Science Fiction Studies

#133 = Volume 44, Part 3 = November 2017


Iain M. Banks Revisited.

Paul Kincaid. Iain M. Banks. Champaign, IL: U of Illinois P, MODERN MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION, 2017. 206 pp. $22 pbk.

Perhaps due to the power steering of series editor Gary K. Wolfe, this new volume in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series seems like a bona fide twofer: Paul Kincaid, a remarkably incisive and informed critic of print sf, on Iain M. Banks, one of the most talented and beloved sf writers of the past thirty years. And in many ways this survey delivers on such a promise, save for a couple of caveats I hazard below. Certainly, as Kincaid himself mentions in his brief summary of the extant criticism on Banks, scholarship is still in its early stages in the academic reception of this prolific, recently deceased author. This book is therefore useful as a comprehensive primer written for the uninitiated, the curious, or for those invested scholars or die-hard aficionados who simply want a brush-up or broad overview of the author’s oeuvre. And, with any luck, this lucid and cogent survey will pave the way for further theoretically rigorous studies.

The volume is organized into five chapters that perform admirably in addressing Banks’s full literary output in chronological order of publication, interspersing deeper analyses of Banks’s major themes with thumbnail plot descriptions, always tied together by an overarching analytic premise. These recurring themes include the following: the phantasmagoria of the split self, the ontology of games, the fracturing of the family complete with gruesome gothic trappings and decadent rituals, religious ideology, and, perhaps most vitally, bearing witness to the collateral damage wreaked by rampant, unfettered capitalism. The book also spends a great deal of time discussing Banks’s depiction of the Culture, his futuristic science-fictional civilization, and whether or not its altruistically hedonistic post-scarcity secular utopia is ultimately benign. Moreover, the book superbly analyzes Banks’s ingenious wordplay and his postmodern structural experiments with invented dialects, cross-cutting non-linear time streams, multiple points of view, and unreliable narrators. As Kincaid notes, Banks “loved to set himself structural or linguistic challenges in his novels” (90). Lastly, the book appends a 2014 interview with Banks conducted by Jude Roberts; in addition to being hilarious, here Banks insightfully fields questions touching on issues of posthumanity, utopia, and gender. 

All in all, Kincaid remains a masterful practitioner of the lost art of finely calibrated literary criticism. There are no raving plaudits or ruthless pans, and Kincaid’s discriminating preferences (Use of Weapons [1990], Excession [1996], Transition [2009]) are often well-justified, while at the same time he never refrains from either damning with faint praise (Against a Dark Background [1993]) or refreshingly expressing outright distaste (The Algebraist [2004]). In general, Kincaid wishes to welcome Banks into the big tent of what John Clute calls “fantastika,” endeavoring to reverse Banks’s regrettably compartmentalized reception history in which his mimetic fiction was not reviewed in the sf press and some literary luminaries refused to read his sf work. And indeed Kincaid certainly has more to say about the interplay between the ostensibly mundane and the seemingly fantastic in Banks’s fiction than does Simone Caroti in his recent study, The Culture Series of Iain Banks (McFarland, 2015). Nevertheless, despite an extended discussion of The Wasp Factory (1984), Walking on Glass (1985), The Bridge (1986), and Whit (1995), as well as scattered references to Banks’s many other fictions, the focus remains mostly on Banks’s overtly sf work, especially on the Culture novels.

Pearls of stunning insight abound, such as Kincaid’s contention that Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) hovers under the surface of The Wasp Factory in the grand tradition of what Kincaid calls the Scottish fantastic. Another insight of this volume is the suggestive examination of Consider Phlebus (1987), Use of Weapons, Excession, and Look to Windward (2000) as a quartet of novels centered on the lead-up to and fall-out of the Indiran War; all are involved most pressingly with a meditation on mortality rendered in space-operatic terms as the logical end of material and social progress—whether it be the technological sublimation into a more heavenly plane of existence, the more or less graceful shuffling off the mortal coil, or the struggle forever. Kincaid lucidly declares Excession to be a “high point of [Banks’s] science-fiction career” in part because it maintains “the pace and scale, the limitless vistas” of traditional space opera, while at the same time subverting the “politics, the imperialism, the hierarchies, the racism, and the casual assumptions that underlay space opera in its pomp” (72). Likewise, Kincaid follows Caroti in reading the final three Culture novels (Matter [2008], Surface Detail [2010], and The Hydrogen Sonata [2012]) as a trilogy, adding that the books explore the theme of “religious revelation ... approached cynically, of course” (119).

Of course, every interpretative insight, no matter how perceptive, has its obligatory blindness in which the critic reveals more about his or her own tastes, however judicious, than about the author under study. I see the major oversights and limitations of this study as primarily twofold. Firstly, by lumping all of Banks’s astonishingly varied fiction into the catch-all of Scottish fantastic literature, Kincaid glosses over the precise slipstream and genre-hybridizing features that make Banks’s work stand out; it also tends to gloss over the specific distinctiveness of particular genre fictions as radically divergent as science fiction and mundane realism, not to mention the more particular demarcation of a subgenre, such as space opera or the post-apocalyptic novel. In terms of science fiction, for instance, despite the Culture’s futuristic society being built on the uncanny powers of supremely advanced artificial intelligence, Kincaid only briefly mentions the role that computer technology plays in Banks’s fiction. In terms of mundane realism, the reader may be forgiven for concluding that all these sans-middle-initial books are supernatural phantasmagorias and are not very much concerned with the recognizable everyday minutiae of modern life, although reading these mainstream quotidian novels themselves would probably leave a different impression on the reader.

Secondly, while typically compelling on the ways in which the patronizing, interventionist attitude espoused by the Culture in effect parodies the smug rhetoric that pops up in contemporary neo-imperial dynamics, Kincaid tends to overplay this hand, rather perversely calling the Culture a “deeply conservative society” (83). It seems to me that he underestimates the extent to which the trolling critics of the minor, isolated flaws and imperfections of the anarcho-socialist utopia are themselves unreliable and problematic viewpoint characters. This aversion to exploring the utopian global cultural politics at the heart of Banks’s work leads to some moments of against-the-grain close reading in which Kincaid explicitly argues that Banks is essentially anti-utopian despite all the evidence from the texts themselves or from the author’s repeated avowals in interviews of his admiration for the progressive idea of a genuine “utopia where absolutely no one is exploited” (42). A more nuanced understanding of the evolving genre of complex, critical utopias that pervades contemporary sf or a deeper interrogation of political-cultural utopia as an unrealized, inchoate desire rather than a static or monolithic crystallization would have mitigated what I consider to be a misreading. Nevertheless, when he does mention the overtly political and deeply historical resonance of Banks’s work, Kincaid is, unsurprisingly, both meticulous and astute.

—Jerome Winter, University of California, Riverside

Diachronic and Synchronic.

Rob Latham, ed. Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. vii + 582 pp. $98.87 hc, $39.95 pbk, $30 ebook.

With sf becoming a popular subject for academic teaching and research, the need for a comprehensive compendium of essential theoretical writings on the subject has never been higher. While there are a number of sf readers on the market, most of them cover either the historical trajectory of the genre or a specific topos or theoretical issue. Latham’s volume purports to do both, bringing together “essential works in the history of SF criticism” and “key theoretical statements” (1). Thus, it attempts to be both a resource for students of sf and an intervention into the current theoretical debate in sf studies. While brilliantly succeeding in its first task, its fulfilment of the second promise is more problematic. I would argue that this stems from the very nature of a project that tries to combine diachronic and synchronic approaches in a single volume.

The anthology is divided into five parts: “Definitions and boundaries,” “Structure and form,” “Ideology and world view,” “The nonhuman,” and “Race and the legacy of colonialism.” Within each part, entries are organized more or less chronologically. Part 1, for example, starts with Hugo Gernsback’s editorial for Amazing Stories (1926) and H.G. Wells’s “Preface to The Scientific Romances” (1933) and ends with John Rieder’s “On Defining SF, or Not: Genre Theory, SF, and History” (2010).

The construction of Part 1 mirrors the duality of the volume’s concept. The entries by Gernsback, Wells, Robert Heinlein, Judith Merril, and Bruce Sterling (all active producers of sf as writers/editors) focus on the practical needs of the genre at specific moments in history. The essays by Veronica Hollinger, Roger Luckhurst, and John Rieder are theoretical investigations. This is not to say that the same person cannot be a writer and a theoretician: Adam Roberts, Stanislaw Lem (unaccountably missing from the anthology), and Damien Broderick (present) are examples to the contrary. Rather, practical criticism and academic analysis are different forms of discourse that do not necessarily gain from their enforced proximity. To quote Rieder’s cogent examination of the nature of genre, “attribution of the identity of sf to a text constitutes an active intervention in its distribution and reception” (76). In other words, critics and theoreticians do not approach the same object from different perspectives but rather construct their object in the very act of writing about it.

Sf is a moving target. Wells’s “scientific romances,” Heinlein’s “speculative fictions” in 1947, and Hollinger’s “cybernetic deconstructions” of 1988 refer to different corpuses. But more importantly, in each case generic identification depends upon the exigencies of the overall argument. While Wells wishes to differentiate his novels from those of his popular rival Jules Verne, Hollinger attempts to legitimize sf by linking it to the poetics of postmodernism. Roger Luckhurst’s polemic (1995), on the other hand, is an argument against the very notion of generic “legitimation.” Arguably each entry tells us more about its own cultural moment than about the essence of sf.

Part 2, “Structure and form,” vacillates between prescriptive and descriptive as well: J.G. Ballard and Samuel R. Delany outline the ways in which they would like sf to go in order to become what Ballard calls “the literature of tomorrow” (103), while Darko Suvin and Marc Angenot analyze the existing structure of the genre from Marxist and semiotic perspectives. Of all the sections of the book, however, Part 2 possesses the greatest coherence, precisely because all the essays belong, roughly speaking, to the same historical moment and share the same theoretical paradigm: poststructuralism and postmodernism.

Contemporary theory, however, has largely left this moment behind. The next three parts shift toward what the editor calls the “contemporary understanding of SF as a mode of analysis … a way of thinking about alterity and difference” (1). But this understanding is framed in a particular way not just by the selection of texts but by the ways these texts are divided into categories. Such divisions are not merely formal conventions: they express the underlying theoretical paradigm that makes the anthology more than just a collection of historical milestones. The structure is a statement of intent. Just like any other text of sf theory, Latham’s book constructs its subject in the selection and arrangement of its entries. And this construction clearly privileges certain kinds of sf over others.

The last three parts of the volume deal with the issue of alterity but in a way that seems inherently self-contradictory. “Ideology and world view” is separated from “The nonhuman” and “Race and the legacy of colonialism.” But why? It is hard to argue that racism is not an ideology or that the dichotomy of human/non-human does not have political consequences. Indeed, most entries in Part 4, “The nonhuman,” from Donna Haraway’s famed “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century” (1984; italics mine) to N. Katherine Hayles’s discussion of virtual bodies and Sherryl Vint’s of animal alterity, focus precisely on the political implications of (re)defining humanity. So does Mary Shelley’s Introduction to Frankenstein, also included in this section, except that the politics of 1831 are different from those of 1984, while the latter are different from those of 2010.

One might say that the reader does not have to read the essays in the order in which they are presented and, indeed, I assume that most will not. Still, the separation among Parts 3, 4 and 5 implies a theoretical disjunction between neo-Marxism and feminism on the one hand, and postcolonialism and posthumanism on the other. Class and gender, subjects of the essays in Part 3 (“Ideology and world view”), are seen as ideological constructs, while race and species, discussed in Parts 5 and 4, seem reified into immutable categories by the organization. Not only is that a highly contestable view, but the entries themselves, especially Csicsery-Ronay’s brilliant “Science fiction and empire” (2003), clearly show it to be wrong. It argues that sf arose in the context of “the political-cultural transformation that originated in European imperialism” (443). But it was precisely that transformation that gave rise to the bio-political discourse of both race and species.

Perhaps by emphasizing postcolonial approaches, the anthology tries to break away from the narrow construction of sf as an Anglo-American genre. Indeed, what is perhaps most unique about sf is its global reach. Even before the collapse of the USSR, Eastern European sf exemplified by Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers engaged in a fascinating generic and political dialog with the Anglo-American tradition, itself split between the British “scientific romance” and the American heritage of the pulps. With the explosion of Japanese, Chinese, African, and Arab sf, it is impossible to conceptualize the genre as belonging to a single national literature; indeed, it might best be seen in terms of a “global” or “cosmopolitan” textual dynamics. Here, however, the limitations of the anthology become obvious. Not only does it omit any essay by Lem, despite his profound importance for sf both as a writer and a theoretician, but neither are there entries for Soviet, Chinese, Japanese, or Eastern European sf. Stephen Hong Sohn’s “Alien/Asian: Imagining the racialized future” does engage Japanese cyberpunk, such as Ghost in the Shell (1995), but its focus is on the orientalism of American sf and its entanglement with the trope of the “yellow peril.” Of course, no compilation can include everything without becoming an equivalent of Borges’s infinite Book of Sand. But the kind of omission each anthology practices is significant because it lays bare the theoretical underpinnings of the selection.

If Science Fiction Criticism is seen as a teaching resource, its usefulness is undeniable. But if we are to consider it as an intervention into the continuing debate over the protean cultural formation known as sf, its flaws are a reflection of the limitations of the current theoretical paradigm(s). More than anything, it calls for a new approach that can integrate genre, politics, and history.

—Elana Gomel, Tel-Aviv University

The Science and Fiction of Time Travel.

Paul J. Nahin. Time Machine Tales: The Science Fiction Adventures and Philosophical Puzzles of Time Travel. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2017. xlix + 383 pp. $19.99 pbk.

While many people are content to identify as either left- or right-brained, science-fiction readers often reject this falsely dichotomous mindset by embracing the study of both the sciences and the arts. With Time Machine Tales, Paul J. Nahin presents a multi-focused view of time travel that considers philosophical issues, scientific analyses, and depictions in literature and cinema, and considers how all of these interact with each another. Nahin explores how theories such as grandfather paradoxes, bootstrap paradoxes, and backward causation have created problems for both philosophers and physicists, and he looks at how these ideas have been treated in fiction. Nahin pays special attention to stories published in the mid-twentieth-century pulp magazines that varied widely in quality from fanciful tales with laughably bad science to surprisingly sophisticated and prescient stories of time travel, some of which anticipate the work of legitimate scientific researchers by decades. Throughout the book, Nahin points out ideas once ridiculed by the scientific community that were eventually either proven correct, such as Subrahmanyar Chandrasekhar’s findings about collapsing stars (360), or at least given mathematical credence, such as Kurt Gödel’s discovery that time travel to the past does not violate Einstein’s theory of general relativity (212). Although Nahin admits the many theoretical and engineering impediments to time travel, he remains optimistic that it is possible.

One of Nahin’s main focuses is the relationship between philosophy and physics. Much of time-travel sf and theory deals with paradox, and many philosophers have pondered conundrums such as the grandfather paradox for generations. Nahin’s work explores what physics has to say about such paradoxes. Sometimes the two fields seem to support each other, yet at other times they appear at odds. Nahin notes how philosophers’ queries into the nature of time and infinity go back to Plato and St. Augustine, suggesting that it was Einstein’s contemplations of the nature of existence that made him into a philosopher. One of the perennial questions that erupts when discussing time travel is about its ramifications for ideas about both free will and predestination. While physicists often avoid these theologically oriented concerns, Nahin does not shy away from them. In lamenting this avoidance he writes: “I suspect that physicists who study time travel have either been unaware, unimpressed, or just plain uninterested. That’s too bad, because one doesn’t have to be religious to appreciate the pure intellectual challenges presented by such questions” (104). Nahin’s ability to look at time travel through the lens of different disciplines sheds light on the rich complexity of both its theory and its fiction that is often erased in either cold equations or wild speculation.

Nahin’s primary literary concern is with Golden Age pulp sf. Although he also considers contemporary sf cinema, as well as sf novelists from H.G. Wells to Robert Heinlen who have gained literary acclaim, much of his attention focuses on the periodicals that targeted adolescent readers and that were considered to be ephemeral and trashy. Nahin notes, however, that many of the stories in these publications were not only of legitimate literary merit, but also engaged intelligently with cutting-edge theories in physics. Nahin’s research into these old magazines really is quite impressive. While some of these stories are comically unsophisticated in their scientific knowledge, they nonetheless often highlight the practical and philosophical impediments that scientists researching the possibility of time travel must confront. Other stories, however, are surprisingly advanced in their scientific knowledge. Nahin thoroughly delves into the contents of these early- and mid-twentieth- century magazines and finds stories that integrate whatever scientific principles he discusses in each chapter of his book. He uses many of these examples to remind his readers that what was once considered impossible was worked out, at least to an extent, in the pages of fiction. Nahin argues that the instances where science fiction has anticipated science should “not … be interpreted as some sort of ‘gotcha’ in favor of science fiction. Far from it. When push comes to shove, physics always wins” (xix; emphasis in original). At the same time, he praises time-travel narratives for their ability to challenge our imaginations, to inspire science to greater discoveries, and to contemplate the dilemmas—ethical, philosophical, and scientific—that time travel to the past entails.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of this study is the discussion of the actual science of time travel. Nahin has published works in both literary and scientific fields, and this study is truly an intriguing blend of the two. Readers with scientific backgrounds will no doubt gain a lot of insight from the discussions of general relativity and quantum theory, as well as from the many equations that fill the pages of this work. Even readers who are not adept in math and science (and, like me, may simply have to glance at the equations and move on) will still find the attention Nahin pays to the science of time travel illuminating. In addition, for fans of time-travel sf the realistic possibilities Nahin discusses for time travel to the past are delightfully tantalizing. Nahin notes the “child-like frustration we sometimes feel at being confined to the present” (4), and his explanation of the theories that argue for the viability of time travel gives a glimmer of hope to those who are intrigued by the possibility of humanity’s one day traveling to the past.

Nahin concludes his study optimistically: “And so we see, with each passing decade, more and more of science fiction departing from the make-believe to the pages of physics journals” (333), and the connections he draws between real science and sf demonstrate how true this assertion is. This work is an indispensable study for scholars and fans of time-travel sf, and readers will gain a deeper insight into both the literary history of time travel and the science involved. Literature teachers will also find a plethora of ideas for texts to teach and very insightful discussion and writing prompts at the end of each chapter. Without a doubt, Time Travel Tales is a necessary read in the field of time-travel studies.

—James Hamby, Middle Tennessee State University

Not Your Father’s Materialism.

Joanna Page. Science Fiction in Argentina: Technologies of the Text in a Material Multiverse. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2016. 235 pp. $39.95 pbk.

Joanna Page begins her study by citing Elvio E. Gandolfo’s unfortunate proclamation that sf does not exist in Argentina, an affirmation that would certainly be disputed by scholars such as Rachel Haywood Ferreira, Fernando Reati, and Andrew J. Brown, among others. While Professor Page does not “discover” Argentine sf, she does offer an admirable contribution to the understanding of little-known or unknown works from that country, where the genre has suffered from being overshadowed by its more famous sibling, fantasy. Located within a post-postmodern or post-“linguistic-turn” tendency to “re-materialize” highly metafictional and intertextual works, to subject them to the scrutiny of historical materialism, the study asks: what do they have to say about the means of their own production and relationship to history? Page accuses poststructuralism of reducing these fictions to mere discourse to “emphasize the fictionality of the world” (4), à la Borges. In response, she draws on Walter Benjamin and new materialists such as Rosi Braidotti, Bernard Stiegler, Catherine Malabou, and Mark Hansen, asserting that these reflexive elements themselves draw attention to the materiality of their own production and the historical circumstances thereof, of the readers/viewers and their relationship to technology, and of the act of reading/viewing itself. She is thus able to claim for such narratives an ideological usefulness denied them by Marxist theorists such as Fredric Jameson.

In the first chapter, “Intellectuals and the Masses,” Page looks at late nineteenth-century writer Eduardo Holmberg’s Viaje maravilloso del señor Nic Nac al planeta Marte [Mr. Nic Nac’s Marvelous Journey to Mars, 1875], and the two main series of Hector Germán Oesterheld’s El Eternauta [The Eternaut, 1955-1957, 1976-1977]. She claims a materialist consciousness for both in “their shared recourse to a Darwinian framework to explain class struggle, and in Oesterheld’s Marxist understanding of the relationship between human labor, nature, and technology” (16). This chapter comes the closest to offering a traditional Marxist reading of the texts, with the least emphasis on the authors’ self-reflexive use of their physical materiality.

The second chapter analyzes the graphic fiction Ministerio [Ministry, 1986] by Ricardo Barreiro, in which Page examines how the series’ “ludic interrogation of its own conventions” (51) foregrounds “the materiality of the text, and of drawing, writing, and reading as embodied practices that situate us within the material world … to aid its readers in their negotiation of the material world beyond the text” (53). Unlike the previous chapter, its focus on the graphic novel as a medium for collapsing the distance between text and material world is entirely new-materialist in nature, obviating questions of class struggle.

Crises in the transmission of human culture and knowledge in post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian novels are the focus of chapter three. Here Page makes use of the ideas of André Léroi-Gourhan and Bernard Stiegler concerning genre-culture coevolution in an analysis of Eduardo Blaustein’s Cruz diablo [Devil Cross, 1997], Rafael Pinedo’s Plop [2004], and Pedro Mairal’s El año del desierto [The Year of the Desert, 2005]. She proposes that by reflexively emphasizing the role of “technics” in human history and questioning the concept of “progress,” “the writers denaturalize the course of history, showing it not to be governed by some kind of universal and inevitable directionality, but by a series of decisions that are political in nature” (82). The Darwinian concept of historical progress is attacked in these apocalyptic works, as she convincingly argues, but her interpretation is implicitly anti-materialist in the Marxist sense of history as the inevitable playing-out of class struggle, since the works discussed follow the post-Enlightenment paradigm of history as the story of human progress.

The study’s fourth chapter examines how Horacio Quiroga’s short fiction from the 1920s, Bioy Casares’s novella La invención de Morel [Morel’s Invention, 1940], and César Aira’s novel El juego de los mundos [The Game of Worlds, 2000] represent visual technologies “as prostheses for human thought and memory,” exercising a “determining influence on modes of human engagement with the material environment” to “explore the changing forms of perception and subjectivity” (108). Following Catherine Malabou, Page asserts that these texts “demonstrate the plasticity of human perception” (108), and “ironically resort to literature to narrate the eclipse of that particular textual technology” (129). The concept of visual technologies as prostheses is a provocative and important one that has been fruitfully employed in work on the posthuman, and Page’s observations and choice of texts offer an interesting theoretical bridge between scholarship on “old” printed technologies and that on virtual realities and the technologies in which humans themselves take on an entirely new materiality.

The theater and its uniquely physical, embodied nature take center stage in chapter five. In it, Page finds that Rafael Spregelburd’s play La paranoia [Paranoia, 2008] “makes use of chaos theory and fractal geometry to suggest material patterns possessing meaning beyond the limitations of human language” (10). The author also reads Marcelo Cohen’s Variedades [Varieties, 1998] and Donde yo no estaba [Where I Wasn’t, 2006] as offering a “postanthropocentric understanding of subjectivity and the materiality of the text” (11). In these works, postanthropocentrism is not the object of fear: the works gesture “beyond anthropocentrism to an understanding of agency that embraces both human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic forces” (152), offering a paradigm of “radical immanence” (152). It is interesting to note how her reading of Cohen points once again toward questions of the posthuman.

Chapter six looks at the treatment of temporality in four films: Juan Pablo Buscarini and Swan Glecer’s Cóndor Cruz, la leyenda del futuro [Condor Cross, Legend of the Future, 2000], Federico León and Marco Martínez’s Estrellas [Stars, 2007], Fernando Spiner’s La sonámbula [The Somnambulist, 1998], and Esteban Sapir’s La antena [The Antenna, 2007]. Estrellas is a mockumentary that portrays a shantytown where material refuse and history are both recycled in the making of an sf film by foreign producers; Condor Crux recycles Mayan, Aztec, and Incan symbols and imagery as well as the myth of El Dorado, blending them with the trappings of contemporary high-tech society; La antena uses “fairy-tale and comic-book aesthetics” (171), and La sonámbula employs “a series of citations from an archive of past futuristic visions” (179) consisting of “video recordings of private memories and dreams” (188). Thus the four, each in its own manner, offer a “reflexive exploration of the role of cinema in shaping temporality” (180) that disrupts the linear time of modernity and “locates utopian potential precisely within the power of cinema itself as a visual technology” (172). This is, in my estimation, the chapter in which Page’s close readings are most convincing, in which the works analyzed most clearly support the theoretical approach. 

There is an unavoidable irony underlying Page’s excellent study: because these works are self-reflexive and intertextual, her own work continually rubs up against the poststructuralist social constructivism she decries. She examines the same characteristics, and in some cases makes the same claim for them, as the poststructuralists. For example, in chapters three and six, the author claims the works examined contest the modern, linear metanarrative of history as progress—and poststructuralist critics praised non-linear, self-reflexive narratives for doing just that. She asserts that Spregelburd’s La paranoia points toward a transcendence of the limits of language—also a favorite postmodern theme of poststructuralist critics. It is perhaps for this reason, to distance herself from them, that she scrupulously avoids using the words “self-reflexive” and “metafictional”—favorites as they are of poststructuralists—to describe the works analyzed. I believe it suggests that Linda Hutcheon’s observation in “Historiographic Metafiction: Parody and the Intertextuality of History” (1989) is applicable here: these texts are “overtly and resolutely historical—though, admittedly, in an ironic and problematic way” (in Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction, ed. O'Donnell and Davis 10). This view can easily coexist with Page’s argument that the works “connect the text to the material world, embedding the text within an evolution of technology that is not subject to the evolution of culture but interacts with it in complex ways” (192-93).

Finally, one is left to wonder: can emphasizing materiality and technological processes reflexively in art promote social change or improve the material conditions of existence in Latin America? If so, how? Occasionally, Page hints that by raising public consciousness, peoples’ actions in the material world may be made “revolutionary.” This is not a criticism of the study: her readings are insightful and nuanced, and her argument convincing. With the exception of Quiroga and Bioy Casares, and to a lesser extent Holmberg, Oesterheld, and Cohen, little or no scholarship exists on these writers and filmmakers. Page provides a nice balance of context and analysis and, despite invoking an impressive array of theories, the study is accessible to advanced undergraduates. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in Latin American science fiction or popular culture, as well as for comparatists.

—Dale Knickerbocker, East Carolina University

An Idiosyncratic Labor of Love.

Ace G. Pilkington. Science Fiction and Futurism: Their Terms and Ideas. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017. xi + 222 pp. $35.00 pbk.

Ace Pilkington’s Science Fiction and Futurism is evidently a labor of love, and one that offers readers various avenues into the relationships among sf, futurist thinking, and technological and scientific innovations. It is also quite an idiosyncratic exploration of these areas, one with limited uses. The title, with the terms ”Science Fiction” and “Futurism” co-located, promises much, and opens up a vast territory over which the book might range, but the subtitle, Their Terms and Ideas, suggests a slippage between the fields of sf and futurism. Pilkington, one assumes, intends to engage with terms within these fields, but equally implies that the fields themselves are open to similar issues of discussion and debate.

He recognizes that “[t]he book is not comprehensive; given the enormous quantity of information that stands behind such terms, no single source of any kind or size could be, but the book is representative” (7). But it is not really representative either, except of a particular approach to sf and futurism, and indeed a particular understanding of each of those terms: Pilkington’s own, primarily, and I suspect mine does not conform to his. Further, the book is divided in a disconcerting manner: two sections, “The Terms of Science and its Fictions” and “Genre Terms,” with each section having a series of entries presented in the double-column format so recognizably a feature of reference works. The result is a disjointed work that, based on the first section’s title, seemingly locates ”science” (broadly defined) as the unifying factor in sf and futurism.

Not only are the sections somewhat unusual, but the terms discussed are themselves often very idiosyncratic. The first section lists technologies (“Nanotechnology,” “Robot”), tropes and recurrent ideas (“First Contact,” “Death Ray”), alongside an eclectic mix of other terms (“Mutant,” “Teleportation,” “Uplift”). The second section is notably shorter, defining terms such as “Monomyth,” “Science Fiction,” “Sci Fi,” and “Speculative Fiction” alongside “Cassandras,” “Faust,” and “Separable Soul.” It is difficult here to see the overall cohesion of the book across these two sections, and even within them. A student could not pick up this book and look for a particular “key” term or concept, as the naming conventions of the entries often require a pre-existing familiarity with the field. Indeed, Pilkington’s approach seems to suggest that the very notion of a “key” term or concept might not exist. Moreover, although entries are ostensibly written “to answer the questions: what is it, where did it come from, and what is it about to become?” (7), they do not always do this convincingly, and are often unbalanced in how they even approach or engage with those concerns.

Given Pilkington’s penchant for particular cultural reference points and exemplars in sf (he is clearly a fan of Person of Interest [2011-2016] and the topic of AI), many readers will wonder about the selection criteria, and there is certainly an argument that the book is more about being “partial” than it is truly “representative.” Written in a deliberately chatty and approachable manner, some entries are full of insight, critical interrogation, explicit links between sf tropes and futurist thinking, and subsequent technological developments, whereas others seem to have little to do with futurism. Futurism is here, it is just not very evenly distributed.

Nonetheless, despite all its problems, I remain rather fond of the eclecticism and individuality of Science Fiction and Futurism. It is frustrating and entertaining in equal measure; it provides new ways of approaching particular ideas and yet remains severely limited; it provides many new points of reference and informative anecdotes while often stating the obvious. In terms of what this book sets out to do and what it achieves, then, it is really quite successful. Readers expecting an analysis of the ways in which the relative territories of sf and futurism might intersect will leave this book feeling hungry for more detail and engagement, and will undoubtedly find themselves heavily annotating entries with phrases such as “What about?” or “Surely needs to consider.” This is precisely something that David Brin points out in his Foreword: “Comprehensive? This ain’t. Provocative and enticing? Filled with ‘huh!’ moments and leads to great stories? That describes this volume. And I hereby give you permission to scribble in the margins all the things the compiler left out” (2).

Science Fiction and Futurism is far from perfect, being partial to the point of idiosyncrasy, and it is a book that has to be thought against, as much as through. Yet precisely because of this, it should serve to help inspire students of sf to consider how to talk about such terms as “science fiction” and “futurism” in conjunction with each other, how to define terms that are used within each of those areas, and what the useful and fruitful areas for “future” analysis and discussion might be. It also helpfully sidesteps the trend of viewing sf instrumentally and so avoids the trite corollaries often made about the social and technological relevance of sf. For all its faults, it firmly deserves a place in sf scholarship for its sheer verve, breadth of reference, and love of what sf does, whatever we decide that is.

—Will Slocombe, University of Liverpool

A “Monster” of Academic Jargon.

Iva Polak. Futuristic Worlds in Australian Aboriginal Fiction. Oxford: Peter Lang, WORLD SCIENCE FICTION STUDIES, 2017. xix + 271pp. $67.95 pbk.

Many in Australia still find the combination of sf and Aboriginal writing unusual, as sf writer Ambelin Kwaymullina, of the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia, reports. An increasing number of emerging Aboriginal authors, however, are writing in forms of speculative fiction. In addition, the television series Cleverman (2016-present) brought an Aboriginal hero of the near-future to the attention of the Australian public. A study combining theories of sf and Australian Aboriginal fiction, then, is certainly timely.

Unfortunately, Futuristic Worlds in Australian Aboriginal Fiction is a disjointed attempt to combine sf theory with Aboriginal works expressing futurity. The thesis of this work, outlined in the preface, is simply to demonstrate that neglected works of Aboriginal fantastic fiction “can withstand application of any theory,” while at the same time they “demand” the bending of “existent critical apparatus” (xix). Although Polak promises that the five works discussed in this study can do “much more” than exploring and bending existing sf theories, no further claims are clearly specified. The lack of a clear argument is compounded by several editorial errors and an imprecise writing style. Futuristic Worlds contains an introduction, two chapters on theory, and five chapters devoted to analyses of specific works. Each of these chapters offers an introduction to the author and a synopsis of a specific work: Eric Willmot’s Below the Line (1991); Ellen van Neerven’s novella “Water” (2014); Archie Weller’s Land of the Golden Clouds (1998); Sam Watson’s The Kadaitcha Sung (1990); and Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (2013). The analyses are often overburdened with a profusion of terms and theory and it is unfortunate that this book does not include a further-reading list.

The introduction offers a lengthy survey of the Australian literary scene in increasingly narrower categories, from the Australian non-Aboriginal fantastic novel to the Aboriginal novel and finally to the Aboriginal fantastic novel. Polak attempts to explain why there are very few Australian literary works that depart from consensus reality and why fantastic novels by Aboriginal writers compose an even smaller portion of the market. Although the reasons are complex, Polak tends to rely on simplified cultural traits and banalities, seeing Australia as simply a place that does not resort to magical realism. Discussing the invisibility of Australian sf on the global market, Polak cites the fact that Australia is “located on the geographical periphery” and has a “relatively small” book market (9, 10). Such a simplification of the Australian literary landscape fails to consider additional factors including the relatively recent establishment of Australia as a single nation and the lack of a strong national identity. These are not only interesting factors but also are relevant to Willmot’s futuristic vision of Australia in Below the Line, analyzed in Chapter 3.

Chapter 1 presents the theoretical backbone to the study and is particularly preoccupied by Todorov’s theory of the fantastic, as evident in the chapter’s title, “The Fantastic as a Terminological Trickster.” In this chapter Polak aims to “extract the terminology that will be used to analyse” the five novels (41). Although Polak acknowledges that discussing the “pneumatics of the fantastic ... might seem as though we are casting our net too wide” (41), this caveat does not rebalance the dominance of the fantastic in the chapter. Following a rather thorough outline of Todorov’s requirements for the “fantastic,” Polak reveals that Todorov’s category of the marvellous is really “the focal point of this study” (46). After further recapitulations of Todorov’s theory, Polak attempts to “correct” Todorov’s category of the “scientific marvelous” with Darko Suvin’s and Gary K. Wolfe’s approaches to sf (48). The various workings of Todorov’s category of the marvelous, Suvin’s concept of the novum, and Wolfe’s icons of sf feature prominently in the ensuing analysis of the five works, but Polak’s analysis also frequently employs the terms speculative fiction, slipstream fiction, fantastika, native slipstream, and transrealist fiction, although these latter terms are mentioned only at the chapter’s conclusion, as though they were an afterthought. Instead, the relationships between these terms and sf are explained as they are used in the later analytic chapters, sometimes distracting from the focus of the argument.

Chapter 2 outlines various definitions of the term postcolonial and the differences between the development of postcolonial sf and fantasy and the development of magical realism. The aspect most relevant to the study is the approach of Australian Aboriginal writers, who often take the term “postcolonial” to mean an absence of a colonial settlement. In this chapter, Polak outlines the existing scholarship on postcolonial sf from Grace L. Dillon and John Reider and quotes at length from Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson to illustrate how Eurocentric genres can be combined with the experiences of those who are colonized. I was disappointed that Polak did not take the opportunity at this point to quote Australian Aboriginal authors, particularly those not included in the corpus. It is not until the conclusion of the book that Polak acknowledges the contributions to the conversation of such Aboriginal writers as Ambelin Kwaymullina, for example.

Each of the remaining five chapters is devoted to one fictional text. These are not discussed in chronological order but according to genre category; the texts most clearly aligned with sf are discussed first while those more closely resembling fantasy or the fairy tale are discussed later. Chapter 3 explores Willmot’s Below the Line, which Polak claims is Australia’s first Aboriginal sf novel. The analysis in this chapter is delayed while Polak first establishes the relationship between sf and the term “speculative fiction” (101). Although the analysis mentions that Below the Line can be read as a novel of double invasion, the focus is on establishing the novum of the novel and the use of sf icons. Indeed, Polak’s focus on identifying all the possible genres at play often distracts from the implications of the future worlds portrayed in each of the works studied.

Chapter 4 is the shortest chapter in this study but contains one of the more convincing readings. Polak questions why van Neerven’s sf novella “Water” was poorly received even though it was published in van Neerven’s award- winning volume of short stories Heat and Light (2014). Polak’s analysis of “Water” establishes how van Neerven explores the preservation of Aboriginal cultures in a futuristic society through the commodification of Aboriginal culture. The protagonist, Kaden, is a queer Aboriginal woman who is alienated from the uncommodifiable aspects of her culture such as ancestral knowledge. Polak argues that there are two alien encounters in the story: with mutant “plantpeople” and Kaden’s own culture. The chapter takes an important step toward establishing the relevance of van Neerven’s futuristic vision by positioning it within Dillon’s framework of sf that contains “Indigenous scientific literacies” (131).

After rehashing a discussion of identity that Polak originally raised at length in the introduction, Chapter 5 analyzes Weller’s Land of the Golden Clouds. Although it emerged in 1998 that Weller could not confirm his Aboriginal heritage, Polak, along with many Australians, believes that “identity is not simply about being and becoming” and that Weller’s lived experience determines his identity as Aboriginal. The analysis follows the same procedure as the previous chapters: sf icons and the novum of the work are identified. Polak concludes, somewhat unconvincingly, that Weller’s novel is “deeply ironic” by portraying a future where multiculturalism is successfully realized (157). In Chapter 6 Polak claims that Watson’s The Kadaitcha Sung “took the critics by surprise because it was incompatible with anything else written by an Aboriginal writer” (161). The analysis refers to magical realism, Gothic fiction, and slipstream, becoming mired in definition and explanation of terms to undermine what would have been an interesting reading of a confrontational novel.

The final analytic chapter concerns Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, but following a lengthy analysis with a profusion of terms and genres a central argument remains unclear. First, Polak examines ways in which Wright’s novel includes elements of Todorov’s “pure fantastic” (196) as well as sf (199) and fairy tale (206). Then she expands her argument that Wright’s novel is a “megatext of various cultures and literary traditions” by attempting to fit the novel into genre types using a “mega-paradigm” (221). Although the chapter is quite long it remains unconvincing, in part because it uses few examples from the novel to support its arguments.

The conclusion to Futuristic Worlds includes the clearest articulation of Polak’s aims, with a compelling call for university curricula (particularly those in Australian universities) to include more Australian Aboriginal sf. The section where Polak recapitulates the complex relationships between the Australian book market and sf includes a summary of several prominent difficulties for publishing: for one thing, the term postcolonialism is often invoked to mean an absence of colonization and, for another, the Australian literary market sees genres such as sf as less serious than mainstream realism. Polak argues that these difficulties are “misconceptions that should be dismantled” (238). Polak claims that in the Australian book market there is an “old uneasiness surrounded by various ‘monsters’ of academic jargon” (238). While I can readily agree with the claims made about the Australian literary landscape and find immense value in analyzing these often neglected works of Aboriginal fiction, it is unfortunate that Polak’s profusion of terms does not dispel this old uneasiness.

—Naomi K. Fraser, University of Newcastle, Australia

“I make you great. I give you the stars.”

Jad Smith. Alfred Bester. Urbana: U of Illinois P, MODERN MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION, 2016. 216 pp. $22.00 pbk.

It has finally happened: we have become respectable.

It is nice to have the volumes about individual authors of sf and fantasy that have popped up unexpectedly during the last few decades, but it is especially nice finally to see a good-looking, solid series like this. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, some of the Starmont Reader’s Guide series had excellent content, but they looked too much like fanzines, printed directly from typed manuscript pages. It was difficult to feel proud of something in such amateurish packaging. And then, with the death of the publisher, Starmont House simply died. Now, however, the University of Illinois’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction displays both tasteful packaging and long-term commitment. Even more important, this volume is a smart, compact examination of a writer who deserves more attention.

Bester keeps being rediscovered—as a pre-cyberpunk “writer’s writer,” whatever—because he is simply too lively to stick on the shelf with safely dead classics. There is something dangerous about Bester, something that catches readers off guard. In fact, Smith sees this uneasy quality as the key to Bester’s approach to sf, declaring that Bester carefully worked to involve his audience in the process of reading by simultaneously exploiting and undercutting genre expectations while “consciously fostering a certain level of meaningful indeterminacy in a text” (14). Consider the opening paragraph of Bester’s most famous shorter work, “Fondly Fahrenheit” (1954): “He doesn’t know which one of us I am these days, but they know one thing. You must own nothing but yourself. You must make your own life, live your own life and die your own death ... or else you will die another’s” (Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction 284). Readers, especially anyone who has ever taught freshman composition, will cringe at that first sentence: unclear pronoun reference! Who is talking, and whom are we talking about? But that is the story’s subject, and the style involves readers in arguing that question from the beginning as it addresses itself to “you.” Bester never seemed quite content as an sf writer because he wanted to stretch the perceptions of his readers, to exploit the gusto of sf while showing that there was more to life than gaudy pulp adventure. The conclusion of The Stars My Destination (1957) may seem incredibly silly now, with its notion of putting the means of total destruction in the hands of the masses; on the other hand, Gully Foyle’s appeal as he throws out lumps of super-explosive still rings true: Choose; take control of your lives or be lost; live or die! That is still our choice.

Smith has done a careful job of looking at Bester’s work in context, surveying contemporary reviews, fan comments, etc. He also looks at Bester’s whole career, dipping into non-fantastic stories such as “The White Man Who was Taboo” in South Sea Stories (October 1940) as well as scripts for radio programs and comic books. I would have appreciated more discussion of such non-sf works as the posthumously published Tender Loving Rage (1991), but within the limits of a short book within a series, this is excellent.

In short, this is a book about an important sf writer, and it is also a dandy reminder that sf criticism has reached the academic mainstream. May there be many more!

—Joe Sanders, Shadetree Scholar

A Valuable Update on the History of Robots in SF Film.

J.P. Telotte. Robot Ecology and the Science Fiction Film. New York: Routledge, Routledge Focus, 2016. vi+113 pp. $70 hc.

J.P. Telotte’s slim new book on robots in science-fiction film builds on his earlier study Replications: A Robotic History of the Science Fiction Film (1995). Telotte frames his argument using the insights of media-ecology thinkers such as Neil Postman, and especially Matthew Fuller, while discussing new films. According to Telotte, while the former volume was a study in history, this volume explores the figure of the robot as a cultural meme. In other words, he is interested in the general cultural environment within which the figure of the robot circulates and the specific history of that environment. Thus, instead of constructing a causal historical chain of transmutation of the robot figure, Telotte presents three parallel meme histories of robotic figures that overlap but nevertheless represent three different kinds of robots as defined by their resemblance to the human: the tin man or mechanical being, the humanoid yet mechanical robot, and the skin-job android.

Following an historical discussion in the introductory chapter, in which he presents the primary data of his previous book, with examples now sorted into his new meme categories, Telotte parcels his discussion of these three different types into the three main chapters of the book. His reliance on the material from his previous book is particularly evident in the first chapter, where he writes about the tin-man mechanical robot in terms of classic movies such as Dancing Lady (1933), The Phantom Empire (1935), and The Undersea Kingdom (1936). The new meme classification generates a new cluster of associations, for instance through the figure of the designer Adrian, who was costume designer for both Dancing Lady and the later The Wizard of Oz (1939). Through the figure of the mechanical man, Telotte argues that Dancing Lady establishes a pattern to be repeated across the history of this figure: he is a rather simple laborer figure whose presence is non-threatening in an otherwise technologized world because he is always only machinery. These robots do not belong to the realm of the uncanny and may even be ultimately married to humans as an sf gimmick in some narratives. With their ability to replace the necessity of human labor, they are at first a force for good—not human and yet capable of performing human tasks with unprecedented efficiency. Changes in labor conditions in the interwar years, the threat of mechanization, and the potential use of robots as weapons would mean the transformation of these figures from labor-saving devices to threats.

This figure of threat is the second meme, whose representative is Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (1956). The second chapter in Telotte’s book is essentially a study of this particular figure as it appears in other motion media such as the spin-off of Forbidden Planet, The Invisible Boy (1957), and episodes in The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). This new figure is still mechanical, but is capable of intelligent thought and is self-directed. Governed by such rules as Asimov’s laws of robotics, there is only a fine line between the serfdom of the mechanical being and the independence of thought that would enable such a being to suppress and supplant humans, through violence if necessary. This meme finds a place in other filmic representations such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Westworld (1973), and Futureworld (1976). Here Telotte contends that the iconic image of Robby as a menace in the Forbidden Planet movie poster, carrying the body of the unconscious woman, which is contradicted by the actual figure of Robby from the film, is more powerful because it demonstrates the potential for things to go awry

This brings Telotte to the third meme, in which figures of the human and the machine are merged in humanoid robots, starting with Maria from Metropolis (1927); the most representative types for Telotte are the skinjobs from Blade Runner (1982) and the Terminator figure from the Terminator series (1984-2015). Moving briefly into the uncanny valley, Telotte argues that their visual similarity to the human produces the possibility of a kinship configuration separate from the menace posed by the purely mechanical, box-like computation engine. Thus the Terminator figure undergoes several iterations, even positive ones, that mark it as separate also from the malevolent AI. Similarly, while Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) is premised on conflict between humans and the AI cylons, the series’ resolution derives from the merging of humans and cylons so that they are indistinguishable. In these shows, the constructed nature of these beings is often put on display through a tearing of the surface of the skin to reveal mechanical workings, underscoring their complex entanglement with the figure of the human, the status of being simultaneously more and less than human. For Telotte, these figures displace the robot narrative from looks to action: in the increasingly technologized world we inhabit as cyborg beings, actions or what we can achieve through technology, rather than technology itself, become the cause for concern. As the problem changes, so does the meme.

Following this exploration, Telotte concludes his final chapter by briefly looking at recent films such as Tomorrowland (2015) and Ex Machina (2015) that bring together, through their template of an alternative history of the cinematic robot, all three memes. Here the meaning of the robotic figure fluctuates among these multiple forms.

In each chapter, Telotte takes robots from one particular film (Dancing Lady, Forbidden Planet, The Terminator) as the nodal point of the meme around which other filmic representations are clustered. In his perspective, while these meme threads can be distinguished through their particular “ecology” or the historical states that mark shifts in their characteristics as represented by iconic film images, it is their entanglement that designates the edges of the ecology. Thus, a film such as Tomorrowland, which overtly displays the copresence of the different memes, becomes the site for new kinds of meanings to be made. Although the book has more modest aims than his previous work, this volume provides a useful way of thinking about the relationship between the entanglement and the separation of iconic film images, and about what marks the boundaries of genres as they come to be formed around conventions such as the robot. It is also a valuable complement to other studies in the history of technological culture such as Lisa Nocks’s The Robot: The Life Story of a Technology (2007).

—Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, University of Oslo

Wide-angle Allegories of the Present.

Jerome Winter. Science Fiction, New Space Opera, and Neoliberal Globalism: Nostalgia for Infinity. Cardiff: U of Wales P, NEW DIMENSIONS IN SCIENCE FICTION, 2016. ix + 224 pp. $125.00 hc; £85.00 ebook. Distributed in the US by U of Chicago P.

Who could have predicted the rise of the New Space Opera? The “old” space opera is widely considered to be one of the more debased forms of pulp and post-pulp sf. Broadly (and very stereotypically) speaking, it tells stories of lone heroes who save the world (or the solar system or the galaxy), aims to provide readers with mind-blowing sense-of-wonder vistas and mind-bending supertechnologies, and invests heavily in conflict and expansion (almost always at the same time). Good-guy humans win the day against bad-guy aliens. Star Wars (1977-to-forever) is its legitimate offspring.

Sometime in the 1980s, as Winter’s study outlines, a major strand of space opera took a swerve to the political left and, in essence, continues to write in opposition—however complex and oblique—to contemporary conditions of neoliberal globalism, which Winter sees as “the restoration of worldwide class domination” (95). One goal of Winter’s project is to examine the particulars of this resistance and subversion in New Space Operas ranging from the Culture novels of Scottish writer Iain M. Banks to recent postcolonial novels by Caribbean writers such as Nalo Hopkinson. At the same time, Winter aims to contextualize the New Space Opera within a larger frame: he offers a convincing history of space opera as a history of responses—whether approving or critical—to the gradual hegemony of the current global system. What interests Winter is not only the complexity, aesthetic sophistication, and political engagement of the New Space Opera, but also its ongoing dialogue with the subgenre’s earlier conventions.

Winter has a very specific thesis about the New Space Opera, and one of the strengths of his study is the clarity of structure and organization provided by this thesis. For Winter, the New Space Opera—the resurgence of an old subgenre in surprising new forms that reached critical mass in the 1990s and that continues into the twenty-first century—functions allegorically to address “a specific vanguard cultural politics evolving in tandem with a specific new system of global capitalism” (3). In the process it “reflects self-consciously and critically on the ... pulp clichés of traditional space-opera superscience, technological worship and folk futurism” (6). Although Winter pays due attention to the aesthetics and formal features of the texts that he reads, for the most part he keeps his focus on the ways in which these texts respond to, resist, and rewrite the specific political-economic contexts that produced them. For Winter “the subgenre has political allegory built into its genome” (10). The New Space Opera is of particular interest for its left-leaning, progressive, and utopian revisioning of neoliberal globalism since the 1990s, arguably the period during which the world-order within which we find ourselves today achieved something like hegemony.

Science Fiction, New Space Opera, and Neoliberal Globalism opens with a substantial introduction that sets the scene for the four chapters that follow. Winter notes how authors such as Banks, M. John Harrison, Paul J. McAuley, Gwyneth Jones, and Ken McLeod—to mention only a few of the writers (many if not most of them from the UK) whose work he identifies with the New Space Opera—“systematically rehabilitate the ideological presumptions of space opera” (2) while evincing what he sees as a marked “techno-nostalgia that haunts fiction overdetermined by pulp influences” (61). As his subtitle suggests, for Winter the New Space Opera is tinged with a melancholic longing for now-defunct futures of infinite progress and endless (capital) expansion.

Winter’s introduction includes an overview of the rise of the first phase of neoliberal globalism, which he sees as taking shape during the inter-war years of the 1920s and 1930s, eventually leading to the development of the IMF, the World Bank, and other key components of the current system. Pulp fictions such as E.E. “Doc” Smith’s The Skylark of Space (originally published in Amazing Stories in 1928) demonstrate the intersections of early space opera with a distinctly American brand of neoliberal market-oriented science and technology that includes “faster-than-light inertialess drives, hyperspace tubes, superdreadnaughts, force shields, tractor beams, laser blasters and ‘metasphere’ doomsday weapons” (35). In contrast, much of the New Space Opera demonstrates a resistant “cosmopolitics” whose traces appear in sf as early as Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space (1934). Winter’s pre-history of the New Space Opera includes brief discussions of such disparate texts as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (1951-1953) and Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark space operas (the first of which, “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” was published in 1949); he also notes the influence of early Heinlein stories such as “The Roads Must Roll” (1940) with their “Social Darwinistic theme of human progress through free enterprise” (40).

Winter’s first chapter, “The Neoliberal Masters of the Universe,” examines space opera in transition during the second phase of neoliberalism from the 1960s to the early 1980s. He notes how this period “generated a significant countercultural rejection of neoliberal doctrine, especially from within the dissident ranks of the Civil Rights movement” (42). His examplary fictions are Samuel R. Delany’s Afrofuturist space opera Nova (1968), with its early focus on the exploding communications revolution and on the (Harawayan) cyborg bodies of technoculture, and M. John Harrison’s revisions/demolitions of space opera in his New Wave novel, The Centauri Device (1974), and in his much later Kefahuchi Tract trilogy (2002-2012), described by Winter as “self-conscious New Space Opera at its most progressive” (70). Winter ends this chapter with a look at two texts in the “adversarial counter-tradition” (86) that feeds directly into the New Space Opera, Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix (1985) as a cyberpunk-inflected critique of Reaganesque political economy and C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen (1988) as a critique of “pro-expansionary biopolitics” (83).

Winter’s second chapter, “‘Moments in the Fall’,” examines parallels and divergences in the works of Scottish writers Iain M. Banks and Ken McLeod. For Winter, McLeod’s Fall Revolution Quartet (1995-1999) recounts “the slow building of an anarcho-socialist utopia,” while Banks’s Culture novels take readers into an “anarcho-socialist” far future (87). Like McLeod’s, Banks’s utopia-inflected future is the result of revolution (see Banks’s “A Few Notes on the Culture” [1994, online]). Winter’s focus here is on the ways in which these two series “project a radical left-wing politics extrapolated from living in a postcolonial, globalised Scotland” (89).

Like Banks and McLeod, Gwyneth Jones was part of the British Boom, the resurgence of sf in the UK during the 1990s. Her Aleutian trilogy (1991-1997) is the subject of Winter’s third chapter, “”Global Feminism and Neoliberal Crisis.” While I am not convinced that Jones’s trilogy is a particularly good example of New Space Opera, I found Winter’s reading of these complex novels enlightening in the framework of his focus on the “double colonisation” resulting from “the overlapping hegemony of ... patriarchal and imperial culture” (130). His treatment of Jones’s ambiguous aliens, the “Aleutians,” is satisfyingly nuanced. This chapter also contains a quick overview of earlier women’s sf that resonates with Jones’s feminist-utopian project and points readers to New Space Operas by writers such as Lois McMaster Bujold (The Vorkosigan Saga [1986- ] and Linda Nagata (e.g., Vast [1998])

“‘Archipelagoes of Stars’: Caribbean Cosmopolitics in Postcolonial SF,” Winter’s final chapter, examines another swerve in the development of New Space Opera, as it has been taken up by writers sensitive to some of the more extreme pressures of neoliberal globalism; these are writers who “explicitly identify as diasporic, non-Western, Third or Fourth World, globally Southern, or, more often than not, hybridised” (156). Winter sees in the work of writers such as Tobias Buckell (Ragamuffin [2007], Nalo Hopkinson (Midnight Robber [2000]), and Karen Lord (The Best of All Possible Worlds [2013]) a promising fusion of New Space Opera and Caribbean postcolonial literature.

This is certainly the most substantial study of the New Space Opera published to date: it makes a strong case for why this heterogeneous offshoot of a very old subgenre is deserving of our critical attention. Winter’s inclusion of feminist writers such as Jones and postcolonial writers such as Buckell constructs New Space Opera as an unexpectedly eclectic and elastic textual field. In spite of the good things in his study, however, I am going to conclude with several complaints. Science Fiction, New Space Opera, and Neoliberal Globalism has no concluding chapter; there is a real sense of unfinished business when one reaches its abrupt end. I was disappointed that, for whatever reason, there is no mention of even the first novel, Ancillary Justice (2013), of Anne Leckie’s award-winning Imperial Radch trilogy (2013-2015), perhaps the most popular space opera since Banks’s Culture novels. Finally, and unfortunately, the text is full of typos and other glitches that suggest very careless proofing. This is one of the first entries in the University of Wales Press’s New Dimensions in Science Fiction series and it is a worthy one, but I hope that the publisher does a more attentive job of packaging future volumes.

—Veronica Hollinger, SFS

Back to Home