Science Fiction Studies

#141 = Volume 47, Part 2 = July 2020


SF’s Queer Ecologies.

Bridgitte Barclay and Christy Tidwell, eds. Gender and Environment in Science Fiction. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2019. 215 pp. $95 hc, $39.99 pbk, $38 ebk.

In “The Man-Trap,” the first episode of the first season of the first Star Trek series (1966-1969), a peculiar set of circumstances unfolds on the outpost planet M-113. Here, a mind-reading, shape-shifting, salt-sucking hominid takes the form of beautiful women in order to lure men to their demise. Once it has the victim secured, it reverts to its natural form: a shaggy beast with pale green skin and a mouth like a giant suction cup. It uses this and its long green fingers, similarly equipped with suction cups, to drain the victim of their vital salts. By the end of the episode, Captain Kirk and his crew have killed the deadly creature, but the mood on the Enterprise is one of regret. The salt-sucking vampire was the last of its kind. Captain Kirk likens its fate to that of the American buffalo, hunted to near extinction as a result of colonization and colonial excess. In the end, the general consensus is that it was not really evil, just really desperate.

One might say the same thing about the tortured and contorted plot machinations that require the salt sucker to get its fix this way in the first place. After all, as we learn throughout the episode, the creature possesses many impressive talents. It can take any shape; it can sift through the memories of its intended victims in order to choose just the right human forms to lure them, and it is by all appearances an excellent conversationalist. Given that the creature is not only equipped with vocal chords but also with a stunning range in terms of making use of them, it has always struck me as odd that it never once simply entreats the crew of the Enterprise for a giant shipment of salt, a lifetime supply, and that it resorts instead to elaborate and romantically coded interactions to leech the salt from its victims. It is a talented killer, in other words, but an inefficient one, and the pleasure of the episode seems to stem not from the hope that this endling, the last of its kind, will somehow manage to endure against the odds, but from watching a duplicitous female form appear in different guises to different men in order to manipulate and sap them of their vital essence. 

The demise of this singular creature and the attendant narrative strategies that lead to its execution have some interesting commonalities with the superb new collection of scholarship edited by Bridgitte Barclay and Christy Tidwell, Gender and Environment in Science Fiction. In this well-researched and extremely well-presented anthology, the editors and contributors reach into the rich archive of sf history to consider how stories of environment and gender interweave. Each piece, from the carefully framed and co-authored introduction to the ten stand-alone essays to Tidwell’s thoughtful conclusion, demonstrates how sf has always, from the creature features of the 1950s to the more sophisticated formal experiments of the present day, complicated accepted epistemologies, and hence ontologies, regarding environment, ecology, gender, sexuality, and science.

The salt sucker is a useful figure for encapsulating the many different aspects that the contributors to Gender and Environment in Science Fiction highlight. As the sole inhabitant of a colonized planet, it succumbs to but also resists colonization. It is both human and animal in its natural appearance, and its gender is ambiguous. When it hunts, its form is typically that of a beautiful female human being, but when it feeds it cloaks its body over its victim in a vampiric posture of sexual dominance, suggesting rape. Yet it draws salt out through suction rather than penetration, further complicating a simple performance of masculine dominance. Additionally, when Kirk links it to the colonized landscapes of the American West, its singular identity collapses into the strange landscapes of M-113 that are filled with exotic, Edenic vistas, replete with fruits and vegetables and poisonous plants. It is a categorical abomination, and attempting to sort out its many contradictory aspects quickly turns into an exercise in futility, a reductio ad absurdum.

Fortunately, the book does a much better job than I can hope to do here of teasing out these individual tensions and laying them bare for analysis. It is organized into four sections, each of which remains situated within a fairly stable chronology, artistic medium, and/or thematic urgency. Rather than providing a summary of each essay, I would like to highlight a standout essay (or two) from each section. The first section, “Performing Humanity, Animality, and Gender,” offers essays from, in order, Barclay, Tidwell, and Amelia Z. Greene. From the campiness of 1950 cinema (The Wasp Woman [1959] and The Mesa of Lost Women [1953]) to the sleekly designed domestic spaces of Ex Machina (2014) to the peculiar genetics of shapeshifting in Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed (1980), the essays in this section do a fantastic job of demonstrating how technological apparatus and scientific practice offer the means by which characters can enact, manipulate—and therefore exploit and revise—received notions of gender, sexuality, and embodiment. Amelia Z. Greene’s contribution here is particularly nuanced. As Barclay and Tidwell describe it, “the conflation of women with nature and subjugation of both is ... disrupted in Amelia Z. Greene’s reading of Butler’s work in her chapter, ‘Octavia Butler and the Language of the Flesh: Re-Writing Nature in Wild Seed’” (xvii). In this beautifully written and engaging essay, Greene demonstrates how Anwanyu, the protagonist of Wild Seed (a prequel to the Patternmaster series [1977-1984]), with her ability to change shape through carefully managed genetic manipulation, functions as a “particular kind of queer ecological agent. Gathering and adjusting rather than breeding, she sustains herself and others by revising bodies to fit new demands and new desires” (47).

“Gendering the Natural World” is the title of the second section, which considers the intersectional aspects of speciesism, gendered (biological) essentialism, and apocalypse. Two essays constitute this section: the first is co-authored by Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns and Juan Juve, on the topic of monstrous plants in sf cinema. The second, an essay by Steve Asselin, offers an analysis of “Nature” in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826). The latter is important for helping to understand the complex role that nature (and Nature) play in eschatological fiction, and the former, “Tendrils, Tentacles, and Flower Power: Speciesism in Womaneater (1958) and The Gardener (1974),” does an admirable job of demonstrating the uncomfortable but ultimately productive continuities between “women, working-class men, Latinx people, and plants,” who are in such works “objects of consumption and exchange between white bourgeois citizens rather than subjects with rights” (83).

“Contemporary Queering” is the enticing subject of the collection’s third section, which also includes two essays. The first chapter here offers a reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (2012) by Tyler Harper in light of new materialism and genetic manipulation. Harper’s analysis of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 will provide a valuable primer for students of sf as well as students of new materialism. And if at times I wondered if Robinson’s fairly traditional manner of narration is the best exemplum of sf’s ability to dovetail with new materialism, Harper’s lucid prose convinces me that it is at the very least a superb starting point for such a discussion. The second essay, by Stina Attebery, provides an outstanding analysis of acoustic aesthetics in Shane Carruth’s controversial film, Upstream Color (2013). As the co-editors put it, in “Ecologies of Sound: Queer Intimacy, Trans-Corporeality, and Reproduction in Upstream Color,” Attebery demonstrates how Carruth’s auditory techniques “highlight positive alternatives to traditional human/nonhuman and reproductive relationships” (xviii). Attebery’s writing is succinct, intelligent, and engaging. Upstream Color is a difficult film to watch, an even more difficult film to teach and, at least in my experience, an impossible film to write about. I had given up the hope of ever reading any useful criticism of it and am delighted now to be proven wrong. Attebery initiates an important conversation with the following claim: “By learning how sounds can be sampled and recombined,” the film’s two protagonists “are able to understand how they have been ‘sampled’ as bodies and remixed together with other ‘sampled’ creatures into new parasitic ecosystems” (132). While at some points in the collection I found myself wondering if quite so much theoretical scaffolding was required to set up a convincing analysis, Attebery’s essay is a welcome reminder that concise and confident theoretical assertions used to support an argument throughout an essay can be even more illuminating than a great deal of initial theoretical buttressing, no matter how conscientiously this might be deployed.

The book’s fourth and final section, “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” is a nod to the aesthetic tactics that have attached themselves to environmental awareness cinema, both in terms of commercial entertainment and activist practice. The section includes three essays, by Jill E. Anderson, Michelle Yates, and Carter Soles, each of which considers a popular ecological “hero” or crusade within the context of environmental history, such as Yogi Bear (and other “Bears in Pants,” as in Anderson’s engaging essay); eco-memories and pseudo-nostalgia, as in Michelle Yates’s excellent critique of masculinity and race in Soylent Green (1973) and Wall-e (2008); and the various incarnations of reluctant environmental interventionists in the Mad Max franchise (1979-), from Mad Max to Furiosa, and the problematic attitudes towards resource management and ecological exploitation on which these films’ gritty futures depend. Carter Soles’s essay, “Mad Max: Beyond Petroleum?,” concludes the volume. This is a fantastic and timely analysis of the provocative reboot and, after a balanced and engaging consideration of how the new Fury Road (1915) complicates gendered stereotypes, Soles answers the question that the title of his essay introduces. In addition to shaking up old notions of biological essentialisms, has Charlize Theron’s queer, cyborg body managed also to subvert exploitation, to undermine the notion of nature as resource, and, indeed, go “beyond petroleum”? The answer is No, but the negative is a least framed within an evolving and complex matrix that does not completely forestall future progress.

In summary, Gender and Environment in Science Fiction fills a vital need in sf scholarship, which has done an exemplary job of attending to the genre’s vexed relationship to gender (see, for example, Joanna Russ, Veronica Hollinger, et al.) and to the environment (see Ursula K. Heise, Sherryl Vint, et al.), but has not attempted the hard work of aligning their contradictory and at times maddeningly imprecise intersections. Until now.—Lisa Swanstrom, SFS

A Classic Verne Biography Reissued as an Audiobook.

William Butcher.  Jules Verne, The Biography. Narrated by Simon Vance. Carol Stream, IL: Oasis Audio, 2020. $28.95.

In 2006, William Butcher’s Jules Verne, The Definitive Biography (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press) received high praise from Vernian readers as well as enthusiastic comments from sf authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury (see Evans, “Centennial Scholarship on Jules Verne,” SFS 33.3 [2006]: 557-61). This new audio edition of Butcher’s biography is noteworthy because it offers a revised and updated version of the original text, enriched with fascinating information on Verne’s manuscripts. It thus offers non-French readers an exclusive opportunity to discover some of the detailed analyses published in France by Butcher in his 2015 Jules Verne inédit: les manuscrits déchiffrés [Jules Verne Unpublished: The Manuscripts Deciphered] (see Evans, “Culminating a Decade of Scholarship on Jules Verne,” SFS 42.3 (2015): 557-65). This last work meticulously traced the modifications that Verne’s publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, imposed on the new writer he had recruited, hoping to train him so that he would fit Hetzel’s pro-science educational project. In his initial biography, Butcher had a double goal: to rehabilitate Verne as a serious writer, showing that his considerable talents had long been disfigured and betrayed by dreadful translations (some of which are still circulating on the internet today), and to unveil “what sort of man Jules was, how he achieved what he did, what went on inside his head, what really made him tick” (xxvi). This enterprise—one could say this mission—made for a lively and spirited text documenting minute details of Verne’s life and freely imagining how he might have felt or reasoned, given what we know from his letters and novels. Butcher’s readers were thus invited to discover Jules Verne’s rich career and to share his intimate thoughts throughout a long and productive life.

With this expanded audiobook version of Verne’s biography, Butcher fulfills another goal: to show what the Vernian literary oeuvre might have been without Hetzel’s interference, without the radical changes he made to Verne’s novels, and without the publisher’s many “deleterious effects on the author’s creative imagination” (224). An entire new section of the revised biography is dedicated to the questions raised by the manuscripts (which are now available online on the site of the Nantes médiathèque) and suggests that, in several cases, the final published version of Verne’s novels was not the best nor the most authentic and that, for some such as The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (1864; trans. 1874) or Around the World in Eighty Days (1872; trans. 1873), future publishers should opt for an earlier manuscript version, not the one “censored” by Hetzel. One may or may not agree with some of Butcher’s judgments, interpretations, or hypotheses, but his compelling passion for Jules Verne cannot leave the reader or listener indifferent. His knowledge, style, and enthusiasm invite us to share his captivating exploration of one of the most famous—if often misunderstood—French authors. And I must also add that this audiobook is particularly well-served by Simon Vance’s perfect baritone reading performance.—Marie-Hélène Huet, Princeton University

Modernist Antimodernist?

Sarah Cole. Inventing Tomorrow: H.G. Wells and the Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia UP, 2020. xi+374 pp. $35 hc.

Was H.G. Wells a modernist? He was a contemporary of the great modernists, an erstwhile friend of several of them, and included modernists among his sexual partners. But modernists had a low opinion of Wells’s fiction, almost as low as his of theirs. Virginia Woolf classed him as a materialist (i.e., the opposite of a modern like herself) while E.M. Forster believed that Wells tricked his readers into imagining his fictional characters had depths they did not possess. For his part, Wells notoriously compared Henry James to a hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea, mocked Joseph Conrad for wanting to turn everything into a symbol, and accused James Joyce of turning his back on the common reader.

In the aftermath of the catastrophe of 1914-1918, modernists contrasted past order with present chaos, scrutinized the unique subjectivity of the individual, and produced difficult art for a highly educated elite. Meanwhile Wells, more interested in saving the endangered human species than in the lucubrations of any of its members, increasingly addressed a wide public with writings whose function was, by his own admission, as ephemeral as journalism. As a cosmopolitan agnostic socialist, Wells’s post-1918 ideological position could hardly be further from, say, those of W.B. Yeats the Irish nationalist, T.S. Eliot the High Anglican conservative, and Ezra Pound the fascist. No, Wells was not a modernist.

“It is the ambition of this book to rewrite the literary history of the twentieth century in England” (1), notes Sarah Cole in the introduction to her always interesting but flawed study of Wells. Specializing in modernism, she has discovered in Wells’s oeuvre a contribution to literature and culture that is at least the equal of the great modernists. She acknowledges the vast differences in temperament, aim, and method between Wells and the modernists, but with the enthusiasm of the newly converted she wishes to elevate him to the same level of academic prestige that they have enjoyed for seventy years or more. She is fully aware of Wells’s relative academic neglect (except, of course, among sf scholars) and does her best to account for this as well as to start to remedy it. In short, she intends to revise the canon of twentieth-century English literature to allow a prominent place for Wells, and she will do this partly by questioning why modernist reading protocols dominate literary studies. “What is wrong with telling, as distinct from showing?” (19), she asks defiantly, implying that “Nothing!” is the truest answer. Her ultimate goal, however, is not to relegate modernism to a lower level of the cultural hierarchy, but to broaden its definition to include the kinds of innovative responses to modernity typical of Wells’s writings.  

There is no doubt that Wells, the dominant international literary personality between the world wars, has been neglected by the academic mainstream since his death in 1946. During my teaching career, I often complained that not a single work by him appeared in the standard undergraduate anthologies of British literature. While I recognized that to us in sf, Cole is preaching to the converted as far as Wells’s importance is concerned, I wondered as I began her book whether she could persuade her fellow modernism specialists that Wells was as worthy of attention as their heroes, and whether the best way of going about this was to conjure into existence a “broader and more capacious modernism” (4) that included him. And of course I was curious to see if she would take into account the large body of sf criticism already in existence on Wells.

Cole’s book is strongly structured. Her lengthy and impassioned introduction contrasts Wells’s present diminished cultural reputation to his centrality during his lifetime. She indicates how greatly Wells seems to differ from his modernist contemporaries: his scientific training accounts for his “orienting vision” (13), while by temperament he was radical, didactic, optimistic, and polemical. Soon the modernism specialist is bemoaning modernism’s “stranglehold on reading techniques” (31) that has prejudiced “the monolith of academic modernism” (25) against Wells, noting that his oeuvre’s “endless conversation” with a “massive public” seems to make his individual works unsuited to a “normal course syllabus” in university (45).

Cole does note Wells’s importance in sf but claims, fairly I think, that most sf critics focus on the small body of early scientific romances and rehearse the (to her) false idea that there was a considerable falling-off in the literary quality of Wells’s late work. She has read the whole of Wells’s enormous oeuvre (an impressive claim, well supported by her text) and believes that there are major achievements at every stage of his career. She is not afraid to sing the praises of works that are almost forgotten today: the war novel Mr. Britling Sees It Through (1916), the 800-page fictional rumination The World of William Clissold (1926), the epic film Things to Come (1936), the late novella The Croquet Player (1936), and the even later manifesto The Rights of Man (1940). I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with these high evaluations, admiring her resolve to pay full attention to the whole of Wells’s oeuvre, and cheering her determination to cut so firmly against the grain of her previous affinities.

Cole is at her most impressive when “thinking big” (6), a phrase she uses of Wells himself. Wells is “the first major writer to overlay the age and size of the universe onto all of his writing, rescaling the cosmos and humanity’s place in it” (2). Literary scholars are incapable “of registering a massive body of writing that carries along multiple, competing views and strands, where it becomes crucial to … assess the meaning and impact of different articulations within the internal body” (30) of Wells’s huge corpus. There is an “intransigent conflict” between the “two different levels at which [Wells] always operated, the cosmic or biological, on the one hand, and the activist-political, on the other” (43), a conflict that he was never able to resolve but that was a source of his endless creativity. And Cole is to be commended for paying a great deal of attention to Wells’s biggest book, The Outline of History (1920), which she identifies as his “greatest” and “most quintessential work” (231) and which she compares to “another big book of its decade, which … shares its passion for making and undoing its frameworks, building and toppling its scaffolds” (213), namely Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).

The body of her study is divided into four unequal parts headed by a single word and subdivided into sections: “Voice,” which deals chiefly with Wells’s literary style; “Civilian,” which deals with Wells’s reaction to the First World War; “Time,” by far the longest part, which deals with Wells’s lifetime fascination with this elusive entity and how it colored his approach to history; and “Biology,” which deals with the science that above all determined his worldview. This method allows her to focus serially on those aspects of Wells’s enormous output that are particularly innovative, and to compare them with the innovations of the major modernists. In “Voice,” for example, Cole provides a section on “Specialized Language,” noting Wells’s habit of injecting into The War of the Worlds (1898) unglossed scientific terms such as “infusoria.” This practice she compares with T.S. Eliot’s insertion of untranslated foreign phrases into The Waste Land (1922), where they seem to come as invasions by an “alien idiom” (92). Thus Wells added “a new entrant into the cohort of destabilizing modern methods” (95) that “wrench us out from our social moorings” (94), and he did so a generation before Eliot.

But though her book is full of such sweeping and provocative juxtapositions, Cole is not as good at marshalling the details to support her argument. Aside from bigness and contemporaneity, is there really much similarity between Ulysses and The Outline of History? Does Wells’s use of scientific diction in The War of the Worlds really have a similar purpose to Eliot’s use of foreign languages in The Waste Land? Setting aside differences of generic context, I would have to say that, while all these works are innovative at the level of diction, Wells’s concern to educate the widest possible readership via a cosmic, evolutionary perspective could not be more different from Joyce’s and Eliot’s willingness to mystify even the most highly educated of their contemporaries. Wells wanted his readers to look up “infusoria” in their dictionaries, learn how ecologically important these microorganisms are to life on earth, and thereby justify the remarkable denouement of his scientific romance. For Eliot, the function of the quasi-overheard sentence “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch” was almost entirely suggestive and saturated with the semantic contradictions typical of irony. A definitive meaning for that sentence can never be established by resort to a phrase book or lexicon.   

Cole wants to apply the modernist label to Wells because it carries high prestige and she feels he deserves to share in that prestige. I sympathize with her feeling but disagree with her method. There is, undoubtedly, considerable influence flowing from Wells towards the great modernists (not to mention a trickle in the other direction) concerning the use of innovative nonstandard diction and many other elements too. Cole’s paradox certainly rings true: “modernists at times openly disdained Wells or despaired of his authority” (194). But none of this really makes Wells a modernist, still less an “modernist antimodernist” (16) as she puts it at one point, because the boundaries and meaning of modernism instantly begin to dissolve if you try to add Wells to the fold. Better simply to give attention—and praise—where it is due. Still, there may be in some of Cole’s provocative comparisons between Wells and the modernists a value that other critics, better on detail, will be able to extract.

And now I must touch upon a much more problematic aspect of Cole’s study. Too often, diction that is inappropriate or simply wrong in its context is used: for example, “prism” (7) instead of “spectrum”; “enamored” (70) for “eminent”; “crescendo” (210) for “climax.” Prepositional idioms deviate, sometimes wildly, from standard usage: “melds to” (88) for “melds with”; “integral with” (97) for “integral to”; “ineluctable to” (287) for “inseparable from.” Scientific ideas in particular are sometimes presented in a very confused state: “the phylogenic principle in which species rearticulates the development of the fetus” attributed to T.H. Huxley (182) should surely be rephrased as “the ontogenic principle in which the individual fetus recapitulates the development of its phylum” and reattributed to Ernst Haeckel.

There are, moreover, many errors of fact and interpretation: Wells (b. 1866) is described as being from the same generation as Wilfred Owen (b. 1893) (117). The space gun in Things to Come is not a “rocket” (286), but an (early sf) way of propelling a capsule into space so that a rocket need not be used. The Martian invaders in The War of the World are in no sense a “colonized” race (216) gaining revenge on their colonizers, but are themselves colonizers who inflict on Londoners a similar doom to that suffered by the Tasmanians at the hands of the British. Finally, some sentences are simply too awkward to follow: “In so many senses, the full Wellsian canon can be seen to bend and strain around war and waste as they entwine their way through history, repeatedly asking how the world might untether them” (286). 

No doubt I sound pedantic, but problems like the above examples are not isolated; they riddle the whole book, spoiling the experience of a reader (myself) who is in almost entire sympathy with Cole’s overall desire to give H.G. Wells more respect in academia. I can only conclude that her manuscript has not been copyedited rigorously—frankly, whole sections do not seem to have been copyedited at all. The unfortunate result is that her book is presented to the public in a way that does not do justice to its intention: to be that long-awaited comprehensive study of one of the greatest but most unfairly neglected writers of the earlier twentieth century.—Nicholas Ruddick, University of Regina

Not Yet ... ?

Caroline Edwards. Utopia and the Contemporary Novel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, Cambridge Studies in Twenty-First Century Literature and Culture, 2019. x+267 pp. $99.99 hc, $80 ebk.

Postmodernism is dead, all hail … what?

Late Capitalism, the socioeconomic context that Fredric Jameson tells us was the compost from which postmodernism grew, has died of old age. It was not up to the task of the new century, battered down by plagues (SARS, Swine Flu, Ebola, Coronavirus); by environmental collapse; by financial blows that saw the poorest in society having their resources squeezed by a decade or more of austerity while the richest saw their wealth increase exponentially. In consequence, trust in traditional forms of governance evaporated, allowing the rise of populists with no principles of their own other than an appeal to the most base instincts of their constituents, who could therefore somehow present themselves as being free from the swamp of modern democratic politics.

Given that Late Capitalism has been thus exhausted over the last twenty years, its cultural efflorescence has been deprived of nourishment. But what is to provide our cultural response to this radically changed social, environmental, and political landscape? For Caroline Edwards, the answer is an old idea that in over 500 years has never quite gone away, though it has undergone some drastic transformations in that time: Utopia.

By Utopia, we are not talking (or not primarily talking) about More’s or Bacon’s remote island state; or the political or religious wish-lists of various would-be teachers and theorists; or Wells’s dream of a future world state; still less are we talking about the dystopia that was the default reaction to the monolithic totalitarian states of the twentieth century. Utopia now, in this current cultural moment, is more a state of mind, a personal sense of place rather than a place being presented to us. And it is always a process, never complete and sometimes as nebulous as hope. This new Utopia is defined by the other key word in Edwards’s study: non-contemporaneity.

Caroline Edwards is a Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature, but she is also someone very well aware of science fiction and its study (she has, among other things, co-edited a book on China Miéville). Consequently, the theoretical underpinning of this new work may come as less of a surprise to students of science fiction than it might to those who concentrate on the more mainstream aspects of modern literature. Her work draws heavily, indeed exhaustively, on the theories of Ernst Bloch, although it has to be said that his idea of the Novum, which has played so crucial a part in the theorizing of science fiction, receives no more than a passing reference here. Edwards concentrates, instead, on Bloch’s ideas of utopia, his messianic leanings, and in particular his notion of the Noch Nicht, the “not yet,” which she expands into fictions of the not yet (always italicized, as though it is itself a title).

Fictions of the not yet, which are here examined through ten representative works, form, Edwards argues, a characteristic movement in twenty-first century British fiction. The works that are central to this study—though with enough others mentioned in passing to suggest that this is more than the happenstance of her particular choices—occupy a strange generic hinterland (she references, for example, Gary K. Wolfe’s notion of evaporating genres). They are published as contemporary mainstream literary fiction, but they have chosen to examine the usual topics of such fiction, our relationship with the world around us, through devices that are often characteristic of science fiction. This cross-genre fertilization is the necessary component of the characteristic literary quest for something utopian as a way of resolving our issues with the current moment.

Temporality lies at the heart of this study, inevitably so given that its focus is upon non-contemporaneity. Modernist literature in, for instance, the carefully constructed twenty-four hour compass of Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) or Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), was work that adhered to what we might call clock time. Postmodernist literature tended to fracture time but still allowed clock time a role in shaping our apprehension of the world. The books that Edwards considers take a longer, less structured view of time; they are, if we might borrow a term from the Annales School, fictions of the longue durée. For instance, Joanna Kavenna’s The Birth of Love (2010) features sections set 150 years in the past and 150 years in the future, though regardless of the year all four parts of the book take place on the same August day. Such linkages and resonances across time tend to annihilate the strict regularity of clock time in favor of a looser sense of when we belong.

Again and again in the novels discussed here we sense that time is a more ambivalent, less structured concept than we are normally used to and, since time and identity are so closely linked, so the continuation of character becomes more tenuous. Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men (2011) moves readily between the past and the near-future in a barren American desert, but as in Kavenna’s novel the times are linked, here by visions of a glowing child, and characters echo each other across time. In David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004), and indeed throughout all of his novels including the seemingly realist Black Swan Green (2006), characters reappear and are reborn, often marked by a symbol such as the comet-shaped birthmark we see in both Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten (1999). Bloch might argue that such recurrence in both Gods Without Men and Cloud Atlas is transmigration: the same souls reborn in different bodies as they are in, say, The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) by Kim Stanley Robinson. But Edwards very perceptively suggests that a better way to read these characters is as what she calls “networked” characters, linked to each other without replicating each other. We see another aspect of that same networking in Maggie Gee’s The Flood (2004). This is the story of a city that is not quite London that has been inundated by a global catastrophe (Edwards draws comparisons to J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World [1962], though really there are many other possible comparisons), but the people whose lives and deaths we follow throughout this apocalypse are characters drawn from half a dozen earlier novels by Gee, novels that are not necessarily part of the same timeline as The Flood, and in at least two cases the characters had died in those earlier novels.

Time and character are not fixed in these books; death is not necessarily the end. In at least one of the novels discussed here, Ali Smith’s Hotel World (2001), one of the narrators is dead before the novel opens. But this networking of character within a generous, expansive temporality allows places in which utopia might be secreted, though it also allows for apocalypse. Apocalypse is as consistent a feature as utopia in these novels. The apocalypse may be fake: in Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days (2015), a young girl is taken to a remote cabin in Germany by her survivalist father who then convinces her that the world outside their little valley has been destroyed. Like the one in Fuller’s novel, the apocalypse is often a family affair, such as the one experienced by a girl raised by her single father within the suffocating enclosure of a Welsh fundamentalist sect in The Land of Decoration (2012) by Grace McCleen; the fatal traffic accident that affects every resident of a small London street in Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002); or the young child lost in the New Mexico desert in Gods Without Men. Others are more global affairs, such as Maggie Gee’s flood, or the environmental collapse in The Pesthouse (2007) by Jim Crace, in which a future America sees a reverse of Manifest Destiny as survivors make their way to the east coast in the hope of finding a boat to Europe.

Edwards does not make this point, but the boats sought by the would-be evacuees of The Pesthouse are an important symbol of the hope that she identifies in all of these novels. There is the boat of the Prescients at the hinge-point of Cloud Atlas or the boat that appears in the final pages of Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (2014), oddly reminiscent of the naval vessel that brings salvation at the end of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). These ships in and of themselves represent a survival of the modern technological world amid the fall of civilization. And there is hope also in If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things when the child thought to have been killed in the accident emerges unscathed from the ambulance, which might be seen as another form of lifeboat. But while the boats may be symbols of hope, they are not themselves utopian.

At the end of The Pesthouse, the two protagonists turn their back on the boats and start making their way west again: they are returning home. When the girl in Our Endless Numbered Days finally escapes the valley, she goes back home to her mother. When Holly sends away her granddaughter on the ship at the end of The Bone Clocks, the granddaughter is on her way back to her father. Hotel World, in its charting of grief, records a search for home in the unhomely surroundings of a hotel.

For Edwards, as for Bloch, utopia is home. This may seem a banal conclusion for a study of this complexity, but in fact there is something quite profound about the idea of a search for home within a society and a culture that leave us endlessly disoriented about what home might be. And when we take Edwards’s gloss on Bloch’s notion of non-contemporaneity, there is something profoundly sad about the idea that this utopia is always out of reach, always not yet.—Paul Kincaid, Independent Scholar

Critical Apocalypses.

Jean-Paul Engélibert. Fabuler la fin du monde. La puissance critique des fictions d’apocalypse. Paris: La Découverte, 2019. 239 pp. $20.20 pbk.

Jean-Paul Engélibert positioned himself as a touchstone critic for apocalypse studies in French-speaking academia with his 2013 study Apocalypses sans royaume. Politique des fictions de la fin du monde [Apocalypses without a Kingdom: The Politics of End-of-the-World Fictions], followed quickly by a co-edited volume on the same topic. His latest book, Fabuler la fin du monde. La puissance critique des fictions d’apocalypse [Fabulating the End of the World: The Critical Power of Apocalyptic Fictions], solidifies his position as an incontournable, a must-read, for those working in this field and able to read French.

Building on the work begun in Apocalypses sans royaume, Fabuler la fin du monde develops the idea of the “critical apocalypse,” largely analogous to the “critical utopia,” i.e., a tale of the end of the world with a utopian rather than nihilistic goal. Engélibert contrasts conservative narratives expressing fears that the world will change (he cites Roland Emmerich’s film 2012 [2009] as an example) with those whose aim is “to fight to bring about a world worth living in” (16; my translations throughout the review). He defines narratives of “l’apocalyptisme critique” as:

fables of the end of the world … which, through their apocalyptic scenarios, stage the necessity of cultivating our rootedness and the promise of another world. Paradoxically, these fictions thus constitute the instruments of fighting against the apocalypse. (16)

Whereas his 2013 volume set out a typology for apocalyptic narratives, this volume focuses specifically on works with a utopian horizon and examines a (mostly) different corpus (Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy[2003-2013] and works by Antoine Volodine figure in both of Engélibert’s studies).

Divided into five parts of two chapters each, Engélibert’s study addresses an international corpus of both literary and visual narratives, drawing on a broad body of theoretical texts including those of Giorgio Agamben, Bruno Latour, and others. Part I, “Faire table rase” [Cleaning the Slate], explores the link between apocalyptic texts and that twenty-first-century buzzword, the Anthropocene. Chapter 1 posits that although the term may be relatively new, texts critical of the Industrial Revolution’s impact on the environment were already appearing in the early nineteenth century. Engélibert then examines the very first secular narrative of the apocalypse, Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s Le dernier homme [The Last Man, 1805], as a refutation of the Enlightenment’s narrative of evolutionary progress as outlined in Buffon’s Les époques de la nature (1778). In chapter 2, he describes literature’s powerful role in constructing “L’affirmation du négatif” [the affirmation of the negative, 51] necessary for the critical apocalypse, illustrated by readings of Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels (1999), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), and Céline Minard’s Le dernier monde [The Last World, 2007]. Engélibert also argues that his textual analyses differ from earlier approaches, as they “do not see works as symptoms but as works. Not looking for documents or signs of an apocalyptic culture, but an active resistance to apocalypse” (55).

Engélibert argues that the critique of progress has forced us, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, to live in a présentisme [presentism] haunted by the fear of catastrophe (12-13), an attitude that must be rejected if we are to imagine a better future. Part II, then, “Échapper à l’emprise du present” [Escaping the Grip of the Present], outlines how certain texts historicize the present by engaging the figures of apocalypse and messianism. Chapter 3 explains how the shared sense that the apocalypse is imminent implies its immanence in any discourse about how to avoid it (78-79). Engélibert underscores the political aspects of the critical utopia, but also discusses its poetics, asserting that, “If fiction makes us leave presentism, it is because it brings the dead back to life: it is a praxis but also a poetics” (94; emphasis in original). Theoretically, he invokes Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (1966) and Jérôme Baschet’s Défaire la tyrannie du present [To Undo the Tyranny of the Present, 2018], looking at Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (2003), Volodine’s Writers (2010), and José Saramago’s Blindness (1995). (Unfortunately, the body of the text refers to the Portuguese writer as “Antonio Saramago” (21, 82), an error representative of a Gallic insouciance for detail, particularly when it concerns a non-French writer or critical source.) In chapter 4, Engélibert perceptively reads the films On the Beach (Stanley Kramer, 1959), Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011), and 4:44 Last Day on Earth (Abel Ferrara, 2012) through a similar lens. He is an astute critic of the visual text, addressing the use of the image as well as the narrative content of these films.

Chapters 5 and 6 comprise part III, “Retourner la violence” [Turning Back the Violence]. The former addresses the restoration of the sacred through sacrifice, analyzing British playwright Edward Bond’s War Plays (1985), Italian writer Davide Longo’s Last Man Standing (2010; trans. 2012), and returning to McCarthy’s The Road (2006). This intervention addresses an issue that I might illustrate through an example from the Walking Dead (2010- ): the omnipresence of an evil group such as the Survivors and the necessity for (beloved) good characters to sacrifice themselves in order to break the order of violence. Chapter 6 analyzes Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “L’article des lucioles” [The Fireflies Article, 1975], Georges Didi-Huberman’s response in Survivance des lucioles [Survival of the Fireflies, 2009], and Jean-Luc Nancy’s L’équivalence des catastrophes (Après Fukushima) [The Equivalence of Catastrophes (After Fukushima), 2012]. Again, Engélibert argues that “End-of-the-world fictions do not wallow in despair for nothing. It is necessary to represent the absolute catastrophe in order to prevent its coming to be” (143; emphasis in original).

After such total destruction, Part IV is concerned with “Reconstruire la société” [Reconstructing Society]. Chapter 7 brings our attention to French writer Robert Merle’s Malevil (1972), a kind of “utopia of the after.” Although in France it is one of the best-known apocalyptic novels and it was quickly translated into English after its publication, to the best of my knowledge it remains little studied in the US/UK. Merle’s text addresses the disillusion with progress and imagines a post-apocalyptic society in which the sacrifice of individual desire and a rootedness in collective decision-making suggest a viable utopia. Chapter 8 offers a perceptive analysis of the first season of Damon Lindelof’s series The Leftovers (2015), based on Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel, focusing on how it illustrates “Vivre le temps de la fin” (Living the End Times). Engélibert demonstrates how the show’s camerawork supports his interpretation of its politics, which ultimately rejects the radical group, Guilty Remnants, forcing viewers to focus on how individuals in the community must—while remembering the past and their lost loved ones—continue on and survive. Observing that the texts examined so far envision only the human community, Engélibert looks at texts proposing (although he does not reference the term at all) posthuman solutions to survival in part V, “Repeupler le monde” [Repopulating the World]. Chapter 9 returns to the idea of the Anthropocene, referencing Bruno Latour’s Facing Gaïa (2015) and examining Atwood’s MaddAddam as an argument for a more broadly inclusive notion of a community of cross-species interdependence. In chapter 10, Engélibert argues that “The dystopia of hypermodernity is yet another way to represent the apocalypse” in its imagery of the megalopolis that spreads so far that all of nature has been stripped away by human intervention, leaving us alone in a landscape of artefacts and machines (208). He explores the role of the cyborg using Mamoro Oshii’s anime film Ghost in the Shell (1995) as an exemplar text, drawing theoretically on Thierry Hoquet’s Cyborg philosophie. Penser contre les dualismes [Cyborg Philosophy: Thinking against Dualisms, 2011] and Pablo Sérvigne and Raphaël Stevens’s Comment tout peut s’effondrer [How It Could All Fall Apart, 2015].

Engélibert concludes that the critical apocalypses he has analyzed offer “counter-narratives to the mythology of a better world constructed by capital and technology subjected to its profit. Against the present régime … they affirm the necessity of thinking about our era as times of the end in order to open up a future … occulted by the present” (222). In addition to the development of the concept of the critical apocalypse and perceptive readings of its primary corpus, this study’s secondary sources include the best of contemporary French thought on the apocalyptic bent of our present times, some of which—like Latour’s—has been translated into English. But, as is typical of French academic publishing, the reader must comb through the footnotes for these sources since there is no list of works cited and the index includes only proper names. I hope that an English translation will be made available so that Engélibert’s work can gain a wider audience; for those working in apocalyptic studies who read French, his prose is clear and accessible, and reading this work demonstrates that his reputation in France and Québec is rightfully earned.—Amy J. Ransom, Central Michigan University

New and Graphic Posthumans.

Edward King and Joanna Page. Posthumanism and the Graphic Novel in Latin America. London: UCL, 2017. 236 pp. £35 hc, £20 pbk, free ebk.

Edward King (University of Bristol) and Joanna Page (University of Cambridge) discuss the advantages that the graphic novel medium provides when exploring and problematizing questions of posthumanist thought. The intermedial nature of graphic fiction allows for a unique presentation and examination of the nature of twenty-first-century subjectivity, embodiment, and mediatization that connect humans to their non-human environments. The authors examine these themes in an array of graphic novels from Latin America, with a heavy emphasis on the Southern Cone (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Uruguay).

In their introduction, King and Page perform a balancing act in considering multiple analytical and theoretical ideas when discussing posthumanism in contemporary sf graphic fiction in Latin America. In a brief historical overview, the authors discuss the graphic novel as a point of confluence among national ideologies, popular cultures, and global cultures in its material and aesthetic construction as well as in its treatment of the tensions and shifting relationships of local and global, center and periphery, popular and elite. Since the inception of Latin American graphic fiction in the nineteenth century, it “has engaged in an ambivalent critique of urban modernity that simultaneously recognizes in that modernity the conditions of its own possibility as a medium” (18). The Latin American graphic novel affords particular advantages in examining and critiquing the various disciplinary and discursive forms of posthumanism wthin philosophical, critical, and cultural frameworks. King and Page state:

In our analysis, we have focused on the limits of the human as they become visible within the Latin American context, and in the light of certain defining events and experiences, such as colonization and its legacies for the present, racial and cultural hybridities, uneven modernization, dictatorship, revolution, neoliberalism and staggering socio-economic inequality, but also particular strands of political and cultural thought, including a complex (and often contestatory) literary and philosophical response to European humanism and modernity. (6)

The authors organize the book into seven chapters. In the first chapter, “(Post)humanism and Technocapitalist Modernity,” they examine a series of graphic novels from Argentina and Uruguay that condemn humanist exploitation of nature and denounce technology as a tool of biopolitical control; these works draw closer to anti-humanist rather than critical posthumanist positions. In the second chapter, “Modernity and the (Re)enchantment of the World,” they analyze two Chilean graphic novels, E-Dem: La conspiración de la vida eterna [The Eternal Life Conspiracy, Cristián Montes Lynch, 2012] and Las playas del otro mundo [The Beaches of Another World, Critián Barros and Demetrio Babul, 2009], and the Mexican graphic novel/web-comic Los perros salvajes [The Feral Dogs, Edgar Clement, 2011-2017]. These graphic novels engage in a culture of enchantment and gesture toward a new post-anthropocentric ethics. By blending technology, science, and spiritualism, the texts forge connections between “apparently divergent temporalities, ontologies and epistemologies” (48). In the third chapter, “Archaeologies of Media and the Baroque,” they examine the neo-baroque aesthetic of Operación Bolívar [Operation Bolívar, Edgar Clement, 1999] as an “archaeology of the history of media in Mexico” as well as a mode that explores and problematizes the connections among the material, spiritual, and virtual realms (87). In the fourth chapter, “Steampunk, Cyberpunk, and the Ethics of Embodiment,” King and Page read two Chilean graphic novels: 1899: cuando los tiempos chocan [1899: When Times Collide, Francisco Ortega and and Dániel Nelson, 2011] and Polícia del Karma [Karma Police, Jorge Baradit and Martín Cáceres, 2011]. Using the steampunk aesthetic, these graphic novels revisit key moments in Chilean history, deconstructing and defamiliarizing them in order to “draw attention to the human cost of Chile’s modernization.” Moreover, they call attention to the “dynamics of oppression and exclusion out of which the modern, cybernetic nation is born” (110). In the fifth chapter, “Urban Topologies and Posthuman Assemblages,” the authors examine the constantly morphing construction of urban space in O Beijo Adolescente [Adolescent Kiss, Rafael Coutinho, 2011-2015] as topological rather than topographical. The graphic novel utilizes “vectors, forces, and assemblages” to move beyond “static notions of space, distance and perspective, allowing for an emphasis on virtual or imaginary relations” (139). The work also serves as a platform to chart shifting social and cultural changes “reflect[ing] and foreshadow[ing] events in São Paulo preceding and succeeding the protests of 2013” (138). In the sixth chapter, “Post-Anthropocentric Ecologies and Embodied Cognition,” they argue that the Chilean graphic novel Informe Tunguska [Tunguska Report, Alexis Figueroa and Claudio Romo, 2009] uses fractal logic and mimicry to present a posthuman, post-anthropocentric vision. Building on the ideas of Eduardo Kohn, they argue that Informe Tunguska presents “a kind of semiosis that diminishes the difference between human and non-human signification” (164).  In the final chapter, “Intermediality and Graphic Novel as Performance,” the authors examine the Brazilian graphic novel BioCyberDrama Saga (Edgar Franco and Mozart Couto, 2013) and two intermedial encounters. First is the relationship between the landscapes presented within the graphic novel and the soundscapes produced by Franco’s ambient electro band. Second is the connection between the graphic novel and his “cybershamanic live performances.” King and Page argue that these intermedial assemblages “foster a critical posthumanism that explores and performs new subjectivities arising from the technological extension, reinvention or transcendence of the human body” (185).

Many of the texts examined in this book explore the possibilities of technological advances in “artificial intelligence, virtual reality, bionics, genetic engineering and cryonics” but, as the authors point out, the creators of such texts remain “deeply suspicious of the co-option of these technologies for the pursuit of immortality and a transcendence of the materiality of human existence” (207). The treatment of new posthuman ontologies found in these texts falls along a spectrum from critical posthumanist to anti-humanist. Indeed, many of the creators connect the advances of technology with authoritarian practices of “mind control, intensive surveillance, political repression and discrimination of various kinds” (207). While these graphic novels decry the violent oppression that typifies various eras of Latin American history, King and Page also adroitly analyze the constant self-reflection of these graphic novels, “their own materiality, form and readership.” Throughout their study, the authors consistently and convincingly posit that the medium of graphic fiction, while “fully connected with visual culture and textuality ... constantly [reinvents] itself as a powerful site for social critique and artistic innovation in a posthuman era” (218). 

Even though the primary focus of inquiry is the graphic fiction of Latin America, scholars of posthumanism and sf graphic novels alike will benefit from the rigorous theoretical treatment, the enlightening close textual readings, as well as the comprehensive engagement with extant contemporary criticism.—James Krause, Brigham Young University

Off the Deep End with J.G. Ballard.

Rick McGrath, ed. Deep Ends: A Ballardian Anthology 2019. Powell River, BC: Terminal Press, 2019. 171 pp. $39 hc, $29 pbk.

This is the fifth installment in a series of handsomely produced volumes devoted to the life, work, and legacy of J.G. Ballard. (It was an annual series between 2014 and 2016, then it missed a year in 2017, but now seems back on track, with plans for a 2020 volume currently in the works.) As with the previous entries, Deep Ends 2019 offers an arresting mix of critical articles, biographical essays, and artistic pieces that display the continuing inspiration of Ballard’s career for a wide range of literary and cultural theorists, creative writers, photographers, web designers, and more. The result is a veritable feast for Ballard scholars and fans.

The book opens with the latest chapter in David Pringle’s ongoing “J.G. Ballard Chronology,” this time covering the years 1971-1975. This was a highly fertile period for the author, seeing the critical reception of his most challenging work to date, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), and the development of his second disaster trilogy, encompassing Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1973), and High-Rise (1975). As one would expect from this longtime student of Ballard’s work, whose pathbreaking essay “The Four-Fold Symbolism of J.G. Ballard” appeared in Foundation during this very period (1973), Pringle’s coverage is highly detailed and fascinating, gathering both well-known and obscure incidents, the latter including the full story of the canceled US edition of Atrocity Exhibition, of Ballard’s meeting with Borges, and of his affair with British novelist Emma Tennant, with whom he worked on the literary journal Bananas. Pringle has been accumulating this information for decades, and the chronology includes excerpts from his personal diary detailing appearances by Ballard on radio and television, promoting his work and issuing his typically oracular pronouncements about contemporary culture.

Pringle’s chronology is the longest piece in the volume and it sets the stage for many of the other items, which are inspired by Ballard’s pioneering and controversial work of the early-to-mid 1970s. David Manley’s photo-essay “J.G. Ballard’s Instant Horizons” considers how the author’s critical interrogation of mass-media imagery in books such as The Atrocity Exhibition might be extrapolated to contemporary technological developments, from virtual reality to social media. Deploying the theories of Paul Virilio, Manley develops a theory of “image power” based on speed and simultaneity, a theory he sees lurking, in embryo, in Ballard’s incendiary 1970s fictions. Also inspired by Ballard’s 1970s work are a series of photomontages sprinkled throughout the volume by Mike Halliwell that—in their themes of sexuality, violence, and media celebrity—powerfully evoke the “condensed novels” gathered in Atrocity Exhibition. Another photo-essay, “Dreaming Crash” by Paul H. Williams, takes the actual form of one of these condensed novels, though the high production values of this anthology series permit large, full-color images, as compared to the black-and-white versions featured in New Worlds magazine back in the day. Chris Beckett’s essay “Terminal Fantasies” explores points of connection between Crash and Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film Weekend, both of which portray a culture of automotive obsession, though Ballard found Godard’s movie too coolly doctrinaire to capture the full, feral heat of personal fantasy invested in the motorcar. Finally, Holliday’s essay “Disaster in Space” considers the fate of Ballard’s 1970 story “Journey Across a Crater,” a test-run for Crash that the author eventually came to dislike so intensely he never included it in any of his books.

Aligned with these pieces are a series of creative efforts that are either inspired by Ballard’s characteristic themes or that actually feature him, in some way, as a character. The most striking of these is an excerpt from Jeremy Reed and Audrey Szasz’s conceptual novel, Plan for the Abduction of J.G. Ballard (2019), which consists of a series of brief, illustrated quasi-chapters in which the authors, by turns, imagine Ballard in various odd contexts: dropping acid, having fetishistic or virtual sex, jaunting through parallel universes. Lawrence Russell’s “Soho Jake: The Gun in the Piano” and Maxim Jakubowski’s “The Beach Hunters” are short stories that explore classic Ballardian obsessions in a hardboiled style borrowed from noir fiction, reminding us just how deeply the author was influenced by this tradition himself, as evidenced by his late series of novels—e.g., Cocaine Nights (1996)—that explore the psychopathology of criminal transgression. Paul A. Green’s “The Final Analysis” is a rather silly first-person narrative of a patient who is psychoanalyzed by “Dr. Ballard,” while Stephen E. Andrews’s “Saucer Occupant” is an intermittently engaging creative memoir that blends Ballard (and New Wave sf more generally) with the tabloid fantasies of UFOlogy. Editor McGrath’s own contribution, a vivid vignette of entropic breakdown in a luxury condo building, reads like an outtake from Ballard’s High-Rise

The book also gathers creative work in different media, such as Pippa Tandy’s “Trainsformations,” a series of overdeveloped photos of exurban hinterlands taken from the windows of a speeding train at dusk, and Sam Scoggins’s “Views of the Uncanny Valley,” a cluster of “landscape photographs” digitally produced by a Generative Adversarial Network. The blurry and/or virtual landscapes captured in these two pieces recapitulate the spatial obsessions of Ballard in striking new contexts. Like Scroggins’s piece, Andrew C. Wenaus’s essay “Coping with Zero to a Million Decimals” shows how much Ballard has inspired contemporary digital artists and web designers—here the “Twitterbot” experiments of Mike Bonsell, who uses AI technology to evoke the author’s distinctive ideas and prose style. Bonsell’s Twitter account @JGB_Sentences, for example, generates, twice per day, new “Ballardian” lines, which capture the author’s tone and syntax with uncanny accuracy.

The remaining handful of pieces are of largely biographical interest, including a “lost” interview with Ballard that appeared in a 1969 issue of the Illustrated London News and a short story written by a childhood friend of Ballard in 1930s Shanghai. These items are at best intriguing ephemera; more affecting is a photo essay by Karolina Urbaniak that chronicles her trip with Ballard’s daughter, Fay, to revisit the family home in Shepperton, a suburb just outside London. Interleaved with snapshots of the house and surrounding neighborhood are Fay’s fond recollections of her father in various cozily domestic scenes—drinking a beer, walking the dog, and other mundane behaviors that effectively humanize this rather strange and forbidding man. My favorite piece in the volume is an essay by Dominika Oramus—author of the excellent study, Grave New World: The Decline of the West in the Fiction of J.G. Ballard (2015), which I reviewed in the July 2016 issue of this journal—that explores Ballard’s friendship with Angela Carter and the similarities between their brilliantly original works of surrealistic science fiction. One of the first classes I taught at the University of Iowa, way back in the mid-1990s, brought together the work of Ballard and Carter, so it is nice to have my sense of their mutual affinity confirmed in this lovely little essay.—Rob Latham, Twentynine Palms

Giant Spiders and Zombie Moms: A Guide to Posthuman Science Fiction.

Simona Micali. Towards a Posthuman Imagination in Literature and Media: Monsters, Mutants, Aliens, Artificial Beings. Oxford, UK: Peter Lang, 2019. xii+246 pp. $60.95 pbk.

Towards a Posthuman Imagination is a spectacular occasion for sf enthusiasts to thicken their reading and watching lists. Simona Micali tailors her claims around a robust net of textual evidence that inevitably induces readers to review the classics and to dive into many new texts. This unique handbook to posthuman sf provides readers with a detailed taxonomy of non-human figures while problematizing those same categories. Far from being a mere list of typologies of monsters, Micali’s book focuses on those narratives where the distinction between human and non-human is not linear and dichotomous, but rather blurry and thought-provoking. While if a “giant spider must obviously be killed,” it is also true that “shooting our mother who has changed into a zombie and is trying to bite us on the neck will raise plenty of moral problems” (16). The distance between the giant spider and the zombie mom—the discrepancy between these two non-human figures—is the subject of Simona Micali’s study.

The book consists of five chapters. The introduction presents the main theses, while the remaining four are devoted to as many non-human categories: the subhuman, the alien, the simulacrum, and the posthuman. Micali’s central argument is that the system of non-human creatures in sf is “an articulated reflection, and challenge to, anthropocentrism” (20): sf can either confirm the anthropocentric paradigm, nullify it, or question “its premises or its implications” (24). Micali is most interested in this last group. The book goes on to offer interpretations of works that deal with anthropocentrism problematically, and she points out numerous instances in which distinguishing the human from the not-human is easier said than done. Reflecting on the human/Other boundary, she moves from the less-than-human creatures of the first chapters to the posthuman figures of her last one, in which the posthuman is no longer “a figure of the non-human Other” but rather “a figure of the human as (an)Other”(30; emphasis in original).

Chapter two is dedicated to the subhuman, a vast category that includes everything from zombies and orcs to monstrous aliens and mutants (33) and that apparently weakens Micali’s taxonomic partition. Any attempt rigidly to schematize a rich corpus of characters such as those inhabiting sf demonstrates the limitations of including all the declensions of a figure within one category. The author is aware of this, and she has already warned the reader of the nature of many non-human figures that are unavoidably destined to belong to all four categories (27). She explains that the subject of chapter two is not merely the figure of the monster—since literature and cinema have presented us with plenty of monstrous figures owning “conceptual or functional features which are equal or even superior to the human standard” (33)—but “its under-developed or degraded versions” (33). These creatures “transgress or blur the borders between different species or incompatible categories” and at the same time “hold a kinship or an analogy to the human” (35): from Alfred Hitchcock’s birds (The Birds, 1963) and Steven Spielberg’s shark (Jaws, 1975), which become uncanny and sinister figures as soon as they start behaving as lesser-humans rather than as non-humans (35), to the Gill-Man of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), whose repulsive appearance is caused by the “humanoid aspect of a definitely non-human species” (37).

The origin of such subhuman figures, the author claims, should be looked for in the ancient clash between civilization and barbarism, still a “cornerstone of Western ideological discourse” (42). The image of a psychologically primitive herd moved by destructive violence and lacking individuation goes back to the precultural stranger, who was “devoted to the annihilation of civilization by a sort of biological imperative” (41). The massive, collective body of a herd of undead makes killing a zombie different from killing a human (47), and it is precisely on this axiological opposition that some sf inverts positions of good and evil. Some works propose a “sympathy for the monster,” either by following the so-called “plot of the awakening” (49) or by inducing the reader to a forced identification with the non-human (55-56). Tales told from the perspective of the monsters compel us to confront their point of view (64), as it “challenges and undermines the solidity of the anthropocentric discourse” (65-66), at least since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Micali’s main textual reference for chapter two.

Chapter three is divided into three parts, providing as many different responses to the same question: “What if we met an alien intelligent species?” (84). As in the rest of her book, Micali begins her argument by presenting the reader with more traditional narratives in which “the Otherness of the extraterrestrial being is reassuringly articulated in anthropocentric terms” (84). Here she provides the reader with an illuminating table listing the main features of the good alien and of the bad alien, comparing their characteristics and distinguishing them from one another (86). As different as they might look, both the prototype of the good alien, Spielberg’s E.T. from the homonymous film (1982), and of the bad alien, the harvester alien from Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996), are equivalent in regard to the anthropocentric paradigm. Neither of them is “intellectually or ethically problematic,” as they both “confirm the human perspective and system of values by clearly positioning themselves either on the ‘good’ or the ‘bad’ side” (92).

Things get more complicated in the second section, where the author explores sf narratives that argue “the impossibility of speculating on the Otherness within an anthropocentric vision” (84)—i.e., Frederic Jameson’s unknowability thesis. In Stanisław Lem’s Solaris (1961), the encounter with an alien does not produce any knowledge “apart from the acknowledgment of the limited possibilities” of human “logical and cognitive tools” (94). None of the characters of the novel truly understands the actual motives of the alien ocean of the planet Solaris, and the impossibility of any exchange of meaning breaks the anthropocentric paradigm: human language is no longer sufficient to comprehend the alien and its behavior. The silent and lethal extraterrestrial being in Alien (1979) does not speak at all and yet, Micali points out, one can still understand its bad intentions (98). In Solaris, instead, the negation of the human possibility to comprehend an alien form is definitive (97), even when the alien expresses itself in apparently familiar shapes. 

The third and last possible outcome of an alien encounter produces a physical or psychological change in the human involved, “who is partly or entirely assimilated into the Otherness” (84). In the most fascinating among the several instances Micali provides, Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life” (1998), such mutation provokes an “epistemological estrangement” (114). By learning an alien language, the protagonist acquires the ability to see the future in the form of memories, as if events yet to come were already past. The difficulty of imagining such an epistemological condition provides an ideal platform for Micali to speculate on perspective, and on whether a completely alien point of view could be intelligible for humans. Bringing these reflections down to narrative, she closes the chapter wondering if we could read and understand a story told entirely from an alien perspective without first becoming something other than human (120).

Chapter four deals with the simulacrum and its different technological versions, from automata and androids to virtual assistants and avatars: any object that simulates, implies, or openly claims to be a subject (121). In this section of the book, using Jean Baudrillard’s theoretical framework, the author builds her argument on the evolution of the three orders of simulacra originally proposed by the French philosopher in Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976). Micali observes that Baudrillard’s counterfeit simulacra, production simulacra, and simulation simulacra are three moments in the evolution of the same focus rather than three different categories (129). If classic fantasy and early sf aimed at the marvel of an automaton too similar to a human figure, and if classic sf wonders how the presence of machines “will change our lives,” postmodern sf “investigates the nature and possible phenomenology of artificial subjectivity, and speculates on how humans can interact with this possible new subject” (129).

The core of the fourth chapter concerns the challenge of the binary  object/subject opposition (121), which begins when the simulacrum dismisses “its role of a copy and aspires to a transgressive independence” (122): in other words, when an it becomes an I (131). Sf rarely represents such new, problematic subjects as good-willed beings (136), because they constitute a threat to anthropocentrism (145). The uncanny resemblance of an android to a human troubles us, Micali explains, because “something which we know to be other from us appears instead similar to us, thus casting a shadow of doubt on our ability to distinguish clearly what is human from what is not” (149). Such a dilemma is crucial to many works of sf upon which the author draws while building her argument in the subsequent section of this chapter devoted to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and its cinematic adaptations. Dick’s “speciesist dystopia” (159) is rethought and reconstructed, Micali claims, into the “interspecies utopia” (160) of the more recent films, which challenge the anthropocentric premises of the original novel by supporting the identification of the viewer with the androids and by shifting “from an anthropocentric to a posthuman vision” (173). Such a vision will be the subject of Micali’s last chapter.

In chapter five Micali exposes “the social, political, or ethical issues raised by genetic engineering” (184), from Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley—among “the fathers of ‘technocritiquing’” (181)—to Andrew Nichol’s film Gattaca (1997). But the superhuman traits “which are celebrated, feared or regarded as highly problematic by the sf imagination” (195) might be “already lying in our genome as a potential to be fulfilled” (196). Micali claims, supported by Robert Pepperell, that while the fiercest transhumanism still entails the human figure as central, posthumanism focuses precisely on the end of anthropocentrism (197). The posthuman vision, Micali writes, is “the categorical imperative of multiperspectivism” (198), which only finds some constants in the centrality of materialism over transcendence (198-99), in questioning the human/animal divide (200), and in the fluid relation between nature and technology (201-202).

The last sections of the chapter return to the origin of Micali’s argument, as she speculates on the possibility of a posthuman subjectivity in narrative (204) and reflects on those works of fiction expressing a post-apocalyptic, post-anthropocentric future, from M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1901) to Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (2014).

Towards a Posthuman Imagination provides the reader with a solid reflection on the role and evolution of non-human figures in sf, and it constitutes an excellent source for the scholar, a fine manual for the sf devotee, and an ideal textbook for a potential course on science fiction in general and on posthumanism in particular.—Alberto Iozzia, University of Pittsburgh

On Science Fiction and Other Cultural Material.

Andrew Milner. Again, Dangerous Visions: Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ed. J.R. Burgmann. Leiden: Brill, 2018. 552+xii pp. $156 hc.

The full title of Andrew Milner’s valuable new book alludes to one earlier volume and to one whole body of theoretical material. Both have clearly been highly significant for Milner and, taken together, they suggest many of his principal interests. The main title refers to Harlan Ellison’s influential anthology Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), the sequel to Ellison’s even more influential Dangerous Visions (1967), which, like its predecessor, contains a good deal of innovative sf, including such field-(re)defining works as Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed” (1972) and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest (1972). The subtitle refers to the mode of analysis associated primarily with Raymond Williams, who is probably the most important, for Milner, of the many theoretical precursors from whom he has learned (Lucien Goldmann and Pierre Bourdieu are also among his most notable influences). Cultural materialism means a way of studying culture that is not only materialist in approach but that also, and accordingly, understands culture to be itself a thoroughly material process. For cultural materialism, the production of sculptures or films or books of poetry is just as integral to a social formation’s total apparatus of material production as is the production of clothing or drugs or locomotives. In practice, cultural materialism often tends to operate as a branch of the Marxist analysis of culture—certainly for Williams himself and also, though perhaps somewhat less so, for Milner. But it is important to recognize that there is not necessarily a perfect theoretical congruence here. There can, after all, be materialist approaches to culture (and to other things) that fail to incorporate Marx’s revolutionary understanding of history and, most crucially, his analysis of the creation, extraction, and realization of surplus-value. Marxism is certainly materialist, but not all materialisms are necessarily Marxist—as, indeed, Marx himself pointed out more than once.

Again, Dangerous Visions can be described, then, as a wide-ranging and impressively erudite series of materialist studies of culture that proceeds from a consistently left-wing viewpoint and owes much to the Marxist intellectual tradition. The volume takes a special interest in sf, but one that understands sf within the context of the larger literary and cultural field in which it is embedded; Milner would, I think, agree that the intelligent study of sf demands knowledge of much besides sf proper. The volume also has a heavily—but by no means exclusively—English-language emphasis. As an Englishman who in early adulthood migrated to Australia and who appears to be knowledgeable about the North American scene, Milner writes with a broad familiarity of the culture of the Anglosphere. Yet he also often refers to cultural work from many linguistic traditions besides the Anglophone, mainly European (including Eastern European) but Asian as well.

Many, probably most, of the best nonfiction books are essentially collections of essays, and that is quite frankly what Again, Dangerous Visions is. The volume contains twenty-six independent essays, plus an Introduction and a Conclusion that each take the form of a dialogue between Milner and his editor. All but five of the essays have been previously published (the earliest in the 1980s, the most recent during the past few years), and even those five had a prior life as formal lectures. The essays are divided into three parts—“Sociology of Literature,” “Cultural Materialism,” and “Science Fiction”—but these divisions are much more like permeable membranes than like steel-and-concrete barriers. A number of the essays could plausibly have been placed in a part other than that in which they are actually found; and it might, indeed, have been better to structure the volume simply as a single series of autonomous essays that are, however, unified by numerous recurring concerns, both with regard to theoretical methods and to particular literary and other texts. There is even a certain amount of word-for-word repetition between and among the essays. Some readers may find this repetition annoying and wish that it had been pruned by a more careful or invasive editing job. Yet the book, though quite lucidly and readably written, is conceptually somewhat dense, so that other readers may find the repetition helpful.

The heterogeneity of Again, Dangerous Visions makes it a difficult book to summarize in any great detail. It is more appropriate just to give a few selected examples of the sort of discussion that Milner offers.

I found one of the most useful essays to be “Utopia and Science Fiction in Raymond Williams,” one of several essays in the volume that are at least partly devoted to Williams’s work. As in “Cultural Materialism, Culturalism and Post-Culturalism: The Legacy of Raymond Williams”—a more general survey of Williams’s criticism—Milner understands the Williams oeuvre to comprise three distinct periods: an early left-Leavisite period of “left culturalism,” in which Williams attempts to inflect the critical heritage of Scrutiny in a politically socialist direction, and which is marked by Culture and Society 1780-1950 (1958) and by The Long Revolution (1961); then a period of cultural materialism proper, in which Williams engages more directly with Marxism and produces, most characteristically, The Country and the City (1973) and Marxism and Literature (1977); and finally a “postmodern” period, in which Williams is particularly concerned with capitalist globalization and with the progressive new social movements, and whose key text is Towards 2000 (1983). Those familiar with Williams’s work will probably find this periodization unexceptionable, though the conceptual shift between the first and second periods is certainly more significant than any change between the second and the third. Where Milner is most original, though, is in stressing the importance of sf to Williams during each period. He shows sf and utopian fiction to have been a consistent concern for Williams to a degree not often recognized even by staunch admirers. For example, as early as 1956 Williams recognized and praised the “space anthropology” of James Blish’s novella A Case of Conscience (1953; expanded and published as a full-length novel in 1958), treating it as imaginatively superior to Brave New World (1932) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). All three texts are clearly sf, but it was extraordinary that a member of the Cambridge English faculty, in the 1950s, should have treated the American Blish—then virtually unknown within the British academic scene—with the same kind of seriousness accorded the English Huxley and Orwell, who had both attained at least semi-canonical status. After reading this essay, one may well conclude that, among his many other achievements, Williams deserves to be ranked among the most important founders of intellectually serious sf criticism. If he did not write quite as extensively on the subject as Samuel R.  Delany, Darko Suvin, or Fredric Jameson, he repeatedly brought to it a level of intelligence that does not suffer from comparison with theirs.

A rather different but equally interesting piece is “On the Beach: Apocalyptic Hedonism and the Origins of Postmodernism.” Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) may be “the great Australian novel” in terms of popularity and socio-political impact—both of which have of course been greatly enhanced by Stanley Kramer’s powerful 1959 film version—but it has been neglected by literary critics, even within the specific precincts of sf criticism (though Brian Aldiss famously proclaimed Shute’s superiority to Robert Heinlein). Milner tackles the novel from an unexpected and illuminating angle, namely as a paradigmatic work of postmodernity. The essay contains a succinct rehearsal of some of the standard theories of postmodernity and postmodernism and a number of the most influential names are duly discussed: not only Jameson, but also Daniel Bell, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and others. But Milner stresses two characteristics of the postmodern condition not always considered by most who have written on the matter. One is the (by global standards) fantastically high level of commodity consumption enjoyed by the rich societies of the West—especially the United States, Australia, and Canada—that gave birth to postmodern culture. More originally still, Milner points out that the postmodern era—whose beginning can be dated with some precision to the end of the Second World War—has been marked by a condition of hypermilitarization. Perhaps more than anything else, postmodernity is the era in which humanity finally acquired the weapons that render a total collective suicide of homo sapiens feasible. From this perspective, the privileging of On the Beach as a postmodern fiction makes excellent sense. After a full-scale thermonuclear exchange in the northern hemisphere, the characters in Shute’s novel wait in southern Australia for certain death by radiation poisoning and, as they do so, squeeze the last drops of pleasure from lifestyles that range from middle- to upper-class. The drinking of vintage port and the racing of expensive European sports cars figure prominently—hardly standard enjoyments in most of the southern hemisphere.

My interest in Milner’s work should not be taken to imply complete or even, necessarily, general concurrence, and I will conclude on a note of at least partial disagreement. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a text of particular interest to Milner (as to me), and one he discusses at various points in this volume—but most substantially in “Archaeologies of the Future: Jameson’s Utopia or Orwell’s Dystopia?,” a review-essay about Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (2005). Milner is concerned to defend Orwell against Jameson’s rather one-dimensional denigration, and he makes some valid points. He is right to argue that Orwell’s serious career as a revolutionary socialist ought not to be lightly dismissed as Jameson does. Yet Milner underrates the degree to which Jameson’s critique of Orwell’s late anti-utopianism is well grounded. Even in purely biographical terms, Milner minimizes (while not wholly denying) the political distance that separates the Orwell who fought for socialist revolution in Spain in the mid-1930s from the desperately ill and increasingly despairing Orwell who completed his final book in the late 1940s. In specifically textual terms, Milner argues that the book’s appendix about Newspeak—written in standard English and referring to Ingsoc and the Party in the past tense—must imply a redeemed far future, and thus that Nineteen Eighty-Four contains more utopian hope than Jameson allows. It is a clever point in its way, but it cannot bear the critical weight that Milner puts on it. For the relation between “The Principles of Newspeak” and the actual narrative of Nineteen Eighty-Four is so abstract and tenuous that the former can do little to qualify the pessimism of the latter. Early in the novel, Winston Smith writes in his diary that any hope that may exist must lie in the proles, but the later conversation between Winston and an elderly prole in a pub decisively extinguishes that faint utopian glimmer. I may add that Milner’s critique gains little by quite wrongly associating Jameson with Trotskyism, though Milner does, rather inadvertently, raise the potentially interesting question of whether Jameson’s own aversion to Trotskyism is quite coherent with the immense intellectual debt that he owes to Ernest Mandel (whose indispensable work Milner, elsewhere in the volume, inexplicably and pointlessly derogates in a breezy unargued aside).    

Even, however, on those—not infrequent—occasions when I am most certain that Milner is dead wrong, I find his arguments to be generally intelligent, stimulating, and worth considering. Though most of the material in Again, Dangerous Visions was already available in far-flung periodical publication, Milner’s editor and publisher have performed a real service in collecting these essays into a single volume, making it much easier to grasp the contours and development of Milner’s thought and the range of his interests. That said, I must add that I am glad to have my free reviewer’s copy. For there must be many readers, particularly graduate students, who would find this book absorbing and illuminating but who will be quite unable to afford the purchase price.—Carl Freedman, Louisiana State University

Whose Nostalgia Is It, Anyway?

Claire Nally. Steampunk: Gender, Subculture and the Neo-Victorian. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. 290 pp. $98.50 hc.

Steampunk is a genre characterized, in part, by a complicated relationship to nostalgia. In Steampunk: Gender, Subculture, and the Neo-Victorian, Claire Nally joins others in observing as much and, writing about gender representations most specifically, remarks on steampunk texts’ tendencies to reject the simple pleasures of nostalgia: “Each [text] interrogates and parodies Victorian models of gender behavior, and rather than offer a nostalgia for these bygone models, approaches them with suspicion as much as fascination” (129-30). Occasionally I wonder if this is why I like (why anyone likes?) steampunk: it acknowledges the pull of nostalgic revelry, but will not let us have it simply or cheaply.

Nostalgic revelry is hardly rare in a career spent working on college campuses. The younger and differently oriented relationship to campus has a wistful tone—fewer meetings, more scansion—but even the anxieties, having been largely triumphed over, seem somewhat charming in retrospect. The varying panics of graduate school life—the imposter syndrome that never really goes away, the slow-dawning realization that your professors’ careers (and teaching loads) look nothing like yours will, the heavy-hearted scan through the MLA job list—are certainly less sharp, at minimum. Perhaps most vividly I remember the anxiety that precipitated every writing assignment in the early years: how on earth will I find something new to say about this text that is so old? How to avoid a simple and fawning recapitulation of all that has already been said? How might one, to use Nally’s language, approach the canon and its attendant critical

One gets over this anxiety, of course. One finds new ways of approaching Dickens, and new resonances for Shakespeare, and new relevance for Mary Shelley. Maybe we start with an under-theorized passage, maybe we map a new comparison, or maybe we find a new political urgency for reading a contemporary crisis via a dated text. One way or another, we all find our way into these canonical texts (even if some of us leave them behind once the credentialing is done) and make something of the layers and ambiguities that have been seen and re-seen so many times. Still, for most of us, I suspect, there is a lingering anxiety about how novel our novelties really are. Surely, the nag goes, someone has thought of this before.

The counter to this anxiety, in my experience, is often the invigorating comfort that comes with investigating and writing about very new literary texts and artistic movements. In those new texts, we can chart new ground and not worry that our textual reading has already been made, thrice over, or that we are failing to cite a foundational proto-version of our reading. Often there is a reassuringly familiar (even nostalgic?) choreography to this work. We take the most canonical modes of reading and apply them to non-canonical texts. It is hardly a risk-free approach and, as always, there are other anxieties to reap; without the backstop of decades of established literary criticism to work with and against, one does occasionally wonder if one’s arguments are weighty enough to ground a field. In so doing, the reading does the work of credentialing the new texts, in the same way that the canonical readings of graduate school credentialed the reader. “This new text,” we seem to say, “is worthy of academic inquiry, and can be shown to be so via my forthcoming scholarly reading.” 

Which brings me back to steampunk, a (relatively) new phenomenon and, as such, the focus of much new scholarship in the last several years. Nally’s volume is one such example, and considers steampunk in its most multimodal instantiations—literary, musical, visual, performative cabaret, etc.—and through a reading lens that is invested in representations of gender and sexuality. As a body of academic scholarship begins to develop around new genres and subcultures, book-length studies often have a couple of features in common: a tendency to list texts and artists working in the field, in a kind of archive-creation project, and an investment in justifying the topic as worthy of scholarly inquiry. I have co-edited a volume that I know to have both of these features and so, frankly, I write from experience.

Likewise, Nally’s book makes its work clear early on: “[Steampunk] is a genre that has its complexities and its problems, but it needs to be properly academically problematized” (2). Here Nally is writing specifically about the question of whether steampunk, as a subculture, is as “radical” as it might be supposed to be, and she goes on to explain that her study is “pursu[ing] a conversation between steampunk as literary and artistic genre and steampunk as subculture” (2). This is a compelling premise for inquiry and invites a complicated reading paradigm, one that moves between textual reading practices and sociological analysis of subcultural movements. And the volume sometimes moves between those modes in interesting ways, perhaps most interestingly in the chapter that examines performer Emilie Autumn’s persona and stage performances.

More often, though, a reader finds the author engaged in one of the two kinds of work I mention above. Nally includes an impressive number of texts in her study and, while she is selective about which she close-reads, she builds context for those readings by including references to the constellation of texts that surround them. These are robust constellations—each chapter in the book has between 85 and 130 endnotes attending it. The author assumes, probably rightly, that many of these texts are unfamiliar to a general readership and, accordingly, a reader feels like she is spending a lot of time having unfamiliar texts explained to her. The general effect is of a kind of “steam-splaining” that overlays the readings.

The number of texts included and Nally’s clearly masterful awareness of the steampunk landscape situate this study as a serious one, grounded in an expansive knowledge of the field and specific critical interest. The more protracted readings of texts, however, have the feel of working, to use the author’s words, to “properly academically problematize.” “Problematize” is one of those markers of the discourse, an industry term for complicate, essentially, although we all use it a touch differently. Here, Nally uses it to signal her interest in the political contradictions of steampunk texts and cultures. Steampunk is, she writes, a “fundamentally politically ambiguous discourse, and that extends to its articulations of gender” (248). In these observations, she mirrors with her readings the work that she identifies steampunk as performing—as steampunk approaches bygone gender norms, Nally approaches steampunk itself with “suspicion as much as fascination.”

Nally brings a persuasive scrutiny to her readings, obviously well-informed in her engagement with texts as diverse as Victorian spoof advertisements and steampunk thrash metal bands, and she consistently maintains the necessary critical posture to read skeptically, confronting the political doings and un-doings of artists who may think they are pushing more boundaries than they truly are. It is also the case, however, that the readings in Nally’s volume sometimes lack an accumulative feel and instead read like a series of isolated readings of interesting and new texts, all of which support the same fundamental thesis: steampunk does gender and sexuality work subversively, but also within the limits of culture. The chapter on steampunk romances, for example, concludes with the claim that “Steampunk fictions can be interpreted as both conservative and revolutionary in these contexts” (241).

The volume has decided strengths. It is, for one, a truly masterful archive of a wide range of steampunk texts and phenomena. With this archive, Nally models the ways in which careful and politically oriented close readings can be thoughtfully and persuasively applied in the service of elevating new texts into the light of scholarly scrutiny. It is valuable work, and several of the insights that are given only glancing attention in this volume—for example, the observation that, despite its emphasis on the material, steampunk has a very large digital footprint—will no doubt prompt future inquiries and analyses. I suspect that Nally’s impulse towards reading both the literary/artistic forms of steampunk and the subcultural features of the movement is prescient, and that literary and cultural studies will see more studies that consider what these instantiations have in common and how they diverge. Some of this work will no doubt have as a goal the work of “problematizing” the genre in its various forms and will reflect on its insights in ways similar to Nally in her introduction: “the notion that steampunk is a radical counterculture embedded in aesthetic resistance to modern mass production is questioned” (1). I expect also, however, that because of work such as Nally’s, which amplifies the archive of primary texts and maps out the political contradictions within them, steampunk will require less and less of the credentialing and nostalgic kind of attention and that new interpretive paradigms—both about what the texts mean, and about why and how we make them mean—will emerge.—Rachel A. Bowser, Georgia Gwinnett College

Crossing Canadian Bridges.

Amy J. Ransom and Dominick Grace, eds. Canadian Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror: Bridging the Solitudes. London: Palgrave, 2019. vii+380 pp. $119 hc, $64.99 ebk.

Building on a lineage that leads from David Ketterer’s pioneering monograph Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy (1992) to Allan Weiss’s collection The Canadian Fantastic in Focus (2015), Amy J. Ransom and Dominick Grace’s expertly curated collection Canadian Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror: Bridging the Solitudes (2019) makes a compelling case for positioning science fiction and the fantastic as central modes of the Canadian imaginary. This volume convincingly mobilizes state-of-the-art genre criticism to generate evocative and wide-ranging insights about Canadian identity formations beyond the confines of sf/f and horror literatures. Premised on a critical reconsideration of the paradigmatic divide between French- and English-speaking Canada, the subtitular bridging of solitudes is leveraged as a productive guiding metaphor that serves to ensure both cohesion and diversity across the twenty chapters of this volume. As the editors explain, “Canadian literature of the fantastic, perhaps even more so than work in the realist tradition, exposes the limitations of the solitudes concept so often applied uncritically to the Canadian experience” (2). Problematizing the two solitudes paradigm as a reductive model for the study of Canadian literature in general and sf/f/horror in particular, Ransom and Grace’s introduction is commendable for its illuminating survey of historical and recent developments in Canadian sf/f criticism and will be useful to both veterans and newcomers to the field. Examining the cultural-specific overlap between the literary mainstream and popular genres such as the fantastic and the gothic, and highlighting the integration of Indigenous, British, French, Haitian, Asian, and US American traditions, they invoke Canadian sf/f/horror as inherently transgressive, more often than not explicitly engaged with the bridging of genres, genders, nations, bodies, and species.

Grouped into five thematic sections—“Bridging Borders,” “Building Bridges,” “Bridging the Gender Gap,” “Bridging the Species Divide,” “Bridging the Slipstream”—the contributions take up the editors’ lead and collectively distill from Canadian sf/f/horror a cartography of postcolonial, intersectional, posthumanist, and transnational bridges that succeeds in signaling a uniquely Canadian take on the fantastic while remaining astutely critical of the construction of a cultural monolith. Recurring conceptual touchstones include Atwood’s proclamation of Canadian preoccupations with the theme of survival, Northrop Frye’s related identification of a Canadian “garrison mentality,” the conceptualization of Canadian culture as a “mosaic,” and the quest for a national identity in the forcefield of ongoing settler-colonial structures, competing internal nationalisms, historical attachments to Europe, and resistance to American influence.

Despite a more than passing nod toward Canadian comics and horror film traditions in the editors’ introduction, the focus of this collection is clearly literary. Insightful exceptions include discussions of Mi’gmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby (Kristina Baudemann, Judith Leggatt), Adam MacDonald’s movie Backcountry (2014) (Michael Fuchs), and Lisa Jackson’s short film Savage (2009) (Leggatt), as well as brief yet evocative notes on Drew Karpyshyn’s computer game Mass Effect (2007), Martin Vaughn-James’s experimental graphic novel The Cage (1975), and the concept album Clockwork Angels (2012) by the rock band Rush (Jordan Bolay).

Apart from Atwood, Judith Merril, Robert Charles Wilson, and Peter Watts, many of the authors considered here may be less well known to readers primarily schooled in the dominant American sf tradition, which underscores the well-deserved place of this collection in Palgrave’s Studies in Global Science Fiction series. Particular attention is paid to the distinct tradition of francophone science fiction and fantasy from Québec (sffq), with contributions on postcolonial feminist critiques in Élisabeth Vonarburg’s The Maerlande Chronicles (1992) (Caroline Mosser), interactions with alien others in Sylvie Bérard’s Terres des autres (2004; Of Wind and Sand [2008]) and Francine Pelletier’s trilogy Le Sable et l’Acier [Sand and Steel, 1997-1998] (Isabelle Fournier), the proliferation of holes and bridges in the oeuvre of Michel Tremblay and Vonarburg (Sylvie Bérard), and the migration of sf tropes into Québec’s literary mainstream (Sophie Beaulé). Enlightening reflections on transnationalism and exile include Wendy Gay Pearson’s problematization of queer futurity in Hiromi Goto’s The Kappa Child (2001) and Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl (2002), novels by Asian Canadian authors in which the adoption of sf is invoked as “a radical act of racialized and gendered repossession of [the] literary world” (196); Susan Johnston’s examination of nostalgia and imagined nation-building in Guy Gavriel Kay’s portal quest fantasies; and Kathleen Kellett’s intersectional analysis of Stanley Péan’s employment of “horror fantasy and detective fiction to critique structures of power and corruption in Haiti and Québec” (327). Frequently, geographical crossings are mapped onto stylistic strategies, as in Patrick Bergeron’s consideration of intertextuality and intermediality in the post-apocalyptic fiction of Emily St. John Mandel and Catherine Mavrikakis, transgeneric bridges between horror and realism in the films of Jeff Barnaby (Baudemann), and the blending of fantasy and science fiction in Vonarburg (Bérard). Another prominent thread is the critique of gender and species divides—from Evelyn Deshane’s critical comparison of intersex and trans bodies in Kathleen Winter’s Annabel (2010) and Sybil Lamb’s I’ve Got a Time Bomb (2014) to Michael Fuchs’s statistics-backed illumination of “Canadian bear horror,” in which the “profoundly unhumanized isolation” (260) of the Canadian landscape culminates in the indifferent reintegration of human bodies into the natural food chain.

While the sentimental invocation of a “Trudeau-like bridge to a utopian future” (95) does not seem misplaced in Graham J. Murphy’s discussion of Wilson’s The Affinities (2015), this volume’s interrogation of bridge building as a Canadian metaphor is at its best where it reveals the concept’s limitations. From the writings of Watts, Michele Braun extracts the cautionary reminder that “unity has its place, but that sometimes bridging a culture or solitude is a dangerous act” (69). In light of Canada’s history of settler-colonialism, Judith Leggatt points to “the fact that residential schools sprang from an effort to bridge cultural differences” as evidence of the “dangers of cultural exchange” and she wonders whether “the best solution to our current situation is not bridge building, but rather more careful guarding of the bridges that already exist, so that they cannot be used for invasion” (137)—a perceptive note that sharply resonates with ongoing police-enforced incursions on unceded First Nations territories in stark opposition to cherished Canadian reconciliation narratives. Similarly, Baudemann expresses well-founded skepticism over implications that “metaphorical bridges should connect Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians,” noting that such a rhetoric “echoes colonial notions of Western and non-Western cultures as naturally separate, with a need to overcome this separation forcefully” (154). Linking to the resurgent politics of Indigenous futurism, she declares that “bridges between cultures can be crossed, yes, but they can also be burned down, danced upon, canoed under, traversed in zigzag, and … traveled upside down in all directions in a speculative story” (156).

Baudemann’s and Leggatt’s persuasive and superbly contextualized analyses of Indigenous sf/horror narratives (Gerry William’s novel The Black Ship [1994; 2015], Lisa Jackson’s short film Savage, and Jeff Barnaby’s films Rhymes for Young Ghouls [2013] and File Under Miscellaneous [2010]) rank among the strongest pieces in this volume, not least because they most explicitly foreground Indigenous voices and pressing issues of decolonization—current dimensions of Canadian science fiction, fantasy, and horror that readers of this volume might expect to see more broadly represented. In light of the editors’ choice to include multiple essays on Peter Watts (Ben Eldridge, Braun) and Élisabeth Vonarburg (Bérard, Mosser), and an umpteenth—albeit excellent—discussion of Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (2003-20013) (Dunja Mohr), their justification for the absence of Tomson Highway, Nalo Hopkinson, and Eden Robinson—that there already exists a “significant body of critical scholarship” (5)—is only partially convincing. It also runs the risk of obscuring the vibrant presence of a plethora of other emerging and established First Nation and Métis writers/artists/filmmakers of sf/f/horror, such as Cherie Dimaline (Métis), Gwen Benaway (Anishinaabe/ Métis), Richard van Camp (Dene), Nathan Nigaan Noodin Adler (Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation), Drew Hayden Taylor (Ojibwe/Curve Lake First Nation), David A. Robertson (Norway House Cree Nation), Chelsea Vowel (Métis), Joshua Whitehead (Oji-Cree), Celu Amberston (Cherokee/Scots-Irish), Sonny Assu (Ligwilda’xw Kwakwaka’wakw), Warren Cariou (Métis/European), and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (Blackfoot/Sámi).

These qualifications aside, this volume deserves a lot of credit for successfully representing diversity and contemporariness while not losing sight of the Canadian sf/f canon. What unites all articles is an acute attention to both historical and cutting-edge debates within the scholarly field, frequently positioning Canada’s relationship with colonialism at the critical forefront and managing to amplify an impressive variety of structurally marginalized voices and potentially emancipatory perspectives. Ransom and Grace’s sweeping, detailed, and perspicacious introduction sets the tone for a variegated engagement with Canadian science fiction, fantasy, and horror that abounds in theoretical linkages, intertextual and critical references, and ample opportunities for dialogue both among the contributions and beyond.—Moritz Ingwersen, University of Konstanz

Desperate Times, Desperate Futures.

Amanda Rees and Iwan Rhys Morus, eds. Special issue: “Presenting Futures Past: Science Fiction and the History of Science.” Osiris 34 (2019). vi+352 pp. $35.

Science and its history have offered much to the development of science fiction (sf). When the achievements of science are circulated and celebrated, or even when their outcomes are catastrophic, they provide endless fuel for the sf imagination. But the reverse is true as well: in complex exchanges of ideas, methods, and lexicons, sf has offered much to the development of science—a newer idea, undoubtedly, but one that is now explored in literary criticism, science and technology studies, discourse analysis, and elsewhere.

The recent edition of the annual history of science journal Osiris, titled “Presenting Futures Past: Science Fiction and the History of Science,” brings fresh perspectives to this dialogue. As the editors state in their introduction, “This volume of Osiris had as its inspiration the question of what science fiction could do for the history of science” (1). The “could do” in that sentence is important: rather than cataloguing the various ways in which sf has informed the history of science, this volume is an exploration of possibilities, of how sf could or should inform that discipline, though several articles touch on past interactions as models for future ones. The volume’s uniqueness lies in this historiographic focus which, unlike examinations of the connections between sf and science proper, is largely uncharted territory.  

The articles showcase a diverse range of interdisciplinary work, all exploring the real and potential connections between sf and the history of science—and not a single one of them disappoints. In “Sleeping Science-Fictionally: Nineteenth-Century Utopian Fictions and Contemporary Sleep Research,” for instance, Martin Willis explores the concept of sleep by comparing medical narratives from the nineteenth century with utopian fictions from the same period. Fascinatingly, he anchors the comparison in his own experiences as a participant-observer in a sleep lab at Cardiff University, where he spent time embedded within the institutional and technological machinery of sleep research. He explains that, like Bruno Latour in Laboratory Life (1979), “it is the culture of the sleep laboratory itself that interests me” (267), and that interest leads him to a number of insights. He finds, for example, that due to the need to stay awake all night to analyze the sleep patterns of others, leading to a kind of professional narcolepsy, many sleep researchers view good sleep as a utopian space, a notion that bleeds into the analysis of sleep: “Their own aberrant wakefulness and their desire for participants to sleep well constructs sleep as utopian” (267). He then goes on to trace the concept of utopian sleep across nineteenth-century fictions, including W.H. Hudson’s The Crystal Age (1887), Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), and H.G. Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes (1897). In various ways, he argues, these fictions support the notion that “The first step toward utopia is sleep, and the activity of sleeping is recognized as the gateway of that journey” (269).  

Like many articles in this collection, the essay is outstanding. It brings together literary, historiographical, and scientific observations to show how sf can inform an approach to the history of science: in this case, how sf can be used to identify utopian inclinations within medical narratives of sleep—and also dystopian elements, since sleeplessness abounds in these same fictions. Willis’s essay uncovers some of the ways that literary and scientific representations of sleep cross-pollinate. By engaging deeply with scientific practice and history, the article distinguishes itself from more conventional forms of sf literary analysis, which would tend to focus on literature at the expense of science. Here discourses and practices from both arenas are treated with equal care and rigor. This is largely the case for the volume’s other entries as well; in fact, a commitment to genuine interdisciplinarity is the methodological backbone for the entire issue.   

The editors place Willis’s article on sleep in a section titled “Applying (The History of) Science,” the book’s final section of four, linking it with other entries that deploy sf so that “historians and laypeople alike can conceptualize the context and consequences of scientific change.” They see this as a form of “applied history or sociology of science” (15). The other sections include “Mediating Science,” presenting work that moves “scientific concepts, methodologies, and practices between wider cultural arenas”; “Delineating Science,” with essays that use sf to “investigate the culture, status and authority afforded to the category of ‘science’”; and finally “Inspiring Science,” with work that explores how sf “can tell us about the histories of how different communities have envisaged their futures” (15). These are sweeping methodological categories—as opposed to something as specific and content-driven as, say, sf and particle physics—and in that respect they allow the diversity of the material to flourish. The compromise is that the categories are burdened by a kind of inevitable vagueness; I often found myself wondering about an article’s placement, or returning to the introduction to remind myself what exactly the editors mean by “mediating science.” It is a worthwhile tradeoff, however, since the sixteen essays in the collection (four in each section) cover a comprehensive and expansive terrain that resists a more restrictive framework.

Sixteen essays is a generous number, far too many to cover in this review. And while each one of them makes a meaningful contribution to its research area, a few in particular, including Willis’s, stood out during my time with the collection—largely due to my own interests, of course. In the “Mediating Science” section, for instance, Lisa Raphals’s essay distinguishes itself as the book’s only article to explore non-Western science. Titled “Chinese Science Fiction: Imported and Indigenous,” it examines a possible connection between indigenous Chinese science and the country’s own sf production, finding that, even from the genre’s beginnings in the late nineteenth century, Chinese sf “has been a modernist phenomenon that emerged out of interaction with the West” (95). There are connections to indigenous science, such as between the traditional practice of “nurturing life” and “immortality themes in SF” (87), but the dominant force driving Chinese sf has always been a reaction to Western scientific practices. Considering the recent boom in Chinese sf and the international popularity of writers such as Liu Cixin, this is an important perspective that places Chinese sf within the larger context of its cultural and political history, even if the conclusion is that “Chinese SF has been inextricably linked to modern science in ways that largely preclude the indigenous sciences” (95). Though not concerned specifically with non-Western science, Nathaniel Isaacson’s article in the same section, titled “Locating Kexue Xiangsheng (Science Crosstalk) in Relation to the Selective Tradition of Chinese Science Fiction,” also deepens a broader understanding of the varied forms and sociopolitical contexts of Chinese sf.

If Raphals’s essay is unique for its focus on non-Western science, Will Slocombe’s article stands out for its interaction with video games, enlarging the collection’s scope beyond literary and cinematic sf. Titled “Playing Games with Technology: Fictions of Science in the Civilization Series” and found in the “Delineating Science” section, the article is a close examination of games in the Civilization series (1991- )—a favorite of Iain M. Banks, though this is not mentioned—and in particular the “technology trees” deployed to model technoscientific progress. Slocombe finds that these trees, which allow players to advance their civilizations along pre-determined paths, hitting milestones such as “telecommunications” and “genetics,” end up working as linear and deterministic models of the history of technology (173). For Slocombe this is largely problematic: through their “instrumental approach to science and technology,” they ultimately perpetuate a fantasy that “ignores human agency and cultural decisions at work within the respective histories of each game” (174), a fantasy that Slocombe believes is taken quite seriously. Though I doubt the degree to which players internalize this model as reality, the article makes a strong case that these and similar mechanics should be analyzed closely for the role they play in popular understandings of science and technology.

Falling under “Inspiring Science,” Erika Lorraine Milam’s essay “Old Woman and the Sea: Evolution and the Feminine Aquatic” is also noteworthy. Like Willis’s analysis of sleep, Milam’s article compares works of sf literature with scientific discourses to understand better their interrelationships. But unlike Willis, Milam is interested in speculative science, mostly in the form of Elaine Morgan’s controversial Descent of Woman (1972), which “imbued agency in humanity’s female ancestors by adding a controversial aquatic phase to the narrative of human evolution” (199). Milam reads this revisionist take on evolution alongside two works of sf that imagine how oceans and aquatic life can transform evolutionary trajectories—specifically, Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos and Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean, both published in 1985. She finds that the novels share Morgan’s interest in imagining “in the aquatic a realm of conceptual possibility that potentially avoided the violence of terrestrial landscapes” (199-200). For Slonczewski in particular, this was part of a feminist conceptualization that freed women from the constraints of patriarchy, capitalism, and biological reproduction. 

Milam closes her article with the suggestion that envisioning aquatic pasts and futures could be highly relevant in the age of climate change and the Anthropocene, since these and similar efforts help us to “conceptualize ourselves as part of the natural world rather than independent of it” (215). By using sf as a tool to think beyond the conventional histories of science, the other articles in this volume of Osiris can be seen to do something quite similar, and this is important work. In fact, the current trajectory of devastating climate transformation, unfettered capitalism, and uncontainable viral outbreaks, all of which can be tied to a particular history of technoscience, makes it clear that new concepts and fictions are required to make sense of how we got here. We may very well live in desperate times, a reality that demands we take hold of even more desperate futures to orient ourselves and plot a path forward. Whether readers are interested in this broader humanist project, or more simply in the various and complex ways in which sf can contribute to the history of science, this is a vital collection that demands attention from sf researchers, historians of science, and especially those who travel freely across such disciplinary boundaries.—Chad Andrews, Independent Scholar

Utopian Film Studies.

Simon Spiegel. Bilder einer besseren Welt. Die Utopie im nichtfiktionalen Film [Images of a Better World: The Utopia in Nonfiction Film]. Marburg: Schüren, 2019. 432 pp. €48 pbk. Open online access at < 41000829.pdf>.

There are tons of dystopian sf films, but utopian sf films seem to be non-existent. Utopian studies scholars have tried repeatedly to find utopia in fictional films, but to no avail. Sf films narrate alternative technologies, times, places, and beings, and of course they can also narrate alternative social orders. There is no logical reason why these should always be horrific. Better societies can certainly be imagined, as the genre of utopian literature shows, but while literary dystopias have often been adapted for film, utopias have been neglected by the film industry. Why is this?

Utopian scholars have long known that fictional films need a narrative plot with conflict at its core and that utopias lack this core because they are discursive rather than narrative and address harmonious societies without conflict. So a fictional utopian film would be quite boring and nobody has bothered to shoot one yet. At this point the scholarly debate on utopian film is usually aborted. Simon Spiegel, on the contrary, uses this finding as a starting point for an extensive study of utopian film. His idea is that if fictional film is incapable of depicting utopias, one should start looking for nonfictional utopian films. He has analyzed documentaries and propaganda films and actually found a quite diverse set of filmic utopias, and now he shows them to us—literally. Spiegel has hyperlinks to many of them on his website (<>). In Bilder einer besseren Welt, these and quite a few other films are dissected and interpreted. His analysis is a pioneering work, cutting new pathways through the jungle of a still uncharted territory of films that depict better worlds and, in the process, developing a theory of utopian film.

First of all, “utopia” has to be defined. As Bilder einer besseren Welt is a German-language habilitation thesis, Spiegel focuses on the current state of research in German-speaking countries. Until well into the 2000s, Richard Saage’s research was the state of the art in German utopian studies. Saage’s approach is oriented to “classical utopias” such as Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and relies heavily on content analysis: what do utopists say about their utopias? Since the 2010s, Thomas Schölderle’s approach has become the benchmark: still oriented toward Utopia, it supplements content analysis with analysis of style and paratext: how do utopists narrate and frame their utopias? Spiegel’s definition of utopia relies on Schölderle’s work, but he exceeds German utopian studies by incorporating much English-language scholarship. In the end, his view of utopia is compatible with Lyman Tower Sargent’s definition of eutopia: “a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably better than the society in which that reader lived” (“The Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited” [Utopian Studies 5.1 (1994): 9]).

On the one hand, Spiegel’s term “utopia” does not encompass communitarianism or utopian social theory but is akin to utopian literature; on the other hand, Spiegel does not look for those variants of utopia—dystopia and critical utopia—that may actually be filmable in the fictional mode because they contain conflict. Spiegel’s utopia is still the classical utopia. In the history of utopia, this kind seems to be outdated, but it certainly still exists. To find it in films, Spiegel develops his own film theory that, based on Roger Odin’s semiopragmatics, accounts for different modes of viewing a film. Whether a film is fictional or documentary depends partly on how the viewer sees it, which of course depends on which interpretation is invited by the film itself. This blurs the line between fact and fiction—a line that has always been problematic, as Spiegel shows in a chapter on the mock-documentary film. But it is exactly this blurriness between factuality and fictionality that is so typical of utopian literature. Thomas More seasons his Utopia with signals for both truth and falsehood. So one would expect utopian films that follow the classical model to do likewise. This would be the case with films that function as documentary while documenting something that is not real: a non-existent better society.

Films such as these do exist. Spiegel develops his utopian film theory in an elaborate examination of Peter Joseph’s Youtube film Zeitgeist Addendum (USA 2008), particularly its middle section about Jacque Fresco’s Venus Project. Joseph’s film opens with a sequence that makes it hard to decide whether it is a fictional sf film or a propaganda film. Later, Zeitgeist Addendum has many markers of documentary, e.g., archival clips, talking heads, charts, and an authoritative voice-over. But the film also tends to send misleading or confusing signals, e.g., digitally added scratch marks that simulate age and suggest the authenticity not only of film clips but also of what are doubtless new intertitles. This blurring of factuality and fictionality is typical of utopian literature; it is possible, however, that this is not the product of humorous artistry as in More’s Utopia but rather of Joseph’s bumbling incompetence. What makes Zeitgeist Addendum a truly utopian film is its combination of criticism and the depiction of a better society. Joseph presents the better society by showing the miniature models of circular automated cities designed by Fresco over the years, supplemented by long explanatory talks. Unlike most literary utopias, this filmic utopia does not seek completeness in its conception of the “resource-based economy,” as the system of the Venus Project is named. Rather, the film concentrates on the visual aspects of city planning, architecture, and mega-structures. It is not surprising that films focus on visible things and not on the abstract concepts of classical literary utopias (e.g., justice, equality, happiness). Spiegel therefore does not expect his other filmic examples to be as ideally utopian as written texts have been since 1516. But they are, nevertheless, utopian to a great degree.

Spiegel’s utopian films are very diverse. He analyses “future films” of the DEFA, the film agency of the socialist German Democratic Republic; using archival research, Spiegel demonstrates the ambition and the failure of the DEFA’s attempts to show a better future in a state that claims already to be better. He also analyses propaganda films from the Soviet Union, early Zionist propaganda films, and the newest propaganda videos of the Islamic State (ISIS); they, too, shy away from criticizing their own society or claiming the better society to be merely conceptual; Bolsheviks, Zionists, and Islamists (although they differ deeply in many of their beliefs) all try to convince their viewers that the better society already exists. So their propaganda films present weirdly “realistic” utopias. The urban utopias Spiegel finds in films such as The City (1939), To New Horizons (1940), and The EPCOT Film (1967) are of a quite different kind. They show better futures as achievable by better city planning; some even openly criticize existing tendencies in the US and make references to the extra-filmic utopian discourse of city planners such as Ebenezer Howard, Lewis Mumford, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier. But they also deviate from the utopian ideal type, either because of artistic aspirations or because of commercial interests.

Spiegel’s last two examples widen the boundaries of the definition of utopia even more. He calls them “postclassical utopias.” On the one hand, there is Demain (2015), a film that is utopian in that it shows aspects of better societies that actually do exist, such as urban gardening, ecological farming, alternative energy production, recycling, and alternative currencies. On the other hand, there is The Marsdreamers (2009), a film that quite unintentionally attains a utopian quality when Kim Stanley Robinson, who is being interviewed, warns that the colonization of Mars will be not as feasible as he describes in his Mars trilogy (1992-1996). Each film that Spiegel discusses is compared to other films, to the utopian literary tradition in general, and to the complex definition of utopia with which he works. Thus Spiegel manages to reconcile the manifold filmic utopias that he discusses and to construct a basis for future research on utopian film. His study is essential reading for anyone trying to come to grips with this almost uncharted field. Alas, it is in German but if you cannot read it, you can at least enjoy the 164 illustrations and still pictures that Spiegel provides. Or you can read the English-language collection Utopia and Reality: Documentary, Activism and Imagined Worlds (ed. Simon Spiegel, Andrea Reiter, Marcy Goldberg [U of Wales P, 2020] that has the same starting point as Bilder einer besseren Welt, but finds different paths through the jungle of utopian films.—Peter Seyferth, Independent Political Philosopher, Munich

The Montage of Coming Attractions.

J.P. Telotte. Movies, Modernism, and the Science Fiction Pulps. New York: Oxford UP, 2019. 192 pp. $29.95 pbk.

For much of the first half of the twentieth century, sf and film seemed to be traveling in separate orbits. Intersecting occasionally, they traced different paths as they tracked their respective courses through modernity. As he follows these two satellites of popular culture in Movies, Modernism, and the Science Fiction Pulps, J.P. Telotte covers territory that he acknowledges has been explored before, but he maps it in fresh and surprising ways. Despite the “felt connections” (2) between two cultural entities that “breathed the same modernist atmosphere” (3), the picture that emerges is of worldviews each facing the future, but facing away from each other.

After sketching in some background on the gravitational pull that film and sf exerted on one another in the two decades on either side of World War I, Telotte takes up the story of the unsteady relationship between the sf pulps and cinema in the latter part of the 1920s, at the dawn of talking pictures. It was the advent of sound in movies, he argues, that cemented film as the non-print medium best suited to share and shape an sf consciousness, at the same time bringing film under “more critical examination, as various pulp stories sounded warnings against ... constantly developing film technology” (62).

Even when it was not employed to warn readers of future dangers, a filmic gaze soon became a recognizable, possibly even a defining, feature of sf pulp fiction. Plots concerning cameras with reality-altering powers and illustrations framed cinematically or with a camera at their focal point contributed to an overall view of film as “another, and especially attractive way of thinking about, depicting and arguing for the importance of science and technology in the shape of things to come” (75).

There may have been a very pragmatic reason for this trend, one which Telotte glances at without examining in depth. The concept of cinema as a montage of attractions crops up again and again in Movies, Modernism and the Science Fiction Pulps, with a fleeting nod to its originator Sergei Eisenstein, but there is no further elaboration on how Eisenstein’s theory may have been vital to sf’s film-oriented paradigm shift (27-28). The filmed image’s capacity to be altered and rearranged far outpaced that of recorded sound during the 1920s: even before talkies, film offered a reproduction of the proleptic nature and oneiric qualities of sf narratives that was far more complete than what early radio could manage. Sf had its place in the montage of the world of early film (one need think only of such examples as Metropolis [1927] and The Lost World [1925]), and the technology available in the 1920s and 1930s were more than adequate for a creditable adaptation of many of the film-themed sf stories described by Telotte. If works such as Bob Olsen’s “The Pool of Death” (1933) and W. Varick Nevins III’s “The Mystery of the -/-” (1935) never made it to the screen, it seems due more to a lack of interest on Hollywood’s part than any flaws or difficulties inherent in the stories themselves (see 58-59).

These missed opportunities point to a key theme that permeates Telotte’s book: a feeling among the sf community that the film industry did not take either its concerns or its output seriously. Editorials in sf magazines were “a bit skeptical if not totally dismissive of the possibilities for a true SF cinema” and often evinced a mixture of disgust and incredulity at Hollywood’s inability or unwillingness to take advantage of a ready-made niche market within the movie-going public (85). It did not help that the infrequent exercises in collaborative cross-pollination undertaken by the movie industry and the sf pulps were awkward encounters. Telotte’s account of the pulp publicity blitz surrounding the quickly forgotten film Doctor Cyclops (1940) is a cautionary tale about over-saturating, overreaching, over-ambitious advance advertising (241-44, 123-26). (It is also one that should resonate with all those inundated with Baby Yoda memes as a vanguard to the critically lambasted Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker [2019].)

Notes of greater hope were sounded in the post-World War II era, as “the literature of SF was coming of age” and advances in movie special effects made this more mature prose easier to visualize (129). Even so, disappointment was still the dominant tone of sf readers, who lamented Hollywood’s continuing reliance on the sensationalism and spectacle of “bug-eyed monsters, alien invaders and apocalyptic scenarios” (133). This weariness with what was seen as moviedom’s unimaginative approach to sf came at the end of a period during which the pulps frequently published work that took the film world less than completely seriously. Henry Kuttner’s “Hollywood on the Moon” series of satirical short stories of the 1930s and 40s feature a cinematographer who makes momentous scientific discoveries while shooting hackneyed potboilers in space (66-72). Parodying both adventure fiction and the film world, they serve as a reminder to the uninitiated that sf was capable of self-mockery long before Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut.

The “Hollywood on the Moon” stories get extensive coverage in Movies, Modernism and the Science Fiction Pulps, revealing one of Telotte’s ongoing strengths—a willingness to examine and embrace the deliberately unserious. While the book discusses serious-minded films based on sf stories, it also cheerfully mentions works with a more playful spirit such as H.G. Wells’s The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936) and the comedy sf musical (!) Just Imagine (1930). (I am willing to go out on a limb and suggest that Telotte’s discussion of this latter film marks one of the more in-depth assessments to date of the work of its star, comedian El Brendel.

Pulp reviewers’ praise for Just Imagine puts the lie to the lay notion (perhaps the Hollywood notion of the time as well) that futuristic themes needed to have gravitas to appeal to the sf community (90). For Telotte, discussions in the pulps on the question of whether tendentiousness equals merit are vital to an understanding of sf’s relationship to film. While Destination Moon (1950), for example, was hailed in some pulps as a breakthrough in terms of ““reality,’ ‘documentary’ character, and technical accuracy” (152), others decried it as turgid and preachy (153), echoing criticism levelled fourteen years earlier at the much-ballyhooed Things to Come (96). Film reviews and readers’ letters about cinema were not the only places that revealed the sf pulps as active sites of discourse on criteria for accuracy. Illustrations both on and inside the covers of these magazines spurred a great deal of debate among editors and readers over whether representationalism or abstraction was the more appropriate aesthetic for envisioning sf (103-26).

Interestingly, the postwar era, when cinematic sf made its first real strides towards a fuller representational approach, marked a decline in pulp illustrations’ representations of the scientific aspects of sf. Instead, titillating depictions of damsels in distress (a trope as old as adventure stories of any kind) came to the fore, looking for all the world like the covers of hard-boiled private-eye tales with a change of costume (158-60). Lurid though these illustrations may have been, the timeless theme of sexuality bound in borrowings from a genre with a contemporary setting marked a shift in how sf viewed both cinema and itself. Telotte suggests that the nuclear era and the Cold War resembled futuristic dystopias too closely for visions of the future alone to sustain sf in either print or film. Consequently, sf evolved into “a fiction that seems far more about an inward turn and subjective experience” than its earlier, more bumptious incarnations (164).

Because the focus of his discussion is film, Telotte neglects one potential source of this new inward look, even while mentioning it. “[T]he new and less controlled field of television,” as Telotte terms it, had taken the place held by film (and earlier, radio) in the advertising pages of the sf pulps as the medium of the future (134). More than that, however, TV’s presence in private as well as public spaces lent itself (as with radio before it) to more introspective themes and approaches. This small and understandable blind spot in Movies, Modernism and the Science Fiction Pulps is simply a reflection of its source material. The publications Telotte follows in his study seem to have neglected early TV’s potential as a stage for sf’s more nuanced and metaphysical smaller worlds. Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953), an early TV home for works by members of postwar sf’s new guard such as Arthur C. Clarke, appeared to be of less interest to the editors of Amazing Stories and its kin than were the raygun zaps and cardboard sets of Captain Video (1949-1955) and similar kiddie-TV fare.

The passing of the pulps by 1960 meant that these types of publications never got the chance to comment on the impact of this latest body to cross sf’s orbit. A great deal, though, has been said since then about TV shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and others. In Movies, Modernism and the Science Fiction Pulps, J.P. Telotte is saying something that has remained unsaid until now. In the space of little more than a single generation, sf and movies alike moved from projecting dreams of a wondrous future to casting a harsh light on a present where the attraction of montages composed of nothing but futuristic wonders seemed to have “simply, and temporarily, stopped” (162).

As a coda, a few words on a future in scholarship to which Movies, Modernism and the Science Fiction Pulps points. El Brendel may have been seen as the ideal casting choice for Just Imagine because his vaudeville persona of a fish-out-of-water Swedish immigrant closely paralleled his character’s fish-out-of-water role as a man revived fifty years in the future. Perhaps now is the time for someone to investigate the invasions of sf film by vaudevillians, burlesque comics, and other clown-like figures—in everything from Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953) to The Three Stooges in Orbit (1962) to Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973) and beyond. Telotte himself, with his flair for meeting the neglected, the ephemeral, and the unpretentious on their own terms, would be an ideal choice for this.—Rick Cousins, Trent University

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