full dialogue. In part, this may be because it is one of the first academic collections to show the impact of the opening of Ballard’s archived papers in the British Library, as well as other kinds of cataloguing. In this collection, Catherine McKenna, who has been working with Ballard’s estate to catalogue his library, suggests that it is full of this kind of “invisible literature.” She has been working on the online project, The Invisible Library, with the energetic Ballardian Mike Bonsall. Her essay, however, focuses on only two books. The first is the official record of the Bikini Atoll atom bomb tests, Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record (1946), which she suggests Ballard imagined himself into for the important transitional story, “The Terminal Beach” (1964). Then she discusses the Warren Commission report on the Kennedy assassination (1964), a book Ballard always delightedly termed a vast novel.
But if the results of this archival knowledge also feel a little underpowered, that might be because even Chris Beckett, who catalogued the Ballard archive at the British Library, has suggested elsewhere that the collection of manuscripts and items is just as carefully manicured and shaped as everything else in Ballard’s self-mythography. Beckett has just published a sumptuous new edition of Crash (Fourth Estate, 2017), using the substantially annotated and reworked typescript of the novel now in the British Library. Beckett’s edition collects six associated experimental short fictions from 1969-1970, and reproduces from the archive Ballard’s type-written treatment for the Harley Cokeliss film, Crash! (1971), starring Ballard. But he also notes how Ballard was not a hoarder; he threw out and heavily sifted a lot of his papers over the years. We are at the point where the empirical lure of Ballard’s archive promises new kinds of revelation, but as someone who has looked at quite a few of the manuscript items there I can testify that the collection tends only to amplify rather than resolve Ballard’s enigmatic body of work. We will continue to need to engage Ballard through a network of different kinds of critical and contextual engagements—a very different kind of archive fever from one that narrows down to a single authorial intent. It will be fascinating to see where the next generation of Ballard scholars ends up.
—Roger Luckhurst, Birkbeck College
How Does Zhe Know?
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, Studies in Global Science Fiction, 2016. xi + 304 pp. $99.99 hc, $69.99 ebook.
Ritch Calvin’s Feminist Science Fiction is a clear, solidly argued, and original approach to the genre. It offers new perspectives on a variety of texts, some so familiar as to constitute the “usual suspects” of feminist sf and some unjustly neglected. In the end, it makes less of a case for its own significance than I would like. Once we have gone through the test cases applying such a feminist epistemological lens, what have we gained in the way of insight into the stories, the genre, and the culture? Calvin could go further in both his explications and his drawing out of implications: the book demonstrates that zhe has the grounding and the skill to do both.
In that last sentence, I used the pronoun that Calvin uses throughout for all authors and characters, regardless of sex. It is a great choice, since it not only puts everyone on an even footing but it also keeps the central message continuously in the foreground: that what we think we know about the world is inescapably tinted by gender filters. We think that, for instance, René Descartes and Donna Haraway (two influential figures in the book) belong to different categories of humanity; ordinary usage groups “him” with Plato and Ernest Hemingway and God and “her” with Hypatia and Mary Shelley and Mother Goose. Fair enough, for some purposes, but this is the kind of assumption that prevents connections and blocks insights. The strength of science fiction is that it can force us to see the unseen and think the unthinkable. The works that Calvin selects for study (and many that zhe does not) have that power, and one of the reasons they do so is that they challenge the episteme on behalf, as Calvin says, of “groups and individuals who have been marginalized and excluded from knowledge production and validation processes” (2).
The format of Calvin’s study is, first, a pair of introductory chapters providing contexts and definitions; this is followed by four extended examinations of particular epistemological elements in feminist sf, each focusing on three to five primary examples; and lastly there is a brief concluding chapter. The four central chapters take up, in turn, plot, narrative structure (including person, time, and perspective), science, and language: what Calvin terms the four “modes” by which fictions foreground and question epistemological assumptions. The book’s very consistent and clear structure is one of its strengths: we always know where we are and how, say, example three in chapter two relates to all the others. Further, the reading protocols are consistent throughout. We know that we will be reading Suzette Hayden Elgin’s Native Tongue (1984) in the same ways and for the same features that we have previously read Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). The close attention to epistemology means that each text is essentially translated into a set of answers to the questions that Calvin lays out in the first section: Who is (or is not) allowed to know? Is abstract knowledge valued over concrete? If abstraction is the goal, how is the physical denied? What is the definition of rationality? How is the embodiment of knowledge brought back into significance? How are the bodies through which we know contained and constrained by society? These are central questions in feminist epistemology as developed in the work of Sandra Harding, Jane Duran, Patricia Hill Collins, and other philosophers and historians of science on whom Calvin draws. ]
They are not questions that usually engage literary critics. By restricting zher readings to such issues, Calvin sets aside many of the other features that could be noted in the texts, such as psychological depth, depictions of oppression and opposition, and stylistic deftness. We learn how Lilith Iyapo, in Octavia Butler’s Dawn (1987), comes to understand the world to which she is awakened by the alien Oankali. We read about differences between human and Oankali sensory input and the cultural assumptions through which each race interprets that sensory information. We do not hear much about Lilith’s personal journey, her desires, her relationships, or the way she forces change upon the Oankali—nor about the thematic importance of each of those narrative elements, which is to say, how Butler’s story is engaging with the world in which it was written. The epistemological does impinge on the personal and the political, and I would like to have Calvin draw out some of the ways it does so.
Nevertheless, Calvin’s is a fresh reading of a familiar novel. By now Butler is thoroughly canonical not only in feminist circles but also in histories of science fiction and African American literature. There are plenty of other readings of Dawn that take up its other strengths as a novel, as an example of extrapolative imagination, and as a utopian challenge to injustice. Calvin’s reading can supplement those rather than attempt to synthesize or replace them. There is value in placing all sixteen examples on the same footing. It opens up the possibility of new intertextual dialogues across gaps of time, culture, and subgenre. Most of the examples were familiar to me, but not equally so. In the category of “usual subjects,” besides Butler we have Piercy, Elgin, Joanna Russ (The Female Man, 1975), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale, 1986), Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969), Monique Wittig (Les Guérillères, 1969), and perhaps Nalo Hopkinson (Midnight Robber, 2000). New to me were Laura Bynum (Veracity, 2010), Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein (“Sultana’s Dream,” 1905), and Ruth Nestvold (Looking Through Lace, 2003/2011). In between are a number of writers known primarily to a small group of afficionados and/or initially hailed but not written about as much as they deserve. These include Larissa Lai (Salt Fish Girl, 2002), L. Timmel Duchamp (“De Secretis Mulierum,” 1995/2008), Helen Collins (MutaGenesis, 1992), Amy Thompson (The Color of Distance, 1995), and Sheila Finch (Triad, 1986). I was especially happy to be reminded of several of the works in that last set. Seeing them as significant explorations of epistemology might help restore some of their initial buzz.
Overall, I was impressed by Calvin’s understanding of epistemology as an underpinning to language, science, social structures, and selves. Following up on Brian McHale’s insight that the detective story is the representative genre of modernism with its focus on how we know the world, while science fiction may be the epitome of postmodernism with its questioning of the very nature of reality—what world is it?—Calvin complicates the model by showing how sf is also a kind of detective fiction. It is both ontological and epistemological. The choice of examples and the readings of each add up to a convincing model of a feminist epistemological genre. In some of the particulars, however, the book is less convincing. Looking at the work I know best, The Left Hand of Darkness, I found a number of minor errors. The date of the novel is given in the table of contents as 1974 rather than 1969. Calvin mentions Le Guin’s other major work from the same period, The Dispossessed (1974), and describes the world of Anarres as “predicated on the collective ideology of socialism” (184). It is collective, certainly, but the anarchist society in the book is unlike any socialist state in history. The planet Gethen in The Left Hand of Darkness is inhabited by ambisexual beings: to call them “non-sexed” (187) is misleading, although they are certainly non-gendered. I am not sure why Calvin disagrees with the observer from the Ekumen who infers that Gethenian biology is an experiment on the part of the original seeders of the planet (221, n.7). There is other evidence, including a lack of higher mammalian life other than humans, that Gethenians did not evolve in place, nor did their particular sexuality. Finally, the protagonist Genly Ai is described as “a small dark man from Earth,” whereas Le Guin has the Gethenians perceiving Genly as “[t]all as a street lamp ..., thin as a sledge-runner, soot-black and slant-eyed” (The Left Hand of Darkness [New York: Harper and Row, 1969], 80). Other than Genly’s height and the publication date, these points are all arguable, and none of them invalidate Calvin’s conclusions, but they do distract.
Calvin’s conclusion is brief and modestly formulated: “In FESF [feminist epistemological science fiction], the alien actant and/or the defamiliarized social order can call our attention to the ways in which experience and subject position matter in understanding the world and making truth claims about it” (231). I would say that they not only can call our attention but should do so, and furthermore that once such attention is drawn, the very nature of the genre changes. Important and minor works change places. Any history of sf that neglects women writers becomes an alternate history like those fictional universes in which the South won the Civil War. And, most importantly, the epistemological basis of any sf is revealed to be constrained and constructed by gender even when that gender is masculine: Calvin’s book generates an implied Other in which Weinbaum and Asimov and Heinlein are seen as exemplars of a peculiarly masculinist epistemology. I would love to see that book actually written, and Calvin would be a good person to do so.
—Brian Attebery, Idaho State University
Uncannily Familiar, Shockingly New.
Urbana: U of Illinois P, Modern Masters of Science Fiction, 2016. xviii + 225 pp. $22 pbk.
All of the books in University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series are named for the author the book discusses. Gerry Canavan’s recent Octavia E. Butler follows this titling convention. With this book in particular, however, the convention takes on startling complications. As Canavan’s fastidious research and incisive prose help his readers to see, Octavia E. Butler not only takes its subject’s name as its own, it also names the book’s central problem. Just whom are we discussing here? After all, the book itself is largely the result of Canavan’s meticulous incorporation of a wealth of new materials, previously unavailable to readers and researchers. Canavan was one of the very first scholars to gain access to the Huntington Library’s Octavia E. Butler archive, and in some cases the very first to unpack her copious collection of journals, manuscript drafts, letters, lists, and daily affirmations. The portrait of Butler that he draws is therefore both uncannily familiar and shockingly new. While Canavan works hard to integrate biographical, literary-critical, and archival projects into a seamless whole, the result is almost too successful, the translation from the author we have come to know to the one only Canavan and a handful of other scholars could have met is too complete. Having read it, I no longer know the Butler with whom I once communed. I am not sure about the stranger who stands in her place.
Such, of course, are the fates of any important authors as their archives become available for critical scrutiny and scholarly interpretation. This is the first book about Butler to do so and that makes for a challenge. Canavan tackles the difficult task of composing a coherent account across these two Butlers—the published Butler and her archival doppelganger—by integrating them into a single narrative. Progressing chronologically, each chapter of Octavia E. Butler tells the many stories that lace around and through Butler’s compositional process. Her professional ambitions and private fantasies, her relationships with her family, her editor, and her communities, the newspaper clippings she saved, and her love of comic books and B-movies wend through and emerge out of her daily meditations on and frustrations with the writing process. Her published books appear as the surface ripples atop this oceanic textuality. What rises to the surface, in Canavan’s telling, are not necessarily the pieces with which Butler felt the most satisfied but the ones that churned to the surface in the tumult of submerged struggles.
Weaving the publications back into the manuscript versions tells the story of those struggles. The first is the familiar one of Butler’s lifelong commitment to writing sf in line with her insight, as Canavan puts it, that the genre itself “was never really a straight, white, male genre, despite its pretensions to the contrary: blackness, womanhood, poverty, disability, and queerness were always there, under the surface, the genre’s hidden truth” (3). As a genre whose “hidden truth” is its capacity to interrogate and denaturalize power relations of many kinds, sf tends more readily to diagnosis than to cure. Butler’s second struggle deepens this dilemma. As Canavan’s writing movingly narrates, Butler wrote and revised what she called the “NO-BOOKS” whose unstinting visions contaminate the utopian promise and commercial success of the “YES-BOOKS” she sought to produce in draft after draft (9). The books we see, Canavan tells us, are her “MAYBE” books. They are the result of long labors, not just of revisions but of legions of rejected alternative versions, hoped-for sequels, and never-to-be-finished manuscripts all in the name of getting closer to some kind of YES.
It is poignant and troubling that Butler wished to write books that would find some space for genuine difference, tried to write books that would encourage the utopian imagination, but was drawn again and again, in draft after draft, back to a set of unresolvable antinomies. It is also deeply satisfying as a critical approach to Butler scholarship. For me, it is the most rewarding insight and one of the many pleasures (and triumphs!) of Octavia E. Butler. Even broken up between chronological chapters, the story Canavan tells is remarkably unified. Nothing here feels choppy or mechanical. That these are Butler’s lifelong obsessions drives the narrative at every point.
One especially fascinating permutation of this struggle comes from the tension between Butler’s abiding pessimism about our ability to step outside of systems of oppression and her commitment to individual survival, a combination that results in long-running themes of “infelicitous reproductions and unhappy survivals” (61). This pattern is set by the Patternmaster series (1976-1984) and its fantasy of reproductive mastery. Canavan’s research shows how deeply ran Butler’s feelings for and attention to the figure of Doro. Over the course of his two-thousand-year lifespan, Doro finds and breeds people like himself—telepathic psychic vampires—cultivating, refining, and concentrating abilities through generation after generation. While this may seem bald-facedly evil, the ability to change minds and hearts is also the ambition of much social justice work. Doro is a kind of superhero akin, as Canavan relates, to the comic-book champions Butler read and loved. Here, though, the “obfuscations and nominal justifications that legitimate superhero fantasy” are stripped from the naked desire for power (45). Indeed, Canavan relates that Butler’s juvenilia often cast a Doro-like figure into explicit, sexual, sadomasochistic fantasies (16). Power cannot be evaded, only recast. So when Mary kills Doro in the name of a more egalitarian collectivity, readers may hope that this strikes a better balance between systems of oppression and the force needed to effect a revolution. It does not. It merely begins another round of power-seeking in the “endless, horrible return of the same” (51).
The intense ambivalence of this drive toward and horror of a biological and reproductive solution then puts in a different light the alien Oankali of Butler’s Xenogenesis series (1987-1989), often taken as one of her more utopian figurations. The Oankali offer two gifts, both of which seem to point the way toward lasting change. The first gift is their very nature: they are biologically dependent on adaptation and symbiosis. By “removing their attachment to any particular sense of identity,” as Canavan writes, they are able to achieve “species immortality” (101) and to spread across the galaxies. Any reader of Butler’s Parable series (1993,1998) will instantly recognize in these characteristics the ones Lauren Olamina prescribes as the only route out of the horrific violence of humanity’s phobic insistence on fixity—and Butler has few characters as clearly sympathetic as Olamina. Canavan writes against this interpretation. He argues that the Oankali create the appearance of beneficence, using physical, psychological, and biochemical manipulation to gaslight the remnant humans. As he concludes, the Oankali do “almost nothing but harm the humans” (104).
While Canavan ultimately and damningly compares the Oankali breeding program to the United Nation’s defintition of genocide (106), the text’s overall argument primes us to see this less as an egregious offense than as an expression of an amoral biological necessity (“completely ubiquitous and entirely natural” ). In just the same way, the Oankali diagnose humanity’s fatal flaw in the contradiction between intelligence and hierarchy. This is the Oankali’s second gift and while it is no more the source of utopian escape than the first, it does express something at the root of Butler’s abiding pessimism. Like the cancer cells the Oankali find so fascinating, the potential for poison inheres in every promised cure. The Oankali may be manipulators, sexual predators, even the source of cultural and biological genocide, but they can no more do otherwise than humans can evade the lethal combination of intelligence and hierarchy. The Oankali help humanity get rid of that bad biology, but not even they can imagine a space outside of power. In Butler’s universes all positions are compromises, all deals are bad ones, and the worst deals are the ones that promise salvation.
Yet refusing to seek for hope in the bare form of one’s own survival proved impossible for Butler. Canavan relates that a rejected draft of the second version of “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” (1987) ended with the protagonist’s vision of a new race rising from her power to exploit others, but instead she “chooses to say no” (90). “This last version is a story,” as Canavan relates, “that Butler wanted to write but never found a way to, the story that in some sense she seemed to find untellable: the story of the people who in the end do say ‘no,’ who refuse the instinct to live at whatever cost” (90). The foundational contradiction—for Butler, if not for humanity, though perhaps for both—is between the recognition of our hopelessness and the inability to give up the hope that inaugurates one more cycle of the “endless, horrible return of the same.” This contradiction and not hopelessness is the real source of Butler’s pessimism.
“So much of the delicious ambiguity of Butler’s fiction, across her career, is tied up in that little moment: the intertwining of optimism and pessimism, hope and threat; violent caress and caressing violence; the miracle of survival, and of love, if not always exactly how we’d like it” (179). In his dedicated, profound, and thoughtful work with the Huntington Library’s Butler archive, Canavan has given us another sort of delicious ambiguity in the seamless synthesis of the Butler we thought we knew and the private Butler we have now inherited.
—Rebekah Sheldon, Indiana University
An Ironic Faith in the Chthulucene.
Manifestly Haraway. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, POSTHUMANITIES 37, 2016. xiii + 336 pp. $19.95 pbk.
This potentially useful volume consolidates two of Donna Haraway’s famous and widely influential manifestos, “The Cyborg Manifesto” (published first as “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s” in 1985), and “The Companion Species Manifesto” (originally published with the subtitle “Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness” in 2003). In writing about feminism and the animal other in sf, a great many of us have drawn from this work. “The Cyborg Manifesto” is widely anthologized: my deskside bookcase has five versions if one includes its presence as Chapter Eight in Haraway’s expanded development of the manifesto in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991). “The Companion Species Manifesto” does not yet seem to have attained this kind of popularity, although it too is very widely cited, and it too has been incorporated and expanded, in chapters 4 and 7 of When Species Meet (2008). As a result of these works and others, including my personal favorite, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (1989), Haraway has developed what might be called a cult following. I have been to conference sessions in which the participants testify about her work in ways that sound less like critical analysis and more like fannishness. Haraway’s fans will welcome this consolidation of the two manifestos. They will also be happy to find the loving introduction by Cary Wolfe, and his interview with Haraway that concludes the book, where they offer hints into Haraway’s latest volume, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene (2016, reviewed in SFS 44.2). Those new to the cult will be glad to find the two manifestos in one place but will find the interview somewhat disappointing, since it gradually evolves into what feels like a private and closed conversation, and may find the introduction lacking substance. It is primarily a love song to Haraway and her style, while pointing out that biopolitics is her subject and that her Catholic background is foundational to her biopolitics.
The manifestos have in common that they are stories we tell about the shape of the world, our place in it, the places of its other inhabitants, and where we want the world to go. They are not really science-fictional nor do they discuss sf directly, but in their speculations about our position and the fate of the world, they stimulate our thinking about sf, and about thinking science-fictionally. This is why they are important: they teach us how to think about the world and where it is going in new ways, ways that can also help us read sf newly.
Early in “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Haraway declares that “at the center of my ironic faith, my blasphemy, is the image of the cyborg,” an image straight out of sf (5). For Haraway the cyborg represents a liminal figure “ambiguously natural and crafted (6), “a condensed image of both imagination and material reality” (7), “postgender,” escaping the gravitational pull of both Marx and Freud (8). Here is a creature who breaks down the boundary between human and animal (10), animal and machine (11), and physical and nonphysical (12). Indeed, the entire essay demands that we see everything from a non-binary, non-bounded viewpoint: “my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities” (14). The manifesto demands “affinity, not identity” (17) and refuses essentialisms. This was tremendously exciting and liberating when new, and remains an important reminder in a political climate that insists on a very different view. Haraway presents a (surprisingly binary) chart “of transitions from the comfortable old hierarchical dominations to the scary new networks” she calls “the informatics of domination” (28), a chart that seems to outline the present political landscape (28-30). The manifesto’s conclusion offers a stirring call to action that acknowledges the visions of sf writers, naming Russ, Delany, Varley, Tiptree, Butler, and McIntyre, and declaring that “[c]yborg writing is about the power to survive ... on the basis of seizing the tools that mark the world that marked them [women, people of color, non-Westerners, Others, us] as other” (55). Thus we embrace technology, reject totalizing theory, and get on with the business of connection and communication. It remains thrilling stuff thirty-some years on, and if the rhetoric and coinages are (or, by now, were) sometimes a bit confusing, we make allowances because of the thrill.
“The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness” is more personal, its writing livelier, clearer, more epigrammatic than “A Cyborg Manifesto”; it even has pictures. Haraway uses her relationship with her own dog to introduce the idea that dogs and humans have co-evolved as companion species in “layers of history, layers of biology, layers of naturecultures” (94). Drawing parallels with the earlier manifesto she asks “which of two cobbled-together figures—cyborgs and companion species —might more fruitfully inform livable politics and ontologies in current life worlds” (96) to tell “a story of biopower and biosociality” (97). As the world itself is more degraded in the Anthropocene, then, a more organic metaphor is necessary to describe “the implosion of nature and culture” (108). Her “shaggy dog stories about evolution, love, training, and kinds or breeds ... help me think about living well together with the host of species with whom human beings emerge on this planet at every scale of time, body, and species” (116). By seeing humans and other species in “co-constitutive” feedback relationships, this manifesto insists upon “significant otherness,” and these terms and others allow us to think in non-hierarchical ways about our place in the world. Much of the manifesto is taken up by stories, not only of Haraway’s dog, but of dog breeding and dog rescue as well, all to illustrate the central message that at all levels of time—evolutionary, face-to-face, and historical (154)— “‘communication’ across irreducible difference is what matters” (140). Again, this is stirring and inspirational, if not so directly relevant to sf, although it is certainly relevant to our thinking about what constitutes the alien, and I find it quite useful in my work with animal studies and sf.
The last section of the book, the only substantive new material, is the interview that Cary Wolfe, himself a noted theorist of animal studies and posthumanism, conducts with Haraway. While it contains some stimulating material, it also succumbs to bouts of name-checking and insider references that sometimes close the interview off from its readers. This makes me wonder about the perceived audience. Other than Haraway completists, it must include those not already familiar with Haraway or with the two manifestos. I had thought, for instance, that it might be a good choice for an introductory course in animal studies, posthumanism, or biopolitics. The interview, in that case, might be expected to probe, clarify, and expand upon the ideas and influence of the two manifestos. It does that to a limited extent, beginning with some biographical background about the writing of “The Cyborg Manifesto.” It moves on to a short discussion of “The Companion Species Manifesto” in which Haraway nicely summarizes her, and Wolfe’s, concerns about “the questions of the flourishing of human and non-human critters in their entanglements” (217).
After these two relatively short discussions of the manifestos themselves, the conversation turns to biopolitics more generally. Wisely, Haraway declares that “an affirmative biopolitics is about finitude, and about living and dying better, living and dying well, about nurturing and killing best we can, in a kind of openness to relentless failing” (227), stressing responsibility and accountability. Eventually, however, perhaps because of the parenthetically mentioned “well-aged scotch” (262; emphasis in original), the tone of the interview turns more private, and more privately amusing. Nevertheless, Haraway moves on to make an interesting connection between her fertile word-coinage and her Catholic upbringing in the idea of the word made flesh. For her,
The implosion of metaphor (and more than metaphor), of trope and world, the extraordinary tentacular closeness of processes of semiosis and fleshliness [of the idea of the world made flesh], sets me up at the level of both affect and cognitive apparatus for being suspicious of the division between the human and everybody else. And the division between mind and body within the human. (268)
Even though the two friends name-check their famous friends and colleagues and laugh over private jokes, acknowledging that “[w]e are being very parochial and we are acknowledging it,” the interview ends very strongly (284). Haraway decides to close with “the seed of a ‘Chthulucene Manifesto’” (294). This would remind us of the activity of other actors than the human, “of a wild, cultivated and uncultivated, dangerous, but still plentiful Earth for always evolving critters including human people” (295). Maybe, she hopes, “multispecies entities, including human people, allied in the nick of time with the generative powers of the Chthulucene, [will] power resurgence and partial healing in the face of irreversible loss” (296). She gets in the last word: “Make Kin Not Babies!” (296).
—Joan Gordon, SFS
Sinicizing Science Fiction.
Middleton, CT: Wesleyan UP, Early Classics of Science Fiction, 2017. viii + 259 pp. $80 hc, $24.95 pbk, $19.99 ebook.
Nathaniel Isaacson’s Celestial Empire is a long-awaited and very necessary work on a neglected area of China’s literary history. As he states, “what follows is meant to demonstrate that Chinese cultural studies and SF studies have much to offer each other” (27). For Isaacson, the “relationship between SF and Orientalist discourse is a defining feature of the genre in early twentieth-century China” (1). His aim is to show how Chinese science fiction of this period reflected the political and cultural problems that China faced at the historical moment when Western science was being translated into the Chinese context. As he argues, “in the context of the colonial threat, a profound pessimism emerged about China’s fate as a nation, and this pessimism permeates discourses on science and works of SF from this period” (1). Most interestingly, Isaacson establishes early on that “‘science fiction’ was arguably a concrete publishing category in China before it was in the West, even as it predominately featured translations of Western works”; the collocation of the two terms, borrowed from Japanese, was introduced very early in the twentieth century. In fact, the term “began to appear regularly as a literary genre category associated with specific stories in publications in China (c.1904) before it did in the English-language press” (7).
Given how early sf influenced Chinese literary culture, this raises questions about the relationship between traditional Chinese thought and the foreign entity of scientific knowledge. As Isaacson argues, in Chinese sf “the other that must be silenced is as often China’s own indigenous tradition as it is an alien invader” and, in a general sense, “the alien other that Chinese SF confronts is China itself” (41, 45). In these early writings Isaacson seeks to show that Chinese writing was representative of a struggle between modernity and tradition, the foreign and the domestic. His study views sf works of this period as commentaries on China’s changing relationship with the outside world and its state of semicolonial dependence. The emergence of the sf genre through translation became emblematic of a deeper struggle around Chinese national identity that defined the late Qing and Republican eras, having to do with the role traditional Chinese thought would play in a modern China. Building on Andrew Milner’s view that imperialism was a key feature of sf writing in its early development, Isaacson argues “that Orientalism and imperialism were indeed the most conspicuous themes” of the genre at this time (33).
In general, this work is very accessible to non-specialized readers, owing in large part to Isaacson’s selection of texts. Celestial Empire is composed of a set of analyses of key Chinese sf works of the early twentieth century: Lu Xun’s early works, Wu Jianren’s New Story of the Stone (1908), Huangjiang Diaosu’s Tales of the Moon Colony (1905), Xu Nianci’s “New Tales of Mr. Braggadocio” (1905), and Lao She’s City of Cats (1933).
Isaacson interprets Lu Xun’s writings as a comprehensive survey of western thought and a means of coming to terms with it. Wu Jianren’s New Story of the Stone is then dissected through the lens of tradition vs. modernity and the dilemma of China’s semicolonial status (24). Isaacson’s commentaries, in total, cover a set of works produced over a thirty-year period. His discussion of Huangjiang Diaosu’s Tales of the Moon Colony is a response to Edward Said, arguing that, because China’s own tradition was as much an alien as the foreign colonizers, there was no strict “dialectical opposition of Occident and Orient” (94). Xu Nianci’s “New Tales of Mr. Braggadocio” is viewed in terms of the internalization of Western scientific concepts to re-envision traditional neo-Confucian and Daoist concepts—a pattern that Isaacson views as a form of resistance (110). The last analysis is that of Lao She’s City of Cats, a more famous piece of modern Chinese literature that “represents a brief resuscitation of SF after two decades of near total silence in the genre—the exception that proves the rule in a rapidly shifting cultural field” (125). The study concludes with a discussion of the adoption of pre-modern prose forms from “the biji and zhiguai tradition” to make sense of scientific thought (26).
Science fiction found itself in a more ambivalent position in Chinese letters by the 1920s, “explained in part by the genre’s sublimation into more quotidian forms of popular science writing” (125). This trend reflected the fact that, eventually, science would become decoupled from its origins in Western culture and civilization as it became absorbed into other non-fictional discourses. He points to popular essays such as the kexue xiaopin [science essay] as an emblematic example of this progression. Valuably, Isaacson highlights the role that famous debates on scientism played in reaching this point, particularly that between the intellectuals Hu Shih and Zhang Junmai. As articulations of science in China broadened beyond science fiction, they reflected a more varied and nuanced appreciation of science as an intellectual outlook that could play a larger role in modern Chinese life. This is itself a crucial thesis, explaining why sf waned as a form of cultural production during this period and enjoyed something of a resurgence later in the Communist period (also an important subject for other scholars to explore). Essentially, sf became less popular as there emerged other, perhaps more useful, ways of talking about science. For Isaacson, Lao She was the last prominent author of early Chinese sf in this era.
Celestial Empire, on the whole, should be viewed principally as an contribution to the field of postcolonial studies. Isaacson states that the emergence of Chinese sf is a demonstration of the idea of “colonial modernity” as developed in Tani Barlow’s Formations of Colonial Modernity (1997)—that is, modernity mediated between European and colonial interactions rather than a straightforward imposition of the former onto the latter. This is underpinned by an essential paradox that Isaacson identifies in the late Qing period: “China would have to give up the epistemological system that defined it; or, in other words, in order to repel Western aggressors, China would have to adopt a substantial portion of the Western worldview” (14).
Importantly, Isaacson’s emphasis on postcolonial theory as a way of dissecting the genre ought not be seen as an arbitrary choice simply because Chinese sf’s emergence coincides with the height of colonialism in China. Rather, he shows that the political conditions of the late Qing were a necessary condition for the emergence of Chinese sf, and in the Republican period it was a discursive vehicle through which Chinese literary figures were forced to reconfigure their epistemological horizons. It appears, in other words, that sf would not have emerged without the European colonial presence in early twentieth-century China. This is because of “two converging factors during the late Qing: first, the crisis of epistemological consciousness brought about by China’s semicolonial subjugation to European powers, and second, the imperialist imagination of global exchanges and conquest that led to the emergence of the genre in the West and its translation into Chinese via Japan” (2). Considering the conditions of intellectual exchange allowed by colonial encounters in this era, it would have been strange if science fiction had neveremerged in China. The explication of this relationship is the major achievement of Celestial Empire.
But this political struggle was represented in intellectual terms. As Isaacson notes, there was a decision to be made on “what the relationship between Chinese and Western epistemology would be” (3). We see how fictional representation was necessitated by the introduction of scientific thought through translation, offering an imaginative context for readers to make sense of unfamiliar discourses. Lu Xun would use familiar literary tropes to communicate the unfamiliar body of scientific knowledge in the Chinese language, some of which included “metaphors of cultural suffocation and the iron house in the literary figuration of the prospects for national salvation; and extensive ruminations regarding the fraught relationship between the intelligentsia and the common man” (5). As Isaacson writes, this created “an approach to cultural appropriation that emphasized selective and conscious adoption of material, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of European culture” (54).
In a general sense, this work can be read as a continuation of the type of literary analysis established by Lydia Liu in her Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity—China 1900-1937 (1995), which explores how modern Chinese, as both language and literature, is a product of Europeanized influences. To contextualize Isaacson’s work, however, in terms of Chinese literary criticism is difficult, because Celestial Empire sits within a larger scholarly vacuum. Chinese sf, particularly in English-language scholarship, is an under-studied literary phenomenon, receiving attention only in the past several years with the sudden popularity in the West of “new wave” authors such as Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang. In SFS’s special issue on Chinese sf (March 2013), Qian Jiang argues that there were several waves of sf writing in China—the late Qing/Republican era, the Communist era, the post-Mao era, and the post-1980s (“Translation and the Development of Science Fiction in Twentieth-Century China” 119). Most studies of Chinese sf by scholars such as D.E. Pollard and Song Mingwei have focused on the Communist and post-Mao periods. Regardless of how Isaacson has chosen to situate his work theoretically, Celestial Empire is important because it is the first substantial English-language study of the beginnings of this genre in China. Moreover, it is the first step in making sense of a genre that has periodically waned and flourished in China for over a hundred years and is now more culturally significant than it has ever been.
The eminent sf scholar Wu Yan (whom Isaacson references and who co-edited SFS’s special issue on Chinese sf) has published an exhaustive list of sf works in Chinese, including foreign-language sf translated into Chinese between the late 1800s and 1949, in his “An Outline of Science Fiction” (Kehuan Wenxue Lungang, 2011). The list runs from the 1872 translation of Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” (1819) to the 1948 translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). In between are listed over one hundred and fifty Chinese translations of foreign science fiction or sf-related works produced in the intervening years. Wu also lists over two hundred sf or sf-related works produced in Chinese from 1902 to 1946. In reading Celestial Empire, it is sometimes easy to overlook the substantial amount of sf that was produced well into the Republican period.
Nevertheless, the book is an important step in enlightening scholars about an obscure area of world literature. Other works of this kind ought to follow his example, whether on translated works or original material. The strength of Celestial Empire is that it focuses on the most important and most strictly science-fictional stories and sticks to focused exegeses of them. Rather than approaching them from a sinological standpoint to explain how science fiction fits into the broader Chinese literary canon, Isaacson instead pictures sf as one type of response by intellectuals to China’s colonial encounter. For this reason, the book will be of interest to a broad range of readers.
—Will Peyton, The Australian National University
Crackpots, Conspiracies, and Cults: Science Fiction without Science.
New York: Springer, 2017. x +181 pp. $19.99 pbk, $14.99 ebook.
Definitions of sf typically emphasize the genre’s inherent connection to the process of scientific discovery, innovation, and extrapolation. For example, Hugo Gernsback famously claimed that “posterity will point to [sf] as having blazed a new trail, not only in literature and fiction, but progress as well” (“A New Sort of Magazine” [Amazing Stories 1.1 (April 1926): 3]). John W. Campbell Jr. similarly argued that in order for a work to be considered sf “an honest effort at prophetic extrapolation from the known must be made” (“The Science of Science Fiction Writing” [Of Worlds Beyond, ed. Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, Chicago: Advent, 1964, 91]). Robert A. Heinlein also defined sf as “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world … and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method” (“Science Fiction: Its Nature, Faults, and Virtues” [The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism, ed. Basil Davenport, Chicago: Advent, 1959, 22]). These definitions provided a convincing justification for the cultural significance of the genre at a time when it was often disparaged by critics. Andrew May’s new book Pseudoscience and Science Fiction shows, however, that sf narratives often contradicted these definitions by promoting ideas that explicitly challenged the scientific method and were subsequently dismissed by the scientific establishment. These theories are collectively referred to as “pseudoscience.”
In his introduction May explains that “there is no significant overlap between the ‘consumers’ of pseudoscience and those of real science,” as “the latter is an essentially practical discipline” while the former is “a creative undertaking—effectively a branch of the entertainment industry” (viii). This distinction allows May to identify three fundamental similarities between pseudoscience and sf: 1) they are both “products of the imagination” (ix); 2) they are both “aimed at a broad, general readership” (ix); and 3) their purpose is not to educate and inform but rather to give readers “what they want” (vii)—in other words, they are both geared toward escapism. The body of the book is then devoted to an extensive and detailed account of numerous pseudoscientific theories that have been featured in sf narratives, such as those aiming to explain the Philadelphia Experiment, the Tunguska explosion, the Bermuda Triangle, and many others.
May’s encyclopedic knowledge of the genre is extremely impressive (including not just print narratives, but also comics, films, and television). The book’s theoretical framework is somewhat problematic, however. First, May’s definition of the term “pseudoscience” appears to encompass everything that is not true. This makes sense to some extent, as the label is often used to identify theories that scientists consider to be false, such as parapsychology and ufology. Historians of science often draw a sharp distinction, however, between pseudoscientific theories, which are sincere yet insufficiently scientific, and frauds or hoaxes, which are consciously insincere attempts to deceive (usually for the sake of generating profits). Furthermore, many of the theories discussed in the book do not actually claim to be true, as they are derived from legends, superstitions, or mystical visions. The criterion of falsity thus seems to be an inadequate basis for the distinction between scientific and pseudoscientific sf, as any narrative could potentially be accused of being pseudoscientific simply by virtue of the fact that it is a work of fiction. More importantly, these categories appear to have extremely different social, cultural, and political implications. For example, the first category suggests that sf is a refuge for crackpots and heretics who have been ostracized by the scientific community, and the value of studying these texts would be to examine the history of various scientific debates or the ways in which the boundaries between science and pseudoscience have historically been policed. The second category suggests that sf is a form of propaganda whose explicit intention is to misinform the public, and the value of studying these texts would be to expose their rhetorical strategies and thereby encourage readers to question “alternative facts.” The third category suggests an inherent connection between sf and paranoia, which could be a result of mental illness (in the case of Richard Shaver and Philip K. Dick) or collective forms of mass hysteria. These texts would thus be useful in other ways—as psychological or sociological symptoms that potentially reveal something about the unconscious complexes of individual writers or society as a whole. Lumping these various categories under the umbrella term “pseudoscience” thus raises more questions than it answers—particularly with regard to the social function of sf, the relationship between sf and science, and the value of studying sf narratives.
Another related issue is whether the pseudoscientific theories emerged before or after they appeared in these narratives. In the case of para-psychology, orgonomy, and ufology, for example, it seems that writers capitalized on the popularity of unscientific theories that were already circulating in the culture. May points out, however, that some of these theories did not emerge until after they appeared in sf, such as reported sightings of the “chupacabra” or the idea that shape-shifting aliens are secretly occupying positions of power. Some of the theories discussed in the book also appear to exist solely within the realm of sf, such as H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, which is presented as a pseudoscientific theory (a precursor to Erich von Däniken’s concept of “ancient astronauts” as outlined in his Chariot of the Gods ) despite the fact that no one appears to believe in its actual existence. The relationship between pseudoscience and sf thus remains somewhat unclear. If pseudoscience is “a branch of the entertainment industry,” then is this because it inspires works of sf, because it is based on works of sf, or because it is itself a work of sf? These categories also appear to have different social, cultural, and political implications by suggesting that sf represents either a public forum for scientific debate or a potentially dangerous form of mass culture that contributes to a leveling down of intellectual standards.
May’s book clearly challenges the genre’s claims to cultural significance by reminding us that sf has historically been more focused on entertainment than education. Its main weakness, however, is that it groups a wide range of phenomena under a single heading, obscuring the differences between the various texts as well as their social, cultural, and political implications —particularly with regard to the relationship between sf and science and the relationship between popular culture and society more generally.
—Anthony Enns, Dalhousie University
Anatomy of a Castaway.
Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, Early Classics of Science Fiction, 2016. xxii + 232 pp. $80 hc, $26.95 pbk, $21.99 ebook.
Christopher Palmer’s engaging study sets out to describe what could be viewed as a tradition, a theme, or a genre—Palmer prefers genre—that overlaps with several other genres, including sf; a similar cross-genre study was Nicholas Ruddick’s Fire in the Stone (2009), describing a long tradition of prehistoric fiction that only partly consisted of sf texts. The tradition that Palmer undertakes to examine, the castaway tale, is even older but no less malleable in terms of genre fluidity. While he acknowledges earlier castaways in such works as The Odyssey and The Tempest (1610/1623), Palmer quite reasonably takes as his starting point Robinson Crusoe (1719), and offers a straightforward definition of his topic: “a tale about a castaway or group of castaways who are isolated on an island and have to survive, to make do” (xi). This admirably clear definition, however, grows notably murkier later on, as Palmer loosens his definitions of “castaway” and even of “island” in order to include texts he wants to discuss. Palmer is not out simply to catalog a list of robinsonades, nor is he trying to be definitive; he lets us know up front that he will not be including films in his survey, although he does make occasional mention of Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away (2000). Nor does he examine the many eighteenth-century responses to Defoe, and his coverage of the nineteenth century is limited to fairly brief discussions of Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1818), Marryat’s Masterman Ready (1800), and Verne’s Mysterious Island (1874)—until his gets to Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), which turns out to be a crucial linchpin in his overall argument.
Palmer argues that the castaway tale has undergone a series of metamorphoses and subversions since Defoe’s time, mostly in the twentieth century, and that the three major stages of evolution can be broadly termed “settlement,” “violence,” and “reconciliation.” He identifies three characteristics of the template as laid out by Defoe: a “plain descriptive style” (15) a first-person narrator who is the overwhelming focus of interest, and a two-part structure in which settlement and the establishment of a solitary routine are followed by unexpected visitors or raiders. While this was reflected in various ways in Wyss and Marryat, Verne seemed determined to demonstrate how superior nineteenth-century engineering and teamwork could outdo Defoe’s original make-do improvisations, even though their survival depended largely on the anonymous protector who turned out to be Captain Nemo from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). (Verne’s other deliberate treatments of the theme, such as Castaways of the Flag  or A School for Crusoes , are not mentioned.)
But it is with Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau that the castaway tale gets its first truly radical reinvention, descending into violence and chaos and featuring a fundamentally deluded or unstable figure at its center—thus paving the way for such twentieth-century redactions as Golding’s Pincher Martin (1956) and Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory (1984) (one of Palmer’s more unusual selections, since the protagonist is not a castaway and the island is barely an island). Palmer goes on to discuss variations and responses to Moreau, including Edgar Rice Burroughs’s seldom-mentioned The Monster Men (1913) (Palmer's only real example of pulp fiction, although castaways were a common theme in such fiction), S. Fowler Wright’s The Island of Captain Sparrow (1928), and Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel (1940), moving into more contemporary sf with two Gene Wolfe stories from The Island of Doctor Death And Other Stories And Other Stories (1980) and Brian W. Aldiss’s Moreau's Other Island (1980).
The more recent texts that Palmer sees as progeny of Moreau are a distinctly eclectic bunch: Pincher Martin, The Wasp Factory, Ballard’s Concrete Island (1974) and “The Terminal Beach” (1964), Alex Garland’s The Beach (1996), and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001). By now the notion of castaway has been expanded to include the self-exiled Traven of the Ballard story, the protagonist of The Beach who willingly joins an island commune, and the murderous young narrator of The Wasp Factory, who already lives with his father on an island just off the Scottish coast. But Palmer argues that each of these texts enlarges the discourse of the castaway narrative by introducing topics such as gender (in the Banks novel) or urban anonymity (as in The Concrete Island, in which the “island” is just a patch of land in the intersection of busy expressways).
The final three chapters represent the “reconciliation” phase, but that seems to mean simply other kinds of responses to the Crusoe tale besides violence and degradation. Palmer consistently considers the role of parody, using Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Parody (1985) as his main critical model, but here it seems most appropriate as Jean Giraudoux’s novel Suzanne and the Pacific (1921) parodies the masculinist survival ethos of the tradition, while Michael Tournier’s Friday, or the Other Island (1967) parodies the obsessive orderliness of Crusoe and presents Friday as a kind of liberating spirit, and J.M. Coetzee’s Foe (1986) deliberately undermines Defoe’s narrative by presenting the view of another castaway, Susan Barton, who tries to persuade an author named Daniel Foe to write up her experiences on Crusoe’s island. The other novel discussed in this chapter is Cristina Fernandez Cubas’s The Year of Grace (1985), in which the Crusoe figure is named Daniel and the Friday figure an illiterate islander named Grock. (One of the strengths of Palmer’s study is his inclusion of international and non-English-language texts.) A following chapter on recent children’s or young adult novels discusses Scott O’Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960), Terry Pratchett’s Nation (2008), Ivan Southall’s To the Wild Sky (1967), and Michael Morpurgo’s Kensuke's Kingdom (1999), each of which, Palmer says, “finds a way to revive the buoyancy and confidence of nineteenth-century castaway novels for children” (143).
It is not until the final chapter that Palmer moves fully into a discussion of modern sf, and with some decidedly unusual choices. Instead of obvious science-fictional robinsonades such as Rex Gordon’s (Stanley Bennett Hough) No Man Friday (1956; v.t. First on Mars in the US, 1957) or Barry Longyear’s “Enemy Mine” (1979) (neither of which are mentioned, although Andy Weir’s The Martian  does get an extended footnote), he discusses Cherry Wilder’s Rhomary Land sequence Second Nature (1986) and Signs of Life (1996), Gregory Benford’s Across the Sea of Suns (1984), and Greg Egan’s Teranesia (1999), all by authors who deserve more critical attention. Wilder’s Rhomary Land sequence describes the encounter between a group of castaways on the planet Rhomary who encounter a simple agricultural community that had been formed by another set of castaways generations earlier, and the contrasts between the more technological and more agrarian societies in their responses to nature on the planet. Benford’s Across the Sea of Suns is a direct sequel to his In the Ocean of Night and the second novel in his Galactic Center series, and it merits discussion presumably because one point-of-view character, Warren, is stranded in the ocean back on Earth dealing with the strange alien invaders called Skimmers and Swarmers. Meanwhile, the main part of the narrative follows Benford’s recurring character Nigel Walmsley, whose space expedition represents a kind of high-tech scientific investigation, contrasted with Warren’s need to discover means of survival not too far removed from those of Crusoe, even though both are basically dealing with aspects of the same problem. Egan’s Teranesia is not a castaway narrative at all, though Palmer argues that its setting on a remote island and its coming-of-age narrative of the young Prabhir provide an interesting convergence with the tradition he has been discussing. While this is never quite convincing, Palmer’s discussion of what it probably Egan’s most humane, character-driven novel is insightful.
Throughout, Palmer addresses the major themes one would expect in castaway narratives, including colonialism and imperialism, the valorization of competence and ingenuity, and shifting attitudes toward the natural world. His selection of texts ranges from the obvious—tales clearly in the Defoe tradition such as those by Wyss or Marryat, tales directly parodying aspects of Defoe such as Coetzee’s and Tournier’s—to the unusual, such as the entire Island of Dr. Moreau tradition he identifies or the Benford and Egan novels. On the other hand, Palmer seems so determined to regard his set of texts as an emergent, isolated genre that he sometimes overlooks important contextual issues, such as how these works relate to their own genres and traditions, or even to their authors’ other work. For example, there is no acknowledgment that Benford’s novel is a sequel or part of a much larger series, or that Wells’s novel can be viewed in the context of Darwinism and Wells’s own views on evolution. And while Palmer’s treatment of how his theme emerges in sf or young adult literature is informative, his only nod to the pulp tradition is a brief discussion of Burroughs’s minor novel The Monster Men. Other genres which have made interesting use of the castaway theme, such as the horror fiction of William Hope Hodgson and others or more surreal visionary fantasies such as E.H. Visiak’s The Haunted Island (1910) or Michel Bernanoss The Other Side of the Mountain (1968), escape attention, as do once-familiar historical titles such as James Fenimore Cooper’s The Crater (1847) or Nordhoff and Hall’s Pitcairn’s Island (1934; from their Bountytrilogy [1932-1934]).Nitpicking individual omissions is hardly useful or fair, of course, especially since Palmer introduces us to unexpected delights such as Giraudoux’s Suzanne and the Pacific or Morpurgo’s Kensuke's Kingdom, but overlooking an entire genre such as supernatural fiction seems to suggest that Palmer, like all good explorers of literary traditions, has only started a conversation rather than concluding one. Castaway Tales is an important anatomy of a tradition of which we have all been long aware, and which may be of particular significance to sf and fantasy, but which we have not before seen explored in such a provocative and insightful manner.
—Gary K. Wolfe, Roosevelt University
New Ways to Think about Zombies.
University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 2016. xxiii + 264 pp. $74.95 hc, $29.95 pbk.
As a scholar of zombie fiction, one tends to get hung up on one’s specific method of dealing with the shambling dead—does one prefer a gun, a baseball bat, or a sword? Academically speaking, that means that once you look at the hordes of undead roaming through popular culture with an eye for consumerism, you find anti-capitalist notions everywhere. Do you have a thing for the dehumanization of refugees, the colonized, and the poor? Here you go, lots of zombie fictions to cater to your tastes. It is easy to get mono-theoretical about these ever-present cyphers for our twenty-first-century lives and to forget that zombies are indeed valuable for processing a wide variety of cultural anxieties: they are “good to think with” (77), as one essay in The Walking Med: Zombies and the Medical Image states (echoing Lévi-Strauss’s comment about animals in totemism).
So it is quite possible that you have not thought about the connections that the essays in Lorenzo Servitje and Sherryl Vint’s collection draw among medical discourses, graphic literature, and the zombie. That zombie fictions establish a link with medical discourses seems a simple enough starting point, as viral outbreaks inform not only films such as 28 Days Later (2002) and Resident Evil (2002), but also one of the most popular graphic novel series: The Walking Dead’s (2003-) central tenet, “we are all infected,” infuses the narrative with questions about modern medicine and manageable diseases. But far more than discussing simple cause-effect relations or metaphors of virology, the collection wants to open up an interconnected field of medical discourses that the zombie speaks to, especially in its graphic representational form: the editors tell us in their introduction that “[t]he project of this book, then, is … to consider what new things it [the zombie] might signify in the context of contemporary for-profit healthcare, dehumanized working conditions … and biomedical protocols” (xiv). And indeed the essays here are breaking new ground in their deployment of the zombie as a figure to think through representations of specific medical diagnoses, conditions within the medical profession, and the social stigmas related to illness.
In addition to the innovative connections between medical and zombie discourses, The Walking Med introduces readers to the idea of graphic medicine, a field that deploys graphic literature as a way mainly to illustrate medical practice and the autobiographical experiences of patients. The cross-section of these three discourses is a valuable addition to the research going on in each field. As such, the volume is an immensely important venture in the kind of interdisciplinary research that we as scholars so value in science fiction itself—it serves to estrange us from our reality and helps us to appreciate a known object from unknown viewpoints. Servitje and Vint have brought together researchers from cultural studies (looking at the zombie as a metaphor) and those working in graphic medicine (using visual texts for medical purposes) and have challenged each of them to imagine new perspectives. Composed of nine essays divided into three sections, the collection expressly moves beyond the boundaries of conventional approaches.
The first section, “Diagnosing Zombie Culture,” examines and reimagines works of popular graphic literature with an eye toward the discourses of graphic medicine. This is especially fruitful in Gerry Canavan’s chapter on “Geriatric Zombies”: the medical lens allows Canavan to analyze mass-distributed comic series from DC and Marvel as allegories for treatments of aging, disability, and infirmity. Series such as Blackgas (2007), Blackest Night (2009-2010), and Marvel Zombies (2005-2006) portray characters that shift uncomfortably from normalcy and ability towards a loss of cognitive and bodily control, echoing discourses on “progressive and degenerative conditions that strike the elderly” (18). These new narratives, Canavan shows convincingly, reveal a drastic need for renegotiation of how we treat senescence and disability; they portray zombies with subjectivity struggling with an involuntary loss of humanity. Rounding out the section are two less disease-specific rereadings of the zombie as metaphor: Kari Nixon’s “Viral Virulence, Postmodern Zombies, and the American Healthcare Enterprise in the Antibiotic Age” and Tully Barnett and Ben Kooyman’s “Dramatizing Medical Ethics through Zombie and Period Fiction Tropes in the New Deadwardians.” They discuss zombie fiction as representations of conditions in the healthcare system, in the first instance in regard to access to health care and the virtual indistinction between those infected and those not infected, and in the second instance in regard to critiquing how medical knowledge and access to medicine is based in class divisions.
The second section of the anthology, “Reading the Zombie Metaphor,” turns its attention to graphic medicine and approaches these texts through the cultural impact of the zombie figure. Especially interesting and most acutely unusual in regard to methodology is the chapter on “Zombies, Comics and Medical Education” by Michael Green, Daniel George, and Darryl Wilkinson. Because Green is an MD who teaches bioethics to medical students, this chapter lacks a distinct cultural studies approach, but offers a best-practice report about Green’s teaching of “Comics and Medicine,” a course in which students draw comics of their own challenges in medical education. Green and his colleagues distill several zombie tropes from the self-depictions and storylines drawn by his students and connect them to their experiences, and to the more “dehumanizing aspects of medical education” (100) such as isolation, mindless consumption, herd mentality, and the loss of empathy in the process of becoming an MD.
Also in this second section, Juliet McMullin’s essay on “Zombie Toxin” traces the categorial multiplicities of chemicals connected to cancer, either as cure or cause, and their impacts on the conception and representation of life and death in graphic medicine. Sherryl Vint’s essay, “Zombies and Public Health in the 28 Days Later Comic Series,” discusses the cultural conflation of contagion and zombies that the CDC comic Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic (2011) has helped to entrench and suggests how indiscriminate violence against zombies can all too easily be applied to “dehumanize victims of virulent outbreaks” (140).
The third part of The Walking Med opens up the discourse of zombies and graphic medicine to include a “longer history of the study of visual culture in medicine” (xxi); it includes three essays that push beyond the cultural work of graphic novels and zombies. Sarah Juliet Lauro argues that corpses are “Zombie Objects” (151), linking them via the medical histories of anatomical models to the representation of fictional zombies in the artworks of George Pfau, and revealing their ontological work as non-living subjects. Lorenzo Servitje’s chapter on “Objectivity, Medical Visuality, and Brain Imaging” discusses a novel by Steven Schlozman—Zombie Pandemic (2011)—that revisits anatomical drawings and pre-digital knowledge technology via the zombie narrative in order to critique the discourse of neutrality and impartiality involved in digital neuro-imaging. And lastly, Dan Smith discusses the figure of the zombie as a boundary figure in an autobiographical comic, Katie Green’s Ligher than My Shadow (2013), about the pathology of and recovery from anorexia.
In all, this collection takes a most innovative and interdisciplinary approach to the very prevalent cultural phenomenon of the zombie. Instead of retracing conventional methodological pathways, the editors have done a remarkable job in guiding their contributors toward new and challenging perspectives on the subject. For anyone wanting a swerve from their own well-trodden paths researching or teaching the zombie, I wholeheartedly recommend a deep and thorough look into this book for inspiration.
—Lars Schmeink, Institut für Kultur-und Medienmanagement, Hamburg
Thinking with Science Fiction.
London: Repeater, 2016. 245 pp. $14.95 pbk.
At some 60,000 words and 240 small pages, Discognition does not look daunting. Like Shaviro’s Post Cinematic Affect (2010) and No Speed Limit (2015), it is compact and seems almost like a one-afternoon read. The appearances are deceptive, though, since the little volume packs a serious intellectual punch and will leave attentive readers returning to its sections again and again. Erudite but not overbearing and accessible but never simplistic, Steven Shaviro’s latest work may also be one of the more important critical interventions in sf studies of the last few years. Its usefulness will continue to grow with time, and for several reasons.
Summarizing even one chapter, not to mention the whole book, in a short review would be folly, but before I explain the book’s relevance for the field, I want to sketch Shaviro’s main lines of flight. Conceptually, Discognition is, in some ways, a companion to the more substantial Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism (2014), in which he maps the complicated terrain of the titular philosophical grouping, in the process proving himself a philosopher in his own right. The Universe of Things re-examines the diverse (and frequently highly incompatible) ideas of such speculative realists as Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, and Timothy Morton and proposes new readings from the perspective of the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Apart from outlining the conceptual debt many of these speculative realists owe to Whitehead, the most succinct argument of The Universe of Things is that, beyond recognizable, albeit rarely comprehensible, animal communications, the universe is permeated by other types of exchanges, transactions, and flows of information whose very existence, not to mention content, forever shun human understanding. Whitehead makes more than one appearance in Discognition, too, but the scope of the new book’s argument is narrower and more personal (that is, related to persons), even if some of the perspectives discussed are post-/trans-human and others belong to beings that are not human in any conventional sense, including radical anthropological extensions of the concept proposed, for instance, in Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s Cannibal Metaphysics (2014).
Shaviro asserts that consciousness and cognition do not exhaust a range of reactions to and engagements with reality, whatever it may be, and that we need other ways of accounting for some of the transactions he outlined in The Universe of Things. Living beings exhibit other modes of experience that may or may not exist in parallel to cognition, such as sentience, non-intentional sentience (a term Shaviro coins by subverting Michael Marder’s “non-conscious intentionality”), feeling, emotion, affect, and qualia. Shaviro’s position is that such modes are equally relevant in accounting for the incredible complexity of life. He notes that “empirical science and rational discourse are largely continuous with other ways of feeling, understanding, and engaging with the world” (13), such as “art, myth, religion, and narrative, together with the nonhuman modes of inference exhibited by other sorts of organisms” (13). These may remain outside the interests of most scientists but can provide valuable insights into some of the questions that psychoanalysis, cognitive science, and neuroscience have been asking.
This, in a nutshell, is the conceptual framework of Discognition, but Shaviro uses sf to demonstrate various approaches to “occasions of feeling” and “unusual forms of sentience” (19). The reliance on speculative extrapolation and cognitive estrangement forms a natural bridge between natural sciences and the genre, but Shaviro treats narrative as more than a reflection of scientific discussions. Instead, he claims, “science fiction narratives can help us step beyond the overly limited cognitivist assumptions of recent research both in the philosophy of mind and in the science of neurobiology” (15). To demonstrate this, in (almost) every chapter Shaviro discusses one sf text whose cognitive variant is announced in the chapter’s title. And so “Thinking Like A Philosopher” opens the book with Frank Cameron Jackson’s counterfactual Gedankenexperiment about Mary, which has enjoyed much discussion among philosophers of mind and can be, for all purposes, considered an sf text. “Thinking Like A Computer” discusses Maureen McHugh’s “The Kingdom of the Blind” (2011); “Thinking Like An Avatar” looks at Ted Chiang’s “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” (2010); and “Thinking Like A Killer” revolves around Michael Swanwick’s “Wild Minds” (1998). “Thinking Like A Human Being” considers R. Scott Bakker’s Neuropath (2008) while “Thinking Like An Alien” examines Peter Watts’s Blindsight (2006).
The readings are painstakingly detailed but exceptionally smooth (also thanks to the non-orthodox practice of listing references at the end of the book without anchoring them in the main text), as are the philosophical and scientific discussions in which Shaviro draws on a broad spectrum of secondary sources. The compatibility between the selected texts and major discussions on the science and philosophy of the mind is a very welcome validation of the genre, but I think there is more than meets the eye here and this is where the book’s value for the field of sf studies begins.
Shaviro’s assertion of sf’s power to illuminate scientific lacunae may at first seem rooted in the intellectual tradition going back to Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell, who sought to legitimate the genre through insisting on its didactic and reflective capacity in relation to science and technology. This line of reasoning has long been the genre’s tested defense against accusations of paltriness and entertaining triviality, but it has also more centrally informed several of its conventions that can be, for the sake of simplicity, gathered under the umbrella term of hard sf. Within this lineage, Shaviro’s readings certainly provide some of the finest interpretations ever produced as part of the joint science/fiction project.
At the same time, however, Discognition does seem to me to propose something opposite: that sf is a very useful tool for helping us imagine how we feel, and not only how and what we know, or could know. There is nothing new in this position from an artistic perspective (and again there exist a number of sf conventions that have explicitly used fantastic scenarios to reflect on human emotions or ethical choices). If one considers sf as a valid tool of rigorous thinking, though, this is a bold proposition since it posits that the genre—or, at least, some genre texts—pushes readers towards thinking about—quite literally—the unthinkable, “something that happens without, or before, concepts” (17). Thus, Shaviro not only provides us with exemplary readings of genre texts in dialogue with the science and philosophy of the mind; he also suggests that the genre offers useful structures to explore that which eludes rigorous systems, interdependencies, and rational relations, and claims that “fictions and fabulations, whether articulated by human beings or by other entities, are also forms of indirect, nonphenomenological access to nonconscious forms of sentience” (16). In the same way in which John Clute has suggested, somewhat counterintuitively, that horror and terror are the purest response of fantastika to what he calls the world storm in Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm (Beccon, 2011; 27), Shaviro compels us to think of sf as a privileged form for questioning feelings and affections, that, at least historically, have remained outside the purview of science and technology. This charge does not necessarily invalidate the genre’s reliance on the Suvinian estrangement/cognition paradigm: the volume’s close readings are, after all, cognitive attempts to come to terms with what remains beyond cognition and is better conceptualized as qualia. Incidentally, it would be very interesting to see whether the genre’s audiovisual and participatory media, which may at least partly circumvent the meaning-bonded medium of language, could offer more direct engagements with alternative modes of (dis)cognition. Given the above accolades, one could ask whether there is anything about Discognition that leaves something to be desired. I can think of three aspects that might leave some readers unsatisfied. First, while it confidently crosses and re-crosses the terrain of cognitive discourses, Discognition is not really a systematic monograph and works best as a collection of approaches and explorations rather than a unified argument. While there is a degree of continuity here, the chapters can be read in isolation from one other or in any sequence, as long as they are preceded by the introduction. For some readers, this may even be an advantage, but for those not conversant with cognitive discourses this arrangement may prove disorienting. The readings of individual sf texts are brilliant and elegantly open into the discussions of cognition, sentience, and intelligence, but it is sometimes difficult to assess what position these concepts occupy within a broader context of the discipline. Given that Discognition is not a primer on the philosophy of the mind, this may not even be necessary, but a separate section in the introduction could have drawn at least a general lay of the country of the mind, to use Greg Bear’s metaphor from Queen of Angels (1990).
My second reservation is, paradoxically, connected with the breadth of Shaviro’s reading. In the discussion of Frank Jackson’s thought experiment about Mary and her ability to experience color, first proposed in “Epiphenomenal Qualia” (1982), Shaviro notes the abundance of responses, positions, and interpretations:
The arguments by the various philosophers all display a tremendous amount of ingenuity, skill, and verve; they are all—given their premises—quite rigorously logical. And they are all more or less convincing on their own terms. Indeed, I cannot stop myself from being swayed by whichever one of the arguments I have read most recently. (28-29)
The same can be said about his own chapters. A wealth of references and positions regarding cognition, consciousness, and sentience, combined with the evenhandedness of Shaviro’s presentation, sometimes made me wish he had taken a more decisive position with regard to at least some of the big questions the stories engage. In all fairness, the shortage of clear resolutions is not a result of his indecision, as Shaviro has in other venues frequently demonstrated his views on the matters in question, but is more likely driven by his desire to provide an overview of dominant conversations rather than to propose authoritative readings.
Finally, the last two sections of the book depart from the clear focus of their predecessors. “Thinking Like a Slime Mold,” the last proper chapter, does not offer any textual reading, perhaps suggesting that while the genre has satisfyingly dealt with animal perspectives (most recently in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time ), it has yet to engage with plants or objects. “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature,” the very last section of the book, while fascinating and clearly connected to the penultimate chapter, is more tenuously connected to some of the book’s major themes.
These three concerns are relatively minor, though, and become thoroughly eclipsed by the persuasive flow of Shaviro’s argument, which is accessible for even less specialized readers and works brilliantly in the classroom. It may not, however, become widely referred to, given the selection of primary texts, most of which are not very likely to be often discussed critically (Blindsight is an exception here), and because of the specificity of its argumentation. Nevertheless, it will be read and admired. It will inspire and compel others to follow in its path. It will send sf scholars in the direction of the nascent field of neurohumanities, which has already generated a fair deal of both enthusiastic and negative responses. Most importantly for us in sf studies, it proposes a novel way of looking at sf texts yet to be written. If they are, Discognition will stand there as the framework’s ground zero.
— Paweł Frelik, Maria Curie-Skłodowska University
The Many Dimensions of Charles Howard Hinton.
London: Anthem, 2017. vii + 213 pp. £70/$115 hc.
A mention of the fourth dimension in nineteenth-century literature is likely to steer a reader’s thoughts first and foremost in the direction of Edwin A. Abbott, whose Flatland (1884) continues to fascinate readers with its radical but puzzling combination of mathematical exposition and social justice criticism. Abbott plays only a small part, however, in Elizabeth Throesch’s monograph on nineteenth-century four-dimensional thinking. Although the title does not indicate it, the work focuses on that other great fourth-dimensionalist, Charles Howard Hinton, whose “hyperspace philosophy” reflected a wider cultural discourse of radical new ideas at the end of the nineteenth century (1).
Hinton is known in sf circles as the author who coined the term “tesseract” for the four-dimensional equivalent of a cube, also known as a “hypercube.” This term gained wider traction after being used by Robert Heinlein in “And He Built a Crooked House” (1941) and by Madeleine L’Engle in A Wrinkle in Time (1962); it also appeared prominently in the recent film Interstellar (2014). In Before Einstein, Throesch sets out to contextualize Hinton’s four-dimensional thinking as much more than this mathematical exercise alone. Whereas the twenty-first-century reader is more likely to associate the fourth dimension with high-level mathematics and theoretical physics—string theory, for instance, relies on an astonishing ten dimensions—in the Victorian era this concept was more often approached from a philosophical, metaphysical, and ideological perspective. In this sense, Throesch shows, the concept of the fourth dimension was already deeply rooted in several areas of Victorian thinking before it became associated with Einstein and the new physics.
Both Edwin A. Abbott and Charles Howard Hinton published narratives that present a two-dimensional character being introduced to the third dimension as a metaphor that could help the three-dimensional reader conceive of a fourth spatial dimension. In her first chapter, Throesch contextualizes both Abbott and Hinton as authors working in a broader genre of lowercase-f “flatland narratives” or “dimensional analogies,” a rather populous genre by the end of the nineteenth century (24). She is quick to point out the most important, and perhaps too often overlooked, difference between Flatland and Hinton’s A New Era of Thought (1888): Abbott wanted his readers to reflect on the social context of their own three-dimensional world; Hinton used the fourth dimension as a creative space to envision a higher consciousness.
Throesch brings together an impressive range of fields in her study, prioritizing aesthetics, philosophy, and psychology, areas that are the more interesting as they are no longer commonly associated with the fourth dimension in our day and age. Hinton’s philosophy combined mathematics with these fields: he viewed the fourth dimension both as a real space and as an epistemological tool. The latter approach to the fourth dimension reflects Throesch’s methodology: she aims to investigate the literary fourth dimension, treating Hinton’s writings as literature in their own right. She argues that Hinton was much more influential as a writer of literature and philosophy than as a scientific authority. In this literary light, she devotes the second half of the monograph to a discussion of three authors who also engaged with the fourth dimension as a cultural concept: the philosopher and psychologist William James; his even more famous brother, the author Henry James; and H.G. Wells. Throesch focuses on works by these authors that at first sight do not always explicitly deal with the fourth dimension but that, as she demonstrates, share a common cultural context.
Throesch shows that Hinton’s hyperspace philosophy can also be political. Both Charles Howard Hinton and his father, James Hinton, exhibited unorthodox societal behavior, a point to which Throesch returns in nearly every chapter. James Hinton was a proponent of free love and a harasser of women who did not agree to being loved freely; Charles Howard Hinton strongly rejected his father’s views, but was himself convicted of bigamy which led him to emigrate to Japan. In her third chapter, “The Four-Dimensional Self,” Throesch explores the personal and political aspects of Hinton’s hyperspace philosophy at length. Hinton aimed to show his readership “the broadly equalizing potential of higher space”: his hyperspace is socialist and anti-capitalist (80).
Having focused on Hinton and his writings in the first half of her study, Throesch moves on to an examination of the works of William and Henry James and H.G. Wells through Hinton’s hyperspace philosophy. In the Wells chapter, she offers a fascinating queer reading of Hinton’s “A Plane World” (1886), in which Hinton complicates the sexual relations within a heterosexual two-dimensional couple: the female, a scientist, by means of an experiment temporarily becomes male through being flipped into the third dimension. Throesch points out that staging a female scientist character is not simply an unusual choice for its age, but also a tool for a deliberate political statement against contemporary legislation: homosexual intercourse had recently been outlawed, whereas lesbian intercourse had not. Throesch deftly steers this discussion toward an analysis of gendered invisibility in Hinton’s novel Stella (1895), showing through comparison with Wells’s The Invisible Man (1897) that Stella is not simply an allegory of the fourth dimension, but is also a complex multivocal novel.
It was Hinton’s aim to actually let his readers perceive the fourth dimension, and he was aware of the fact that one written work would not be enough to achieve this goal. Inspired by William James, Hinton therefore employed what Throesch calls an “ambulatory methodology”: “a constant reassessment of familiar texts and ideas in light of fresh evidence” (7). It is the journey itself, offering a plethora of experiences, that constructs knowing. Throesch adopts this methodology for her own writing as a way of approaching that fiendishly difficult hurdle in literature and science studies of introducing a complex object of study to a reader who is less familiar with it, while at the same time offering an in-depth analysis. Although the revisiting of familiar ideas inherent to the ambulatory method proves repetitive at times when reading the monograph cover to cover, the contextualization and support it offers to readers from the many possible disciplines that this monograph touches upon is commendable.
As this brief assessment of the contents shows, Throesch’s study has a humanities readership in mind: any readers without a science background who are still concerned about the mention of Einstein in the title may rest assured that this book is accessible to them. It is regrettable that the title raises expectations in the reader that do not match the contents of this monograph: as Throesch explains on the only page on which she discusses Einstein’s work, Hinton, who died in 1907, was never able to integrate Einstein’s ideas into his own (195). Throesch’s work is not an attempt to bring these two approaches to the fourth dimension together. The work elegantly integrates history of science with cultural studies, but is most suitable for those with a strong literature or cultural studies background.
—Kanta Dihal, Oxford University
A Peerless UFOlogical Compendium.
Ed. Michael P. Daley, Johan Kugelberg, and Gabriel McKee. Introduction by William Gibson. New York: Anthology Editions, 2016. 285 pp. $40 pbk.
This curious volume offers a richly meditative inventory of Jack Womack’s vast personal collection of UFO-related ephemera, which the author recently donated to the Lauinger Library at Georgetown University. On 9 February 2017, the library opened an exhibition culled from the collection, for which this gorgeously designed book also serves as a catalogue. Other books have offered useful surveys of UFO phenomena: Chris Peebles’s Watch the Skies!: A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth (1994) provides a meticulous historical study, while Gregory L. Reece’s UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture (2007) shrewdly analyzes the psychological appeal of these “close encounters.” And of course there are the vast fringe outpourings of popular UFOlogy, to which Jay David’s now-dated, somewhat credulous, but still valuable anthology The Flying Saucer Reader (1967) provides a handy introduction. Womack’s book is unique, however, in its focus on the visual culture of UFOs: hazy photos of ambiguously glimpsed skyborne objects, lurid covers of tabloid paperbacks and pulp magazines, obsessive sketches produced by putative abductees. It is arguable that, along with the gleaming hardware of conventional science fiction, UFO subculture has generated the most compelling technocultural iconography of the postwar era, a lavish panoply of whirling disks, shadowy bogeys, and lurking men in black, most enduringly rendered in the popular television series The X-Files (1993-2002). It is this visual archive that Womack’s book scrutinizes, with a comprehensiveness that is impressive if ultimately rather daunting.
Readers seeking a sober scholarly overview should access Peebles’s aforementioned title first, since Womack not only assumes some level of familiarity with the topic but seems more interested in providing a full-body immersion in the dreamy imagery of first contact than in scholarly analysis. In terms of page content, images outnumber text by a factor of at least three-to-one, and the volume—much like a visual exhibition—is clearly designed for leisurely browsing. That said, it is a wondrous browse, filled with large-scale, full-color reproductions of such arresting items as: a snapshot of a Hawaiian luau obscurely menaced by a looming disk, a series of loopy star charts included in former flight attendant Gloria Lee’s Why We Are Here! (1962), the eerie silhouette of a visiting Venusian photographed for Howard Menger’s From Outer Space to You (1959), and (my personal favorite) the psychedelic cover of Jan Hudson’s soft-porn paperback The Sexy Saucer People (1967). Throughout, Womack—erstwhile author of delirious near-future satires such as Terraplane (1988) and Elvissey (1993)—is an urbane and erudite guide, offering sometimes tongue-in-cheek but always astute assessments and contextualizations. Ten loosely chronological chapters provide diverse cross-sections of the UFO phenomenon, of greatest interest to sf scholars likely being the chapter on Raymond Palmer, editor of Amazing Stories during the heyday of the “Shaver Mystery” in the 1940s and later publisher of the pseudoscience magazines Fate and Flying Saucers. Though reviled by most serious sf authors and fans, Palmer succeeded in pioneering a phantasmagoric crossbreed of pop sci-fi and mythopoeic romance that proved endlessly fecund in subsequent decades. (For a discussion of Palmer and the Shaver controversy, see Andrew Ferguson’s review-essay in the March 2014 issue of SFS.)
Womack’s survey, while not as detailed as Peebles’s, is nonetheless concise and penetrating, distilled as it is from such a vast archive of material. Despite what might seem an obvious assumption that UFOs are distinctly American phenomena (think Roswell, Area 51), Womack offers truly global coverage, including such rare works as Aimé Michel’s Lueurs sur les soucoupes volantes [The Truth About Flying Saucers, 1956], the first-ever French-language study. From the first published reference to “flying saucers” in a 1947 news story reporting a startling sighting by a commercial pilot, through the founding of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) and the Air Force’s Project Blue Book in the 1950s, up to the influential contactee narratives of Barney and Betty Hill in the 1960s and the archaeological/ extraterrestrial fantasies of Erich von Däniken in the 1970s, Womack provides incisive commentary on the evolution of the UFO myth and provocative analyses of the enduring appeal of “believing the unbelievable.” According to Womack, a fascination for UFOs is not unlike the fabled sense of wonder the best sf inspires, since both offer “ways to see beyond the neighborhood” (19). William Gibson’s introduction suggests the nostalgic value of this unique conspectus of the UFO “meme,” with its “essential linkages, shadowy entities on the far sides of manual typewriters, otherwise lost down the well of time” (7). The fruit of 40 years of collecting, including both professionally published works and privately printed vanity texts, Womack’s library is a treasure trove for scholars of popular mythology, as well as for general readers interested in this bizarre mass-cult outburst of quasi-science-fictional beliefs.
…Flying Saucers Are Real! is published by Anthology Editions, a small New York City-based press dedicated to “uncover[ing] and fashion[ing] cultural narratives as books, music collections, online experiences, and exhibitions,” in partnership with Boo-Hooray, a group devoted to “the organization, stabilization, and preservation of 20th and 21st century cultural movements,” especially “ephemera, photography, and book arts” (these quotations are culled from their respective websites). It must be admitted that there is a bit of a New-Age sheen to their endeavors, as shown by the supplements that came with my review copy of Flying Saucers: a creepy black-and-white pamphlet promoting a digital album by Shadow Band, a neo-psychedelic metal group, complete with a voucher code to access their music online; and two bags of “Nearly Nirvana” tea, a mixture of white and green teas, jasmine and orange blossoms, and spearmint that promises to promote a meditative reverie. I highly recommend sipping the tea and listening to the music while leafing through Womack’s spectacular tome.
—Rob Latham, Los Angeles
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