BOOKS IN REVIEW
Exploring the “Circuits” Less-Traveled.
Science Fiction Circuits of the South and East. Oxford, UK: Peter Lang, 2018. x+250 pp. $67.75 pbk.
In their shrewdly assembled book, editors Anindita Banerjee and Sonja Fritzche bring the exploratory spirit so emblematic of most sf to a collection of intriguing, well-researched essays. Featuring analysis of sf films and novels worldwide, with a special focus on the literatures of Eastern Europe, Asia, and South America, each piece brings a needed spotlight to sf outside the United States and United Kingdom. The book reflects its global nature by being divided into three sections: “An Other Transatlantic,” “Transnationalism Behind the Iron Curtain,” and “Asymptomatic Easts and Subterranean Souths.” Each chapter is fascinating, even though my own area of focus is Japanese sf in translation. With articles focusing on linguistics, historiography, and sociopolitical analysis, this collection has something for any scholar to enjoy. My one complaint about it is that it is not longer.
The introduction by the editors sets the stage, reflecting on connections between Del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017) and Belyaman’s earlier film The Amphibian Man (1961) to connect to one of the overarching themes of the collection—i.e., these “circuits” within sf of Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Global South are noteworthy yet underappreciated, and their influence on sf worldwide is essential to considering sf and its place in today’s world (2).
The first section focuses on themes of “othering” within these literary traditions. Anindita Banerjee contributes the first chapter, “T/Racing Revolution between Red October and the Black Atlantic,” which elucidates the connections between racialized “others” and the transmogrification of language in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), acknowledged as a great influence on its far more mainstream counterpart, George Orwell’s classic 1984 (1949). Banerjee also looks forward to Afrofuturism, and her citations and analysis of the original Russian text and the English translation are riveting and clever, especially the discussion of the “African-lipped” extraterrestrials, and of the duality between the characters identified with “I/Я” and “R,” lost in most English translations (25, 28).
The second chapter, “Eugenia: Engineering New Citizens in Mexico’s Laboratory of Socialism” by Miguel Garcia,gives Eduardo Urzaiz’s Mexican sf novel Eugenia (1919) a historicized analysis, doing a deep dive into the eugenics-based logic of the novel and the history of eugenics as a whole. Garcia elucidates how eugenics, often discussed in US and German contexts, could be applied to Mexico’s socialist regime of the time, and how Eugenia functions as an exercise of sorts into just how this could work.
The final chapter of the section, Antonio Cordoba’s “Between Moscow and Santa Clara: The Soviet-Cuban Imaginary in Agustin de Rojas’ Espiral (1980),” brings into focus the intimate connection between Cuban and Soviet sf during the Cold War, especially in reference to the networks of scientific research and sf publishing in the Global South (76). This article masterfully connects publishing, socioeconomic, and narrative history in Espiral and other Soviet works translated into Spanish and distributed in Cuba. Cordoba’s meticulous research and ability to make accessible to both well-acquainted and uninitiated audiences (like myself) the nuances in both Soviet and Cuban literature of the Cold War period and their connections to their respective regimes make this a significant contribution.
The second section’s chapters, each centering on the transnational exchange between Eastern European and former Soviet works and the West, continue to deliver exceptional analysis. In conversation with Delany and other scholars discussing sf and linguistics, Carl Vanderloos’s chapter “Alien Evolution and Dialectical Materialism in Eastern European Science Fiction” notes how the history of dialectical materialism as a philosophy affected the ways that Soviet sf engaged with the world and with nature differently from American or British sf. His exploration of the origins of dialectical materialism and its contextualization in sf are fascinating, especially his assertion of Soviet sf that “the future was to be human and humanist, not alien or alienated” (105). In his close readings of Ivan Efremov’s Andromeda Nebula (USSR 1957), Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (Poland 1961), and Steinmüller’s Andymon (GDR 1982), Vanderloos makes clear the connection between humanity and labor, the crux of the latter part of his essay (105-107).
The second chapter, Sonja Fritzche’s “A Natural and Artificial Homeland: East German Film Responds to Kubrick and Tartakovsky,” connects the East German patriotic concept of Heimat to the events of the films Eolomea (1972; Dir. Herrmann Zschoche) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), as well as the novel Espiral, previously discussed. Heimat, a concept that does not seem to translate directly into English, is a mix between nostalgia and patriotic pride for one’s origins and past, which was appropriated by the Soviet Union and GDR government during the Cold War. Fritzche’s contextualization of Heimat in these works is shrewdly done and accessible, demonstrating her talent and depth of research in both cinema and German studies.
The next chapter, Sibelan Forrester’s “Naming the Future in Translations of Russian and East European Science Fiction,” is a comparative study of literary translation and localization through multiple novels. Forrester does a wonderful job of explaining and comparing the translation process, and how translation works in sf, which she notes is “the ultimate defamiliarizing verbal genre,” and which, by extension, is one of the most difficult aspects of translation into English of sf (166). Working within the permitted frameworks of the period, Soviet sf writers were able to slip past censors to tell rollicking adventure tales that subtly critiqued the ennui and suffering in the Eastern bloc (166-67). Her analysis as well of foreign-language speech inserted into the dialogue of foreign characters in order to make the reader feel “smart” struck me as also reiterating just how alien, yet familiar, other languages feel to the uninitiated. It was a brilliant example of the defamiliarization she posited at the beginning.
The final section focuses on Asian sf not emphasized in other sections. The first chapter, “Ghana-da in Bandung: Race, Science, and Non-Alignment in Premendra Mitra’s Fiction” by Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee, analyzes the famous 1955 Bandung conference’s rarely documented racism, as examined through the lens of Premendra Mitra’s seemingly prescient work, a short story cycle about Ghana-da, “the irascible Bengali teller of tall tales” (193-95). By using these short stories as a case study, Mukherjee explores the seeming lack of historicization of science, notting Suvin’s neglect of the intersectional and race-based facets of sf that depend on such historicization—partially rectified, as he notes, by the work done by various scholars in SFS (196-97).
“The Afterlife of the Post-Apocalypse: Dmitry Glukhovsky in China” by Jinyi Chu discusses the cross-cultural exchange with Glukhovsky. He has become quite well-known in fandom, pop culture, and literary circles in China (216-17). Primarily focusing on historicizing and comparative translations, Chu’s contextualization of the Soviet-Chinese “friendship” is enthralling, offering background to just why Metro 2033, Glukhovsky’s 2005 novel, was not only such a big hit, but also how transformative fandom and archival fandom mixed to create their own interpretations and translations where the official translations lagged behind, or even censored content. This piece was my personal favorite, as I am a fandom studies scholar. Chu describes in a nuanced manner the many translations of Chinese to Russian, Russian to Chinese, English to Chinese, and Chinese to English works. Most intriguing to me was the process of fans attempting to translate Metro 2033 after the video game adaptation’s release, with one netizen (now an official government employee) publishing a translation on a fandom website that became so well-known that she was tapped to do the official translation of the novel’s sequel, Metro 2034 (2009). She even consulted the gamers to discuss names that were not localized in the original novel or on which she was a bit hesitant (228-29). Combined with Chu’s translation of a fan-made parody of a famous Cold War ballad that had been translated from Russian into Mandarin, this chapter is a fine examination of translations, localization, and fandom discourse and engagement with sf.
Each chapter offers a new analysis of global sf. The first section, “An Other Transatlantic,” takes a historical lens to Russian, Mexican, and Cuban sf to contextualize cross-cultural exchange between world cultures and how these literatures were able to work around the constraints of government censorship. The second section applies these ideas to Eastern Europe, especially regarding translation studies. The final section takes readers into Bengali myth and history to examine a subtle undercurrent of racism, and then to early-2000s China, where fandom practices keep Russian literature in translation alive and well online and in gaming. These articles continuously engage with the work of Suvin, Jameson, Žižek, and many other notable scholars, placing each into conversation relevant to contemporary literature. If one has any interest in global sf, Science Fiction Circuits of the South and East is a valuable book.—Katherine Randazzo, University of Iowa
Meeting the Alien Face to Face—in Italy.
. Studies in Global Science Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. 289 pp. €62.03 hc; €43.42 ebk.
When I co-wrote with Arielle Saiber the introduction to SFS’s special issue on sf in Italy (42.2), we decided to end the text—which complained about the scarce interest in sf in Italian academia, the rarity of studies devoted to Italian sf abroad, and the prejudice against sf in Italian culture in general—by optimistically declaring that the cat was out of the bag. This book by two relatively young Italian scholars based in the US and France (Simone Brioni teaches at Stony Brook University in New York and Daniele Comberiati at the University Paul-Valery Montpellier 3 in France) seems to prove that Saiber and I were not over-optimistic. It also confirms that scholarly work on Italian sf seems to be at home only on the border between Italy and the rest of the world. This book is the work of two emigrant intellectuals—telling us that it is still difficult, alas!, to be accepted by Italian academia if you specialize in sf, Italian or foreign.
This monograph is not a history of sf in Italy—an instrument of scholarly research that is badly needed now—but it gets close to that desirable goal. By following the unifying concept of the representation of the Other through a constellation of Italian sf novels, comics, films, etc., Italian Science Fiction presents readers with an overview of an area of global sf little known at home and almost unknown abroad. As the authors say, “the aim of this monograph is to trace the history of Italian sf literature and film, focusing on how this genre represented the Other” (5). More a thematic essay than a history, the book nonetheless deals with a wide corpus of texts (not just books and films, but also comics, as in Chapter 7), starting from Ippolito Nievo’s Storia filosofica dei secoli futuri fin all’anno 2222 ovvero fino alla vigilia incirca della fine del mondo [Philosophical History of Future Centuries Until the Year 2222 or Until the Eve of the End of the World], published in 1860 (a remarkable date inasmuch as the Kingdom of Italy was born in 1861) to Enrico Brizzi’s Trilogia fantastorica italiana [Italian Fanta-historical Trilogy, 2008-2012] and beyond, covering 150 years of science-fictional imagination in Italy (158 being the age of the nation now).
Even though Brioni and Comberiati’s monograph is not a full-fledged history, it time-travels through the history of Italian sf, offering a rich and stimulating panoramic view of what has been produced in our country so far, maybe not as complete as Salvatore Proietti’s name-rich overview, “The Field of Italian SF” (part of the SFS special issue), but more detailed. Moreover, the unifying theme, the relationship with the Other, suggests a very interesting point of view onthe Italian science-fictional imagination, even though the subtitle might benefit from a little change; in fact, Brioni and Comberiati persuasively argue that Italian sf allows us to depict our problematic relationship with Others, as each chapter of their book deals with a different form of otherness.
Even the introduction (Chapter 1), where the key concepts of “sf,” “Other,” and “Italian” are discussed (taking none of them for granted) starting from Lino Aldani’s pioneering essay La fantascienza [science fiction, 1962], demonstrates how this important sf writer copes with the otherness of sf: to define the genre to which he belongs he ironically starts by calling it “what everybody knows it is” (5), thus acknowledging the difficulty of pinning it down. Sf itself, then, is the Other, something alien, even to an Italian practitioner of the early 1960s: sf literature and its name had been imported from the US in 1952 when Mondadori, one of the most important Italian publishing houses, started Urania, the oldest sf magazine in our country, and its creator, Giorgio Monicelli, translated sf into Italian as fantascienza. That form of fiction did not come to Italy from outer space, but the English-speaking world was alien enough at that time to compel Aldani to formulate a viable definition of the genre that had originated in that world. The Introduction also defines what the authors mean by Other: “[it] indicates a rejected, disempowered, and excluded presence within a normative system” (7), drawing from Stuart Hall; hence “The sf literature and movies presented in this volume deal with the problematics of narrating the Other in different ways” (7). I would suggest that the Other of Italian sf is as protean as sf itself, and the science-fictional imagination has envisioned a series of Others at different moments of Italian history.
Chapter 2, “Explorations and the Creation of a National Identity,” argues that the newborn Kingdom of Italy first dealt with Otherness as it began its unfortunate colonial adventure; adventure literature soon started the “construction of Other places and peoples in fictional narratives featuring explorers” (58), some of which had remarkable science-fictional features, such as Emilio Salgari’s La montagna d’oro [The Golden Mountain, 1901], first published in installments under a pseudonym, then reprinted as a volume in 1926 as Il treno volante [The Flying Train]. In the novel explorers do not march through jungles and savannas but fly over them in a then-futuristic zeppelin. This chapter also deals with Paolo Mantegazza’s L’anno 3000: Sogno [Year 3000: a Dream, 1897), in which Africa is presented as a desert land, ready for European colonization, and Gli esploratori dell’infinito [Explorers of the Infinite, 1906], by Yambo (pen name of Enrico de’ Conti Novelli da Bertinoro), one of the earliest Italian space-travel novels, which “features elements used by explorers on Earth to describe the people [the space travelers] encountered abroad: an insistence on their animality, often employed in a metaphoric sense; the attention to color, almost always dark or black; and the stress on the ‘deformed’ physical features that supposedly reflected the moral qualities (or lack thereof) of the person described” (57). Hence the earliest Italian sf somewhat mirrored the image of the Other found in contemporary colonial discourse, as represented by the narratives Italians could read in the magazine Giornale illustrato dei viaggi e delle avventure di terra e di mare [Illustrated Magazine of Journeys and Adventures on Land and Sea, 1878-1931].
Chapter 3, “Futurism and Science Fiction,” deals with the most important Italian avant-garde movement and the science-fictional elements that can be detected in it; this does not come as a surprise, given the Futurists’ interest in then cutting-edge technologies such as automobiles, airplanes, electricity, etc. and their hectic representation of technologized warfare and life in the metropolises. Here Comberiati focuses on Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s sf novel Mafarka il futurista [Mafarka the Futurist, 1909] and the collective uchronic novel by I dieci, Lo zar non è morto [The Czar is Not Dead, 1929], by connecting them to the Italian colonial enterprise, which was strongly supported by the Fascist regime and enthusiastically endorsed by Marinetti and other Futurists.
Chapter 4, “After the Apocalypse: Repression and Resistance,” jumps to the 1960s, “after the Holocaust and the atomic bomb” (83), when the Kingdom of Italy had become the Italian Republic, and the Italian Boom had turned an agrarian country into one of the most industrialized nations in the western world. These are the years when the Italian cinema of Rossellini, Fellini, and Pasolini was watched all over the world. No wonder that Brioni and Comberiati here focus on three apocalyptic movies: Ugo Gregoretti’s Omicron (1963), Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow’s L’ultimo uomo sulla terra [The Last Man on Earth, 1964] and Liliana Cavani’s I cannibali (1970). Notwithstanding the affluence brought about by industrialization, these films present viewers with a disquieting image of Italian society, climaxing in Cavani’s retelling of Sophocles’s Antigone set in a near-future Italy torn by civil war and oppressed by a military regime.
Chapter 5, “The Internal Other: Representing Roma,” introduces a different figure of Otherness: the Roma people, who have been the object of hostility and discrimination in Italy. This “internal other” allows Simone Brioni to discuss Lino Aldani, one of the most important sf writers of the 1960s and 1970s, and his novels Quando le radici [When the Roots, 1977] and Themoro Korik [The Little World Beyond, 2007). A section of this chapter is devoted to an sf novel, Lo smeraldo [The Emerald, 1974] written by Mario Soldati, a novelist and film director who is not usually associated with the genre. In these three novels Roma people are seen as aliens in a science-fictional context (in Themoro Korik the Roma have come from a parallel universe and can return to it). In a time of rising racism in Italy, it is interesting to reconsider the depictions of Others in these novels published well before the birth of the Lega Nord party.
Chapter 6, “Aliens in a Country of Immigration,” is particularly interesting since it deals with, among other things, sf novels written by two female authors, Luce d’Eramo’s Partiranno [They Will Leave, 1989] and Gilda Musa’s Le grotte di Marte [The Caves of Mars, 1974], co-written with her husband, Inisero Cremaschi. This allows Brioni and Comberiati to include the issue of gender, as “the sf literature written by women analyzed in this chapter expresses a common attempt to reimagine gender and race relations more radically, as well as to promote cultural relativism” (158). The struggle of Italian women to achieve an equal dignity with men started for good in the 1970s, and Italian sf bears witness to that historical upheaval.
Chapter 7, “Dystopic Worlds and the Fear of Multiculturalism,” focuses on two sf comics, Stefano Tamburini and Tanino Liberatore’s RanXerox (1978-1997) and Michele Medda, Antonio Serra, and Bepi Vigna’s Nathan Never (1991-present), both very popular in Italy and also read abroad, in which the topography of imaginary metropolises can be read as a metaphor of social structure, and the figure of the cyborg becomes another form of Otherness that has much to do with the fact that Italy turned into a country of immigration in the 1970s. The chapter also discusses Tommaso Pincio’s Cinacittà (2008), a quasi-noir sf novel depicting a near-future Rome in which Italians have been replaced by Chinese immigrants. All these texts are characterized by a strong dystopian component, interpreted as mirroring the fears and the uneasiness of the Italian collective imagination.
Chapter 8, “The Questione settentrionale: Reconfiguring Separatism,” deals with one of the most powerful sf novels published in Italy after 2000, Tullio Avoledo’s The Girl from Vajont (2008, published in English in 2013) to tackle the issue of the fractured Italian identity, with the historical split between the affluent and “European” North and the underdeveloped and “Mediterranean” South of the country, a divide that was exploited by Lega Nord’s propaganda. The chapter also deals with Gabriele Salvatores’s cyberpunk movie Nirvana (1997) and the ambiguous Italian remake of A Day Without a Mexican, Francesco Patierno’s Cose dell’altro mondo [out of this world, 2011], connecting the racist attitudes towards Italian Southerners with those towards non-European immigrants (both typical of Lega’s political rhetoric).
In Chapter 9, “Future Pasts: Revisiting the Colonial Legacy in Alternate History Novels,” Simone Brioni reads a group of Italian uchronic novels, including Enrico Brizzi’s bulky Trilogia Fantastorica Italiana and Mario Farneti’s fantafascista trilogy (Occidente, Attacco all’Occidente, Nuovo impero d’Occidente [Fascist Fantasy: West, Assault on the West, New Empire of the West; 2001-2006]), showing how the two writers may use the same uchronic device (a world in which Italy did not lose World War II as Mussolini did not join the war on Nazi Germany’s side) for totally different purposes: while Brizzi wants to depict Berlusconi’s Italy in an anamorphic fashion, highlighting a disquieting continuity between contemporary Italy and the Fascist years (1922-1943), Farneti depicts an alternate Fascist Italy to extol Mussolini’s regime and the Duce himself.
The last chapter, “Afterword: A Genre Across Cultures,” far from being a mere recapitulation of the contents of the book, deals with a very important issue: the dismissal of Italian sf due to its “alleged ‘derivative’ nature and lack of originality” (234), countering it with a discussion of three forms of cultural interaction—appropriation, exchange, and resistance—since “intertextual and intermedial dialogues, adaptations, and intercultural translations can be considered creative practices that add meaning to the original work instead of showing a passive reproduction (of lesser quality) of a model” (235). Thus, Italian sf artists’ appropriations of US or UK models can be often read as “Acts of resistance against a dominant culture” (239). This final chapter is an interesting contribution to the ongoing debate on global sf, another instance of the (American) Empire talking back.
Italian Science Fiction is another step forward for a neglected territory of sf, an instrument that, unlike Giulia Iannuzzi’s otherwise praiseworthy monographs—Fantascienza italiana (2014), and Distopie, viaggi spaziali, allucinazioni, [Dystopias, Space Travels, Hallucinations, 2015], both reviewed in SFS—is accessible to sf scholars who cannot read Italian. Some occasional mistakes (such as saying that World War I ended in 1917 ) and a few inaccurate descriptions (such as that of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds ) can be forgiven, because this is a groundbreaking book that names the right names and mirrors in its discontinuous structure the discontinuity of Italian sf itself, a literature (in its widest sense) whose history must necessarily be non-linear and fractured.—Umberto Rossi, Rome, Italy
A Spectacle of Speculative Architecture.
Future Cities: Architecture and the Imagination. London, UK: Reaktion, 2019. 272 pp. £18.00/$25 hc.
For centuries, the field of architecture and urban design has nourished speculative tendencies. These range from innovations in material and structural technologies, to cities ordered though utopian regimes, all the way to schemes to reshape the planet. Paul Dobraszczyk’s Future Cities: Architecture and the Imagination is one of only a smattering of studies since the 1960s that have begun to think about how this speculative tendency overlaps with science fiction. This question has largely been ignored in the architectural academy where, with a few notable exceptions, the potentials of sf scholarship for architectural speculation are generally unexplored. In this work for a popular audience, Dobraszczyk surveys a range of sf across diverse media—literature, film, comics, and games—and discusses the relationships of these to both built and speculative works of architecture. In placing these two disciplinary domains together, Dobraszczyk is arguing that they both participate in and actively promulgate a culturally shared understanding of the city through the feedback loop of imagination and built work—what he describes as, borrowing from Félix Guattari, an ecology of imagination. The object of Dobraszczyk’s study is to illuminate this shared imagination, which can suggest how architects, planners, and the public engage with the city in the present and imagine new possibilities for the city in the future.
Dobraszczyk aims to contrast this imagination of the city with the instrumental or “science-based” speculations that he argues often dominate architectural futurism, speculations usually dictated within the dominant logics of late capitalism: economic forces, resource flows, and market trends. Dobraszczyk wants to demonstrate how a broader imagination opens up alternative possibilities in the face of the many challenges facing the future of the city. His book is organized into 3 sections, each containing 2 or 3 chapters: “Unmoored Cities” examines cities as they are affected by climate change, “Vertical Cities” addresses social division, and “Unmade Cities” discusses the ruination of cities through conflict or decay. While representing only a few of the challenges facing the city of the future, each section surveys speculative works addressing these crises as they are represented through diverse media, as sites to “incubate radical responses” (48) to such future scenarios. The first chapter, for example, discusses cities flooded as the result of climate change, outlining how diverse sources represent the spatial or material adaptations, speculative technologies, or aesthetic opportunities that such a crisis offers. These range from the aesthetic space of a flooded, tropical London in J.G Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) to the new technologies suggested by Wolf Hilbertz and Newton Fallis’s Autopia Ampere (1970) project, an underwater electrified wire mesh accumulating minerals in the water to grow a city from the sea. Rather than undertake a systematic or critical comparison of these adaptations, however, Dobraszczyk prefers to open up the works he has described as a domain of possible avenues that urban adaptation may take.
Perhaps Dobraszczyk’s largest contribution is to develop the intermingling of the future urban imaginary as shared cultural resonance between imagined and real practices. In collapsing these disciplinary distinctions, Dobraszczyk begins to validate the experience of both imaginary and real spaces as vehicles for thinking about futures that exceed the disciplinary conceits of the architect, thus opening the discussion of architecture and urban futures to a general audience. Dobraszczyk does not really examine how this collapsed disciplinary boundary affects architecture and urban practices—whether (as architect and educator Nic Clear argues [see, e.g., “A Strange Newness: Architecture as Science Fiction” (1 Nov. 2014; online]) architecture is already sf or whether (following Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space ) the intermingling of real and imaginary representations of space demands a more nuanced and rigorous form of analysis than Dobraszczyk gives us here.
While sf scholars are not the primary audience for Dobraszczyk’s book, readers of SFS will be interested to see how common sf tropes are widely used across speculative architectural practice, and perhaps be inspired to engage critically with such practice as it relates to other fields of sf scholarship, such as Marxist, feminist, or postcolonial perspectives on urbanism; these engagements, it must be said, are absent from Dobraszczyk’s work. There are better resources for the sf scholar looking for an introduction to speculative architecture, however, including Neil Spiller’s Visionary Architecture (2007) and any number of monographs dealing with specific architectural practices.
As the primary audience for this book, interested general readers will gain a greater appreciation for how speculations in architectural practice intersect with imaginary urban futures as they are represented in sf media. There is also the possibility that architects might be inspired to take up such imaginations as a corrective to overly prescriptive, “instrumental,” or partisan visions of the future as they are represented in mainstream practices—whether from the discipline of architecture itself or from other industries trying to “disrupt” urban planning. As a sourcebook for architects and enthusiasts to discover the architectural and urban imaginations of sf literature and film, however, Carl Abbott’s recent Imagining Urban Futures (2016) catalogues a larger and slightly more diverse range of sf sources. Similarly, there is a growing community of architectural scholars, also absent from Dobraszczyk’s discussion, who are taking up the question of how both science fiction and works of sf criticism might stimulate architectural theory and practice.
In what will become a classic essay in describing the importance of sf for architectural practice, Amy Butt’s recent “Endless Forms, Vistas and Hues: Why Architects Should Read Science Fiction” (Architectural Research Quarterly 22.2 : 151-60) outlines several ways that reading sf might be productive for architects and urban planners. While she does mention the modes of inspiration and imaginative freedom that sf might inspire, Butt is more concerned with how more thorough readings of sf can provide critical frameworks for creating and evaluating present and future work beyond merely describing a range of possible scenarios. Committed as he is to the former position, Dobraszczyk does not engage with the more critical positions afforded by either the sf works or the architectural works he discusses. This is most painfully obvious in the final chapter of the book, “Remade: Salvaging What Remains,” in which he describes the many acts of salvage and remaking that characterize the urban periphery and other marginal areas, arguing that they can address social division and empower individuals to make their own cities. Among the many visions cited, Dobraszczyk notes the Bridge from William Gibson’s eponymous trilogy (1993-1999), the drawings of speculative architect Lebbeus Woods, and the built work of Urban Think Tank and Alejandro Aravena, as well as the real life slums and shanties of Dharavi in Mumbai, the now-demolished Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, and Torre David, an unfinished office building in Venezuela that was occupied by over 3000 informal settlers from 2007 to 2013. While he does mention the considerable hardships such urban typologies create, Dobraszczyk constructs a social program in which he sees considerable potential in individuals creating their own spaces from salvaged material. In doing so, he accepts such informal landscapes as an inevitability, even lionizing the informal as a “utopian vision” to “embrace … precariousness as a vital aspect of urban life” (214). While such a program would allow for individual expression and a degree of self-determination, such an emphasis on the individual citizen legitimates such marginalization, while placing the responsibility of city building on non-aligned, alienated, and extremely precarious individuals rather than on political authorities; this tends to erase the possibility for other forms of collective or collaborative action in city building. What might read as the desire to empower individuals and to develop the potential for new, spontaneous organizations to emerge forgets present-day entrenched power relations and the very real possibility that rather than being empowered, those most vulnerable might well be further exploited, marginalized, or forgotten.
It is easy for architects to get excited about the new spatial forms, material compositions, and innovative organizational structures found in informal settlements; Dobraszczyk is continuing a decades-long fascination with slums and informal housing within architectural culture. But such fascination is often driven by spatial, compositional, and material novelty, rather than by a critical utopian impulse. While Dobraszczyk’s last chapter refers to Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, it does not mention any social or political innovations in Gibson’s work that might enable such a spatial typology to be truly liberating—at the very least, the negotiation of mutual self-interest—nor does it attempt to use Gibson’s text as a critique of the class segmentation in the real-world examples he is mentioning. Dobraszczyk opens the book’s first chapter with a reference to Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017), a novel that in many ways describes a similar spatial typology; the towers of Manhattan become the substructure for a new accreting urbanism in that novel’s adaptation to a dramatic increase in sea-level. Salvage and (re)construction in Robinson’s New York are not driven by a libertarian individualist impulse, but are enabled by shared vulnerability and consensus politics, and tempered by participatory and democratic processes across all scales of government, from the individual building to the nation.
While Dobraszczyk does recognize the shared space of the urban imaginary as it is developed in the conversation between diverse imaginary practices, and how such a conversation unfolds greater possibilities for real-world practice, his discussion of this range of possibilities does not adequately describe how sf might be understood as a provocation to architectural practice. As a provocation, sf would not necessarily produce new technologies or a repertoire of new spatial, formal, or material types, but instead would offer a critical point of view to reflect on contemporary practices and would describe how the futures that architects imagine now will affect the lives of those inside, including their social, political, or cultural belonging. Instead, Dobraszczyk offers a spectacle of the new city in a collage of images culled from diverse media. As an architect, I can understand the appeal of the spatial and formal innovation available to an unfettered imagination. While it does offer a framework for investigating futurity, the suggestion that newness is the only or even primary concern of either sf or architecture does a disservice to those who would learn from or practice either.—Joel Letkemann, Aarhus School of Architecture
Redesigning the Earth.
New York: Actar, 2018. 232 pp. $29.95 pbk.
The collaborative architectural group Design Earth, made up of Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy, was founded in 2010. Geostories: Another Architecture for the Environment is the culmination of a number of projects produced by Design Earth and exhibited widely from 2013 to 2018, including as part of a group exhibition representing the US Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. Actar Publishers, based in Barcelona and New York, focuses on, according to their website, “the culture of the architectural, urbanism and landscape disciplines through innovative design, theory, criticism and pedagogy.” Alongside their creative practice, the collaborators are both academics: Ghosn is Associate Professor of Architecture and Urbanism at MIT, while Jazairy is Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan. Both are graduates of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design’s doctoral program and founding editors of the journal New Geographies, also published by Actar, as was their previous book Geographies of Trash (2015). Design Earth contributed a series of images, “Of Oil and Ice,” to SFS’s special issue on the climate crisis (45.3, Nov. 2018).
According to a 2016 interview with Ghosn and Jazairy on the architectural blog Archinet, with contributing writer Nicholas Kodory, the projects in Geostories come out of the work they started at the journal, bringing together the geographical (at the scale of the global) and the architectural to overcome, as they write in the book’s introduction, today’s “poverty of geographic imagination, both spatially and visually” (11). The book aims to help us visualize the vast and unknowable events transforming the planet, from climate change to deep-sea mining to space debris, through the language of architectural drawing. But rather than representing visual evidence of these transformations, Design Earth proposes that storytelling, in the form of sf and fantasy, offers the best techniques for “nurturing new habits of seeing, and, ultimately, for projecting alternative forms of organizing life” (13). As a result, Geostories includes not only art works in the form of architectural drawings but also an introductory essay by the collaborators and three essay responses by academics in the field of architectural practice, history, and theory.
Deeply influenced by the writings of Bruno Latour, Geostories builds on the philosopher’s call to develop a tradition of political arts, uniting political ecology and aesthetic experience. As such, Geostories is as much an architectural art book as it is a manifesto for Design Earth’s ideas about how best visually to engage the public in the critical issues of a changing planet. There is much food for thought in this book. Not only do the authors make reference to the current scholarship of contemporary philosophers such as Donna Haraway, Isabelle Stengers, and Bruno Latour, but they also draw on the geographical and scientific, citing nineteenth-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt as an inspiration because of his appreciation of scale as a method of engaging aesthetically with geography. Scale is central to the renderings that Design Earth produces and a key aspect of the communication technique of architectural drawing. If the main purpose of architectural representation is to persuade and impress a potential client with the skills and prowess of a firm, to demonstrate their understanding of a project not only technically but also emotionally, then Design Earth uses the visual authority of the architectural drawing, with its emphasis on scale, sections, aerial and bird’s-eye views, and topography (not to mention the aesthetics of hard-line illustration), to illustrate the fantastical futures they both dread and hope for.
Geostories includes a prodigious number of architectural drawings grouped under various themes and subjects. Each project, credited in the back not only to Ghosn and Jazairy but also to many others (likely students) in the architectural atelier fashion, includes an introductory statement contextualizing the work, followed by a series of drawings with titles and captions. In some cases, larger paragraphs accompany a single image to give more than just a caption description of the work. For example, in the project “After Oil,” (28-41) which visualizes the future of the Persian Gulf after fossil fuels, the image “Das Island, Das Crude” (30-31) is given a full paragraph to describe not only what the image represents, but also the history of Emirati Oil production in the architectural and cultural development of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The image itself is a densely rendered representation (a sadly tiny reproduction) of an oil shaft reaching deep into the earth. Beside the drawing, with layers of aesthetically hatched geostrata, the artists have marked on the left edge of the image the depths at which various stone layers can be found. On the right of the drawing, the names of skyscrapers from the region, built to prodigious heights, are marked with their dates of creation. In the background, we see ships at sea (oil tankers, one can assume). While the project is called “After Oil,” the image seems to suggest that the physical and metaphorical marks of petroculture on the earth are never ending.
The strong aesthetic style of Design Earth is most pronounced in some of their more fantastical and fanciful projects, such as “Towers on Wire,” (42-47), which imagines tensile structures floating upon the forest canopy, at risk from human-driven deforestation, while below endangered Indonesian animals calmly stand around, as scale-figure silhouettes. There is a playfulness in the stylistic choices of Design Earth that echoes earlier architectural artworks, such as the pop-art collages and High Tech assemblages of the collective Archigram. For those readers hoping to find some self-awareness or concrete references to stylistic predecessors in Design Earth’s contextualizations, you will be disappointed. Occasional mention is made of architectural and artistic predecessors who experimented with the utopian modernist impulse in design, such as Le Corbusier, R. Buckminster Fuller, Kazimir Malevich, and El Lissitzky, but these references are only in passing. You will have either have to be in the know (as this art historian tries to be) or do your own research to follow the breadcrumbs that they leave. Or perhaps let the references wash over you in the same way that the images, so logically rendered in many respects, seem to offer little in the way of practical suggestions for redesigning the future of the Earth.
One of the major challenges for the reader of this book is the way that the images are reproduced. As mentioned earlier, the book’s format (6.60x9.40 inches) does not do justice to the highly detailed drawings, most of which are represented one to a page. While some are printed larger, over a two-page spread, these images tend to be so full of details and text that even at the larger scale they are barely legible. This poses a problem for the reader who is less than visually literate in the language of architectural drawing and who may need more time (and space) to decipher the enormously detailed and nuanced sections and marks. Indeed, the role of hatching and shading in these computer-drawn images, which add significant depth to the spatially complex representations, is integral to understanding when landscapes shift from section to full plan, as is seen in many of the more architecturally complex drawings. For example, in the image “E-Fungi Volcano” (68), we see the perspectival cross-section of a fantastical e-waste processing structure that uses fungi to extract and mine rare earth metals from objects at the Yongsan Electronics Market (or so we are told in the caption). In the drawing, reproduced at approximately 5x5 inches, the central building is cut in half so that the viewer can see the insides of the “volcano.” Behind the building, the ground obeys normal landscape perspective as it continues toward the mountainous horizon. In the front of the building where it has been sectioned, dark hatching effects show the viewer where “real” space has been cut in half, as the earth drops away in darkness to the lower left corner.
Another challenge to the legibility of the works in Geostories is that all the images are reproduced in black and white, except for a small section of photographic reproductions that depict Design Earth projects installed in galleries and in public spaces. Indeed, it was this section that drove me to research further, using websites and reviews, the exhibition history of these projects. What I found was a series of photographs of various Design Earth projects in gallery settings and, lo, many prints from the book were printed large-scale and in color. The decision to reproduce Design Earth’s works in small-scale black-and-white format may have made the book more financially accessible but does not do justice to the images themselves.
The greatest tension in this book is also fundamental to the conceptual underpinnings of Design Earth’s very existence: how well do these images actually help the reader better to understand the environmental crisis that we face today and in the future? Geostories, according to the authors, “offers a new approach to evidentiary visual production” (11), which they argue has failed to tell the story of climate change and the looming apocalypse compellingly. As such they turn to sf, as well as design, to communicate in new ways. But is this really new? And do these images, which they call “geographic portraits,” actually “describe the political and ethical implications of our ecological actions, all while speculating on survival and adaptation strategies that invite us to make sense of the Earth and envision it in ways that generate inquisitive, delightful, and potentially subversive responses [?]” (15) While the drawings included are very complex and beautiful, often philosophically evocative and creatively absurd, I would not say that they helped this reader to come to any better understanding of a way forward.
Indeed, I often found myself asking whether the collaborators were clear about their goal for the book. Is their aim to be heroically utopian and pronounce the future salvageable through the powers of neo-modernist design, or dystopian, rendered through a technological futurism that is marked by the total absence of palpable signs of human existence or even animal life (the silhouettes of endangered elephants notwithstanding)? Placing their images within the discourse of architecture, Design Earth seems to be saying that with the authority of architectural design we can convince the reader that a new future is possible. On the other hand, the pure irrational playfulness and futuristic absurdities they generate, couched in the techniques of architectural drawing, suggest that they are addressing a sophisticated architectural audience that already understands the collaborators’ sly humor, despite Design Earth’s earnest appeal.—Karla McManus, University of Regina
An Archive of SF Archives.
. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018. vii+201 pp. $55 pbk.
Joseph Hurtgen’s The Archive Incarnate is an ambitious exploration of how the “archive,” broadly conceived, has been represented and understood in a selection of sf texts since the mid-twentieth century. Not content with dealing solely with the archive, the subtitle raises further key terms: “embodiment,” “transmission,” and “knowledge,” each of which open vistas of potential. This is precisely why the book operates on a very clearly defined structure: each text that Hurtgen discusses is explored through the ideas of “Archive Anxiety” (concerns about the archive), “Archival Control” (ways the archive can dominate individuality), and “Archival Resistance” (ways the archive can facilitate individual expression). The texts themselves seem intended to provide very familiar examples to readers, including Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (1995), and Bruce Sterling’s Distraction (1998), with a sprinkling of related texts mentioned throughout.
The central focus of the book seems to be the ambivalent uses to which the archive can be put: positively (in “archival embodiment”) or negatively (in “archival imprinting”). At its core, The Archive Incarnate debates the extent to which archives can both reinforce social conformity and challenge it. The idea of archival embodiment/imprinting is an interesting idea, referring to how a set of knowledges and practices become inscribed upon (and within) an individual and their effects on that individual. Sometimes these are competing archives set against each other; other times they are different uses of the same archive, but the tension between the uses to which an archive may be put is sustained throughout Hurtgen’s study.
The conceptual breadth of “the archive,” however, is also one of the book’s most problematic features. Here the archive is no longer a curated physical repository, but something altogether fuzzier: many archivists would not recognize the “archives” that Hurtgen describes as such. Although commentators such as Derrida and Foucault have encouraged a more conceptual approach to the idea of the archive and although Hurtgen mentions other key theorists of the archive, such as Terry Cook and Eric Ketelaar, the terrain that the signifier covers remains too open. Examples include (my emphasis):
“This chase symbolizes the presentist television archive’s threat of destroying the historical archive of books.” (38; in relation to the Mechanical Hound in Fahrenheit 451)
“once several Handmaid names are known it becomes hard to miss the logic behind the naming system, which is meant to archivally write men’s domination onto women.” (79; on The Handmaid’s Tale)
“Perhaps Atwood desired that the reader become active in imagining Offred’s successful escape from misogynistic society, thus granting agency to the reader as a writer and archivist.” (86)
“computers will control humans as a result of advanced processing capability that allows for deep level understanding of humanity, even archiving a theory of mind for individual humans.” (103; on Neuromancer)
“Sterling’s fiction and non-fiction is its own archive of thoughts about biologically altering the human body.” (133)
“The Primer draws from an expansive archive: grammar, folklore, dietetics, martial arts—it is contemporary sf, after all—mathematics, and psychology” (170; on The Diamond Age [the Primer itself is defined as an archive (167)])
More or less to equate television culture in Fahrenheit 451 to a readerly interpretation of a text to a material instantiation of an author’s oeuvre makes it clear that the term operates on a number of levels throughout Hurtgen’s monograph, and although I would not necessarily disagree that there are ways that each might be linked to the archive and the archival tradition, there are functional and qualitative distinctions to be made that Hurtgen chooses not to make. To set television against books in Fahrenheit 451 is fair enough, but the ways they might each be considered “archival” differs. Similarly, to state that AI in Neuromancer “archive” a theory of mind is a qualitatively different proposition to the ways that Sterling’s work comprises an “archive of thoughts” or Stephenson’s Primer gathers together various different types of cultural ideas, knowledge, and skills.
Across the work, “archive” is thus synonymous with repository, media, collection, territory, practice, accumulation, network, assemblage, grouping, system, virtuality, memory, and ideology, all of which are to differing degrees collated, curated, or intentional. Hurtgen states in the Preface that
The archive, the body, and science fiction all connote multiple meanings. These terms perform many functions. They suggest a complex web of possibilities. The title of this book, then, ... serves as a locus for discussing many issues in science fiction.” (1-2)
But it is precisely because of this “complex web” (that Hurtgen himself might call a potential “archive” of meanings) that specificity and precision are so important to begin to unpack that complexity, rather than to let the concept of the archive slide across various meanings over the course of the book. Moreover, and perhaps more harshly, a title alone cannot hold a book together: the thesis contained within it must do that, and Hurtgen’s analysis of his selected texts never quite meshes to form a coherent whole.
Overall, the notion of an “embodied archive” remains a fascinating one, and one that has a rich seam of potential in it, especially if applied to other, less standard sf fare (there are various texts that deal very explicitly with archives that might also have been included). But to do that, Hurtgen would have to delineate the various senses of the term more precisely, and to consider in far more detail what the notion of “embodiment” itself might mean, considering the critical tradition that has been built around that term. His study would also need to decide who its audience is; it moves between assuming unfamiliarity with the most basic of concepts, describing them carefully, to assuming that words such as “phallogocentricism” need no explanation: what is, to use Hurtgen’s rhetoric, the cultural archive to which his implied reader has access? Without a clear answer to this, and with the manifold interpretations of the archive untheorized, The Archive Incarnate feels like a book that needed more time and a stricter edit to achieve what it could and should have achieved.—Will Slocombe, University of Liverpool
Science and Fiction in Post-Mao China.
Information Fantasies: Precarious Mediation in Postsocialist China. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2019. 318pp. $28 pbk.
Xiao Liu’s Information Fantasies delves into the ethereal realm of eclectic and often avant-garde discourses surrounding science and technology that took shape in China in the late 1970s and 1980s. The book’s opening image and description of “information pots”—aluminum cookware atop the heads of qigong practitioners—aptly illustrates the central theme of the text. Qigong isan esoteric system of breathing practices and physical exercises related to tai chi that aims to marshal the body’s vital energies and that saw a surge of popularity in the 1980s and 1990s. Like tinfoil hats, the repurposed aluminum crockery is meant to interfere with the transmission of energetic waves from outer space, in this case to harness rather than repel it. Informed by differing strains of fictitious science, both types of headgear suggest uncannily similar notions in Chinese and American popular culture about human bodies and brains as potential antennae for cosmic pulses permeating the ether. Throughout the book, Liu elucidates how China’s response to the information age was at once radically unfamiliar and at the same time part of a shared transnational discourse about information technology during the rise of neoliberal globalization. Information Fantasies draws from fields as diverse as the history of science, the history of technology, science fiction, new media and information studies, socialist and postsocialist studies, and cinema studies to examine what I might coin the “singularity with Chinese characteristics,” the breathless anticipation of the convergence of human and machine. Anticipation of this cybernetic union coincided with China’s re-entry into the realm of global capital. Liu argues that as China rebounded from the traumas of the Mao era, the “transformations into postsocialism and its integration into the global information systems took place simultaneously as two intertwined processes” (11) and “information discourses appropriated the socialist critique of capitalist industrialization and its labor conditions and displaced the socialist revolution with a technological revolution” (31). Technology supplanted socialism as a totem for China’s utopian impulses, a shift concomitant with the intensification of China’s turn towards a market economy. Liu notes that despite being overshadowed by the logic of capital and consumerism, socialism in some form or another retains its political salience in the postsocialist era, even though China has entered the slipstream of global capital.
From cybernetics and AI to television antennas, computer monitors, advertising posters, and film screens, the feverish re-assessment of foreign and domestic culture that took place in China’s era of reform and opening up was characterized in part by a fascination with the ways that various media imbricated human bodies and minds in a numinous ocean of information. Far more than the modulations of radio waves or digital pulses coursing through tangles of cables and wires, amorphous notions of “information” surrounded and infused the cultural discourses pertaining to topics as diverse as experimental modernist literature, middle-brow pulp, qigong,and the enduring legacies of cultural and political institutions.Pointing to the porous boundaries between the human body and material technology, Liu cautions against the “narrow notion of media as merely devices”(9), essentially arguing that in our already cybernetic existence, the message is in the media and the media is in the messenger and vice versa. To mangle Haraway, late twentieth-century China may have been another (mythic) time, but the Chinese too were “all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, ... cyborgs” (“A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” Socialist Review 15.2 : 66).
According to Liu,
“Information” among this constellation of contradictions and contesting forces was a magic, chameleon-like buzzword…. It functioned simultaneously as the foremost medium of enlightenment and the manipulating power of marketing strategies in the burgeoning market economy of post-Mao China, and it conveyed both the remaining socialist utopian impulses and the futuristic imaginations to overcome the past. (23)
These various discourses demonstrate how Chinese approaches to science and technology were at times aligned with their Anglophone counterparts and at others imagined connections and transmissions of messages digital, analog, spiritual, psychic, affective, and otherwise that were profoundly different from their global contemporaries.
Chapter 1, “Extrasensory Powers, Magic Waves, and Information Explosion,” examines the popular and scientific anticipation of an information society through the trope of magic waves. Entering the era of “reform and opening up,” Chinese culture in the 1980s was defined by a deeply critical reassessment of the decades following the foundation of the PRC, its relationship to longer-standing cultural traditions, and the nation’s relationship to global trends in art, philosophy, and science. Chinese interest in cybernetics intersected with an interest in esoteric practices surrounding the mastery of vital energies central to qigong.
Chapter 2, “The Curious Case of a Robot Doctor,” probes the relationship between labor, expert systems, and human interface with machines in the post-socialist era. Through the lens of the “interface,” by which humans and technology become intertwined with and dependent upon one another, Liu expands upon Paola Iovene’s critique (in Tales of Futures Past: Anticipation and the Ends of Literature in Contemporary China ) of the problematic division between intellectual and manual labor—a salient feature of cultural production in post-socialist China. Liu argues that expert systems were developed in China in the late 1970s and 1980s. These early Artificial Intelligence systems that assembled the “knowledge base of a specialized field and an interface engine” (84) to function as algorithmic decision-making tools help to shed light on contemporary AI and cloudsourcing/crowdsourcing projects. Wei Yahua’s stories of robot doctors as affective laborers are compelling examples of how post-Mao China came to terms with what intelligent machines had to teach us about human emotion and intellect.
Chapter 3, “The ‘Ultrastable System’ and the New Cinema,” elucidates how cultural critics in the 1980s applied systems theory to the post-Mao critique of Chinese cultural and political traditions. Revisiting some key cinematic achievements of China’s fifth-generation directors (the first class to graduate from the Beijing Film school after teaching resumed in the wake of the Cultural Revolution [1966-76]) through the lens of information, Liu sheds new light on an often-examined group of cineastes. For example, Liu’s rereading of Yellow Earth (1984), Chen Kaige’s ground-breaking critique of China’s purportedly static national traditions, and of the failures of socialist revolution to remediate those ills, understands the film as a critique of China as an “ultrastable system,” a political entity that replicates itself by producing the human subjects who reproduce it, allowing China as a historical entity to outlive the succession of dynasties that adopted those institutions.
Chapter 4, “Affective Form,” delves into the relationship between “information” and the liberalization of markets in China, principally through an analysis of Wang Meng’s experimental writings of the 1980s. Wang Meng, who had previously been subjected to criticism during the 1958 anti-rightist campaign, was sent to Xinjiang in the early 1960s for labor reform. He would go on to serve as Minister of Culture from 1986-1989, publishing a number of experimental stories in the 1980s that Liu argues were both a response to the confines of Mao-era literary proscriptions and a response to the cacophony of commercial and consumer messages in the era of economic reform.
Chapter 5, “Liminal Mediation and the Cinema Redefined,” traces cinema as a liminal mode because its production and functions are “contradictive, overlapping, and contending” (197). Cinema was a diffuse visual form loosely centered around screens or monitors in which the difference between animated, photographic, and digital imagery was increasingly indistinguishable; as screens promised to give way to holographic projections and other immersive modes of experiencing visual media, the boundary between the body and the image also appeared increasingly permeable.
Xiao Liu’s work dives into the post-Mao era wearing a pair of VR glasses, and unearths a set of fascinating examples of how China in the 1980s came to terms with 5,000 years of history amidst the barrage of global media culture. Through avant-garde art, subversive literature and television, wild experimentalism, historical criticism, and the history of science and pseudoscience alike, this book speaks to the intersections of Chinese media and science in a wonderfully new and exciting fashion. Wildly experimental, intellectually challenging, capable of shedding new light on some of the old favorites of China studies, Information Fantasies is a truly unique contribution to Chinese cultural studies, and well worth reading as an example of how sf studies can go far beyond the latest space odyssey.
That said, there are some noticeable issues with the presentation of this book. I consider myself neither a pedant nor one above editorial reproach, but there are many instances of misused articles, missing words or phrases, or abrupt transitions that could have been smoothed over through better editing. The book contains no bibliography and, for such a rich work, it is disappointing to have to resort to combing through footnotes—both to understand the intellectual traditions within which the author is working and to be able more easily to find some of these sources oneself. Rather than accuse a fellow scholar of shoddy work, I would suggest these errors are symptomatic of the broader crisis in the humanities. There is less time and money available for editing, constructing bibliographies, and indexing, and algorithms cannot do this in a way that is truly beneficial to humans (yet). Humanistic inquiry is slow, costly, and crucial to the healthy functioning of civil society. We as scholars must either make meaningful progress advocating for conditions that allow university presses to once again afford such necessities, or seriously reconsider the monograph as a hurdle to attaining tenure.—Nathaniel Isaacson, North Carolina State University
The Urban as Narrative.
Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Rodopi, 2018. 217 pp. $87 ebk, $96 hc.
At the beginning of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), the viewer watches as the film slowly pans over a bleak, artificially lit landscape. Fire roars upward from long, pipe-like towers whose purposes are obscured. This harrowing landscape proclaims to the viewer that they are in a desolate place. The landscape establishes the dark tone of this future world and the trials of protagonist Rick Deckard take place in this dense noir urbanism. The city is an important feature of Blade Runner’s narrative. In recognition of the deep and complex connections of urbanism to sf narrative, editors Maurer and Koren-Kuik have brought together a collection of essays in Cityscapes of the Future that explore the ways in which the location of a narrative effects and affects the characters, the plot, and the reader’s engagement with the story. In this collection, the reader is offered a look into how place contains narrative.
Cityscapes of the Future is divided into three main sections: “The City and the Body,” “Cities of Estrangement,” and “Cities of Imagination.” This thematic division gives the chapters an enjoyable flow and allows the reader fully to engage with each section before moving on to the next. The grouping of texts with similar approaches and theoretical discourses organizes the individual articles into a digestible whole.
“The City and the Body” considers the effects of urbanism on the body; in this context, body is both physical—the character’s body as described by the author—and subjective—the character’s body as that character experiences it. The authors in this section point to parallels in the ways that sf creates and organizes cities to mirror characters. In the first chapter, “Urban Twinship,” Inbar Kaminsky demonstrates how the city of Veniss in Jeff Vandermeer’s Veniss Underground (2003) reflects the bodies of the characters. This is a strong article that makes the connection between the different levels of the stratified city of Veniss and the desirability of the characters’ bodies: the higher levels of the city and the bodies of the people living at those levels are cleaner, wealthier, and more beautiful. As the characters travel down into the bowels of Veniss, Kaminsky shows the reader how this urbanism is embodied. The lower levels are dirty and maze-like, inhabited by “grotesque bodies” (25). This chapter is followed by Eduaro Barros-Grela’s “Past Future Cityscapes,” which examines the fluid nature of the city of Tokyo-3 from the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion (1996) and of the urban settings in Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark (2008). Barros-Grela uses these examples to demonstrate how posthumanism can create a posturbanism. This article tries to do rather too much, however, in a short space in terms of establishing a posthuman and posturban urbanism, and it is not as clear as it might be. Elsa Bouet brings this section to a close by examining the sf urban landscape as it relates to body, control, and punishment. Bouet demonstrates how the urban architectures in China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000), Alastair Reynold’s Terminal World (2010), and Christopher Priest’s Inverted World (1974) play a part in regulating the social status of the body. Bouet’s analysis nicely combines Marxist and Foucaultian approaches to bodily regulation.
The next section, “Cities of Estrangement,” demonstrates how sf can make familiar urban spaces seem strange and unsettling. To add to the uncanniness in this section, the cities it considers all exist in the real world. The first place visited is New York, where Rosalind Fursland examines the role of the New York skyscraper in sf using George Allan England’s Darkness and Dawn Trilogy (1912-1914) and Murray Leinster’s “The Runaway Skyscraper” (1919) as examples. Fursland does a good job demonstrating the overlooked importance of the skyscraper as an important urban element in these stories. Keith Daniel Harris discusses the filth in Charles Dickens’s London as a living system that makes up the urbanism of Bleak House (1853). Harris compares Dickens’s urban filth to the Wired—a digital network and virtual reality connected to the physical world through technologies such as computers—in the anime Serial Experiments Lain (1998) and in the digital infrastructure accessed by the characters of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995). Harris makes an interesting case for understanding sf cybernetic networks through Dickens’s filth-network.
Henri-Simon Blanc-Hoang takes the reader to futuristic Paris in Frank Philippon’s Chrysalis (2007), Benoit Sokal’s Nikopol: Secrets of the Immortals (2008), and Pierre Bordage’s Chroniques des ombres (2009). Each of these is in a different medium: film, video game, and podcast. The choice to examine different media is, however, not part of Blanc-Hoang’s argument. Instead each is used to examine the various ways that futuristic sf Paris is presented as a critique of contemporary Paris. The last places visited in this section, by Imola Bülgözdi, are the partially fictional constructions of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). Bülgözdi takes the reader to futuristic Boston-Atlanta, Tokyo, London, and Paris. This chapter seems somewhat out of place here insofar as the places envisioned by Gibson are not always grounded in the real, for instance, Neuromancer’s space colony Zion. That being said, Bülgözdi provides an interesting discussion of how Gibson draws together physical urbanism and digital cyberspace as key elements in his texts.
The final section, “Cities of Imagination,” brings the collection back to the fictional city, exploring the idea of the city as it can be shaped and reshaped by sf. “Cities of Imagination” covers the widest range of materials as it tries to examine how urbanism can “establish imaginary ontologies” (7). This is a large claim that the articles in this section do not entirely uphold. Elana Gomel opens this section with a chapter on “Dual Urban Chronotopes,” providing many examples, including in Neil Gaiman’s Nowhere (1996), China Miéville’s The City and the City (2009), and Tim Lebbon’s Echo City (2010). While all the examples are related, fewer would have made Gomel’s argument more coherent. As it stands, this article works as a survey of sf texts that have a dual urbanism located in the same space, be it Gaiman’s two Londons (rich and poor, above ground and below ground) or the two cities of The City and The City that occupy the same physical space while remaining distinct urban entities.
In perhaps the most imaginative analysis of urbanism, Natalie Krikowa considers how the fictional districts of Susan Collins’s The Hunger Games (2011-2014) franchise have manifested on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and smartphone games. The series’ urban Capitol and rural Districts became central to fan media. People could explore the Capitol and the Districts, they could choose to associate with one of the 12 Districts’ Facebook groups, and they could play games expanding the world of the original narrative. In this way, Krikowa demonstrates how sf locations can be expanded into non-sf contexts.
Glen Donnar’s chapter shifts into the postapocalyptic mode to examine the idea of “The Final Men.” For Donnar, the final man is a type of character that survives the apocalypse in the ruins of major American urban centers such as New York or Los Angeles. Donnar reads the final man as the last vestige of the Lacanian patriarchal symbolic order; the creatures of the apocalypse harass this order as its Other. Donnar sees in Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (2007), J.D. Bernal’s The World, The Flesh, and The Devil (1959), and Boris Sagel’s film The Omega Man (1971) mirrors for contemporary anxieties about the racialized Other in major cities. Torsten Caeners’s “Imagination Reloaded” demonstrates the binary constitution of competing urbanisms in the television series Caprica (2009-2010). Caeners argues that there is a binary distinction between the main characters and the ways these characters are represented symbolically in the urbanism of Caprica City. The Greystone family are wealthy suburbanites and the Adama family are the Tauron immigrant community in the “humble” part of the city (187). The Greystones’ urbanism is technology, skyscrapers, and corporate capitalism. The Adamas’ urbanism is traditional values, respect for earth and soil, and organized crime. This urbanism reflects the characters’ identities. Caeners concludes by examining the layer of a virtual urbanism that is both a part of and separate from Caprica’s physical urbanism. This is not as well tied into the main argument as it might be, and it remains a bit unclear how this virtual urbanism affects the identities of the main characters discussed by Caeners earlier in the chapter.
To close the collection, S. Edrei examines the relationship between the reader and the protagonist as the reader gets to become a detective through the protagonist and works to solve the mystery of the narrative’s strange urbanism. The broken urban landscapes of Elana Gomel’s A Tale of Three Cities (2013), Grant Morrison and Frank Quiety’s JLA: Earth 2 (2000), and Ion Storm’s Anadchronox (2001) are not explained to the reader. Edrei shows how the reader must piece together clues in the narrative to understand the larger context that the protagonist naturally understands. While this is a fascinating article, Edrei writes as though the reader has read each text. The lack of useful background context about each text forces the reader to become the detective in deciphering Edrei’s main points as they relate to their overall argument.
Overall, Cityscapes of the Future is a good collection of varied and interesting articles. No two chapters cover the same topic while each stays on theme in discussing how urbanism plays a part in sf. One of the strengths of this collection is how it brings together scholarship usually applied in the social sciences to understand cities, such as work by David Harvey and Edward Soja. On the other hand, the concepts of “space” and “place” are used inconsistently throughout the collection even though some of the authors draw on Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre, whose work can be used to distinguish between these theoretical positions. This leaves the reader to distinguish how “space” and “place” are being utilized in each article. (As a small aside, this collection could also have used another round of proofing for typos, as well as the inclusion of dates of publication for the various books, films, and video games mentioned in the various chapters). This collection is a good addition to the discourse of understanding how setting, especially urban setting, plays an important role in how we experience sf narratives.—Alison Fraser, Trent University
Retrofitting Robot Stories.
. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2019. 200 pp. $25.00 hc.
Writers and critics alike have been hotly debating for millennia whether literature can or should fulfil a didactic role. While Aesop’s fables were written with a clear pedagogical purpose in mind, Edgar Allan Poe famously called didacticism in poetry “a heresy too palpably false to be long tolerated” (“The Poetic Principle” [Home Journal (1850)]). Science fiction seemed initially to lean toward the didactic: the pulp era was rife with explicitly educational stories, as editors such as John W. Campbell Jr. insisted that their magazines should teach their readers about science. It is therefore perhaps no surprise that educators should turn to fiction, especially sf, to teach contemporary science. This approach has been taken with varying success throughout the last few decades: the nonfiction section of a well-stocked bookstore is full of books purporting to explain “the science of” anything from Star Trek to Game of Thrones. And if you can learn astrophysics from Spock, why not learn robotics from Isaac Asimov?
This is what Robin R. Murphy aims to do in Robotics through Science Fiction: to explain concepts that undergraduate roboticists encounter in their textbooks through reference to six classic sf short stories. The book is a companion to her Introduction to AI Robotics textbook (MIT, 2nd ed. 2019), which already shows Murphy’s penchant for using fiction to illustrate her explanations. As all “the science of” books show, authorial intention does not have to correspond to didactic potential, and a reader can usefully learn science from a story that never claimed to have any scientific grounding. In this collection, however, Murphy rather overstretches the didactic potential of the stories she has selected. While it can be enlightening for a reader when a well-written story happens to fit the explanation one wants to get across, here she is instead trying to force twentieth-century literature into a contemporary science agenda.
The book contains six stories, all of which were published before 1973, as Murphy points out several times. She does not explain this choice, and it is an odd one for a book that tries to explain the cutting edge of robotics. The idea that these are “classic” robot stories, as her subtitle states, is not a convincing argument. For one thing, the selection of stories lacks balance: half are written by Isaac Asimov; the other authors are Vernor Vinge, Brian Aldiss, and Philip K. Dick. While these authors may be famous, there are many contemporary stories that would have better fit the purpose of this book, if only because they reflect the current state of the art more accurately. Nor does Robotics Through Science Fiction work well enough as a robotics primer or popular science book by itself, because the robotics terminology is not explained in enough detail for an uninformed reader to be able to follow along. The book really only makes sense as a companion volume to Introduction to AI Robotics, which, as Murphy explicitly states, covers not just any robots or AI, but specifically artificially intelligent robots.
Considered together, the title and subtitle of this present volume are quite infuriating in their apparent conflation of robotics and artificial intelligence: “robotics through science fiction: artificial intelligence explained through six classic robot stories.” To a roboticist or an AI expert the difference between robotics and AI is huge and significant; at the same time, a major problem in the public communication of these sciences is the way that the two fields are often conflated in the popular imagination, which leads to skewed perceptions and expectations for both of them. As I have argued elsewhere (e.g., Craig, Cave, Dihal, et al., Portrayals and Perceptions of AI and Why They Matter ), the public communication of artificial intelligence relies to a dangerous extent on a limited number of “classic” sf tropes. Over-reliance on the fictions of the past has led to skewed public perceptions of AI research and development and misunderstandings of what AI is: the conflation of robotics and AI has led to a failure to recognize non-robotics-based AI systems (e.g., “filter bubble” algorithms) and their dangers and biases. Since the differences between robotics and AI, or the extent to which they can overlap, is never explained in this book, one must conclude that it is intended for the reader who already knows this.
In keeping with the position of the book as a companion volume, the explanatory part is fast-paced and demanding, assuming a wide background knowledge or perhaps assuming that readers are working through Murphy’s textbook alongside it. For an uninformed reader, some of the explanations will be outright confusing. For instance, the term “black box” is used twice on one page, with two different meanings attached to the term (104). First, the term is used in the AI sense, although it is not explained: here a “black box” refers to the opaque inner workings of an intelligent computer system. The next usage of the term refers to a black box in an airplane, a concept with which most people will be familiar, but which has the exact opposite meaning: the black box in a plane has an explanatory function, making flight information accessible even after the worst has happened to the plane itself.
The stories themselves are a wonderful, highly enjoyable selection. Their framing, however, feels forced. The stories get criticized for crimes they have not committed, such as failing to be realistic enough for a twenty-first-century reader who wants to learn robotics from them. After each explanatory section, the story gets a “Reality Score,” a system to which an sf scholar will instinctively make two major objections. First of all, Murphy is projecting the twenty-first-century technological reality onto mid-twentieth-century fiction: Asimov’s “Runaround” (1942) and “Catch that Rabbit” (1944) were written before the end of the Second World War. Secondly, Murphy judges a fictional story for its realism, which may well be entirely contrary to the author’s intentions. At times, one wonders whether either author or reader is supposed to consider these stories as stories at all, rather than simply as ready-made textbook material. Each story opens with an introductory section in which Murphy tells the readers how to read it; the first story, Asimov’s “Stranger in Paradise” (1974), is introduced with the words “Annoying literary devices aside, the story is an excellent primer on telesystems” (7).
Nonetheless, Murphy’s treatment of the second story, “Runaround,” is much more interesting. Here the required education level of the reader becomes much clearer and it is also clearer that Robotics Through Science Fiction is meant as a textbook companion—the post-reading section includes explanations and diagrams from Murphy’s AI Robotics textbook. The explanations around the third and fourth stories, Vernor Vinge’s “Long Shot” (1972) and Asimov’s “Catch That Rabbit,” are well-written and informative even to a lay audience. The latter is perhaps the best suited to the purpose of this collection: the story centers on testing and debugging, so Murphy’s contextualization blends in perfectly. Yet even here, her retrofitting tendencies are apparent: she notes that “fortunately” the story leads to an explanation of the subject she wants to address (102), which rather seems to suggest that she has had to make do with these six stories, instead of having the freedom to choose from over a century’s worth of robotics stories.
The final two chapters are Murphy’s best. In chapter 6, which contains Philip K. Dick’s “Second Variety” (1953), she sets out to bust the fearmongering myths around robot ethics, explaining what machine learning actually is. The chapter contains an excellent explanation of why robots will not learn to kill all humans or develop ways to get ever better at doing so. Chapter 7 is much richer than the title “Summary and Review” suggests. This final chapter meticulously addresses manifold preconceived notions about AI and robotics: teaching how reality is different from sf, especially from what people tend to believe, is what this book is best at.—Kanta Dihal, University of Cambridge
Satyajit Ray’s The Alien and the History of a Lost Movie.
Ed. Sandip Ray, Dhritiman Chaterji, Arup K. De, Riddhi Goswami, and Deepak Mukherjee. Delhi: Harper Collins and Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives, 2018. x+214pp. Rupees 699, $34.99 pbk.
Almost all fans of Bangla kalpavigyan (sf) are aware of The Avatar, more commonly known as The Alien, a Hollywood film that was to be made by Satyajit Ray, that giant of Indian cinema, in the 1960s. The film would star Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando, and would bring the trope of the friendly alien to the sf imaginary. The film never got made, but themes, designs, and other plot elements from Ray’s original script surfaced in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and then, more importantly, in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), by Steven Spielberg. The story has been told, and retold, in contexts popular and academic. The possibility that Spielberg borrowed elements from Ray’s unmade script serve as the explicit or implicit backdrop to discussions about what the history of Bangla kalpavigyan might have been had the film been made.
Travails brings together, for the first time, Ray’s unmade script, other writings by Ray on sf, facsimiles of Ray’s correspondence about the film with actors, Hollywood studios, and other people such as Arthur C. Clarke, who also noticed the strong similarities between Ray’s and Spielberg’s visions, documents from the Bangla sf Cine Club, as well as several translations of Ray’s sf. While some of this material has been published before—for instance, the script was published previously by Faber & Faber in The Chess Players and Other Screenplays (1989)—and some of the stories have appeared as well, no other book in English has managed to bring all the source material around the film together, collect all of Ray’s writings on sf in one place, or bring to light the fascinating 1960s era of Bangla kalpavigyan. Perhaps this is what makes this book invaluable to sf researchers, over and above the case of The Alien itself.
The book is divided into three main sections, “Thoughts on Science Fiction” by Satyajit Ray features Ray’s writings, interview transcripts, and documents from the Cine Club. The second section highlights “Bankubabur Bondhu” [Bonkubabu’s friend, 1962], a short story that was the springboard for The Alien, featuring a translation as well as the script of the television adaptation written by Ray and directed by his son Sandip Ray in 1986, along with production stills. The third section focuses entirely on The Alien, featuring the script, interview, Ray’s famous article on the whole affair, and the article by Aseem Chhabra in The Times of India that created a lot of controversy about its plagiarism charges. The sections are preceded by a foreword by Sandip Ray, who is also currently engaged in bringing one of Ray’s most iconic kalpavigyan heroes to life on screen, the scientist-sage Professor Shonku. The book closes with an appendix featuring two fiction translations, including work by Ray’s father, Sukumar Ray, and another related story by Ray himself.
The first section presents Ray’s interest in sf cinema and literature. In the articles Ray offers brief synoptic histories: Wellsian and Vernian sf and a history of sf film from Méliès to Kubrick. In his extended All India Radio interview, Ray speaks about influences on his work and his own methods when writing characters such as Professor Shonku. The Cine Club documents provide a fascinating history of the 1960s post-independence era in Bengal and Ray’s own influence. Among the stated objects of the club were:
To organize shows for science fiction and fantasy films and allied performance exclusively for members. To propagate, spread and further the study of science-fiction and fantasy films. To increase the appreciation of such films for the common good of the society as a whole. To help encouraging scientific imagination through scientific films, and related symposiums and publications. To influence the film industry as a whole for production of science-fiction and fantasy films of desired standard for the enlightenment of society. (30)
The section also has quotations from Walt Disney, Ray Bradbury, Kingsley Amis, Arthur C. Clarke, and Brian Aldiss wishing success to the club, and promotion materials from the club’s early days, including posters and tickets.
The two sections that follow give a clearer picture of the ill-fated production story of The Alien. While “Bonkubabur Bondhu” was indeed the springboard, Ray’s plot for The Alien was nothing less than a sustained remaking of the genre of Bangla kalpavigyan, as well as a rewriting of much of the Anglophone and Francophone sf with which he was familiar. Bringing the alien to rural India was something that others had done before him—for instance, the colonial era writer Hemendrakumar Ray—but Satyajit Ray’s uniqueness also lay in presenting the alien not as a forbidding outsider on a quest to conquer earth, but one who could actually befriend a dumb village child. Unfortunately for Ray, the script had been co-copyrighted by his Hollywood agent, Mike Wilson, which doomed the project from realization, as Wilson continually put hurdles in Ray’s path and kept Ray from making the film in his own way. Other troubles followed, from studio executives to the actors that Ray had chosen. By the time Ray could get back the rights to do it well, it had been over a decade, and Ray had moved on to other projects. Even as Ray was trying to revive The Alien, Spielberg’s movies were being made. Spielberg himself categorically denied the plagiarism or influence charges, although many noticed similarities, not least in the physical description of the alien. This section of the book contains production stills, sketchbook notes, archival photographs, and copies of letters exchanged between Ray and others, and offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of film-making, Indian sf cinema, and possible adaptation history. It is also, for any sf and cinema fan, a heartbreaking story of production hell for what might have been a cinematic gem from one of the masters of cinema. It is perhaps well that the book ends with two further stories in the appendix at this point, lightening the mood after such a sad history.
Let us talk about adaptations of adaptations to exorcise the ghosts of these possible futures. One of the things that bothered Ray was that after Spielberg’s film, it would be impossible for him to make his own movie without E.T. in the backdrop. A creative and different approach is taken by the Bollywood director Rakesh Roshan for his film Koi ... Mil Gaya [Someone ... Has Been Found, 2003], which re-adapts both Ray’ script as well as Spielberg’s E.T. This film, while very ordinary in quality, was a runaway success and a landmark in Indian sf blockbuster cinema. It has spawned two wildly popular sequels with a fourth film in the works, and also inspired Indian sf film production in this century. Ray’s work has also inspired art. For instance, the Rubin Museum in New York recently hosted work by the German artist Matti Braun, the centerpiece of which is the lotus pond from Ray’s script (rubinmuseum.org/ events/exhibitions/a-lost-future). The fascinating experience invites viewers to cross the pond on floating wooden logs, and draws them into the world of Ray’s—and Braun’s—vision by transforming viewers into both the human and alien observers on the otherworldly surface of a dark lake on the fifth floor of the museum.
Even more importantly, the book pays homage to Ray’s vision for sf, especially the uses it could be put to both for the imagination in general and for Bengal more specifically. Much of Ray’s sf, with a couple of exceptions, is meant for a relatively young audience, but Ray’s ideas about sf were always about laying a certain groundwork for the reception of sf in Bengal, something that he wanted to do with the Cine Club. Others, including Adrish Bardhan and Ranen Ghosh, who were associated with Bangla sf magazines such as Ascharja [variant spelling Ashchorjo, trans. Wonder] and Fantastic, shared his goal. Ray was well aware of all kinds of sf, as the foreword by Sandip Ray and the book itself make clear: he read the latest sf, subscribed to magazines such as Omni and Heavy Metal, and also had personal friendships with several sf writers. Thus the specific form of sf to which he wanted to contribute, juvenile or young adult sf, was a deliberate choice. The sf Cine Club was meant to bring the best of European and American sf film to audiences in Bengal; the magazines, led by Bardhan, were to bring a more adult awareness to the genre, and create and promote sf; and the more juvenile strain was meant to encourage curiosity among younger audiences. This strategy, laid out by Ray, Bardhan, and others, did not completely work in its own time, but its traces are now the seed of the current generation of sf writing in Bengal. The mythos of the unmade The Alien works in the Bangla sf imaginary as a beacon to a promised future. This book deserves to be read by anyone interested in the history of sf cinema, Indian sf, or world sf.—Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, University of Oslo
Gutenberg in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.
Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2019. xxvi+110 pp. $89.99 hc, $69.99 ebk.
Scholarly work that makes the claim that it is exploring uncharted territory immediately prompts two questions: “how well does it map this new territory?” and “what is left unmapped?” In the introduction to McLuhan’s Galaxies: Science Fiction Film Aesthetics in Light of Marshall McLuhan’s Thought, Artur Skweres asserts that “McLuhan’s theories have not been systematically linked with interpretation of science fiction” (xi). This is a fair enough assessment, given that the frequently Joycean and aphoristic nature of McLuhan’s speculations makes them easier to apply to broader cultural trends than to close readings of single artistic works or genres.
Even so, McLuhan dropped hints that there might be fruitful links between his ideas and sf. You do not have to venture too far into The Gutenberg Galaxy (U of Toronto P, 1962) to find the pronouncement that “Our technologies … now demand an interplay and ratio that makes rational co-existence possible” (5; emphasis added). Technology creating rational coexistence fairly conjures up visions of the pacifist futuristic utopias that provided the setting for many an episode of “classic” Doctor Who (1963-1989), among other sf films and TV shows, in McLuhan’s time. It is a much clearer mental picture than the vague, hazy image Skweres evokes when envisioning McLuhan’s affinity with sf. That “they each look at the causes in the present and try to come up with possible results, anticipating their effects in the future” (xi) is hard to disagree with, but also easy enough to apply to any product of the human imagination.
“Easy” does not automatically mean “bad,” since any foray into the difficult and the unknown must begin at the margins of the easy and the known. There is a degree of wisdom in Skweres’s decision to use the familiar lodestars of blockbuster sf film franchises as navigational guides to his preliminary survey. The Star Wars, Blade Runner, Alien, Terminator,and Matrix series have seeped far enough into the popular psyche that explanations of their specifics can be done in shorthand form to save space for greater examination of their themes. Even the (to date) stand-alone Avatar (2009) has Arcadian sensibilities that are common enough to multiple genres to permit a brief glossing of its content.
The trouble is that even brief glossings are hard to come by in McLuhan’s Galaxies, never mind any deeper analysis. Skweres’s enthusiasm to share fresh insights about material that has already been the subject of extensive critical discussion periodically sends his monograph careening into an asteroid belt of movie trivia. Minutiae about production techniques and behind-the-scenes decisions parade forth, elbowing McLuhan aside for lengthy stretches. When McLuhan emerges again, he and his words seem strangely out of place.
The problem of McLuhan’s words appearing to be out of context is nothing new. It is a criticism that has been frequently levelled at McLuhan’s own work. Trying to untangle the Moebius-like binary of “hot media” and “cool media” often seemed to be a task beyond McLuhan himself, as his prose fell into the traps laid by his own terminology. Anyone who has written or graded an undergraduate media studies essay on McLuhan can therefore applaud Skweres’s attempt to square this vicious circle by saying that Blade Runner (1982) “can be seen as both hot and cool” (11). Ultimately, however, this statement does not resolve any questions about “hotness,” “coolness,” or Blade Runner so much as avoid them altogether. So does quoting Slavoj Žižek’s proposition that The Matrix (1999) functions as a sort of Rorschach test for viewers, which comes off as someone putting Roland Barthes’s old hat on Keanu Reeves’s head (74). By the time McLuhan was publishing his most famous works, poststructuralist and deconstructionist models of reader-and-audience-centered textual interpretation were arguing that any film, like any other text, can be seen as a Rorschach test for those who are so inclined.
The Matrix shares space in a chapter with Avatar, which gives Skweres an opportunity to examine another of McLuhan’s trickier concepts—the so-called “tribal” culture of the mediatized sensorium. Overlooking the colonialist bias behind McLuhan’s paradigm, Skweres nonetheless raises the intriguing point that the virtual selves taken on by Avatar’s human colonists constitute a “rather literal metaphor of the digital native” (92). The flaw in this metaphor is that they exist side by side in the film with very real non-metaphorical natives of a planet with no digital culture whatsoever. If Skweres’s account of the distinction between visual culture and the “tribal” sensorium is a little muddled, however, it can be put down to the inherent artificiality on which McLuhan’s original theory is based. The visual must be understood to be exclusively linear and unifocal for a contrast with the omnidirectional sensorium to be full and valid. Erwin Panofsky had successfully exploded the myth that linearity and unifocality were functions of the visual outside the realm of fine art while McLuhan was still in high school.
The Matrix/Avatar chapter is the final of Skweres’s case studies, and his third attempt at making a case for applying McLuhan’s views on visual culture to sf. Discussions of the subject which feature eerily similar wording crop up in a chapter comparing the Alien and Terminator franchises and one devoted exclusively to the Star Wars films and TV spin-offs. It can be argued that using the same concept as an analytical frame does provide a useful basis for comparison between the subjects of these individual chapters. The vagueness in Skweres’s introduction about which section of McLuhan’s body of theory he intends to concentrate on makes the repetition feel like an exploration of ground that has already been covered, however.
I am going to engage in some repetition of my own and bring back the phrase “eerily similar wording” from the previous paragraph to underscore something about McLuhan’s Galaxies that is likely to distract the reader from its content. Sentences and paragraphs are repeated word for word in different contexts—the most jarring example of this being on pages facing one another (e.g., xii-xiii). Sections of the main text appear to have been copied, pasted, and repurposed as captions of illustrations, adding little by way of clarification as a result.
The illustrations themselves do little to make matters any clearer. Readers who have never encountered the difficulties involved in securing reproduction rights for copyrighted images such as film stills may accept Skweres’s rationale for deciding to render scenes from famous movies in line drawings: “to reduce the analysis of the particular scenes to the core ideas” (xix). It is hard to get at the core of the idea behind a drawing, however, when it is as scarce on detail and compositional skill as Skweres’s are.
Lack of proper attention to all kinds of details plagues McLuhan’s Galaxies. McLuhan may have apocryphally enjoyed a typesetter’s flub so much that he allowed The Medium Is the Massage (1967) to stand as a title, but the contents of that particular volume are free of further instances of typographical laxity. McLuhan’s Galaxies contains so many errors in spelling, grammar, and idiomatic English usage that it is difficult to distinguish the products of carelessness from those of downright ignorance. This is compounded by unintentional inaccuracies in quotations from secondary sources: to take one example, readers would probably rather mentally rearrange “garhis” into “garish” in the newspaper or online version of Jumble than in an academic monograph (Skweres 79). It is also hard to sort out lapses in proofreading from lapses in fact-checking. “Edgar Rice Burrough” [sic] is probably a typo; giving the original publication date for John Carter of Mars as 1964, fourteen years after Burroughs’s death, is a bit more difficult to fathom (77). Ordinarily a reader should subscribe to Oliver Goldsmith’s maxim from The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) that “a book may be very amusing with numerous errors, or it may be very dull without a single absurdity,” but when a book with numerous errors also has the self-congratulatory tone of McLuhan’s Galaxies, it very quickly loses its power to amuse, much less inform.
This is unfortunate, because there is certainly cause for credit if not quite congratulation in this work. Skweres’s choice to focus on sf movie franchises rather than individual films creates scope for future investigations into broader patterns in the current cinematic and televisual instantiations of sf. When McLuhan suggested, in The Medium Is the Massage, that media and culture live in a rear view mirror, he invoked the long-running TV western Bonanza as the reflected image that guides their journey. As was the case with Bonanza and its kinfolk, many of today’s sf film and TV franchises play out in front of a uniformly familiar aesthetic and thematic backdrop. Skweres gestures at this backdrop ten lines into McLuhan’s Galaxies: “it could be argued that many of the works of science fiction are derivative in nature” (xi). In doing so, he unconsciously points the way forward, while engaging in a peculiar McLuhanesque irony. Whatever galaxy McLuhan may now be looking at us from, he might crack a wry smile at the idea that an experimenter like himself can be deployed as a means of understanding work that sometimes makes a virtue of being recognizably formulaic.—Rick Cousins, Trent University
Law as Monstrous Technology.
Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh UP, 2018. x+242 pp. £75.00/$110.00 hc, £75.00 ebk.
Kieran Tranter’s book is emphatically notabout law in literature. Throughout Living in Technical Legality’s two parts and six chapters, we encounter the formula, “it might seem that [insert sf text] is devoid of legal content, but beneath the surface ….” Instead of being fooled by the apparent “general lawlessness of science fiction” (7) or distracted by “the fleeting jurisdictional and temporal specificities of lawyers, controversies, and doctrines” (9), Tranter’s interest is in a literary philosophy of law. In short, his book asks, “What does sf say is law’s nature and its purpose—especially in an age of ubiquitous technicity?”
Part I’s primary answer is that sf reveals law as a monstrous technology unto itself. Once expected to save humanity from the Frankensteins creating chaos with their horrific assemblages, law as imagined by sf instead emerges as its own technology, one particularly obsessed with controlling death and time. Chapter 1 puts Shelley’s 1818 novel in conversation with technological triumphs such as the 1996 birth of Dolly the sheep, showing how she could only be received via “the negative images, tropes, and narratives associated with science fiction’s ‘clone canon,’” and that in effect, “science fiction provided the content through which Dolly was transmuted into law” (18). Indeed, whether the discussion is about Dolly, Sputnik, or nanotechnology, Tranter shows how the West, its science fictions, and subsequent legal actions render “the dark of technology” as “human and light” (32). In Chapter 2, we turn to Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) and its five sequels, as well as its franchise films and video games, to understand how global capitalism pushes forward the sovereign as law’s embodiment, a figure affording only a mirage of control. Read through Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651), the Dune cycle exposes tyrannical messiahs as epitomizing how “might makes right,” even if they cannot escape time or their roles as vehicles of death. As Tranter explains,
Dune does more than expose the sovereignty behind law as technology: it shows the essential commitments on which sovereignty and, with it, law as technology, arises. Dune not only shows the Leviathanic monster behind law as technology, but shows just how monstrous law as technology is. (64)
Concluding the book’s first half, Chapter 3 suggests that this monster’s triumph is not as simple as it might seem. This is because the gap between the human and the technological has so fully collapsed, as is evident in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica television series (2004-2009). For Tranter, the show illustrates how technology overwhelms Western metaphysics, but also upholds myth, a tool necessary for humans to become responsible agents. The ironic outcome? “Instead of an essential humanity facing a non-essential technology, it seems that all that remains is technology” (105).
Part II continues the book’s pattern of dedicating each chapter to a single (though often multivolume/episode) text, but now with specific attention to that work’s significance for legal subjects, lawyers, and legal scholars. Chapter 4, Living in Technical Legality, takes up the central problem revealed by Part I, the idea that instead of simply protecting humanity from technology, law has become technology—seemingly removing any moral barometer and leaving “no rules or measures for ‘good’ myths against ‘bad’ myths” (110). Using Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy (1987-1989; later collected as Lilith’s Brood ), which again lacks traditional references to legal contexts, Tranter explains how the “malleable, yet also rigid, naturecultural realm” in which Butler’s protagonists exist leaves them “neither free nor constrained” (127). (More on this below.) Chapter 5 calls on the BBC’s Doctor Who television series (1963-1989, 2005-) as epitomizing “a desirable myth-ideal for lawyer-nodes” (135), despite all of the ways its godless protagonists must remain strange within their universes. As Tranter concludes, “To be a lawyer within the modern legal system is a calling to be an alien, a somewhat sad clown-trickster that is not human. It is a calling to be a lord of time and death” (162). Finally, Chapter 6 works through the film Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) to encourage legal scholars to adopt “alternative cartographic techniques” that stretch beyond the supposedly salvific Frankenstein myth, instead recognizing how today’s “human-automobile grounds identity, myth, and biopower” (187). Why are cars so important here? Because they promise to “control distance and to render it comprehensible” (171), blocking out or bypassing one’s immediate locale and functioning as a mobile advertisement for the self.
A good litmus test of Living in Technical Legality’s fitfor a given reader might be the book’s coda, Chapter 7, on deserts. If one starts there and is attracted by its unapologetically high level of abstraction, the whole will prove worthwhile; if those four pages leave one wincing or disoriented, there might be better places to begin examining the shared threads of law and literature. (Elizabeth S. Anker and Bernadette Meyler’s New Directions in Law and Literature [Oxford, 2017], for instance, shares Tranter’s interest in reaching beyond a “law in literature” lens, but its wide variety of approaches might prove more accessible.) This hints at the book’s main weakness for this reader: its theoretical bulk sometimes holds its primary texts at such distance that they feel incidental. Chapter 6 is perhaps the greatest culprit, offering fascinating glimpses of how the automobile functions as a “sacrificial altar” (172) and a “billboard, as the stand-in for the self” (175), but leaving me unclear exactly how these patterns connect to legal scholarship. Most importantly, the concluding restatement of Tranter’s thesis—“Mad Max 2 has been used in the chapter as a cipher through which the multiplicities of the human-automobile of the contemporary West can be mapped as a performative example of how law scholar-nodes can be responsible for becoming through developing cartographies of the nodes, nexuses, and networks of the present” (188)—left me scratching my head. There are real insights here about the literal and figurative identification and sacrifice of the self (as hood ornament and bumper sticker), but the link to the legal scholar’s mapping work feels tenuous.
Still, Living in Technical Legality affords an advanced set of arguments about how sf unveils law as technology. Theory enthusiasts will especially welcome its extensive engagements with not just Hobbes, but also Giorgio Agamben, Martin Heidegger, Donna Haraway, Carl Schmitt, and Rosi Braidotti, among others. Personally, I most love the way Tranter constantly looks beyond the obvious appearances of lawyers and courtrooms to unearth the idea of law and its technical function in society. Take Chapter 4, where he boldly asserts that “the absence of orthodox law signifiers is precisely what makes Xenogenesis a text of technical legality par excellence” (116). There is also a brief but very astute observation here about how “the debate in the secondary literature amounts to differing readings of the strength of the gene theme—whether it tells an authoritative story of essential natures that determine being, or a malleable story of life materials that can be moulded by cultural practices” (119). Most intriguing of all in the era of Trumpism, though, is Tranter’s evocation of the tension between authoritarianism and liberalism. Is one more attracted to “a malleable humanity whose being could be modified, deleted, and reprogrammed by law” or a more essential humanity that is “the location for rights [and not just permissions]” (121)? As he elucidates, “In the liberal account, the subject is free while the sovereign is constrained; in the authoritarian account, the subject is constrained while the sovereign is free” (124).
This proves a constructive way of tackling not just Butler’s anticipation of Haraway’s natureculture, but also the polarization of contemporary America. We live in a time when the purported leader of the free world is offended by any actual or even desultory check on his authority, and when nearly half of our neighbors have repeatedly shown themselves willing to redefine law according to his whim. Tranter’s book and the sf he investigates point to badly needed alternatives, both inside and outside courts of law. Living in Technical Legality will be valuable to science fiction and legal scholars alike, including most graduate students and occasional advanced undergraduates.—Everett Hamner, Western Illinois University.
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