Science Fiction Studies

#137 = Volume 46, Part 1 = February 2019


Surveying the Psi Boom in Postwar SF.

Damien Broderick. Psience Fiction: The Paranormal in Science Fiction Literature. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018. 244pp. $45 pbk.

The first sentence of Damien Broderick’s new book, Psience Fiction, describes the prevalence of psychic powers or “psionics” as “perhaps the strangest aspect” of postwar sf (7). It is strange because the other two major themes—atomic power and space travel—were closely related to contemporaneous advances in science and technology, whereas the field of psychical research or “parapsychology” was never accepted within the scientific community. By embracing this “fringe” science, the subgenre of “psience fiction” thus presents a challenge to traditional theories of sf, which typically emphasize the genre’s inherent connection to the process of scientific discovery and innovation.

In his introduction, Broderick also notes that this topic received the most attention during the 1950s and 1960s, due largely to the influence of editor John W. Campbell, who firmly believed in parapsychology and actively encouraged writers to submit stories on this topic. Campbell had personally volunteered to work in J.B. Rhine’s parapsychology laboratory while he was a student at Duke University in the 1930s, and in a letter to Rhine he explained that “I am trying to use fiction to induce competent thinkers to attack just such problems as the psi-effects” (qtd. 14). Campbell thus saw sf as a “frontier literature” that could be used “for both the investigation and promotion of psi” (15), as it encouraged readers to entertain theories that were rejected by the mainstream scientific establishment.

Broderick’s introduction is followed by a series of detailed plot summaries of Anglo-American sf novels and stories that describe how psychic powers might work, how they might transform those who possess them, and how knowledge of their existence might transform society. These summaries cover a wide range of material, which makes the book a particularly valuable resource for readers and scholars interested in literary representations of parapsychology. Broderick also provides some cultural context by examining whether or not the texts conform or diverge from the extant scholarship in parapsychology. For example, he is particularly interested in tracing the parallels between literary representations of psychic powers and research on parapsychology within the US intelligence community. Some of the texts describe mind-wiping techniques that resemble those developed in the CIA’s “MK-Ultra” program, such as Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1953) and George O. Smith’s Highways in Hiding (1956), and others describe psychic espionage techniques that resemble those developed in the CIA’s “Star Gate” program, such as Wilson Tucker’s Wild Talent (1954) and Lucius Shepard’s Life During Wartime (1987). While the writers could not have been aware of these programs at the time, this does not necessarily imply any precognitive abilities; rather, Broderick argues that these writers were familiar with the field of parapsychology and were often able to extrapolate its potential applications. He thus concludes that the prevalence of psychic powers in postwar sf simply reflects the widespread acceptance of parapsychology within the sf community. “Psience fiction” remains relevant, in other words, because it is one of the few places where this research is openly discussed and endorsed (as Campell claimed).

This is certainly a compelling argument, as the texts under discussion often describe the existence of psychic powers as an accepted fact. Such an interpretation seems to assume, however, that writers always believe the ideas expressed in their works, thus obscuring the function of sf as a tool for imagining alternate realities. Moreover, it does not explain why these texts describe the social and political impact of psychic powers in such extremely different ways.

Psychics are often described as superhuman or godlike beings, as in Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1957) and Ingo Swann’s Star Fire (1978), which Broderick describes as a “sheer power fantasy” (71), but they are also described as socially awkward or sometimes even disabled because of their inability to understand or adhere to social conventions, as in Katherine MacLean’s “Defense Mechanism” (1949).

Psychics are often described as the next stage in human evolution, as in Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (1953), but they are also described as an ancient, evil race that threatens to return human civilization to the dark ages, as in Poul Anderson’s “Night Piece” (1961). These descriptions thus appear to endorse different scientific theories of race, although other texts seem to challenge such theories by representing psychics as a persecuted minority group that is unjustly threatened with extinction due to societal prejudice, as in A.E. van Vogt’s Slan (1946) and John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (1955).

Psychic powers such as telepathy often culminate in the merging of minds into a global, galactic, or even universal hive mind. In some cases this collective consciousness is comforting because it provides a profound sense of spiritual transcendence, as in James H. Schmitz’s The Ties of Earth (1955), but in other cases it represents a frightening loss of individual autonomy and agency, as in Octavia Butler’s Mind of My Mind (1976).

While these concerns are often central to “psience fiction,” they seem to be entirely absent from writings on parapsychology, which tend to focus instead on proving the existence of psychic powers. Instead of simply promoting parapsychology, therefore, “psience fiction” more often appears to extrapolate the potential implications and ethical considerations raised by this research. The wide range of different approaches in these texts also suggests that there is no clear consensus among writers as to their potential benefits and dangers. Even if writers generally accept the reality of psychic powers, therefore, this does not necessarily mean that they are endorsing these powers in a straightforward way. On the contrary, these texts frequently suggest that the existence of psychic powers could actually reinforce existing social, political, economic, and cultural mechanisms of control. Psychic powers might even serve as an effective means of representing and exploring these mechanisms through an imaginative lens.—Anthony Enns, Dalhousie University

Spirited Debates.

Luis C. Cano. Los espíritus de la ciencia ficción: Espiritismo, periodismo y cultura popular en las novelas de Eduardo Holmberg, Francisco Miralles y Pedro Castera [TheSpirits of Science Fiction: Spiritism, Journalism and Popular Culture in the Novels of Eduardo Holmberg, Francisco Miralles and Pedro Castera]. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2017. 266 pp. $65 pbk, $29.99 ebook.

As Luis Cano says in the introduction to Los espíritus de la ciencia ficción [The Spirits of Science Fiction], the study of Spanish-language sf has undergone a transformation, having progressed from the preliminary phase of “curious, tentative glimpses” (17) to the essential work of compiling histories and identifying important themes and styles, to the present happy state of widespread academic acceptance and the publication of first-rate critical analyses. Many of these seek to theorize and situate works of Latin American sf within their national literatures. Cano’s erudite, informative, and thoroughly researched study joins other book-length studies—such as Rachel Haywood Ferreira’s The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction (2011), Sarah A. Buck Kachaluba and Aaron Dziubinskyj’s critical edition of Eduardo Urzaiez’s Eugenia: A Fictional Sketch of Future Customs (2016), and Cano’s own Intermitente recurrencia: la ciencia ficción y el canon literario hispano-americano [Intermittent Recurrence: Science Fiction and the Hispanoamerican Literary Canon, 2006]—that seek in these earliest expressions of Latin American sf new insights into continental literary aesthetics and their contributions to the late nineteenth-century debates over nationhood and progress.

Los espíritus de la ciencia ficción is a comparative analysis of three key novels, one each from Argentina, Chile, and Mexico, that were written when leading intellectuals in the newly independent Latin American countries were promoting national development agendas based on scientific theories and technological advances that radically challenged traditional authorities and ways of knowing. Cano’s project is both literary and sociocultural in nature. His aim, on the one hand, is to identify science-fictional elements common to his chosen texts in order to add to our understanding of how sf developed in Spanish America (Cano uses the term Hispanoamérica and the scope of his study does not include Brazil), and on the other hand, to situate the three novels in the context of late-nineteenth-century society, particularly the fashion for spiritism and the role of the print industry (chiefly newspapers and periodicals) in determining and popularizing certain cultural expressions.

The heart of the book consists of three long chapters, each focusing on one of the three novels and bracketed by an introduction and a shorter chapter of “final considerations.” Before delving further into this review, a word about these novels, three of the earliest works of Spanish-American sf known to date: Eduardo L. Holmberg’s Viaje maravilloso del señor Nic-Nac al planeta Marte [Mr. Nic-Nac’s Marvelous Journey to the Planet Mars, 1875], Francisco Miralles’s Desde Júpiter: Curioso viaje de un santiaguino magnetizado [From Jupiter: The Curious Journey of a Magnetized Man from Santiago, 1877], and Querens [Querens, 1890] by Pedro Castera. Important as these texts unquestionably are to literary history, they are not now nor were they then page-turners. Querens, for example, is a text that critics find hard to praise for its narrative merits; Cano himself calls the novel “lenta y morosa” [slow-paced and sluggish] (187). As I suspect anyone who has read these works will agree, their authors cared much more about the prodesse aspect of Horace’s maxim than they did about the delectare part. Cano is to be commended for acknowledging this and for offering an explanation as to why Holmberg, Castera, and, to a lesser extent, Miralles so often interrupt the flow of their narratives with long, dull pedantic passages. Largely, Cano argues, it has to do with the writers’ personal convictions about the elevating function of art and, especially in Castera’s case, with the rise of the Latin American Modernist belief in “art for art’s sake.” One of the many things I appreciate about Cano’s book is his well-structured claim that these novels’ excessive and awkward pedantry destined them not for an expanding popular readership but for a minority intellectual elite that largely dismissed them, and that, in spite of the authors’ use of sf elements such as alien civilizations and advanced technologies, none of them succeeded—if, indeed, it was ever a goal—in coalescing other continental writers around the nascent sf genre. Although translations of Jules Verne’s scientific adventures had reached the continent, Cano explains that those few Latin American writers who took advantage of the thematic and rhetorical devices popularized by Verne did so less in order to entertain than to instruct. In addition, as the middle class expanded, literacy rates increased, and newspapers sought to grow their readership through serialized publications, sf’s insistence on weighty metaphysical and philosophical themes relegated the genre to the margins as popular tastes ran more to fictions containing healthy doses of romance, adventure, intrigue, local customs, and the supernatural

In his introductory chapter, Cano defines the terms “spiritualism” and “spiritism” and describes how these differing approaches to understanding natural phenomena competed with official scientific discourse in late nineteenth-century Latin American society. Hypnotism, magnetism, and mediumship figure prominently in many of these early science-fictional texts, confirming Camille Flammarion’s influence on the local literary imagination and recognizing the esoteric as one of the defining characteristics of sf works from this period.

In the first chapter following the introduction, about Holmberg’s Viaje maravilloso del señor Nic-Nac, Cano sets out to answer three questions: how and why does Holmberg interweave Darwinist and spiritist discourses in his scientific fictions? What role did the print industry have in the composition and publication of Nic-Nac? And what impact did his novel have on the development of sf in Spanish America? (81) The first of these questions dominates the chapter (the remaining questions get more attention later on in the book), as Cano dissects the then-leading schools of esoteric thought and analyzes their representation in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European and American fantastic literature. Turning next to Desde Júpiter, Cano compares this work with Nic-Nac for their respective treatments of spiritism and evolutionism and discusses both texts’ relationship to prevailing Spanish- American literary and popular aesthetics (Desde Júpiter, Cano argues, is better for having paid heed to the public’s taste for light entertainment, though it does not resist the temptation to lecture). Here is where Cano looks more deeply at how the serialization of popular fiction led to stylistic features such as repetition, cliff-hanger endings, and uniform chapters in early sf works. The last of the three long chapters is primarily interested in how Querens exemplifies early Spanish-American sf’s divergence from that of Europe and Anglo-America by privileging an elitist, socially detached attitude toward art (Latin American Modernism) that for over a half-century kept sf from being intentionally cultivated or widely read and enjoyed.

There is one component of Los espíritus de la ciencia ficción, not represented in the book’s subtitle (“Spiritism, journalism and popular culture”), that felt somewhat tacked on and made me curious about why and when Cano decided to make it a subject of study, and that is the role of the female characters in these early Spanish American sf texts. Cano’s analysis of the presence of women in these narratives and how they figure both in the materialism/spiritism debate and in their authors’ visions of national development is certainly laudatory and valuable for future study, but with the exception of the chapter on Querens, these discussions seemed less well-integrated into the author’s overall project than they could have been.

The extensive scholarship evident on virtually every page of Los espíritus de la ciencia ficción rewards the diligent reader; Cano shares such a wealth of information and interpretation and argues his points so convincingly that it is hard to fault him for being a bit formal and wordy. A highly original scholarly work best appreciated by other scholars, I consider Los espíritus de la ciencia ficción to bean essential contribution of great value to anyone interested in the history of Spanish American science fiction and popular culture.—Andrea Bell, Hamline University

A Grand Master’s Story.

James Gunn. Star-Begotten: A Life Lived in Science Fiction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017. 233pp. $25 pbk

Noted sf writer, critic, academic, and SFWA Grand Master James Gunn’s autobiography is the author’s working-through and making meaning of ninety-five years of life. In his brief introduction, after explaining that the book’s title comes from a 1937 novel by H.G. Wells, Gunn clarifies that, although one might assume that autobiographies are written because a specific person’s life is interesting, in fact “all lives are interesting, even unusual and instructive, if you look at them intently enough” (1). Through the minutiae of his everyday life, covered more or less chronologically over thirteen chapters, Gunn traces the web of connections and events that have comprised his life to date. In the last few years, perhaps as a result of entering his nineties and contemplating his mortality, Gunn’s focus has been more often on the social role of science fiction, summarized in his remarks at his 2015 induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame: “It’s the job of science fiction, it’s our job, to observe [the world’s] changes and consider the implications for human lives and maybe even do something to make those lives better, more livable, more human.... Let’s save the world through science fiction” (189).

The text of this autobiography, unfortunately printed in miniscule type, is interleaved with comments such as this one, written in a different typeface to differentiate them from the regular text. They include excerpts from various speeches, remembrances written years later and presented at reunions, and summaries of some overseas trips where he acted as an ambassador of sf. They often overlap with previously provided information, but I found that having the complete text of Gunn’s 2007 acceptance speech for the Grand Master Award to be both interesting and helpful. Near the end of the book he gives brief overviews of his relationships with a number of giants in the field such as Damon Knight, Harry Harrison, and Clifford Simak. For example, “Fred and Me” describes his relationship with Frederik Pohl, whom he met in the late 1940s or early 1950s, who acted as his agent, and who was a longtime friend and frequent visitor to Kansas (along with his wife, Betty Hull). And “I Remember John” speaks of his friendship with John Brunner, whom he met at Worldcon in 1968.

In addition to these personal memories, Gunn also scatters many black-and-white graphics throughout the text: family photos, wedding portraits, candid baby pictures, and images of Gunn himself at various stages of life (in one he wears a moustache). Images of book covers are also provided, hinting at the impressive breadth of his interests in fiction, non-fiction, and editing. Two appendices appear at the end: one reprints Gunn’s remarks on the occasion of the donation of the Theodore Sturgeon papers to the University of Kansas, and another lists all of Gunn’s publications. An index is also included. This book may be profitably read alongside another McFarland title from 2017: Saving the World through Science Fiction: James Gunn, Writer, Teacher and Explorer by Michael R. Page (one of Gunn’s students from Kansas). This biography also offers extensive summaries and analyses of Gunn’s works.

The story of Gunn’s life as described in Star-Begotten is closely tied to the Midwest. He was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1923, but did not suffer the predations of the Depression as did so many of his generation since his father was continuously employed. He attended the University of Kansas as a journalism junior-college transfer student. His studies were interrupted by a three-year stint in the Navy during World War II, during which he seemed to spend most of his time first in training, then filing. He met his wife, Jane, at KU, and they had two boys, Kit (who died—a short chapter entitled simply “Kit” is devoted to him) and Kevin. He attempted to be a freelance writer and had good luck publishing his first short stories, but he went back to KU to graduate school, this time in English. He includes one of his favorite stories from this period: how his master’s thesis was published in an sf magazine—as far as he knows, the first and last such thesis to be published in such a venue. After more freelancing, he accepted a job in the administration of KU; taught science fiction and creative writing classes as an adjunct; and then parleyed his extensive publication record to jump directly from lecturer status to full professor in the English department, a rank he obtained in 1974. He retired at KU’s mandated age of 70, which also freed him from tedious committee work and allowed him more time to devote to his writing. He wrote novels, worked in outreach to help other schools launch sf programs, networked at sf conferences, juried sf awards, and founded the Institute for the Study of Science Fiction, which offers summer classes and workshops on sf. He also won a variety of honors and had one of his novels turned into a TV show.

The prose style used in Star-Begotten reads like a one-sided conversation. Although the text is roughly chronological, asides are frequent, with the author recalling a memory or anecdote that is often mediated by his remembrance of a remark his mother made years later, thus providing context and permitting elements of the story to be remembered simultaneously from an adult’s and a child’s point of view. He also occasionally drops in names of people not mentioned before (mostly family members) as if assuming the reader will know whom he means, which adds a level of immediacy to the text. (And who are those people? He eventually gets there.) Although Gunn occasionally ruminates on the meaning of it all, the book is mostly matter-of-fact, told in a style that evokes his early training as a journalist.

In addition to its primary focus on Gunn’s life, this autobiography also acts as a kind of close-up history of the University of Kansas and the town of Lawrence, and it is particularly interesting in its description of this locale around the time of World War II. As a KU graduate myself, I found the street addresses of the houses he lived in, the status of long-torn-down buildings, and his recollection of various university offices to be fascinating because I know the neighborhood well. Likewise, he mentions the names of neighbors, fellow bridge players, departmental chairs, and colleagues—many of whom were important to KU, and some of whom have names that now adorn campus buildings. These reminiscences will likely resonate most strongly with people with ties to KU or for people interested in the history of the area. Similarly, the text Gunn provides of his acceptance speeches for his many honors may be useful to scholars working in the sf field.Star-Begotten: A Life Lived in Science Fiction is important as a historical document because it provides not only a wealth of information on James Gunn but also a firsthand account of the evolution of the world of sf from the pulps to what it is today. Gunn trained many editors and writers in the genre, and his influence helped turn science fiction into a field of legitimate study and inquiry. “It is all so unlikely,” he concludes, “and it’s all so marvelous that we were able to observe it and speculate about it and tell ourselves about what it all means and what, if anything, about it matters” (190). One is left to wonder: is he saying this about sf or about his life?—Karen Hellekson, Jay, Maine

Democratic Energies.

Dan Hassler-Forest. Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Politics: Transmedia World-Building Beyond Capitalism. London: Rowman and Littlefield, Radical Cultural Studies, 2016. 246 pp. ₤80 hc, ₤24.95 pbk, ₤24.99 ebook.

Dan Hassler-Forest’s Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Politics argues that “fantastic storyworlds provide us with valuable ways to challenge and interrogate the cultural logic of capitalism while at the same time imposing serious limits on their radical political potential” (197). His critical framework is grounded in the application of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s interrogations of global capitalism to the transmedia storyworlds of The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), Star Trek (1966-1969; 1987-2005), Game of Thrones (2017-2019), Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009), Spartacus (2010-2013), The Hunger Games (2012-2015), The Walking Dead (2010-), and Janelle Monáe’s musical Metropolis Saga (2007-). What emerges is an astute, well-researched, illuminating, and deeply enjoyable study of convergence culture and global capitalism. It is organized around the post-imperialist core of Empire, the difficulties of maintaining both stable communities and organized resistance to neoliberalism, the ascendancy of Empire, and the marketplace as the arbiter of social, cultural, and political organization. It argues for the necessity of moving beyond capitalism and embracing a posthuman condition. Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Politics is an important text for understanding not only the pitfalls of transmedia storytelling in the age of Empire but also the utopian promontories toward which these fantastic storyworlds can gesture.

Drawing extensively upon Hardt and Negri’s theorizings of Empire, Chapter One explores how capital (and power) operates in our current postindustrial, neoliberal capitalist age, all the while providing explanatory context and avoiding unnecessary repetition. Hassler-Forest taps into the anti-capitalist, even utopian, potential of Empire that posits the possibilities of “a democratic energy that is fundamentally uncontrollable” (15). He explains that transmedia world-building appeals to a growing fandom by virtue of a democratic energy that inspires “radical potential” for envisioning anticapitalist storyworlds and “sociocultural practices that can play a role in anticapitalist imaginative and organizational work” (15; emphasis in original). Hassler-Forest also acknowledges, however, that these democratic energies can readily become commodified and packaged for consumption by the very same capitalist framework critiqued by the anticapitalist work. As a result of this structural tension, the fantastic storyworlds of transmedia franchises “articulate the cultural and political logic of Empire, giving us helpful tools to better understand the contradictory nature of global capitalism” (15).

As an exploration of “the tension between the anticapitalist building blocks that are essential to these franchises’ mass appeal and the multiple ways in which they are incorporated within global capitalism’s mechanisms of commodity circulation and capital accumulation” (17), it is entirely apropos that Chapter Two focuses on The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and Star Trek (ST) because they were embraced by fandom during a period of intense socio-cultural challenges (Hassler-Forest expands his focus also to include the wider Star Trek pantheon). The Lord of the Rings franchise offers a “kind of ‘utopia for the before’ by imagining a life before capitalism” (32; emphasis in original), while Star Trek “offers the pleasurable fantasy of a postcapitalist utopia” (55). Hassler-Forest argues that both LOTR and ST fail, however, to escape the capitalist logic of their own cultural production: Tolkien’s Middle-earth “is organized entirely on the basis of class hierarchies and geographical boundaries that typify the ‘striated’ landscape of capitalism and its imperialist phase” (32), while Star Trek’s reliance upon “hierarchical organization” and “dedication to competition as a fundamental human quality counterbalance the storyworld’s supposedly postcapitalist environment” (55). Global capitalism’s internal tensions are also duplicated in fandom’s embrace of these franchises: organized fandom that may have been drawn to the anticapitalist “utopia for the before” (LOTR) or “postcapitalist utopia” (ST) became “an invaluable collaborator in the publicity and cultural legitimization surrounding the burgeoning transmedia franchise” (57). In other words, The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek continue to lay bare the “fluctuating tension between fans’ affective investment [in the franchise] and the hierarchical structure of capitalism” (58).

Hassler-Forest shifts focus in Chapter Three to Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica, examining images of walls and borders and of an unknowable “outside” that structures both diegetic universes. I have not read any of George R.R. Martin’s books nor seen a single episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, but clear and concise writing in tandem with handy narrative summaries ensured that I was never lost in the argumentation. Regarding Battlestar Galactica, Hassler-Forest argues that “the deluge of consumable BSG-related materials relieves fans of the necessity to contribute creatively” and he focuses on “the continuous circulation of authorized promotional materials and the collaborative legitimization of an increasingly powerful media industry’s intellectual property” (105). In addition, using Giorgio Agamben’s work on “the state of exception as global capitalism’s new political paradigm” (96; emphasis in original), he unpacks the universal precarity, instability, and uncertainty that are the socio-political norm of this sf’s diegetic universe. The search for democratic energy in Battlestar Galactica proves disheartening because “the writers’ ambition to push beyond the confines of capitalist realism and allow for ‘a tremendous sense of hope’” ultimately results in “real alternatives [that] are repeatedly frustrated” (101-102). Battlestar Galactica “ends up withdrawing entirely into the contradictory fantasy of a premodern but genetically engineered ‘purity’” and the final impression the series leaves upon its audience is simply to reiterate “the inevitability of Earth’s own inescapable future of global capitalism” (103).

The texttakes a decidedly utopian turn when Chapter Four focuses on The Hunger Games series and Starz’s television show Spartacus. Hassler-Forest uses The Hunger Games and Spartacus to challenge the fundamentals of “global capitalism’s deeply ingrained cultural, economic, and political norm of competitive individualism” (112). In both franchises the foregrounding of “the key dramatic tension not as interpersonal conflict but as irreducibly political class struggle” is deeply connected “to political economies of media production” (115). Drawing on Guy Debord’s “critique of the spectacular nature of capitalism in the age of mass media” (129), Hassler-Forest argues that the storyworlds in Spartacus and The Hunger Games “have foregrounded the political implications of media spectacles in the context of immaterial labor and machinic enslavement” (129). The gladiatorial focus in Spartacus is less on the games themselves than on parodying and reproducing “the structure of the media industries’ intense focus on the mechanics of the spectacle” (131), going so far as to “remind us of the media industry’s workings: its corrupting and exploitative nature, its fiendishly addictive depictions of its own backstage drama, and, above all, its ability to thrive commercially even as it indicts the system of which it is a part” (132). Hassler-Forest effectively builds on this analysis of Spartacus by reading The Hunger Games as a film series organized around Empire’s ideological tensions. Namely, the franchise’s post-democratic condition is embodied by a Panem that projects into the future the successor to America’s current democratic structure while simultaneously evoking the totalitarian colonialism common to the literary dystopias populating the twentieth century. In fact, these kinds of storyworlds provide “a provocative and appealing allegory for global capitalism’s twenty-first-century organization, and especially its palpable lack of actual democratic participation” (140). The alternative is for fandom to infuse democratic energy into anticapitalist activities, such as the Harry Potter Alliance’s Odds in Our Favor campaign, a food drive that “demonstrated how quickly and effectively organized fandom would contribute to anticapitalist activism” (146). Hassler-Forest sees in the Odds in Our Favor campaign (as well as the Occupy movements, global student protests, and such organized protests as the Arab Spring) a much-needed spontaneous activism that is incontrovertible proof of the anticapitalist potential of a creative fandom that “organize[s] and activate[s] new forms of collectivity that Hardt and Negri see as the multitude’s inevitable counterrevolution against neoliberalism’s global Empire” (147).

Chapter Five focuses on post-apocalyptic zombies and cyborgs in what is arguably the only chapter dedicated to what might lie beyond capitalism. In the first case, Hassler-Forest demonstrates how figures of the undead in The Walking Dead and George Romero’s zombie films “disrupt and reveal: by bringing the banal routines of capitalist society to a shrieking halt, the bodies of the undead present a fundamental challenge to our shared notions of biopolitics and subjectivity…. [The undead] dialectically express both the fear of capitalism’s seemingly inevitable self-destruction and the desire to finally break free from the stifling unreality of privilege for a diminishing global elite” (158). Nevertheless, Hassler-Forest acknowledges the undead’s limited usefulness since zombies’ “dialectical form still remains entirely negative … frothing with anticapitalist energy, but lacking any kind of program for a postcapitalist alternative” (174). Thankfully, the turn to cyborg identities in Janelle Monáe’s musical-visual oeuvre provides the book’s unmistakable high note. Hassler-Forest celebrates the importance of Monáe’s Afrofuturist work, including the albums Metropolis: Suite 1─The Chase (2007), The ArchAndroid (2010), and The Electric Lady (2010), and her involvement in the Wondaland Arts Society. We can find in these spaces “a provocative example of world-building that structurally resists capitalism’s neutralizing and objectifying framework (175). As a result, Monáe’s “storyworld offers no utopian escape from the increasingly desperate reality of global capitalism, but it does maintain a stubborn optimism and a resilient faith in the multitude’s revolutionary potential” (193). The democratic energy infusing Monáe’s sf oeuvre “offers a productive confrontation with capitalism’s oppressive power rather than an escape from it. But where the zombie genre fails to escape a purely negative dialectic, Monáe’s centrifugal storyworld mobilizes posthumanism’s inherently contradictory nature” (183). And it is this contradictory nature that Hassler-Forest has effectively addressed throughout this stellar book.

The final chapter provides a succinct (and much appreciated) overview of the territory Hassler-Forest has been mapping, serving as another reminder of just how thoroughly interconnected are the franchises under review. Nevertheless, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Politics is by no means perfect: Hassler-Forest makes occasional comments or references without sufficient context, the lesser-known Spartacus is overshadowed by a better analysis of The Hunger Games, and there are a few typos and date inconsistencies. In the end, however, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Politics: Transmedia World-Building Beyond Capitalism is an astute critical analysis of key fantastic storyworlds that unpacks a range of transmedia by locating them within real-world anticapitalist sentiments and movements; it is a fantastic resource for those of us who are teaching these franchises. In sum, this is an important book that should be on all our bookshelves, particularly if we are using (or looking to use) visual materials as part of our teaching practice.—Graham J. Murphy, Seneca College

Trying to Save the World.

Sarah Hentges. Girls on Fire: Transformative Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018. 290 pp. $39.95 pbk.

YA dystopian fiction has increased dramatically since the publication of The Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010). Hentges argues that the increased popularity of these kinds of stories may be due to the emergence of a new type of female protagonist. She labels these young women “Girls on Fire,” drawing on the title of a 2017 adult novel of the same name by Robin Wasserman. Indignant over issues of social injustice that threaten not only their own lives but also those of their communities, Girls on Fire (Hentages consistently refers to the protagonists in this way) are warriors intent on righting wrongs while creating nurturing communities that will sustain those marginalized by self-absorbed adults, profit/power-hungry corporations, and corrupt political institutions. She argues that what distinguishes these protagonists from girls in earlier YA texts is both the scope and power of the forces that the young women battle and their willingness to sacrifice themselves to a higher good. Their opponents are seldom a single villain (e.g., a mean teacher, parents, or an insensitive boyfriend) but rather powerful institutions that threaten not only individual existence but also the very survival of the planet.

Hentges is both an avid recreational reader of YA dystopian fiction and a serious scholar of it with two previous texts to her credit. Prior to Girls on Fire she published a study examining the representation of girls in contemporary film as well as a cultural analysis of women and exercise. For this book she read 140 YA dystopian novels, drew on abundant scholarship, and incorporated student work both from her classroom and from blogs.The scope of her research is admirable, and her generous inclusion of student viewpoints (the primary intended market for YA work) is noteworthy. Ultimately, Hentges’s goal is to convince her readers that “YA dystopia can save the humanities and maybe the world” (18).This goal, however, has not blinded her to occasional flaws in the texts she loves. She notes early on that her protagonists are most often white, middle-class, and heterosexual and that this homogeneity in fictional characterization is a weakness that needs to be acknowledged and addressed. But her advocacy for the social importance of YA dystopian fiction is sometimes obscured by a lack of clarity about her audience, sweeping generalizations about YA literature and its development, and (ironically) an ineffective use of secondary sources that sadly too often drown out the finer points of her argument.

Girls on Fire begins with three introductory chapters that offer definitions and discussions of the three key theoretical tools that Hentges uses in her study: intersectionality (of race, gender, class, etc.), interdisciplinarity, and feminist theory. The four subsequent chapters comprise the analytical core of the book, exploring the representation of these topics in specific texts. While the extended discussions in her first three chapters might be helpful to students new to these concepts, many academics are unlikely to need such extensive explanations and might also find some of them problematic. Some readers might feel, for example, that her argument that YA dystopian fiction has the potential to save the world is undermined by her tendency to make sweeping generalizations about the humanities, sciences, and the relationship between the two. When she states, for example, that “students and professors in the humanities tend to fear and avoid math and science” (14), she reinforces destructive and dated stereotypes while ignoring curricular changes that demonstrate ways in which these disciplines work together to address social injustice. More importantly, these stereotypes reinforce the very binaries that Hentges suggests are obstacles to addressing complex social problems.

Those academic readers who go first to the bibliography of a scholarly work to check the extent of an author’s research will have no complaints about the number of secondary texts Hentges has consulted. Her bibliography covers eleven pages. Yet Hentges seldom makes use of these sources as effectively as she might. For example, too many times in her discussion sentences begin with “As (insert critic’s name) says,” followed by a long quotation from that scholar’s work. And, unfortunately, she does not always make clear how that material supports her argument, leaving it instead to the reader to determine which sections of a long quotation are pertinent and which are not. As a consequence, her own observations about a text or cultural trend end up being obscured, which is a shame because her own insights are often more valuable than the sources she cites to support them. Reconfiguring some of this material as endnotes would help to foreground her own points while simultaneously strengthening the study’s readability.

There is much to admire about Girls on Fire: the large number of primary texts included, the author’s awareness and generous appreciation of the work of other scholars in the field, and her desire to provide other academics with the ways and means of incorporating her research into an interdisciplinary classroom. But the book does suffer from the author’s seeming desire to write a text that is all things to all people: a primer of cultural theory for undergraduates, a showcase for modern research published on YA dystopian literature, and a resource for academics at all levels and disciplines who wish to incorporate more interdisciplinarity into their classrooms. Readers already well acquainted with intersectionality and interdisciplinary approaches as conceptual tools or who already believe that literature not only reflects but also shapes the world may wish to skim or even skip the introductory chapters and dive into the richer, genuinely insightful later chapters in which Hentges’s close readings of specific texts are well worth attending to.—Nancy St.Clair, Simpson College

Worlds of Color.

Mark C. Jerng. Racial Worldmaking: The Power of Popular Fiction. New York: Fordham UP, 2018. 284 pp. $30 pbk.

In Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), there is a scene in which the character Nobusuke Tagomi does not know what reality he currently inhabits—his “real” world or the story-world of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a book almost everyone in High Castle has read. It is by noticing and reading the racial norms around him that Tagomi figures out that he has shifted out of his “real” world: a police officer speaks to him differently than expected, there are no Chinese-operated pedicabs, and white restaurant patrons refuse to give up their seats for him. The anti-Japanese racism he experiences is such a stark departure from the world he knows that it allows him to understand he has been transported to an entirely different world. These racial differences are also how readers of High Castle are able to place Tagomi in our world. Grasshopper depicts a reality that functions as an alternate history within High Castle but is recognizable to readers as the world we actually inhabit.

This move, by which the universe of High Castle is turned inside out and thereby situated in a new relationship with the reader’s world, should come as no surprise to fans of Dick. What Mark C. Jerng does with this scene in his monograph Racial Worldmaking: The Power of Popular Fiction, however, is refreshingly mind-bending. Jerng points out that one of the key signs that Tagomi reads in this moment is the racial politics of a lunch counter—an especially meaning-laden symbol in American history. Jerng argues that Dick’s use of the lunch counter shows the ways that protest—and alternate history, and racial worldmaking broadly conceived—reorganize time and space. Protests such as the refusal by black activists to leave a lunch counter rewrite the rules of reality because they disrupt our understanding of what is possible—not only legally, but also existentially. They force us to notice what is permissible at the level of worldbuilding. These kinds of protests therefore have the capacity to disrupt the cohesive, rational (white) self. When defenders of the status quo call for “civility,” it is this disruption to which they object. Their sense of self and of the reality they inhabit is challenged when race is made salient in new ways, when the racial affordances of our world are not taken for granted. They thought they lived in a realist narrative and do not appreciate being shown that they live in genre fiction, where every piece of worldbuilding is up for scrutiny and revision.

Racial Worldmaking stages such a shift in the way we understand race. Jerng argues that currently dominant narratives of race and racism are too focused on seeing race in individual bodies and people. Mainstream racial discourse charts a trajectory in which we have allegedly moved from old-fashioned scientific racism to newer, culturalist forms of racism, and in which racism has adapted to become less overt—but these narratives still situate race within and on the human body. Proving that a racist act has occurred requires proving that race was read on a specific person in a certain way by another person who then acted with racist intent. But Jerng argues that seeing race does not precede making racial meaning and that we are taught to notice and read race in certain ways in certain contexts. This focus on noticing (as opposed to seeing) is key: we are taught that race is salient in some contexts and not others. In these ways, race is embedded into the world at a structural level, shaping what we think is possible and how we believe the world works. Race thus moves outside of bodies and people and becomes part of the discourses of place, space, and time. To study these rhetorics, Jerng begins with genre fiction, where the moves of worldmaking can be exposed most easily, but he extends the lessons of genre fiction back to the “real” world. Ultimately he asks what anti-racist worldmaking might look like—what we can do “to render our racist worlds incoherent” (217).

Jerng takes his examples from several nineteenth- and twentieth-century American racial discourses. He tracks the yellow peril genre across fiction and journalism by noticing the ways in which metaphors of the natural world are employed and colored: there are yellow fogs and waves, black belts, white worlds. Race in the yellow peril genre takes on the scope, temporality, physicality, and inevitability of the natural world itself. Jerng studies Reconstruction-era plantation romances as genre fiction, participating in the same kinds of worldbuilding practices as sf and fantasy while simultaneously performing historiography by shaping the available meanings to be made of the Civil War. He examines race as utility and value in economic analysis and in sword-and-sorcery fiction, pointing to “the varied functions of race as signs and explanations that are not beyond market transactions but rather constitutive of the very activity of exchange itself” (141). And he examines the function of the racial counterfactual in legal proceedings and in alternate-history fiction; in both cases hypothetical race-reversals, as opposed to the real-world racial dynamics at issue, are used as the basis of worldmaking.

Jerng’s argument is most compelling, and his writing most dynamic, when he is working through these examples, pulling together seemingly disparate discourses to show how genre cuts across fields and media. Jerng reconfigures what are often called “tropes” as “genres”—a seemingly subtle distinction but a powerful one. Genres create worlds that operate according to certain rules, customs, and variations on a theme. Genres create affordances, which allow some possibilities and not others, allow certain histories, futures, and interpretations to be salient and not others. Dragons are affordances of fantasy; cyborgs are affordances of sf. It is not that those figures cannot be found in other genres, but they are more salient in some generic locations than others. So too with racial genres and the figures, tropes, and interpretations they afford.

This book is an important contribution to critical race studies within sf and I recommend it to any reader of SFS interested in race. Just as I suspect we as a group all accept it when Philip K. Dick turns the world inside out, I similarly predict we will easily grasp and accede to Jerng’s arguments about the power of worldbuilding and the connections between genre fiction and the “real” world. It is in his careful analysis of the mechanisms of that worldbuilding as they pertain to race that Jerng truly offers us something novel. And as is so often the case, I find myself wanting to recommend this book to people other than sf scholars. It is probably those who do not spend as much time thinking about worldbuilding who will find Jerng’s study most revelatory. We make these worlds. We could make them differently. —Elizabeth Lundberg, The University of Iowa

Distant Constellations: Looking Backward at Soviet Science Fiction.

Viktoriya and Patrice Lajoye. Étoiles rouges. La littérature de la science-fiction soviétique [Red Stars: Soviet Science Fiction Literature]. Paris: Piranha, 2017. 316 pp. $49.95 pbk.

Viktoriya and Patrice Lajoye are well known to French-speaking readers as the foremost specialists in Russian sf in France. From 2009 to 2014 they maintained the only serious blog on the subject, Russkaya Fantastika, articles from which were edited into book form in 2013 under the same title. Together they translate and publish Slav legends and fantasy tales, as well as works of such writers as the Symbolist poet Valery Bryusov. They have published a number of articles, together and separately. Patrice Lajoye edited an excellent sf anthology, Dimension URSS (2009), and Viktoriya Lajoye edited a collection of essays entitled Aspects des littératures de l’imaginaire post-soviétiques [Aspects of post-Soviet imaginative literatures] in a special issue of La Revue russe (#43, 2014). In their new book, after a gap of decades since the end of the 1970s when a series of their essays and publications made the French public familiar with then-still-lively Soviet (and anti-Soviet) sf, utopian fiction, and fantasy, they now undertake to revisit this literature from a contemporary perspective.

The title of the book, Red Stars, obvious as it seems, brings to mind not only the revolutionary emblem and the Soviet drive for cosmic exploration, but also the 1985 essay of the same name in which Patrick McGuire investigated the political aspects of Soviet sf and, last but not least, Alexander Bogdanov’s famous utopia The Red Star (1908), which depicts a Communist society on Mars, the red planet. The Lajoyes’ title announces the subject and at the same time suggests its intricate intertextual and intercultural problematics.

Right from the start, the authors cut the Gordian knot of labyrinthine developments. They declare in their foreword that their intention is not to present the results of academic research but, rather, to offer a subjective study based on their personal opinions, an accessible introduction to this particular body of a past literary production. That is precisely what the book is, an introduction aimed at sf fans as well as mainstream readers, teenagers as well as adults. It is written in a very articulate and lively manner. Without insisting too much on the literary analysis of the texts they examine, the authors are interested in whether the sf ideas they convey are sound or dilettantish, original or clichéd, close to Communist State propaganda or not. Combining a chronological and topical arrangement, the book is composed of eight chapters, a conclusion, a bibliography (a brief survey of secondary literature), and a list of cited sf works, including their surprisingly numerous French translations. The chapters are subdivided into sections that match a rough thematic classification: new inventions, interstellar voyages, encounters with extraterrestrials, etc. Every now and then a special section is devoted to a writer of importance. The first chapter is dedicated to pre-revolutionary sf, the second to the “small golden age” of the 1920s, with Alexander Belyaev’s oeuvre at its center, and the third describes the barren and reclusive period of Soviet-orthodox sf. The end of the Stalin era opens a new golden age (chapter 4) and the gust of freedom makes innovators out of veterans such as Ivan Efremov. Contacts with Occidental culture are restored and new masters are found, from Bradbury and Asimov to Stanislaw Lem. A young generation of authors discover or invent unheard-of ideas, genres, and styles. For the “lyricists,” sf is an experiment in philosophy; the “physicists” see it is a screen for imagining future technology. The Strugatsky brothers begin their extraordinary creative spree that will leave its mark on the field right up to the present (chapter 5). The brilliant years between 1956 and 1969 are followed by a decline; censorship is again omnipresent (chapter 6) and leads again to a period of stagnation (chapter 7). Another generation of writers steps in, such as Vyacheslav Krapivin, and eventually, during the decade 1982-1992, sf seems to recover some of its vigor and presents “the premises of a new world” (chapter 8). In the post-Soviet years, as very briefly presented in the conclusion, several new names and titles appear and a hope for masterpieces to come is restated, but at the end the reader is left with the feeling that today Russian sf is living through yet another crisis in its tumultuous history.

It goes without saying that Étoiles Rouges is packed with information, even if more often than not the authors content themselves with merely summarizing plots and sf ideas. Two essential questions help to organize the whole: how to pick the best from such rich material and what belongs to the Soviet era and has become outdated and what can be saved for now. The answers are not always convincing, but the questions are well put. There are other good things about the Lajoyes’ book. They pay attention to some names that were absent from earlier overviews. Their narrative makes room not only for the writers but also for some of the sf artists, such as Nikolai Kolchitsky and his 1950 paintings of toroid orbital stations; a color insert presents a richer than usual selection of illustrations with comments. Another well handled topic is the multi-ethnicity of Soviet literature. Each writer’s origin is scrupulously mentioned, suggesting its influence on their work; such is clearly the case with the Ukrainian writers noted here, who are remarkably well represented in sf and in their own version of magic realism (245). One can find in the volume interesting editorial details and interesting parallels between Soviet and Occidental sf worlds. It is certain, however, that each of these themes merits more systematic treatment than we find here.

One could say that this is a general problem with Étoiles Rouges. Just as they declare in their introduction, its authors avoid complicated matters and, as a result, sometimes oversimplify their material, such as their depiction of the Soviet context. They speak about “Soviet realism” instead of “socialist realism,” and they refer to it as a “genre” whereas it was an overall artistic system (232, 234). They evoke Soviet censorship as something exterior to editing (173), as if they did not know that censors had posts at almost every level of all editorial structures and interfered at every stage of the publishing process. They confuse self-editing, a practice begun in the 1920s, with the samizdat, a clandestine channel for nonconformist and/or forbidden literature based on individual copying and hand-to-hand distribution (50). What is even more surprising, they fully dismiss the discussion of the samizdat of the 1960-1970s, arguing that because of its political content it would be incomprehensible or too dull for the contemporary reader (135); the result is the disappearance of a bulk of fantastic literature related to anti-utopia and of some important works and authors, from Andrey Sinyavsky’s “Pkhents” (1957) to Nikolai Bokov’s The Sun City (1971). This process of exclusion goes even further: it leaves nothing but an almost imperceptible trace of Viktor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin, the most important Russian postmodern writers. While formed in the samizdat years, their contributions to Russian fantasy and sf literature were essential in the late 1990s and early 2000s, at least as essential as that of Vladimir Makanin, who benefits from the Lajoyes’ attention. Of Andrei Kurkov, whose lucid political sf is so very popular in Western Europe, we find no trace at all.

Other disappearances or distortions in the book are a corollary of its commitment to evaluating its material based on personal taste. Thus Zamyatin’s complex, multidimensional novel We (1921) is compared and, in a way, equated with not very original short stories by Aleksandr Kuprin, Mikhail Artsybashev, and Andrei Marsov (50). As to the most important novel of anticipation, Pyotr Krasnov’s Beyond the Thistles (1922; written as a direct response to Zamyatin) and Mikhail Kozyrev’s somewhat later Leningrad (1927), they are never even mentioned. The problem goes beyond individual works. More than by the minor errors that are inevitable in any literary history of comparable scope, one is disturbed by the dismissal, paradoxical in the Soviet context, of the esoteric movement in sf and fantasy literature (in samizdat literature, this was represented most notably by Arkady Rovner, Yuri Mamleyev, and the formidable cosmic fantasia The Rose of the World by Daniil Andreev [completed 1959; first published 1989], all of whom are absent from the picture). A lot of space is justly dedicated to Oles Berdnik, but not a word is written about his activity as an heir to the famous occultist Nicolas Roerich and as the leader of the “Spiritual Nation of Ukraine.” Curiously, his interstellar visions, as well as Efremov’s, are attributed to the theories of Teilhard de Chardin (248), but are not linked to the occultist tradition they helped to revive nor to the “Russian cosmists” Vladimir Vernadsky or Nikolai Fyodorov, whose names never appear in the Lajoyes’ book. These omissions resemble, in a supreme paradox, a kind of censorship. And one is rather puzzled by the fact that this new look at past sf territory is not so different from the old, almost forty years ago.

Maybe this is the direct consequence of a rather poor bibliography that  includes only a small number of recent works; while Anindita Banerjee’s We Modern People: Science Fiction and the Making of Russian Modernity (2012) is cited, Asif Saddiqi’s no-less excellent The Red Rockets’ Glare: Spaceflight and the Russian Imagination, 1857-1957 (2010) is not. This reviewer’s “professorial mind” is slightly disturbed by the absence of works in languages other than Russian, French, and English; one has to agree, however, that this is a common drawback in sf studies. That is why this reviewer can only add that whatever the shortcomings of the Lajoyes’ book are, it is still a very readable and useful introduction to Soviet sf. It makes one want to reread the masterpieces it discusses and to search for their successors.—Leonid Heller, Paris-Lausanne

Repetition Without Much Difference.

Susana Loza. Speculative Imperialisms: Monstrosity and Masquerade in Postracial Times. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2018. x+193 pp. $90 hc.

Susana Loza’s monograph Speculative Imperialisms sets out to explore the enduring legacies of colonialism (“classic” and “settler”) and racialized slavery in sf. She does so through a series of case studies: Chapter 1, “Playing the Alien in Postracial Times,” which looks at Avatar (2009) and District 9 (2009); Chapter 3, “Imperial Fictions, Postracial Fantasies: Doctor Who in the Age of Neoliberal Multiculturalism”; and Chapter 4, “Monkeys, Monsters, and Minstrels in Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”—and an intriguing Chapter 2, “Colonial Cosplay: Steampunk and the After-Life of Empire,” on debates in the steampunk community that have unfolded almost exclusively in the ephemeral spaces of blog posts, comments sections, and cosplay. Loza explores this sampling of recent texts to show that as much as things may seem to have changed, much remains the same.

Overall, this study leaves little doubt that the state of popular sf today is anything but post-racial. What is less clear is whether anyone (or at least, anyone likely to seek out this book) seriously thinks otherwise, especially after RaceFail ’09 and the continuing “Puppy” battle against the Hugo awards (neither of which is addressed in the text). This book does important work charting some of the contours of the persistence of racism, but it would be improved if it also attended more directly to some of the many spaces of resistance in the sf community, past and present, that collectively offer the other side of the conversation. The racism and rank colonialism that Loza sets out to “illuminate” are already well known—and vigorously contested—in sf fandom. The issue, in other words, is not so much whether race and colonialism are still live topics in sf (they are), but what sf has to say about race and colonialism.

Loza’s monograph utilizes a novel methodology: “My analysis samples and remixes the voices of scholars, fans, and critics to illustrate the ubiquity and intractability of (settler) colonialism in SF” (2). This approach works best in the second chapter, especially when documenting the debates around a 2010 issue of a steampunk fanzine titled VictOrientalism. This issue, edited and posted by a putatively apolitical steampunk participant, was roundly critiqued by other fans and scholars (responses from Diana M. Pho and Jaymee Goh are particularly featured), and like most (all?) internet conversations of the last decade, the discussion quickly descended into comments-section madness. This is where Loza’s methodology shines, as she uses her position as a participant-scholar to aggregate the most interesting pieces of the argument, including some gems hidden in the comments, basically wading through it all so we do not have to. The judicious selection of posts, strung together with the authority of a strong editorial narrative voice, helps turn the cacophonous maelstrom of digital discourse into something useful and approachable for those of us residing outside this particular community.

Loza’s approach has some significant limitations as well, however, as can be seen in the same chapter’s examination of another controversy, this one centered on the Native American Steampunk of one Miss Kagashi. A “steampunk nom de plume” for Jeni Hellum, who describes herself as a “proud woman of Norwegian and Potawatomie (Great Lakes Native American) descent” (61), Miss Kagashi has elicited considerable ire over her approach to using Native American items and motifs in her cosplay. Loza again collects views from other internet commentators and places them together, but in this case the analysis is unclear. We are, for instance, offered a contrasting example in Monique Poirier, “a member of the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe and NatPunk” (63), who takes Miss Kagashi to task for her “auto-exoticism” (64), and whose thoughtful concerns about “whether her [own] ethnic drag dismantles racist stereotypes or reaffirms them” form the end of the chapter (65). Poirier seems to be positioned as a positive example of NatPunk cosplay, but I was left with little sense of how her approach differs from Miss Kagashi’s (except for the flavor of her rhetoric). This seems like a good place for expansion, perhaps beyond what has been posted in fan communities. What, for instance, might NatPunk learn from the model of Indigenous sf? Many Indigenous sf works actively counter the trope of the Native as frozen in time—is this trope inherent in the retro orientation of Steampunk? How can (or do) NatPunk practitioners navigate this issue? A close reading of two contrasting costumes would help address these questions, as would some space dedicated to Miss Kagashi’s response to Poirier (or the response of her defenders)—the sort of back and forth given in the discussion of VictOrientalism. Poirier’s doubts indicate some engagement with these issues, but the chapter ends without following any beyond their introduction.

Limits in the methodology are more obvious in other chapters. Each released after the unholy advent of the internet “thinkpiece,” the texts examined in the first, third, and fourth chapters have spawned myriad analyses, some by academics in peer-reviewed venues, some by bloggers and reporters, some by fans. The “sample” and “remix” strategy here seems to be aimed at placing these pieces into conversation with each other, but these chapters lack the sort of focus and continuity that would render the many divergent voices into something larger. Loza’s approach does uncover some intriguing issues. In the first and fourth chapters, for instance, the relationship between blackface performance and motion-capture performance (for which Andy Serkis, in particular, is famous) is intriguing and original, and it merits further examination. Also interesting is the discussion of “colorblind casting” in the neo-slave Ood episodes of the Doctor Who reboot (2005- )—specifically, the discussion of English actor Ronny Jhutti, in one of the few roles on his resumé where the Punjabi-descended actor is not “explicitly marked” by racial difference through name or accent (95). His role in the episode as a member of the oppressors marks a moment where the explicit slave allegory playing out in the show’s narrative coincides with the BBC’s colorblind casting policies to secure Jhutti’s Englishness by, ironically, rendering him complicit in the British Empire’s exploitative racial past.

Unfortunately, most such interesting issues are addressed glancingly, if at all, as any argument advanced by Loza in these chapters gets lost under the crush of a broad and consistently over-cited array of secondary sources. To give a sense of the cacophony, I would note that of the 152 pages of the study (this excludes the 27 pages of bibliography, the 10 pages of index, and a few blank pages), almost one third are dedicated to the chapters’ endnotes. Put another way, in over 106 pages of main text there are 805 notes—an average of eight quotations or paraphrases per page. After many sections, I felt as if I had just read a very thorough literature review. While there is value in that, this value usually comes from the analysis that follows the review, the analysis for which the review provided context. This analysis was not forthcoming. In the discussion of Avatar near the end of the second chapter, for example, Loza introduces the curious phenomenon of Avatar Activism (Henry Jenkins’s term), whereby James Cameron’s problematically deracinated white-saviour film Avatar became a touchstone for “native peoples from Bolivia to China to Palestine” deployed in service of their respective resistance movements (36). This would seem directly to challenge the chapter’s insistent critique of the film as a straightforward reenactment of settler myths, but the contrast is not examined; it is simply noted and the chapter wraps up.

The central problem, I think, is that the monograph’s core argument—the central point it sets out to demonstrate—seems to be that “We have not transcended race. We are still trapped in the coils of colonial logic, still bound by its blindnesses and opacities” (36). Certainly, many people do in fact believe that we live in a postracial society (Loza quotes not a few in the second chapter alone). But as an academic argument, debunking this is hardly an original position, as the wealth of citations attests. The second chapter, “Colonial Cosplay,” will probably be the most valuable to scholars, as the material presented there is recent, relevant, and largely unstudied, and the depth of research in the presentation can generously seed many future projects. As for the rest, the remixed criticism on Avatar, District 9, Doctor Who,and Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesnot advance a new critique and tends to repeat what has already been said, without much difference.—Taylor Evans, University of California, Riverside

Finding a Middle Way in Science Fiction’s Literary History.

Roger Luckhurst, ed. Science Fiction: A Literary History. London: The British Library, 2017. 256 pp. $27.95 hc.

Adam Roberts opens Roger Luckhurst’s edited collection Science Fiction: A Literary History with a preface arguing in part that “To read these essays is to start to understand just how many branching paths ... add up to the composite way, the tao, of science fiction” (6). I believe that Roberts’s assessment is correct. This collection illustrates the tao of science fiction, and it also succeeds as a different kind of middle way between recently published histories of sf tending toward concision on the one hand and expansion on the other. Examples of the former category, at about 200 pages or less, include Adam Roberts’s Science Fiction (2nd ed. 2006), David Seed’s Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction (2011), and Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint’s The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction (2011). It also includes Brian Baker’s Science Fiction (2014) and Sherryl Vint’s Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed (2014), both of which take a critical theory approach to sf history. In general, these concise histories focus on sf across media, including television and film.

At the other end of the sf history spectrum are longer and more expansive works, most of which are 300 pages or more. Single-author monographs in this category include Roger Luckhurst’s Science Fiction (2005) and Adam Roberts’s The History of Science Fiction (2nd ed. 2016). Edited companions containing sf histories include Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn’s The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003), David Seed’s A Companion to Science Fiction (2008), and Mark Bould et al’s The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction (2009). Like their more concise counterparts, these longer histories and companions approach sf as a genre expressed in a variety of media.

Science Fiction: A Literary History stands out in this crowded field for its tight focus on the history of written sf as told by knowledgeable voices in the field (most of whom, it is worth noting, have published their own or contributed to other sf history projects). The collection divides sf history across eight chronologically overlapping and interconnected chapters: “The Beginnings: Early Forms of Science Fiction” (Arthur B. Evans), “From Scientific Romance to Science Fiction: 1870-1914” (Roger Luckhurst),  “Utopian Prospects, 1900-49” (Caroline Edwards), “Pulp SF and its Others, 1918-39” (Mark Bould), “After the War, 1945-65” (Malisa Kurtz), “The New Wave ‘Revolution,’ 1960-76” (Rob Latham), “From the New Wave into the Twenty-First Century” (Sherryl Vint), and “New Paradigms, After 2001” (Gerry Canavan). In general, the chapters follow a pattern of historical context for the given period, a number of sections discussing representative themes and subgenres (these are supported by descriptions, readings, and publishing history contexts), some explanation of literary sf beyond the Anglosphere (including France, Russia, Japan, China, and Iraq, among others), and finally, a transitional conclusion leading to the next chapter. Each chapter includes connections to others, and on occasion separate authors explore a given writer’s work within the specific contexts of their chapters, such as the analyses of George S. Schuyler’s works in Caroline Edwards’s “Utopian Prospects” (80-81) and in Mark Bould’s “Pulp SF and its Others” (109-10). Each chapter ends with a list of references and suggested readings.

Taking one chapter as an example, Sherryl Vint adroitly examines sf during the last phase of the twentieth century in “From the New Wave into the Twenty-First Century.” She begins with cultural and technological histories of the 1980s and 1990s, transitions to explorations of how the New Wave influenced the sf field (including environmental sf, ecofeminism, and themes of gender and sexuality), illustrates how sf responded to neoliberal capitalism and digital technology (focusing on cyberpunk, transhumanism, critical dystopias, and space opera and its subversion), and concludes with the period’s denouement (noting Mundane sf, the New Weird, nanotechnology, mainstream writers’ adoption of sf themes, and the rising visibility of writers of color). In addition to giving attention to established writers and contextualizing their works within a larger narrative of sf’s development during this era, Vint discusses neglected works, including Zoe Fairbairn’s Benefits (1979), reading it as a work dealing with issues found later in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). She also broadens the scope of her chapter by discussing how the New Wave influenced not only Anglophone writers but also writers in Russia, Japan, and France. (It is perhaps worth mentioning that two of the in-text publication dates in this chapter are incorrect: 1982 instead of the correct 1984 for William Gibson’s Neuromancer [193] and 1989 instead of the correct 1985 for Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale [190]).

I unequivocally enjoyed reading Science Fiction: A Literary History, because it provides a detailed account of science fiction’s complex history in a book that balances breadth and depth. I was impressed with how well it juggled the history of stories, movements, publishing, and fandom. I believe that this middle-way book punches way above its page count. As such, I can imagine a variety of pedagogical uses for it. While it might be potentially overwhelming in an introductory sf class, I would readily recommend it to students working on research papers, because it can provide deeper context and further examples to build on necessarily limited in-class discussion time. In addition, it might be a very good textbook for a higher-level undergraduate or graduate sf class, because it reveals in a very concise way how much more complicated and interesting the history of literary sf is than a simplified authorial, editorial, and thematic progression might suggest. Advanced students who already know a basic history of sf will find what this book offers enlightening while uninitiated students might find it staggering. In addition to these pedagogical uses, it should be carried in libraries as an illuminating history of literary sf and a potent research tool.—Jason W. Ellis, New York City College of Technology, CUNY

The Monster and the Maple Leaf.

Mark A. McCutcheon. The Medium Is the Monster: Canadian Adaptations of Frankenstein and the Discourse of Technology. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca UP, 2018. xi+234. CAD$29.99 pbk.

Canadian adaptations of Frankenstein? I confess that before beginning McCutcheon’s study, I could not think of a single example. Was this going to be an extremely parochial study of some obscure plays and films making much of polar landscapes? By the time I had finished the book, however, it was clear that the material covered is very much of general, international interest and particularly so to readers of science fiction. McCutcheon deals interestingly and intelligently with such Canadian (or adoptive or expatriate Canadian) figures as David Cronenberg, William Gibson, Margaret Atwood, Phyllis Gotlieb, James Cameron, and Peter Watts, as well as with the Canadian adaptation theorist Linda Hutcheon, the Canadian electronic music producer Joel Thomas Zimmerman (aka Deadmau5), and even with the Canadian oil extraction megaproject known as the Alberta Tar Sands. The media theories of the late Marshall McLuhan of the University of Toronto tie everything together.

McCutcheon’s thesis is not easy to summarize briefly, but it goes something like this. One of McLuhan’s achievements was to advance the understanding that media and technology were inseparable, even “synonymous” (91). In spite of his neutral stance in public, McLuhan was a technophobe who, as early as The Mechanical Bride (1951), associated the media/technology nexus with Frankenstein’s Monster as animated by Mary Shelley, namely, with a creature that would quickly escape the control of its creator and threaten to destroy him. So influential have been McLuhan’s ideas on Canadian popular culture that the theme of technology run amuck has become central. And contemporary Canadian popular culture, as represented in particular by the sf or sf-inflected works of the artists mentioned above, has helped spread this Frankensteinian association around the globe.

McCutcheon’s first chapter deals with definitions and theories of technology, noting the three main premises, often unspoken, associated with the term: instrumentalist (tech as a set of value-neutral tools), determinist (tech as a toolset operating according to its own logic), and substantivist (tech as anti-human monster). It then looks at the way that Canadian identity is a product of “technological nationalism,” namely, one rooted not in individual cultural practice but in technological/media resistance to dominant American “media imperialism” (24-25). His second chapter is an attempt to redefine “adaptations” by broadening the term and refocusing it. That is to say, for McCutcheon “adaptations” of Frankenstein embrace not only extensive works that frankly admit to being reformulations of previously existing ones (e.g., James Whale’s 1931 film of Mary Shelley’s novel), but also lesser, though often more intensive traces within works. It is exclusively these traces that he pursues in his study. In so doing he borrows the neologism “Frankenpheme” from Timothy Morton and uses it to identify “allusions, quotations, piecemeal or fragmentary adaptations, and other miscellaneous ephemera that abound in popular culture” (38-39).

Chapter 3 deals with Shelley’s novel, arguing that it reinvented technology in the modern sense of the word or, to put it more precisely, that it was “a textual battery that charged the epistème of Romantic science and culture to generate the modern discourse of technology” (59-60). Chapter 4 turns to Marshall McLuhan and argues that his writings, beginning with The Mechanical Bride and consistently if not always overtly thereafter, highlight the “Frankenpheme of Technology” (85). McCutcheon provides good evidence that though McLuhan sometimes came across as an “‘anti-book’ techno-fetishist” (92), he actually had a “deep but disavowed hostility to technological change,” seeing new technologies as generating “pain, confusion and despair ... to which individuals respond by going into a kind of shock or ‘auto-amputation’” (93).

The next two chapters will be of particular interest to SFS readers. Chapter 5 delineates the influence of McLuhan’s “Frankenpheme” on two particularly influential works of Canadian popular culture: Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Chapter 6 begins by dealing with the ways that other lesser-known works of Canadian science fiction propagate or dramatize the Frankenpheme: e.g., Phyllis Gotlieb’s poem “ms & mr frankenstein” (1975); Christopher Dewdney’s Last Flesh (1998); Nalo Hopkinson’s story “A Habit of Waste” (2007); and Larissa Lai’s novel Salt Fish Girl (2002). The chapter concludes with readings, first, of a variety of Frankenstein-influenced poems and dystopian fictions by Anglophone Canada’s leading woman of letters, Margaret Atwood; and second, of the hard sf of Peter Watts, the former marine biologist and Hugo-award-winning author of the Rifters trilogy (1999-2004) and the Firefall series (2006-2014). 

The next two chapters further broaden the scope of the study by dealing with aspects of popular culture often overlooked by academe. In chapter 7 the focus is on Canadian electronic dance music (EDM) as exemplified by the Paladin Project (an underground DJ act) and by Deadmau5. McCutcheon shows an impressive ability to read rave culture as contemporary dramatizations of McLuhan’s theories. The chapter concludes with a study of Matthew MacFadzean’s richardthesecond (2001), an avant-garde play that blends Shakespeare, Shelley, Videodrome, and the Toronto rave scene. The final chapter deals with cultural representations of the Alberta Tar Sands, which McCutcheon frankly calls “capital’s most hubristic gamble with climate change catastrophe” (176). He chides one critic for claiming that Big Oil is absent from literary fiction, noting that sf, a genre often overlooked by mainstream critics, has always been engaged in the cultural representation of out-of-control energy extraction. The chapter deals with works in various genres and media: a poem by Christopher Dewdney, an sf trilogy by Richard Rohmer, songs by Neil Young and Corb Lund, photographs by Edward Burtynsky, a play by Alberta’s Catalyst Theatre, and, finally, James Cameron’s blockbuster sf film Avatar (2009), which McCutcheon convincingly reads as a film of “Frankensteinian technological backfire” in its allusions to the Tar Sands (185). 

In his Conclusion, McCutcheon asks himself, “what precisely is Canadian about these adaptations?” (189) and gives the short answer: Marshall McLuhan. That is to say that the broad variety of works by Canadian-born or -based producers that he examines were all influenced, usually directly, by the Toronto media theorist. It seems to me that McCutcheon supports his argument well enough to have made a major contribution to the study of Anglo-Canadian popular culture and begun a major reassessment of a figure who is often remembered chiefly as a 1960s provocateur whose ideas seem dated in the digital age. There are, however, some issues with the way that McCutcheon conducts his argument that may lead some to dismiss his study too easily. His equation of Canadian with Anglophone cultural production will probably seem high-handed to the Francophone community. But I will focus on two problems that are evident right from the study’s subtitle: “Canadian Adaptations of Frankenstein and the Discourse of Technology.”

What interests McCutcheon and what he writes so interestingly about are not adaptations of Frankenstein in any meaningful sense. They are Canadian works deeply interested in one of the main themes of Mary Shelley’s novel (briefly, “technological backfire”), but very few take this thematic material directly from Shelley. (McCutcheon himself argues convincingly that they chiefly get it from McLuhan.) Adaptation studies are mainly interested in how works evidently related by descent differ as a result of their generic affiliation and, especially, of the medium by which they are disseminated: e.g., in the relation between a literary source text and its “remediation” in film. McCutcheon’s redefinition of adaptation is far too broad. He considers Star Wars (1977) a “‘primary’ Frankenstein adaptation” and a “dance record that samples Star Wars ... a ‘secondary’ adaptation.” (45). But merely because Star Wars contains “clones, cyborgs, and planet-destroying weapons” (45) does not make the film an adaptation of Frankenstein in any useful sense; it is simply that the theme of technology that rebounds on its creators is one that interests both George Lucas and Mary Shelley. McCutcheon would have done better to place McLuhan center stage in chapter 1, identifying the Frankensteinian elements that McLuhan transmitted to the makers of Canadian popular culture.

(An aside: McCutcheon’s preferred term for these elements— “Frankenphemes”—misleadingly suggests a focus on linguistic rather than thematic material. It alludes to morpheme, the smallest unit of linguistic meaning in any given language, a unit that may not necessarily be a standalone word. A good example is the prefix “Franken” in such existing formations as “Frankenfoods.” McCutcheon would have done better to take advantage of Richard Dawkins’s useful coinage, of which he is aware and mentions en passant, and used “Frankenmeme” to refer to a unit of cultural transmission deriving ultimately from Shelley’s novel.)

The second problem has also to do with the Shelleyan lineage. According to McCutcheon, technology is, or was, a potentially highly ambiguous term that Shelley’s novel redefined so that, for example, the phrase “technological backfire” (192) is now universally understood. But Shelley’s novel in neither its first edition of 1818 nor its revision in 1831 mentions the word technology—although if McCutcheon’s argument in chapter 3 holds true, it should have, as the word was starting to be used in its modern senses in the late Romantic era. In fact, this part of his argument is superfluous. He does not need Mary Shelley to prop up a study of “technological backfire” in Canadian popular culture. McLuhan, who probably had Shelley’s novel in mind, is

McCutcheon reverts to Mary Shelley at the end of his study: “technology ... has become widely understood as a gendered discourse, a domain of boys and their toys. How ironic then that the epistemic foundations of this discourse were set down ... by the prodigious and audacious imaginings of one well-read teenage girl” (204). But surely there is no irony here: central to Shelley’s concerns was not the danger of “technological backfire” alone, but also her sense as a childbearing woman that male savants were blinded by their gender to the likely disastrous consequences of making and raising artificial human beings. Her novel has gender anxiety at its heart, though this aspect is more often than not missing from the circulation of Frankenstein as potent modern myth.

McCutcheon exhibits commendable acuity as a close reader not only of literary texts but also of film, music, and related cultural products. But while he sees each tree with admirable clarity, the forest may come to seem a little blurry to his readers. Nevertheless, his ambitious and well-written study should be of great interest to Canadians, sf scholars, and everyone else interested in the relations among technology, media, and contemporary popular culture. —Nicholas Ruddick, University of Regina

An Ambiguous Utopia.

Andrew Pilsch. Transhumanism: Evolutionary Futurism and the Human Technologies of Utopia. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2017. 244 pp. $27 pbk.

With the gradual mainstreaming of transhumanist thought in recent decades, the popular meaning of “transhumanism” has narrowed. Under the influence of figures such as Raymond Kurzweil, the term now signifies a program of technological interventions into the embodied form of human beings, aimed at overcoming our biological limitations. Among other affinities, this program dovetails neatly with the neoliberal organization of society around technofetishistic consumption—of which Kurzweil’s side-hustle in the online market for purportedly life-extending nutritional supplements is just one, albeit a particularly gaudy, example. Transhumanism circa 2018 appears fully congruent with the Silicon Valley ideology that glibly assures us that for any conceivable problem or need … there’s an app for that.

Transhumanism: Evolutionary Futurism and the Human Technologies of Utopia acknowledges the familiar critiques of transhumanism as “postindustrial lifestyle brand” (22) but fails to reckon with the staggering philosophical and phenomenological implications of a shift to posthuman consciousness; this study rests on a quasi-religious certainty about the inevitability and desirability of technological progress. At the same time, Pilsch argues, such critiques are blind to powerful utopian rhetorics latent in transhumanist discourse, which academic theory regards as silly at best and at worst misguided or even dangerous. Uncontested, the prevailing neoliberal mode of transhumanism erases a broad and heterogeneous range of precursors, counter-tendencies, and alternative conceptions of the transhuman that have surfaced over its long history. In response, Pilsch sets out to complicate—and perhaps redeem—the transhumanist idea by unearthing and reframing some of its repressed variants. More precisely, he seeks to identify and foreground these “older, weirder aspects” (24) with respect to “evolutionary futurism,” a kind of utopian praxis that invites us to go beyond our human limitations by rethinking our fundamental relationship to technology. For Pilsch, this means recentering the body (over and against the state) as a site of utopian struggle, while also insisting on a rigorous practice of collective and individual introspection as to what it means to have a body and a mind.

Though this formulation reflects the influence of post- and alt-humanist thinkers such as Donna Haraway and N. Katherine Hayles, its true theoretical touchstone is the (capitalized) Utopia of Fredric Jameson (not to be confused with the vulgar utopianism of techno-solutionists, cyber-libertarians, and paleo-Marxists). Drawing upon Jameson’s conception of Utopia as methodology rather than telos, Pilsch positions transhumanism within a loosely defined Marxian framework, where it becomes a tool for radically expanding the field of conceivable futures, thereby suggesting strategies for contesting the deterministic and dehumanizing logic of capital. This project holds obvious appeal, made all the more compelling by present historical circumstances that suggest an almost inconceivably vast range of possibilities: in the context of American and European politics, for example, anything from a full flowering of post-scarcity democratic socialism to brutal ethnic cleansing and all-out fascism. The idea of transhuman conceptual engineering feels promising as a way to engage with this moment of radical potentiality—especially, as Pilsch observes, “in an age when paths not moving toward the cybernetic brutality of multinational capital appear to be exhausted” (18).

Pilsch’s theoretical agenda is ambitious, and to a large extent Transhumanism fulfills its aims. While its overarching apologia for transhumanist ideals and aspirations is less than convincing in certain respects—to which I will return below—the text itself is packed with razor-sharp insights and complex, subtle arguments, comprising a sophisticated and highly engaging intellectual history. This is due in no small part to the depth and richness of Pilsch’s archive, which runs the gamut from pulp sf to high modernism and from Jesuit mysticism to LOLcats, all eloquently explicated and interwoven. Organized into four chapters, the readings proceed in roughly chronological order from Nietzsche’s übermensch (a notoriously misunderstood figure that in various ways informs both evolutionary futurist rhetoric and its critique) to the proliferation of genetic and cybernetic “supermen” in sf’s Golden Age, similarly prefiguring the formation of fan identities and subcultures in the ensuing decades. From here, Pilsch leads us through a series of twentith-century debates about the nature of consciousness and the ethics of suffering, and finally into a wide-ranging discussion of much more recent technocultural phenomena (such as James Bridle’s “New Aesthetic”) and contemporary transhumanist political projects (accelerationism, xenofeminism, neo-Harawayan cyborgism).

Pilsch’s pathway through these territories is long and winding and if it occasionally wanders off into the weeds, they are for the most part very interesting weeds. The entire book deserves careful reading. I will pause here, however, to highlight one of the sections likely to be of most immediate interest to sf scholars. Transhumanism’s second chapter, a version of which appeared in SFS 41.3 (2014), tells the (astounding!) story of Slan Center, a would-be utopian community conceived for and by sf fans on the premise that “fans are slans!” The slogan refers to A.E. van Vogt’s serialized novel Slan (1939), a proto-transhumanist tale of genetically enhanced superhumans who band together in the face of persecution by their physical and intellectual inferiors. To proclaim that “fans are slans” is therefore to hail sf readers as the vanguard of a historic leap forward in human evolution. In Pilsch’s account of the World War II-era fan collectives that organized in self-conscious imitation of van Vogt’s narrative, a promising utopian experiment in the evolutionary-futurist mode is co-opted and eventually undone by crypto-fascist impulses rendered unacceptable in a postwar political climate. This failure, he argues, reflects not so much a battle for the soul of fandom vis-à-vis Nuremburg, but rather a fatal rhetorical ambiguity surrounding the mechanism whereby the science-fictional imagination is thought to exert influence on the world. Where some slans are engaged in a lofty project of transhumanist self-evolution along spiritual and aesthetic lines, others seem hung up on childish power fantasies and mere gadget-lust—the sort of literal-minded juvenilia that gives nerd culture a bad name. The slan movement fractures and collapses when it begins to admit arguments for eugenics as an avenue to self-evolution: “the active production of genetically superior beings in the real world” (92) that “violates some unspoken rhetorical decorum, an unspoken injunction against a specific kind of seriousness” (96).

As the quotation suggests, Pilsch’s purpose in this chapter is to illuminate a long-running debate within and around technoculture as to how “seriously” science fiction (and, by extension, transhumanism) should be taken. This emphasis on the rhetoric of seriousness runs throughout the book and holds particular interest for the study of sf and its reception, which have always been overdetermined by anxieties about legitimacy and literary merit. Yet the attribution of Slan Center’s failure to largely external forces, rather than to anything intrinsically problematic in the premises of human-directed evolution or organized fandom as social model, also presupposes that the tendency toward reactionary modes of utopian desire within certain fan cultures is merely incidental—a bug, not a feature. Recent evidence—such as the “Sad Puppies” campaign to elevate white supremacist sf in Hugo balloting, the weaponized misogyny of Gamergate, and the fanboy hysterics that invariably accompany any perceived erasure of white men from popular franchises such as Star Wars and Ghostbusters—suggests otherwise.

When Pilsch quotes slan organizers Al and Abby Lu Ashley speculating that “the day may come when fans are a group to be reckoned with” (90), he means ironically to foreshadow the imminent frustration of their utopian dreams and the premature closing-off of one more possible avenue to a better future. But the Ashleys’ statement accurately (if also ironically) predicts the rise of toxic fan culture, an important locus of reactionary energies currently thriving in the transhumanistic hothouse of online politics. In a similar vein, Pilsch offers a largely persuasive reading of LOLcats image macros as an emergent utopian vocabulary that permits humans to “think beyond our understanding of ourselves as national citizens and linguistic subjects” (171), empowering us to safely navigate “the strange, contemporary contexts of a global information network” (172), and ultimately signaling the arrival of “an emerging global intelligence” (173). Yet, as Angela Nagle asserts in Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right (2017), the infinitely recursive decontextualization and recontextual-ization of signifiers through viral memes has proven more potent as a weapon in the hands of alt-right trolls than as a revolutionary language of the countercultural left. In the goofy playfulness of mid-oughts cat memes, Pilsch sees the halting first steps of a global hive mind in its infancy; in hindsight, however, it seems that precocious child has grown into a sullen and disturbed adolescent.

It would be unfair to fault Pilsch for failing to anticipate and account for these very recent developments. Certainly, anyone who ever harbored hopes that massive interconnectivity and untrammeled access to information might, in the end, elevate democracy and liberate humanity—myself included—is subject to the same criticism. Still, these examples illustrate the slipperiness of utopia, not only as an organizing principle but also as a teleological endpoint for transhuman becoming. Pilsch’s careful terminological distinction between utopia and “Utopia” risks eliding a real and problematic historical linkage between transhumanism’s stated desire to transcend mere humanity on the one hand and fascist movements on the other—a correlation which, for Pilsch, amounts to little more than a misreading of Nietzsche. But this linkage also points to a larger problem with the way evolutionary futurism privileges human agency over and against nature, not just permitting but obliging us to take the wheel of “our species’ evolutionary bus” (9) in an attempt to escape the consequences of our own technological excesses. In one particularly striking instance, Pilsch quotes from Max More’s “Letter to Mother Nature” (1999), in which the extropian ur-thinker scornfully addresses a personified Nature who More says “has ‘lost interest’ in her children” (10) and has therefore outlived her evolutionary usefulness. More presents this Oedipal tirade as a declaration of independence not just from natural selection as a determinant factor in human history but also from any sense of connection to or responsibility for the non-human. Here and elsewhere, the utopia to which More aspires is conceivable only within a post-biological, post-ecological order indifferent or even hostile to the survival of the larger biosphere.

More’s anthropochauvinism is the product of an inward turn that Pilsch figures, provocatively, as the basis for transhumanism’s revolutionary potential: “an internalization of technology” (7) that marks it as something more than a naïve “religion of technology.” Where religion entails belief in something external (the hope of technological transcendence, in this case), here the divine object is fully absorbed into the transhuman subject; the self is everything, there is no outside. Pilsch proposes that by reframing utopia in such individualistic terms, transhumanism makes possible the conception of “spaces beyond the current configuration of power” (13). But this call to “[shift] our attention from the state to the body as the needed site of utopian investment” (13) never really makes clear whose body is to be thus invested. The transhumanist project of indefinite life-extension, for example, supposes that aging and death are evolutionary errors that advanced biotechnology can correct, yet it takes little interest in the larger economic, infrastructural, and otherwise resource-dependent systems that make the technology possible in the first place. Even presuming that such a precarious arrangement could remain more or less viable in the face of civilizational collapse, the back-of-envelope math makes clear that it would benefit at best only a handful of extremely wealthy individuals. This outcome hardly seems compatible with a utopian vision, though it does recall the class-defined transhumanity of William Gibson’s Count Zero (1986), in which “the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human” (New York: Arbor House, 1986 [18]).

The absence of satisfying answers to these questions involving class and the unfolding planetary crisis—and related ones concerning race and gender that take on added urgency in a time of resurgent fascism—prevents Transhumanism from realizing the full potential of what is otherwise a deeply informed and elegantly expounded work of scholarship. Despite these quibbles, I enthusiastically recommend Pilsch’s book and look forward to his further development of the ideas it introduces.—Joshua Raulerson, Pittsburgh, PA

Light Industry.

Bradley Schauer. Escape Velocity: American Science Fiction Film, 1950-1982. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2017. x+269pp. $26.95 pbk, $17 ebk.

In May 1977, everyone figured George Lucas’s space-opera folly, Star Wars, would be a massive flop; just weeks before its release Twentieth-Century Fox even tried to offload it onto a tax-shelter group. Within days of its limited opening in just thirty-two theaters, however, it was clear that it would be a hit, though no one could anticipate quite how massive—thirty-five years later, Disney would buy Lucasfilm for four billion dollars.

Schauer’s fascinating critical history of American sf film begins with this strange conjuncture. Until that summer, pulp elements were box-office poison for big budget sf. Since then, costly spectacles that draw on the pulpiest, most juvenile elements of the genre (not a priori a bad thing) have increasingly dominated our screens. To explore this transition, Schauer eschews the more familiar textual, contextual, and/or theoretical approaches to sf film that analyze how a film creates meaning, relates to and illustrates cultural trends, or exemplifies or falls short of certain critical-theoretical expectations. Escape Velocity instead pursues an industry analysis; that is, it works from the “impact” of industrial “determinants ... on the production strategies of filmmakers and studios” (3) to understand how and why particular films and cycles of films were made. (Other such analyses of potential interest to SFS readers are Nick Heffernan’s Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold: Horror Films and the American Movie Business, 1953–1968 [2004], Richard Nowell’s Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle [2011], Blair Davis’s The Battle for the Bs: 1950s Hollywood and the Rebirth of Low-Budget Cinema [2012], and James Chapman and Nicholas J. Cull’s Projecting Tomorrow: Science Fiction and Popular Cinema [2013].) In addition to exploring the relationships among broader economic trends, industry strategies, and production histories, Schauer combs through reviews in industry presses and fanzines, as well as more conventional middlebrow and mainstream publications, for insights into the reception of particular films and changing cultural attitudes towards the genre.

In the 1950s, the dilemma facing filmmakers attracted to sf’s potential for “topical exploitation” was the perception of the genre as juvenile. Destination Moon (1950) countered this through appeals to scientific accuracy and sober realism. With a budget of $587,000, it was too cheap for an A-movie, but too expensive for a B-movie (at the low flat-rate that theaters paid for the latter, even if it were a hit it would never recoup its costs). This liminal position, Schauer argues in Chapter One, led to the film’s cast of unknowns clomping around amidst Technicolor spectacle. Free from potentially distracting movie stars, Eagle-Lion’s saturation promotion strategy—believed to have cost as much as the film itself—centered on the scale and scientific plausibility of the production. As an independent producer, however, Eagle-Lion could not access major first-run theaters in New York and other cities since these were still controlled by the “big five” Hollywood majors. So even though the film made a profit, it was not substantial enough for its producers to do more than break even. Throughout the decade, though, Destination Moon’s realist drive— conducive to grounding the fantastic—would become an important key to sf aesthetics, albeit articulated in a variety of ways.

Chapter Two considers the ways in which the handful of 1950s sf movies attempted to distinguish and differentiate themselves in pursuit of audiences. The handful of A budget films turned to stories with a global scale and higher-brow sources (such as H.G. Wells and The Tempest); utilized Technicolor cinematography, elaborate production design, and special effects; engaged more directly with socio-political issues; and incorporated narrative elements intended to appeal to non-sf fans. The vast bulk of B budget movies, in contrast, relied on the “realism” of flat black-and-white cinematography, location shooting and stock footage, or the spectacular appeals of cheap two-strip Cinecolor, and unpedigreed but outlandish stories, the mulch of genre. Before the flourishing of ultra-low budget movies by AIP and its ilk later in the decade, Universal-International’s sf programmers thrived in the space between A and B categories. A “little three” studio, Universal-International, budgeted such films as It Came From Outer Space (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) so that they did not have to appeal to such wide audiences as, say, MGM’s Forbidden Planet (1956) in order to be profitable. This also enabled them to be less wary of genre material and thus not alienate sf’s devoted audience. At the same time, they worked to appear more technologically innovative, releasing a number of films in 3D, and more prestigious (It Came From Outer Space is in a widescreen format, albeit achieved cheaply by matting a standard frame).

As Chapter Three explains, however, overproduction, especially at the lowest budget levels, led to generic exhaustion, particularly when competing with the color cinematography and scale of sf cheaply imported from Japan and Italy and with the new cycle of horror movies prompted by lurid British imports. The family-friendly historical sf adventure, based on Verne, Wells, or Conan Doyle, combining broad appeal with spectacle and prestige, was the only big-budget variety of sf to thrive into the following decade. It was joined in the 1960s by the secret agent movie featuring covert gadgetry and superscience WMDs, beginning with Dr No (1962), and by such sf comedies as The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). These films spoofed and mocked pulp material, holding sf at a distance so it did not have to be taken seriously. Schauer treats this messy decade as a series of interrelated and overlapping production cycles—not so much a genre taking different forms as different forms relating in various ways to the genre—that somehow culminated in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), an epic road-show spectacle in the mode of How the West Was Won (1962) that also happened to be an sf movie. Schauer traces the way in which this road-show release strategy prompted early reviewers, expecting a Doctor Zhivago (1965) but getting something more like L’avventura (1960), to perceive the film negatively. A few key interviews and sympathetic reviews, however—picked up on in later advertising—provided audiences with alternative frameworks for responding to the film. (This chapter also discusses the birth of sf film studies around this time, including the significance of such fanzines as Photon and Cinefantastique in developing critical voices outside of academia.)

The road-show market collapsed not long after 2001, and the turn of the decade saw a spate of blockbuster flops, thus ensuring that any inclination to replicate Kubrick’s variety of sf was stillborn. Studios again turned to programmers in between A and B budgets, and these films took two main forms: the less successful sf art film such as THX 1138 (1971) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), inspired by 2001 but better disciplined by classical narrative, and the more successful “socially relevant” sf action movie, inspired by the other 1968 sf hit, Planet of the Apes, which also provided a model for AIP’s lower budget and more overtly countercultural productions, such as Wild in the Streets (1968). Schauer explores these two tendencies as they interact in Rollerball (1975), which struggled against a twice-appealed R-rating to make back costs. Jaws (1975) was released in the same week, and became—for a while—the highest-grossing movie of all time. Social critique and art cinema aesthetics were as dead in the water as the road-show; Star Wars was coming, and saturation openings à la Jaws were the new thing.

Fox’s initial interest in Lucas’s film was prompted by the success of the Planet of the Apes franchise; they hoped to start another series of programmers, budgeted at around three million dollars. Lucas’s budget eventually quadrupled, and after the rather limited profitability of Logan’s Run (1976) and King Kong (1976), Fox’s skepticism about Star Wars being able to reach the $32 million needed to become profitable was entirely reasonable. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), released just seven months later, was also initially intended as a moderately priced A movie, but the $4.1 million budget could not even cover the special effects. Costs rose to almost twenty million dollars, with another five million for marketing, but this total was more or less covered by advance bookings by theaters eager to screen Spielberg’s follow-up to Jaws.

The key to the success of these films and their many imitators, Chapter Five argues, was avoiding any trace of camp in their deployment of pulp sf. Lucas and Spielberg carefully manufactured a straight-faced naïveté. Aided by persuasive special effects and overwhelming spectacle, they were earnest in their world-building, no matter how hoary or rickety it was. Later films developed other strategies of earnestness, including graphic violence and lived-in rather than pristine production design, as in Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), both of which also hark back to the trends Rollerball attempted to marry together. Lucas’s and Spielberg’s return to family-friendly appeals, however, proved more influential in the 1980s, not least because of the success of E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982).

Schauer’s conclusion swiftly maps the subsequent unfolding of American sf cinema, demonstrating the various ways in which it is indebted to and further develops earlier tendencies across budgetary categories (more of an outline than a comprehensive overview, it cries out for a sequel). Escape Velocity is an essential addition to the study of US sf films, adding a dimension to our understanding that more overtly critical-theoretical approaches generally overlook. Its major flaw is that it is just so damn readable—I was very conscious of repeatedly getting too caught up in the story it tells to take in aspects of its (vital) argument.—Mark Bould, University of the West of England

A Monolithic Arthur C. Clarke.

Gary Westfahl. Arthur C. Clarke. Chicago: U of Illinois P, Modern Masters of Science Fiction, 2018. 240 pp. $25 pbk.

Although Arthur C. Clarke is frequently named alongside Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein as one of the three major authors of mid-century science fiction, his work seems to have fallen into scholarly neglect. Even when they do discuss Clarke, critics tend to focus on a handful of his major novels and his film collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Gary Westfahl’s Arthur C. Clarke (2018) fills the gap by offering a much-needed survey of Clarke’s entire oeuvre, from his juvenilia to his many collaborations. This book will provide a useful starting place for future conversations about Clarke.

Westfahl contends that other critics have shown a superficial understanding of Clarke, one based on cherry-picking texts that happen to fit their agenda while ignoring the details of Clarke’s writing life that contradict their claims. Westfahl pursues this line by showing that Clarke’s approaches to his main topics of concern such as technology and religion are many and varied. In the process, Westfahl demonstrates that Clarke frequently called into question the stereotyped assumptions of pulp science fiction. We learn, for example, that unlike many of his peers, Clarke presented neither an optimistic nor a pessimistic view of technology. Clarke’s machines might malfunction or produce perverse results, but the scientists and inventors in his stories are  typically flawed human beings rather than monstrous mad scientists. Westfahl succeeds in showing us a more nuanced Clarke, proving that the author was far more complex than some have realized.

At times, however, Westfahl’s text gets bogged down in lengthy runs of story summaries. This tendency seems less a stylistic quirk and more a central feature of Westfahl’s methodology, which resists moving beyond the plot level. We see this, for example, when Westfahl dismisses Tom Moylan’s ideological critique of The City and the Stars (1956) and, similarly, when he deflects critics who find literary allusions or archetypal patterns in Clarke’s work by pointing out that Clarke probably had not read the classics. Even if we take these points at face value—and it is difficult to imagine that the man behind 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) did not possess at least secondhand knowledge of Odysseus’s exploits—the study presents a version of Clarke that is strangely remote from his own history and culture, one whose works have no allegorical or unconscious dimensions. Clarke turns out to be an impenetrable surface, like one of his monoliths.

Westfahl’s literalism becomes more troublesome when he turns to Clarke’s sexuality. Clarke was closeted for most of his life and, when he did come out, he evaded questions about his personal affairs. Nevertheless, his relationships with other men were well-known to his friends and his diaries will undoubtedly reveal more about his private life when they are released in 2038. While one should be careful not to reduce an author’s texts to facets of his or her identity, it is quite evident that the censorship of homosexuality structured the way that Clarke talked about intimacy even after he felt free to discuss bisexuality and homosexuality in the years following the Stonewall uprising. Even as Westfahl often notes Clarke’s personal history, however, he seems reluctant to provide it with greater significance or explanatory power. As Westfahl argues, Clarke showed a career-long tendency to focus on male protagonists seemingly uninterested in hetero-familial life—confirmed bachelors or absent husbands too engrossed in their important work to invest their time or emotions in heterosexual romance or domesticity. (Gender is more or less passed over in these discussions.) Even when Clarke felt able to represent more flexible erotic arrangements in his later fiction, he writes more convincingly of the perils of space than the problems of sexuality, leaving his characters to seem flat or distant. Correctly pointing out that this is more than a failure of Clarke’s characterization, Westfahl argues that this is a science-fictional anticipation of an untheorized shift in a larger structure of feeling that we are beginning to see now. Increasingly, Westfahl suggests, citizens of the twenty-first century have become socially withdrawn and emotionally reserved, more willing to watch others through digital media than to engage with them. Just as he scooped scientists on the satellite, Clarke predicted later social theorists’ work on the weakening of social ties, incorporating these prophecies into his narratives.

In many ways, this is a fascinating argument. One wishes that Westfahl had gone a little further, exploring the social fact that science fiction and related fan cultures have long attracted alienated or recessive individuals, including the hikikomori of Japan and the involuntary celibates or incels of the Anglophone Internet. Westfahl might have incorporated a growing body of work on asexuality and aromanticism, as well. Perhaps even more apropos to Westfahl’s study, the Kubrickian coldness of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) also helped inspire the willful opacity and icy remoteness of queer icons such as David Bowie. Astronauts, aliens, and androids obviously appeal to isolates of both circumstance and choice.

And yet, there is more to Clarke’s reticence than, say, the widespread waning of affect. Clarke’s restraint was obviously not entirely self-imposed. Even in his Golden and Silver Age works, we can see that desire hides beneath the male homosociality of his futures and, as for his later, more liberated fictions, Clarke undoubtedly knew how the sf market treated authors who wrote too explicitly and feelingly about queer eroticism. Westfahl’s method, however, refuses to travel beyond the overt meaning of Clarke’s texts, tacitly foreclosing the possibility that Clarke’s same-sex colleagues might mean something more while also rejecting the notion that Clarke’s late-career narratives might bear the imprint of more subtle repressions. As a result, the book proves sympathetic to Clarke’s sexuality but unwilling to draw on queer theory to interrogate it.

In this regard, Westfahl’s work is indicative of a larger debate in both academic and vernacular sf criticism about what counts as knowledge, one that we often see staged in conference question-and-answer sessions. A certain version of sf criticism treats each author’s body of work as a closed, self-referential system that holds all of the resources available to understand the texts contained therein. To properly read Clarke using this method means figuring out what Clarke thinks about a topic by moving from one text to another based on shared themes. What falls outside of the author’s oeuvre is passed over in silence. Although these contributions can be incredibly useful to other scholars—we often depend on these thorough overviews—I think we should follow the example of Clarke’s lunar surveyors and dig a little deeper.—Jordan S. Carroll, University of Tampa

Ambiguity All the Way Down.

Brian Willems. Speculative Realism and Science Fiction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2017. x+223 pp. £85 hc, £19.99 pbk, £85 ebk (PDF), £19.99 ebk (ePub).

There are very many things I admire about this first full-length study of the unexpected ways in which speculative realism and science fiction can work in tandem. Speculative Realism and Science Fiction is a well-organized, wide-ranging, and very well-researched study, and Willems articulates his often dense and thorny material clearly and straightforwardly. He also maintains a good balance between attention to theory and attention to fiction, teasing out the work of foundational speculative-realist theorists such as Graham Harman and Quentin Meillassoux through well-chosen stories, and building convincingly original readings of these stories through framing them within the specifics of speculative-realist theory.

Willems’s study is part of Edinburgh University Press’s “Speculative Realism” series edited by Graham Harman. In his editor’s preface, he identifies the deceptively simple principle of Willems’s “object-oriented strand of Speculative Realism” that more or less guides the development of this present study: “the object lies somewhere beyond all of our attempts to interact with or speak about it” (viii). As Willems himself convincingly argues, this “beyond” flies in the face of most conventional descriptions of science fiction based on the Suvinian idea of the “novum,” the new thing that, while it may initially be unfamiliar, nevertheless remains accessible to logic and knowledge. In contrast, Willems calls attention to the very many objects and events in sf narratives that resist human understanding, that remain ambiguous and “withdrawn,” and that exceed every effort to represent them. In effect, such objects and events pose insurmountable challenges to sf’s conventional cognitive promises; examining how they function in sf stories is what makes Speculative Realism and Science Fiction so original and interesting. In a formulation that appears in one of Willems’s later chapters, these stories demonstrate how “Objects exist independently from thought” (100).

Willems opens his introduction by asking: “Are there other organisations of knowledge, time and space which could lead to a better future than the one now being created?” and he proposes that “The philosophical field of speculative realism takes this issue to heart by questioning the anthropocentrism of the present” (1). His project is closely aligned to the many other currents in philosophy and narrative that seek to overcome the human/world binary that has precipitated “the current state of ecological collapse called the Anthropocene, ... offering a possible way to think outside its constraints” (2). Among other theoretical tools, Willems draws on Harman’s concept of “dark objects,” objects whose qualities remain withdrawn from human knowledge, and on Meillassoux’s concept of “Type-2 worlds,” fictional worlds that contain elements not susceptible of scientific explanation. Willems argues for the importance of sf as “a playground of Type-2 worlds in which multiple strategies for representing the unrepresentable are developed.” Key to his project is the counterintuitive conviction that “The unrepresentable is not ... foreign to science fiction, but rather at the heart of it” (5).

Willems first chapter introduces what he calls “the Zug effect,” a rather clunky phrase based on a reading of Damon Knight’s Beyond the Barrier (1964). Willems uses it to signify those elements of inexplicability in sf narratives that address the inherent darkness of objects; these are reminders of the ultimate “withdrawness” of the world. In other words, to recall a phrase used by speculative realists such as Timothy Morton, the world in such narratives is not the world-for-us that western technoscientific culture acts as if it were; rather, it is the world-for-itself that will always resist human understanding. For Willems, “the crux of speculative realism and sf is the representation of unknowable events within the knowable that indicates ‘alien’ organisations of knowledge when compared with our own” (20). He is interested in identifying some of the narrative strategies through which a range of sf stories approach what falls outside of representation.

This first chapter provides a useful introduction to the ideas of theorists such as Harman, Meillassoux, and Levi Bryant for readers such as myself who are still only scratching the surface of a broad theoretical territory that, as Willems demonstrates, also touches on the work of scholars such as Morton, Karen Barad, Bruno Latour, Steven Shaviro, Jane Bennett, Donna Haraway, and Manuel DeLanda, among others. There is an awful lot going on in Speculative Realism and Science Fiction and it is to Willems’s credit that he manages to keep it under quite firm control. Nor does he ignore theoretical perspectives from the sf field, although they are not emphasized to the same extent: sf genre theorists such as Samuel R. Delany, Darko Suvin, Fredric Jameson, and John Rieder all figure influentially here. Willems concludes his introductory chapter with a closer look at the concept of the Anthropocene and an informative reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic 2312 (2012), specifically its treatment of dark objects and alien relations, that neatly sets up the chapters that follow.

Each of the following six chapters focuses on the work of an individual writer in order to tease out the strands outlined in Willems’s introduction, and occasional references to other authors and other stories do a good job of providing narrative examples of the theoretical concepts on which these chapters depend. In chapter 2, “Divine Paraphrase,” Willems undertakes a detailed reading of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road (2006), looking particularly at the figure of the Boy as “a figure of language lost”: “the boy is not part of the world because the world has ended” (41). The post-apocalyptic world exceeds/escapes/withdraws from humanity’s efforts to speak of it; it has become the world-without-us. During the course of this chapter Willems includes a brief but useful discussion of Liu Cixin’s best-selling Three-Body Trilogy (English trans. 2014-2016) to explain Meillassoux’s concept of “Type-3 worlds,” which, in contrast to the more-or-less logical nature of Type-2 worlds (with which Willems identifies sf), are worlds in which the laws of physics cannot be relied upon.

Chapter 3 focuses on Neil Gaiman’s fiction, including American Gods (2001) and Anansi Boys (2005), to tease out the ways in which strategies such as double vision and indirectness point to the inherent ambiguity of the real, posing “a challenge to the hegemonic sense of vision in forming a world around subjects and objects” (84). This is followed in the next chapter, “Subtraction and Contradiction,” by a substantial discussion of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000). I particularly enjoyed Willems’s readings of Mr. Motley—whose “body parts are not just various, but are also constantly changing”—and of the dream-like Weavers as “relatively dark objects” (87). Here again the interest is in exploring the strategies of indirection through which the novel suggests the “weirdness” (97) of objects and events. Chapter 5, “Tension and Phase,” focuses on Doris Lessing’s late novel, The Cleft (2007), and its allegorical treatment of “the battle of the sexes,” turning to feminist theorists such as Judith Butler in considering how the body exceeds language. Chapter 6, “Animal Death,” is the longest in Willems’s study and is devoted, for the most part, to Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009). Rather unexpectedly, Willems turns to the work of Theodor Adorno on aesthetics to develop a complex discussion of how, in the Anthropocene, “art and nature are inseparable” (137). This chapter also contains Willems’s most sustained theoretical outline of the tensions between the concept of the Suvinian novum and the speculative-realist commitment to the inherent opacity of the real. Willems offers a fine reading of Emiko, the genetically engineered windup girl, who “does not transcend her programming by somehow avoiding it, but rather by fulfilling it in the sense of experiencing its withdrawn nature” (171). The next rather brief chapter examines Robinson’s alternate-history novel, The Years of Rice and Salt (2003), focusing in particular on the “Bardo” sections between chapters during which characters await their reincarnations into new lives. It also returns to Robinson’s 2312, arguing that the idea of “transformation by design, which is also open to expected outcomes,” can be traced throughout Robinson’s work. Willems sums up his study by noting how “Speculative realism and sf have one main feature in common. Both challenge an anthropocentric view of the world by considering non-human objects worthy of serious thought” (197). The Anthropocene forces us to pay attention to the dark objects of the world that surround us, and both speculative realism and sf provide strategies for helping to maintain their (relative) visibility.

Speculative Realism and Science Fiction is a very good book and I recommend it wholeheartedly to interested readers. I do have one real reservation, however. I disagree with the loose way in which Willems uses the term “science fiction”—thus raising the thorny issue of genre. Willems approvingly quotes John Rieder’s view of sf, that it “is historical and mutable” and that it “has no essence, no single unifying characteristic” (qtd. 8), and I certainly agree with this. But I find it difficult to read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, populated as it is by real Norse gods, or his Anansi Boys, about real voodoo gods, as science fiction, nor do I see how Doris Lessing’s mythical allegory The Cleft or the “Bardo” sections of The Years of Rice and Salt can usefully be read as sf. Willems’s arguments against conventional Suvinian approaches to sf are being supported, in instances such as these, by texts that fall far outside of Suvin’s own paradigm; in fact, they invite the reading protocols of fantasy, which seems rather to undercut these arguments. I find myself wondering whether Willems has to some extent stacked the narrative deck to support his proposal (quoted above) that “the unrepresentable ... is at the heart of” science fiction. Also, given the diversity of the stories included here, “science fiction” becomes a kind of generic melting pot, and one result is that it becomes impossible to bring fantasy into the discussion as a separate narrative field that may or may not respond differently than sf to a speculative-realist reading.

Perhaps it is worth noting that Willems himself remains a relatively “dark” presence in this study. I do not recall a single instance in the text in which “I” appears; the passive voice (“it has been argued”) is prevalent and the author has disappeared. This tempts me to a discussion about the possible connections between the “dark author” and the “dark objects” of his analysis, but I lack space and so will simply note this as something intriguing to think about—among all the other intriguing ideas raised in Willems’s monograph. —Veronica Hollinger, SFS

Imperial Fantasies and Biblical Literalism in Technocratic Exploration Fiction.

Nathaniel Williams. Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2018. xii+206 pp. $44.95 hc.

Although it is widely acknowledged that the dime novel played an important part in nineteenth-century American popular culture and in establishing the antecedents of American sf, Nathaniel Williams’s carefully researched and lucidly presented study, Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America, adds considerable, surprising detail to that claim.

Williams’s subject matter is not the dime novel per se, but rather the subgenre of technocratic exploration fiction that flourished largely within that milieu from the 1860s to World War I. The type of story Williams calls technocratic exploration fiction will be immediately recognizable to any reader of early sf. It begins with the invention of a means of transportation and proceeds with the adventures of the inventor and crew in the territory to which the invention gives them access, usually one or another type of frontier. Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863) is a familiar, influential early example; E.E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space (1928) establishes its importance in pulp sf. What is no surprise at all in Williams’s examination of the subgenre is that it often played out imperialist fantasies based on racist assumptions about the non-Western world and its peoples. Williams does add considerable detail and nuance to this aspect of the subgenre’s history. What is more surprising and original in his study, however, is the connection he establishes between these technocratic fantasies and the beginnings of modern American Christian fundamentalism. Where the scientific and technocratic subject matter of the subgenre would lead one to expect secularist views on religion, Williams shows there was instead an abiding concern with supporting literalist readings of the Biblical creation myth and other episodes in the Old Testament.

One of the virtues of Williams’s study is his refusal ever to give in to easy generalizations, so this quick summary of the gist of his argument should be understood to give a quite incomplete sense of the fine detail and valuable specificity of his account. He begins with a reading of Edward E. Ellis’s The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868), which “established the narrative template for the hundreds of dime novels that followed” (28). Williams’s reading of this novel focuses on the prosthetic character of the eponymous steam man in relation to the inventor-genius protagonist, a physically challenged dwarf named Johnny Brainerd. Williams puts the tale in the context of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man Who Was Used Up” (1839) and looks at both Poe and Ellis using Donna Haraway’s well-known “Cyborg Manifesto” as his point of departure. He argues that, while Poe’s satirical short story uses the figure of the cyborg to mock the American reader’s matter-of-fact acceptance of horrific violence and Ellis instead deploys the cyborg largely as an Indian-killing machine on the Western frontier, “the American culture presented by both authors embraces prosthetic technology, at least in part, because it enhances expansionist warfare and material gain” (43).

A major turning point in the history of the technocratic exploration subgenre comes with the Frank Reade Jr. novels, beginning in 1876 and ultimately comprising close to two hundred volumes. These are the novels that “make up the Edisonade subgenre’s backbone” (45). The first innovation here is that Reade is able-bodied, thus appealing more directly and straightforwardly to the fantasy appetites of “a predominantly young, white, male, working-class readership” (45). Reade’s early adventures are set mostly in the American West, but they take on global proportions in the years leading up to America’s decisive venture into imperialist expansion via the Spanish-American war. As Williams shows, however, these novels are not simply jingoistic expressions of colonial fantasies of appropriation by slaughter, even though Williams amply recognizes the way they play into the American master trope of “regeneration through violence,” formulated in the work of Richard Slotkin. Williams argues persuasively that “the Reade novels deal with empire in complex, often contradictory ways” (46). He demonstrates, for instance, that Luis Senarens, the author of most of the Frank Reade Jr. novels, sympathized with the Cuban campaign for independence from both Spain and the US, and he details how this sympathy shows up in Reade novels of the mid-1890s. Williams likewise shows that “the portrayal of race in the Frank Reade Jr. tales is anything but stable,” detailing its “strange, pendulum-like swings between sadism and sympathy” (71-73).

The second half of Williams’s study turns to the shift in technocratic exploration narratives “from overt imperialist concerns into religious matters” (87). He notes that imperialism and Christianity never seemed to be at odds with one another in the dominant views of nineteenth-century America. What is surprising is not an alliance between missionary impulses and colonial aggression, but the fiction’s concern with Biblical literalism in the face of nineteenth-century science’s challenges to it. Williams shows that the Frank Reade novels are remarkably consistent in treating the discoveries that their fictional travelers make as ways of vindicating literal readings of the Bible. They “construct historical narratives that meld biblical history with scientific adventure” but “bear little resemblance to other contemporary literature’s wrestling with evolution’s implications,” instead anticipating the strategies of twenty-first century creationism (88). Williams concludes that “it is not a stretch to suspect that audiences saw Reade’s blend of technocrat, philanthropist, and well-informed Christian as an ideal, specific American ‘type’ to be achieved” (96).

The following chapter turns from the dime novel to Mark Twain’s forays into technocratic exploration fiction in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894). Williams argues that, as one would expect, Twain “digs deeper” than the dime novels and his work offers “a sustained contemplation of the contradictions of Christian faith and religious belief in general” (103). Williams’s research in this chapter shows the same care and attention to detail as the rest of the study, as he works his way through Samuel Clemens’s correspondence concerning the anti-religious content of his brother Orion’s never published adventure novel The Kingdom of John Franklin, Clemens’s own incomplete manuscript Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians, and his two subsequent complete technocratic exploration pieces. Williams argues for an ironic reading of the Connecticut Yankee, Hank Morgan, rather than a straightforward identification of Clemens’s views with Morgan’s Yankee confidence in the glories of modernity, showing finally that Morgan’s benevolent reformist intentions fail because he is “more interested in enforcing his own view of history than on genuinely assisting” the inhabitants of Arthurian England (121). Tom Sawyer Abroad uses the naïve, thoroughly conventional views of Tom Sawyer about the right of Christians to invade the “Holy Land” to burlesque the alliance of religious dogmatism and military aggression in imperialist ideology. Nonetheless the Mark Twain who emerges from Williams’s treatment is a conflicted writer engaged in a prolonged struggle between his religious skepticism and his discomfort with making these doubts public.

The final chapter of Gears and God examines four turn-of-the-century technocratic exploration narratives that incorporate religious material into their plots. The first two are polar exploration pieces with utopian destinations: Anna Adolph’s Arqtiq (1899) and Albert Bigelow Paine’s The Great White Way (1901). Both of these novels satirize the explorers’ short-sightedness and moral myopia in the face of isolated civilizations that turn out to be, in the case of Arqtiq, more Christian in their behavior than the Christian protagonist with all of her missionary ambitions, and in the case of The Great White Way, quite unwilling to be colonized by the crass capitalist financier backing the exploratory voyage. These somewhat atypically critical depictions of the imperialist missionary impulse are balanced by two adventure fictions that take a more common approach to the material: Garrett P. Serviss’s Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1899) and Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins’s Of One Blood, or the Hidden Self (1903). Both of these novels deploy lost-race-fiction tropes that make their destinations comprehensible by connecting them to Biblical authority. The evidence at these exotic destinations, by corroborating a literal reading of Old Testament Biblical narratives, provides the explorers and their reading public with “solid and certain versions of race and history” (154). Of course these solid, Biblically buttressed versions of history also straight-forwardly assert white racial superiority. In them advanced technology both supports and justifies imperial expansion, while at the same time, in self-contradictory fashion, also lending authority to pre-scientific understandings of geological and human history. In a short conclusion, Williams asserts finally that “a large portion of nineteenth-century Americans clearly relished stories that were pro-technology and pro-Christian literalism, and many contemporary Americans still long for these kinds of narratives” (162).

Given the ongoing political disaster being wrought in the United States by the currently dominant alliance of white racism, Christian fundamentalism, and military-industrial cronyism, Williams’s meticulous analysis of the technocratic exploration narrative’s contradictory mix of high-tech violence and pre-Enlightenment cosmology is both timely and bracing. It is highly recommended for scholars of early science fiction, as well as for those wondering about the historical breeding ground for the US’s contemporary cultural and political morass.—John Rieder, University of Hawai’i, Mānoa

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