BOOKS IN REVIEW
The Principle of Hope in the Anthropocene.
Green Utopias: Environmental Hope Before and After Nature. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2018. 196 pp. $62.95 hc, $22.95 pbk, $18.99 ebk.
Bringing together sf texts with nonfiction works in ecological science and environmentalist politics from the 1970s to the present, Lisa Garforth’s Green Utopias provides an invaluable handbook for interdisciplinary scholars working on the various intersections of these discourses. While the book may not contain novel theoretical paradigms that push through the existing limits of any of the fields it discusses—and in any event does not really aspire to—it ably lays out the contours of eco-utopian thought in the current conjuncture and brings into dialogue texts and authors too rarely thought through together. Indeed, because of its focused progression through the decades and its smart but readable presentation of complex theoretical issues, I believe Green Utopias would provide a very useful spine for a class in the ecological humanities focusing on green futurity, especially one with an emphasis on works of ecological sf.
After an introduction that lays out a theoretical history of the connotations and contradictions of its two key terms, “green” and “utopia,” and that makes a persuasive case for the usefulness of thinking with utopias even in an era overly preoccupied with a supposedly pragmatic liberal realism, the book is divided into five chapters covering the development (or devolution) of utopian ecological thought over the latter half of the twentieth century. First, Garforth discusses the idea of the future of nature in the 1970s through the 1990s (chapters two and four)—in which we see utopian possibility skimming off the emergence of more and more dire warnings about the environment—before turning to the bleaker, even more fundamentally pessimistic 2000s and 2010s (chapters five and six)—a time in which the crisis seems to have finally metastasized beyond any capacity to manage or ameliorate. In the latter half of the book we thus see the “after nature” of the title rise to the fore: with the explosive effects of climate change and related ecological crises increasingly impossible to ignore, the contemporary moment (the moment in which we have become aware we are living in the Anthropocene) produces an increasingly beleaguered, terrified human subject who finds it difficult to imagine anything like an positive future, much less a green utopia. The downward trajectory from texts such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1986) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge (1990), discussed in chapter four, to works such as Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2010) and The Water Knife (2015) and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), discussed in chapters five and six, seems hard to deny; is there any doubt that more and more the future seems utterly without hope (even before Brexit and the Trump election)? A brief conclusion in chapter seven aims to pull us out of this depressive tailspin, attempting to imagine, if not quite a “good” Anthropocene, then at least a survivable one. Indeed, the conclusion intriguingly chooses not to choose between the various ecotopian possibilities that have been sketched out in the monograph, not even between the “before” and “after” nature of the title; instead, Garforth argues, we must “greet the Anthropocene” with a multitude of strategies ranging from hope and fear to apocalypse and adaptation:
If we have learned nothing else about our environmental predicament since the limits to growth, it is that it is huge in physical and conceptual scale, it is diverse in content, and it is thoroughly … wicked: multi-dimensional and essentially irresolvable. (162)
In such dire times, the thinking goes, we should welcome any sort of utopian hope we can muster.
Specialist readers of SFS, while likely appreciating the book’s politics and its ruthlessly materialist perspective, may be somewhat frustrated by some of Garforth’s textual selections; as the above list indicates, the books selected for discussion are fairly well-known classics of ecological science fiction, with few unexpected or provocative surprises to be found herein. A number of the readings of these books are also strongly couched in other critics’ readings and indeed are sometimes little more than extended summaries of other critics’ arguments (such as Timothy Morton on Avatar , or Adam Trexler on Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy [2004-2007], or for that matter me on WALL-E , to name just a few). In any event, Green Utopias is not especially interested in literary criticism per se at all; rather, the texts it discusses tend to stand as registrations of the larger social and material forces that are driving cultural production in that moment. (It should perhaps be noted that the author is a sociologist, and thus the book’s form and citational norms both derive from that discipline rather than from English or comparative literature.) To me, the book’s originality is not to be found in its establishment of an ecological sf canon or in its readings of that canon, but rather in its unapologetic combination of nonfiction texts such as The Limits to Growth report (1972) or Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989) alongside eco-sf, understanding these texts all to be doing more or less the same urgent work in different registers and aimed at different audiences.
The consequence of this union is an argument for the privileging of utopian hermeneutics (as advanced by such key thinkers as Fredric Jameson, Darko Suvin, Ernst Bloch, and Marius de Geus) as a cognitive framework able to read both fictional and nonfictional texts and unite them within a single interpretive totality that offers a line of flight out of despair. While such an understanding of the utopian potentiality implicit in such nonfictional works unquestionably has a long history, dating back at least to the utopian readings of Karl Marx that have been so influential in the western Marxist tradition, it is too often disparaged and overlooked, especially with regard to ecological science, which is typically cast as relying on stark, bloodless matters of fact, not any sort of principle of hope. That science is itself a discourse of hope, as is politics, puts them into circuit with science fiction as versions of one and the same utopian drive for a better tomorrow—an important thing for us to remember in a moment in the academy that asks us as scholars to think constantly about, and constantly produce defenses of, the value of the work we do. In a dark time—both inside and outside the academy, and seemingly growing ever darker—works such as Garforth’s Green Utopias ultimately offer a vision for why science fiction matters, indeed perhaps why it matters more now than it ever has before.
—Gerry Canavan, Marquette University
“A Problem of Our Desires.”
Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2016. 196 pp. $15 pbk.
Donald Trump’s early departure from the G7 summit in June 2018, which included skipping a discussion focusing specifically on climate change, neatly reflects Amitav Ghosh’s observation, in a September 2016 interview with Steve Paulson for The Los Angeles Review of Books, that the climate crisis is rooted in “a problem of our desires.” In the United States, public and political discourse regarding climate change has long been marked by a tension between two polarities—“widespread denialism [and] vigorous activist movements” (136)—but more than that, as Ghosh notes in The Great Derangement, attempts meaningfully to address climate change at a political level are hampered, if not completely obstructed, by the “biopolitical mission and the practices of governance that are associated with it” within the Anglosphere (160).The nation-state is just one manifestation of those “desires,” desires Ghosh weaves into a complex tapestry that includes myopic and widespread conspicuous consumption, an unresponsive literary landscape, the machinations of empire, and an overall reluctance to acknowledge that “the climate events of this era … express the entirety of our being” (115). More than just a call for action, Ghosh’s book is a plea for accountability and a sharp, if somewhat jagged, investigation into what he calls “the Great Derangement,” a time that will be remembered for its paradoxical self-awareness and inaction regarding the climate crisis. The book is organized into three sections: “Stories,” which constitutes half of the text, “History,” and “Politics.”
Ghosh’s work in the first section is striking in its efforts to answer a question that is elegant in its simplicity—why does “serious fiction” not talk about climate change?—and complex in its response. In the fall of 2015, Ghosh delivered a set of four lectures at the University of Chicago as a part of the Berlin Family Lecture series, later adapting them for his exploration of climate change in the Anthropocene and the striking failure of the literary imagination to account for “the unthinkable.” This is Ghosh’s metaphoric shorthand for describing not just climate change and its profound ecological impact, but also humanity’s difficulty in effectively coming to terms with its presence. Where this difficulty presents itself especially curiously is in the pages of the modern novel, which has been caught short with regard to climate change, due in large part to a notable shift in the nineteenth century that saw “the banishing of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday” (17). This is Ghosh’s largest but by no means only compelling argument. Each section of The Great Derangement pivots on a key problem and for a writer like Ghosh, the perceived failure of fiction to account for the climate crisis is of obvious interest. Thus he returns to this concern throughout the text. What is missing in this otherwise thorough chapter is a clearer demonstration of Ghosh’s contention that twentieth-century fiction—outside of the realms of science fiction and fantasy—has proven so unequal to the task of representation and investigation with respect to climate change. Put more plainly, his argument lacks evidence; but then again, that is precisely his point, which renders his argument a bit circular. In fact, he appears to be haunted by this problem, returning to it again in the third section to note that even if the list of writers who address climate change could be “expanded a hundredfold or more,” the fact remains that the literary mainstream “remain[s] just as unaware of the crisis on our doorstep as the population at large” (125).
In his first chapter, Ghosh does draw a fairly convincing genealogy that traces the collapse of fiction in relation to Nature, the fantastic, and the improbable. The initial narrowing of the literary imagination in the nineteenth century—the era of the Industrial Revolution—corresponds with the “victory of gradualist views in science” and, by implication, within culture itself, that had little room for the distinct and especially for the improbable (22). He admits that there are still some texts from that period, such as Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us” (1807) and Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), that demonstrate an active engagement with the natural world that does not eschew the fantastic, but as the nonhuman increasingly became excluded, even negated in favor of a general centering of the human, the literary imagination consequently diminished. Thus the modern novel became ill-equipped, even resistant, to entertaining the strange, the exceptional, and the unlikely, and therefore it most certainly could not address something especially improbable such as climate change, particularly if it wished to be treated seriously. Otherwise, it risked being evicted from the “mansion” to the “humbler dwellings” of science fiction and fantasy (24).
Ghosh’s statement has a bit of the ring of resentment—particularly when he refers to the two genres as “outhouses” (66)—that is often found in pieces defending these genres against intellectual and aesthetic dismissal. Though The Great Derangement is not overly preoccupied with the marginalization of science fiction, Ghosh does offer a compelling theory for its cultural disenfranchisement, linking it to what he calls the “partitioning” of “the imaginative and the scientific” in the early days of modernity (71). Any “hybrids” such as science fiction were separated from the literary mainstream, a fate eventually experienced by Frankenstein (1818), which over time was relegated to the “outhouse” of science fiction, despite being hailed by the literary mainstream when it was first published. Another change in the novelistic tradition that further impoverished fiction is “the turn away from the collective”; this, Ghosh argues, is an effect of modernity’s insistence on seeing progress as “an irreversible forward movement” (79). Consequently, Ghosh ultimately places his faith in the hybrids and the visual arts to do what serious fiction cannot (or will not) do.
In the book’s shortest chapter, “History,” Ghosh’s most intriguing observation links the climate crisis to the history of empire. Indeed, one of the book’s especially striking statements can be found in his suggestion that imperialism “may have actually retarded the onset of the climate crisis” (110; emphasis in original). Ghosh begins this chapter by emphasizing the centrality of Asia in the conversation regarding climate change: the sheer numbers of humans inhabiting this vast area, which spreads from India to China, means that the largest numbers of agents and victims of climate change are concentrated in the most densely populated areas of the planet. As such, Ghosh argues that “no strategy can work globally unless it works in Asia and is adopted by large numbers of Asians” (90). As with “Stories,” this section hinges on a central problem, in this case the reason for Asia’s delayed industrialization until the twentieth century. Ghosh argues that it was not until the advent of modern technologies that were carbon dependent that technological and economic gaps between populations that had for millennia been roughly equal started to grow. For example, the ship-building wars between India and Britain in the nineteenth century which led to the Registry Act of 1815 heavily restricted Indian ships and sailors, is evidence of Ghosh’s convincing argument that “the emerging fossil-fuel economies of the West required that people elsewhere be prevented from developing coal-based energy systems of their own” (107). And yet it is countries such as China and India that are now being blamed for climate change, Ghosh points out, and that viewpoint overlooks the role all of humanity has played in bringing the planet to its current climate crisis.
Asia has helped further to reveal, Ghosh observes, “that the patterns of life that modernity engenders can only be practiced by a small minority of the world’s population” (92). This truth lays bare another truth tied to the climate crisis, that action has been deferred in order to maintain the status quo in favor of the rich and the West. This point is at the heart of the third section, “Politics,” and naturally extends the arguments about capitalism and empire that he outlines in “History.” In short, “the distribution of power in the world therefore lies at the core of the climate crisis,” and even if the mechanisms of capitalism, so often seen as “the principal fault line” with respect to the climate crisis, were to change, Ghosh argues that the true obstacles to effective change—“political and military dominance”—will still be in play (146).
At this point, Ghosh’s focus takes a turn to a comparative examination of the Paris Agreement and Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato Sí, both of which were published in 2015. Ghosh finds especially striking the encyclical’s “sober clarity” (155) contrasted to the Agreement’s “highly stylized” and complex structure (153). Where the Paris Agreement appears to engage in acts of concealment and occlusion, the encyclical is open and not bogged down with circular rhetoric and heavy-handed terminology. Clearly Ghosh intended this reading to link back to his larger statements about the status quo (something the encyclical is clearly contesting), power distribution, and political inertia with respect to climate change, but like much of The Great Derangement, the sharpness of Ghosh’s arguments is dulled by the text’s tendency to jump around or go back to points which it appears he cannot quite resolve.
This has much to do with the text’s origins as a small group of lectures. There is no denying that much of Ghosh’s overall argument is thought-provoking, and his ability to weave so many disparate texts—literary, scientific, political, and religious—together is a testament to his vision of a problem that extends beyond the narrow or the immediate, stretching backward and forward in time, across all facets of human existence. Ghosh’s eye is firmly fixed on the present, and he has read the present moment of the climate crisis accurately. It is more than just “deranged”: it is schizophrenic. Yet the timeliness and astuteness of Ghosh’s argument cannot undo a principal problem of his text, and that is one of readership. Ghosh’s observations are invaluable but also rather esoteric, suggesting that the readers of this text are limited to academic circles that are already likely to agree with his assessments. This highlights not so much a failure of the literary imagination as it reminds us of the limitations of climate change discourse to engage with the cultural mainstream in ways that speak more directly to a broader audience, especially outside the boundaries of the sf novel, where climate change can easily be relegated to something fantastical and, yes, improbable and therefore dismissible. In that sense, only half of The Great Derangement, “History” and “Politics,” appears to have any purchase beyond the academic and, even then, only just so. If nothing else, Ghosh’s text itself often demonstrates his argument regarding the failure of language to fully account for and conceptualize “the unthinkable” that is the climate crisis in ways that bring all of humanity into the conversation, leaving him to hope for “a transformed and renewed art and literature” that “transcend[s] the isolation in which humanity” is currently entrapped (162). The Great Derangement is just such an attempt.
—Ericka Hoagland, Stephen F. Austin State University
Imagining Future Change Now.
. Oakland, CA: U of California P, 2018. 167 pp. $18.95 pbk.
Energizing, timely, and resonant with the social flashpoints that extend beyond literature and give heft to its production and value, Shelley Streeby’s Imagining the Future of Climate Change (2018) immerses its readers in the possibilities that sf holds for resisting fossil capital’s incessant push to streamline profit over cultural and ecological security. As Streeby reminds us through Octavia E. Butler’s work and ideas, sf is rooted in the now rather than focused on predictions of the future, because it is in this manner that we imagine and thus help shape what is to come (25). Examining how “writers, artists, and organizers of color” employ terms related to the “speculative” (26), Streeby lists Mark Dery’s “Afrofuturism,” Grace Dillon’s “Indigenous futurisms,” and Chicanx and Latinx futurisms as keys to unlocking already-existing, active bodies of works resistant to the drivers of climate change. Her argument is that such fiction and related artistic work are necessary contributors to imagining the future, for culture and creative production are unique voices not bent to the service of science and technology; they can expand the scope of those limiting categories and thus envision modes and means of transformative change.
Streeby’s book takes the important step not only of reading this creative work for its potential, but also of including it in the same conversation as activism critical of the ostensible dominance of social organizations such as “nation-states and corporations” (31) with their disaster-capitalist responses to human-caused environmental catastrophes. Both activism and cultural imagining since the 1990s, she argues, place “Indigenous people and people of color” on the front lines of labor that rethinks the climate crisis from cultural perspectives (33). To investigate such phenomena, she begins her discussion by looking first at the #NoDAPL movement and its historical-cultural roots, Indigenous ways of knowing as resistance to settler-invader colonialism, Indigenous slipstream fiction (featuring Gerald Vizenor’s and Leslie Marmon Silko’s works), the Indigenous environmental justice movement, and Indigenous survivance seen through creative work portraying a climate-changed future (the Aotearoan web series Anamata Future News (2015). Streeby then transitions to a discussion of climate refugees as imagined by Octavia Butler in Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), with a particular focus on Butler’s research on climate events and on sociopolitical and economic policies at the time of writing. This research is held in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California: it encapsulates Butler’s approaches to race and environment as she archived material documenting neoliberal responses to emerging scientific warnings about global warming and climate change, and then crafted what Streeby and others label her critical dystopias. From this, Streeby moves to a necessary development in this climate-shifting world, presenting “a theory of shaping change” (101) through the lens of sf writer and activist adrienne maree brown’s responses to Butler’s Parable of the Sower. brown embraces a “leadership model” central to her own “facilitation and organizational development work,” much of which tackles climate change (102).
Here Streeby’s motif of molding the future emerges to refute the possibility that “nation-states or captains of industry will save the day” (105). She pinpoints a vital disconnect between the beneficiaries of and dependents on fossil fuel capitalism on the one hand, and the proponents of climate justice on the other. Instead—and this is an essential argument—she maintains that the present and future problems of climate change belong to the entire world. Streeby returns here to the “unwillingness of states and the fossil fuel industry to change” (112), despite the fact that social movements and creative work by Indigenous people and people of color have worked in many instances to reframe climate change issues as global ones. The crucial path forward, Streeby concludes, following brown, is one of “making different worlds through direct action and social movement-building, and creating transformative change through visionary speculative fiction” (113). The greatest hope for tomorrow, its people, and the planet, she offers, will unfold most productively from “networked local strategies, direct actions, and collective envisionings of the future” (126).
Incredibly well-researched and notably conversant with the intricacies of both key sf writing and activism from the inception of environmentalism movements and their related speculative contemplations to those in the present day, Streeby’s Imagining the Future of Climate Change is an indispensable text in working to turn the dystopian now toward more positive and inclusive means of fostering world community-building as we labor together to engage with the climate future we have wrought.
—Conrad Scott, University of Alberta
To the Barricades!
. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2018. 473 pp. £75 hc.
“Rebels,” Mike Ashley rather pedantically tells us at the start of his new book, could be either a noun or a verb, and therefore the title of his book is ambiguous. Well, up to a point. I am not altogether sure that there is that much difference between sf as a whole rebelling (against what?) and certain people or groups within sf being rebellious. And neither, it would seem, is Ashley. His book promises high drama, with chapters called “The First Revolution,” “The Second Revolution,” and “The Third Rebellion” (again one wonders about the implied difference here between a revolution and a rebellion), but the drama does not come. The first revolution, he tells us, is cyberpunk, but then immediately explains that cyberpunk “was simply part of the continual growth in science fiction that by the 1980s was being influenced by the new age of computers” (52). This sort of contradiction crops up several times: for instance, when he implies that Rudy Rucker’s first two stories for Analog were symptomatic of a sea change that Stanley Schmidt was bringing about in that magazine, then describes the stories as “typical Analog stories” (61). On Ashley’s evidence, cyberpunk would seem to have carried out its revolution by conforming exactly to type in the various magazines where it appeared. So, less revolution and more evolution, perhaps?
Ashley’s perception of the history of sf is curious, to say the least. It is fair enough to trace that history through the magazines, which played a significant part in the shaping of genre sf, particularly during the early and middle years of the last century. But Ashley’s history becomes more extravagantly detailed, more exhaustive, the more the influence of the magazines as a whole declined. The first two volumes in Ashley’s ongoing history of sf magazines, The Time Machines (2000) and Transformations (2005), cover the entire period of what might be considered the glory days of the sf magazine, from the launch of Amazing in 1926 to the collapse of the New Wave in 1970. Between these dates, it is fair to say, all the most significant developments in Anglo-American science fiction could be linked to some degree or other to the magazines of the time.
But Ashley’s third volume, Gateways to Forever (2007), a thicker volume than either of its predecessors, covers a mere ten years, from 1970 to 1980: years, moreover, during which, if the short story remained central to the history of sf, that centrality was focused not on the magazines but upon original anthologies and series such as Orbit (edited by Damon Knight), Universe (edited by Terry Carr), and New Dimensions (edited by Robert Silverberg).
Now, after an unexpectedly long wait, there is a fourth volume, and again it limits its attention to just ten years, 1980 to 1990. These, if anything, were years in which the magazines began their long decline—late in the book, Ashley concedes that the circulation of practically all of the leading sf magazines fell during this period—and in which the novel (and, perhaps even more, the film) took over decisively from the short story as the characteristic form of sf. Not that you would necessarily glean this from the book. If an author’s first publication was a novel, it is mentioned in passing, but one gets the distinct impression that only when they debuted in a magazine are authors considered worthy of attention, and only if a novel was originally serialized in a magazine is it really interesting.
This is symptomatic of a blinkered attitude that runs through the book. Yes, this is a history of sf magazines, but it is written in a way that suggests that only the magazines have shaped the history of sf. Context is something that is noticeably absent from all of these books. For instance, the biggest event in science fiction during the period covered by the previous volume, Gateways to Forever, was the release of Star Wars (1977), but it is noticed in the book only because of a subsequent increase in the number of magazines devoted to sf film. The current volume covers the period of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, whose neoliberal policies had a profound effect upon the sf being published at the time (and presumably also upon the economics of the magazines themselves), but they are never mentioned anywhere in the book. In Britain, particularly, it was also a period during which a decade of “Troubles” in Northern Ireland spilled over into terrorism and repressive policies in mainland Britain. Ashley notices this only in his discussion of two stories in an Irish magazine when he says “there were also expressions of violence and control which may reflect the political problems in Éire and Northern Ireland at the time” (151). That “may,” suggesting an idea without committing to it or exploring it further, is typical, as is the fact that beyond this oblique reference there is no comment on what those “political problems” might be or how they might be reflected in the stories under discussion.
In discussing cyberpunk, Ashley notes in passing that it was part of “a debate about the generic boundary between science fiction and postmodernist literature” (54), without giving any attention to postmodernist literature or asking what those generic boundaries might be, presumably because postmodernist literature as such was not a part of the sf magazines and so has no part to play in this history. Throughout the volume one gets a distinct impression that the sf magazine is hermetically sealed off not just from the wider world, but from the rest of sf. For instance, the reference to “the new age of computers” that I quoted above is as close as he comes to providing any outside context for cyberpunk, but that context comes about only because he is discussing Omni, a magazine largely devoted to that computer technology.
The revolutionary story of cyberpunk is here presented as being the story of Asimov’s and F&SF and Analog and Amazing and Omni, five less-than- revolutionary magazines that, with individual variations in style, occupied the middle ground of American sf. Rabble-rousing fanzines, such Bruce Sterling’s Cheap Truth (1983-86), are quoted in footnotes but not discussed, nor is the role of the Mirrorshades anthology (1986). The magazines in question were only tangentially interested in cyberpunk and were not at all interested in revolution. The most controversial story to appear in any of these venues during the period was probably “Her Furry Face” (1983) by Leigh Kennedy, because it dealt with the subject most likely to disturb the conservative calm of the American sf readership at the time: sex. Cyberpunk was not having anything like as revolutionary an effect, certainly not in the magazines where an ever-rotating cast of editors had an eye permanently on the circulation figures. So Ashley’s first revolution comes across as a story of conforming, with minor variations. (Interestingly, the “humanist” sf of writers such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Karen Joy Fowler, widely considered at the time as a contrast to cyberpunk, gets no mention here at all.)
Much the same is true of Ashley’s second revolution, which he calls the “British Hard-SF Renaissance.” This he correctly identifies as being closely connected with the magazine Interzone, but that is not the whole story. What became known as the British Boom was largely a phenomenon of the 1990s, though it had its roots in the 1980s. The most significant individual in this story was probably Iain M. Banks, whose huge commercial and critical success paved the way for others to follow. But Banks was primarily a novelist; his bare handful of short stories had all been written and put aside years before his first novel appeared, and so he hardly features in this history. Interzone’s role in the British Boom was not as straightforward as Ashley suggests. Its ideas can certainly be traced back to the Interzone editorial that called for “radical hard sf”, but at the time that call was met with more mystification than energy. Nobody knew what the term meant, and it was generally assumed that it probably referred to cyberpunk because, at the time and for some years after, Interzone was changing from being a reinvention of New Worlds into a venue for American cyberpunk writers and some often astonishingly weak British copies. It would be years after that editorial before the re-imagining of hard sf really got under way, even within the pages of Interzone. And even then the most acclaimed and probably the most revolutionary fiction featured in Interzone was by Geoff Ryman, notably “The Unconquered Country” (1986, which is discussed here) and “Love Sickness” (1987, which, curiously, is not), neither of which, by any stretch of the imagination, is hard sf. Ashley also extends the “British Hard-SF Renaissance” to cover his discussion of other British magazines at the time, most of them short lived except for Back Brain Recluse (1984-2002). And none of these magazines, most particularly not Back Brain Recluse, published, supported, or encouraged hard sf. This is a history painted with a very broad brush in which much of the fine detail is necessarily obscured.
Having spent many pages telling us how revolutionary magazines such as Asimov’s and Omni and Interzone were, Ashley then introduces us to his “third rebellion,” in which a string of small literary magazines spring up specifically in contrast to the commercial conventionality of magazines such as Asimov’s and Omni and Interzone. Hard though it may be to think of magazines such as Pulphouse and New Pathways as revolutionary, their very existence is testimony to how little the major genre magazines were prepared to trust experimental writing and unconventional ideas. Not that Ashley himself seems that comfortable with anything that challenges the smooth familiarity of the mainstream sf magazines. At one point he asks: “if Pulphouse was so highly regarded, why was not a single story from it nominated for an award?” (187). Given that he is careful to note every award when discussing a magazine, this is clearly the one objective standard for quality he has managed to light upon. He treats these magazines in exactly the same way he does all the others, with a one-sentence précis of what he considers representative stories and an emphasis on big name writers who have already cropped up repeatedly elsewhere in the book: Bruce Sterling, Paul Di Filippo, Rudy Rucker, Greg Egan, Brian Aldiss, Jack McDevitt, Thomas F. Monteleone. Hardly a list to inspire notions of radical iconoclasm: these are exactly the same authors filling the magazines against which these journals are supposedly reacting. What Ashley is actually suggesting with all this talk of revolution and rebellion is a history of abiding conservatism.
But then, this is a very conservative history. The body of the volume is filled out with countless one-sentence précis of stories, but the real interest lies in gossip about the relationship between editors and publishers, details of page sizes and page counts, type of paper, use of illustrations, circulation figures, newsstand sales compared to subscriptions, dates of publication, and other such minutiae. The actual history of the magazines takes just a half of this volume, while the rest is taken up with a series of appendices. The longest of these, over 100 pages, is devoted to a survey of non-English-language magazines that is predictably thorough but, other than revealing that there are sf magazines in seemingly every country in the world, often featuring the same writers we are familiar with from Anglo-American science fiction, this is rather less detailed than the body of the history. Other than that, there are tables and lists and even corrections to the three previous volumes. Ashley is not an engaging writer, but he is thorough, and what is important about this book, as with its predecessors, is that it provides an awful lot of the facts and figures that other historians will be able to draw on.
—Paul Kincaid, independent scholar
Reconciling Victor and the Monster.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018. viii+263 pp. $49.95 pbk.
There were twenty official J. Lloyd Eaton Conferences on sf and fantasy held at the University of California, Riverside, between 1979 and 1999, each of which generated its own conference volume. The current anthology, which combines the titles of the first two conference volumes that appeared in 1979 and 1980, is, with a couple of exceptions, a “greatest hits” of the twenty volumes. The editors have chosen 22 of what they considered to be the most outstanding papers and published them in chronological order of first appearance and with minimal editing.
Most papers have the addition of an afterword of varying length in which the authors discuss their contributions from the hindsight of the present. As an appendix, there is an Eaton Roll of Honor, naming everyone who participated in some way at the 25 official and unofficial Eaton conferences. In their introduction, the editors offer special tributes to the conference founder, the late George Edgar Slusser (who was also the first curator of the famous Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy at Riverside), and to the late Frank McConnell, a conference stalwart whose wit enlivened the annual proceedings.
I have to say that this volume was a pleasure to read. Close to half of the papers are indeed outstanding and most of the rest are better than interesting. The device of the newly appended afterword works very well. It allows the authors to express mature second thoughts, while suggesting that sf criticism has changed over the course of the past forty years, not always for the better. For these papers are, almost without exception, lucid, unafraid to engage with the big picture, and refreshingly free of jargon. It is the professional academic critics rather than the creative writers who really shine here. And those who shine most are witty without straining for humor.
For me, the paradigmatic essay in the collection is Vivian Sobchack’s “The Virginity of Astronauts: Sex and the Science Fiction Film” (1982). In the relatively confined space of a conference paper Sobchack takes on a vast topic: how gender functions in the post-World War II American sf film. She uses psychoanalytic concepts (each of which she carefully defines) to show how the biological female is repressed in these films, returning in displaced and condensed forms. Her range of reference is broad, from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) through Alien (1979). She explains how the mechanism of repression works: e.g., erotic or fertile women are subjected to an alien embrace. More importantly, she explains why such repression exists at all: the sf genre is male-dominated and anxious; the female body mocks male desire for separation from the mother and the male scientist’s hankering for autonomous creation.
Sobchack’s argument is strengthened by reference to the occasional exception that proves the rule, e.g., the figure of Becky in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). She does not mince words in laying out the significance of her conclusion: the return of the repressed indicates that male human endeavor is “puny and imitative” (41) compared to natural reproduction whose burden, or privilege, is chiefly borne by the female. But she concedes that she finds these films fascinating and important. (Why else would anyone spend time on a subject so low in cultural prestige?) The films, consciously or otherwise, pose fundamental questions about human origin and identity. And Sobchack is genuinely witty: the male heroes in sf films are “as libidinally interesting as a Ken doll: like Barbie’s companion, they are all jaw and no genitals” (40).
Sobchack’s lengthy afterword, subtitled “After Ripley, After 9/11” is as outstanding in its way as her original essay. Now using the (again carefully defined) concept of abjection as elaborated by Julia Kristeva, she notes that the cultural trauma of 9/11 was a watershed moment in American sf film, as it was in American culture. Having the effect of a “low-tech ‘alien’ castration of a monumentally phallic American erection,” it produced “a more general detumescence of confidence in the exceptionalism and potency of American masculinity” (48). The result is that, to counter this male abjection, sf films after 9/11 “increasingly put their faith in women to produce both a familial and collective future while traumatized men try to undo the past” (50). Sobchack implies that the genre is healthier as a result, though whether such films as Elysium (2013), Interstellar (2014), and The Martian (2015) are as aesthetically successful as, say, Forbidden Planet (1956), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and The Stepford Wives (1975) remains moot.
Let me summarize more briefly the other essays that I found to be outstanding. Stephen W. Potts’s “Dialogues Concerning Human Understanding” (1979) is excellent on Stanislaw Lem and the philosophical tradition in sf, pinpointing in particular the way that scientific positivism leads to anthropomorphism. Potts confesses disarmingly in his brief afterword that he was unnerved to find that this, perhaps his best work, was done while he was still a PhD student. Eric S. Rabkin’s “The Descent of Fantasy” (1981) was a pioneering exercise in evolutionary aesthetics, affirming the utility of fantastic narratives such as fairy tales. Rabkin explains with admirable concision why such tales are so long-lasting and important: “Fantasies are special narratives made of unfalsifiable events in part so that the reports of these events can be exchanged long after particular reality changes” (34).
Robert Crossley’s “In the Palace of Green Porcelain” (1989) argues, counterintuitively but effectively, for the complementary functions of museums and sf. Taking H.G. Wells’s Time Traveler’s account of his exploration of the titular Palace as paradigmatic, Crossley affirms the role of the museum in sf as a place that “collapses distances of time and space, disorients and displaces the observer, and ultimately requires us to put ourselves right again” (95). Fredric R. Jameson’s “Longevity as Class Struggle” (1992) eloquently argues that individual longevity in sf is always “a figure and a disguise” (144) for something much larger, namely historical change. He goes on to affirm that “It is indeed one of the grand and dramatic merits of sf as a form that it can ... win back from the sheerly psychological or subjective such expressive powers of pathology ... and place this material in the service of collective drama” (147).
Approaching a similar topic from a different angle, N. Katherine Hayles’s “How Cyberspace Signifies: Taking Immortality Literally” (1992) deals with cyberspatial reality as a function of information rather than molecular materiality, with the interesting result that character and point of view in cyberpunk fiction become synonymous. In her afterword, Hayles reminds us that the 1993Eaton Conference took place only a few months before the introduction of Mosaic, the first popular Web browser. She notes that today the interaction between narrative (an ancient way of human understanding deriving from evolutionary adaptations) and the database (a much more recent, exteriorized means to aid cognition) is the fundamental dynamic in developed societies. The chief insight in Tom Shippey’s “Literary Gatekeepers and the Fabril Tradition” (1994) is that sf defers to a body of authority outside the text, namely natural science. This puts it at odds with the gatekeepers of the humanities (embodied by the MLA), for whom, according to the once fashionable post-structuralist value system, “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” [there is no outside-text]. Shippey’s afterword notes the recent serious decline of credibility, prestige, and enrolment in the academic humanities, and expresses the hope that sf might help bridge the enormous gap that has opened up between the humanities and sciences.
H. Bruce Franklin’s “The Science Fiction of Medicine” (1996) is a meditation, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, on the ways in which sf writers, in the Frankensteinian vein, have imagined how human scientists have attempted to escape mortality. His afterword deals with more recent “post-mortal” scenarios in sf, affirming that the dialectic between life and death is likely to remain fundamental, at least to those of us who seek to retain our humanity. Finally, Carl Freedman’s “Science Fiction and the Two Cultures: Reflections after the Snow-Leavis Controversy” (1999) deals with sf as a potential means to bridge the ever-gaping divide between the humanities and sciences. In his afterword, Freedman reminds us that it is F.R. Leavis, for all his flaws, whose position remains defensible and whose critical legacy is significant, while C.P. Snow, supposedly promoting the sciences, is all but forgotten.
I have insufficient space to deal with fine pieces by Patrick Parrinder, Gregory Benford, Frank McConnell, and several others. They and most of the other critics in this exemplary collection were not afraid to engage with major humanistic issues in their Eaton papers, with sf’s bridging potential a recurrent theme. Of course, sf criticism has itself become institutionalized in the past twenty years, so that graduate students who seek to specialize in sf have to conform to the often anti-humanistic and sometimes stultifying values of the academic gatekeepers. Still, with such potent role models as can be found in this volume, it is to be hoped that future sf critics will rise to the implied challenge: namely, to negotiate (in the late Brian Aldiss’s terms) between the two apparently opposed hemispheres of the human brain, or, to put it another way, to reconcile Victor and the Monster.
—Nicholas Ruddick, University of Regina
Voices Prophesying Progress (or Crying Beware! Beware!).
New York: Cambridge UP, 2017. x+287 pp. $74.99 hc, $24.99 pbk.
Despite the apparent implications of its subtitle, A History of the Future is not primarily a study of futuristic sf or even of future fiction generally. There are numerous references to Wells, Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, and significant (but fewer) references to other sf writers (e.g., Robert A. Heinlein and Olaf Stapledon), as well as to well-known “mainstream” futuristic writers (Aldous Huxley and George Orwell), but no extended readings of their works. Instead, the subject of this book is futurology in all its forms, with brief mentions of literary futures introduced as needed. Even more than literary texts, Peter Bowler relies on popular science writing, both in books and in magazines. The books include two that are likely to be familiar to anyone interested in early British sf, J.B.S. Haldane’s Daedalus: Or Science and the Future (1924) and J.D. Bernal’s The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1929), as well as a range of others less well known. Examples of the latter are The World in 2030 (1930) by the Earl of Birkenhead (less grandly named F.E. Smith), The Birth of the Future (1934) by Peter Ritchie Calder, and several books by “Professor” A.M. Low, especially The Future (1925) and Our Wonderful World of Tomorrow (1934). The magazines most frequently cited include the long-defunct British periodicals Armchair Science, Conquest, Harmsworth Popular Science, Meccano Magazine, and Practical Mechanics, as well as the still viable American publication Popular Mechanics. Bowler’s other sources include newspaper articles, advertisements, government projects, corporate statements, World Fairs—anything that would reflect trends in the attitudes toward progress, by which Bowler primarily means technological innovation.
Those attitudes may be divided into two broad tendencies: to embrace new technologies, often without giving much thought to possible drawbacks, or to resist them reflexively out of a fear of change. Drawing both on Wells’s lecture “The Discovery of the Future” (1902) and C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” (1959), Bowler argues that studies of the future that focus on literary works tend to portray technology in negative terms that reflect the biases of the literary culture, whereas scientists and popular science writers, by and large, are more interested in the potential of new technology to improve human life. He returns at the end to this distinction between technophiles and technophobes, whom Nigel Calder (son of Peter Ritchie Calder) has called zealots and mugs, observing that “both sides are always present, and it is a mistake to focus on one or the other exclusively if we wish to gain a balanced picture of what was going on.” Bowler adds that as “a technophile for much of [his] life” who is “now increasingly resistant to the expanding world of the internet and social media,” he has changed from a zealot to “a confirmed mug,” which has helped him to see both sides of the arguments (209).
One more point to which Bowler returns at several stages is that we should judge arguments for or against technological innovations not by emphasizing what later came to be known but by concentrating on what might reasonably have seemed possible at the time. He gives examples of the problem that arises when later developments lead us to forget that debates over emerging technologies were carried out without knowledge of what now, in hindsight, might seem obvious. As an example he notes that in 1929 Bernard Ackworth, a former Royal Navy Commander, contended that airplanes were unreliable because there was no way for pilots to allow for cross-winds. This argument, Bowler observes, “sounds ludicrous today, but it seemed more plausible at a time when airspeeds were less than 100 mph, and it certainly had some validity for flights in poor visibility when it was impossible to check movement over the ground” (124-25). Again and again there were similar arguments about the merits of emerging technologies: in the field of aviation, for example, the greater possibilities of airplanes when compared to airships seem obvious today, but they are in large part the result of technologies that were developed during the Second World War for use in designing bombers and other military aircraft. A related point is that those who envision major changes in one area might well overlook others that now seem more important: as he notes several times, “no one predicted the huge impact of the personal computer in the real world” (14). When he turns to the way futuristic technologies are represented in early sf stories, Bowler cites Gary Westfahl’s observation that we often find “an incongruous mix of advanced technologies … functioning alongside older systems that we know were soon to be swept away.” Thus, in E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Skylark series, “the hero develops space travel on an interstellar scale while still measuring equipment with calipers and doing calculations with a slide rule” (82).
Although Bowler turns to sf and other futuristic fiction only sporadically, his survey of other sources provides contexts that should interest any reader of this journal. A History of the Future is also well documented and largely free from errors, although two dubious statements virtually leaped off the page at me. First, the claim that Heinlein “worked with Asimov in the Navy” (28) is probably based on a misunderstanding of their positions during World War II, when they were civilian employees at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Second, I seriously doubt that “in the 1960s … Paul Niehans of Geneva offered rejuvenation based on thyroid extracts to the rich and famous, including Pope Pius XII” (192). Since Pius died in October 1958, it would have taken more than thyroid extracts to rejuvenate him in the 1960s. A little fact-checking by Cambridge University Press might have caught these errors, perhaps along with a few others, such as the misspelling of Leslie Fiedler’s surname as “Fielder” (213 n.18; also in the bibliography). The index, while ambitious in its coverage, has some odd omissions: Benito Mussolini is quoted on the importance of reserving flying for the aristocracy (112), William Butler Yeats is mentioned for having “claimed to have benefitted from the Steinach operation” (191), and “the leading British eugenist C.P. Blacker” is credited with having made a point that was later made in Brave New World (201), but not one of them is listed in the index. There are also some literary texts that I wish Bowler had mentioned, one example being George S. Schuyler’s satiric portrayal of attitudes toward race in the United States, Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940 (1931). But these problems are small and in no way diminish the importance of this wide-ranging study.
—Patrick A. McCarthy, University of Miami
Transcendence on the Path to Self-Salvation.
The Philosophy of Science Fiction: Henri Bergson and the Fabulations of Philip K. Dick. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. 256 pp. $29.95 pbk.
James Burton’s monograph reads the work Philip K. Dick alongside that of French philosopher Henri Bergson. Burton acknowledges that while there are cursory surface connections, there is little direct connection between the two authors. For Burton, the relationship between Dick and Bergson is in thematic parallels, specifically in how each attempts to find salvation from a modern life marked by mechanization through the Bergsonian concept of fabulation. Both are engaged in what Burton terms “Immanent soteriology—that is, the search for a form of salvation that would be adequate for a post-industrialized, globalized society” (3). Thus Burton sees an important connection between the two thinkers: for both Dick and Bergson, appeals to the transcendent were always rooted in immanent materialism.
Burton notes that despite a revival in academic interest in Bergson, led by Deleuze’s monograph Bergsonism (1991), little renewed interested has been paid to Bergson’s final work, The Two Sources of Religion and Morality (1932). He attributes this to the metaphysical, spiritual, and, at times, mystical themes of this work that stand in contrast to the immanent materialism of Bergson’s earlier oeuvre. Burton argues that reasons for this scholarly dismissal of Bergson’s later work are similar to the dismissals of Dick’s later work. Dick famously experienced a number of visions and revelations during the months of February and March 1974. These quasi-religious events would color his later novels such as VALIS (1981), as well as the posthumous notebooks that comprise The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick (2011). Most of the scholarship on Dick, Burton notes, does not engage specifically with the spiritual aspect of Dick’s later works. Burton thus situates his analysis as paying close attention to the spiritualism and mysticism of Dick’s later work, acknowledging Gabriel Mckee’s Pink Beams of Light from the God in the Gutter (2003) and Erik Davis’s TechGnosis (2015) as earlier investigations into similar aspects of Dick’s work. Burton also understands Dick as attempting actively to change his reality, not simply to diagnose it. He contends that the widespread scholarly dismissal of parts of their oeuvres fails to acknowledge that Bergson and Dick engaged with transcendent salvation specifically as a response to resolving the crisis of their material realities—what they saw as the increased mechanization of humanity.
Chapter 1 begins with a sustained enquiry into Bergson’s philosophy, focusing particularly on The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. Burton disagrees with the common critique of Bergson by scholars such as Bertrand Russell and Alain Badiou that Bergson’s vitalism involves an “irreducibly transcendent dimension” (52). Burton views Bergson’s use of transcendence as marking “the difference between two notions of possibility or ability” (51). For Bergson, intelligence and instinct evolved independently in different species, and while they may be held in different ratios, every species is marked by both. Bergson asserts that intelligence threatens sociality due to its propensity to reinforce individualism. For Bergson, instinct, working underneath intellect, presents alternative representations to intellect in order to reconcile the tension between intellect and instinct in apprehending the world. Bergson terms this process fabulation: “Fabulation’s function is thus to restore the balance, or circularity, originally a simple biological or ecological reality, that was threatened by the individualism of intellect” (42). For Bergson, fabulation often facilitates a closed morality in which groups are created, defined, and marked by opposition to other groups, but fabulation also crucially allows for an open morality that would resist the impulse to revert to closure.
In chapter 2, Burton briefly surveys four of Dick’s earliest books—Solar Lottery (1955), The World Jones Made (1956), Vulcan’s Hammer (1960), and Time Out of Joint (1959)—to establish a general framework of Dick’s most common themes and tropes. He notes that Dick’s work has often been identified as subversive of traditional sf conventions and tropes. Burton argues that this is a manifestation of Dick’s impulse to open up what has been “closed” by a creative process that has ceased to evolve. This impulse would later “evolve into a more fully soteriological mode of open or dynamic fabulation” (62). Burton’s aim in this chapter is to point out that Dick’s earliest works were already moving subtly toward the spiritual and the importance of salvation.
In chapter 3 Burton returns to Bergson and begins to flesh out a close comparison between his work and Dick’s. To do so, he engages with Alain Badiou’s and Giorgio Agamben’s scholarship on St. Paul, suggesting that St. Paul is one of the first immanent soteriologists and identifying Bergson and Dick as his “spiritual heirs” (86). Soteriology is the field of study concerned with salvation, and Burton defines Dick and Bergson as immanent soteriologists because their philosophies seek salvation in the material world rather than from an external transcendent force. Burton then spends the bulk of the chapter explicating both Agamben’s and Badiou’s accounts of St. Paul’s to further develop an understanding of “the role of dynamic fabulation in challenging the closed society” (87). Through this, he challenges the notion that Bergson’s work—and Dick’s by proxy—was not sufficiently materialist.
In the final three chapters, Burton turns to an in-depth reading of Dick’s work in order to illustrate Dick’s process of fabulation as an aspect of his immanent soteriology. Chapter 4 tackles The Man In The High Castle (1962) and Burton suggests that Dick’s presentation of an alternate reality where the Axis powers win WWII does not create a binary of real and alternative timelines but instead destabilizes both through dynamic fabulation that renders “visible or [re-animates] the evidence suppressed within each of [the timelines] that worlds and their histories are continually in the process of being made, and as such always open to transformation” (116; emphasis in original). Here Burton starts to unpack Dick’s specific fabulative practices, noting the importance of small quotidian objects within Dick’s narratives. These objects often serve as a site of deferral of agency for Dick’s characters when they are placed in seemingly inescapable situations. These objects index humanity’s lack of agency due to mechanization while simultaneously holding the possibility of salvation. Burton’s reading is compelling and draws a direct link between the ordinary and the transcendent in Dick’s work. Yet he notes that Dick’s novels remain deeply skeptical of any external salvic force as truly capable of bringing salvation. Both the transcendent and quotidian in Dick’s novels provide the capacity to realize and accept one’s own potential for self-salvation. This then is a key part of Dick’s immanent soteriology, which Burton elucidates to prove that while Dick’s late works have been read as mystical or transcendent, they are in fact immanent. The path to salvation for Dick always lies within self-salvation, but it is only through the fabulative process, transcendent or otherwise, that one is capable of generating belief in potential self-salvation.
In chapter 5, Burton turns to Dick’s use of a god-like alien in Galactic Pot Healer (1969)and androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). In the former, Burton identifies Dick’s propensity to undercut his transcendent figures with the mundane as representative of the immanence in his soteriology. Similar to Dick’s use of mundane objects in High Castle, the transcendent in his novels is juxtaposed with the quotidian in a move that Burton suggests signals the immanentization of the transcendent. These figures are never allowed to remain wholly transcendent, emphasizing a skepticism about any potential of absolute external salvation. Similarly, Burton sees Dick’s frequent use of androids as a way to refigure tropes not just from sf but also from the earliest mythological stories of human creation, in which humans are initially instrumental and subservient to the gods but are later able to resist this divine power in establishing a modicum of their autonomy. By reinscribing this trope through the human as creator/god and the android as slave, and then destabilizing it, he negates the relationship as one between “creators and their creations” and turns it into one of “creators and more creators” (161), thus opening up the closed hierarchy of fixed identity.
In the final chapter Burton finally turns his attention to VALIS and explicates how Dick navigates the difficult contradictions inherent in his immanent soteriology and the process of dynamic fabulation. One of the key contradictions is the necessity that the “logic of salvation be fabulated by the one in need of salvation” (171) and that, simultaneously, this salvation must be seen as coming from a savior that is external. In Burton’s reading of VALIS, the dichotomy and distinction between Horselover Fat and the narrator is not merely a reinscription of Dick’s own break from reality but, rather, a deliberately staged separation that facilitates the process of immanent soteriology by simultaneously allowing for both the transcendent and immanent in order that both can be reconciled without “either undermining themselves or cancelling one another out” (178). This is also apparent in Dick’s exegesis where he critically understands that his vision and hallucinations are not transcendent, yet he cannot reconcile them with his understanding of material reality.
Thus Burton concludes that inherent in Dick’s process of fabulation is the need to continually forget the very process of this fabulation. Burton suggests that this is not as difficult as it may seem. Returning to Bergson, he asserts that fabulation, as stemming from instinct, “is produced and elicits a response more quickly than the intellect is able to fully process it. Thus, in a sense … the saving figure, or whatever it is that is fabulated, really does come from outside” (172). This is potentially the most difficult part of the entire process with which to grapple. If it is to be a useful tool on the path toward any sort of salvation, this contradictory tension suggests that it cannot be held or manipulated consciously. Burton suggests that Dick’s work in VALIS showcases “this ongoing struggle to maintain a dynamic mode of fabulation against the constant risk of reverting to mechanization and closure” and that any immanent savior or notion of salvation “must therefore be constantly attended to, reformed, re-imagined—subject to, if not identical with, a dynamic fabulating activity, rather than ossifying into a static, fabulated form” (186). In this there still remains the question of praxis; the suggestion here seems to be that self-salvation is an ontology without telos.
Burton accepts that a complete rejection of any fabulations that have become ossified and delineate our apprehension of reality is impossible or at least limited to “some form of mystical enlightenment or the equivalent of a psychotic break” (206). Nevertheless, he contends that various attempts to destabilize or delegitimize the hegemonic elements of society—whatever those may be—are attempts to develop a mode of engagement that would allow for an opening of the closed fabulations of society. The importance of cognitive estrangement to sf suggests that sf has the capacity to perform the type of dynamic fabulation necessary to challenge ossified systems of closed morality.
Despite unpacking the works of both Dick and Bergson in detail, Burton’s cogent and detailed explication of both authors ensures that the book remains accessible to readers unfamiliar with these authors, while also remaining critical and nuanced enough to provide familiar readers with novel insights. Readers of SFS may be more interested in Burton’s take on Philip K. Dick, but Burton makes an excellent case for the value of considering Bergsonian philosophy when approaching Dick’s work—in particular Dick’s later oeuvre. The potential importance of Dick’s and Bergson’s immanent soteriology to sf lies in the genre’s capacity and propensity to imagine otherwise, to engage in dynamic fabulations. Fabulation’s capacity to challenge hegemonic structures allows sf to be understood as both theory and praxis, as both diagnosing the issues of society and engaging with challenges to hegemonic structures and ideology. Burton’s monograph masterfully recuperates the forgotten or maligned aspects of both Dick’s and Bergson’s works and raises genuinely interesting questions about sf’s capacity to affect, influence, and foster positive change in the world.
—Leslie J. Fernandez, University of California, Riverside
A Rich Repository.
Science Fiction beyond Borders. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2016. ix+182 pp. $86.95 hc.
Science Fiction beyond Borders is a collection of essays that promises to show how sf crosses, subverts, transgresses, and transcends a wide range of border practices. In some measure, the essays fulfil that promise, each, separately, mapping out new territories and terms, exposing boundaries of sf criticism. Where the volume disappoints is in its existence as a volume: i.e., as a collection of essays that benefit not only from the opportunity for publication but from their actual relationship to the other essays. To be fair, the editors state clearly that “this book collects papers presented at the 2014 and 2015 Science Fiction Symposium, an annual event held at Tel Aviv University” (vii). The symposium has clearly presented a chance for some top-notch scholarship, much of which is reflected here. Read as conference proceedings it then becomes a much more productive venue for some of the work being produced in Israeli academia today.
The collection leaves the gate running with Elana Gomel’s theoretical account of posthuman narratology. Focusing specifically on the possibilities of characterization, her framework feels long overdue in sf literary studies, making the argument that “the most important question raised by posthumanism is the nature of subjectivity beyond the human. The representation of non- or post-human characters in SF can help to answer this question” (1). Where the “round character is a hallmark of psychological realism that has given us the fullest expression of the humanist ethos, the flat character is a harbinger of posthumanism” (4). Her analysis, full of convincing close readings, opens exciting and fresh new theoretical possibilities while remaining readable, accessible, and enjoyable.
The play between roundness and flatness and their relationship to subjectivity, language, and materiality is picked up in Naomi Michaelowicz’s sophisticated and rich analysis of China Miéville’s Embassytown (2011) in Chapter Three, “The Importance of Telling Lies: SF Ethics and the Story of the Fall in China Miéville’s Embassytown.” Theorizing the spatiality and verticality of the Fall as a framework for reading the novel, Michaelowicz ups the game for readers of Miéville here but, regrettably, only hints at how her model may be expanded. She concludes somewhat limply that the use of the story of the Fall “affirms the worth of both SF texts and myth ‘as a story’”(42). Her more fruitful suggestion lies in her discussion of language as emulating the “creative power of God.” “In order to create fictional worlds,” she continues, “including the ethically-determined world of religious mythology, there had to occur a fall; from innocence to mortality, from pure language to signification, from literality to imagination” (42-43).
Aside from these, Chapters Four on science and modernity, Six on ethics in cloning, and Seven on transhumanism and paganism offer more critically inclined discussions, building an analytical vocabulary with which familiar sf tropes and figures can be read. In Chapter Four, “Fictionalising the Failure of Science: Zombies, Ambivalence and Modernity,” for instance, Moriel Ram suggests that the zombie is effectively an embodiment of the failure of science and thus functions “as both a threat and a consequence of modernity. This ambivalence is connected to the way in which the zombie presents a post-secular critique that challenges modernity and human achievements” (48). Ram pursues this argument across several canonical zombie texts, including Matheson’s I am Legend (1954) and its adaptations, the Romero trilogy (1968-1985), and Brooks’s World War Z (2006), nicely grounding her premise in documented research from a variety of disciplines and offering a satisfying, if modest, intervention into zombie scholarship. Ulrike Goldenblatt, in Chapter Six, “Facing Your Dolly,” goes in the other direction, looking not at how the fiction represents the science but rather at how “science fiction involving clones has aided an informed discussion on the societal effects of bio- or gene-technological developments and their ethical implications, while also paving the way for a greater acceptance of transhumanism and its new technological means” (86). Goldenblatt focuses primarily on Le Guin’s “Nine Lives” (1998) and the Orphan Black series (2013-2017), though she touches on a plethora of additional clones in fiction, to remind us that “behind each of these clones lurks the powerful image of Dolly, an ethical challenge incarnate” (94). Vyatcheslav Bart’s Chapter Seven, “Futurist, Decadent, and Pagan Influences in Transhumanism: the Dangers of Godlike Creativity,” is an interesting attempt to link transhumanism to an aesthetics of violence that is traced back through performance art to Futurism and Decadence and then back to paganism. Although the links might have been more elaborately demonstrated, Bart does make a convincing argument, alluding to some lesser known works to make the provocative suggestion that “it is preferable to maintain those boundaries that transhumanism seeks to destroy, while transposing its creative impulses from the realm of the physical to the realm of subjective consciousness” (111). In this way, Bart claims, an inevitable self-destructiveness inherent to the merging of the material with the immaterial within creative processes may be forestalled.
Asaph Wagner’s Chapter Ten, “Genre Hybridity in Tabletop Roleplaying Games: When You Want to Play It, and You Can,” on role-playing games (RPGs) and gene hybridity, is in many ways a stand-alone chapter, primarily because of its subject matter, but in its critical approach it follows naturally from the preceding group. Wagner turns to the narrative hybrids within tabletop RPGs. In what is nearly a survey of the kinds of RPGs being described, the author convincingly shows how this medium is uniquely suited to incorporate elements of fantasy in sf narrative and vice versa. Students thinking about tabletop RPGs and the ways in which genre fiction figures so prominently in them will benefit from Wagner’s discussion.
]Most of the remaining chapters in the volume are based much more on analyses of specific texts and, as such, are arguably more limited but also more accessible and may appeal to a different type of reader. In Chapter Two, “Androgynous Aliens and Gender Migrants: Experiments in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Greg Egan’s Distress,” Anat Karolin’s discussion is both smart and useful. In particular, Karolin’s concise insights into the Egan text and her gestures towards a comparison with Le Guin make a case for a continuity that may be less than self-evident. This sense of a teleology in literature is taken up by Rami Zeidan in Chapter Five, “Human Degeneration in Early Science Fiction Literature,” where he offers an astute reminder that Darwin’s theory of evolution does not necessarily promise improvement and progress. To make his claims, Zeidan unsurprisingly concentrates on Wells and Huxley, two early masters concerned with the possibilities of progress and decline. Although his discussion is utterly convincing, making it a solid, rigorous, and recommended aid for early-stage students, a more provocative or clearly stated argument and/or slightly less familiar examples would have more firmly secured his contribution to the field.
Chapters Eight and Nine are a welcome shift in perspective, reminding readers of the occasion for this publication, that it is a regional symposium of sf scholarship. Avital Pilpel’s “Why are There No Israeli Utopias in Israeli Science Fiction?” is, first and foremost, a very useful survey of Israeli sf; it is not the first nor the only such endeavor but one that is still valuable. In what is clearly the most political of all the essays in the collection, Pilpel offers a convincing analysis of what he identifies as a propensity to dystopian imagination in Israel, given the political climate, though this is occasionally weakened by reasonable but broad claims (e.g., sf is more likely to be written in times of hope). Moreover, some omissions—I am thinking particularly of Lavie Tidhar, one of the more prominent contemporary Israeli-born sf writers—are surprising; given the survey-like nature of the chapter, however, it is clear that there is no attempt (nor way) to be comprehensive. Instead, Pilpel elucidates an evident pattern in speculative fiction in Israel. Ultimately, Pilpel adopts a thoroughly readable and graceful tone to crystalize what is unique about the precarious stabilities of the State of Israel and of its sf and to offer insights into an increasingly rich geopolitical arena for the genre. Danielle Gurevitch’s Chapter Nine, “Angels on Katzenelson Street: The Israeli Reader’s Attitude Towards Fantastic Literature,” also pursues the local perspective but through its reception rather than its manifestation in the fiction. “Selling fantasy literature to the Israeli reader is like trying to sell ice to an Eskimo” (127), she begins, going on to demonstrate that the very practicalities of daily routine in Israeli life are the stuff of fantasy. Gurevitch travels through a nice array of early and contemporary Israeli writers, from Haim Hazaz, through David Grossman, to Etgar Keret, to establish links between the national experience and the personal and literary. It is perhaps for this reason that I regret the lack of dialogue between the two chapters on Israel. Where Gurevitch glosses over some of the interpretive differences and political complexities within the national narrative she represents, Pilpel seems to claim that Israeli reality is almost anathema to the utopian optimism of a speculative imagination. Reading these side by side gives a glimpse into the kinds of dilemmas pervasive in Israeli scholarship and public discourse.
Hila Peleg’s Chapter Eleven, “Smashing Expectations for Fun and Profit: Untertextuality and ‘Rip-off’ in the Novels of John Scalzi,” brings readers back to the beginning and ends the volume on a high note. By bringing us back to literary theory, Peleg manages beautifully and simply to condense the tenets of narrative theory, mapping the relationship of implied author, narrator, and implied reader in order to offer insight into some of the basic structures of the genre. Using Scalzi as her case study, Peleg shows how so much of sf literature relies on both genre convention and intertextuality and also how this reliance allows writers such as Scalzi to play with reader expectations, ensuring a freshness to the form and pleasure in the experience.
Without question, this volume showcases some truly valuable insights into the field, form, and media of sf. Having said that, an opportunity has been missed. The evocative title, Beyond Borders, so loaded coming out of this particular locale, hints at the unique possibility of reflecting on the locality of the scholarship. This is certainly not to say that all the essays should have been about Israel or Israeli sf but perhaps some introductory or concluding chapter to present a rationale for the anthology as an anthology would have added both an innovative and a timely dimension to the volume. This lament aside, the collection is a rich repository of perspectives, methodologies, forms, and subject matters, and a worthy contribution to the field.
—Keren Omry, University of Haifa
The Adventures of Acidman: Psychedelics and the Evolution of Consciousness in Science Fiction and Superhero Comics from the 1960s Onward. Tokyo: Eihosha, 2016. 134 pp. $32 pbk.
In this slim monograph from Eihosha Press, Ian Garlington argues that comics, and especially a particular breed of superhero comics of the 1980s and 1990s, are the most appropriate expression of an LSD-infused psychedelic aesthetic pioneered by sf writers of the 1960s and 1970s. In order to illustrate this premise, Garlington begins with a brief account of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954), “irrefutably the most influential book on Americans’ widespread acceptance of psychedelics” (13), before moving on to more detailed readings of Thomas Disch’s Camp Concentration (1968) and Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy(1975). Using Disch’s and Shea and Wilson’s work to establish the formal and thematic characteristics of “psychedelic fiction” and particularly its “evolutionary consciousness,” Garlington then spends a chapter exploring some of the formal characteristics of psychedelic underground comix, indicating the ways in which the comics form has a particular affinity with psychedelia. In the final two chapters, Garlington explains the ways in which the 1980s and 1990s comics of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison combine the thematic and narrative characteristics of Disch and Shea and Wilson with the visual/formal elements of psychedelic comix in order to create the storytelling form most suited to psychedelic ideas. Ultimately, while Garlington does a nice job of tracing similarities and lines of influence among psychedelic sf, underground comix, and British Invasion superhero comics, he is less convincing in his argument that somehow the last of these is the apotheosis of the former two. In addition, while Garlington succeeds in drawing together what might initially seem to be three separate traditions, he also leaves many connections out of his narrative and underplays some of the more obvious connections among some of the authors he chooses to discuss and the traditions of which he claims they are a part.
In his introduction, Garlington outlines some of the ways in which LSD was promoted as a replacement for poetry, which was meant to estrange the everyday world but had ultimately run out of formal resources to do so. For this reason, people such as ethnobotanist Terrence McKenna and Huxley promoted the use of psychedelic drugs to expand human beings’ consciousness and therefore their language use as well. For McKenna, Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, et al., LSD and other psychedelics were supposed to reveal a hidden layer of unity in the universe and to open a next evolutionary path for humanity to pursue, a purpose also achieved by at least some kinds of sf. As Wilson argued, “The function of science fiction is to break mental sets. Science fiction is liberation” (qtd. in Garlington 17). Garlington, then, claims that sf, and particularly New Wave sf, is designed to free the mind and to open it up to a more universal “cosmic consciousness” that will allow human beings to evolve to a more advanced state of existence. In particular, Garlington focuses on the ways in which LSD (and psychedelic sf and comics) can break down our limited understanding of time and space, moving from a linear view to a more comprehensive understanding of the interconnectedness of spacetime. This insight, he argues, is best seen in comics, wherein the passage of time is literally represented by shifts in space on a comics page.
In chapter one, Garlington recounts the ways in which Disch’s novel details the forced dissemination of an acid-like “drug” as part of a widespread consciousness-raising effort, linked by Garlington to the Faustian bargain made by Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus (1947). Leverkühn allows himself to contract syphilis in an effort to expand his mind and his musical/compositional creativity in ways similar to the (unwilling) test subjects of Disch’s novel.
The second chapter on The Illuminatus! Trilogyfocuses on the importance of conspiracy thinking and theorizing to psychedelic consciousness-raising. Conspiracy theorizing, like acid-influenced thought, sees patterns and unity where “ordinary” thought would be more likely simply to see random events. In comparing Illuminatus!to William Burroughs’s Nova trilogy (1961-1964), Garlington explains how both posit the possibility that “higher dimensional alien life forms are pulling the strings of mankind to produce the puppet show of history” (41). The idea of “higher dimensions” dovetails with the previously mentioned idea that space and time are not separate dimensions at all but can only be fully understood from a position “outside” the fourth dimension of time (that is, from a higher dimension). Within this notion, then, linear narration is a restricted/limited way of viewing time and of telling a story, and a more unified, higher order consciousness would rely upon anti-narrative devices, circular storytelling, and a variety of other techniques linked by Garlington to the James Joyce of Finnegans Wake (1939) and to Burroughs’s cut-up and fold-in techniques. For Garlington, Shea and Wilson’s trilogy is characterized by its “accepting both contradictory models of reality” (52), a model wherein conspiracies are real and everything happens for a higher-dimensional, pre-planned, conspiratorial reason and a model wherein there can only be skepticism and mockery of such unifying theories.
Following his discussion of these novels, Garlington looks at some of the characteristics of underground comix by such artists as Robert Crumb, Kent Perry, and Claude Bawls. In these comics, acid trips are explicitly depicted in visual form and, in so doing, the lines dividing panels (and thus the lines dividing space and time) are eliminated, blurred, or melted. Likewise, images shift between conscious, “objective,” or “material” reality and unconscious, free-associative, and/or surreal imagery. Typical panel transitions are abandoned in favor of dramatic leaps through space or time or simply a series of inexplicable non sequiturs.
In the final two chapters, Garlington turns to two much-discussed British comics writers, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison, and particularly their contributions to the corporate world of mainstream American superhero comics. In the case of Moore, Garlington focuses on his engagement with utopian/dystopian themes in Miracleman (1982-1989), Watchmen (1986-1987), and V for Vendetta (1982-1989), in which the possibility of moving beyond current human concerns is explored by deploying the concept of the superhero in unconventional ways. In most mainstream superhero comics, as Garlington explains, a relative status quo is preserved in order to maintain some kind of connection to the “real world” and in order to continue superhero serials indefinitely for the purposes of making a profit. That is, where mainstream superhero comics are conservative in a number of ways, in all three of the Moore comics discussed by Garlington the stories’ commitment to a beginning, middle, and end allow the introduction of a superhero whose abilities not only transcend those of normal humans, but whose powers also open up the possibility of changing the world and establishing a utopian next stage in human evolution. It is this evolutionary consciousness in Moore’s work that Garlington links to psychedelic sf.
Morrison’s Animal Man (1988-90), then,includes higher-dimensional beings and a peyote trip that gives its protagonist his first opportunity to see beyond his two-dimensional world into our three-dimensional one, explicitly linking acid-trips to evolutionary higher consciousness and to the texts previously discussed by Garlington. Garlington’s longer reading of Morrison’s The Invisibles includes discussions of “folded-in” spacetime (à la Burroughs), encounters with higher-dimensional beings, acid trips, conspiracy theorizing, secret societies, utopian evolution, and the formal tricks associated with underground comix, particularly those “used to signify a perspective exterior to time” (115). That is, for Garlington The Invisibles provides the logical combination, evolution, and progression of all of the texts he discusses, and of acid-trips themselves, ultimately “find[ing] the thing that only comics can reveal” (110).
This claim that somehow comics in general, and The Invisibles in particular, provide something that prose (or visual art) alone cannot determines the chronology of Garlington’s book; but it is ultimately dubious. Certainly, comics present time as space, a formal quality that can be used to represent a “higher-dimensional cosmic consciousness,” but it is also true that modes of visual art (like Dada and Futurism) have similar qualities, while prose has also proven resourceful in expressing similar ideas. That is to say, the argument that a particular aesthetic form has an advantage in expressing particular ideas is not a particularly convincing one and certainly it is not one that is proven anywhere in Adventures of Acidman. For all the talk of non-linear temporalities, Garlington’s book is governed by a kind of linear teleology that never fully convinces. Without that argument, however, Garlington’s book reads simply as a narrative of affiliation and influence, one that is accurate as far as it goes and that includes some convincing close readings, but that leaves out a variety of other coordinates (such as psychedelic music, or LSD-inspired gallery art, or, simply, the wide variety of other psychedelic texts and contexts).
The question of “why these texts?” is never fully or sufficiently answered, given the wide range of acid-influenced New Wave sf (why not Michael Moorcock’s Cornelius Chronicles , for instance?) and/or psychedelic comics, underground or superhero. While Garlington focuses on Moore’s early superhero work of the 1980s, he leaves out Moore’s early self-drawn underground/alternative comix, published in Sounds and elsewhere, which are frequently psychedelic in nature, as well as the 1980s work that is perhaps the most overtly drug-inspired, his multi-year run of Swamp Thing (1983-1987). Swamp Thing includes two issues in which characters ingest tubers grown on the protagonist’s body, allowing them an altered psychedelic vision depicted in visuals reminiscent of the underground comix Garlington describes and reprints. Likewise, Garlington never mentions Moore’s overt manipulation of spacetime, particularly in Watchmen’sDr. Manhattan, a superhero who experiences all time simultaneously and thus is a higher-dimensional consciousness (though one obtained through a scientific accident rather than a drug trip), nor does he discuss Moore’s overt references to Burroughs. In addition, Moore’s later work (particularly Promethea [1999-2005]) is often more psychedelic in its form than the material Garlington analyzes in this book, includes elaborate conspiracy theories (From Hell [1989-1998]), and is nearly obsessive about higher-dimensional perspective and insight (particularly in From Hell, Promethea, and Jerusalem ,but also throughout his later oeuvre). Garlington also neglects a large body of Moore criticism that addresses these issues more fully and an excellent monograph on Morrison’s work by Marc Singer that would have been a useful springboard for his own ideas.
Similarly, while Garlington jumps forward in time from self-published underground psychedelic comix to 1980s-1990s superhero fare, he neglects earlier psychedelic superhero comics such as Jack Kirby’s Forever People (1971) and other “fourth world” titles, that could just as easily be read in the context of acid trips, heightened consciousness, and evolutionary utopias.
All of the above is to say that, while Garlington pulls together a variety of disparate texts and contexts in order to trace the origins and development of psychedelic sf, the brevity of the book works against him. The progressive narrative he draws is not inaccurate, but it neglects so much material, both primary and critical, that this reader walked away disappointed, wanting a more fully realized history and analysis of psychedelic sf and its interactions with the parallel and interpenetrating history of psychedelic comics, superhero or otherwise.
—Eric Berlatsky, Florida Atlantic University
Thinking Outside Thought.
Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2017. xii+250 pp. $72 hc, $24 pbk.
On 17 November 2017, Duke University hosted a symposium called “The Futures of Literature, Science, and Media” in honor of N. Katherine Hayles. It was a marvelous event, recognizing the tremendous contributions that Hayles has made to our collective understanding of the feedback loops among literary narratives, media technologies, and scientific discourses. As one of the speakers at the symposium, I noted how frequently the discussions circled around the insights of Hayles’s latest book, Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious (2017). There seemed to be consensus that, while Unthought brilliantly extends some topics and themes that Hayles has addressed across a number of other pathbreaking volumes, picking up threads from Chaos Bound (1990), How We Became Posthuman (1999), Writing Machines (2002), My Mother Was a Computer (2005), and How We Think (2012), it also represents an important new twist in her scholarship, grappling with the conditions of thought, the costs of consciousness, and ethical modes of living with other organisms and advanced technologies on an ecologically threatened planet. It is a book about neurobiology and cognitive science, yes; but it is also a profound questioning of what we should do with our thoughts, of how we ought to think—and unthink—as we rediscover ourselves embedded in a vast web of biotic and technical cognition.
Consolidating and critically reviewing an ample array of research from the front lines of cognitive science, Hayles exposes the secret workings of the cognitive nonconscious, the deep mechanisms of information processing, pattern recognition, stimulus response and anticipation, and meaning making that not only subtend human consciousness but also characterize innumerable other forms of life. To be sure, processes of nonconscious cognition can be observed in all organisms, from bacteria to whales, anemones to zorillas. Hayles therefore expansively defines cognition in a manner that aligns with research in neuroscience (a field that, strictly speaking, studies neurons and nervous systems), as well as research in fields such as cognitive biology, which makes more inclusive claims about the information-processing capacities of organisms at various scales without privileging the evolution of neural differentiation. As Hayles writes, “Cognition is a process that interprets information within contexts that connect it with meaning” (22). This formulation invites a rapprochement between neurocentric perspectives that foreground the evolutionary feats of chordates and other nervy organisms, on the one hand, and the intricate sorting and problem-solving processes performed by all organisms, on the other, the full range of which must properly be seen as cognition.
From this vantage, Hayles presents a tripartite pyramid model of cognition, depicting consciousness and other modes of awareness as a tiny peak at the top, supported by a much more substantive stratum of nonconscious cognitive operations below, itself supported by a deeper, foundational level of material and chemical processes from which the conditions of cognition arise. Hayles’s main concern is the middle layer of this pyramid. Although humans have been quite fixated on their own relation to consciousness and its affordances, such as self-awareness, language, and rational thought—to say nothing of its reflections in the psychoanalytic unconscious—consciousness itself depends fundamentally on a thick layer of nonconscious cognition, which works much faster than consciousness, engages and filters the informational flux of the world more elaborately, recognizes complex patterns that escape direct perception, creates coherency among various streams of sensory input, and carries out a bewildering array of basic operations necessary for organismal persistence and survival, while only feeding a small portion of processed information forward to consciousness.
In this accounting, consciousness turns out to be somewhat less of a pure asset than we may like to imagine. As Hayles writes, “Higher consciousness is not, of course, the whole or indeed even the main part of the story: enhancing and supporting it are the ways in which the embodied subject is embedded and immersed in environments that function as distributed cognitive systems” (2). Even while she emphasizes the immense agency of humans in the world, she also considers the costs of consciousness, both for individual organisms endowed with this feature and for the planetary conditions it has helped to produce. By attending to nonconscious cognition, according to Hayles, we come to see the tremendous flourishing of cognition all around us, within us, and through us: the ways in which organisms intersect with their environments and other organisms through a panoply of meanings and interpretations, the engines of worldness. Indeed, this view opens up alternative models of ecology based on planetary networks of cognizers navigating, responding, and transforming through embodied processes of knowing.
Yet once the functions of nonconscious cognition are recognized in living organisms, it then becomes clear that many technical systems also perform these functions, especially modern computational devices and digital infrastructures. For Hayles, this is one of the most significant implications of the cognitive nonconscious. She shows how medical robots, sensing and actuating traffic-control systems, autonomous vehicles, and high-frequency trading algorithms are sophisticated cognitive entities whose intellective activities far exceed the speed and capacity of human consciousness. Insofar as human thoughts, bodies, societies, and economies are increasingly dependent on such technical systems, impacted in ever more complicated and inscrutable ways, Hayles argues that we must develop new models for apprehending the entanglements of human and nonhuman cognizers, conscious and nonconscious cognitions, and the processes of making meaningful interpretations in technological and biological systems. She proposes the important concept of a “cognitive assemblage” to address such issues, showing how a “cognitive assemblage emphasizes the flow of information through a system and the choices and decisions that create, modify, and interpret the flow” (116). In other words, it describes the dynamics of information among shifting constellations of human actors, technological affordances, algorithmic operations, and material agencies—the infrastructures of our modern high-tech world—requiring new considerations for governance, ethical practices, and policy decisions.
The book compellingly suggests that many domains of science and society can be better understood—and more effectively engaged—by attending to the distributed systems of cognition that are already right there but not yet fully in the line of sight. The book plays with recurring motifs of gap filling and bridge building, describing how a focus on nonconscious cognition would help to patch up fissures and lacunae in other areas of scholarly research. The benefits would be tangible for certain zones of neurobiology and cognitive science, for example, in which the cognitive operations of plants, amoebae, or networked computational systems have sometimes been overlooked, because it allows for “building bridges across different phyla to construct a comparative view of cognition” (15). It would also benefit the humanities and social sciences, which, despite various nonhuman and posthuman turns, have often failed to appreciate how a theory of cognitive assemblages could resolve some stubborn problems, whether in the philosophy of mind (whose longstanding debates could be “challenged and energized by including nonconscious cognition in its purview” ) or in the discourses of new materialisms (insofar as “nonconscious cognition can supply essential components presently absent from most new materialist analyses” ). Literary readings, as well, would profit from sensitivity to cognitive assemblages, shoring up holes in otherwise superlative literary analyses, such as Lauren Berlant’s crucial essay “Intuitionists: History and the Affective Event” (because this perspective “provides precisely the kind of connections and links that Berlant’s essay is missing” ). But more than just filling in what has been omitted, Hayles proposes a reorientation or re-cognition, a revitalized outlook on what has so far been unthought in these fields. While scientific research goes a long way to revealing such unthinkable things and bringing them to light, it is ultimately the literary in Hayles’s assessment that has significant potential to render visible, intuitive, and re-cognizable the cognitive assemblages that intersect and embed our merely human consciousness.
While Unthought is rather less concerned with cultural narratives and literary texts than much of Hayles’s earlier work, literary analysis nevertheless plays a substantial role here. Hayles discusses a number of novels, films, and “neurofictions,” offering extended analyses of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2007), Peter Watts’s Blindsight (2006), and Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1999), as well as shorter commentaries on Daniel Suarez’s Kill Decision (2013), Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), and others. Notably, she indicates how these speculative narratives help to shape and propagate a cultural discourse, currently dominated by technical and popular writings in cognitive science, that aspires to validate a new normal: “They suggest that ‘normality’ cannot be sufficiently anchored by consciousness alone, or indeed by human cognition..... [H]uman cognition can no longer be regarded as the ‘normal’ standard against which all other cognition can be measured, technical and nonhuman, terrestrial and alien” (110). This conclusion suggests that such works of speculative fiction are, after all, cognitively estranging. But here is the twist: they are cognitively estranging in multiple senses. Certainly, there is the sense of Darko Suvin, extrapolating a rational deviation from current norms that likewise enables critical reflection on those norms and their historical conditionality. But there is also a different sense at work here: an estrangement of cognition as such, a cognitive estrangement of cognition itself. Or at least, a questioning, a disfiguring of certain dominant conceptions of cognition cherished by human beings self-conscious of their own consciousness, shaped by a history of humanist thought that has yoked the cognitive to the expectations of consciousness in the first place.
Hayles underscores the stakes of this new way of looking at things: “Added together, these innovations amount to nothing less than a paradigm shift in how we think about human cognition in relation to planetary cognitive ecologies, how we analyze the operations and ethical implications of human–technical assemblages, and how we imagine the role that the humanities can and should play in assessing these effects” (39). This paradigm shift and the cascading effects of cognitive estrangement do not wait for the future. As Hayles demonstrates in her vivid technical discussions and bold theoretical formulations, the conditions for this radically altered way of understanding are already here. In some ways, they have been announced throughout the history of life on earth, and they continue to feed forward with ever greater urgency, bodied forth in the smart technologies that we now depend on every day and the planetary cognitive ecologies that are rapidly changing before our very eyes. It is time to think the unthought—better late than never.
—Colin Milburn, University of California, Davis
Players of Games.
The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks. Canterbury, UK: Gylphi, 2018. xx+259 pp. £18.99 pbk.
A central figure in the modern resurgence of space opera, Iain M. Banks has been receiving increasing critical attention in the last few years. Known mostly for his sf novels and stories set in and around (but mostly around) the Culture, a socialist and post-scarcity galactic civilization, the Scottish author developed an unmistakable style and shaped a complex fictional universe over the course of nine Culture novels and several short stories (1987-2012). This latest collection of essays is only the second of its kind—Maretyn Colebrook and Katherine Cox’s The Transgressive Iain Banks was published in 2013, the year that Banks died—and its arrival is a reminder that there is still much to be said about the sometimes playful, sometimes horrific, always engrossing narratives that Banks spun out over his lustrous career.
Several full-length studies have also been published on his work, including The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks (2015) by Simone Caroti, which reads through the Culture sequence in some detail and, more recently, Paul Kincaid’s illuminating Iain M. Banks (2017), part of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series. Three or four other studies have appeared as well, the earliest in 2001, but overall this is meager output for such a beloved author. Banks’s sf is concerned with technological societies, automation, artificial intelligence, and the ethics of political and military interventionism, and as a result is more relevant than ever. The uptick in recent scholarship suggests that this critical scarcity could be reaching its end.
This collection distinguishes itself through an emphasis on games in Banks’s fiction. It is a natural fit, given that games and game playing abound in his sf. From the high-stakes card game Damage in Consider Phlebas (1987), in which players alter the emotions of their opponents and use human lives as currency, to the virtual-reality “game” in Feersum Endjinn (1994), in which a prisoner must resist a knight’s advances in a digital fairytale, games function as not only plot devices but also as narrative and thematic axes. According to the editors, the collection’s focus on games is limited to a section comprised of three essays, but games and ludology, the study of games, appear to varying degrees in other sections as well, coalescing into a distinctive theoretical and interpretative lens.
It is somewhat disappointing, then, that the collection does not embrace this lens wholeheartedly. This is likely because the editors pulled material and ideas from not only the Loncon 3 “games jam,” but also a 2013 symposium at Brunel University London focused more generally on Banks’s work. This is a broader focus, then, with the editors attempting to “map out terrain for the many critical studies and analyses we anticipate over the years ahead” (4), rather than simply the intersection of Banks and games. As a result, however, their offering is trapped somewhere between a rather generic overview that maps ideas central to the study of Banks and a more specialized and interdisciplinary look at Banks and games. By attempting to be both, it fails to fully succeed at either.
This is not to say that The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks is without merit—far from it. The opening section consists of “two conversations with and about Banks, his life and writing career” (12), the first of which is a reworked keynote from the Brunel symposium by sf author and longtime friend Ken MacLeod (the acknowledgement in Banks’s Culture novel Use of Weapons  opens with “I blame Ken MacLeod for the whole thing”). MacLeod’s reminiscences are filled with intriguing insights into Banks’s ideas, methodology, and life, as well as more than a few humorous anecdotes. We learn, for example, that Banks chose his character names somewhat idiosyncratically, including “the American businessman Tony Fromlax. It’s an airline luggage label: TO NY FROM LAX” (26). The second is a 2010 interview with Banks by David Smith, and it contains all of the rambling perspicacity and wit that Banks displayed in similar interactions. His thoughts on utopia and related issues are revelatory, as always: “This bizarre concept that somehow … There’s no improvement beyond, you know, beyond capitalism. I just thought that was bananas” (50).
The second section concerns “Questions of Genre” and includes three essays: Nick Hubble’s “‘Once Upon A Time, Over the Gravity Well and Far Away…’: Fairy-Tale Narratives in Banks’s Science Fiction,” exploring how Banks’s sf rewrites and subverts fairy-tale devices and clichés; Joseph Norman’s “Hearing the Culture: Music and Utopianism in Iain M. Banks,” a brilliant look at the use of music in the Culture novels Look to Windward (2000) and The Hydrogen Sonata (2013); and Martyn Colebrook’s “Playing Games with Gods: Iain M. Banks and John Fowles.” The latter is intriguing but oddly situated, given that its emphasis is less on genre and more on the centrality of games as a kind of “structuring principle” (101) in Banks’s The Player of Games (1988) and Fowles’s The Magus (1965).
Colebrook’s essay would be better situated in the third section, “Banks and the Playing of Games,” where games are front and center, although this would have broken the three-essays-per-section structure maintained from the second section onward. Esther MacCallum-Stewart’s “The Gaming of Players: Jamming Azad” opens this section and is primarily a breakdown of the “prototyping of the game Azad” that took place at Loncon 3. Azad, the most analyzed of Banks’s fictional games, is notorious for its conceptual abstraction—it simulates the entirety of an alien social structure but Banks is not interested in the details—and as such its prototyping faces certain practical obstacles. MacCallum-Stewart’s entry details the reasoning behind such an ordeal and the practical steps that were taken to create a kind of improvisational and open-ended version of the game, while also offering a useful introduction to “jamming.” Ian Sturrock’s “Making and Playing Azad at Loncon 3: The Theory and Practice of Designing an Impossible Game” is a companion piece, examining the value of game studies vis-à-vis literature and outlining a second prototype of Azad, this one taking the form of a more traditional board game (the board is provided to scale [260-61]). The section is rounded out by Jo Lindsay Walton’s “Forceful and Fuzzy Games in the Novels of Iain M. Banks,” an essay encapsulating the best of what the collection has to offer by leveraging approaches in game studies to understand the structural and thematic complexities of Banks’s games. The author suggests that “Instead of being hermetic, sealed, quasi-sacred spaces where everyday life is suspended, and where safety is guaranteed, Banks’s games often have fuzzy boundaries, interwoven with everyday life” (187). What emerges most clearly in this article and in the section overall is that games and their rulesets are used by Banks—and can be used by us—to understand the game-like features of contemporary society and its institutions and to imagine how we, as citizens, are all players of games.
After the innovation and conceptual synergy of the game-focused entries, it is an anticlimax to shift to a more disjointed final section. It jumps from cannibalism (Jude Roberts’s “‘Cannibals from Outer Space!’: Symbolic Violence and the Cannibalism of the Other”) to the sublime (Jim Clarke’s “The Sublime in Iain M. Banks’s ‘Culture’ Novels”) to questions of spatiality (Robert Duggan’s “Inside the Whale and Outside Context Problems”), rendering the section’s title, “Death and other Limit Points,” somewhat of a stretch. Again, there is much to celebrate in these essays, particularly in Duggan’s, but in the context of this collection they pull one’s focus away from its most noteworthy intervention, the exploration of games. Interestingly, two of these entries reference Banks’s months-long obsession with the video game series Civilization, suggesting that there may have been some way to restructure each of these essays to focus more specifically on games (a look at the Culture and Civilization would be very welcome). There is another version of this collection that might have materialized, an interdisciplinary and definitive guidebook to games and game playing in Banks’s sf, and it would have been better for it.
—Chad Andrews, Toronto, Canada
What Kid Wrote.
Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2017. xxxvii + 660 pp. $40 hc.
Readers of Dhalgren (1975)—considered by many to be Samuel Delany’s single most important achievement, though it is difficult to pick just one work out of an oeuvre so large, varied, and fascinating—will recall that Kid, the novel’s protagonist, carries a notebook with him wherever he goes and writes in it frequently. In this respect, as in some (though certainly not all) others, Kid is an autobiographical character. According to Kenneth James in the main editorial introduction to this volume, Delany began the practice of always keeping a spiral-bound notebook with him in late 1957, when he was fifteen years old; by the end of the 1960s (during which Delany published nine novels and a number of tales and won three Nebula Awards), he had filled more than 60 such notebooks containing thousands of manuscript pages. James’s selection from this material fills about 550 printed pages. The volume is announced as the first in a series, each to cover about a decade of Delany’s notebook-keeping thus far. Assuming that future volumes are roughly comparable to the first and not counting, of course, the notebooks in which Delany has yet to write, the total should amount to seven thick volumes containing nearly 4000 pages. The Delany journals promise to constitute, in plain bulk, one of the major publishing ventures of the coming years.
The extent of the notebooks is matched by their heterogeneity. Some people keep journals devoted to one or two specific matters, from sexual experiences to cooking recipes. But Delany, it seems, uses his notebook to write down anything he has occasion to write down for nearly any reason at all. Some ideas for a critical essay might be followed by a pornographic fantasy and then by a draft of a letter to an editor, which is then followed by fragmentary notes toward a work of sf and then by a shopping list and then by a few philosophical aphorisms somewhat in the style of Wittgenstein. This combination of immense quantity with extreme variety would by itself make for a challenging editorial project. But there have, as James informs us, been additional difficulties as well, for instance, the frequent ambiguity as to the chronological order in which the notebook entries were made. I will not paraphrase in any detail the lucid and informative account that James provides of his editorial principles and practices. No one, in any case, could make a truly informed judgment on these matters without personally examining the same original handwritten notebooks that James has studied. I will simply record my general impression that James has undertaken his task about as intelligently as I can imagine anyone doing—allowing, of course, for the assumption that there must be many instances in which intelligent Delany scholars could reasonably disagree. While he has generally spared us the shopping lists, James appears to have leaned much more in the direction of inclusivity than of selectivity, and this is surely the correct emphasis. Though not everything that Delany has written is of equal interest, one should not decide lightly that anything is of no interest at all.
Conscientious reviewers and perhaps some of the most passionately devoted Delany aficionados will read this volume word for word, from the first page to the last. But I suspect that relatively few others will do likewise, for the book does not really ask to be read in that way. Instead, it invites the reader to dip in almost anywhere and to read for as much or as little time as fits the occasion; one might read for five minutes or for five hours. Many readers will doubtless read closely those items that most strongly grab their attention, while skimming over other entries that seem to them less gripping. Were it not for one problem, this would be an ideal book to carry with you throughout the day—just as Delany carried the spiral notebooks on which it is based—and to open whenever you get the chance. Unfortunately, the volume’s size and weight will make doing so impractical for most people.
The nature of In Search of Silence makes it difficult to generalize about the contents as one can with relative ease generalize about a novel or even a collection of articles. One valid generalization, though, is that, like almost any journal, the volume is a kind of autobiography; it is thus a quite Delanyesque book. For Delany has always been a deeply autobiographical writer. In addition to the numerous autobiographical elements in his fiction and his critical essays, he is the author of one formal autobiography—The Motion of Light in Water (1988), one of the major contemporary achievements in the genre—and of various other autobiographical writings, from Heavenly Breakfast (1979), an account of some months spent in an “urban commune” in New York City, to Bread & Wine (1999), a graphic memoir (with drawings by Mia Wolff) of how Delany came to know his life partner Dennis Rickett, to 1984 (2000), a selection from Delany’s massively voluminous correspondence. I do not think that readers familiar with the previously published accounts of Delany’s life will find many real surprises in this volume. But the versions of events on offer here tend, as one might expect, to be more tentative and experimental, and less “finished.” Of course, we should remember that the journal, far from containing pristine “raw material,” is a literary genre like any other. The very act of writing presupposes an audience, and very few journals kept by professional writers are composed without any thought of eventual publication—a consideration unlikely ever to have escaped Delany, for whom the published journals of André Gide have long been key texts. In Search of Silence must now be considered an integral part of Delany’s autobiographical oeuvre. A detailed comparative study of these journals and The Motion of Light in Water, which covers most of the same time period as In Search of Silence, would, for instance, be a worthwhile project for Delany scholarship. Such an undertaking is clearly beyond the scope of this review. I will merely note a few of the many matters of particular interest to be found in this volume.
There is, for example, a good deal here about the (for Delany) closely related topics of poetry and Marilyn Hacker. Hacker was Delany’s closest friend when they were students together at the Bronx High School of Science and later became his wife, the mother of their daughter, and one of the most honored American poets of her generation. Though Delany’s passionate interest in poetry (especially the poetry of English Romanticism, French Symbolism, and Anglo-American modernism) has long been well known, he has never, and despite his willingness to tackle many different literary genres, been a published poet. The journals make clear, however, that he wrote a good deal of poetry in his early years, and that it was composed in close awareness of Hacker’s own early efforts undertaken at the same time (aside from James’s very useful notes and introductions, Hacker is the only writer other than Delany whose writing appears in this volume). In the journals Delany expresses the sense that Hacker’s verse is superior to his—a somewhat unusual admission from one who, like most geniuses, has rarely been inclined to value his own talents lightly. Indeed, one might speculate that it was this idea of Hacker’s precedence as a poet that, at least in part, led Delany to confine his own published work to prose. Yet his poetry is by no means negligible, and not the least of James’s editorial services is to have enabled us to read some of it. A good example is Delany’s translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s renowned “Le Bateau ivre” [The Drunken Boat, 1871], which ends thus:
Oh, waves, I can no longer roll with you
Nor cross the sea-paths where the vessels dip
And rise, where pennants flap against the skies,
Nor pass by windows of cold prison ships. (604)
Rimbaud, who produced all his work by the age of twenty-one (the same age at which Gide published his first novel), was naturally a figure of special interest and inspiration for the young and precocious Delany. (The fact that both French writers were gay is of course not irrelevant either.)
Another (and probably the most prominent) matter covered in these journals is, unsurprisingly, science fiction. The extensive notes toward, partial drafts of, and comments on the series of nine sf novels that Delany published from The Jewels of Aptor (1962) to Nova (1968) give us the sense of looking over the author’s shoulder as he was planning and composing these works. We learn, for instance, that the synthetic language that plays such a crucial role in the plot of Babel-17 (1966) was paralleled by an actual made-up language that Delany and Hacker constructed together as a kind of game. We also find, in the latter portion of this volume, prefigurations of works that lie beyond the chronological scope of In Search of Silence. There are numerous anticipations of Dhalgren, Delany’s first sf novel after Nova, which would make clear, to the distress of some and the delight of many others, that Delany had taken a radically new turn in his fiction. There is also at least one more distant anticipation of that most unfortunately neglected Delany masterpiece, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984). In an entry made between July and October of 1967, Delany refers to “an a-governmental system of life checked from becoming chaos by the fantastically efficient information dispersal that the technology allows” (440). The fictional GI of Stars in My Pocket—itself a prescient anticipation of the real-life World Wide Web—seems here to be clearly foreshadowed.
These journals also contain many indications of the major sf critic that Delany would become (in 1977, his first volume of criticism, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, raised the whole field of sf criticism to a higher conceptual level than it had attained up to that point). Aphorisms such as “SF has liberated the content of fiction the way Proust and Joyce liberated language” (341) and “[t]he subject of SF is a particular perception of the world’s texture, akin to what the French symbolists were trying to do, which so far has not been done in English” (441) condense a good deal of Delany’s later, more detailed theorizing. More historically oriented than much of Delany’s criticism is an especially interesting extended comparison of the place of sf in literary history with that of chamber music in musical history (367-73).
To mention music is to remember the many references in these journals to Delany’s whole career as a singer and guitarist; well into the 1960s he thought that the performance of folk music, rather than writing, might be the area to which most of his creative energy would be devoted. But In Search of Silence contains more indications of the remarkable variety of Delany’s interests and achievements than can even be mentioned here: from his early ambition to become a physicist, to his almost incredibly wide reading in the classics of world literature at a very young age, to the series of unpublished non-sf novels he composed at the same time that he was publishing the sf that made his early reputation. Suffice it to conclude by saying that In Search of Silence is indispensable reading for anyone seriously interested in Delany, especially in the first decade of his career. Like the reader of an old-fashioned serial, one finishes this first volume eager for the appearance of the next.
—Carl Freedman, Louisiana State University
A Necessary Volume.
Madrid/Frankfurt am Main: Iberoamericana/ Vervuert, 2018. 523 pp. €29,80, $39 pbk.
Teresa López-Pellisa, editor of Historia de la ciencia ficción en la cultura española [History of Science Fiction in Spanish Culture], writes in her lengthy introduction that the process of reassessment which the sf produced in Spain is currently undergoing makes her volume “necessary” (9). This is by no means self-complacent boast but rather evidence that the academic study of sf still must maintain a defensive stance in Spain. López-Pellisa’s history is truly a necessary volume because the canonical history of Spanish literature has been built on the false assumption that the fantastic, including sf, is of no interest in Spain—at best, only marginally. In recent years the collective efforts of Spanish fandom and of the still-too-limited sf academic circle have shown that, on the contrary, Spanish sf has a rich national tradition that includes many major literary figures from the mid-nineteenth century onward, and right now it is positively flourishing in Spain (despite the limited market).
Historia de la ciencia ficción en la cultura española is the culmination of a process of “naturalization,” as its contributors call it, that begins with a remarkable non-academic precursor in La Ciencia ficción española [Spanish Science Fiction, coord. Fernando Martínez de la Hidalga, 2002]. In the same year, Yolanda Molina-Gavilán published her pioneering academic volume Ciencia ficción en español [Science Fiction in Spanish] (which also covers Latin America). This was followed in 2008 by Cristina Sánchez-Conejero’s Novela y cine de ciencia ficción española contemporánea [Contemporary Spanish Science Fiction Novel and Cinema]. Both volumes, however, appeared in the United States. National academic Spanish production took longer to consolidate with publications such as Historia y antología de la ciencia ficción española [History and Anthology of Spanish Science Fiction, 2014]. This volume not only offers a genealogy of the genre in Spain accompanied by a selection of major short stories, but also joins together the two traditions (academia, fandom) represented respectively by the editors, Fernando Moreno and Julián Díez. More recently, Moreno and I co-edited SFS’s special issue on Spanish sf (44.2 [July 2017]). In the online journal Hélice [Helix], which he co-edits, Mariano Martín has published an extensive bibliography of all the academic studies on Spanish sf produced between 1950 and 2015 (3.6, 2016; 3.7, 2016; 3.8, 2017).
Like the SFS special issue, Historia de la ciencia ficción en la cultura española leaves Latin America aside to focus specifically on Spain. The particular historical situation of Spanish sf, subjected to the heavy censorship imposed by General Franco’s fascist dictatorship for forty years (1939-1975), must be considered in its context. In this, López-Pellisa’s collection follows the scheme used in Historia de lo fantástico en la cultura española contemporánea, 1900-2015 [History of the Fantastic in Spanish Contemporary Culture, ed. David Roas, 2016]. Both books were conceived together as part of the research carried out by the Grupo de Estudios sobre lo Fantástico [Group for the Study of the Fantastic], which Roas leads at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. The two volumes treat the fantastic genres as multi-media manifestations of culture, hence the reference to Cultura in their respective titles and the all-inclusive approach, with room not only for prose narrative but also for theatre, poetry, cinema, television, and graphic narrative. While López-Pellisa regrets the absence of the micro-short story, of YA sf, and of texts generated by fandom, at 523 pages this collection is hefty enough. Perhaps these other expressions of sf (which should also include videogames) will be the object of future publications or of online resources.
The volume is made up of fourteen chapters that follow the chronological progress of each narrative medium separately. Instead of offering a comprehensive panorama of sf in the Spanish culture of each consecutive period, then, roughly the first 150 pages (five chapters) are devoted to covering print sf (novels, short fiction). The next three chapters present a generous overview of sf drama, which is one of the most innovative aspects of this new history. Next, two chapters review the evolution of Spanish sf in cinema, while two more do the same for television, suggesting its increasing importance in the dissemination of sf in Spain (despite the low impact of national production). The two closing chapters deal with poetry (another exciting novelty) and with comics and graphic novels.
The authors collected here all have extensive academic careers, often also connected with fandom. The resulting volume is rigorous but accessible to a variety of audiences—provided readers are willing to take in a staggering amount of information, including a huge number of author names and titles. Ideally, this book should be read pencil in hand, to take notes about what to read and see, and where to start navigating the deep waters of Spanish sf. The authors collectively agree, nonetheless, that their main task is not to popularize Spanish sf among “common readers” (though this is also vital), but to consolidate a field of research treated so far with great prejudice. They keep a polite silence about how and why the Spanish literary canon has been always biased toward realism and naturalism to the exclusion of the fantastic, and indeed of sf. It certainly seems more effective at this point of the debate to silence all the dogmatic scholars with the myriad voices of the Spanish authors of sf present in the volume.
As Juan Molina Porras concludes in his survey of the origins of Spanish sf, “Although not a central genre in our literary history, it is obvious that it existed in our letters and that its evolution ran parallel to that in the rest of the West” (69; my translation). The worst consequence of ignoring one’s own history, Mariano Martín warns, is that, instead of standing on the shoulders of giants, writers engage in a constant process of re-inventing what should already be known. This is why, as López-Pellisa claims and as any reader will confirm, Historia de la ciencia ficción en la cultura española is a very necessary volume.
—Sara Martín, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
An Affectionate Harlequinade.
Framingham, MA: NESFA, 2017. 416 pp. $35 hc.
“He had become a personality, something they had filtered out of the system decades before. But there it was, and there he was, a very definite imposing personality” (The Top of the Volcano: The Award-Winning Stories of Harlan Ellison [Burton, MI: Subterranian P, 2014], 2). For many readers, it is difficult to view Harlan Ellison’s description of his main character in “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965) as anything other than a somewhat waggish self-portrait. During much of his career, he was the most visible media celebrity to have emerged from the sf community, with regular appearances on network talk shows, overflow audiences at college readings, a confrontation with Frank Sinatra written up by Gay Talese, a screenwriting career that ranged from the notorious bomb The Oscar (1966) to one of the most famous episodes of Star Trek (“The City On the Edge of Forever,” 1967). This is essentially the Ellison who is the focus of Nat Segaloff’s lively and entertaining A Lit Fuse, which is packed with anecdotes and provocative quotations from extensive interviews with Ellison, but which is in no sense a literary biography. In fact, as Segaloff says in his introduction, “This is not, strictly speaking, a biography, nor is it objective” (22). As if to illustrate this, Segaloff tells us that “‘Repent, Harlequin!,’ Said the Ticktockman” won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, that it is “antiauthoritarian” (147), that plans have been announced for a film version, that it has been anthologized a lot, and that it was among the more successful of Ellison’s recordings, but at no point do we learn of the story’s origins, style, structure, or influence, or even what the story is about. We do get plot details of “A Boy and His Dog” (1969) but mostly by way of contrasting Ellison’s story with the L.Q. Jones film adaptation (1975) and defending Ellison against the charges of misogyny that were quite reasonably leveled against that film.
Segaloff begins with four biographical chapters. They take up about a third of the main text of the book and are filled with fascinating detail. They are followed by individual chapters on Ellison’s relationship to sf, his film and tv criticism, his numerous celebrity friendships, various tv writing hassles (including the famously disavowed series The Starlost ), realized and unrealized film and tv projects, tv and radio appearances and legendary con behavior, Ellison’s own collection of pop culture icons, The Last Dangerous Visions (never to be published), and Ellison’s later life, coping with aging and the deaths of friends (which were movingly memorialized in his 1988 story “The Function of Dream Sleep”). Only occasionally is a particular work by Ellison described, critiqued, or even briefly summarized. Throughout, Segaloff makes use not only of his own extensive interviews with Ellison, but of interviews and correspondence with everyone from Neil Gaiman and Stan Lee to Leonard Nimoy, Patton Oswalt, and Daniel Pinkwater.
All of this suggests that Segaloff’s intended audience is either those already deeply familiar with Ellison’s work or, more likely, those less interested in the work than in the celebrity. There are only passing mentions of writers such as Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton, who Ellison is quoted as saying were “my godmother and godfather” (325), but several pages are devoted to listing his friendships with actors such as Robin Williams, Steve McQueen, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Culp, and Robert Blake. (Segaloff’s prior work was largely as a film historian, including studies of Arthur Penn, William Friedkin, John Huston, and the screenwriter Stirling Silliphant.) His discussion of “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” (1973) goes into some detail about the Kitty Genovese murder case which inspired it, then shifts to Ellison’s account of an argument he had with director William Friedkin, who had optioned the story—but never really discusses or describes the story itself, which is essentially a fantasia based on the case rather than a fictionalized account of it. Ellison’s more complex and experimental stories such as “Adrift Just off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54' N, Longitude 77° 00' 13" W” (1974) or “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” (1992) are barely mentioned in passing, while no fewer than five pages are devoted to analyzing the evidence surrounding Ellison’s notorious on-stage interaction with Connie Willis at the 2006 Hugo ceremony—including an almost forensic second-by-second account of a fan video of the event.
In fairness, Segaloff never pretends that the purpose of his book is mainly literary, or that his intent is to situate Ellison in the context of American literature or even of sf, and his focus on anecdotes, controversies, and celebrities does not mean that the book is without considerable value to students of Ellison’s work. His early biographical chapters are as complete a view of Ellison’s childhood and early career as we are likely to get—keeping in mind that the major source for Ellison’s biography is Ellison himself—and Segaloff manages to weave into a compelling narrative Ellison’s own extensive memoirs and interviews with interviews, of other important sources such as Robert Silverberg, David Gerrold, and Ellison’s niece Lisa Rubin, commenting on the long enmity between Ellison and his sister Beverly. He even tracks down one of Ellison’s elementary-school classmates, to comment on the degree of anti-Semitism Ellison faced as a child in Painesville, Ohio. The accounts of Ellison’s early relations with editors and publishers such as William Hamling provide crucial source material for anyone wanting to understand this phase of his career, and Segaloff’s description of the long Last Dangerous Visions saga is unstinting in its honesty. There is also an extensive and fascinating 32-page section of photos and illustrations, many previously unseen, and an equally fascinating appendix listing various unrealized projects, including film adaptations of novels by Tom Reamy and Norman Spinrad (but which oddly excludes Ellison’s screenplay for I, Robot [Asimov’s story 1950, Ellison’s screenplay 1987], even though it is discussed in detail earlier in the book). Another appendix, a conversation called “Harlan Ellison on Writing,” does offer some tantalizing insights into Ellison’s process, but is disappointingly brief, perhaps understandable given Ellison’s recent medical challenges.
In general, while Segaloff often takes pains to avoid the appearance of hagiography, A Lit Fuse is best approached as an appreciation and celebration of Ellison’s life as a cultural figure or a public personality, like the Harlequin himself. The book, nevertheless, should become an indispensable source for anyone seeking to conduct future research on Ellison or his fiction, or to simply work toward an understanding of one of the most colorful and volatile figures in the last half-century of American popular culture. As for understanding the importance and achievement of Ellison as a literary figure, or his place in the history of sf and fantasy during a crucial period of the genre’s growth, Segaloff simply leaves us with the option of going back to the stories themselves, which is probably where we ought to start in the first place.
—Gary K. Wolfe, Roosevelt University
Instant Martians: Just Add Ink and Paint.
Animating the Science Fiction Imagination. New York: Oxford UP, 2018. 152 pp. $29.95 hc.
In an animated segment of George Pal’s Destination Moon (1950), Woody Woodpecker dismisses rocketry and space travel as “comic book stuff” (Telotte 120). If Woody’s comment was meant to reflect contemporary mainstream views of the marginal status of both sf and cartoon arts, it is perhaps surprising that the connections between the two genres in the first half of the twentieth century have not been more thoroughly studied. As J.P. Telotte notes in his new book, Animating the Science Fiction Imagination, there are fascinating points of contact between sf and animation during the period between the turn of the twentieth century and the Second World War. Commonplace as animation seems to us today, the very idea behind it is like something out of a mad scientist’s notebook—to make others believe a reality based on “the transformation of static drawings into the illusion of motion and life” (Telotte 20). Combine that idea with the number and complexity of processes between an early twentieth century animator’s sketches and a finished film, and it all begins to resemble the brainchild of a pre-Asimov robot builder from an issue of Amazing Stories and Rube Goldberg.
Telotte juxtaposes the diametrically opposed views of science presented through pulp sf and Rube Goldberg’s comic strip contraptions in order to highlight the tensions underlying early animation’s presentation of sf themes. He invokes Goldberg and pioneering sf publisher Hugo Gernsback as emblematic of two divergent schools of thought, the latter far more optimistic about science as a force for effective change. Given the emphasis on gags (especially mechanical ones) in animated shorts, it is hardly surprising that a Goldbergian distrust of technology was their dominant cast of mind. The presentation of modern marvels and futuristic inventions in cartoons tended to showcase a maximum of design and effort used to produce a comically minimal result. Even when inventions and their inventors posed a threat to cartoon “humanity” (of the human or animal variety), the consequences were generally small-scale, impermanent, and somewhat ludicrous. The full dystopian ramifications of technological progress frequently encountered by sf readers rarely played themselves out on the animated screen.
This is not to say that cartoons never portrayed such progress as troubling. Telotte devotes a chapter to a technological figure that continues to be captivating and troubling in both real and fictional worlds: the robot. Decades of exposure to a host of different kinds of machine creatures in television animation—from the Jetsons’ maid Rosey to Astro Boy to the Transformers to Bender—have obscured the unique suspension of disbelief involved in deciding that a series of drawings of an automaton is ontologically different from a series of drawings of a life form—or of anything else, for that matter. Telotte’s reminder on this subject is highly cogent: in animation “things, animals, people, and machines can easily cross the sort of boundaries that in everyday life, or even just live-action film, seem so hard and fast” (48; emphasis in original).
A common early cartoon solution to this dilemma was to depict the robot as a familiar machine (or an amalgam of various machine parts) programmed in some unstated fashion to function as a proto-human. As such depictions gradually gave way to ones that more properly resembled androids and cyborgs, the nature and scope of their activities changed as well. Added to the comic destruction of mechanical helpers that slipped their programming and began to obey their own agenda in annoyingly unhelpful ways were scenes of violent devastation wreaked by robots programmed by their makers to be unmistakably hostile.
Whether comically or villainously destructive, almost all of these robots were earthbound. Unlike the Forbidden Planet of a later live-action film, alien worlds in pre-World War II cartoons displayed a surprising dearth of machine life. Instead, they offered extensions on the central animation theme of anthropomorphism, either by exaggerating humanoid forms beyond the usual limits of caricature or by amalgamating people, animals, and household objects into outlandish hybrids, often with interchangeable body parts. Surreal as these images may have been, they hewed to an increasingly representational aesthetic with a dominant “tendency to restrain the strange, as well as its attendant science fictional effect of estrangement” (65; emphasis in original). Telotte acknowledges that a cartoon space creature dismantling and reassembling itself is not much more than a variation on material perfected in the silent era by Felix the Cat, who was given to removing his tail and using it as a cane, a billy club, and a variety of other tools. The artistic conservatism underlying the semi-familiar strangeness of alien worlds in cartoons perhaps goes a bit farther than Telotte gives it credit for. Terrestrial realms populated with creatures not unlike the ones also depicted on distant planets were a staple of animation of the interwar period—Porky in Wackyland (1938) is perhaps the most familiar one of these to modern audiences.
The Jules Verne-style adventure undertaken by Porky Pig in the cartoon just mentioned sheds an oblique light on a type of early sf story that Telotte bypasses in his survey. To the catalogue of strange worlds encountered in cartoons one might easily add the estranged worlds where present-day Earth meets its prehistoric past. Such places provided the settings for serious efforts such as Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion sequences in The Lost World (1925) and more frivolous cinematic outings such as the Warner short Buddy’s Lost World (1935), which nonetheless rates an entry in Telotte’s
Of course, it can be argued that what makes a world truly alien is not so much what it looks like to you as how you got there. The airplane that Porky flies to the topsy-turvy Wackyland is not cutting-edge technology for its time: the rocket that transports honeymooning animals to a lunar landscape with Earth-like gravity in the Fleischer Brothers’ Dancing on the Moon (1935) is ahead of its time, and then some. Rockets are by no means the only mode of travel that Telotte discusses in a chapter on sf-themed voyages in early cartoons. Hot-air balloons and flying houses serve just as well as interplanetary transport; in lieu of technological aids, a well-placed kick can be enough to send its recipient into outer space. No matter what method they used to attain escape velocity, when early cartoons explored the cosmos they traversed something Telotte identifies as a key intersection between the worlds of animation and sf: their shared “fascination with the nature of space”—in the case of animation, specifically “how to fill the open or empty space of the medium—the sheet of paper, cel or movie screen” (27).
Telotte leaves an empty space in his own account—“World War II increasingly crowded our SF visions off the screen” (103)—and time-slips forward to the postwar period, the better to foreground the changes in animation’s use of sf material. Revisiting themes from previous chapters, he traces the development of the medium’s presentation of robotics, futuristic inventions, space travel, and alien worlds through “a host of new depictions better suited to a postwar, more obviously SF-infected culture” (108). One side effect of this infection—the rash of smaller animation studios that broke out during the first decade of the television age, producing sf-oriented cartoons such as Colonel Bleep (1956), Space Angel (1962-1964), and the robot-and-scientist-filled reboot of Felix the Cat (1958-1961)—is sadly missing from this section of the study. Readers who have relied on Telotte’s analyses to navigate the byzantine oneirism of the films of Winsor McCay may find themselves wishing for the same kind of guidance through the apparently aleatory recesses of Gumby’s frequent forays into sf territory.
That little quibble was meant to showcase one of the many strengths of Telotte’s work. Although much of the material he discusses serves up sf themes in piecemeal fashion, he avoids the temptation to rely exclusively on a roll call of isolated moments. As often as possible, he uses entire cartoons as illustrative case studies, revealing another strength by disentangling the wispy thread of plot running through the randomly strewn gags in many of them. This is particularly true when he sets himself the task of examining one of Columbia’s perversely inchoate series of 1930s shorts featuring the intermittently mischievous tyke Scrappy.
No matter what wormholes their plots disappeared into, Telotte views animation’s first set of experiments with sf as “a significant milestone” (21). Animating the Science Fiction Imagination can be described in the same terms. This well-thought-out and readable look at the push-pull between modernist and conservative approaches that defined animation’s early years is a strong contribution to a growing body of scholarly writing on animation history and theory, earning a place alongside works by Esther Leslie, Donald Crafton, Giannalberto Bendazzi, and Telotte’s own Animating Space: From Mickey to Wall-E (2010). Sf scholars will find it a useful reference guide and a source of insight into the origins of mainstream culture’s embrace of sf and animation’s role in “helping to clear a space for [sf’s] evolving visions of the future and of other worlds” (126). As Telotte points out, even Woody Woodpecker was sold on space travel by the time his mission in Destination Moon was over.
—Rick Cousins, Trent University
Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Leighton Buzzard, Eng.: Auteur, Constellations: Studies in Science Fiction Film and TV, 2016. 142 pp. $15 pbk.
In the second-to-last section of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a critical overview of the canonical Spielberg sf movie from 1977, Jon Towlson details the cultural impact of the film in terms of its ongoing box office success, its influence on the popularization of extraterrestrial/UFO/conspiracy fandoms and subcultures, a number of subsequent global cultural texts almost immediately referencing it as a recognizable artwork, and its enduring appeal for international audiences, critics, and academics alike. Towlson’s point is that Spielberg’s film is a text still ripe for consideration.
Towlson offers a broad overview of the various critical responses to and academic interpretations of CE3K that have emerged since its release in order to provide readers with a concise entry-point into the cultural, critical, and academic discourses surrounding the film. He shows convincingly that the film was a divisive text right from the beginning. He sees the negative responses to the film by critics such as Jack Kroll, Thomas Doherty, and Robin Wood as demonstrative of a broad ideological resistance to “Reaganite entertain-ment” and to the post-1970s Hollywood blockbuster’s “infantilising effect on audiences” (8). Other critics found more potentially ambivalent connotations in the film’s messaging, in particular that the extraterrestrials in CE3K provide “resolution in a world where solution seems impossible,” where an appeal to “superhuman agencies” is necessary since “humanity itself is impotent, incompetent” (10). Later in the text, Towlson describes the overwhelmed reactions of critics attending the first preview screening of the film on 6 November 1977 in order to provide a contrast to the more negative or ambivalent critical responses to the film: “the critics and the naysayers had not counted on Spielberg’s mastery of light and sound, his ability to mesmerise and disarm audiences through the medium of cinema” (57).
As the book progresses, Towlson returns to this motif of divisive ambivalence. He explains that Spielberg’s influences in making CE3K were as diverse as those of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): his parents’ divorce when he was a child, the government’s 1947 investigation into the UFO phenomenon—called Project Blue Book—led by the now-infamous astrophysicist Dr. J. Allen Hynek, collaboration with emerging talents of the 1970s New Hollywood Cinema period such as cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, special-effects genius Douglas Trumbull, and so on. Again, much of Towlson’s chronology of the overall critical response to CE3K is meant to demonstrate that the film’s divisiveness is a primary reason for its enduring appeal, as well as a reason for its potentially contradictory material.
One of the most interesting of these contradictions that Towlson highlights is between the “child-like” and the “childish.” Towlson points to Robin Wood and Adrian Schober in particular in order to explain this contradiction. Towlson, using Wood’s definitions stemming from Peter Coveney’s The Image of Childhood (1957), explains that “child-like” stories foreground a figure that is meant to symbolize “new growth and regeneration of the self and of civilization,” whereas a “childish” figure represents an infantilizing “escape from an adult world perceived as irredeemably corrupt, or ... bewilderingly problematic” (78). Towlson explains that for Wood and Schober, Spielberg oscillates between the two extremes of child-like and childish in CE3K. For Schober, this oscillation might be the result of Speilberg’s “commenting on the self-limiting narcissistic childishness of the character [of Roy Neary]” (78).
Towlson speculates that
if Spielberg hesitates between the child-like and the childish in Close Encounters,... perhaps the reason lies not necessarily in Spielberg’s own ideological contradictions as in the simple co-existence of the two states inside Roy. Neary retains a child-like potential, a receptivity to the aliens and what they represent: growth, renewal and willingness to “go abroad,” but at the same time he is kept in a state of childishness, not by his own self-limiting narcissism, necessarily, but certainly by social constraint. (79)
Towlson’s reading of the aliens in CE3K as representative of growth and renewal clashes with his later analysis of the sequence in which the aliens invade the home of the character Jillian in order to abduct her son Barry. In this sequence, the aliens are far from representing “growth” and “renewal”; instead, they now signify “essential ‘unknowable-ness’,” where their “intelligence and culture may well be unfathomable to human beings, and their motives for contacting us may be impossible to decipher” (104). How, then, can Towlson convincingly proceed to claim that the “capacity, ultimately, for altruism may be the only thing that the human race and extraterrestrials in Close Encounters have in common” (104)? If the motivations of the aliens in the film are potentially unknowable, how can they be described as altruistic? Towlson does recognize that the home-invasion sequence clashes with his overall interpretation of what the aliens in CE3K represent. He pre-empts his reading by stating that, as effective as “the [home-invasion] sequence undoubtedly is in conveying fear of the unknown, on repeated viewings its contrivance becomes apparent, not just in terms of its function in providing Jillian’s motivation within the story, but in its playing with our perceptions of the extraterrestrials. Are they friend or foe?” (103). Towlson is not able to resolve this contradiction. He does refer to the home invasion scene as “contrived,” though he nonetheless still speaks of the aliens in the film as altruists without justifying why this reading is more convincing than his earlier consideration of the aliens’ motivations as unknowable.
There are further contradictions that stem from Towlson’s interpretation of the aliens in CE3K. Towlson leaves his consideration of John Williams’s now-iconic musical score until the end of the book. This particular section again stands in opposition to his earlier reading of the aliens as altruistic. While Towlson stresses in different ways throughout his book that the enduring appeal of CE3K is precisely because it is a contradictory text, his analysis of Williams’s score actually suggests that the film is more simplistic than he was implying earlier: “Williams’ score, in places, leaves little ambiguity as to how the film demands that it be read: as commercial blockbuster cinema. At other times, its romantic sweep threatens to overshadow the film’s nuanced depiction of first contact ..., blunting the sensibilities of the audience” (118). Towlson explains that Williams’s score is divided into two broad components: non-tonal musical compositions to suggest the otherworldly presence of the aliens and symphonic/melodic compositions to “emphasize the excitement and human drama of the story” (119). The latter component, which Towlson also refers to as the aforementioned “romantic sweep,” is what he finds objectionable, closely connected to Spielberg’s inability to avoid “providing the audience with a tear-jerking grand finale” (124) during the film’s “first contact” sequence. Towlson asserts that this lack of self-control on Spielberg’s part clashes with the director’s apparent intention in his screenplay to present “Man’s first contact with an extraterrestrial” as “formal, gentle, and a little strange” (Roger Ebert, “Preview: Close Encounters of the Third Kind” , online), thus also removing much of the film’s ambiguity. If it is the case that Williams’s score blunts many of the contradictory meanings of the film, however, how can Towlson convincingly read the film as thematically contradictory since the final result overshadows its potential nuance to the extent that Towlson is claiming? A problem with Towlson’s reading of CE3K is that it is too compartmentalized. The impression one has after finishing Towlson’s book is that CE3K is thematically contradictory as it unfolds narratively, but not after it concludes, since Spielberg and Williams’s mastery of singular messaging erodes these contradictions.
Towlson ironically provides a Williams-esque romantic sweep of his own before progressing to his conclusion. Despite his seeing the final first-contact sequence as softening Spielberg’s original nuanced intentions, he claims that
Spielberg saves [the sequence] at the final moment when the music dies away. Neary is left standing by himself, as if free to make up his own mind. As he walks up the ramp to board the Mothership alone, far from being a man who has abandoned his family to become a born-again child, he carries, as ambassador to other worlds, perhaps the greatest responsibility of all human beings. (124)
Is CE3K a contradictory text overall or is it not? Despite Towlson’s emphasis on the former throughout his book, his concluding statement on the meaning of the first-contact sequence and therefore on the film as a whole strongly suggests the latter.
Although Towlson’s book has its own internal contradictions regarding how CE3K should be interpreted, it nonetheless provides a solid discussion of the discourses surrounding the film. It is also a concise and helpful historical overview of why the film was significant both in its immediate context and after. Towlson’s organization of chapters and topics is mostly well considered. At times he misses some possible steps, such as when he explains how CE3K can be considered an example of “transcendental” sf but does not explicitly define what he means by sf itself. Such a task is monumental, so an absence of a fairly strict definition of the genre in a work that is meant to be pithy is not surprising. Towlson does provide certain examples of sf cinema iconography, such as rocket ships, aliens, etc., so his readers are left to intuit what he means by sf through the elements that he does not mention.
By contrast, Towlson’s discussion of how the style and aesthetics of CE3K work to create a sense of narrative realism for audiences is especially strong. Whether highlighting Douglas Trumbull’s use of 65mm optical effects to reduce distracting film grain in the image, Vilmos Zsigmond’s “use of available light, shallow focus and location shooting” to “lend an air of workplace authenticity” to many scenes (72), or Spielberg’s efforts to draw naturalistic performances from his cast, Towlson always connects these examples back to one of his overarching claims: that CE3K achieves its sense of wonder through its appeals to narrative and aesthetic realism. Towlson shows that these appeals are designed to induce empathetic responses in the audience, whether the audience is reacting to moments of awe or to subtle character actions or interactions. Audiences engage with the text of CE3K through how closely they feel it, much like how Neary and the contactees in the film respond to the messages from the aliens.
Overall, Towlson intends to demonstrate that parts of the enduring appeal of the film are its thematic, tonal, and narrative contradictions that, seemingly in a paradoxical fashion, ensure that CE3K remains “a singular science fiction film” that “looks forward to a new epoch in mankind’s evolution” while “[asking] vital questions about our place in the cosmos” (134). While his text can, at times, be as contradictory in its analysis as the narrative and themes of the film he is analyzing, it nevertheless provides a clear and solid overview of the various critical considerations of CE3K, and why the film remains—and will likely continue to remain—a canonical Hollywood sf blockbuster.
—David Hollands, Trent University
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Sfq Galaxy.
Quebec City: Alire, 2017. 174 pp. CAN$19.95 pbk.
Since its inception in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the sf movement in Quebec (sfq) has developed for the most part following the same pattern and structures of the genre in the Anglo-American world. Two significant elements in this process have been developing a canon of precursor texts and writing the subgenre’s history. Bibliographers and literary historians in Canada’s Francophone province have contributed to this process, but none perhaps more meaningfully than Claude Janelle and Jean-Louis Trudel. In the past decade, two significant publications have sought definitively to codify this corpus and outline its history; in 2011 Janelle published the landmark work, Dictionnaire des auteurs des littératures de l'imaginaire en Amérique française [Dictionary of authors of the literatures of the imaginary in French America] or Daliaf. As its title indicates, this massive reference work catalogues 1,700 Francophone Canadian authors of sf and fantasy/fantastique; a significant contribution to the field, it is nonetheless not necessarily accessible to the ordinary reader and offers a more fragmented, rather than synthetic view of the field. In contrast, Trudel’s exciting little volume, Petit Guide de la science-fiction au Québec [A little guide to science fiction from Quebec], now provides anyone who reads French a compact illustrated history of the French-language subgenre.
The guide is organized into seven chapters with a brief introduction and conclusion and is accompanied by a bibliography of major secondary works and an index. Three useful “Annexes” provide a variety of additional data, including a chronology, a list of winners of annual Canadian and Québécois prizes for genre writing, and a list of major sf collections published in Quebec. Largely but not exclusively chronological in its approach, the volume offers a concise but complete history of sf in Quebec and discussions of its major authors, and although its focus is mainly on the novel and short story, it also covers film, television, and “BD,” the bande dessinée or comics. Above all, with its many illustrations it rivals (and perhaps exceeds) in quality the growing number of similar volumes published in English on Anglo-American sf.
Of particular interest, given Trudel’s background as a literary historian who has published several articles on early French-Canadian sf and a hitherto little-known body of pulp works from the early- to mid-twentieth century, are the first chapters dealing with the genre’s development in Quebec. In addition to documenting the influence of Jules Verne and other French roots of the genre in chapter one, Trudel acknowledges the influence of Anglo-American sf in francophone Canada, comparing the various stages of sfq’s development from a handful of isolated “proto-sfq” texts into a fully institutionalized commercial genre. Chapter two rehearses the prehistory of sfq, identifying the province’s first sf text as Napoléon Aubin’s “Mon Voyage à la Lune” [My Trip to the Moon, 1839], but Trudel also introduces a number of recently discovered originary texts in related genres such as the utopia and political fiction. Similarly, his coverage of the development of pulp fiction in Quebec in chapters three and four is particularly illuminating for more experienced scholars.
Although article-length histories of the genre’s development since the 1960s have been available in French and English for some time now, Trudel’s synthesis is quite complete given the volume’s overall size. Chapter four, “Crise et renaissance de la production Québécoise” [Crisis and renaissance of production in Quebec], covers the World War II pulp era, situating sf within a larger context of wartime publication’s development in Canada due to the interruption of imports from France and the US. He also explores experimentation with genre writing by mainstream literary authors such as Yves Thériault, Jacques Brossard, and even the Anglophone Hugh MacLennan in the 1960s, as well as mentioning an early sf television show and theatrical productions.
Chapter five interrupts the chronological flow of the book, taking an author studies approach, profiling seven writers instrumental in the genre’s development from the 1970s and 1980s to today’s thriving milieu. Titled “La Génération Vonarburg” [the Vonarburg Generation], it gives a place of honor to the subgenre’s best-known author with five pages dedicated to Élisabeth Vonarburg; Trudel designates the French-born immigrant the founding mother of sfq. He also acknowledges contributions by Esther Rochon, Jean-Pierre April, Alain Bergeron, Daniel Sernine, Joël Champetier, and Yves Meynard. Significantly, Trudel excludes himself from their ranks; as a Franco-Ontarian he is not, properly speaking, an “sfq” writer. Chapter six then backtracks to summarize the institutional developments that allowed these individuals to flourish as sf writers: coverage of the first fanzines and professional magazines, the development of a critical and publishing apparatus, an annual conference and prizes, and so on. It also acknowledges the contributions of scholar-fans such as Jean-Marc Gouanvic, Norbert Spehner, and Claude Janelle.
Trudel’s new volume further adds to a by-now well-rehearsed history an account of the burgeoning number of publishing houses introducing sf and f series today. Furthermore, chapter seven, “Assimilation et éparpillement” [Assimilation and dispersal] addresses how sf has gone beyond its genre ghetto and infiltrated numerous realms of Quebec’s cultural and intellectual apparatus, just as sf has elsewhere. Sections on “The New Québécois Geek Culture” touch on signal events such as 2009’s Worldcon in Montreal and the annual Fantasia film festival, as well as listing a growing number of mainstream writers and publishers producing sf works. Although a couple of significant slipstream titles are missing here, Trudel can hardly be blamed given how the field has burgeoned in the twenty-first century. In fact, such gaps in his encyclopedic knowledge reassure us that he remains baseline human and has not (yet, anyway) been enhanced with cerebral implants.
For those who read French, this little guide is an excellent introduction to the rich galaxy of sf that has developed in Quebec. For those who do not, I hope this bilingual author is planning a translation soon.
—Amy J. Ransom, Central Michigan University
The Academic and the Personal Ballard.
Urbana: U of Illinois P, Modern Masters of Science Fiction, 2017. x+197 pp. $95 hc, $22 pbk.
Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic, 2018. 390 pp. £18.99 pbk.
D. Harlan Wilson’s study of J.G. Ballard is a model entry in Illinois UP’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series. A comprehensive and intelligent overview of the author’s work, it is critically engaged, well-informed in terms of existing scholarship, and written in a lively and accessible style.
Making a significant contribution to the field of Ballard studies is difficult, since the market is glutted with critical surveys, several of which Wilson reviews in his introduction. These surveys offer assessments of the author’s work from a variety of angles: as an apostle of Surrealism (Jeanette Baxter’s J.G. Ballard’s Surrealist Imagination: Spectacular Authorship [Ashgate, 2009]), as a theorist of post-imperialism (David Ian Paddy’s The Empires of J.G. Ballard: An Imagined Geography [Glyphi, 2015]), as a chronicler of dystopian modernity (Dominika Oramus’s Grave New World [Terminal, 2015]), and as a moral prophet (Michelle Delville’s J.G. Ballard [Northcote, 1998]). The value of Wilson’s contribution is his ability to weave these competing perspectives into a multifaceted presentation without losing his own critical voice. Wilson’s approach is eclectic, drawing on previous sources to develop a compelling depiction of Ballard as a visionary writer grappling with a world radically transformed by technoscience and the mass media. The most original aspect of Wilson’s study is his claim that Ballard remained, throughout his career, wedded to the basic epistemological worldview of science fiction—specifically, in his conviction that technosocial change was pervasive and accelerating—even when his work seemed to move into other genres such as autobiographical romance and crime fiction.
In addition to showing a command of an extensive secondary literature, Wilson has also absorbed a large number of Ballard’s interviews, whose perspectives he uses to add texture and nuance to his discussions of the fiction (although the lengthy excerpts included in the endnotes are at times a bit excessive). The Ballard that emerges from Wilson’s analyses is a well-rounded figure with provocative and cogent opinions on a wide range of subjects. The book’s organization is largely chronological, save for the second chapter, which considers the short fiction as a whole. This is the weakest section, in my view. Rather than grouping the tales into illuminating thematic clusters, the chapter reviews in sequence the story collections Ballard published during his lifetime. Such an approach is perhaps understandable given the biocritical focus of the series, but it rather limits Wilson’s critical range. He does make clear that Ballard gradually moved away from short fiction because his novels were more popular and remunerative; the vast bulk of the author’s production in the shorter forms came early in his career. Wilson also believes Ballard to be more important as a novelist than as a short-story writer, an arguable position with which many critics disagree, although Wilson makes an effective case.
The rest of the volume is excellent, with intelligent divisions of material. Some of these divisions are obvious: e.g., the early “disaster quartet” (culminating in The Crystal World ) and the mid-career “cultural disaster trilogy” (kicked off by Crash ) were clearly conceived as thematic units, and Ballard’s last several novels—Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003), Kingdom Come (2006)—were essentially takes on the same basic situation. Still, in the way he structures his discussions Wilson makes original and fruitful contributions to an understanding of Ballard’s oeuvre, offering shrewd and balanced readings of the main strands within Ballard’s fictive output. I was particularly pleased to see him include Ballard’s brilliant but neglected fantasy The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) in the chapter with the author’s two autobiographical novels, Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991), since Dream Company is, as Ballard often stated, a kind of conceptual, magic-realist autobiography. The final chapter, focusing on Ballard’s late novels, cleverly segregates fictions that deal with a contaminated natural world—The Day of Creation (1987), Rushing to Paradise (1994)—from those that depict a technological “second nature” of gated communities and shopping malls. While tracking these evolutions, Wilson also shows the recurrence of perennial Ballardian themes: “isolation, hedonism, the reality studio, primordial violence, and the psychopathology of everyday life” (147).
Generally speaking, the style is clear and accessible, though—as the Freudian resonance of the final item listed above indicates—it does at times stray into specialized terminology. Wilson usually clarifies what his more arcane terms mean and identifies the discourses from which they derive, but not always. Critics well-versed in psychoanalytic and poststructuralist theory will understand words like “cathected” and “desire machines,” but few will know what Wilson means by his oft-repeated term “mimetized,” a characteristically Ballardian idea that deserves to be explicated at more length. That said, this is probably the single most useful volume on Ballard for undergraduate and graduate students: the discussions are concise, well organized, and often quite penetrating. Indeed, the chapter on Ballard’s autobiographical novels is perhaps the best collective discussion of these texts available.
As noted above, Wilson defends Ballard as an sf writer first and foremost, even when his work may have strayed from the strict precincts of genre fiction. Wilson lays out the author’s “inner space” agenda, showing how it constituted a break with the mainstream of space-adventure sf during the 1960s and 1970s, though he could have said a bit more about Ballard’s nonfiction writings, especially the inflammatory and controversial manifestos he wrote for New Worlds magazine. Wilson cites Ballard’s bemusement at the reactionary nature of the genre establishment, its stolid resistance to the sort of radical change he advocated. After all, how could a form of writing that pretends boldly to confront the possibilities of the future remain committed to a belief that sf “should look a certain way and essentially remain the same” (48)? While other critics have seen Ballard’s post-1970s work steadily moving away from a field that had rejected him, Wilson provocatively—and convincingly—argues that he never really left. While his later books do not “fit comfortably in any science fiction subgenre,” they are “unequivocally science fictional inasmuch as they explore the relationship between technology and humanity, cognitively estrange readers, and effectuate novums” (72). Wilson’s readings develop these points with skill and even some panache. This is an excellent introduction to Ballard’s work for scholars new to the author, as well as for fans and general readers.
Simon Sellars’s Applied Ballardianism is another kettle of fish entirely. As its subtitle suggests, it is a strange sort of personal memoir that refracts the author’s life through the lens of Ballard’s characteristic preoccupations. Sellars is the co-editor (with Dan O’Hara) of an excellent collection of Ballard interviews, Extreme Metaphors (Fourth Estate, 2012), and founder of the superb website Ballardian.com, which curates literary and general news emanating from the “Ballardosphere.” Long before these sorts of positions were commonplace among critics, Sellars championed a view of Ballard as a postmodern prophet whose work powerfully intervened into a range of fields from architecture to media criticism, while more or less founding new transdisciplinary areas such as techno-occultism and the postmodern travelogue. Contra Wilson, Sellars sees Ballard less as an sf writer than as an avant-garde thinker aligned with other transgressive artists and philosophers, from Chris Marker to Iain Sinclair to Paul Virilio. Above all, Ballard is a writer who inspires passionate devotion in a certain kind of obsessional reader, most centrally Sellars himself.
The book’s title refers to Sellars’s lifelong attempt to convert Ballard’s worldview into a personal praxis, a hallucinatory mode of apprehension perfectly suited to a world transfigured by technology. His first efforts took the form of a PhD thesis that Sellars could never complete, in part because his idiosyncratic methods could not be straitjacketed into an academic framework, in part because his admittedly schizoid tendencies led him repeatedly into torturous theoretical and personal cul-de-sacs. Sellars recounts, with an affecting mixture of poignancy and self-loathing, his peripatetic career as a back-packing bohemian, UFO enthusiast, and drug-addled dilettante, all the while pursuing his delirious “mission”—“to track … Ballard’s trans-disciplinary mutant word virus” (288). Sellars tilts at this windmill through bouts of depression, on-again/off-again flirtations with academia, and descents into substance abuse. As a travel writer for the pseudonymous “Rough Planet,” Sellars haunts uniquely Ballardian sites, such as the Pacific proving grounds of “The Terminal Beach” (1963) and “My Dream of Flying to Wake Island” (1974), where he feels himself turning into an “atomic rubbernecker” (175). Fired from this job, Sellars circles aimlessly through the exurban “edgelands” of his native Melbourne, convinced that “the city’s blurred zones … can provoke an evolutionary step change” propelling him out of the bleak cycle of self-defeating ambition in which he knows himself to be caught.
Applied Ballardianism is, obviously, not an academic study, but it is a compelling and illuminating glimpse into a life governed by “the utter impenetrability of Ballardian discourse” (235). It is very well-written, engaging even in its most painful moments of authorial self-revelation. I recommend it highly to all those obsessive Ballardians out there: you know who you are.—Rob Latham, Twentynine Palms, CA
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