BOOKS IN REVIEW
The Sea Is the Future.
New York: Routledge, 2017. xii+226 pp. $37.95 pbk.
In 2011, opponents of the Occupy Wall Street movement frequently tried to antagonize protesters by asking how they would change the economic system. The protesters uniformly answered that making specific changes was the job of economists and bankers; their job was to register discontent, loudly and in public. For Bill Ashcroft’s new work, Utopianism in Postcolonial Literatures, that response is far more useful than detailed answers to particular problems, because it affectively demonstrates an imaginative and unbounded vision of a better future that makes the present at least marginally livable. Exactly how that future comes into being is less important, in the present, than the insistence on defining the need for it.
Derek Walcott, the late Nobelist from St. Lucia, famously told us that in the Caribbean, the sea is both time and space, defining everything that was brought to the islands and everything that can happen there:
Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History. (“The Sea Is History” 1978)
The sea must be the future as well, for here as everywhere the past produces the present and shapes the future at all points, in the forms of successive concrete events and in the methods available for understanding them—that is, for producing history. It is important, then, to see Ashcroft’s Utopianism as an examination of time and space as conceived in a variety of postcolonial territories, a series of conversations in which each chapter engages a few creative writers and theorists in a particular region whose figurations augment and challenge the ubiquitous Western schemas of linear progression. Readers should not expect a comprehensive survey of utopian and speculative fiction per region, or a study of utopian geographies from More onward—both of which are interesting areas of work. Rather, they will find here a discussion of utopianism focused through two terms developed by Ernst Bloch: heimat, the not-yet-achieved space of comfort and fulfilment, and vorschein, the creative gesture or working-toward heimat. For Ashcroft, as for the Occupy demonstrators, vorschein describes concrete activity of critical expression, while heimat is sometimes better described as open, a matter of persistent desires and not of defined conditions. Moreover, emphasizing vorschein as process acknowledges the ethical dimensions of an indeterminate utopianism. In 2002, reviewing Ralph Pordzik’s The Quest for Postcolonial Utopia (2001) for SFS, Tom Moylan warned that “stressing a radical but abstracted openness and not engaging with actual processes of gaining and holding power … threatens to overlook one of the key places in which a concrete utopianism operates—that is, within the very processes of transformation themselves” (qtd. Ashcroft 270). Ashcroft addresses this threat in two ways. First, because so much postcolonial expression has found its voice amid very specific pressures of imperial oppression, utopian writers in formerly colonized or currently occupied territories can draw from longstanding practices of confrontation, and particularly of transformation, finding and celebrating the means to declare that the lives of individuals and groups indeed matter. Second, and just as importantly, Utopianism is very cautious in its use of authoritative assertion: well aware that small or local institutions, universities and publishers among them, often replicate the imperial orders of assignment and value within which they originated, Ashcroft instead consciously draws back and listens to the other speakers in these conversations, and just as generously opens directions of inquiry for further exploration, perhaps by a later generation of scholars.
When the conversations work, as especially in the sections focused on Africa (Chapter Four), India (Chapter Six), and the Caribbean (Chapter Eight), the results offer remarkably useful descriptions of other—alternative, simultaneous, or layered—schemes of time and place that respond to and ameliorate the pressures of historic linearity and its offspring, the nation-state and the capitalist economy. Discussing Africa, for example, in terms that address Moylan’s concerns, Ashcroft notes that the borders of many post-independent states simply, but problematically, re-assert old imperial boundaries that deliberately broke up ethnic territories for ease of colonial administration: thus, any projection of heimat based upon recovered heritage (the past as future) or on larger regional or pan-African affiliations (the speculative future) must necessarily find its footing in a present that involves specific references and concrete details. Ashcroft locates such discussions in novels by Ayi Kwai Armah (Ghana, born 1939) and Ben Okri (Nigeria, born 1959), established writers of different generations whose works are widely available; both address the limitations and impositions of linear history by highlighting other forms of recollection and sequence, and importantly by developing ways to express those alternatives in English.
The chapter centered on India covers wide territories of envisioned community, from unbounded inclusiveness (Gandhi, Tagore) to mythic nationalism (the film Mother India ), from statist nationalism (Nehru) to dystopian survival-through-hybridity (Rushdie). For Ashcroft, the shifting variety of available positions sustains a diverse, contentious vorschein which in turn represents a measure of social and creative health in the various anticipated futures. Unresolved arguments about Indian identity, how it is characterized and what mitigates it, whether it is determined by the state or resides in other factors, were already in play when Gandhi wrote the broadly suggestive Hind Swaraj in 1908; one implied direction leads to the militant nationalism that culminates in the suspension of individual rights in the State of Emergency (1975-1977), while another leads to Rushdie’s rejection of imposed order and pattern in Midnight’s Children (1981). “What Rushdie dismantles is not so much the idea of nation as the wider ranging tyranny of borders within which such concepts come into being” (123); the burden of critique weighs down the character of Saleem with a sadness that for Ashcroft marks “the tragedy of the postcolonial nation, but also the tragedy of the idea of the bordered nation itself” (123). Such observation, based again on a widely available text, moves the discussion beyond the nominal location in India and offers its terms to any construction of a speculative future.
The chapter on Caribbean writing, matching Walcott’s poetic history with Kamau Brathwaite’s creative theory, is a masterwork; when Utopianism is excerpted in a critical anthology, this will be the selection. “From Plato to Thomas More to Margaret Mead to Gilles Deleuze,” says Ashcroft, “writers have been fascinated with islands. Islands force us to face the disturbing contingency of human habitation” (146-47). As reputed utopias, as heterotopias and laboratories, islands are likewise considered here in their most basic form—as land surrounded by water. The issue is hardly speculative, but physically real. From the fort on St. Lucia that Walcott describes with such muscle in Omeros (1990), you can see Martinique. Separate nations, different languages, but shared space: you are looking at history in its most immediate, unavoidable form, laden with tragedy but likewise full of potential connection. Ashcroft follows Jonathan Pugh’s 2013 question, “how can thinking with the archipelago change how we think about the world?” (qtd. Ashcroft 148). The desired change resides in the constant, ongoing recognition of the need to change, to reimagine space in the hospitable terms of heimat and thus to produce an imaginable survival.
The beauty of such envisioning casts a shadow on the few weaker sections of the book. A chapter on Palestinian space needs stronger sourcing, and a brief one on Chicano myth is overly narrow in representing complex modernities. An introductory chapter on the inheritors of More focuses on the shipwreck survival tale The Isle of Pines (1668) by Henry Neville, following David Fausett’s Writing the New World (1993) into the political allegory of its first part and curiously omitting the author’s name. A second part, later joined with the first to form a combined version (also 1668), is actually more suited to the discussion here; the full version is considered in a dedicated issue of Utopian Studies (2006), as well as my critical edition and book-length study subtitled Henry Neville’s Uncertain Utopia (Ashgate 2011). Routledge, I think, should have seen to these lapses, along with stronger copy-editing and full, usable indexing. Critical readers of speculative fiction will find these flaws outweighed by Ashcroft’s fine presentation of detailed, concrete conversations on space and time in the global present.—John Scheckter, Long Island University
The Persistence of Elision.
Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2017. 285 pp. $69.95 hc.
This new book by Artur Blaim is a loosely structured study on the subject of utopia that includes among its twenty chapters sections dedicated to the works of Jonathan Swift, George Orwell, Tadeusz Konwicki, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, William Golding, Werner Herzog, and Margaret Atwood. The chapters tend to be short, averaging between 12 and 13 pages, leaving little room for close analysis of any single text. The study does not have the shape of historical survey either; there is little conceptual tissue to connect the texts under consideration. The strengths of the book have mostly to do with Blaim’s insights regarding a given work or his discussion of authors and concepts that are still unfamiliar to scholars in the Anglophone academic world.
He presents some relatively unknown utopian fictions worthy of scholarly attention, such as The Memoirs of Signor Gaudentio di Lucca, a work that enjoyed popular success upon its publication in 1732, but fell into obscurity when it was confirmed that its author was not George Berkeley but a Roman Catholic priest named Simon Berington. This work has one of the more unusual framing devices in the genre: the protagonist, who has traveled through the theocratic commonwealth of Mezzorania, is questioned about his experiences by the Inquisition. The Mezzoranians themselves are distinguished by a culture in which all signs are transparent and “cannot be subjected to human manipulation and fraudulent use” (77). The utopian element here resides in a system of signification that relies on an animistic science of physiognomy and a rigid patriarchal hierarchy to ensure that communication is free of deception and ambiguity. It implies that this ideal state of affairs would dissolve upon contact with Christianity, as the worship of the sun by the Mezzoranians supports their idealized world of signs.
The chapters on Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1626) and Michael Harrington’s Oceana (1656) are also engaging. Blaim points out that in these early modern utopias scientific research was not regarded as a key attribute of the ideal society since experimental procedures gave science a dynamic character that the authors regarded as incompatible with the fixed and final character of utopian order. Blaim focuses on the treatment of Jews in Harrington’s work, where his skepticism toward religions leads him in anti-Jewish as well as anti-Catholic directions with his proposal to found a New Israel in Ireland. Attention is given also to the image of the Jewish utopia in An Ideal City (Nova Solymae, 1648), which was written in Latin by Samuel Gott, a Christian. This utopia is populated by Jews who have converted to Christianity, with their religious identity effacing the difference posed by their ethnicity. It becomes the new center of European civilization by entering into an alliance with England.
Less satisfying, however, are his treatments of Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954), and Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), which are rather shallow and make little effort to engage in debates with the secondary scholarship. His observations remain for the most part descriptive, and his interpretations do not offer any surprises. Granted, some of the intertextual connections he makes between works can be illuminating, such as his comparison of the character of Snowman, the sole survivor of the human species in Oryx and Crake, and the yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels (1726) that climb up trees to defecate on those who provoke them. His conceptual framework drives his commentaries in a reductive direction while failing to provide cohesion between the study’s different parts. The comparison of 1984 and A Minor Apocalypse by Tadeusz Konwicki (1979), a novel set in communist Poland, is promising, but Blaim does not unravel the relationship between totalitarianism and stagnation that is suggested by the pairing of the two works. The chapter on Shakespeare draws attention to the metaphor of the body politic in Coriolanus (c. 1605), as well as to passages relating to the ideal society in Henry VI (1592) and The Tempest (1611). But, again, Blaim does not move much beyond the generalization that Shakespeare weighs states and statesmen on the scale not of what is best, but of what is “better.”
The strengths and weaknesses of his book are on full display in the chapter on utopian elements in popular music. What could have been the most intriguing section of the book is marred by a lack of analytical momentum. It is not surprising to find that the wish for a better world is a common theme in rock as well as in rap, but there is no overarching point about the significance of utopian motifs in music. Some of the songs he cites are interesting for the ironic gaze they cast on the wish, while more recent tunes express a brutal view of what constitutes personal happiness. Blaim takes a classificatory approach that, while making scattered references to historical events, fails to achieve a grounding in historical consciousness. Thus, the chapter, which might have yielded an intriguing reflection on contemporary youth culture, ends on an anodyne reference to John Lennon’s “Imagine” (1971). A doc-trinaire attachment to the theme of better worlds in its most literal guise results in the neglect of the world-transforming impact of rock music, which has spurred the emergence of youth culture around the globe while also making the transgression of the most ancient moral codes into something quotidian and innocuous.
The final four chapters of the book are devoted to topics relating to literary theory in communist Poland and the Soviet Union. The section dealing with the function accorded to literary criticism in the Soviet Union presents little that is new, but the chapter on semiotics, which focuses on the work of Yuri Lotman, yields a concept that might have given Blaim’s book the unifying principle it so sorely lacks. Lotman regards both dialogue and conflict as fundamental to the health of both the individual and society. Does this make Lotman’s philosophy utopian or anti-utopian? It is a pity that Blaim, while conscious of this question, did not rearrange the texts in his study to pursue the questions that preoccupy Lotman, such as the value of self-correction and the possibility of cultural development, in the composition and the interpretation of utopian texts.—Peter Paik, Yonsei University
Voices Prophesying Progress (or Crying Beware! Beware!).
A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H.G. Wells to Isaac Asimov. New York: Cambridge UP, 2017. x+287 pp. $74.99 hc, $24.99 pbk.
Despite the apparent implications of its subtitle, A History of the Future is not primarily a study of futuristic sf or even of future fiction generally. There are numerous references to Wells, Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, and significant (but fewer) references to other sf writers (e.g., Robert A. Heinlein and Olaf Stapledon), as well as well-known “mainstream” futuristic writers (Aldous Huxley and George Orwell), but no extended readings of their works. Instead, the subject of this book is futurology in all its forms, with brief mentions of literary futures introduced as needed. Even more than literary texts, Peter Bowler relies on popular science writing, both in books and in magazines. The books include two that are likely to be familiar to anyone interested in early British sf, J.B.S. Haldane’s Daedalus: Or Science and the Future (1924) and J.D. Bernal’s The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1929), as well as a range of others less well known. Examples of the latter class are The World in 2030 (1930) by the Earl of Birkenhead (less grandly named F.E. Smith), The Birth of the Future (1934) by Peter Ritchie Calder, and several books by “Professor” A.M. Low, especially The Future (1925) and Our Wonderful World of Tomorrow (1934). The magazines most frequently cited include the long-defunct British periodicals Armchair Science, Conquest, Harmsworth Popular Science, Meccano Magazine, and Practical Mechanics, as well as the still viable American publication Popular Mechanics. Bowler’s other sources include newspaper articles, advertisements, government projects, corporate statements, world fairs—anything that would reflect trends in the attitudes toward progress, by which Bowler means technological innovation.
Those attitudes may be divided into two broad tendencies: to embrace new technologies, often without giving much thought to possible drawbacks, or to resist them reflexively out of a fear of change. Drawing both on Wells’s lecture “The Discovery of the Future” (1902) and C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” (1959), Bowler argues that studies of the future that focus on literary works tend to portray technology in negative terms that reflect the biases of the literary culture, whereas scientists and popular science writers, by and large, are more interested in the potential of new technology to improve human life. He returns at the end to this distinction between technophiles and technophobes, whom Nigel Calder (son of Peter Ritchie Calder) has called zealots and mugs, observing that “both sides are always present, and it is a mistake to focus on one or the other exclusively if we wish to gain a balanced picture of what was going on.” Bowler adds that as “a technophile for much of [his] life” who is “now increasingly resistant to the expanding world of the internet and social media,” he has changed from a zealot to “a confirmed mug,” which has helped him to see both sides of the arguments (209).
One more point to which Bowler returns at several stages is that we should judge arguments for or against technological innovations not by emphasizing what later came to be known but by concentrating on what might reasonably have seemed possible at the time. He gives examples of the problem that arises when later developments lead us to forget that debates over emerging technologies were carried out without knowledge of what now, in hindsight, might seem obvious. As an example he notes that in 1929 Bernard Ackworth, a former Royal Navy Commander, contended that airplanes were unreliable because there was no way for pilots to allow for cross-winds. This argument, Bowler observes, “sounds ludicrous today, but it seemed more plausible at a time when airspeeds were less than 100 mph, and it certainly had some validity for flights in poor visibility when it was impossible to check movement over the ground” (124-25). Again and again there were similar arguments about the merits of emerging technologies: in the field of aviation, for example, the greater possibilities of airplanes when compared to airships seem obvious today, but they are in large part the result of technologies that were developed during the Second World War for use in designing bombers and other military aircraft. A related point is that those who envision major changes in one area might well overlook others that now seem more important: as he notes several times, “no one predicted the huge impact of the personal computer in the real world” (14). When he turns to the way futuristic technologies are represented in early sf stories, Bowler cites Gary Westfahl’s observation that we often find “an incongruous mix of advanced technologies … functioning alongside older systems that we know were soon to be swept away.” Thus, in E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Skylark series, “the hero develops space travel on an interstellar scale while still measuring equipment with calipers and doing calculations with a slide rule” (82).
Although Bowler turns to sf and other futuristic fiction only sporadically, his survey of other sources provides contexts that should interest any reader of this journal. A History of the Future is also well documented and largely free from errors, although two dubious statements virtually leaped off the page at me. First, the claim that Heinlein “worked with Asimov in the Navy” (28) is probably based on a misunderstanding of their positions during World War II, when they were civilian employees at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Second, I seriously doubt that “in the 1960s … Paul Niehans of Geneva offered rejuvenation based on thyroid extracts to the rich and famous, including Pope Pius XII” (192). Since Pius died in October 1958, it would have taken more than thyroid extracts to rejuvenate him in the 1960s. A little fact-checking by Cambridge University Press might have caught these errors, perhaps along with a few others, such as the misspelling of Leslie Fiedler’s surname as “Fielder” (213 n.18; also in the bibliography). The index, while ambitious in its coverage, has some odd omissions: Benito Mussolini is quoted on the importance of reserving flying for the aristocracy (112), William Butler Yeats is mentioned for having “claimed to have benefitted from the Steinach operation” (191), and “the leading British eugenist C.P. Blacker” is credited with having made a point that was later made in Brave New World (201), but not one of them is listed in the index. There are also some literary texts that I wish Bowler had mentioned, one example being George S. Schuyler’s satiric portrayal of attitudes toward race in the United States, Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940 (1931). But these problems are small and in no way diminish the importance of this wide-ranging study.—Patrick A. McCarthy, University of Miami
A Pioneering Study of Arabic SF.
Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 322 pp. $97.23 hc.
Arabic Science Fiction is a pioneering book that delves into Arabic literature and discusses a subgenre that has been barely examined in English to date. In this book, Ian Campbell draws connections between Arabic science fiction (ASF) and postcolonial literature. He argues that ASF is “archetypally” (6) and “manifestly” (21) postcolonial even though it does not concede to all concepts of postcolonial theory. At its core, Campbell believes that ASF is unique because it produces what he calls “double estrangement”: cognitive estrangement that estranges technological advancement and modernity and sociopolitical estrangement that estranges the grim social and political conditions of the postcolonial Arab world. Throughout the book, Campbell teases out the nuances of this double estrangement and explains it to non-Arabic readers by discussing the function and characteristics of the subgenre and by analyzing classic ASF works. Arabic Science Fiction addresses English-speaking western readers in general and it mostly benefits those specialized in science fiction (sf) and possibly Arabic literature and postcolonialism.
Campbell’s book is divided into seven chapters in addition to an introduction and a conclusion. The introduction lays out the argument and methodology. The next three chapters provide long and selective summaries, definitions, history, and a literature review of postcolonial theory, sf, and ASF. This background information leads to the fifth chapter (the centerpiece of the book) in which Campbell argues that Nihād Sharīf’s ASF classic, The Conqueror of Time (1972), provides the clearest example of double estrangement. On one level, the novel estranges the Egyptian “megalomaniac” dictator (i.e., Jamal Abdul Nasser) through a mad scientist (Halīm) whose utopian delusions distort the dictator’s rhetoric and catastrophic policies (132). On a second level, the novel also estranges Egyptian scientific stagnation and indifference to modernity by locating the events of the novel in a futuristic Egypt that is more advanced than the contemporary one (146). The remaining chapters continue discussing double estrangement in eight classic ASF novels: Muafā Mamūd’s The Spider (1965) and The Man Below Zero (1966), abrī Mūsā’s The Gentleman from the Spinach Field (1987), ’Ahmed ‘Abd al-salām Al-Baqqāli’s The Blue Flood (1976), Tālib ’Umrān’s Beyond the Veil of Time (1985), and ība Ibrāhīm’s cryogenics trilogy, including The Pale Person (1986), The Multiple Person (1990),and The Extension of Man (1992). The book ends with general conclusions about the subgenre, acknowledges shortcomings, and looks forward to further research.
Most noticeable in Campbell’s book is consistency. Each chapter discussing a novel begins with a literature review; it then showcases double estrangement and literary tropes, and ends by briefly relating the novel to postcolonial theory. This consistency makes the reading smooth and enjoyable. It does not indicate flawless analyses or conclusions, however. As an Arab reader interested in the topic, I found myself disagreeing with several issues, including the selective approach to postcolonialism, minor factual errors, over-analyses of Arabic terms, and, most importantly, generalizations and stereotypes about the subgenre and about Arabs. While these issues are minor, they nevertheless damage some arguments in the book. I will briefly give examples of such minor errors and over-analyses before discussing the more pressing issues of generalizations and stereotypes.
The discussion of Islamic inheritance law in Ibrāhīm’s The Pale Man provides an example of a minor factual error (289). Campbell explains that children born out of wedlock do not inherit from parents and that this fact is crucial to understanding estrangement in the novel. In support of this claim, he refers readers to Jane Dammen McAuliffe’s online Encyclopedia of the Qur’ān (2001) that touches upon the issue but subjects it to a specific condition. As a matter of fact, an illegitimate child does inherit from his mother—but not his father—in both Kuwait, where the novel takes place, and in Islamic law in general. While this error is minor, it does upset the flow of Campbell’s analysis of the protagonist’s motivations throughout the novel. Another example of a minor factual error is in the information about Ibrāhīm. Campbell states that she is still alive (277) and that she is the first major ASF female writer (14). Ibrāhīm passed away in 2011 and the earliest female writer whom I was able to locate is Sāfia Ktto from Algeria who has been writing sf short stories since 1964. These stories were published in a collection, The Purple Planet (1983), by Dār Nū’mān in Canada prior to Ibrāhīm’s first book. Again, while this error is minor, it does undermine the author’s rationale for choosing Ibrāhīm’s novels since they did not appear in the same time frame as most of the other novels mentioned by Campbell.
An example of over-analysis of Arabic terminology can be seen in the discussion about the title of Sharīf’s The Conqueror of Time. Campbell draws connections between the words of the original title, Qāhir 'Alzaman, Jamal Abdul Nasser, and Cairo: Qāhir [conqueror] refers to Hālim the scientist; Qāhir is also the masculine version of Al-Qāhira (Egypt’s capital) and it is a synonym of part of Abdul Nasser’s last name (Nasser). Campbell argues that “lurking behind the title’s literal meaning is the shadow of the former president: Hālim is ‘The Nasser of his Age’” (133). Similarly, the author draws connections between the words sha’r [hair] and sha’r [feeling] and argues that the shared linguistic space between the two words is indicative of Hālim’s character. Hālim is hairless; thus “there is a phantom image of him not having a single feeling” (137). As an Arab reader, I find these connections very strained. In fact, Qāhir and Abdul Nasser, in the first example, have opposite connotations. On the one hand, Nasser [Giver of Victory] is an attribute of God; Abdul Nasser (mistakenly shortened to Nasser by the author), on the other hand, means a submissive worshipper of the Nasser. The connotation of “Abdul Nasser,” therefore, indicates incompetence without the support of God. This connotation is contrary to Hālim’s dismissal of the Divine and his absolute trust in science (141). Similarly, while sha’r and sha’r sound similar, their roots are different and their linguistic space is also shared by many other words with different meanings.
While these minor errors and occasional over-analyses can be intrusive, I believe that generalizations and stereotypes are more damaging to the book’s main argument. Even though the author acknowledges that generalizations and stereotypes are risky, particularly for western critics (95), he nevertheless delves into sweeping statements about ASF—and about a readership of more than 380 million Arabs in twenty-two nations in a land mass larger than Europe. These statements are found in every chapter. Examples include: “anyone well-versed enough in standard Arabic to read novels would know of the tenth-century writer al-Hamadhāni” (133; emphasis added), “[this is a] well-known curiosity for [Arabic] students” (137; emphasis added), “[this is] an argument that would probably have gone over the heads of most readers of the novel” (139; emphasis added). In addition to these generalizations, the author establishes a conclusive framework and offers some predictions about the subgenre that can be challenged by many examples that do not fit. More worrisome, the author emphatically utilizes stereotypes about Arabs to prove the presence of double estrangement in ASF. These stereotypes include the notion that Arabs are struggling to come to terms with the loss of their imperial power, that they are miserable under their rulers and yearn for freedom, that they oppress women, that they struggle to overcome religious extremism, and so on. Utilizing stereotypes to demonstrate double estrangement is problematic because it bases many claims on unsubstantiated presumptions which, in turn, undermine the evidence. Among the many examples that illustrate this problem is the author’s discussion of how ASF handles gender roles. The author assumes that Arabs are fanatically intolerant of women stepping out of their traditional roles; therefore, ASF writers grapple with the issue either by succumbing to this misogyny, as in Sharīf’s The Conqueror of Time, or estranging it, as in Al-Baqqāli’s The Blue Flood.
In his response to the absence of female scientists in The Conqueror of Time, for example, Campbell argues that “Egypt of Sharīf’s day had so few opportunities for women outside of traditional roles that even in an alternate Egypt where science and logic rule, a woman scientist is still too implausible to render the estrangement cognitive” (148). Campbell makes this statement in response to possible criticism of Sharīf’s inability to perform double estrangement on female characters. In this defense, he essentially argues that Sharīf’s dismissal of female scientists is strategic, aimed at enhancing cognitive estrangement in the novel as a whole. The problem with this defense, however, is that its presumption about gender roles in Egypt is inaccurate. While women are restricted in some Arab societies, Egypt at the time was rife with female scientists, doctors, pilots, publishers, and even members of the parliament (for example, Samīra Mūsā was a female nuclear scientist in the 1940s, Latīfa ’Al-Nādī was a female pilot in 1933, Sūhir Qalmāwi became the Dean of the College of Arts in 1956 and a member of the parliament in 1967, Amīna S’aīd was the editor in chief for Hwā in 1954 and later the head of the Board of Trustees of Dār ’Alhilāl in 1976, where Sharīf published the first edition of The Conqueror of Time four years earlier). As a result of his presumption, the author’s counter argument ironically reinforces the negative observation about the novel’s dismissal of women.
Likewise, the author argues that The Blue Flood essentially estranges the patriarchy of Arab intellectual elites by partially exposing the protagonist’s misogyny toward his female student and love interest. After this student has been sexually assaulted, the protagonist attempts to murder her. Campbell explains to his western readers that the protagonist’s attempt is normal. After all, rape in “these cultures” is a stain that can only be “washed out” by the victim’s bloodshed (240). Campbell enforces this stereotype by referring his readers to a study published in Homicide Studies in December 2014, Recep Doğan’s “The Dynamics of Honor Killings and the Perpetrators’ Experiences.” The problem is that this study does not support the presumption about the commonality of Arabs murdering rape victims. In it, Doğan discusses cases of honor crimes in Turkish prisons. None of the cases involves the murder of rape victims. He concludes that perceptions of murderers in his sample are similar to those in the Arab world and other western countries such as Spain, Greece, and Italy. This conclusion is different from Campbell’s assertion that the crime itself is common among Arabs. While the chastity of women is highly regarded and laws that protect rape victims are poor, honor killings are not common in all Arab societies, especially against rape victims and in Morocco where the novel takes places. Utilizing this inaccurate stereotype therefore undermines Campbell’s analysis of the protagonist’s behavior; this in turn undermines evidence that the novel estranges patriarchy within the Arab intellectual elite.
While these issues weaken various claims in the book, I do not think that they nullify the presence of double estrangement in many ASF works. Nevertheless, the book’s overall argument could have been more compelling had the author avoided these pitfalls, acknowledged limitations, and avoided stereotypes about Arabs and Arab cultures. After all, Arabs are diverse and ASF is a subgenre that encompasses many trends, themes, and plots. Nonetheless, Arabic Science Fiction remains a significant pioneering work. It contains many interesting analyses and genuinely insightful arguments. Along with earlier research, it definitely sets the stage for further engagement in the field. And for this reason, I think it should be on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the topic.—Musab Bajaber, King Saud University
Economic Science Fictions. London: Goldsmiths, 2018. xv+383 pp. £24.95 hc, £15.99 pbk.
In Economic Science Fictions, editor William Davies brings together economists, sf scholars, architects, designers, artists, and poets to examine the intersections between economics and science fiction. The result is an engaging, eclectic, and wide-ranging volume which addresses itself to a wide popular audience, “anyone who believes the economy is too important to be left to the economists” (cover blurb). As a result, sf scholars coming into the volume will encounter the minor annoyances common to both cross-disciplinary and popular writing about our field (over-reliance on a small number of big theorists to represent the field as a whole, reinventions of various theoretical wheels, calls for exploration in areas where great work exists already, etc). Yet Economic Science Fictions also combines the virtues of interdisciplinary and popular projects: the pieces Davies assembles here are clearly and engagingly written, approach old problems from interesting new angles, and clarify the cultural and political stakes of their theoretical interventions. Economic Science Fictions offers valuable insights not just for those of us who are interested in the interaction of economic systems and the speculative imagination, but for any sf scholar seeking to address their scholarship to a popular left-political audience.
The scholarly essays in the volume are excellent, well worth the price of admission. Davies’s introductory chapter opens the volume with a sophisticated analysis of the “socialist calculation debate” within twentieth-century economic theory, lucidly unpacking the ways in which foundational neoliberal thinkers Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek draw on distinctly science-fictional modes of futurity, utopianism, and technocratic progress to articulate the transformative powers they attribute to markets and market forces. Davies argues that this sf foundation to neoliberalism helps account for some of its most confounding and paradoxical aspects: the way it functions as a utopia even as it claims to abolish utopia, the way it appropriates narratives of progress as it both annexes and forecloses future possibilities.
The rest of the volume’s critical essays are (mostly) grouped into two of its four sections. The first, “The Science and Fictions of the Economy,” focuses on the science-fictionality of core concepts and assumptions in orthodox economic theory. Two pieces stand out here. Laura Horn’s “Future Incorporated?” examines the ways that corporate power is represented in recent science fiction, arguing that while dystopian representations of futures “dominated by mega-corporations, determining every facet of production, consumption, and social interaction” may “seem to question corporate power, [they] actually reinforce a discourse that prevents imagining alternatives” (41-42). While this is not a new claim in sf criticism, Horn lays it out with exceptional clarity. Even better, Horn provides an equally clear argument for the kinds of productive alternative visions corporate dystopias are obscuring. She combines an extended reading of cooperative and collective forms of economic organization in Kim Stanley Robinson’s work to an incisive overview of the theory and practice of worker-owned collective enterprises in the economy today. As “real utopias,” Horn argues, such cooperatives function as economic science fictions that, like Robinson’s work, “engender a further engagement with options that might otherwise be unthinkable” (57) and remind us that “it is only through collective thinking and critical engagement with these alternatives that [better] futures might come about” (58).
The other standout of the first section is Sherryl Vint’s “Currencies of Social Organization: The Future of Money,” which provides an engaging, concise, accessible (and thus highly teachable) synthesis of recent scholarship on the history and sociology of currency systems. Drawing on the work of Felix Martin and David Graeber, Vint uses close readings of Andrew Nichol’s In Time (2009) to map currency’s distinct but overlapping social functions as medium of exchange, unit of account, and store of value, and Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood (2013) to tease out the way the technology of money affects human social relations by affording different approaches to credit and indebtedness. Thinking of money as an economic sf, Vint argues, “can make visible the kind of social engineering the technology of money is doing to our society today,” but “the tool of money can be oriented towards other kinds of ideas and practices, other kinds of social orders [and] subjectivities” (71-72).
The second block of critical essays, “Design for a Different Future,” examines the utopian and dystopian possibilities in the built environment. As the essays in this section remind us, the physical structures and objects produced by modern industry are politically invented and planned, and thus architecture and design can also be mediums for envisioning economic science fictions whose participants could be “actively channeled towards different forms of economic life” (208). The stand-out essay in this section is Owen Hatherley’s “Prefabricating Communism: Mass Production and the Soviet City.” Examining the history of the mikrorayan or “microdistrict”—the standardized, mass-produced housing tracts that spread across the USSR from the 1950s to the 1980s—Hatherley argues for a reappraisal of these anonymous developments, so often invoked by critics of state communism as the apotheosis of dystopian de-individuation and conformity. In the mikrorayan’s “return to a ‘utopian’ technocratic vision of full communism [that] fell into abeyance in the Stalinist era,” Hatherley identifies “a reengagement with the revolutionizing of everyday life, and an embrace of futurology and specific prediction,” science-fictional impulses that came together in a new architectural discourse of automation and mass-production (209-210). While the Soviet state implemented this design philosophy with “notoriously mixed results,” Hatherley argues that this flawed attempt at creating housing systems that are stable, affordable, and accessible to all remains a compelling challenge to urban “development” that frames housing as a speculative asset rather than a common good.
While the critical essays in Economic Science Fictions range from excellent to merely very good, the creative pieces are more of a mixed bag. Nora O Murchú’s “The New Black” and Khairani Barokka’s “AT392-Red” stand on their own as well-crafted sf short fiction. In Barakka’s story, health and disability services are regulated and traded in a system of Accessibility Credits, a market austerity scheme that both rations care and perpetuates medical inequalities. The story imagines a resistance movement of “crip and disabled and D/deaf ilk” against the organization that administers these Credits. Murchú offers a subtle and engaging meditation on the way the precarity and ubiquitous surveillance of online labor works its way into workers’ subjectivity, tracing the inner life of such a worker as she goes about her day totally subsumed by her role as a mid-level creator and manager of “content.” Many of the other creative pieces are less successful. The fascinating world-building in the experimental group AUDINT’s “Pain Camp Economics” is presented though a flat, characterless outline. Miriam A. Cherry’s “Future History of Luddism” and “Fatbergs and Sinkholes: A Report on the Findings of An Adventure into the United Regions of England” by PostRational (Dan Gavshon Brady and James Pockson) offer economically focused world-building in more engaging formats, but fall into the tendency to infodump that characterizes amateur sf.
The fact that some of this sf is not up to professional standards does not need to be an issue here. Many of the authors here are not professional sf writers: they are designers, musicians, marketers, and academics. They are, presumably, creating these economic science fictions with specific pedagogical and theoretical intentions in mind. But only a few pieces make these critical framings clear. Bastien Kaspern’s “Economic Design Fictions: Finding the Human Scale” and Jo Lindsay Walton’s piece “Public Money and Democracy” are both successful because they include an explicit discussion of their critical intent. Kaspern makes his theoretical case first, arguing that design, which traditionally focuses on “problem-solving,” can also be used for “problem-finding” by envisaging “fictitious artefacts” to foster “debates on inventing new economics” and ways of being within the second nature of our designed and build environment (257-58). Kaspern gives examples of such “design fictions” as the “Infobesity Case,” a cellphone case that “promises to reduce your production and use of digital content [because] the more [data] you use … the fatter the case gets” (274). While this whimsical and absurd image is an interesting bit of sf on its own, its value to the reader—and thus its relevance to the collection—is found in its placement within the critical and political practices Kaspern lays out. Walton takes the opposite course, giving us her fiction first and then providing a metacommentary on the issues of intellectual labor, machine learning, and monetary theory that her story works through. If the rest of the creative pieces had included such critical framing, they would have been more impactful, accessible, and cohesive.
This need for clearer explication of why these creative pieces were selected and how they fit into the theoretical and political project of Economic Science Fictions points to a larger issue in the volume: it has both too much and too little introductory material. Introductions to collections have several functions: (a) to lay out the theoretical terrain, define key terms and ideas, and identify the political and intellectual stakes; (b) to give some sense of who the target audience for the project is and how the collection might be useful to that audience; and (c) to introduce the pieces selected for inclusion and explain how they support the collection’s overall project. In Economic Science Ficitons, we are given three introductory pieces, and while each handily accomplishes the first of these tasks, none gives a clear sense of the other two.
The volume opens with a forward by Mark Fisher. As always, Fisher is concise, sprawling, incisive, biting, cautiously but doggedly optimistic. Fisher offers a capacious usage of “economic science fiction” as something akin to Althusserian ideology: Capitalist Realism is supported by a “tissue of fictions” that “structure experience,” and so we need “new economic science fictions” that make different structures of experience possible (xii-xiii). This is followed by Davies’s “Introduction,” which provides an excellent theoretical snapshot of how this “tissue of fictions” operates within orthodox economic theory and the cultural logic of neoliberalism. Yet Davies does not explicitly connect the pieces in the collection to these theoretical concerns. Nor does he directly address the question of whom the collection is addressed to, or what use they might have for it. The book’s cover blurb claims it is for “anyone”; surely such a wide audience needs more, not less, explanation of the project’s structure and potential uses. Davies is himself followed by Ha-Joon Chang’s “Economics, Science Fiction, History, and Comparative Studies,” another great introduction to the main ideas of the collection, which examines the challenges and opportunities of engaging with the economic imagination through cross-disciplinary academic discussion and collaboration. One of the most teachable entries in the volume, it perfectly frames the scholarly essays to come, but it does not speak clearly to the creative works, nor to the wider non-scholarly audience to which the collection seems to address itself. Finally, each of the collection’s four sections opens with an editorial bumper that introduces the individual pieces, but these do not explain why the works were selected, nor why critical and creative materials are placed together in some sections but not others, nor their purpose in the project as a whole. Doing more work up front to lay out explicitly how creating sf can be incorporated into the diverse critical and political projects of musicians, activists, lawyers, and scholars would have made Economic Science Fictions a stronger, more powerful, more cohesive, and more accessible volume for the wide audience to which Davies aspires.
Despite these minor challenges, Economic Science Fictions is an exceptional volume, opening a welcome discussion at the intersections of sf, economics, and culture. Davies has assembled a fascinating collection of pieces, and I came away from them with new insights and connections as well as an appreciation of the broad scope of inquiry and collaboration that is available to tackle these thorny issues. Anyone interested in economic justice and sf’s engagement with political economy, architecture, and design should look out for it.—Joshua Pearson, Independent Scholar
From Shakespeare to Pynchon.
Ipswich, MA: Salem, 2017. 300 pp. $105 hc.
This volume in the Salem Press Critical Insights series brings together a collection of scholarly essays on the literature of fear, paranoia, and alienation. The chapters focus primarily on canonical works by US and British authors and directors, and explore common motifs found in paranoid texts in both literature and film. The essays cover a wide range of genres, including gothic, tragedy, suspense, crime, mystery, war, political thriller, and sf, and the various contributors examine how alienation, fear, and paranoia inspire complex and deeply appealing stories that allow audiences to engage with visceral emotions from a safe and comfortable distance.
The book opens with an introduction by Drake that examines the three key terms informing the collection. Drake draws on dictionary, technical, medical, psychoanalytic, and philosophical uses of these terms to explore their distinctiveness and to consider their overlaps. As Drake contends, each one has to do with the mind’s apprehension of danger and the ways in which this can affect both body and mind. While these terms have some universal applications, Drake points out that they are also very much contingent and embedded in specific communities, cultures, and histories. This focus on cultural and historical contextualization threads through the various chapters, with each offering its own case study of the book’s overarching motifs by focusing on specific authors and their works.
Glenn Simshaw’s opening chapter, for instance, begins by addressing how the popular reading of Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a tragic story of ambition overlooks the centrality of fear in the narrative as the consequence of murderous political ambition; and he also looks at how it connects to a deeper historical context and draws on archetypal and Elizabethan-Jacobean anxieties about succession that would have registered with contemporary audiences.
In the next chapter, Julie Prebel offers a reading of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) through the lenses of alienation and paranoia. Here, Prebel finds that the narrator’s delusions are not paranoid or inappropriate at all; rather, they serve as a form of protection against perceived threats to the “self” and allow the narrator to evade masculine force and surveillance (20). Prebel advances the argument that these delusions function as a critique of the predominant psychiatric views on paranoia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; they work to return agency to the women who had been disempowered by contemporary medical therapies.
This is followed by volume editor Drake’s essay on “Fear and ‘Paranoia’ in/about Richard Wright’s Novels.” He offers a compelling biography of Wright, traces the trajectory of his novels, and pays careful attention to the reception of his works by both mainstream and radical reviewers, who routinely read his fiction through a highly racialized lens. As Drake points out, when Wright departed from comforting and sentimental portrayals of his African American characters, he and his characters were accused of paranoia, which subsequently became projected onto all of his writings.
Rosann Simeroth’s chapter is one of the two essays in the volume focusing on film. In it she explores how the “found footage” horror film The Blair Witch Project (1999) allows the camera to become both an antagonist and a valuable documentation tool, with the film Paranormal Activity (2007) going a step further by also incorporating surveillance-footage narration. In making this point, Simeroth emphasizes the connection between the fear and paranoia caused by the haunting itself and the fear and paranoia engendered by surveillance technologies, and she looks at how these films play on the idea of the camera as both a source of power and horror.
In the next chapter, Gerardo Del Geurcio looks at Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842) in the context of Poe’s early tragedies and his resentment of wealth. He argues that Poe’s protagonist Prospero is “a product of Poe’s rejection of high society and also a doppelgänger for the young, reckless Poe himself” (73). Del Geurcio uses these biographical details from Poe’s childhood to argue that the symbolic imagery in Poe’s story exemplifies antebellum society’s apocalyptic fears of diseases, as well as the futile efforts of the affluent to deceive death. In his chapter on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Robert C. Evans notes that all of the titular motifs of the volume are present in Melville’s story, especially in the character of Captain Ahab. Evans argues that Ishmael’s temporary bout with paranoia early in the novel reveals that people can overcome their fears, which Melville uses to emphasize the tragedy of Ahab’s inability to overcome his own paranoia at the end.
This is followed by Peter Cullen Bryan’s chapter, which looks at how the symbol of the “small town” manifests in three very different yet similar works by Nathaniel Hawthorne (“Young Goodman Brown” ), Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery” ), and Ursula K. Le Guin (“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”). As Bryan explains, the small town is an enduring symbol of American social life and has also enjoyed a long tradition within American horror, and each of these works uses the symbol of the small town to produce a fearful and uncanny effect. The small town does not have one single meaning, however, but adapts to the writer and moment, drawing on such things as the puritanical fear of strangers (Hawthorne), the dangers posed by an unquestioning adherence to tradition (Jackson), and the dark secrets lurking beneath the greatness of civilization (Le Guin).
Next is Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis’s discussion of Patricia Highsmith’s first crime novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), a novel that draws on profound feelings of guilt, fear, and paranoia. By looking at murder as an ideological problem, Terzieva-Artemis finds that Highsmith’s novel presents a complex study of narcissism, paranoia, and megalomania, both captivating and challenging her readers. Colin Gardner follows with an examination of Joseph Losey’s 1951 remake of Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic film, M. He considers how Losey depicts his protagonist Harrow as an afflicted and impulsive murderer caught between the rational and uncontrollable. He also looks at Losey’s portrayal of a cruel and vengeful society in which group action functions as a pathological machine, placing Losey’s narrative amid Cold War hysteria and paranoia and drawing attention to the “complacent silent majority” (137).
In the next chapter, Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns considers the postwar environment of the 1950s, which saw the traditional and univocal idea of masculinity replaced by a fragmented sense of masculinity ripe with internal contradictions. Here, he looks closely at Playboy, which he argues came to define masculinity as the embodiment of style and leisure, an idea that sometimes overlapped with images of the homosexual, and which clashed with more conservative constructions of manhood. Berns then turns to the horror stories of two authors writing for Playboy, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, and examines how they came to capture in their stories the paranoia caused by the diminishment of traditional masculinity and the fear of female empowerment. The penultimate chapter is the second contribution of Robert C. Evans. In it, Evans focuses on Flannery O’Connor’s fiction and notes that in her works there is no shortage of characters afflicted with deep traumas, yet very little has been written about this. Evans therefore discusses the appearance and nature of traumatic events and characters in O’Connor’s stories.
Yi Feng’s closing chapter presents an analysis of one of the quintessential novels of postmodern paranoia, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Feng begins by situating the text within the historical context of the 1960s, explaining how it fits in with the political and cultural paranoia of American society, before looking closely at the story’s plot. Here she describes how the novel’s protagonist, Oedipa Maas, becomes entangled in a convoluted mystery and begins to find clues of a hidden “Other America” called Trystero, populated by the dispossessed. Feng advances the argument that Pynchon’s depiction of this liminal, dispossessed America reflects contemporaneous concerns about cultural hybridity, conspiracy, “the lie of history,” and the power of the maternal figure in postmodern America (xiii).
Taken together, these chapters offer new ways of thinking about classical works of literature and film by reexamining these works in terms of paranoia, fear, and alienation. This volume could serve as a valuable text in an introductory literature college course. The diverse collection of chapters introduces complex themes and critical discussions and can demonstrate to students how canonical works can be reinterpreted and analyzed from many different angles. The volume will also be appreciated by anyone hoping to gain fresh perspectives on the works discussed within.
The book is weakest in its overly ambitious and unwieldy scope. While the chapters are all individually creative and unique, it can be challenging to see their relationship beyond the very general use of the key terms, “paranoia,” “fear,” and “alienation,” and some chapters do a better job of addressing those terms than others. While Drake clearly outlines these key terms in her introduction, in several chapters it becomes difficult to discern whether the author is addressing paranoia, fear, alienation, or some combination of the three, and the distinctiveness of each term becomes muddled, sometimes giving the impression that these terms have been inserted into the chapters as an afterthought. Moreover, while the chapters on film were particularly original and thought-provoking, they felt a bit out of place within the larger scope of the project, which predominantly focuses on literary works. Overall, the book could benefit from a conclusion showing how each of the chapters works in conversation with the others, and better attention could be given to explaining why these different chapters were selected to produce a coherent volume.
The book is strongest in its emphasis on the psychological, political, and/or social work being done by the various authors and directors discussed in the various chapters. That is, each chapter offers a strong grasp of how paranoia, fear, and alienation work within specific historical and cultural contexts to produce an emotive and visceral affect. By carefully examining how fear is (re)created in readers and viewers, and by looking closely at how authors and directors immerse their audiences into these visceral experiences and emotions, each chapter advances a strong argument for how and why we are drawn to stories that invite us to feel paranoid, alienated, and afraid.—Laura Thursby, University of Ontario Institute of Technology
Scaling Back Astroculture.
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. xxiv+367 pp. $84.99 hc.
Limiting Outer Space is the second of a three-volume sequence edited by Alexander Geppert, the historian of science and technology who has championed “astroculture” as a distinct field of inquiry. It follows Imagining Outer Space: European Astroculture in the Twentieth Century (2014), the collection that first brought together scholars recovering how the peoples of Europe participated in making space-age culture. A third volume, Militarizing Outer Space: Astroculture, Dystopia and the Cold War, is planned. This ambitious publication program opens up new vistas in the cultural history of the space age, moving outward from accounts that prioritize the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the book’s conclusion, David A. Kirby offers a strong definition of astroculture: that cornucopia of “persuasive fictions” which model human occupation of outer space.
Limiting Outer Space seeks to move outer-space historiography beyond its emphasis on the rocketry and space programs of the 1950s and 1960s. It focuses on how various figures extended outer-space culture in the post-Apollo 1970s. In that decade, the grand rhetoric around the Apollo program was undermined by both what it achieved and how it ended. As a result, as Geppert notes in his introduction, the 1970s has been seen as a “dispiriting” decade, a mere caesura between the heroic 1960s and low-earth-orbit limits of the decades that follow (2). This book does not overturn that reading but its chapters do offer more nuance and focus on tracking how Europe’s writers, philosophers, toymakers, lawyers, and aerospace advocates operated as the superpowers scaled back human spaceflight.
The book is organized into three parts, bracketed by Geppert’s introductory chapter, “The Post-Apollo Paradox: Envisioning Limits During the Planetized 1970s” and “Final Frontiers?: Envisioning Utopia in the Era of Limits,” an epilogue by David A. Kirby. The first part, “Navigating the 1970s,” presents ways of recovering outer-space culture between the heroic man-in-space programs of the 1960s and the Shuttle era that began in 1981. The following section, “Reconfiguring Imaginaries,” contains articles that describe how the actual experience of outer space changed the way it was presented in film, literature, law, and children’s play culture. The book’s final block, “Grounding Utopias,” explores the fitful ways in which astronauts and futurists, architects and engineers, and even politicians sought to limit the militarization of outer space through rhetorics of peaceful cooperation.
What is at stake in this collection? Why should we pay attention to the 1970s as an important period in the history of outer-space culture? The conquest of space was the technological imaginary and instrumental reality that signaled first-world status in the global order that emerged following the Second World War. This collection shows that understanding in flux as political and expressive elites wavered between the hopeful scenarios of earlier decades and the inward-looking paradigms encouraged by images of the planet Earth. A cultural tension is thus created between hopes that seek to transcend the chauvinisms that preserve war and inequality on Earth and the desire to reclaim cosmic centrality for particular kinds of human beings. The book’s scholars come at both sides of this still relevant opposition in a variety of ways. Their concentration on the cultural and technological initiatives of European actors in this debate unsettles our notions about what the images and stories produced in response to actual spaceflight mean then and now.
The scholars of “Navigating the 1970s” debate whether and how the outer-space imaginary shifts away from the classic agenda in that decade. Martin Collins argues that spaceflight was important to the rise of the new, self-fashioned individual that came to define neoliberal globalism in the 1970s. The implication is that, despite the hopes encoded in the old Apollo phrase, “We Came in Peace for All Mankind,” the 1960s space program did not create the unified global community promised by an older liberal rhetoric. Roger Launius complicates this picture by arguing that there were five different responses to the Apollo moon landing and that each of them supported that era’s understanding of American exceptionalism. Doug Millard agues that the successes posted by the American and Soviet space programs limited the British imagination long before the 1970s. The utopian futures imagined in Dan Dare (1950-1967) and Doctor Who (1963-) were reconfigurations of an imperial past that had no purchase on UK space policy and elite self-perception in the 1970s.
The four articles of the second section, “Reconfiguring Imaginaries,” gauge how outer-space ventures appeared within terrestrial expressive culture. Their authors trace how the activities of leaving Earth and seeing it from a distance changed the kinds of stories that could be crafted in film, literature, and photography, as well as in the making of international treaties and the design of children’s toys. Robert Poole’s persuasive reading of Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) highlights how their opposed sensibilities produced a film that places a hard limit on triumphalist human ambitions, presaging the debate about limits to growth of the 1970s. Florian Kläger focuses on how extraterrestrial images of the Earth and the common reading of them as the catalyst for a cosmically inspired self-reflection prompted critical rejoinders from British novelists. In a brilliant piece on the design and marketing of the LEGO Group’s LEGOLAND Space, Thore Bjørnvig charts its social-democratic vision of space as a peaceful domain of “cosmic play” for European and American children. In an enlightening review of the international meetings that begat the space laws of the 1960s and 1970s, Luca Follis moves beyond superpower policy to cover how non-space-faring nations argued for language that did not extend global inequality into outer space. These chapters make the case that the limits of the original American astrofuturist vision, as revealed in the wind-down of the Apollo program, inspired fresh perspectives from other nations.
Limiting Outer Space’s final section, “Grounding Utopias,” is a sober reminder of the difficulties of creating associations and infrastructures that champion the peaceful exploration and/or exploitation of outer space “for all mankind.” Here Geppert’s authors remind us that the liberal/progressive idea of peaceful, international space exploration is always in tension with the possessive interests of space-capable nations. Andrew Jenks’s account of the Association of Space Explorers shows how that group of mostly American, French, and Soviet “astronauts” was grounded by Cold War politics and Reagan Administration conservatism. Regina Peldszus’s incisive chapter on the design of long-duration space habitats stresses the tension between the engineering of space-going machines and the human-centered approach of the design professions. Of particular interest in this piece is how designers used the architectures of science-fiction films as a reference for their experiments. Tilmann Siebeneichner does signal work by recovering the European Space Agency’s Spacelab from historical obscurity. He argues that, while the lab failed in its mission to ignite either the public imagination or the interest of the scientific community, the module represented a post-Apollo peak in European space interest and allowed its West German sponsors to produce a peaceful counterpoint to the quietly militaristic American Space Shuttle. Peter J. Westwick’s instructive chapter on the role that liberal space advocates and conservative sf writers played in creating the Strategic Defense Initiative underscores the general theme of the section. In the face of our fondest hopes and the narratives we create to support them, the prospect of an outer space that rules out economic competition and military conflict (or even boredom) remains, in this account, an improbable dream.
The book achieves what it sets out to do: to establish that outer space culture did not end with the Apollo program in 1973. Rather it continued in new guises and in the hands of actors with professional and national affiliations outside those sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union. This approach is in line with other recent work that seeks to broaden our understanding of the first human ventures into outer space, such as anthropologist Sean T. Mitchell’s Constellations of Inequality: Space, Race, and Utopia in Brazil (Chicago, 2017) and Bowdoin College Museum of Arts’s Past Futures: Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas (MIT, 2015). In light of this work investigations into the cultural history of twentieth-century spaceflight are moving from strength to strength.
This is a book worth reading and rereading, depending upon your interests. It convinces that our understanding of the ways in which the brief, forceful projection of human beings into outer space matters has often been too limited. Limiting Outer Space, and the broader scholarly inquiry of which it is a part, is a powerful re-survey of territory that might seem over-explored. It opens us up to new stories about how a human prospect in outer space was imagined and why who is doing the imagining is relevant to our inquiries. Geppert’s collections help illustrate what difference this makes in terms of current research agendas in space history and sf studies.
Limiting Outer Space has its own limit, however. The focus on devising new ways into the outsized cultural footprint of crewed space ventures leaves ground-based and robotic exploration on the table. We are all aware that the launching of instrumented probes to the moon, Mars, and the outer planets occurred alongside the spectacular “man-in-space” programs. The near- and deep-space achievements of the Voyagers, the Pioneers, Cassini-Huygens, and the Chang’es have consistently outstripped crewed ventures in distance, duration, and certain kinds of knowledge acquisition. The exoplanets discovered by ground- and space-based missions during the past three decades have expanded our speculations about other habitable worlds. It may be that the cosmic perspective imagined but thwarted by human-centered exploration in the 1970s has been more fully realized in the cultural practices that have responded to these activities. While we have not completely ignored these ventures, they rarely figure in studies of space culture. Within the research agenda laid out in Geppert’s series, this seems like low-hanging fruit ripe for plucking. We have barely begun in our quest to understand how we act and speak in the universe.—De Witt Douglas Kilgore, Indiana University
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture, 2018. 148 pp. $22.46 pbk.
Barry Keith Grant offers readers a broad overview of movie monsters and their cultural meanings in Monster Cinema (2018), an entry in Rutgers UP’s Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture series. As its name implies, the series is designed to showcase scholars’ perspectives on a number of subjects in film and media studies in a succinct and easily readable manner. So far, the series has featured overviews of new African cinema, comic-book movies, film remakes, and modern British horror films, to name a few examples. Grant’s Monster Cinema serves as a comfortable and breezy introduction to the study of genre films about monsters and monstrosity. As is to be expected, Grant does not offer detailed critiques of prior studies of monsters in cinema. At most, he uses those prior studies as a springboard for his illustration of what movie monsters can signify culturally. Grant also comments on and lightly interprets newer monster films, such as The Mist (2007) and Cloverfield (2008), as a way to demonstrate the continuing importance of this particular field of study. The work of cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer is felt throughout the text, and with good reason: Grant takes what he describes as Kracauer’s basic assumption, that movies “reflect the values and ideology of the culture that produced them” (Grant 28), and uses that assumption to inform his overall discussion of movie monsters. Grant’s discussion is informative and compelling overall, though it is not without its minor issues, as any study about something as polysemic as “monster” is going to be.
Monster Cinema is organized into four chapters, each chapter spanning roughly thirty pages. Initially, the first chapter, “Meeting Movie Monsters,” raises the question of what Grant means by monsters and monster cinema. His overview of movie monsters themselves, which are “always marked as different and, consequently, as a threat to the natural or ideological order” (1), covers many different figures: in addition to the expected giant insects, killer robots, and slimy creatures, Damian, the Devil’s child from The Omen (1976), also makes an appearance as a monster. In fact, the last chapter, “Supernatural Monsters,” counts the vengeful spirit from Unfriended (2014) and the Blair Witch from The Blair Witch Project (1999) as movie monsters. Norman Bates from Psycho (1960) is used as an example of the kind of monsters who lurk “within seemingly normal society” (5); they are “monstrous in their very physical ordinariness,” in contrast to monsters that are “marked as physically different in some way—aberrant, freakish, repulsive” (2), such as those from The Blob (1958) or The Thing (1982). The first chapter of Monster Cinema feels scattershot at first due to the wide range of monsters that are given as examples, though this seems like a deliberate way to show how differently monsters can be defined and interpreted in this field of study.
Grant uses Bruce Kawin’s three subgenres of horror films from Kawin’s Horror and the Horror Film (2012)—horror films about monsters, horror films about supernatural monsters, and horror films about monstrous humans—to categorize the kinds of monsters discussed in Monster Cinema. The second chapter focuses on human monsters, the third on natural monsters, and the last on supernatural monsters. Each chapter offers further subcategories of monsters; the category of natural monsters can include planetary and interplanetary robots, for example. The primary deviation from Kawin’s work occurs at the “subgeneric” level:
in the simpler, broader approach offered here, I include the regressing doctor [Jekyll] in the category of monstrous humans and The Thing, no matter how “unnatural” that “super carrot” may seem, in my broader category of natural monsters because it is posited as alien in origin, thus making it “natural” in the world of that film. (30)
For the most part, Grant is careful to respect the boundaries of his categories. Certain movie monsters appear where one would expect: the aliens of The War of the Worlds (1953) are categorized as natural monsters, since they originate on Mars; Norman Bates, as mentioned earlier, fits comfortably into the human monsters category, along with other slasher film villains such as Freddy Krueger and the Ghost Face killers from Scream (1996); and the category of supernatural monsters includes zombies, vampires, ghosts, inter-dimensional creatures, and Old Scratch.
Each chapter covering a different subgenre of monster film is structured to highlight descriptions of the various monsters as they appear in certain films, followed by brief readings of what those monsters mean culturally. For example, in the fourth chapter, Grant has a common reading of supernatural monsters as representing a tension between science and faith, or as signifiers of the breakdown of the culturally and ideologically understood natural order. Supernatural monsters such as those in Drag Me to Hell (2009) and Dark Skies (2013) can reflect real-world anxieties such as the “decline of the United States’ industrial and manufacturing sectors,” the 2008 recession, and the economy itself, which Grant describes as an “intangible and incomprehensible force over which we have no control, like the supernatural” (111). Grant does not offer any closer analysis or description of these cultural phenomena beyond what is quoted above, though he is careful to choose examples that are appropriate to his claims. Drag Me to Hell (2009), which is set during the 2008 recession, can be said, convincingly, to be addressing broad economic anxieties in the US, since the protagonist’s plight in that film results directly from stresses brought about by those economic conditions. This structure of description followed by brief analysis allows Monster Cinema to be read and absorbed easily throughout. Though the arguments presented tend to be similar to each other, the variety of monsters covered in the text keeps readers interested. Grant moves effortlessly from a mention of It Came from Outer Space (1953) to Arrival (2016) in a broad leap because his subcategories of monsters and monster films in each chapter tend to be organized thematically. In the “Martian Monsters” subsection of the third chapter, for example, Grant begins by focusing on aliens who are presented more sympathetically, such as those in It Came from Outer Space (1953), District 9 (2009), and Arrival (2016), in order to demonstrate that such portrayals are quite rare in monster films. This approach is effective overall, because even though Grant makes broad, decades-long leaps among his examples, the result is the barely implicit suggestion that certain cultural or ideological concerns or fears, such as the threat of invasion from the Other, will always be present in human societies, no matter the decade, century, or millennium.
Grant is also able to demonstrate Vivian Sobchack’s assertion that movie monsters tend to trouble distinctions between horror and sf, as well as other genres, by using unexpected examples of monsters and monster films. In the third chapter, Grant offers a fascinating subsection called “Microscopic and Miniature Monsters.” Films such as Contagion (2011), a drama concerning the outbreak of a deadly flu virus, are included here as examples of movie monsters crossing the boundaries of genre with little effort, while nonetheless implying how “thin the veneer of civilization is and how quickly it crumbles” (80). This subsection also contains a wonderful and creative discussion of The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971), a sensationalistic mockumentary structured like atomic monster movies such as Them! (1954) that uses microscopic photography and hilariously over-the-top narration to inspire fear of common insects. The inclusion of The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971) in Monster Cinema, and the immediate comparison of that film to the insect-like behaviour of the zombies in World War Z (2013), stresses that the monster movie may not actually be a genre, but rather a type of film that can cross various genres. Grant does not state this point outright, though the suggestion lurks within the pages and to some extent elevates Monster Cinema beyond an easily digestible overview of a field of study.
There are times in Monster Cinema where Grant’s categorizations become somewhat muddled. Prior to the fourth chapter, whether a monster is defined as human, natural, or supernatural seems to depend primarily on whether the source of monstrosity is within the human animal, as with Dr. Jekyll or Freddy Krueger, or how closely or believably the diegetic world of the film conforms to the current real world. Despite A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) containing supernatural elements in its plot, the source of monstrosity is a human who has become a monster. Therefore, Freddy Krueger is categorized as a human monster. The carrot monster from The Thing (1951), if one recalls, is natural rather than supernatural because it is an alien, and therefore part of the natural world. The possibility of extraterrestrial life is feasible in the real world, and so the carrot counts as a natural monster. Grant deals with aliens again when discussing the Greys of Dark Skies (2013), though he places them in the supernatural monster category. The reason Grant provides for this is that the Greys initially act more like poltergeists than traditional screen aliens in invasion plots such as The War of the Worlds (1953). Furthermore, Dark Skies is structured narratively in a similar way to Paranormal Activity (2007), in which the monster is a demon, and so Grant categorizes the Greys as supernatural monsters. This particular categorization stands in stark contrast to how monsters are defined previously in the text, where genre conventions seem secondary to the diegetic worlds, whether the source of monstrosity is human or not.
Inconsistencies such as these are only occasional in Monster Cinema. Their presence still suggests that it may have benefited the text if Grant had examined more monsters that resist simpler categorization, following a path similar to Sobchack’s in Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film (1997). Still, Monster Cinema acts as a great introduction to monsters and monster movies for the curious reader. Grant’s book is a fairly comprehensive, light, and easy read, and is accessible for those who are not intimately familiar with this particular field of study. The number of films and types of monsters featured in the book are plentiful, and there are more than a few compelling readings to inspire readers to explore this subject further. The book is highly recommended, because, as Grant himself notes, our survival depends on understanding monsters—in other words, on understanding ourselves. —David Hollands, Trent University
Consensus Future History.
3rd ed. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018. vii+304 pp. $49.95 pbk.
The history of science fiction is the history of its megatext. Labelled a “shared subcultural thesaurus” (275) by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. in The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (2008), the megatext is that conceptual reservoir of character types, locales, technologies, neologisms, themes, and iconographies that readers and writers consult when they engage with the genre. In sf and elsewhere, a megatext develops as new narratives add to its depth and complexity over time, modifying and building on top of established reading protocols.
First published in 1975, Gunn’s illustrated history of the genre, revised and released as a third edition, makes a strong case for a megatextual reading of the history of sf literature. He charts the emergence of the genre’s narrative and thematic archetypes, first in a chapter titled “In the Beginning,” where he discusses sf progenitors such as the “first great scientist-engineer,” Daedalus, who built the Minotaur’s labyrinth (24), and Plato’s Atlantis, the moment when the “great lost civilization entered the science fiction repertoire” (25). He moves from there to discuss Lucian of Samosata, Jonathan Swift, and Mary Shelley’s pinnacle of gothic romance and industrial anxiety, Frankenstein (1818), which brought to sf “the theme of man’s creation of artificial life” (31)—these are the usual suspects in a history of sf, but Gunn details them with rigor and traces their origins and contexts with aplomb.
Unsurprisingly, the book advances chronologically from there. Gunn provides chapters such as “Toward Verne: 1800-1885,” covering proto-sf authors Hawthorne, Balzac, Poe, and others, as well as two author-centric chapters, “A Victorian Engineer: 1828-1905” (Verne) and “Prophet of Progress: 1866-1946” (Wells), and several chapters on the pulp and slick magazines. These latter sections are the most exhaustive and stand out as favorite subjects for Gunn, himself an author who got his start in the pulps—what he lovingly calls a “golden ghetto” (127). Interspersed throughout the book—also unsurprisingly, since this is an “illustrated history”—are images of authors, book and magazine covers, meetings of various kinds, film stills, and more, all providing a rich, visual anchor for Gunn’s history of the genre. I particularly appreciated the lavish sixteen-page spread of magazine covers from the 1940s and 1950s, since this is a period of sf visual history that garners less attention than the genre’s early pulp existence in the 1920s and 1930s, with covers often illustrated by the pervasive Frank R. Paul.
In each chapter of Alternate Worlds, Gunn emphasizes the ideas of sf (as opposed to style or technique), especially how they coalesce to create a kind of shared, megatextual backdrop for other authors. In a section retained from the 1975 edition, “The Shape of Things to Come,” he anticipates the megatext concept, which would not be conceptualized in relation to sf until the early 90s, by suggesting that authors are building a “consensus future history.” As he sees it, “The construction—or foreseeing—of himanity’s [sic] future history continues; fragments still are being written; stories and novels are being fitted into the framework, filling it in, expanding its concepts, sometimes illuminating its assumptions or extending its conclusions” (214). And this is indeed how sf is presented in Gunn’s history: as a series of thematic and conceptual explorations of the future that build on one another in a largely linear and logical fashion, so that “fans grow into new writers, authors stand on each other’s shoulders” (214). This was especially the case in the magazines, he argues, with their vigorous communities and visionary editors, though he worries, from the perspective of 1975, that “The unity of science fiction … will begin to disintegrate without the magazines as a focus; the new wave is a portent” (230).
The linear progress of the genre’s worlds and ideas is the book’s guiding framework, then, along with a nostalgic celebration of magazine sf, which reached new heights under Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell’s establishment of a “consensus definition of science fiction: imagination leavened with pragmatism” (195). At the same time, however, Gunn is committed to describing the genre’s history as one constructed not only by narrative developments but also social, economic, and technological ones. Rather than rubbing uncomfortably against the text’s valorization of idea-driven sf, this more contextual orientation heightens Gunn’s descriptions of ideas, providing a look into how they were historically embedded, carrying the imprint of their publishing formats, for instance. Borrowing from Charles Fort, the author declares at several points that “it was steam engine time” (66): in other words, a time when a confluence of factors created material and ideological conditions that were ripe for something radically new.
The stage is set for this broader historical view by a revised opening chapter, “The Shape of the Present,” which Gunn uses to compare the third edition’s present moment in 2018 to that of the first edition’s in 1975. “In any case,” he writes, “we live, indisputably, in a science fiction world” (9). And then, referring to his older writing, he concludes “That is what I wrote a quarter-century and a half ago. It still is true, but no longer remarkable,” and goes on to list achievements: “we have mapped Mars and explored its surface with robots,” and “looked into the smallest atomic structures with giant accelerators” (9). Sections such as this, involving the author in conversation with himself, reflecting on his past writing and the intervening years, stand out as exemplary, and are a good reason to release a new edition after so many years. It is regretable that these reflections are limited to the first and last chapters of the book.
This is a historical look at a genre that is at least over a century old and so the gaps and omissions in Alternate Worlds are inevitable. It is unfortunate, at least in unrevised sections, that these absences conform to those of early sf canonization, particularly as they relate to women writers. Several are mentioned—Judith Merril, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and others—but only Mary Shelley is given adequate space; the others receive nowhere near the attention of their male counterparts, nor is their writing detailed in the exhaustive manner that Gunn describes, for instance, A.E. van Vogt’s. As a result, one is left with the impression that Gunn’s consensus future history is built along the lines of a traditional male canon, with the already-inaugurated figures further valorized—the “Big Three” of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, for instance—and the equally remarkable but (alas) non-male writers relegated to supporting roles or missing altogether.
Contemplating the future of sf in 1975, Gunn writes that “Beyond this the shape of things to come grows blurred, and the long journey, the odyssey of science fiction, from Homer to Hamilton, Heinlein, Herbert, and Harlan, has reached if not an end at least a pause, a place to sit for a moment and contemplate a future” (230). But even if one feels compelled to adhere to an alliteration of names, it is possible to rethink this trajectory: both Clare Winger Harris and L. Taylor Hansen, who concealed her gender when publishing, contributed to Amazing Stories and other outlets within Gunn’s golden ghetto, and Zenna Henderson’s novelette “Captivity” (1958) was nominated for a Hugo Award (Henderson is mentioned briefly in the text; Harris and Hansen are missing). The point here is not to argue that the impact of these specific authors matched or exceeded Gunn’s favorite H’s, but rather that they and others had been—and in many cases continue to be—both casually and systematically elided from the history of the genre. If Gunn’s future history is a consensual one, it is fair to ask who consented and who did not.
A new conclusion for the third edition titled “The Shape of Things That Came: 1975-2016” does some work to address this problem. “In the past 40 years,” Gunn writes, “in a period of growing diversity in society as a whole as well as in a genre characterized by predominantly male writers and readers, women have had an escalating impact on science fiction not only as writers but as editors, agents, readers, and fans” (243). He goes on to provide a list of female authors who have left their mark. He delivers a similar list after noting that “The 1960s was a period when women writers turned their attention to feminist issues” (244), but these inventories are inadequate remedies for the text’s previous sidelining of women writers. For example, his treatment of James Tiptree, Jr. reads like an impersonal epitaph: “James Tiptree, Jr., whose first story was published in 1968, was revealed as Alice Sheldon in the 1970s, when her most feminist stories were published as well, and died in 1987” (244). Joanna Russ, Vonda N. McIntyre, Suzy Mckee Charnas, Joan Vinge, Pamela Sargent, and Joan Slonczewski receive similarly meagre treatments in the same paragraph.
Gunn uses the chapter to address other gaps and omissions as well, including non-US writers Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, but the enterprise amounts to a kind of checkbox-style overhaul, with each new development and past exclusion marked off an itemized list. The new chapter is designed to provide an update on the period between 1975 and 2016, of course, but it is also an attempt to amend oversights from the first edition, to produce, perhaps, a more comprehensive account of the genre’s megatext. At only nineteen pages it was likely doomed to fall short in both efforts.
At the same time, and largely because of this chapter, the flaws of Alternate Worlds are somewhat leavened in the third edition, even though its deficiencies persist: gaps are addressed superficially but they are still addressed. But the book’s strengths lie primarily outside of these efforts, in its expansive look at the origins of sf, and in its account of the genre’s emergence and evolution as a uniquely American subliterature in the magazine format. Gunn’s vibrant and contextual exploration of both subjects surely contributed to the first edition’s Hugo Award in 1976—under “Special Awards,” since a category for non-fiction works did not exist at the time. The book’s detailed index and appendices, including an ambitious chronology of the history of Western sf and technoscience, are impressive resources as well, but the lack of citations and of a works cited section limit its use as a tool for research. For readers seeking an account of the pulps and the Golden Age of sf from an author who lived and wrote through those eras, Gunn’s text is interesting and valuable reading. For those looking for an inclusive history that adjusts or repairs the entrenched canon of sf, this edition of Alternate Worlds will be a disappointment.—Chad Andrews, Toronto, Canada
Herschel’s Moon Voyages.
New York: Anthem, Anthem Nineteenth-Century Series, 2018. xxvii+244 pp. $200 hc.
The moon has been in the news lately, with China landing on the far side, a super blood moon lunar eclipse, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s seeming anticipation of both those events in his recent Red Moon (2018). It was in the news in the first half of the nineteenth century too, with John Herschel’s astronomical observations and, as Paul C. Gutjahr notes, the American publication of his [Herschel’s] A Treatise on Astronomy (1833) in 1834.
Gutjahr assembles four pre-civil-war American tales of moon voyages, along with an historical introduction, several appendices, and a list of “Suggested Further Reading.” The tales are: George Tucker’s Voyage to the Moon (as Joseph Atterley, 1827), Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hans Phall—A Tale” (1835), Richard Adams Locke’s “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel” (1835), and J.L. Riddell’s “Orrin Lindsay’s Plan of Aerial Navigation” (1847). All are available at no cost on line, and the last one was reprinted in SFS (36.2, 2009) in a special issue “On Proto/Early Science Fiction.” The value here lies in the charming introduction that points out connections among the works, the dialog formed by their presence together, and the notes and appendices. Whether this adds up to $200 may be questionable, of course, but Anthem Press has taken the gamble.
Tales of moon voyages have been around for a long time and have been written in many different countries, so my first question in looking at this anthology was why it centered specifically on “antebellum America.” Technically, this descriptor applies to the four tales, of course, but are they somehow characteristically American, characteristically representative of pre-civil-war life, especially south of the Mason-Dixon line, as is suggested by “antebellum”? I was disappointed that the introduction did not address these matters. It begins instead with a connection to that uniquely American religion, Mormonism, since Brigham Young apparently “preached about the Moon and its people” (xv). The introduction moves on quickly to “the plurality of worlds theory—that God presided over a host of inhabited planets in the universe” (xv), to the balloon as a device useful for imagining ambitious air travel, and to the influence of the American publication of John Herschel’s A Treatise on Astronomy upon three of the four works in the volume. Gutjahr also discusses “The explosive growth of antebellum American print culture” (xvii) and distrust of fiction in American culture. He then turns specifically to the stories themselves, identifying Atterley/Tucker’s use of “the travelogue-as-social-commentary tradition” (xviii). He sees Poe’s story, which uses some of Tucker’s ideas, as an example of “hard science fiction” (xx) in its incorporation of the science of the day (Tucker was a new professor at the University of Virginia during the brief period when Poe was a student there). We learn that Richard Adams Locke’s story appeared only a few weeks later, serialized in a penny newspaper, The Sun, and caused a great sensation, convincing many readers that it was a true report on the inhabitants of the Moon, much to the admiration, seemingly, of P.T. Barnum. Finally, Gutjahr discusses Leonard Riddell’s story—not technically a voyage at all—written as an educational lecture about what he believed were the conditions on the moon.
The book’s appendices, representing less available materials, are welcome. The first appendix is an excerpt from Washington Irving’s A History of New York (1809), incorporating the same material that H. Bruce Franklin includes in the foundational Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century (1966). The second is an anonymous 1828 review of Tucker’s book. The remaining four appendices concern Locke’s hoax in one way or another: two responses by Poe, a collection of contemporary responses compiled in a pamphlet by William Gowans in 1859, and P.T. Barnum’s admiring tribute to Locke’s story, written in 1866.
Now to the stories themselves. George Tucker’s Voyage to the Moon, the only book-length work, takes up almost half the volume. Written without the benefit of Herschel’s treatise that appeared seven years later, it describes the purported author Atterley’s adventures in Burma where he is kidnapped, his friendship with an Indian mystic, and their plans to go to the moon using the repellant and attractive properties of a mysterious metal. What follows, then, is an account of the voyage, used as an opportunity to satirize Western culture along with discussions of racial difference, summarized by the narrator in this way: “The great diversities of national character may, perhaps, be attributed principally to moral and accidental causes, but partly also to climate, and to the original diversities in the different races of man” (26). While the author makes clear that he believes some races are better than others (and we can guess who is at the top in his mind), it is relatively mild in its expression. His later judgements of Native Americans and Asians, for example, are more objectionable. On the whole, though, this selection is written in the manner of an orientalist romance.
Poe, who had met Tucker according to the introduction to“Hans Phall,” uses John Herschel’s Treatise to lend verisimilitude to his story. The story implies a hoax (the trip begins on April 1, after all) at the same time as it uses a journal format and infodumps of scientific facts from Herschel to convince the reader of its veracity. It is the cleverest and wittiest of the stories in the volume, as one might expect. Once in a while, it approaches the profound, as when the narrator says, “I believed ... that truth is frequently, of its own essence, superficial, and that, in many cases, the depth lies more in the abysses where we seek her, than in the actual situations wherein she may be found” (123). This is especially telling in a story that uses up-to-the-minute data to lend it verisimilitude.
Richard Adams Locke’s story had a bit of the same response as Orson Welles’s radio play of War of the Worlds would in 1938, in that it “led vast numbers of New Yorkers to believe that there was indeed life on the moon” (152). It succeeded in its hoax. Here, no one traveled to the moon—instead the discovery of life is made through one of John Herschel’s telescopes. Scientific babble explains it all. Some of the imagined creatures are quite fetching, including a bipedal beaver and a man-bat. The latter is included in the collection’s cover art, which shows Poe and Herschel flying to the moon in a balloon. Locke’s is the only story that has no southern connection.
The fourth of the moon stories is by John Leonard Riddell: his piece was presented as a lecture to the New Orleans Lyceum as an educational fictionalization of what was then known about the moon. Gutjahr sees its “committment to real science” as a “precursor to later hard scientific fiction compositions by writers such as Arthur C. Clark [sic], Greg Egan, Neal Stephenson and Carl Sagan” (186). While this passage makes clear that Gutjahr is not, perhaps, a longtime sf fan, the story itself is an effective device for demonstrating gravitation and other scientific principles to a general audience, and does not indulge in whimsical speculation about life on the moon, instead concluding that “analogy would lead us to infer that” there may indeed be “intelligent beings” there who would, of course, make possible “inter-planetary commerce” (201).
Three of the four authors had southern ties—Riddell was a professor at what became Tulane University in Louisiana. While Tucker’s story provides examples of casual racism and classism that one might expect in an “antebellum” work, it is not as egregious as what Poe, for instance, expresses in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838). The other stories in the volume, although satirical, are not especially offensive in this way, including Poe’s. Nor do they single out America in their satirical portrayals or otherwise seem to reflect an American viewpoint, much less an “antebellum” one. I do wish Gutjahr had developed this aspect in his introduction and notes. The notes, by the way, vary in usefulness, sometimes helpful, sometimes very basic. I wondered if the book was intended as a textbook, although its cost would render that impractical. And the book itself, although quite handsome,
with the cover mentioned above, is not very sturdy, with the boards already separating. My final impression is that this is a labor of love more than a useful addition to a library.—Joan Gordon, SFS
Stages of Transmutation: Science Fiction, Biology, and Environmental Posthumanism. New York: Routledge, 2019. 186 pp. $120 hc, $54.95 ebk.
Tom Idema’s Stages of Transformation offers readings of four works of posthuman sf, together with a broader argument that speculation on the posthuman, whether in sf writing or more generally, needs to get away from technologically-based fantasies of the Singularity and of jacking into the network, and instead pay greater attention to biological and environmental themes. The book is well-written, and accessible without sacrificing complexity. Its readings are good and interesting, but I think it is the overall thesis that makes this book an important one.
In successive chapters, the author considers Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio, Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis/Lilith’s Brood trilogy. All of these works have been widely discussed by previous critics, but Idema provides some new insights about all of them. The sequencing of the book is also interesting, as Idema moves from Robinson’s political epic of terraforming, to Bear’s biological mysticism, to VanderMeer’s fabulation of ecological catastrophe, and finally to Butler’s wrenching vision of traumatic contact. This makes the works seem highly diverse, but Idema convincingly finds a common thread running through all of them. He achieves this largely by shifting his focus away from what might seem the most obvious features of these works.
Idema’s reading of the Mars trilogy soft-pedals the political discords and contentions that feature so prominently in these books, as they do in most of Robinson’s other novels. Instead, Idema is most interested in how the scientific and engineering program of terraforming the planet itself becomes transformed as the human actors, whatever their politics, are increasingly forced to take account of Mars itself not just as an object-background to be altered or preserved, but rather as an active participant in the project of development and change. What starts out as a narrative about the potentials and the politics of human-directed technology becomes, instead, a “more-than-human drama that occurs mostly outside of human vision and control” (63). This necessarily means shifting the focus away from the utopian dynamics that are arguably Robinson’s own most central concern.
In his account of Darwin’s Radio, Idema is most concerned to defend the novel against charges of being either reductively genetic-determinist on the one hand, or overly spiritualistic on the other. The novel imagines a worldwide phenomenon in which pregnant women find their fetuses altered in strange and surprising ways. Bear focuses the novel on renegade scientists who reject the general consensus that the genetic alterations constitute a plague or epidemic that desperately needs to be suppressed. Instead, they regard it as a new step in directed evolution; potentialities long buried in the human genome have been activated as a result of environmental stress. Idema shows how the novel traces out the complex politics behind large-budget scientific and medical research; in this way, Idema contends that Bear is covering much of the same ground as STS (science and technology studies), in seeing science as a social process rather than as the simple uncovering of facts.
The chapter on the Southern Reach trilogy is, to my mind, the strongest section of the book. Idema is well attuned to the way that VanderMeer’s uncanny writing disables the pretensions of the traditional humanist subject extending rational mastery over a world of objects. The discussion focuses on the figure of the biologist, who is the narrator of the first volume of the series, and whose metamorphoses are tracked in the subsequent volumes. She is a scientist, but in the course of the narrative she finds herself unable to keep separate from the organisms and environment that are supposed to be the objects of her study. Rather, she is more or less absorbed into, or interpenetrated by, the ambiance, as she allows herself to be changed by it. Idema shows how VanderMeer’s writing, by being evocatively precise without being objective in any conventional sense, conveys a powerfully aesthetic sense of how environmental catastrophe is in fact impacting us all on the most intimate level, and how “human life is not really in nature—as there is no outside—but of nature” (134).
The chapter on Lilith’s Brood takes the series’ central figuration—the alien Oankali as genetic engineers and gene traders—seriously, which is to say literally rather than just metaphorically and allegorically. This is not to deny the novels’ important resonances concerning the long human history of race- and gender-based oppression; but Idema insists that we take sufficient account both of the radical alienness of the Oankali (they are irreducible to any version of the human), and of the ways that the genetic alterations they engineer proliferate and alter conditions in the course of the narrative. In other words, he defends Butler (just as he previously defended Bear) against charges of genetic reductionism. Hybridity and adaptation to new conditions need to be understood in physical-environmental terms as well as cultural ones. The novels imagine the real potentials of “alternative, non-anthropocentric and non-species-centric images of perception, communication, and thought,” seeing these not as predetermined (or entirely genetically programmed), but also not as reducible to social and cultural terms alone (148). I find Idema’s reading persuasive, even though he largely ignores the (equally persuasive, in my opinion) opposing tradition of more politicized, dystopian, and anti-Oankali readings of the novel, which see the aliens as forces of enslavement and genocide. (My own reading, for what it is worth, is that both these interpretations are valid, and that Butler’s aesthetic power resides precisely in this violent and unresolvable ambivalence.)
The overall strength of Stages of Transmutation, however, comes not from the details of its close readings, but rather from the overall critical argument that underlies them. Most broadly speaking, Idema is philosophically aligned with such recent trends as new materialism and speculative realism, and with such thinkers as Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway, and Karen Barad. He seeks to comprehend how both new technologies (most obviously, our increasing powers of genetic engineering) and increasing ecological disruptions, are necessarily disrupting traditional accounts of “human nature,” and challenging our post-Cartesian assumptions of being autonomous subjects confronting a passive world of objects.
Basically, Idema argues that we need to get away from the inveterate anthropocentrism that has been our default position since the Enlightenment. This has been a theme, in sf and in scholarly discourse alike, for several decades now; Idema cites all the usual sources, but he is mostly concerned with making distinctions within this larger field of assumptions. He seeks to resist the way that “in practice, many posthuman theorists tend to narrow down to questions of technology”(2). Far too many accounts of posthumanity, both in sf and in theoretical speculation, envision human beings so massively altered by computational and life-enhancing technologies that they are no longer recognizable to us; but in a deeper sense, this line of thought still maintains a fiction of human independence from and mastery over nature or the external world. A posthumanity consisting essentially of superpowers is still ultimately anthropocentric.
Against all this, Idema proposes the importance of what he calls environmental posthumanism; this refers to sf works “in which human transformation occurs as a biologically induced, adaptive response to new and/or changing environments” (2). This means that human beings are no longer regarded as exceptional, but rather “as just another species of animal” (2). We find ourselves confronting nonhuman actors that we cannot simply dominate; rather, we must find some sort of accommodation with them. We are not separate from our environment(s), but implicated in vast feedback loops with other organisms, with inorganic forces, and, ultimately, with the planet as a whole. In order to take account of these interactions and transformations —which we have always been subjected to, but which have become impossible to ignore in the age of the so-called Anthropocene—we need to reject the very divide between nature and culture, or between matter and mind. For those of us involved in cultural studies, including the study of sf, this means rejecting social constructionism in the same way that we reject scientific essentialism. We need to accept the importance of biological and material forces at the same time that we understand that “human interventions through science and technology” are themselves “part of, and limited by, conditions that are not human-controlled” (20).
In exploring environmental posthumanism, Idema explores important theorists alongside the sf authors that are his main subject. He is most interested in what I would call (if I may be excused the admittedly problematic neologism) alt-biology: recent biological speculation that opposes the hegemonic new-Darwinian synthesis with its gene-centric and atomistic reductionism, and instead emphasizes systemic feedback effects, epigenetic alterations, symbiotic mechanisms, and the importance of environmental niche construction. Thus Idema looks at Susan Oyama’s Developmental Systems Theory alongside Robinson’s narrative of terraforming Mars; Lynn Margulis’s theory of symbiogenesis and Deleuze and Guattari’s account of nomad science alongside Bear’s genetic fantasia; James Lovelock’s Gaia theory and Stuart Kauffman’s account of biological emergence alongside VanderMeer’s account of Area X; and Donna Haraway’s thoughts about companion species alongside Butler’s grim fables. These are all crucial thinkers for any viable biological future we may be able to rescue out of our current ecological emergency, and Idema does a great service in highlighting their work, summarizing it clearly and elegantly, and juxtaposing it with the sf texts that are his main concern.
All in all, Stages of Transmutation is a valuable book, not only for its new readings of important sf texts, but also for the way that it restores the importance of scientific speculation in sf without privileging the reductionist dogmas of old-school “hard sf.” My hope is that the concept of environmental posthumanism will gain wider currency, both in terms of theoretical understandings and as a way to approach other (and less-well-known sf texts). Idema can be faulted for saying almost nothing about how recent speculative fiction has so powerfully and innovatively dealt with issues of race, gender, and sexual minorities, alongside the financial logic of capital; but I strongly believe that a future, posthumanist science fiction worthy of the name needs to incorporate the biological and environmental concerns addressed here alongside these more obviously political concerns.
One concluding note: this is no fault of the author, but I cannot forbear mentioning that the price of the volume is way too high for a book that is less than two hundred pages long and written in accessible prose.—Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University
Hegemonic Masculinity is Back.
London: I.B. Tauris, 2018. x+246 pp. $95 hc.
Here in the early twenty-first century, studies of masculinities in sf action cinema are both necessary and pressing. Due to recent trends in Hollywood action cinema—the increasing number of male action heroes over 50 years old, the increase in female superheroes, and diverse casts that include people of color (and, if sf cinema continues to trend toward more representational content, LGBTQ+ characters)—the sf blockbuster may have entered a new era. But before we start parsing out the significance of these shifts in filmmaking, it will be helpful to reconsider the sf action heroes of the last 35 years or so.
Marianne Kac-Vergne, an associate professor at the Université de Picardie in France, brings us up to speed on contemporary action stars in sf cinema. In Masculinity in Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, her focus is largely on the men and women who punch and kick and shoot their way through their stories (with a few exceptions). Kac-Vergne assembles films from Hollywood’s sf action cycle from the 1980s to 2014 and places them in conversation with one another to produce a readable and well-researched addition to the field of masculinities studies and cinema, as developed by scholars such as Yvonne Tasker in Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and Action Cinema (1993). Moreover, Kac-Vergne’s interrogation of the sf action hero marks her study as an original contribution to an understudied area.
Raewyn Connell’s theory of “hegemonic masculinity” (see Gender & Society 19.6 : 829–859) more or less dominates the Cultural Studies approach to understanding masculinities, and Kac-Vergne follows this tradition. By doing so, she provides a clear foundation for her study: Hollywood’s sf blockbusters attempt to present the white hard-bodied male as the embodiment of a universal Man that stands in for “humanity as a whole” (5). Beginning with this problem of hegemonic masculinity allows Kac-Vergne to assess a variety of topics in contemporary sf cinema: depictions of hypermasculinity in the 1980s and 1990s, the “sidelined” women, black masculinities (particularly Will Smith’s vehicles), and masculinity crises in the post-Clinton era. The author’s aim, however, is not to articulate the means by which Hollywood unabashedly creates characters who either do or do not neatly fit hegemonic masculinity, but “to deuniversalise white men and uncover the specific and changeable sets of norms embodied by male science fiction heroes” (5). According to the author, an attempt to literalize hegemonic masculinity in the form of a science-fiction action hero inevitably undermines itself by virtue of the untenable conception of monolithic masculinity.
After a short introduction that outlines the scope and stakes of the book, Kac-Vergne jumps into what she calls “vulnerable hypermasculinity” in sf films and franchises of the 1980s and ’90s. These films—the Robocop franchise (1987-1993), the Terminator franchise (1984-2019), the Predator franchise (1987-1990), The Fly (1986), Total Recall (1990), and Universal Soldier (1992)—emphasize the toned and muscular bodies of the white male protagonists. The author reads the numerous shots of shirtless protagonists as a product of the era, the drive for a totally unnatural physique sculpted through excessive bodybuilding. These physiques demonstrate masculinity that is hard in two senses of the term: hard to the touch and hard to achieve and thereby glorifying “masculine strength through the featuring of invulnerable heroes” (18). Yet this surface-level account of these blockbuster films gives way to an alternative reading of Robocop and The Fly. Kac-Vergne demonstrates the tension between the invulnerable cyborg and mutant body and the victimization and suffering that both titular protagonists endure. Indeed, Kac-Vergne turns to the melodrama to draw out the similarities between the suffering and pathos exhibited in that genre and these two sf films. The author concludes that these films and franchises provide a fantasy of hypermasculinity while at the same time cautioning against its ultimate iteration in the machine or the mutant.
After detailing the paradox of hypermasculinity in 1980s sf, Kac-Vergne turns her attention to class relations in the sf dystopias of the same period. Through careful and detailed analyses of Escape from New York (1981), Blade Runner (1982), Robocop, and Total Recall, she argues that these films are largely about the conflict between the working classes and elites. But the working-class men often showcase their strength and become emblems of hegemonic masculinity, albeit an economically inferior one. Kac-Vergne highlights the fact that these men are remasculinized through their strength and labor while the upper-class men are ultimately pathetic, weak, and overly reliant on their machines. A return to hegemonic masculinity, according to these films, requires that the workers discard the technologies of their oppressors. Although the narratives present a diegetic technophobia, Kac-Vergne concludes the chapter by arguing that these films’ premises undermine themselves by dazzling audiences with their special effects—“Deeper social issues recede in the background in the process” (80). This is why, as the author notes at the beginning of the chapter, few critics comment on the films’ exploration of class relations: we are too astonished by their visuals to heed the underlying critique.
While these two chapters and their respective discussions of hegemonic masculinity provide the framework for the analyses to come, they suffer a bit from a lack of economy, particularly the sections on Robocop. The following three chapters are much stronger. In the third chapter, Kac-Vergne paints a very sad picture of women in sf action cinema, and while her analyses are not revelatory, placing a number of sf films side by side provides a positive reconsideration of the roles (or lack thereof) that women play in some of the genre’s most famous movies. The author sets out three points of analysis: women as sidekicks, masculinized female heroes, and the disappointing legacy of female heroes of the 1990s. The third section is Kac-Verge at her most political. The post-feminism of 1990s female-centered sf action cinema contributed, in part, to the erasure of feminism from the genre in more recent years. When women do appear in recent films, such as Terminator 3 (2003) and Elysium (2013), they have already attained power (physical or political) and act as castrating tyrants who wish to take more power from men or even eliminate them. Further, in twenty-first-century sf action cinema, the only other roles for women are nurturing, caring, empathic supporting characters—usually some kind of scientist or medical practitioner—who “use their skills not for themselves but to help the male hero” (111). Twenty-first-century sf action cinema, then, returns to its 1980s precursors. The suggestion that recent sf action cinema is regressive productively links to the themes Kac-Vergne’s pursues in the final chapter on crises in masculinity.
Since the 1980s, every decade has announced that (white) masculinity is in crisis, although the culprits differ widely. The crisis often boils down to changing definitions of masculinity that are followed by bastions of conservative white men decrying the wane of patriarchy. The author argues that contemporary sf cinema responds to these crises with two unrelated character types: in the mid-to-late 1990s, white men who are more passive, weaker, and paler than the hypermasculine sf action stars from earlier decades (Strange Days , Johnny Mnemonic , Dark City , The Matrix ); and in the twenty-first century, male protagonists who are more nurturing, fatherly, and emotional (War of the Worlds , The Road , Interstellar , and Terminator Genisys ). On the former, Kac-Vergne observes the difficulty that the protagonists have in performing hegemonic masculinity. Therefore they turn to alternative masculinities or, most importantly, shed homosocial bonds with patriarchal men and instead accept the help of women. In the latter grouping of films, white male protagonists set their sights on saving or rescuing their children, stepping outside of traditional roles in which mothers are the sole caretakers. Kac-Vergne stresses that the focus on fatherhood in recent sf films suggests an unorthodox view of performing masculinity, thereby returning us to the thesis of her study. By emphasizing fatherhood, these films “undermine hegemonic masculinity based on the domination of others by pointing at its outdatedness and highlighting the failure of patriarchal transmission” (191).
Undermining hegemonic masculinity is also the subject of the first half of the fourth chapter. It further considers the role that typically marginalized characters play in sf cinema. Kac-Vergne addresses some of the problems with the theory of hegemonic masculinity by examining black male antagonists: the Predator in Predator 2 (1990) and Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) in Demolition Man (1993). The author argues that these characters are positive depictions of “black violence as a form of resistance and an assertion of power by the disenfranchised over a ‘civilisation’ always defined as white” (134). The chapter’s strength is, once again, its clear development of the volume’s thesis. I greatly appreciate the discussion of Demolition Man, a film that deserves more praise than it has so far received.
Not all black male stars in sf action cinema resist hegemonic masculinity, however. In an fascinating reading of Will Smith’s sf cycle, Kac-Vergne asserts that his character’s “safe” blackness, as portrayed in I, Robot (2004), and his display of hegemonic masculinity in After Earth (2013), highlight the ways in which black heroes “tend to integrate into the system and assimilate its values whereby empowerment comes from material success and the domination of others” (155). Kac-Vergne concludes her fourth chapter by noting that Smith’s characters, complicit with hegemonic masculinity, are lonely at the top—contemporary sf cinema is almost exclusively populated by whites. Thus Smith’s vehicles are a step backward for sf action cinema’s politics, as in the author’s conclusion in the third chapter about the roles women play in this genre.
Due to the radically disparate themes, stars, and plots of contemporary sf cinema, Kac-Vergne does not make many strong conclusions about overcoming hegemonic masculinity, although her analyses tend to suggest that some films attempt it. Nevertheless, the author’s evidence and arguments clearly indicate the role hegemonic masculinity plays in this period of film history. At first, I was concerned by Kac-Vergne’s decision not to introduce the theory of hegemonic masculinity in detail in the Introduction. As the chapters progress, however, the author gives us a nuanced account of that theory and we are able to understand its implications through her discussion of the films. This said, the book is of more interest to film studies scholars than to gender studies scholars as it lacks a critical engagement with the field of masculinities studies (however exceptional the author’s use of hegemonic masculinity theory may be). One glaring oversight is that while Masculinity and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema provides a breadth of analyses, it largely relies on action cinema characters at the expense of the men and women who do not resort to physical confrontations in other feature films (e.g., Moon  and Her ). But this shortcoming does not detract from this very readable and insightful volume. With Kac-Vergne’s study in hand, the field of masculinity and sf cinema studies is well poised to tackle films in the next era of sf blockbusters.—Troy Michael Bordun, Concordia University and Trent University
An Impossible Good Book.
Pittsburgh, PA: Insituto Internacional de Cultura Iberoamericana, 2018. 430 pp. $30.00.
Silvia G. Kurlat Ares’s La Ilusión Persistente appears in the Nuevo Siglo series published by the prestigious Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana, founded in Mexico in 1938 but currently based at the University of Pittsburgh. This information is pertinent to introduce an extremely ambitious volume that intends to bridge different cultural strata, but that is aimed for the most part at a highly specialized readership possibly more familiar with Latin-American culture than with science fiction. Kurlat, an independent scholar with an extensive CV, has taught at Johns Hopkins University, George Mason University, and the Universidad de Buenos Aires; she is also the editor of the forthcoming Latin American Science Fiction Studies Companion (Peter Lang). She is extremely well-positioned to connect the English-language field of science fiction and her native Argentinean context, which she examines with a specific focus on how local cultural production and politics interact. Her knowledge is indeed impressive and so is her ability to map a vast territory.
The problem is that La Ilusión Persistente is also overwhelming: it is an impossible good book. It is impossible in the sense that, despite Kurlat Ares’s expertise and her lucid, intelligent prose, only a handful of readers are fully qualified to follow this massive text. The quality of her book is undeniable; she undertook a marvelous amount of research in the five years (2011 to 2016) spent in the writing, as demonstrated in the depth of analysis and her dense web of allusions. This does not mean, however, that La Ilusión Persistente is immediately accessible, a problem increased by the reader-unfriendly layout of the volume.
It might not be customary to consider these matters in reviews but it must be done here. The cover is illustrated with the image of a ship (sea, not space) stranded on land that has nothing to do with the content; the dark green ink used for the text on the black cover makes it illegible. The type used is quite small and is downright tiny for the quotations and footnotes. The page margins are narrow, the quality of the indispensable illustrations poor. Kurlat Ares’s text deserves a much better edition but the fact is that the volume feels crammed and this does affect the reader’s good-will, particularly when reading the many pages where footnotes take up as much space as the main text (a common fault in Spanish-language academic work). The impression is that no prudent word count was agreed on by author and publisher and so the book feels uncomfortably compressed.
In a way this compression is positive because it highlights Kurlat Ares’s ambition: she actually offers three books in one, each corresponding to a section of the whole. Part One, “Entre El Eternauta y Ciudad: para un desideratum del imaginario de la cultura popular” [Between El Eternauta and Ciudad: Toward a Desideratum of Popular Culture’s Imagination], is a splendid study of the Argentinean science-fiction comi- book subgenre, focused on two outstanding examples. Part Two, “De cómo ejercitarse en leer ciencia-ficción: los proyectos de El Péndulo y de Minotauro” [On How to Train Yourself to Read Science Fiction: The Projects of El Péndulo and Minotauro] is also an excellent study of the sf magazine in Argentina and perfectly publishable as an independent volume. So is Part Three, “Máquinas de leer: la narrativa de ciencia ficción entre el deseo y el principio de la realidad” [Reading Machines: Science Fiction Narrative between Desire and the Reality Principle], which surveys with passion and acumen the work by three first-rank Argentinean sf writers: Angelica Gorodischer, Carlos Gardini, and Marcelo Cohen. The impression that La Ilusión Persistente is three books in one is also emphasized by the well-crafted introductions and conclusions that accompany each section (separate from those produced for the whole volume).
Kurlat Ares’s main thesis is that, as her title indicates, there is a persistent illusion that science fiction is a popular cultural production when actually, she claims, sf texts “incorporate basic operations of the literary field, which they re-codify, making them alien to the point that they re-emerge as if they were a marginal genre, when, in fact, they simply reproduce in a viscerally visible way the codes of enunciation of canonical literature” (411; emphasis in original, my translation). The passage is not only a typical example of Kurlat Ares’s prose style but a clear summary of her defense of Argentinean science fiction in view of its academic neglect.
This is not an uncommon position but she argues her point with great conviction, suggesting that only sheer prejudice prevents the literary establishment from acknowledging this intense dialogue between the canon and science fiction. If Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares could break the barriers, Kurlat Ares claims, why cannot other Argentinean sf writers do the same? This is a powerful argument, but it is perhaps more accurate to see science fiction as a narrative mode that operates at many different levels, from the sophistication shown by the texts Kurlat Ares examines to the far less ambitious pulp tradition, which modestly targets consumers in need of entertainment rather than philosophical contemplation. The Spanish-language academic tradition within which Kurlat Ares operates is still somehow too afraid to celebrate the popular and tends to select among the many varieties of science fiction what is closer to Borges than, to use an example from the English-speaking domain, to Robert Heinlein.
As a reader born in Spain, I must also highlight two other points. Kurlat Ares writes in Spanish and it should be assumed that her target audience is not necessarily Argentinean. She, however, takes for granted her reader’s familiarity with the main events of the history of Argentina, especially of the twentieth century. For those who are not as well informed as the author expects, it is advisable, then, to read a brief summary beforehand and to keep at hand a basic timeline. The second point has to do with the lack of dialogue with Latin-American academia. The bibliography combines many English-language secondary sources with Argentinean publications but there are practically no studies published in other Central and South-American countries or in Spain. This is a pity since many the aspects of the trajectory of science fiction in Argentina are similar to what other Latin-American countries have gone through. It is to be hoped that the companion that Kurlat Ares is currently editing will address and solve this gap.—Sara Martín, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
Fictional Wastelands and a Wasteland of Fictions.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018. viii+194 pp. $39.95 pbk.
The title of Carlen Lavigne’s book immediately invites the sort of speculation so many of us love, awakening images of struggling heroines, narratives of human resilience, and critiques of a species whose nature can never escape its worst impulses. It seems impossible to escape the zombie-like hordes of post-apocalyptic media, a genre of almost unparalleled critical malleability, responsive to nearly any critical lens we might bring to it. Lavigne’s most concerted inquiries, including gender, which the title announces, but also racial and sexual politics, immediately focus on the primary dangers we imagine an apocalypse might threaten, as humans resort to their most utilitarian views of reproductive sexuality (extinction), their fears of the other (zombies, aliens), and the loss of that fragile amulet to which we usually credit our gains in equality, human culture.
The introduction announces the shape of the book’s critique, a series of case studies rather than the broad and sweeping genre- or narrative-theory approach one might expect from the title. Reading the first two chapters also makes Lavigne’s approach clear as the text stakes out a readily observable format. Until the closing reflections, each chapter examines an apocalyptic sub-scenario—nuclear attacks, pandemics, aliens, zombies, etc.—and analyzes several shows. Further, each show-section has sub-divisions on gender, race, and sexuality, usually with one more section specific to the show’s plot concerns. These one-off sections are often the most compelling parts of the chapters, providing texture and diversity to the collection by examining such concerns as surveillance, frontierism, militarism, and hybridity.
The uniformity of organization will undergird one of the text’s major strengths, particularly for certain audiences, as I will discuss. Another primary strength, however, is the clarity with which Lavigne has set the limits of the project, forgoing the considerable material in film, fiction, gaming, and even music, for a coherence of form that the television show provides. The post 9/11 chronology to which Lavigne adheres feels anything but arbitrary and haunts the reader with a sense that the date and the world it produced, more than the precise tragedy it memorializes, have yielded a kind of meta-apocalypse to which these shows provide testimony.
With the text’s avowed aims firmly established—post-apocalyptic instead of disaster, case studies rather than theory, post 9/11 instead of 1970s classics—the book is most useful to those interested in the particular shows covered. Indeed, despite the meticulous work done to clarify characters, relationships, and events in the shows for context, the nature of the critique, relying primarily on descriptions of power dynamics and dialogue of the characters, means that the observations are less transmissible to texts outside those under scrutiny here.
The book’s clarity reinforces its usefulness—scholars examining a particular show will be able to navigate the subsections almost instantly for what they seek while the approachable language deliberately avoids jargon and theory-dropping for intuitive prose accessible to college students and interested general readers. I have already recommended it to a former student writing on The 100 (2014) and can see myself doing so again for students working with any of the numerous shows examined.
Nevertheless, two tendencies limit the insights and usefulness of the arguments. The first is the author’s methodology, which is somewhat superficial and generally avoids symbolism, tone, and narratology. Most of the evidence toward the final conclusions comes from the shows’ dialog, occasionally collapsing whatever distance we might imagine between character and text, disregarding who speaks the lines or how we imagine that character’s voice might be positioned in the context of a show. The other major source of evidence is the roles and relative associations those roles carry, cataloguing who are leaders, who gets to be strong, who has screen-time, and of what sort. This was generally more persuasive, as we see that characters of color, women, and other figures of under-represented groups often have only secondary or subservient roles.
A second limiting tendency comes from having every critique circle back to the unavoidability of cultural hegemony. This recursiveness happens in chapters, show-sections, and even most topical sub-sections, so that a single point is often repeated: that the pathways to a mainstream production ensure that shows will necessarily reproduce the problems of the mainstream culture. The truism is almost certainly correct but the book seems more intent on continuously demonstrating this rather than acknowledging it and moving beyond it, making the book feel both repetitive and fated as we rehearse the same reasons why any casting choice, plot device, or reimagining will inevitably lead to the same forgone diagnosis.
For these reasons the text holds few surprises once one accepts the initial premises laid out in the introduction: that these mainstream and major network productions generally reinforce normative and hegemonic perspectives. Included is the argument that even departures from these norms are generally nominal or shallow at best. These conclusions are usually persuasive and reflect the broader diagnoses of American television and genre fiction. Still, the text feels more inductive than deductive, as we proceed from the assumption that the show will be politically problematic and what remains is to see in what way. This being the case, the most striking examples and compelling work of analysis usually emerge from the author’s explorations of why a show’s characters of color, queer characters, or female leads are not actually politically progressive.
This is not to say that there are no surprises, or that the study suggests that the genre is without its own possibility to surprise us. The penultimate chapter on parodies and comedy send-ups provides some of the book’s best reading, making a compelling case that such comedic turns do not, as one might expect, signal the death knell of the genre but rather its maturation and capaciousness. The section on The Last Man on Earth (2015), for instance, does fascinating work examining disruptions to the normative process in the character of its inept and self-serving white male lead, although this section circles back to the same obvious conclusions about the primacy of cultural hegemony in mainstream cultural productions.
Taken as a whole, the book provides few new insights or unintuitive conclusions. Instead, its value lies in its creation of an inviting point of access beneficial to English and Cultural Studies students whose interests overlap with those shows examined in the text. The priority and popularity of the cultural discourses guiding this study also mean that people working with these shows, even outside the scope of the book’s topics, should familiarize themselves with the work done here.—Justin Cosner, University of Iowa
All Yesterday’s Tomorrows.
New York: New York UP, 2018. 331 pp. $24 pbk.
There are sf stories that take place in clean, barren futures, where the setting functions more as a tabula rasa than a standing-on-the-shoulders, futures so sterile you could build a microchip there. And then there are sf stories that take place in futures cluttered with the detritus of all the pasts that led there—broken objects, failed enterprises, spaces with obsolete uses, awkwardly transitional technologies, abandoned stories. Old Futures is this second kind of story. It is the kind of sf text that looks at all this junk from the past, and the futures it seemed to portend but did not get exactly right, as part of the world we inhabit in the present. The futures we create always tell us things about the presents from which they emerged. What Alexis Lothian does in Old Futures is look at speculative futures created at moments in our pasts to mine those futures—discarded, obsolete, unattained, or problematic as they might be—for ways to queer our present and its futures.
The book is divided into sections that examine British women’s utopian and dystopian fiction, Afrofuturist stories and novels, and non-literary speculative fiction, specifically several indie films and several fan remixes of popular sf television shows. Lothian’s archive is focused on populations marked or assumed to be futureless—people not meant to make it to “the future,” but, in the case of people of color and women, people through whose bodies “the future” is born. Examining what subjects excluded from discourses of the future have nonetheless created in relationship to it, Lothian brings together texts and ways of thinking that reject the idea of futurity entirely, that embrace alternate temporalities existing alongside or in friction with chrononormativity, that negotiate ways of living between resistance and acquiescence to futurity, and that carve out spaces attuned to the pleasures and possibilities of the present and its inhabitants. What emerges is an affectively rich study of the temporal storytelling impulses to speculate, to turn back, to overleap, to linger, to narrate, and to edit. In her closing pages, writing in 2017, Lothian wonders “what the point of coming back to science fiction and its cultures, to the small-scale contestations of pages and screens, might be, when worlds and futures away from those protected zones have been constantly falling apart and occasionally coming together” (254). She answers that “speculative fiction, like queer critique, is a world-making practice that promotes speculative organizing, radical possibility, and queer love—even as it may have equally often worked against such impossible prospects” and that “no matter how dystopian the future seems, somebody somewhere will be trying to remake it” (254, 255).
Even though compromised hopefulness is the dominant emotional note of the book, Lothian does not shy away from discussing much less positive feelings about the future within her archive, including uncomfortable connections between future-oriented projects and fascism, eugenics, and colonialism. Lothian works at length with “the ambiguous means by which feminist futurists both opposed and reproduced imperial civilization” (45), particularly through the eugenicist means employed to achieve utopian futures in their texts. She also discusses the ways the “ambiguous critique of empire” in one of the films she examines “highlights punk’s relationship with white supremacy” (193). Lothian explains in her introduction, “Many of the oldest futures I discuss feel embarrassing to approach if we are looking for historical precursors for radical queer thought,” but “generosity toward the uncomfortable, ugly, and often violent past is a necessary tool for entering into what I argue is a necessary engagement with these works, without obscuring either problems or potentialities” (11). Overall, Lothian’s unwavering critical insight into her archive, grappling with the reactionary alongside the radical, is one of the greatest strengths of the project. It feels odd, then, that she lets Samuel R. Delany off the hook in her treatment of his work. Not only does Lothian work with Dhalgren in her section on Afrofuturism, but also the novel animates Old Futures as a whole by providing its epigraph. Yet while Lothian argues that “Delany’s speculations on sex, difference, and power are generative and complex in their capacity to figure pleasure as simultaneously transformative and disciplinary,” she ultimately focuses on the “utopian potential” to be found in moments of “erotic perfection fulfilled” between subjects in relationships structured by unequal power (161)—a lost opportunity for more nuanced engagement, especially given Delany’s infamous comments in defense of NAMBLA. Can we assent to Lothian’s claim that in Delany’s fiction “[u]nequal power structures provide an eroticism whose fugitive pleasures provide an escape route for people subjected to those structures while they still remain within them” (162) without ignoring the other, far more disturbing context in which Delany spoke about sexual relationships among subjects of unequal power? I would have liked to see Lothian engage with Delany’s complex and problematic legacy with the same rigor and care as her other subjects, not because I wish to reject Delany and his work wholesale, but precisely because in the rest of Old Futures Lothian deftly illuminates what is of political and ethical value within her archive while not excusing or ignoring what is not.
That oversight is my only criticism, however. Overall Old Futures is sharp and compelling. I particularly enjoy the organization of the book, which succeeds in marrying form with content. In addition to its major sections, Old Futures contains “Two shorter sections, named ‘Wormholes’ in homage to the science fiction genre trope of a time-space distortion that connects distant locations” (23). Lothian explains that she uses these wormholes to include connections across time from her primary archive to more recent texts taking up the same themes (for instance, the film Children of Men  and the television series Sense8 [2015-2018]). The wormholes also provide a clever device, first, for situating texts when the relationships between them are complicated—when a text could make equal claim to being included in either of two chapters or in no chapter at all—and, second, for leaning into the eclectic nature of the archive as a whole. A wormhole taking us from nineteenth- and early twentieth-century feminist utopian literature to Afrofuturism by way of a contemporary British film, oddly enough, works. It affords connections across seemingly disparate things and in doing so reflects the argument of Old Futures in its form.
For this book’s argument is, after all, one of unexpected connection —between the futurity of sf’s speculative impulses and the pastness and anti-futurity of queer temporalities. Lothian is working against the grain of sf practices of disconnection (the concept of the Singularity standing in for the thinking we cannot do to connect the dots between Now and Then) and queer theory practices of disconnection (where a “no future” philosophy detaches queers from speculative discourses and situates us as pillars of salt facing the past). But while in conversation with those impulses, Lothian does something else entirely and opens up a new vantage point on the future by looking at it sideways, from outside its own timeline. That vantage point allows her (and us) to see the continuities, to see the way the leftover stuff of the past’s futures persists in and enlivens our present.—Elizabeth Lundberg, University of Iowa
Digging for Readers.
Liverpool UP, 2018. xv+228 pp. £85 hc.
Shawn Malley has written a challenging book. Its subtitle tells you whether you are part of the target audience and, despite my interest in the topic of the book, I suspect I am not the person Malley is really writing for. Since I identify as an archaeologist who lives in contemporary Canada, has a keen interest in politics, watches a lot of film and television, and reads a lot of sf, it makes me wonder who will read this book. Despite being well qualified on paper to review the work, I frequently felt lost, accompanying the author on a journey that he clearly enjoys and knows well, but one whose twists and turns I had difficulty in following and that were unable to enthrall me. “This study examines how archaeology bequeaths to SFTV a critical vocabulary with which to speak about the past, theorize our relationships with material culture, and excavate the discursive strata between cognition and estrangement” (13); if you like that sentence, you will probably enjoy this book. Malley knows how to write, but he was unable to persuade me of the coherence of his vision.
Perhaps most importantly, despite the subtlety in the writing and argumentation, I was not convinced about the methodology. The selection of nine recent US films and television series to pursue three topics themes (Babylon, Ancient Aliens, Cyborgs) gives the book a certain coherence. Following a useful introduction, the first section tackles its topic by examining the 2005 film Manticore, the Stargate SG-1 television series (1997-2007), and the 2009 film Transformers-2: Revenge of the Fallen, critically panned though making money. The second section looks at the Ancient Aliens television series (2010-), the 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the television series Smallville (2001-2011). The third section covers the 2001 film AI: Artificial Intelligence, the rebooted television series Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009), and the 2012 film Prometheus. Each section has an introduction that outlines some of the themes to be discussed. Malley writes well about these various productions, especially in chapter 8 on Prometheus, by far the strongest chapter in the book, convincingly detailing the film’s deep engagement with Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
Listing the chapters in this fashion, however, helps to clarify that the book is really about Hollywood’s view of sf. This is a challenging group of productions to tie together into a monograph, and I wonder how many viewers of Transformers-2 are likely also to have watched Prometheus? Opening with a chapter about Manticore works well in terms of the book’s theme, but has anyone actually seen the movie? A few minutes of googling suggest it disappeared on launch. Questions such as these make me wonder about the vision presented here. Is it really Hollywood we are seeing or Malley’s representation of Hollywood? In other words, the archaeologist in me is looking for a discussion of sampling strategies, while the classicist is looking for a discussion of reception. Is Lara Croft (2001) sf? Probably not, but it does not feel any more unconnected to Malley’s themes than Smallville and, like the Indiana Jones franchise, has arguably had more impact on modern conceptions of archaeology than any of the productions discussed here. And why television and film rather than books, which would have allowed in Richard K. Morgan’s Broken Angels (2003) or Richard Paul Russo’s The Rosetta Codex (2005) while still remaining on the topic of ancient aliens? It may be that some of the failure of the work to hang together well comes from the fact that some of these chapters have been published before as freestanding works, i.e., the chapters on Stargate SG-1, Battlestar Galactica, and Prometheus.
Despite the occasional engagement with archaeology (and Malley is the author of a 2013 monograph on Victorian perspectives on archaeological finds), there is not much here about archaeology. There is a brief discussion of post-processual archaeology in the introduction, though it would be easy for the inattentive to miss that this is only one school of archaeological theory and there are many other ways for archaeologists to think about the past. The book ends with an epilogue discussing so-called IS’s attacks on the monuments of Palmyra and the responses of some archaeologists. These comments on archaeology and geopolitics are then linked back to Prometheus, alone of all the works discussed in the book.
That said, this book is not really about archaeology and sf, which is what I had hoped, as much as it is about Archaeology [Theory] and Geopolitics in Contemporary [post 9/11] North American [American; Stargate SG-1 is a Canadian-American production, but Canada is conspicuous by its absence] [selected] Science Fiction Film and Television. Moving away from the sf and the archaeology, I felt that the geopolitical analysis was predictable rather than incisive. Indeed, I felt as if we could swap in spy thrillers or heist movies in place of archaeology and sf and reach similar conclusions. “Hollywood” makes movies and, though screenwriters’ concepts of how humans relate to one another can occasionally be accurate, their professional objectives are very different from Malley’s (or mine). I am not convinced that the best venue for criticizing this viewpoint is an expensive academic monograph, nor would I expect many screenwriters to read this. It thus often felt to me as if Malley was writing for readers likely to agree with him, rather than constructing an argument intended to persuade uncommitted or critical readers. I wanted to like the book more, but ultimately felt that my reactions may have something to do with disciplinary differences, in that Malley and I are trying to do different things in our scholarly work. That said, I felt that there was a shorter and more influential book somewhere in here, but one that somehow got buried in the process of writing.—Hugh Elton, Trent University
. New York: Dey Street, 2018. 473 pp. $28.99 hc.
At the end of Alec Nevala-Lee’s seemingly interminable subtitle, he informs us that this book is about “the Golden Age of Science Fiction.” His book is engaging and informative, but one thing he does not tell us is what was so golden about that period. Perhaps it is time to recognize that, unless it refers to one’s chronological or mental age, the term should be read ironically. At least, from what we read here, this age was more tarnished than golden.
Nevala-Lee begins his account with an anecdote about Isaac Asimov. In 1963 Asimov attended a conference which grappled with the question of how to identify the children who would help to shape the technological future. Asimov considered the problem for a couple of days, then wrote an article for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in which he proposed a simple solution: look for those children with “an interest in good science fiction.” Let us, for the moment, ignore the weasel word, “good”; this proposal is no more than a variant on the old fannish slogan, “Fans are Slans.” Taken from A.E. Van Vogt’s novel Slan (1946) which had been serialized in Astounding in 1940, this slogan promoted the idea that science-fiction fans are a persecuted minority who suffer because they are really superior to everybody else. Slan had been largely shaped by Astounding’s editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., who was devout in his belief that science would create superior humans and by implication that sf readers would be the saviors of the future. After this brief preface, the rest of Nevala-Lee’s book is devoted to illustrating the different ways that Asimov’s proposal would be a bad idea.
This grandiose view, that only science fiction equipped one for the future, was a consequence of Campbell’s highly inflated opinion of his own omnicompetence. As Nevala-Lee shows, he was, in truth, a failed scientist who never lost the belief that he was a technological genius. During the Second World War, for instance, he spent the whole time waiting around for the government to recognize his worth and put him in charge of a team that would, under his guidance, instantly come up with a string of phenomenal inventions that would end the war in days. It never happened, largely because what scientific knowledge he did have was already years out of date, and also because his abilities as a leader of men was, shall we say, dubious at best. In the end, his most memorable impact on the war effort came because he remembered some information about nuclear energy that had come his way before the war. He combined this with the inevitable wartime rumors into a fairly crude story that he got Cleve Cartmill to write; he then published the story, “Deadline,” in the March 1944 issue of Astounding without going through any of the usual wartime checks. The result of this deliberate manoeuvring was that Cartmill, Astounding, and, of course, Campbell himself were investigated by the FBI for revealing military secrets. No charges were laid, but ever afterwards Campbell was able to use this contrived situation to demonstrate that he and his magazine had their fingers on the scientific pulse.
Campbell was so eager, and so ill-equipped, to be at the forefront of some massive technological breakthrough that he spent the rest of his life a fool for every passing fancy. Dianetics, the Dean Drive, and various daft psionic devices were among the causes into which he sunk his money and his time, while actual science largely passed him by. To the end of his life, for instance, and in defiance of growing and authoritative medical evidence, he insisted that smoking could have absolutely no connection to cancer.
The one area in which Campbell did have a sort of genius was as an editor of a pulp science-fiction magazine, but even that genius was limited. When, in 1937, he found himself editor of Astounding, he was a far more successful author of pulp sf than he was the MIT student and scientist he dreamed of being. Even so, it is noticeable that most of his best fiction was written with input from his first wife, Doña, a fact he acknowledged in his pseudonym, Don A. Stuart, if nowhere else. One of the themes of Nevala-Lee’s book is how much the four central figures owed to the women in their lives, particularly their first wives, and how ill-regarded and ill-treated those women subsequently were.
In a sense, Campbell stopped writing fiction the moment he got behind the editor’s desk; in another sense, he never did. Campbell was an extraordinarily hands-on editor: he would hand out story ideas to his writers, then demand rewrite after rewrite until the work matched his own original vision. Nevala-Lee does not explicitly say this, but one gets the impression that Campbell as editor was something of a bully, and certainly there were some writers, Frederik Pohl for one, who never got along with him. This seems to have been an effective way of working with new young writers such as Isaac Asimov, who was so naïve and eager to please that he happily went along with whatever Campbell said, and Robert Heinlein, who never really saw science fiction as his life’s work; it became less useful, however, as those same writers grew in skill and confidence. Little more than a decade after he took on the editorship of Astounding, as new magazines started to come on to the market those same writers started to drift away to more congenial berths, and Astounding began its long decline. Campbell had a vision for his magazine that worked very well in the early 1940s; his vision never changed, however, and it worked less well during the 1950s and 1960s when the market and the world were being transformed. To the end of his days he insisted that what science-fiction readers wanted was a hero, invariably a white American man, whose competence would inevitably save the day against every threat. Shades of grey, literary subtlety, doubt, women, or anyone who did not fit into his immediate social circle never entered into the picture.
In the early years the only chance that the Campbell view would not dominate the magazine came when management insisted that there were a couple of popular pulp writers whose every submission Campbell must accept. One of these was L. Ron Hubbard, but he had little interest in science fiction and was quite happy to shape his colorful adventures the way Campbell wanted. Nevala-Lee’s book presents itself as a joint biography of four figures, Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, who were instrumental in shaping mid-century American sf. But in fact it is overwhelmingly about Campbell, while Asimov and Heinlein have the thankless role of supporting players. Only Hubbard comes close to attracting the same attention as Campbell, and that is because there is almost too much to be said about him.
Right from the start we know that Hubbard was a liar and a braggart, who constantly conjured up wild stories of his own heroic adventures that never came close to the truth. One of the extraordinary things that this book never quite explains is that Robert Heinlein, who seems to have been a generally sceptical character, appears to have accepted Hubbard at face value throughout his life. Hubbard was also a conman, although it is not clear whether this was conscious or whether he simply believed his own lies. He began to construct a science of the mind that, deliberately or not, played directly to Campbell’s prejudices and beliefs. Campbell was a devotee of the idea of the homo superior, mostly, I suspect, because he saw himself in that role; Hubbard’s “dianetics” seemed like a direct route to that dream. Campbell became an enthusiastic participant in “auditing,” he contributed money, spent several days a week working for dianetics, and contributed to Hubbard’s book on the subject while extolling it vociferously in the pages of Astounding. Hubbard seems to have been happy to sit back and let others do much of the work, until money started rolling in; then he ruthlessly cut out Campbell, and his wife, and just about anybody else who might have a claim on the fortune.
Campbell never learned from the experience; he went on to shill for a string of other crackpot notions, while his own opinions on everything from science to race became ever narrower and more fixed. Nevala-Lee reports on several people who encountered Campbell late in his life and came away shaken by the views expressed. As for Hubbard’s views, he was so duplicitous that it is hard to work out what, if anything, he did believe. Heinlein comes across as arrogant, none too honest, and more unpleasantly right wing as he got older. Asimov, something of an outsider from childhood, seems to have been genuinely more liberal than any of his fellows (though also prone to shift his position depending on whom he was with), but he was always socially awkward, particularly with women, which led to a lifelong misogyny, and he went to his grave an inveterate bottom-pincher. All of this inevitably found its way into the fiction.
These people, Campbell in particular, had an inordinate influence on the shape of American science fiction for a brief period around the middle of the twentieth century. But that fiction was shaped by prejudice, by duplicity, and by the narrowness of their social and literary experience. The pulp magazines had confined American science fiction to a very small and often illiterate niche. During its brief heyday, Astounding did not escape the niche and did not fundamentally change the audience from white boys, but it did introduce a certain cleverness in its use of ideas and at least an awareness of genuine science. This was enough for a number of later scientists to have emerged from the Astounding readership, though whether this justifies Asimov’s test for future scientists is open to question. What it did not do was set the template for how science fiction should be. Science fiction has changed immeasureably since Campbell’s day and in ways that Campbell would have found anathema, and if it is to survive it will continue changing. Campbell, and Asimov, and Heinlein, and Hubbard represent one brief and not particularly honorable moment in the history of that change. Nevala-Lee’s book—readable, informative, often surprising—demonstrates in the end why that moment was not exactly golden.—Paul Kincaid, Independent Scholar
Emergent Spectrums of Sonic Novums.
The Sound of Things To Come: An Audible History of the Science Fiction Film. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2018. 478 pp. $120 hc, $30 pbk.
Trace Reddell’s The Sound of Things To Come provides a highly detailed and expansive analysis of the history of intersecting aesthetic practices and disciplines that create the diverse sonic space of sf cinema. Reddell examines the technological/material conditions to account for compositional attributes, avant-garde experimentation with noise, and impetuses for the diverse forms of sf soundtrack that have emerged. He does this through focusing on the development of different kinds of instruments and recording techniques, as well as of sites for audience reception. Borrowing from Darko Suvin’s concept of the novum, Reddell builds his analysis around the idea of the sonic novum by which he identifies, within various periods of sf cinema, the emergence of novel and generative sound innovations. His interdisciplinary scholarship weaves together a compelling analysis of sf cinematic sound for understanding both canonical and peripheral sf films from the 1920s to the 1980s. To guide his analysis, Reddell draws upon a variety of sources: music theorist Pierre Shaeffer’s musique concrete; cinema sound theorist Michel Chion’s penetrating distinctions between on-screen and off-screen sounds; Gilles Delueze and Félix Guattari’s notion of the machinic unconscious to account for the psychodynamic emergent nature of cinematic sound; and cultural critic Steven Shaviro’s examinations of the affective dimension of sf sounds as immersive engagement in, of, and through twentieth-century technology. These provide the theoretical framings by which Reddell reveals the technological unfolding and dissolutions of the future human, the posthuman, the alien, and the nonhuman. No doubt we need to engage his text in relation to a variety of cultural analyses. With that said, I will restrict my own criticism to what I perceive as a problem with Reddell’s treatment of the sonic novum as historical device.
Reddell organizes his text with an introduction followed by five chapters. The introduction situates his analysis relative to past and contemporary literature on the sonic elements in sf cinema while establishing the book’s rationale, theoretical frameworks, and methodological approach. Each chapter represents different periods and these are developed chronologically. Chapter one begins with the origins of sound particular to sf cinema from 1924 to 1950. Fritz Lang’s silent German expressionist Metropolis (1927) and William Cameron Menzies’s impressionist Things to Come (1936) provide the main coordinates for discussing the transformations in and transformative thrust of emerging sonic novums. Ultimately, for Reddell, at stake in these films were new challenges to how we conceive and perceive harmony and melody. Even their import as narrative signifiers for the moving image was up for grabs. Overlapping new and divergent approaches to sound in sf film, avant-garde music composers put pressure on the conceptual divide between music and noise. Developments in technology made sf cinema a symbiotic realm for compositional experimentation.
In his second chapter, Reddell examines the emerging complex forms of sf cinematic ambient sound, the niche aspects and experimental use of sound technology largely exhibited by films such as Forbidden Planet (1956) and Gojira (1954). The soundtracks for Forbidden Planet and Gojira, though quite divergent, signal a shift in approach to how a film’s atmosphere was created sonically. In Gojira, for example, to exploit deep psychological mechanisms silence is used to make the act of hearing central to experiencing the film’s terrorizing radioactive monster. As in Reddell’s first chapter, the theremin is central. There we grasped the theremin’s peculiarity in being an electronic instrument in a sea of acoustic instruments, with divergent tonalities and new capacities for modulation. In this second chapter, however, composers bring focus to the sonic and musical qualities of the theremin’s tones and modulating frequencies. Apart from signifying mystery, the theremin is affective. Given that space exploration was now a realistic goal, sf filmmakers looked to aesthetic devices that could take us beyond the familiar, into outer space. Instead of stable and precisely rendered tonalities for signifying, depicting, or providing the viewer with a fixed sense of ontological coordinates, the theremin evokes a sense of uncertainty that permeates the unknown realms of a nebulous, areferential, non-terrestrial expanse.
The third chapter covers sf films from 1959 to 1968. Reddell focuses primarily on the sound innovations in Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968), Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968), and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Instead of making the universe orderly and coherent and featuring stable and higher forms of intelligent beings, sf film themes—riding the postmodern wave—doubled down on the cosmos as unintelligible, irrational, an unpredictable becoming. Reddell rejects Fredric Jameson’s pessimistic reduction of the sf utopic vision, as limited by human rationality, to mere representations of “our incapacity to imagine the future” (240). Instead, drawing on contemporary theorist Stephen Zepke’s work on Friedrich Nietzsche’s “optimistic ontology” (145), Reddell redirects analysis of 1960s sf cinema in terms of an indeterminate future. He argues for the genre’s ability to activate the affective potential of posthuman becoming. Reddell evaluates 1960s sf films as fragmentary, disunified, and disaffected spaces and states created by disorienting, distorted, and discontinuous sonic experiments. For Reddell such films precipitate the sonic novum’s turn, unhinged from the conventions of consequentialist-narrative sf cinema, away from prior decades. In the psychedelic drug-infused 1960s, we are fully immersed in ever-transforming and intensifying realms of affect and experiment. Science-fiction cinema sound is no longer merely an accompaniment to images or a device for making place and space for encounters with the alien. Sound is explored as its own dimension, possessing subdiegetic zones that operate independently of a film’s narrative.
Chapter four, covering sf films from 1971 to 1977, locates the sonic novum within the opposition between aesthetico-political cinema and the formulaic Hollywood blockbuster—the latter exemplified by Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Georg Lucas’s Star Wars (1977). The former manifest in diverse ways through Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Sun Ra’s Space is the Place (1974). Of the three films, the sonic composition for Solaris is the least politically overt. In Solaris the ideological import of sound is almost subliminal. Solaris’s soundtrack inverts the conventional sf cinema objective of identifying and knowing the unknown future (333). We are confronted with the odd sensation of things whereby we lack an index for subsuming a thing’s alterity within reason. As in chapter three, Kubrick’s sf cinema is again crucial for advancing Reddell’s sonic novum. With Clockwork, Kubrick conceives of the film soundtrack as the space of technical processes for social control (310–11). While Clockwork identified the auditive mechanisms for circumscribing “the familiar,” Star Wars and Close Encounters exploited them outright. The movie theater was a site for manufacturing an audience’s absorption in predatory capitalist ideology (359) to ensure continued consumption of Hollywood’s on-screen product and associated merchandise. Where films such as Clockwork, Solaris, and Space is the Place destabilized fixed points of audition by challenging our perceptions and conceptions of the relations between the diegetic and non-diegetic, Hollywood and subsequent Disney sf films made rigid the connections between these elements. Star Wars and Close Encounters turned the sonic novum into a fully regulated capitalist program.
In chapter five the political and contemplative works of Kubrick, Sun Ra, and Tarkovsky of the early 1970s appear to have spawned the self-reflexive, haptic, and ambiguous sonifying of the machinic unconscious manifest in films of the 1980s. Rejecting the Hollywood blockbuster formula that made affect into a system of commodified effect, sf cinema in the 1980s, keyed by digital transformations, updated the sonic novum through a heightened sense of uncertainty, irrationality, and anxiety. Films from this decade were at the crossroads of analog and digital technologies. With the availability of the new digital technological means, a film’s affect could be greatly enhanced and intensified. Thus soundtracks were not only the space for coherent interpretive strategies in relation to the moving image, but they also became their own diverse sonic ecologies. For Reddell, Blade Runner (1982) and Decoder (1984) were the most impactful sf films of this kind. Blade Runner’s virtualized soundscape achieves its sense of reality through filtered cultural memory. In effect, the sonic fabricates a reality that reinforces that fabrication—the simulacrum of a generic past as being real. Decoder is seemingly less fatalist and more overtly political than Blade Runner. Decoder decodes Muzak. Synonymous with elevator music, Muzak was expressly designed to create the mood for stimulating a consumer to buy. Decoder inverted the design of Muzak’s ideological coercion towards passive consumption. Deploying William Burroughs’s cut-up strategies for tape recordings, creator/producer Klaus Maeck conceived the techniques of Decoder as on-the-ground tactics for the political activist. Here the 1980s futurist sonic novum serves to critique present social conditions and forms of behavioral conditioning.
My main concern with Reddell’s book is over his occasional treatment of the concept of the sonic novum. Reddell elevates isolated responses of one period to the previous period as being catalysts for transformation, specifically for the making of a sonic novum. Encompassing varied artistic and technological mastery, the sonic novum manifests as if it were a generational will to overcome or outdo previous prominent sonic formations. In one sense, Reddell’s thinking behind the relational nature of the sonic novum appears reasonable. No sf film is in isolation from the industries of culture. In another sense, however, the sonic novum conceived as a dialogical formation imposes an artificial rational and unifying order to a history of how sf cinema sound has changed. Applied this way, the sonic novum is, unlike all other formations and forces Reddell puts under assessment, a presumed cinematic benchmark for unique moments exempt from the disciplinary divergences of intersecting practices that make for difference, seemingly the very essence of the sonic novum. It would appear Reddell addresses these kinds of objections in the introduction when he writes “SF cinema’s sonic novums defamiliarize their own myth narratives by participating in the problematic, complex, and interrelated histories of new music and noise in the twentieth century” (16) and “The continuum of sonic science fiction is composed of dissimilar parts that interact in nonteleological fashion, with no precise end or goal in sight, and with a high degree of contingency among its components in any given instance” (17). I find, however, that Reddell’s analysis does not quite play out this way. For all chapters, the dialectic of opposite innovations for producing the sonic novum takes center stage. Ultimately, my problem is more with giving prominence to this propulsive mechanism than it is with the responses between sf films as propulsive, as significant contributions and/or challenges to and within the discipline. While the theoretical unfolding of certain academic subjects may be ordered, the film world is not entirely governed by such a logical discourse. Reddell’s deployment of the sonic novum makes it a function of a cultural-historical objective. The sonic novum becomes the will of sf sound as opposed to a way to focus a history of sf cinema in terms of the potentiality of sf sound. Reddell might consider rejigging the sonic novum to better synch with his analytical approach to history. This would entail examining sound technologies and their deployments through their own transduction.
This concern aside, Reddell’s book is a highly informative and thought-provoking read. It is a wonderful contribution to sf cinema, cinematic sound analysis, and, more generally, an understanding of the sf cinematic experience in various periods and countries. Reddell deftly articulates the profound intellectual and experimental dynamics that make up what is often considered to be a secondary element of the cinematic experience. Further, he greatly expands the examination of how, in concert with broader technological forces, the explorative and innovative nature of sound technologies circumscribes conceptions of possible futures and of potential interactions with the indeterminacy of the alien and of outer space.—Dylan Cree, Concordia University
Distance and Intimacy.
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2018. 240pp. $108 hc, $27 pbk.
The mechanisms we humans use officially and circumstantially to judge another’s humanness emerge from the realms of care work, domestic work, and emotional labor. Such work tends to operate under two interwoven rules: distance and intimacy. Both must be present to counterweigh the work of the healthcare assistant, the childcare provider, or the mental health counselor. Too little contact and we accuse our caregivers of bitter medicine; too much and we might feel the need to reciprocate the care we have received. Another way to frame the central problematic here might be to suggest that whoever gets to be the one in need is the one we describe as human. Now imagine that the caregiver is a robot giving off an electric hum and emoting according to cybernetic protocols. Jennifer Rhee’s The Robotic Imaginary explores the human as a conceptual category in search of the mechanisms of humanness and dehumanization.
The book introduces many robots across its four chapters. Readers will meet ELIZA. Designed by Jospeh Weizenbaum in 1966, this screen-interface AI was used to emulate a therapist. It would first ask leading questions and later reference past user inputs to perform conversational acuity (33-37). Readers will meet Shakey, a robot designed by a team led by Nils Nilsson at the Stanford Research Institute between 1966 and 1972. Shakey uses a programmed map of a more-or-less empty apartment along with basic sensory input to navigate. Shakey malfunctioned often and was a very early prototype for the robotic vacuum (70-75). Readers will also meet Kismet, a robotic head programmed to learn from conversational inputs. Kismet’s speech patterns, inquisitiveness, and appearance are all designed so that conversation partners will underestimate the robot and treat it as a child, mentee, or dependant (101-105). The pattern of introducing uniquely likable robots designed for care, domestic, and emotional labor stops when the book returns in the fourth chapter to the subject with which it opens: drones.
Rhee begins her study by comparing the dehumanizing experience of Yemenis living under the threat of drone strikes with a related yet distinct manner of dehumanization exhibited by drone operators in the United States. Rhee’s epigraphs include a statement by Yemeni Ezzaldeen Tuaiman, “They’re going to kill me next,” beside another made by drone operator Michael Haas, “Ever step on ants and never give it another thought?” (1). Here two forms of dehumanization have taken effect, mediated by drone ballistics, flight tech, hardware, and software. Such dynamics are taken up in great detail in “Dying,” the book’s fourth chapter. But first Rhee offers a thoroughgoing elaboration of the cultural history of robotics and artificial intelligence, interspersed with excursions into robot aesthetics and cybernetic art.
Rhee offers much more than a cultural history of robotics. The book focuses on history, but it does so in order to attend to the robotic imaginary, which Rhee defines as “the shifting inscriptions of humanness and dehumanizing erasures evoked by robots” (5). Robots call to mind certain figurations of both the human and the inhuman. For Rhee, the work of the robotic imaginary is simultaneously about forming humanizing connections between otherwise differentiated entities and dehumanizing divisions between otherwise similar entities. The robotic imaginary operates in the realm of metaphor and anti-metaphor, and such connections and disconnections have profoundly material outcomes.
Each chapter is closed by a punctuating coda. These codas indirectly relate to the substance of each chapter and explore works of robot-focused or robot-inspired art. They form a set of secret gallery passageways through the text littered with exhibits that comment on and are shaped by the robotic imaginary. Momoyo Torimitsu’s performance piece Miyata Jiro (1999), for instance, features a life-like robot dressed in a business suit crawling along the sidewalk attended by Torimitsu who is playing the part of a human nurse. Torimitsu’s piece was performed in the financial districts of Tokyo, New York, London, and Rio de Janeiro. Commentators point out that the piece emphasizes the gruelling expectations of business culture, and Rhee adds that the nurse is a crucial element that depicts the role of care work in sustaining such white-collar labor dynamics.
The sf texts under discussion here include Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) and its sequel We Can Build You (1972), Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives (1972), Bryan Forbes’s film The Stepford Wives (1975), Richard Powers’s novel Galatea 2.2 (1995), Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina (2014), and Spike Jonze’s film Her (2014). But the book does not simply consider cultural texts. For instance, it delves into work by Masahiro Mori on the uncanny valley and Alan Turing on artificial intelligence, taking up the output of programmers and designers alongside artists and theoreticians.
With a nod to sf scholar Sherryl Vint’s work, Rhee describes one approach to the robot through the overlapping terminology of the early Marx and of sf studies: alienation and/or estrangement. The robot, in this sense, becomes “a kind of uncanny fictional embodiment of human alienated labor, of estrangement” (22). The robot comes to be through labor yet is estranged from the human; in this sense it embodies “one’s own labor” under capitalism (22). In both its chapters and their codas, Rhee’s book asks the right questions about humanness and dehumanization in unique ways. The focus on social reproduction, care, domestic, and emotional labor situates the labor of robotics and the ideological work of the robotic imaginary as intensely feminist problematics. At a historical moment when the role of the human is being pressured along geological timescales in the sciences, Rhee’s exploration of the future of human labor produces valuable insights into the human epoch, refreshingly without ever pronouncing the word anthropos.
Those engaged with feminist science and technology studies, Marxist feminism, labor history, contemporary art criticism, and posthumanism will find this book a useful one to peruse. Sf scholars interested in a genre history of robot stories will want to supplement Rhee’s book with other studies, which makes sense because Rhee does not frame the book as a genre history. Sf scholars should pick up this book to aid discussions of the human, the alien, and the future of labor at conferences, in seminar rooms, and across publications.—Brent Ryan Bellamy, Trent University
New Scholarship on Early SF in France and Québec.
C’était demain: anticiper la science-fiction en France et au Québec (1880-1950) [It Was Tomorrow: Anticipating Science Fiction in France and Québec, 1880-1950]. Bordeaux, France: Presses universitaires de Bordeaux, Coll. Eidôlon #123, 2018. 428 pp. €26 pbk.
First, it might be helpful to have some historical context about this book. In the July 2015 issue of SFS, I reviewed and recommended a similar 2014 collection of critical articles on French and Québécois science fiction called Les Dieux cachés de la science-fiction française et francophone (1950-2010) [The Hidden Gods of French and Francophone SF, 1950-2010]. It was edited by the same team of Vas-Deyres, Bergeron, and Guay (and two more scholars, Florence Plet-Nocolas and Danièle André), and it too was published by the same French university press in Bordeaux. I concluded my review with the following observation:
Les Dieux cachés de la science-fiction française et francophone (1950-2010) is a fine collection of stimulating and intelligent essays on modern French and Francophone science fiction. The quality of the scholarship is high; the price of the volume is low; and the material covered includes not only sf literature but also sf cinema, television, comics, and museum exhibits. I strongly recommend it for all university libraries. And I look forward to the publication of its sister volume, C’était demain: anticiper la science-fiction en France et au Québec (1890-1950), with much anticipation. (398)
Much of what I said then about Les Dieux cachés can be said today about its “sister volume” C’était demain. Although the latter was published in 2018 rather than 2016 (as advertised), and although its title and supposed coverage has been expanded from 1890-1950 to 1880-1950 (despite the fact that some essays discuss texts from earlier in the nineteenth century), the quality of the scholarship in this chronological “prequel” does not disappoint.
The book is divided into four major sections. Part I, “Initialiser la science-fiction au Québec” [Initializing Science Fiction in Québec], is devoted to early sf in Francophone Canada, and the essays included are uniformly interesting. Sophie Beaulé analyzes a number of utopias and alternate histories published in Québec during the period 1916-1944. Renald Bérubé focuses on the well-known Québécois writer Yves Thériault and especially his short story “Angoisse-de-Dieu” [Anguish of God, 1944]. Claude Janelle, compiler of the reference tome Le DALIAF (Dictionnaire des auteurs des littératures de l’imaginaire en Amérique française) [Dictionary of Authors of Literatures of the Imaginary in French America, 2013], speaks about the usefulness—and limitations—of this work when searching for the origins of Québécois sf. Jean Levasseur discusses an early apocalyptic poem La Fin du monde par un témoin oculaire [The End of the World by an Eyewitness] published in 1889 by Pierre-Paul Paradis of Chicoutimi. Part I concludes with an excellent synoptic essay by Jean-Louis Trudel (whose own Petit guide de la science-fiction au Québec [Little Guide of Science Fiction in Québec] was published in 2017), who describes Francophone sf in Québec during the period of 1916-1953 as an “essor avorté” [abortive burgeoning] that did not seem to catch on until the 1960s, nonwithstanding the imaginative sf narratives of Jean-Charles Harvey, Alexandre Huot, and Emmanuel Desrosiers.
Part II and Part III of C’était demain feature essays on early sf in France and Belgium. They constitute the largest portion of the book (nine articles each) and are, as one might expect, the most topically diverse. Part II is titled “Anticiper la science-fiction en France” [Anticipating Science Fiction in France] and Part III is called “Figures et genres de la conjecture” [Figures and Genres of Conjecture]. It is unclear why the editors chose to organize these eighteen articles into two separate sections; no explanation is offered in the editorial introduction to the volume. For readers on the lookout for top-notch criticism on early French sf from the nineteenth century to post-World War II, however, the essays in these two sections are a wonderful trouvaille [find]. Several take the form of monographic studies, including those by Patrizia d’Andrea on the novels of André Couvreur and Maurcie Renard; Daniel David on the voluminous militaristic sf of Émile Driat (aka le Capitaine Danrit); Roger Bozzetto and Patrick Guay on the works of Jacques Spitz; François Ouellet on the sf novels of René Barjavel from the 1940s; Valérie Stiénon on “catastrophe sf” of the 1920s by writers such as Claude Farrère, Léon Daudet, José Moselli, and Léon Groc; Arnaud Huftier on Belgian sf writer Henri-Jacques Proumen; Alexandre Marcinkowski on Moselli and his visionary sf novel La fin d’Illa [The End of Illa, 1925]; Samuel Minne and Aurélie Villers on Camille Flammarion’s fictional speculations about life on Mars; and Marie Palewska on the Verne-inspired Voyages excentriques of Paul d’Ivoi. Essays with a more diachronic and/or thematic focus include Jean-Luc Boutel’s overview of the rise in France of la littérature d’imagination scientifique [literature of the scientific imagination]; Paul Kawczak on the relationship between sf novels and adventure novels from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century; Jean-Guillaume Lanuque on the portrayal of revolutionary socialism in the première science-fiction française [first French sf] of the 1920s; Jean-Loup Héraud about altered causality in Spitz, Renard, and Barjavel; Fleur Hopkins on the metamorphoses of the term le merveilleux scientifique [the scientific-marvelous] during the period 1875-1930; Élisabeth Stojanov on early time machines; and Natacha Vas-Deyres and Patrick Bergeron’s fascinating study, “Les fourmis et les hommes: voyage entomologique au coeur de la proto-science-fiction” [Ants and Men: An Entomological Journey to the Heart of Proto-Science Fiction].
Part IV, titled simply “Journaux, revues et cinéma” [Newspapers, Journals, and Cinema], is by far the shortest section of the book, with three essays about sf in the three media listed. Jean-Luc Buard discusses the often unremarked sf published in feuilleton [serial] format in newspapers and magazines from the 1820s to the 1950s, calling it la science-fiction invisible [invisible sf]. Claire Barel-Moisan examines the romans d’anticipation [anticipation novels] and other sf stories by authors such as Jules Verne, Henri de Parville, Louis Boussenard, and Albert Robida that appeared in the weekly periodical journal La Science illustrée from 1887 to 1905. In the book’s last essay, Patricia Crouan-Véron explicitly links this collection to its predecessor by explaining how the fantastic cinéma of Georges Mélies—and especially his iconic Voyage à la lune [Trip to the Moon, 1902]—identifies him as another “dieu caché de la science-fiction”[hidden god of sf, 391]. Finally, similar to its “sister volume,” the appendix of C’était demain also offers a selected primary and secondary bibliography and two handy indexes, an index nominum (of proper names) and an index rerum (of things).
Readers who are newcomers to the study of French sf may be puzzled by the variety of terms used in this collection to identify pre-modern works in the genre: e.g., littérature d’imagination scientifique, romans d’anticipation, le merveilleux-scientifique, la première science-fiction, etc. The useful catch-all acronym “SF” or “sf” has not (yet) caught on with any consistency in France; but, thankfully, neither has the atrocious “sci-fi.” And even the hyphenated version la science-fiction—once championed by prominent Francophone sf historians such as Pierre Versins, Jacques van Herp, and Jacques Sadoul—has now been increasingly limited by younger French scholars to refer to those sf texts published only after 1945. For better or for worse, the expression la proto-science-fiction appears destined to replace all the others. Although inherently biased, implying that no true sf existed in the US before the pulp era or in France before the end of World War II, la proto-science-fiction has the indisputable advantage of simplicity.—Arthur B. Evans, DePauw University
Frankenstein between Us and the Ancients.
F London: Bloomsbury, Bloomsbury Studies in Classical Reception, 2018. vii+273 pp. $88.00 hc, $29.95 pbk.
This edited collection, published in time for the two-hundredth anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), focuses on the sometimes overlooked subtitle of the classic novel: The Modern Prometheus. The collection presents essays that explore how Shelley’s novel “transmits and transmutes classical, Greco-Roman materials” (10). The essays featured not only look back to Shelley’s source materials, but also forward to how sf following Frankenstein continues to engage with ideas from the ancient world. In short, the editors and contributors see Shelley’s novel as a vital link between the past and the present. By emphasizing this link, they underscore the persistence of certain “big ideas” and moral quandaries about human and artificial life. Weiner, Stevens, and Rogers write in their introduction that Shelley’s Frankenstein
serves as a mediating prism for many issues that were articulated in the ancient world, that were of concern in [Shelley’s] time, and that remain of urgent interest today. Not coincidentally these sorts of issues are also of great interest to ancient literature and modern SF alike, both of which probe many of the same fundamental questions of boundaries: between human and monster, between inclusion and exclusion, between licit and illicit knowledge. (13-14)
Because the collection stresses Shelley’s use of ancient materials, many of the essays spend time establishing Shelley’s familiarity with Greco-Roman texts and thus take, at least in part, a biographical approach to their analysis of Frankenstein. Genevieve Lively’s chapter, “Patchwork Paratexts and Monstrous Metaphysics: ‘After tea M reads Ovid,’” for example, cites Shelley’s journal entries in order to prove her familiarity with Ovid’s Metamorphoses and speculates about which edition the author may have drawn on in her writing of Frankenstein (32-34). This biographical approach results in contributors making statements such as that Shelley “may have read” or “would likely have been familiar” as they argue for her use of certain ancient texts. Granted, these go beyond educated guesses as the contributors present reasonable evidence for their conclusions about Shelley’s reading practices and knowledge base, but scholars who are uninterested in pinning down the author’s precise influences will want to turn elsewhere.
Three of the volume’s contributors specialize in the Romantic period, while the remainder are trained classicists (with the exception of one biologist—more on that in a moment), and the book largely exhibits that slant. In fact, some of the chapters hardly discuss Frankenstein and focus more on the classical text(s) that the novel references or reframes. One essay that nicely balances the ancient and Romantic texts is Matthew Gumpert’s “The Sublime Monster: Frankenstein, or The Modern Pandora,” in which he argues that Frankenstein’s “Creature is a modern Pandora” and connects Shelley’s novel with the Hesiodic myth and the Kantian sublime (102). While some readers will wish for more close readings of Frankenstein in this collection, the book is part of the Bloomsbury Studies in Classical Reception series, so it makes sense that the essays focus in large part on classical materials. The book does further establish sf as a serious field of study by connecting honored ancient texts with Shelley’s novel and modern-day sf.
As is the case with any edited collection arising from an academic conference, the chapters of Frankenstein and Its Classics can be a bit disjointed and uneven. One chapter by David A. Gapp, a now-retired Professor of Biology, has nothing to do with classical reception and thus does not fit within the scope of the book. That said, Gapp’s essay explains the impact of Mt. Tambora’s 1815 eruption on the earth’s climate and highlights how Europe was affected while Shelley was in Swizterland beginning Frankenstein. Gapp explains that this volcanic eruption was a “climate-altering event” with “a volcanic explosivity index of 7 making it the most powerful volcano in recorded history” (91). The eruption killed 44,000 people right away and created an ash cloud that “expanded to cover an area approximately the size of the United States” (93). Although Gapp’s essay is an anomaly in the book, his detailed descriptions of Tambora’s eruption and its effects are fascinating (including “population displacements, trade disruptions, floods, crop failure, food riots, famine, and multiple outbreaks of typhus” (98). It connects Frankenstein’s genesis with a far-flung island in the Indonesian Archipelago, which seems fitting for a novel whose global influence is practically unmeasurable. As Michael Griffin and Nicole Lobdell wrote in their introduction to SFS’s special issue on Frankenstein (45.2 [July 2018]), “Frankenstein is a living myth, a corpus of adaptations and responses that continues to grow” (225). Though one can imagine Shelley penning her novel whether a volcano erupted in 1815 or not, there is something apt about tying its creation to a catastrophic event that impacted the entire globe. Mt. Tambora’s eruption changed the climate; Shelley’s novel changed literary history.
Another essay that one might be surprised to find in the book is Neşe Devenot’s chapter entitled “Timothy Leary and the Psychodynamics of Stealing Fire.” Devenot’s contribution does not address modern sf; rather, she reads Leary’s autobiography High Priest (1968) as a reworking of the Prometheus myth. In particular, she posits that Leary believed “the Frankenstein myth encoded and propagated cultural fears against departing from convention, representing the nucleus of popular resistance to his psychedelic research at Harvard. While the horrors of Frankenstein are commonly attributed to the sin of reaching beyond convention, Leary’s literary ‘remix’ of Mary Shelley’s text inverts this message” and “recasts psychedelics as the solution” (167). Although Devenot does not discuss sf directly, her reading of Leary’s work and emphasis on Victor’s self-destruction offers a blueprint for a compelling modern take on Shelley’s novel.
The last few chapters nicely embody the collection’s title as they trace the Promethean tradition up to the present day. Jesse Weiner’s “Frankenfilm: Classical Monstrosity in Bill Morrison’s Spark of Being” examines this 2010 experimental film adaptation of Frankenstein that combines found film footage with an original score. Weiner emphasizes how Morrison splices together old, rare materials in a manner similar to Victor building his Creature and Shelley writing her novel. He writes that “Frankenstein is an Ovidian tale of ‘forms changed into new bodies’… and the same is true of Bill Morrison’s Spark of Being” (171). Weiner traces the “monster as a hybrid creature” through Lucretius, Empedocles, and Horace, providing examples from each, and convincingly shows how Shelley and Morrison continue this monstrous tradition in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. Emma Hammond’s “Alex Garland’s Ex Machina or The Modern Epimetheus” similarly pairs a twenty-first-century film with Frankenstein and ancient texts and spells out more clearly than any other chapter in the collection why sf draws upon Shelley’s work and the myths from which she drew inspiration: “Man is punished, of course, because of Prometheus’s transgressive act of stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mankind, thus enabling man to leap forward in his technological abilities—a technological leap which is especially reflected in later science-fiction stories about the creation of artificial life forms” (191). The final essay of the collection by Brett M. Rogers also picks up on this in analyzing Ridley Scott’s film Prometheus (2012) and Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s comic book Ody-C (2014-). Rogers focuses primarily on the ways these texts, like Shelley’s, emphasize “the confusion of boundaries” (207). It is this quality, Rogers argues, that makes Shelley’s “modern Prometheus” such a touchstone for postmodern and posthuman sf. This essay, as well as the final chapter, “Suggestions for Further Reading,” present scholars in sf with ample opportunities for further critical work as they make clear the numerous ways and various media in which the Promethean tradition lives on and remains relevant.
Overall this collection successfully fulfills its aim to position Frankenstein as a key link between ourselves and the ancient world. Anyone interested in learning more about sf’s ancient roots will want to read at least some of its chapters, and those working to better understand Frankenstein’s classical allusions will want to take a look at the essays in Part One of the collection, in particular. Although Frankenstein and Its Classics marks Shelley’s novel turning two hundred, its emphasis on the persistence of the Promethean myth from antiquity to today ultimately honors the novel’s timelessness rather than its age.—Ellen J. Stockstill, Pennsylvania State University-Harrisburg
Ed. Nicole Lobdell and Nancee Reeves. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, Broadview Editions, 2018. 226 pp. CAD$13.95 pbk.
When I began my academic career, you had to be very determined if you wanted to mount a course on nineteenth-century sf. What few fictional texts were available tended to be published in expensive hardcover editions. They were usually anything but definitive, and you baulked at making students spend big bucks for the privilege of listening to your exposé of their deficiencies. The alternative involved photocopying out-of-print books often borrowed through interlibrary loan. This practice annoyed your department secretary (who did the copying), your department head (who approved the cost), and your colleagues (who waited for the photocopier). Moreover, you probably felt out on a limb all the way: if these Victorian texts were as important as you claimed, why were they not readily available in editions suitable for university students?
Now the situation is very different. Almost any text out of copyright is available online for free. Project Gutenberg provides six different texts of H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man (1897) to read or download: HTML, EPUB and Kindle with or without images, and plain text. The Internet Archive lets you thumb through a dozen different editions and comic book adaptations. Shmoop (“We love books, but they’re kind of a pain to lug around”) provides the text of The Invisible Man hidden behind a précis and commentary, suggesting that for most visitors to this website, reading the novel itself is not a priority. On The Literature Network, students can post a plea for help with their assignments: “I am working on a project due in two days and I don’t know anyhting [sic] about the book!!! I need to know the setting, main characters, conflict, resolution, and anything else I may find helpful. THANK YOU!!!!!” And so on.
In spite of all this online availability, for both the dedicated instructor and the serious student there is still no substitute for the paper artifact you pay for and lug around, as long as it is academically sound, portable, and reasonably priced. And if you are teaching nineteenth-century sf now, the best luggable editions are put out by Broadview Press. There are Broadview Editions of Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), Abbott’s Flatland (1884), Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), as well as of Wells’s The Time Machine (1895; disclosure: I edited this one), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), and The War of the Worlds (1898). Several sf-inflected fantastic fictions are also available from Broadview, such as Haggard’s She (1887), Marsh’s The Beetle (1887), and De Mille’s A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888), as well as the utopian warhorses Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) and Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890). Now these have been joined by The Invisible Man, so that there is an almost complete Broadview set of the major scientific romances by Wells to make your proto-sf course thoroughly respectable.
In Broadview Editions the fictional text takes center stage, but it is framed by an extensive apparatus that places it in the context of its composition and first publication. This new Invisible Man has a structure typical of the series. An introduction by the editors covers several different aspects of the novel: its composition in 1896-1897; the influence of various sciences on Wells; earlier Victorian fiction containing the motif of invisibility; the discovery of invisible rays by Röntgen and waves by Marconi in the 1890s; the British class system as it confronted the déclassé Wells and his antihero Griffin; the novel’s literary structure and tone; its contemporary reception; and its legacy in popular culture.
The introduction is generally lucid and succinct, unified by the editors’ goal of highlighting “Griffin’s identity as a scientist” (40 n.1), thus tracking Wells as he took invisibility out of the realm of magic and superstition and into the sf universe. I do have a small number of quibbles, however. I am not sure it is useful to make on the first page the sweeping statement that “The Invisible Man ... offers a mix of Darwinism and atheism” (9). In contrast to the other major Wellsian scientific romances, Darwinism and atheism feature in this one hardly at all. The “virtually womanless world” (25) of The Invisible Man is indeed typical of Wells’s scientific romances, but not of his fiction in general: q.v. Ann Veronica (1909). As the question why? is begged here, I would have liked the editors’ thoughts on Wells, Griffin, and gender. Womanlessness cannot have been the result of, say, an exclusively male intended readership: as we see in Appendix C, Arnold Bennett reviewed the novel in Woman (190-91), the weekly for fashionable ladies that he was then editing. Finally, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), though it implicitly and ironically juxtaposes the narrator’s negritude with Griffin’s albinism, is in no sense a “literary adaptation of Wells’s novel” (31).
The introduction is followed by a Wells chronology and a textual note. This latter is important because there are several versions of The Invisible Man from which to choose a copy text. The editors have used the Pearson second edition of November 1897 and their choice is well justified. For example, though the 1924 Atlantic edition exhibits Wells’s last word on the text, this was 27 years after the novel had helped establish his reputation, while Broadview Editions are typically focused on the period of a text’s first emergence. Moreover, as the editors note, of the four extant endings of the novel, only the Pearson second edition contains the Epilogue and “reminds readers of Griffin’s career as an experimental investigator willing to risk his life in pursuit of scientific discovery” (40 n.1). It is also in my view the best of the four endings. Other readers can make their minds up by consulting Appendix A (173-74), where all four endings are reproduced.
The text of The Invisible Man takes up about 57% of this volume. That is entirely appropriate: why should one pay for a copy of The Invisible Man these days unless it provides extensive value-added supplemental material, as this one certainly does? The editors provide useful footnotes that clarify for readers today the meaning of this 122-year-old text. Only once do they find themselves at a loss: to understand why strychnine is described by Kemp as “the palaeolithic in a bottle” (127 n.2). It is surely because this poison was used during the late Victorian period in small doses as a nerve tonic (as by Griffin himself) and an athletic performance enhancer. The underlying idea is that the price to the user was devolution to the Stone Age or, as Michael Draper puts it in his H.G. Wells (Macmillan, 1987), “a surrender to the baser element of man’s nature” (48).
The appendices often constitute the most valuable element of the Broadview apparatus, and that is true here. I found the excerpts from earlier nineteenth-century works involving invisibility particularly interesting. Wells would almost certainly have read Charles Howard Hinton’s Stella (1895), in which a character muses about changing the refractive index of blood to make it transparent (187); it was from Hinton that Wells borrowed the phrase “scientific romance.” Hinton also developed the idea of the fourth dimension, which Wells used to grant invisibility to the protagonist of his “The Plattner Story” (1896). Wells publicly acknowledged the influence of W.S. Gilbert’s comic ballad “The Perils of Invisibility” (1869), reproduced here in its entirety (182-84). The editors might perhaps also have mentioned Ambrose Bierce’s invisible monster story “The Damned Thing” (1893), which has much in common with Wells’s sf-horror fiction of the same period.
The extracts from contemporary reviews in Appendix C are delightful to peruse. Here we find Arnold Bennett on the one hand lavishly praising The Invisible Man for “an ingenuity, a realism, an inevitableness, which no previous worker in the field of ‘grotesque romance,’ has ever approached,” and on the other scolding Wells for lapses in “the minutiae of style,” including a split infinitive (190-91). Meanwhile the Bookman worried that the discovery of invisibility would “totally destroy the moral basis of life” (194) (presumably because no lady would feel safe from invisible stalkers in her boudoir), while the New York Times waxed lukewarm: “the imagination of the reader is decidedly overtaxed” (195). Appendix D contains excerpts from three unpublished letters from Wells to his agent James B. Pinker, as well as an extract from the famous letter of 4 December 1898 to Wells from Joseph Conrad: “Impressed is the word, O Realist of the Fantastic” (199). There are further appendices on the biological, technological, and sociological contexts, and a list of 24 key films from 1909 to 2016 that were inspired by The Invisible Man. An up-to-date critical bibliography rounds out the volume.
I conclude that, from the striking X-ray “Self Portrait” on the front cover to the eloquent blurbs on the back, the university classroom now has a portable, modestly priced edition of The Invisible Man worthy of Wells’s remarkable “grotesque romance.” And as early Wells is now in the public domain, let us hope that The First Man in the Moon (1901) and a collection of sf short stories will soon be added to the Broadview list of offerings. —Nicholas Ruddick, University of Regina
Serbian Fantastika from the Banal to the Profound.
Cham, Switzerland: Springer, Science and Fiction, 2018. ix+148 pp. $27.99 pbk, $19.99 ebk.
The Serbian Zoran Živković is generally shelved as a writer of sf, but he does not consider himself to be one, preferring to see himself as a writer without any prefixes—or a writer of “fantastika” for which there is not a fully satisfactory English equivalent: “The ‘fantastika’ encompasses all non-mimetic types of narratives, in the sense that worlds imagined in the literary works of this sort don’t fully coincide with what is generally considered to be reality” (148). It should be mentioned that this Slavic term is gaining wider acceptance in English, especially because of John Clute’s adoption of it. An annual “Fantastika conference” was already in its fifth year at Lancaster University in 2018.
Živković started by writing on sf, translating sf, and publishing it. He wrote an MA and a PhD thesis on sf and was a reviewer and commentator on the genre. From 1975 to 1990 he published several books on sf, including a lavishly illustrated two-volume Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1990), translated some 70 books, and published more than 200 books in the publishing house Polaris which he founded. He also wrote and hosted a television series on sf cinema and taught creative writing at Belgrade University. He started to write fiction only in 1993 and has since then authored 22 books. As a writer he has been compared to Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino; one might also add Dino Buzzati and Julio Cortázar. He was fortunate in finding in Alice Copple-Tošić a congenial translator who put many of his books into an impeccably simple and elegant English, and who is responsible for much of his reputation in English-speaking countries. Her name is carefully hidden in the book: it can be found only at the end of the last story, which is somewhat curious in view of the fact that Živković himself is of the opinion that the names of translators are not given enough prominence by publishers. And unlike for the non-fictional pieces, the book contains no information on the first publication of the stories in English, although they have appeared in many editions. But it is easy to see why Živkovićin ’s stories, despite their seductiveness, do not have wide appeal; they have been printed in tiny editions by small publishers such as Dalkey Archive Press, Aio Press, Jeff VanderMeer’s Ministry of Whimsy, and PS Publishing in the UK, and in magazines such as Interzone. But “The Library”(2002) won the 2003 World Fantasy Award for best novella. Currently all of his books are available or appearing from Cadmus Press with beautiful covers by Youchan Ito.
The sf themes that interested Živković the most are first contact and time travel or chronomotion. He postulates that the meetings between human and alien reveal anthropomorphic deficiencies, in decreasing order (anthropo-centrism, anthropochauvinism, and simply anthropomorphism) and finds them expressed in three short stories by Arthur C. Clarke. This is the topic of his 1979 MA thesis, “Anthropomorphism and the Motif of First Contact in the Works of Arthur C. Clarke.” Anthropocentrism (which regards humans as the center of the universe and denies the possibility that there might be other intelligent beings) is to be found in “Report on Planet Three” (1972), anthropochauvinism (which allows the existence of alien intelligences but takes the superiority of human beings for granted) is expressed by a computer in “Crusade” (1968). The third possibility, simple anthropomorphism, appears as an innate deficiency in the human cognitive apparatus. This is the case in Clarke’s “History Lesson” (1949). Ironically, this “anthropomorphism” is exhibited by non-human intelligences in all three examples. Clarke’s “A Meeting with Medusa” (1971) is more complex. There the protagonist is a cyborg who is unsure of his own identity, and his meeting with another intelligence, a gasbag in the atmosphere of Jupiter, enables him to overcome his inner doubts and to find himself.
Živković’s own contact stories, “The Bookshop” (2000) and “The Puzzle”(2000), are self-referential. In the first one there is a bookshop named “Polaris” (like Živković’s publishing house), and the alien comes visiting for a reason preposterously science-fictional—a story which exists only in the writer’s computer. Either smells suggested by the descriptions in the story or music seem to be the reason for these alien visitations.
Two brief essays, “The Chronomotion” (1995) and “The Labyrinth Theme in Science Fiction” (1981), give a brief summary of some kinds of time travel (both are available in English as “Two Essays on Time Travel” in Foundation 17 ). What interests Živković most about time travel is the human drama or melodrama it provides, especially when people meet themselves at different ages, as in his story “The Cone”(2000). He rejects stories that concentrate on the paradoxes of time travel, since they contain no drama: “it is mainly just being clever and witty in the genre” (48). But that is the point of most sf time-travel stories. It could be argued that H.G. Wells was not interested in time travel at all, just as in The First Men in the Moon (1901) he was not interested in anti-gravity. What interested him was the otherness and strangeness at the other end of the journey, whether in time or space. In genre sf, however, time travel itself becomes the topic, the author inventing clever paradoxes, the more complicated the better, or devising limitations to ensure that such paradoxes and their reversals of cause and effect would not happen. Wells parallelled travels in space with those in time, and imagined that time travel would be achieved with a machine, but his time machine resembles a bicycle, certainly not the most advanced technology of the time. The kind of machine simply did not matter to him. In later sf, authors tried to surpass each other in the cleverness of their paradoxes, by adding more turns or leaps, and engaging in mind acrobatics: Gedankenexperimente, indeed, the contest for cleverness and elegance having been opened.
Živković’s contribution to the time-travel story is to be found principally in Time Gifts (2000), one of his mosaic novels of connected stories. An astronomer (“The Astronomer”) awaiting his execution for heresy by the church is shown that he can either become famous if he is burned at the stake, or forgotten if he renounces his science. Either way, his scientific discovery will not matter, as it will have been surpassed by time. The story ends before he gives his one-syllable decision. “The Paleolinguist” has the dubious opportunity, by traveling into the past, to find out whether her idea of a primordial language is correct or whether she has wasted all her life on a pseudo-scientific construction that has no base in historical fact. “The Watchmaker” is a dramatization of the concept that any change in the past results in a different time path; the hero is able to save his wife from being run over by a carriage but continues to be plagued all his life by a vague feeling of uneasiness. The final story in the cycle, “The Artist,” is a kind of metafiction reflecting on the previous stories. The mysterious time traveler is the writer himself, who is in godlike control of what happens to his characters and has also a bit of the smell of the devil about him, for his “Time Gifts” are tainted. In the postmodern sense everything is literature, reality and fiction interwine, but the creative act is also invariably connected with pain.
Živković’s fiction is rich in unexpected turns and twists, effects before the cause, and wondrous occurrences. The atmosphere of his stories is that of past centuries, scholarship rather than science, alchemy more than chemistry, with dying professions such as “watchmakers,” quaint horse carriages, astronomers working in loneliness, church dungeons, and inexplicable happenings. This is a fascinating mix, full of the flavor of the past, ranging from the banal to the profound, and best read in small doses.—Franz Rottensteiner, Vienna
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