BOOKS IN REVIEW
Drawn by a Tropism.
U of Wales P, New Dimensions in Science Fiction, 2020. xiii+254 pp. £60 hc/ebk.
The invisibility of plants in scholarship, fiction, and wider culture is a curious problem for how we view the world and our place in it. Our scientific and folk taxonomies and our conception of plant lives and plant being homogenize and strip them of characteristics that promise to refigure our definitions of life, death, and the human. We need new ways of conceiving of our relationship to plants that would call for a reorientation of our perspectives on beings with which we share our world. Inspired by recent work in critical plant studies, Katherine E. Bishop, David Higgins, and Jerry Määttä’s edited collection, Plants in Science Fiction: Speculative Vegetation, begins the task of addressing plants in sf. This project is fundamental to how sf can help us to orient ourselves toward the challenges of the Anthropocene.
The book’s ten chapters are divided into three sections that move from “Abjection” to “Affinity” to “Accord.” The book’s key organizing scheme lies in plants’ capacity to break down the boundaries of classificatory systems. As such, plant studies shares with human-animal studies many conceptual concerns. In a compelling chapter in section three by Graham J. Murphy, “The Question of the Vegetal, the Animal, the Archive in Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz,” this shared concern is acknowledged and applied to a reading of the genetically engineered bees and plant-cities of Goonan’s 1994 novel. Murphy draws on Sherryl Vint’s Animal Alterity (2010) to show that there is an endemic “plant blindness” that makes plants unaccountably invisible (176-77).
A number of writers and modes are highlighted throughout the book’s ten chapters, not least those belonging to the classic- and new-weird traditions. The weird and its theme of the disruption to classificatory systems justifies this emphasis, particularly because of the essential otherness of plants and the weird scales and dislocations of the Anthropocene, notably addressed in the Paradoxa issue on Global Weirding (2016). The opening chapters, “Weird Flora: Plant Life in the Classic Weird Tale” by Jessica George and “Botanical Tentacles and the Chthulucene” by Shelley Saguaro, explore the beginning of a trajectory from horror in classic works of weird fiction by H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, and Arthur Machen. This trajectory ends with an ambivalent hope for a posthuman existence exemplified by Jeff Vandermeer’s work, addressed in section three in the chapters “Queer Ingestions: Weird and Sporous Bodies in Jeff VanderMeer’s Fiction” by Alison Sperling and “The Botanical Ekphrastic and Ecological Relocation” by Bishop. This structure also serves as a metonymy for the wider shifts in orientation toward otherness in sf broadly speaking, and anticipated when George suggests that a reading of plants in weird fiction informed by Jane Bennet’s notion of “thing power” in Vibrant Matter (2009) and Karen Houle’s discussion of kinship and enmeshment in “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics as Extension or Becoming” (2011) might re-focus on the potential for a “radical collectivity, of complex being-together in the world” (26). George shows how plants’ inaccessible otherness manifests as an attitude of horror in the classic weird tale by appealing to Val Plumwood’s discussion in “Being Prey” (1999) of radical separation, establishing a basis for conceiving otherness not only for the argument proposed in this chapter, but for the chapters that follow (15).
One of the most iconic sf stories about plants, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), receives treatment in two chapters, “‘Bloody Unnatural Brutes’: Anthropomorphism, Colonialism and the Return of the Repressed in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids” by Jerry Määttä and Saguaro’s chapter mentioned above. Määttä notes the lack of critical attention paid to The Day of the Triffids despite its enduring popularity and identifies a complex case of metonymic transfer that informs the representation of the eponymous plants. This strategy aligns plant blindness and exploitation to the colonial exploitation of peoples that makes the triffids a symbol for “a political fear masked as an evolutionary one” (48). Määttä unpacks the colonial texture of Wyndham’s novel by referring to an earlier iteration of the story, “Revolt of the Triffids” (1951), and to a potential precursor by Wyndham, “Spheres of Hell” (1933; “The Puff-Ball Menace” in the UK ). This narrative is distinctive from other stories of reverse colonization, such as H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898), because its depiction of “plants hunting and eating humans” disrupts our categories, “thus, threatening hierarchies on almost all possible levels—evolutionarily, biologically, racially, and politically” (49).
Saguaro examines The Day of the Triffids alongside Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936) and John Boyd’s The Pollinators of Eden (1969) in relation to tentacularity and the Chthulucene. This chapter ties together the analysis of the classic weird tale, Wyndham’s sf, and the sf in T.S. Miller’s chapter in section two, thus providing a unifying thread for the two sections. Saguaro suggests that the figure of the tentacle can be productively (re)positioned as emblematic of a “bridge or a conjoiner” that “signifies instead the non-teleological and sympoietic features that are anathema to the power plays of the Capitalocene” (73). Resonating with the discussions about the weird throughout the collection, Saguaro suggests that “these tales of botanical tentacular polymorphism may now be seen to be, like tentacles, feeling their way beyond catastrophe but to a more sympoietic, co-creative, reciprocal relation to the other(s)” (73).
Section two begins with a fascinating chapter that focuses on non-literary examples of speculative engagement with plants. Brittany Roberts’s “Between the Living and the Dead: Vegetal Afterlives in Evgenii Iufit and Vladimir Maslov’s Silver Heads” analyzes Russian film inspired by the Necrorealist arts movement Iufit founded. Death and the corpse are key figures through which the human, non-human, and posthuman are threaded, and Roberts makes a persuasive argument for re-positioning death to foreground how it re-aligns our attitudes to life. Death, Roberts argues, is a kind of entryway to a kinship that extends beyond the human in non-instrumental, non-appropriative ways. This analysis aligns Silver Heads (1998) with many of the concerns addressed by the new weird’s exploration of vegetal lives and draws attention to broader cultural shifts in conceptions of human-plant relations.
T.S. Miller’s chapter, “Vegetable Love: Desire, Feeling and Sexuality in Botanical Fiction,” extends his interest in a transhistorical genre that he calls botanical fiction through analyses of Boyd’s The Pollinators of Eden, Pat Murphy’s “His Vegetable Wife” (1986), and Ronald Fraser’s Flower Phantoms (1926). This analysis centers on issues of plant-feeling or “plant-desire” and begins with an expansive historical overview of plants in fiction throughout history and on Erasmus Darwin’s Loves of the Plants (1791) in particular. Miller offers a critique of the misogyny of Boyd’s novel, which he perceptively compares to the troubled relationship between the Oankali and humans of Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesistrilogy (1987-89). In contrast, Murphy’s story “signals that a teeming site of resistance to the subordination of plants lies in recent feminist discourses” (116) while Fraser’s novel, “With its efforts to imagine and inhabit a shared space of plant and human desiring … represents a rare flower in the history of botanical fiction” (120). Miller’s work is cited in several chapters of the book, while Bishop draws attention to the Botanical Fiction Database that Miller maintains online, thus positioning botanical fiction and these invaluable digital resources as key to further plant studies in sf.
The second section concludes with Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook’s examination of Robert Holdstock’s Lavondyss (1988) and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (2007) in “Alternative Reproduction: Plant-Time and Human/ Arboreal Assemblages in Holdstock and Han.” Cook, like many of the book’s contributors, builds on Michael Marder’s “plant-thinking” to explore how modes of temporality linked to sexual reproduction are disrupted by encounters with the vegetal, resulting in “an arboreal metamorphosis” that transforms our conception of temporality and human identity (128). Cook examines Han’s novel in relation to her earlier short story, “The Fruit of My Woman” (1997, trans. 2016)—a work of magic realism that draws attention to the speculative aspects informing The Vegetarian—to argue that “The experience of other-than-human sexualised temporality made possible by the conventions of magical realism in the short story is rewritten in the novel as a woman’s alienation through insanity from her fellow human beings” (137). The third section of Han’s novel, with its “temporal disjunctions, strange synchronicities and ambiguous attributions,” aligns The Vegetarian to Lavondyss’s experimentation with temporality(138).
The first chapter of section three, Yogi Hale Hendlin’s “Sunlight as a Photosynthetic Information Technology: Becoming Plant in Tom Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume,” alights on the oft-disregarded sense of scent, which historically has been slighted in relation to sight. By appealing to neurobiological accounts of how scent bypasses what is referred to as the “computing and conceptual gatekeeping of the mind” (163), Hendlin argues that scent offers avenues for recognizing and connecting with “The plant–human chimera that we already always have been, according to Robbins, [and] permits bypassing in many instances the reptilian part of our brain that holds onto ideologies and fears precipitating violent conflict and overreactions” (166).
Murphy’s chapter has already been addressed above, while Sperling’s investigation of fungal themes and what she calls “weird embodiment” in VanderMeer’s oeuvre (195) and Bishop’s examination of ekphrasis also situate the place of the new weird in plant studies. Bishop’s interest in ekphrasis, or the linguistic description of art or the image, is a fascinating trope to examine speculative fiction’s construction of the visual and holds much potential for further research within and beyond plant studies. Bishop contends that the linguistic expansion of the image via interpretation draws attention to the previously overlooked: “When paired with speculative fiction, the interpretative operations of ekphrasis are powerfully political, particularly when tuned to a vegetal key, reanimating that which we take for granted as safe, sessile, if not controlled then controllable’ (229).
Plants in Science Fiction establishes key theoretical concepts and offers approaches that point the way for further studies addressing the dearth of critical studies on plants in sf. Perhaps reflective of the novelty of this emerging discipline, and providing a coherent thematic thread for the collection, multiple chapters cite several academic and popular scientific works, including journalist Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001), T.S. Miller’s “Lives of the Monster Plants: The Revenge of the Vegetable in the Age of Animal Studies” (2012), and those by Stefano Mancuso (for example, Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence, co-authored with Alessandra Viola , and Communication in Plants: Neuronal Aspects of Plant Life, co-edited with František Baluška and Dieter Volkmann ). This book rightly acknowledges that plants have been neglected in sf studies and in wider literary and cultural criticism, despite—as Bishop shows in the introduction—how frequently they appear in sf and how important they are to those narratives. The book demonstrates a complementarity among different approaches to the representation and meaning of plants in sf. Plants in Science Fiction is a much-needed study of plants in sf that offers potential for synthesis with human-animal studies and broader ecological and environmental criticism.—Chris Pak, University of Swansea
Middle Ground Between Light and Shadow.
Wayne State UP, TV Milestone Series, 2019. v+121 pp. $19.99 pbk.
Each study in Wayne State UP’s TV Milestone Series is designed to offer a close examination of an individual television series, placing it within its industrial, historical, and cultural contexts while also offering space for more detailed analysis of the qualities that make it stand out against other shows. The series titles are diverse, encompassing comparatively recent programs alongside classics of television history, as well as representing a wide selection of television genres. The inclusion of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) in the series positions it as a key title in televisual history and in the growing canon of quality television shows. While its presence in such a canon may seem obvious to many fans and sf scholars, Grant offers an insightful and convincing rationale for its significance.
Building upon a wealth of production histories, tv scholarship, episode guides, and published and broadcast interviews with Serling, as well as his own close analysis, Grant offers a compelling discussion of this show and its distinctive legacy. As he explains, The Twilight Zone remains a highly recognizable and eminently quotable television series and an established icon of popular culture. Grant begins the book by acknowledging this influence, citing numerous contemporary pop-culture references to the show, including Family Guy (1998-)and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (2015-). These citations not only allude to specific episodes but also assume that modern audiences will be familiar with the narrative, generic, and stylistic qualities that underpin the series, such as its fantasy elements, its twist endings, and its renowned theme music; this is not an assumption that one would make about many of its contemporaries.
Grant provides a lengthy breakdown of the legacy of the show that convincingly attests to its continued relevance and connection with audiences. According to Grant, this legacy comes in the form of a cinematic sequel (Twilight Zone: The Movie ); novelizations based upon the show as well as published scripts; revivals (1985-1987; 2002-2003; 2019-); numerous stage and radio adaptations; parodies; and, significantly, the show’s progeny in the form of films and television series that seem to borrow its narrative framework (such as The Sixth Sense , Black Mirror [2011-], and US  to name just a few). He also provides detailed examples of correlations between specific episodes of The Twilight Zone and popular mainstream genre films such as Child’s Play (1988), Liar, Liar (1997), The Truman Show (1998), Frequency (2000),and Her (2013). The series casts a long shadow and its influence, as outlined by Grant, is not open to debate. The aim of the book, therefore, is not to make a case for The Twilight Zone’s standing as a televisual milestone, but to consider why this anthology television series from the 1950s and 1960s has had, and continues to have, such an impact.
To unpack this question, Grant considers the series in relation to genre and authorship, followed by a chapter focused on the show’s recurring meanings and themes. This approach is consistent with the TV Milestone format and through these topics Grant reveals the richness and complexity that underpins the show’s storytelling and production context. For instance, the series is traditionally perceived as science fiction due to the interconnection of its fantastical elements with social commentary—using sf tropes to comment on politics, society, and technology. Grant, a leading genre scholar, however, acknowledges this generic allegiance but examines the series as the product of a complex web of genre hybridity, an approach, he argues, that was adopted by Serling to counter the formulaic nature of traditional genre television. Grant proceeds to offer a detailed discussion of a wide array of episodes to explore how they represented weekly oscillations among genres, from western to horror to film noir to sf. Importantly, Grant explains how individual episodes mixed these genres within the series’ broader fantasy framework, allowing for unusual and often unsettling disruptions to generic expectations. He also positions this discussion of genre within specific production contexts, considering the contributions of key personnel and the impact of budget cuts on the show’s approach to genre. For instance, he discusses how budget limitations allowed the show to reframe traditional conceptions of cinematic sf—usually characterized by spectacle and special effects—and thus create a more televisual approach to the genre, characterized by character, plot, and theme. This discussion is important in considering how genre operates on television, particularly through the anthology format, drawing its influence from radio predecessors rather than from cinema or literature.
Grant follows the discussion of genre with an examination of Serling’s role as a producer/writer, as well as his iconic status as series host, to offer a nuanced reflection on authorship in relationship to anthology television. Grant carefully positions The Twilight Zone within various debates about authorship, focusing on the collaborative nature of television and recognizing the significant contribution of collaborators such as Buck Houghton (producer), Richard Matheson (writer), Charles Beaumont (writer), Robert Florey (director), Jacques Tourneur (director), and George T. Clemens (cinematographer). But he follows this with a compelling argument for Serling’s status as overarching auteur. While the notion of Serling as the creative force behind The Twilight Zone is not new, Grant demonstrates how Serling established a cohort of like-minded collaborators able to bring his ambitions for the show to the screen; he was a key forerunner of the type of television showrunner who has become the standard within contemporary conceptions of cult and quality television, such as Joss Whedon, Tina Fey, Michael Schur, Bryan Fuller, and Jordan Peele. Grant’s study demonstrates clear correlations between the series and Serling’s other work, notably Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956) and the original screenplay for The Planet of the Apes (1968), reflecting recurring narrative and thematic interests.
The auteurist discussion segues nicely into the final and most engaging chapter, which examines the show in terms of its relationship with real-world issues and cultural contexts. Here Grant explores the themes and contemporary cultural commentaries that recur across the series, notably its exploration of masculinity in crisis; urban and suburban alienation; Cold War tension and paranoia; and the threat of nuclear war. To add to the depth of this analysis, Grant further considers the tension between Serling’s reputation and standing as a liberal creator/writer and the often conservative leanings of commercial television. One of the recurring arguments surrounding notions of authorship in Hollywood is the ability for a creator to maintain and express their own stylistic and narrative approach, transcending the generic formulas and commercial expectations and pressures of mainstream media. Grant offers a compelling discussion of how Serling fought against the system, choosing to use speculative fiction to offer social commentary that would be too controversial within more realist genres, while also illustrating how the show often supported the status quo, reaffirming certain conservative notions of the period—a balancing act that perhaps facilitated its continued popularity with audiences. A key theme across the book is the way in which Serling was forced to walk a fine line between his creative vision and the commercial imperatives of network television, often railing against the advertisers while simultaneously being required to promote their products. In this, Grant offers an insightful examination of the complexities of producing speculative fiction for television and shows how Serling had to negotiate his own middle ground between light and shadow.
The book is enriched by a vast amount of production detail that firmly grounds the discussion within the show’s production history. Grant’s analysis is rich and convincing, and one of the strengths of this book across all the chapters is his ability to analyze multiple episodes in depth but without sacrificing the breadth of the series. Each chapter covers a great deal of ground and one comes away from the book with a clear sense of the richness, diversity, and complexity of the show, as well as of some of its inherent contradictions. Notably for the Milestone series, the book conveys how and why The Twilight Zone remains a landmark series for the science-fiction and television fan and scholar. As such the book provides an excellent overview of The Twilight Zone and its place in television past and present.—Stacey Abbott, University of Roehampton
From Afrofuturism to afrofuturism.
Ohio State UP, New Suns: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Speculative, 2019. xi+230 pp. $29.95 pbk.
Afrofuturism is to sf studies today what cyberpunk and feminist sf were to the field in the 1990s and early 2000s, a period in which the English departments which many in the field called home had finally begun to embrace sf studies and the field subsequently flourished through critical works that engaged feminism, queer studies, postmodernism, posthumanism, and the growing excitement of the digital. While literary and cultural studies scholars, especially in American Studies, were turning to multicultural, ethnic, and Black literature in significant numbers, however, sf studies remained pretty firmly white in its focus. Indeed, the mainstream of the genre we study had yet to embrace any significant number of writers of color. Though the occasional luminary of Black sf—such as Octavia E. Butler, Samuel R. Delany, and Nalo Hopkinson—was regularly recognized as among “the greats,” they were rarely privileged with space in critical venues (Science Fiction Studies, always a leader in the field, did publish several articles on writers of color throughout the 1990s and 2000s). Carl Freedman’s inclusion of Delany’s Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand (1984) in his groundbreaking Marxist study of sf, Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000), was the first time a major work of sf scholarship paid any such attention to Black sf.
In the following years, works such as Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James’s The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003), De Witt Douglas Kilgore’s Astrofuturism (2003), Patricia Kerslake’s Empire and Science Fiction (2007), Adilifu Nama’s Black Space (2008), John Rieder’s Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008), and the occasional edited collection began to shape more nuanced conversations about race in sf. The efforts of scholars were paired with the efforts of authors and anthologizers such as Sheree Renée Thomas, who put together Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora in 2001 and a sequel in 2005. The snowballing of work on race in science fiction exploded in the last ten years, thanks in large part to new cohorts of Black scholars and scholars of color entering the professoriate in larger numbers after decades of (still ongoing) struggles against inequality in the academy.
Enter Isaiah Lavender III, a scholar whose first monograph, Race in American Science Fiction (2011), defined a generation of scholarship on race in sf. Lavender’s book offered readings of sf by white and Black writers alike to look at the construction of race across the long history of the genre, identifying how race became a useful metaphor for (often white) writers to explore social and racial difference, usually without the baggage of American racial history (e.g., casting aliens/AI as racialized others). Race, in Lavender’s first book, was largely defined as a Black and white issue in part because he drew on his background as an African Americanist, but also because the history of white racial supremacism in the US has so thoroughly defined “race” as a category of difference that the oppression of Blackness became mimetic in the othering practices of American sf. Despite its vague title, Lavender’s Race in American Science Fiction was really about Blackness and the othering capacities of its metaphorization in American sf, and the book acknowledges this through its emphasis on reading the “blackground” of the genre.
Before Lavender’s book, studies in this area had tended to focus broadly on “race” in sf generally as a marker of difference, but scholarship took a turn toward the more particular in the years following Lavender’s intervention—one with which we are still reckoning as the culture of sf and fantasy also embraces greater levels of cultural specificity in writing and publishing through movements such as Afrofuturism, Latinxfuturism, Indigenous Futurism, Silkpunk, and more. Scholarship has begun to recover racial narratives long ignored, as may be seen in the work of scholars such as Grace Dillon, Mark Jerng, Aimee Bhang, Ytasha Womack, Taryne Taylor, andré carrington, Cathryn Merla-Watson, Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, and many others. Lavender has continued to contribute to and shape these conversations, in the form of edited collections and journal special issues and in the increasing cultural and scholarly attention to Afrofuturism.
Lavender’s second monograph, Afrofuturism Rising: The Literary Prehistory of a Movement, is an ode to Afrofuturism’s development as a topic of scholarly inquiry, a celebration of the movement’s literary background and political investment in the liberation of Blackness and Black bodies, and an acknowledgment of the necessity of such an artistic movement in an era of heightened racial injustice and inequality. Lavender builds on his work on “race” and its always fraught construction of Blackness within the context of American sf, focusing on Afrofuturism as a particular mode of expression. Lavender traces this mode of expression, this way of thinking Black futurity in times of Blackness’s oppression—which is, well, all of colonial history—from the beginnings of the slave trade in the Americas to the Black Arts movement of the 1970s. Afrofuturism Rising, then, is less a particularized study of sf than a wide-ranging investigation of how a science-fictional and utopian sentiment—the futurity inherent in the Black struggle for liberation—has developed over hundreds of years, occasionally intersecting with the history of the genre we call sf, but not beholden to the strict market and audience pressures that canonize the boundaries of genre.
Critical to Lavender’s project are (1) the affective dimensions of Black hope, of the longing and desire for freedom, and (2) the framing of “future” and futurity as a temporally grounded reading practice (as opposed to, but necessarily moving toward, a time-to-come) used by subjugated folks as an “imaginative apparatus of subject-making” (4). With this in mind, Lavender is able to read Afrofuturism not as a specific historical movement that arose, say, in the last two decades as a particular response to post-Civil Rights twenty-first-century social justice movements against racist neoliberal regimes, but rather as a transhistorical mode of thinking Blackness and futurity together. Hence both Lavender’s promise of a literary prehistory of a movement and his insistence on using the term “afrofuturism” in distinction to the reified genre-market vision of “Afrofuturism.” This runs somewhat counter to the recent historical turn pushed by John Rieder and others (myself included), but is a nonetheless welcome approach to afrofuturism as a mode of thinking—and also of reading—which opens the field to broader conversations within literary and cultural studies.
Lavender’s new monograph is bifurcated, approaching afrofuturism, African American literary history, and Black liberation struggles in two distinct methodological ways. His thesis across the book’s six chapters is threefold: that afrofuturism begins with the enslavement of Africans (thus making it obviously different from the more recently coined term Africanfuturism; that the canonical texts of African American literature are quintessentially afrofuturist in their attempt to deal with the “alien” subjectivity of Black folks imposed on them by the history and legacy of enslavement and racialization; and that afrofuturism is a fundamentally metaphorical approach to both reading and representing the word, thus speculative at base and capaciously transhistorical.
The first part of Afrofuturism Rising includes three chapters that provide a sweeping look at Black life and literature in the US from 1619 (the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia) to 1903 (the publication of Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood). The approach here is akin to Lavender’s earlier book: a reading across texts that pinpoints a particular strategy for afrofuturist meaning making. Here Lavender takes texts as disparate as novels, rebellions, and enslaved persons’ subversive communicative strategies to build a vibrant and refreshingly new canon of futurist tools. The second part of Afrofuturism Rising approaches the Black literary canon of the twentieth century and demonstrates how major texts such as like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and John A. Williams’s Captain Blackman (1972), each a product of distinct African American literary-political formations, are in their own rights afrofuturist texts.
The real genius of Afrofuturism Rising lies in this recovery work that builds connections among Black texts, times, and theories—connections through which Lavender is able to convincingly cast social movements and historical phenomena as afrofuturist texts. Take, for example, the case of Black spirituals, which Lavender argues are a key example of an afrofuturist “freedom technology”: the network of black consciousness. As Lavender puts it, “Enslavement, forced migration, oppression, and, ultimately, commodification define the history of African people in the New World, making black subjectivity inhuman if not mechanical or alien [a point made in his first book]. But afrofuturism reclaims raced space and time” (36). Enslaved persons’ survival relied on hope and subsistence practices, including the coded use of language and communication. Among these subsistence practices was the encoding of messages about how to get free in spirituals: “Singing together, to alleviate the backbreaking drudgery of [slave labor] ... provided an emotional escape from slavery’s material and social conditions, transporting slaves to a timeless place each workday” (38). This network of Black consciousness circulates further in the consciousnesses of Black folks in the eras of Old and New Jim Crow, for whom telling these stories gives them their own meanings and connections with earlier generations—speculative meanings that, like the speculations of sf, are never really about the imagined past or future, but always about the present.
Alongside unconventional texts such as the (history of) Black spirituals and Black resistance movements, Lavender is also careful to draw on the early canon of African American literature, drawing out the latent afrofuturism of the most widely taught and studied texts, whether Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative (1789) or Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood, as well as on more obscure moments in the literary canon, such as the life and words of abolitionist and almanac-writer Benjamin Banneker. Each of the three chapters in part one concludes with a survey of literary texts that tie together Lavender’s investment as a literary scholar with his larger project to recover a prehistory of afrofuturism in the varied cultural practices of Black Americans. The focus turns more fully to literature in the final three chapters of the book.
Section two of Afrofuturism Rising further lays the groundwork for the “literary prehistory” of the contemporary Afrofuturist movement by drawing clear connections between African American literature generally and the afrofuturist practices that have sustained Black life in the Americas. Of course, some of this work has already begun: think, for example, of the many essays on Octavia Butler that have appeared in non-sf literary studies journals, as Black sf authors have become increasingly central to African American literary studies and pedagogy today. Lavender, however, brings together a novel set of texts that do not (especially in the case of Hurston and Wright) appear to be science-fictional in any obvious sense and clearly argues an against-the-grain reading of African American literary history (and literature itself) that reimagines the relationships among mimesis, speculation, futurity, and the political life of texts that extend beyond themselves (something Seo-Young Chu was asking us to take seriously more than ten years ago).
Section two’s focus on literature does to some extent seem imbalanced compared to the first part’s stunning display of interconnections among literary and non-literary texts. Given just how diverse and well-documented the Black resistance movements of the twentieth century are, Lavender has wisely chosen not to bite off more than any one book can chew—and he acknowledges as much in the introduction. Instead he sets a precedent by studying afrofuturism as a way of reading Black history and literature. He demonstrates his reading practice first as a cultural historian making meaning for Black life in periods when African American literary production was limited as a field of written texts by slavery and Jim Crow. Black creators instead produced other kinds of texts that literary scholars have turned to in recent decades, whether those were written in music or blood or abolitionist dreaming. And second, he demonstrates that the very creation of “African American literature” as a concept in the twentieth century, after Kenneth W. Warren’s 2011 postmortem What Was African American Literature?, was always in the process of creating Black meaning, negotiating raced space and time, and those deeply embedded in afrofuturist practices. After all, as a speculation on what it means to be Black in an America of double consciousnesses and machine-/alien-like objectifications of the racialized other, how can African American literature not be deeply speculative? With this new book, Lavender shows us a path forward in our efforts to better understand the increasingly obvious but always already science-fictional world we inhabit.—Sean Guynes, Michigan State University.
Romancing Queer Theology and Reproductive Diversity.
. Liverpool UP, 2020. 308 pp. $105.47 hc.
Known for her humor, plot twists, and well-developed, engagingly imperfect characters, award-winning sf and fantasy writer Lois McMaster Bujold has been a fan favorite for thirty-five years, earning seven Hugos, three Nebulas, and the 2020 SFWA Grand Master’s Award. Most of her work is set in three different universes: the Vorkosigan sf saga (1986-2018), the Chalion fantasy series (2001-2005), and the Sharing Knife romance/fantasy series (2006-2019). Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, she has also gained considerable critical attention for the quality and complexity of her work. Critical essay collections include Janet Brennan Croft’s anthology, Lois McMaster Bujold: Essays on a Modern Master of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2013) and Edward James’s Lois McMaster Bujold (2015). Now building on earlier scholarship and in response to Biology and Manners: The Worlds of Lois McMaster Bujold, a conference held 20 August 2014 at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK, a volume of conference proceedings has come together with fourteen cogent essays that approach Bujold from various critical directions, including feminism, queer theory, medievalism, linguistics, disability studies, and fan fiction. The title is apt, since much of Bujold’s fiction speculates on the intersections of biology and social mores or manners. The floral cover image, taken from Buissons ardents [ardent bushes], a tapestry by French Benedictine monk Dom Robert (Gu de Chaunac-Lanzac, 1907-1997), reflects a “vivid and fertile depiction of the natural world” through a “feminized medium” (cover page), evoking insider humor, since at first glance, the packaging resembles a biology textbook with three different stylized butterflies to represent each of her series.
The book is divided into six sections, plus index and contributors’ biographies. In the “Introduction: The Emergence of Bujold Studies,” the editors explain how the anthology places particular emphasis on the fantasy series, which have received less critical discussion. It is followed by Robin Anne Reid’s bibliographic essay, an incisive history of scholarship on Bujold from 1995 forward and concludes that Bujold’s fiction provides arable ground for feminist discussion of gender in response to theories of “war, leadership and religion” (28)
The second section, “Bujold’s Women,” includes Regina Yung Lee on “Untimely Graces: Gender, Failure, and Sainthood” in Paladin of Souls (2003), Caitlin Herrington on the “Reconfiguration of Gender” in the Chalion novels, and Katherine Woods’s “In Quiet Converse,” which employs performance theory in a comparison between Jane Austen’s Fanny Price of Mansfield Park (1814) and Bujold’s Ekaterin Vorsoissin of Komarr (1998), A Civil Campaign (2000), and “Winterfair Gifts” (2008). These three chapters focus on Bujold’s underlying process of reformulating conformative gender behavior beyond the “hollowness” of patriarchal societies (91). Regina Yung Lee signifies Bujold’s transgression of social paradigms related to reproduction and patriarchal binaries, how rigid social norms for femininity can become “startlingly and literally destructive” (40). Protagonists such as Ista in Paladin experience failure, loss, and madness because of their inability to live up to essentialist requirements of soul-sucking perfection. Recovery of self then requires an actual change of personal theology, forsaking Father-Mother, Daughter-Son binaries for freedom to worship the androgynous Bastard. Lee points out that Chalion’s queering of theology through loving and equal inclusion of the Bastard in the Holy family demonstrates “destruction of patriarchal inheritance” by privileging “matrilineally-derived divinity” and “the centralization of kinship beyond blood,” suggesting that true kinship “sprawls far beyond the biological” (42, 44). The series thus argues that privileging male dynastic reproduction is “futile,” “narcissistic,” and against “the desires of the gods” (45). Ultimately, Ista subverts essentialism, finding self-worth and happiness as dowager saint and reclaiming the pleasure of non-reproductive sexuality. As Herrington argues, the “maid, matron, crone” role models are subverted for “mid-life renewal” (what Kelso later describes as “an older woman’s bildungsroman” ) and freedom from the “socially normative expectations of obedience contained within marriage vows” (58). Herrington further asserts that Bujold provides a more nuanced female villain in Chalion’s Joen, more complex than the stereotypical Evil Witch, “but the practical and deadly reality of an unsympathetic adversary” (67), concluding that “Reformation of negative depiction of women is as necessary and subversive as the reconfiguration of positive ones” (67).
The third section, “Heroes’ Journeys,” includes C. Palmer-Patel on “The Shape of the Hero’s Soul,” Sylvia Kelso on “The Road and the River,” and Joanne Woiak on “Pain Made Holy,” demonstrating how Bujold’s heroes’ journeys depart from the stereotypical pattern outlined in the work of Joseph Campbell. The women in particular do not return home from their quests but keep going toward further fulfillment. Palmer-Patel examines the paradox of fate and free will in The Curse of Chalion (2001) and Paladin of Souls (2003), revealing how the shape of their souls, Cazaril as cup (receptive) and Ista as sword (assertive), defines their struggle for self-fulfillment because these soul shapes counter traditional norms for male and female behavior. Kelso describes the Sharing Knife series as a women’s road narrative intended to “resist, destabilize or undermine” the tradition that a woman’s wilderness quest would be sexually “transgressive” and a fall from “virtue” (115). Here, the marriage of opposite cultures through Dag, a Lakewalker, and Fawn, a Farmer, provides a microcosmic look at the dynamics of cultural change, a confrontation of socially constructed binaries within an alternate universe Midwestern America (as well as a redaction of Huckleberry Finn ). Woiak examines the Chalion series through the lens of disability theory, asserting that disability and suffering are not synonymous and suggesting that Cazaril’s “prodigious accomplishments,” despite his affliction, challenge the deficit model of disability. Although sickness commonly genders a protagonist as codedly female, Cazaril succeeds both as a warrior and as a heterosexual man through “interdependence” and understanding of his own “vulnerabilities,” concluding that although he desires a cure, he also embraces “his brokenness and oddness” (137, 147).
Section 4, “Potential Futures and Imagined Pasts,” focuses on Bujold’s sf universe, where advances in biogenetics and uterine-replicator technology work to cyborgize and destabilize men’s and women’s roles. “Queering Barrayar” by Jey Saung describes how in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (2015), Miles Vorkosigan’s mother, Cordelia Naismith, and Oliver Jole, his father Aral’s longtime lover, decide to have Aral’s children after his death, assuring Aral’s future influence on Barrayaran politics and creating a post-modernist “nonlinear queer temporality” where past, present, and future “are always looping back towards one another” (153). Saung defines “queer” as non-normative behavior seen at an angle, revealing “an oblique world” that includes departures from “nuclear” family structures (155, 157). Cordelia is a postmenopausal woman, but the replicator challenges heterosexual chrono-normativity such that she does not “age out” of reproductive potential (162). In “Futuristic Feudalism in The Warriors Apprentice,” Sarah Lindsay examines how Miles Vorkosigan revisions himself as Admiral Naismith, repurposing feudalism for his own use, thereby creating extended family. Miles, stricken with brittle bone disease from birth, is a hybrid character who maintains a moving balance between a medieval past and postmodern future, specifically using fealty to create stability for individuals like himself who have been excluded or marginalized within their own cultures. Lindsay remarks that “feudalism as a relationship of mutual dependence and obligation can lay the foundation for productive and beneficial relationships,” but Miles also learns “when to jettison the past” if it obstructs a better future (177, 183). “Womb with a View: Ectogenesis in Ethan of Athos and Brave New World” by Ally Wolfe examines how the uterine replicator allows for an all-male society that, although maintaining religious prejudice, hostility and disgust toward women as “demonic,” is not dystopian but “heterotopian,” a term taken from Michel Foucault to describe cultures that are “recognizably human” but differently functional and disturbing to readers’ myths about normative universality (187-91, 202). Ethan, as obstetrician, participates actively in combining genetic materials and caring for replicators, a maternal role on Athos that is separate from the work of raising a child, “a revolutionary decoupling of maternity’s physiological and social components” (194). As a result, he makes the subversive decision to create possible long-term cultural change through inclusion of telepathic genes in the ovarian cultures he has acquired. Wolfe concludes, “If stagnation and stability at all costs create a dystopia, Athos narrowly avoids it” (202).
Section 5, “Holy Families,” includes “The Holy Family: Divine Queerness in The Curse of Chalion and The Hallowed Hunt” by Robin Anne Reid and “The Bastard Balances All: The Essential Other in Bujold’s Queer Theology” by Meg MacDonald. Reid asserts how Bujold destabilizes Barrayar’s single standard for able-bodied masculinity by allowing Miles success through empathy, “interdependence, vulnerability and deep affection” (211) She further concludes through linguistic analysis that Bujold’s male protagonists, Cazaril and Ingrey, perform as “receptacles” for demonic possession rather than as action heroes, fighting possession through intelligent will power rather than brute strength (213). Overall, Reid argues that Bujold’s intent to disrupt hierarchical sex and gender binaries includes the disruption of patriarchal religious and psychoanalytic binaries, creating queer spaces for reader response, particularly through inclusion of male nurture. MacDonald draws on queer theology by Marcella Althus-Ried that argues for the inclusion of “the Queer God” to keep Theology from becoming “a totalitarian construction” (229). Althus-Reid maintains that living conditions “shape and produce theology” and that queer theology destabilizes economic and power structures to create “inclusive intersectional spaces” for growth (230). Thus, Bujold’s Quintarian pantheon prioritizes the inclusion of the Bastard to have agency over “spirit and matter” in order to balance creative and demonic energies in the world, metaphorically functioning as the thumb of a hand, a god that meets people “wherever they are, whatever their status” (231, 238). Finally, MacDonald illuminates bisexuality through mutual vulnerability and strength in the Penric and Desdemona series (2015-2017).
The final section goes “Beyond the Books” to the fan community. Essays include Jennifer Woodward and Peter Wright’s application of role-playing game theory in “The Naismith Stratagem: Authenticity and Adaptation in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga: Sourcebook and Roleplaying Game,” and Kristina Busse’s examination of “Canon Compliance and Creative Analysis in Vorkosigan Saga Fan Fiction.” Role playing and fan fiction both allow fans to go deeper into the Vorkosiverse, and unlike many other speculative authors, Bujold has welcomed these activities, approving the text and Bob Stevlic’s fantasy art in Genevieve Cogman’s GURPS Sourcebook and Roleplaying Game (2009) (253). Direct quotations in the Sourcebook create a series of intertextual connections that highlight specific military tactics, key characters, gender, and culture, as well as history, economics, and geography, allowing fans to explore themes of disability, sexuality, and reproductive rights more personally. Similar attention to detail is seen in the serious fan fiction that has been created. Busse asserts that several canon-compliant works have gained considerable popularity, such as Philomytha’s Aral Vorkosigan’s Dog (2010), which retells Shards of Honor (1986) through Simon Illyan’s point of view and Lightgetsin and Sahiya’s A Deeper Season (2005-),a series of twenty-four slash stories revolving around Gregor’s love for Miles. Busse concludes that “fan fiction engages in a constant conversation not only with source texts but also with shared fan conversations,” showcasing a rich “ability to imagine and create even as they analyze and interpret” (284).
Biology and Manners substantially advances previous scholarship through its comprehensive coverage of Bujold’s fictional range, its depth, and its attention to detail. The various scholarly approaches provide a central holographic reader response to Bujold’s oeuvre that becomes three-dimensional as the chapters come together, providing a clearer image of Bujold’s literary genius as well as her empathy and subversiveness. Perhaps no other speculative author since Le Guin has done more to undermine theological hierarchies and sexual binaries. Furthermore, the accessibility of the prose in these essays makes this anthology of value not only to scholars and libraries, but also to serious fans.—Sandra Lindow, Front Porch Scholar
The Plants Have Always Been Here.
Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction. New York: Fordham UP, 2020. 304 pp. $110 hc, $32 pbk, $31.99 ebk.
Radical Botany represents the fruits of a long collaboration between Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari, pioneering figures in the rapidly growing field of critical plant studies. When I first began gesturing towards plant studies in my own work without much prior scholarship to guide me, I was thrilled to discover the early collaborative efforts of Meeker and Szabari: their groundbreaking essay on botanical horror—“From the Century of the Pods to the Century of the Plants: Plant Horror, Politics, and Vegetal Ontology” (Discourse 34.1 : 32-58)—appeared at nearly the same time as my own first published foray into the field, and it is remarkable to see how much has changed over the past eight years in the vegetable arena. For one, critical plant studies properly exists now, with conference panels and course syllabi and edited collections and inter-field debates aplenty. Thus, Meeker and Szabari’s pre-critical-plant-studies essay on plant horror, now reconfigured to become the penultimate chapter of Radical Botany, benefits a great deal from its contextualization in both the longer arc of intellectual history that the authors trace in the book—beginning in seventeenth-century France and ending with twenty-first-century weird fiction—as well as from the various developments that critical plant studies has witnessed in the interval since Meeker and Szabari themselves helped to lay the groundwork in their shorter pieces. Radical Botany is an important book that will obviously be essential reading for anyone working in critical plant studies, but it should also prove of interest to any scholars curious to learn what a more sustained consideration of the vegetal has brought and can bring to interdisciplinary considerations of ecocriticism, climate change, the Anthropocene, and indeed the prehistory of speculative fiction and “speculation” in the more abstract philosophical sense.
A preliminary word of caution: the possibly tendentious use of that phrase “speculative fiction” in the book’s subtitle may mislead those working in sf studies into expecting a volume that surveys the many marvelous plants of twentieth- and twenty-first-century works of genre fiction. Both Meeker and Szabari, however, primarily work on early modern French literature, and although their project ambitiously embraces contemporary transmedial works—especially film—and intellectual trajectories beyond their narrower areas of specialization, much of the volume remains devoted to Francophone literary and philosophical texts from early modernity. Even so, I would highly recommend the book to a substantial cross-section of sf scholars, and not simply for the final two chapters that do discuss recent sf and horror at some length. What the authors offer in Radical Botany is in fact an alternative genealogy of speculation rooted in the advent of new conceptions of materiality: their argument is largely a product of changing human-plant relations and the ontological shifts arising from the human recognition of plants as animate and agential (even if not entirely intelligible to us). Meeker and Szabari advocate for “an understanding of vegetality as driving the production of technology, scientific knowledge, and new media forms,” but also stress that, in the tradition of “radical botany” they uncover, “plants are not just objects of manipulation but participants in the effort to imagine new worlds and envision new futures” (2). Indeed, according to the early modern botanical excavations that begin Radical Botany, “The plant is thus not only present but takes pride of place at one of the points of origin of science fiction” (24).
The introductory chapter lays the groundwork for the authors’ positioning of plant life as “a key figure in a materialist rethinking of the relationship between humans and other modes of being,” in that “plants represent a challenge to an orthodoxy that places humans at the center of the cosmos and even to human thought as such” (29). Here the authors most clearly lay out their theoretical affiliations and alliances; refreshingly, throughout the book Meeker and Szabari regularly critique Michael Marder, surely the dominant figure in plant studies, far more often than they draw substantially on his work, at one point all but accusing him of an incurable Romanticism: “We see a tendency today to push plants toward the animal definition of life—for example, in Michael Marder’s work, which resonates with a Romantic assertion of plant-human affinity” (108). Their own theoretical perspective lies in closer proximity to the work of Jeffrey Nealon and Natasha Myers on plants, although of course Deleuze and Guattari remain the theorists whose presence looms largest. Appropriately, then, Radical Botany does not take the form of a genealogy as such, but revels in the more rhizomatic connections it builds across eras and oceans and media, emphasizing multiple intersecting trajectories.
The second chapter aims to uncover a “libertine botany” (28) in seventeenth-century France that predates but also runs counter to the more dominant botanical paradigms in Enlightenment Europe, chiefly examining the alchemical and medicinal investigations of Guy de La Brosse and the fantastical fictions of Cyrano de Bergerac. The latter is likely a familiar name to those interested in premodern sf, an excerpt from his satire A Voyage to the Moon (1657) having even been included in the first volume of James Gunn’s anthology series The Road to Science Fiction (1977-1982, 1998). In contrast to a canon-building project such as Gunn’s, the authors do not seek to fit Cyrano’s works into the tradition of genre sf per se, but they do compellingly trace their speculative character with careful sensitivity to Cyrano’s many intellectual contexts. Meeker and Szabari demonstrate how Cyrano’s insistent emphasis on the seed as both metaphorical figure and material reality—and a perhaps not-so-satirical cameo from a rational cabbage—speak to a recurrent theme in Radical Botany, that plants can bridge the heavens and the earth, as gateways to an invisible world that retreats from us even as we attempt to apprehend it (whether in fiction, philosophy, or science).
Meeker, Szabari, and many of the authors they take up thus consider plants as, among many other things, representing a signpost to utopian possibility, but never simplistically so. Chapter 3, “Plant Societies and Enlightened Vegetality,” most directly considers this possibility through the eighteenth-century utopias of Ludvig Holberg and Charles-François Tiphaigne de La Roche. This chapter also briefly discusses La Mettrie’s L’Homme-plante [Man as Plant], a text one might have expected to dominate this book: instead, the authors quickly veer away from La Mettrie to explore a much more complex tradition of vegetal speculations that, unlike La Mettrie in Meeker and Szabari’s reading, does not finally uphold the innate superiority of humans. Holberg’s 1741 hollow-earth narrative The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground definitely deserves to be more widely known, with its never overhasty sentient trees so reminiscent (or rather anticipatory) of Tolkien’s Ents, and for once Meeker and Szabari are able to trace a direct lineage from Cyrano to Holberg to Poe. Tiphaigne’s 1753 work, Amilec, ou la graine d’hommes [Amilec, or the Seed of Men], had been unknown to me, although it was translated not so long ago by Brian Stableford as Amilec (2011). In it, we find genies responsible for overseeing the generation of humans from seed and, as with many of the other plant narratives Meeker and Szabari discuss, they compellingly show how the plant, for Tiphaigne, remains both a material reality and a speculative engine, guiding us to “a vitality that exceeds human reason and experience” (84). If one were to venture any criticism of the book so far, it would again likely concern where Meeker and Szabari choose not to dwell when they discuss the long eighteenth century: namely, on the systems of colonial domination and new biopolitical regimes that the authors mention in passing, but therefore may also seem to be evading. In other words, the authors may paint an overly sunny picture of the plant’s role in ushering in modernity precisely because they comment less extensively on the relationship between plants and imperial enterprises: Radical Botany understands “modernity as both disastrous and generative,” but perhaps we cannot finally fault the authors for wishing to emphasize the latter (6).
The book takes a major turn in the fourth chapter, a lynchpin in many ways, as here Meeker and Szabari finally and firmly move beyond early modern France to use Edgar Allan Poe and Charlotte Perkins Gilman as a bridge to more contemporary instances of radical botany in “an emergent genre of feminist, queer, and ecologically oriented speculative fiction” (87). The authors tease out the tremendous implications of an apparently minor detail in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), Roderick’s suspicions about “the sentience of all vegetable things”: by setting the text in counterpoint to Shelley’s poem “The Sensitive-Plant” (1820), they argue that Poe “both responds to and undermines Romantic ideas about human affinities with plants” (25). Poe’s vision of plant horror finds in vegetal horror the “defining attribute of life itself” (88), while Meeker and Szabari consider the plant’s invasion of human consciousness less wholly disturbing. Poe’s interest in the “indifference” of plants also helps explain Meeker and Szabari’s turn to weird fiction later in the book, and certainly there remains much more work to be done on the plant in this tradition. Above all—though I imagine not uncontroversially—the chapter offers provocative correctives to some of the voluminous ecocritical work on nineteenth-century material, effectively finding an anthropocentrism at the heart of Romanticism, to phrase it more grandly than the authors might allow.
When Chapter 5 takes us directly from Poe and Gilman to a “vegetal moment in interwar French cinema” (115) and the experimental films of Jean Epstein and Germaine Dulac, recognition will shortly follow any sense of chronological whiplash. Indeed, unexpected connections between historical moments proliferate in these later chapters, whether in Poe’s influence via Baudelaire on early French avant-garde cinema, or the alchemical “resurrection” of plants from their ashes described earlier in the book returning as the time-lapse film. This chapter has many implications for plant studies across media: the authors note that, for Epstein, “plants not only stand in for the work done by cinema itself—the animation of a world always in movement—but they inspire and generate that work” (127). Likewise, the sixth chapter extends this work on cinema to examine the 1956 and 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers films. The authors surprisingly but compellingly recontextualize plant horror as a little less horrific, showing how the genre “responds to the longer speculative tradition we outline in this book, one that aims at animating the plant—first by revealing that its mechanisms are compatible with those of the universe, then by attributing a vitality to them that cannot be fully assimilated into animal models of life, and later by uncovering the ways in which they usher humans into a new spatio-temporal reality” (146). As with Poe, Meeker and Szabari demonstrate how in the films vegetality “both invades and structures human consciousness” (146) in ways that counterintuitively might be understood as both “terrifying and appealing” (155).
The final chapter, “Becoming Plant Nonetheless,” asks what radical botany might have to offer us in the twenty-first century, “as a politically oriented materialism that has long acted to generate speculative fictions” (178). Sf scholars will naturally find this chapter the most directly relevant to the field, as the authors explore “the nonnormative possibilities inherent in vegetal modes of being” in household names such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Jeff VanderMeer (174). Most of this chapter, which concludes the book somewhat abruptly with no separate conclusion, uncovers the vegetality at the center of the Southern Reach trilogy (2014), again emphasizing how even unsettling weird fiction can gesture to the “transformative potential of the plant for humans” (191), plant horror serving as “part of a posthuman project” (200). Meeker and Szabari conclude that “The greatest force of radical botany today may lie in its ability to help us imagine, think, and visualize ways of disassembling our socially and historically located subjectivities to open them up to forms of speculation that are both local and cosmic” (177-78).
Radical Botany is a remarkable and remarkably readable book, the kind we can really only fault—and perhaps unfairly—for what it does not cover. For example, when the authors refer to the writings of botanists Francis Hallé and Hope Jahren, one wonders what has been lost in the omission of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s comparable work, and indeed any other Indigenous perspectives on the plant. So too do the authors speak of a “global vegetal turn” (88) and how the plant body “circulates transatlantically and transnationally” (3), but with the exception of three pages on Han Kang, the authors and intellectual traditions considered here remain overwhelmingly European and American. Even so, the scope of Radical Botany proves remarkably ambitious for its comparative brevity, documenting both a specific “current in French materialist thought” (3) and gesturing toward a grander tradition of speculative plant fiction around the globe.—Timothy S. Miller, Florida Atlantic University.
A Pioneering Study of Indian Science Fiction.
Liverpool UP, 2020. xi+192 pp. $120 hc.
The year 2020 is turning out to be an important one for scholarship in English on Indian science fiction (sf). Two books, Mukherjee’s Final Frontiers, and my own Indian Science Fiction, have been published on the topic, and a third by Sami Ahmad Khan is in the works. There was none before. Consequently, Final Frontiers, along with these other works, makes important contributions to the quickly expanding field of global sf studies—especially in the field of sf coming out of the developing world. Final Frontiers, however, is distinguishable not only for its pioneering quality, but also because of its outstanding examination of the topic: the relationship between technoscience and sf in India in the middle of the twentieth century.
Critical works on Indian sf have been increasing over the last ten to fifteen years. The number of critical essays on Indian sf has steadily grown in many leading academic journals (such as Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Extrapolation, Foundation, South Asian Popular Culture) and anthologies (such as Hoagland and Sarwal’s Science Fiction, Imperialism, and the Third World , Lavender’s Dis-Orienting Planets , and Chattopadhyay, Mandhwani, and Maity’s Indian Genre Fictions , among others) in both the fields of sf and postcolonial studies, and culminating in a special issue on Indian sf in SFS (43.3 ). Mukherjee’s book provides a much-needed extensive discussion not possible within the confines of an article. The organization and focus of the book are clear: it examines sf mainly written in Bangla during the non-aligned phase of Indian politics (primarily between the 1950s and 1970s) in the context of technological and scientific developments in the country. The three topical chapters, along with an introduction and a conclusion, perform this task efficiently. It should be mentioned that India has sf traditions in several languages (Bangla, Hindi, English, Marathi, Tamil, etc.), both on page and on screen. While Mukherjee’s examination of only a limited number of texts (two authors in detail and a couple more in brief) is a bit confining, he clarifies this limitation at the outset, keeping the readers informed of the scope of the enterprise.
In an informative introduction, Mukherjee lays down the basis of his examination in the later chapters. He starts by exposing the links between the regressive modernity pushed by the current Hindu nationalists, or Hindutvavadis, and the apparently progressive secular modernity of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, both of whom allude to an “always modern” identity for India. He draws connections between the policies and ideas related to postcolonial India’s scientific establishments and international politics in the years immediately following India’s independence in 1947, and then places sf at this juncture. Mukherjee reveals the inherent contradictions in postcolonial India’s emphasis on technoscientific self-reliance, the development of its military and nuclear energy sector, and Nehru’s adoption of the policy of non-alignment with either the Western Imperial First World or the Communist Second World. The author further connects this contradiction in postcolonial India with the situation in many other “Third World” nations and the concept of postcolonial or non-aligned science in general, as well as to the study and production of global sf. He traces the development of institutional science in India under the British and the role of native scientists in such endeavors that allows for the Nehruvian science to flourish later, and argues that such developments lie parallel to the development of postcolonial sf in India. Additionally, Mukherjee exposes the Euro-American bias in the study of global sf. While Mukherjee advocates for a “world literature” approach akin to Franco Moretti’s model of “core and periphery” in dealing with non-aligned Indian sf, Mukherjee criticizes the model’s glossing over of the diversity of world literary traditions. Instead he expands the scope of global sf criticism by acknowledging the similar cultural positionality of Asian, African, and Latin American sf traditions vis à vis the Euro-American “core.”
Identifying both these contexts—the historical specificity of Indian technoscience and Indian sf’s relationship to global sf—allows the author to scrutinize his subject productively. The introduction also provides the backgrounds of Satyajit Ray and Premendra Mitra, whose works the author explores in the rest of the book. This excellent introduction would have benefitted from a brief roadmap of the main chapters. That is, however, a minor concern. The three topical chapters “Laboratory Lives,” “The Use of Weapons,” and “Energy Matters” examine Mitra’s Ghanada series (1945-1988) and the stories of Professor Shanku (1961-1992) by Ray, both written in Bangla, within the above mentioned framework.
“Laboratory lives” tackles the matter at the heart of India’s technoscientific development—the scientific establishment, often signified by the image of the “laboratory.” Mukherjee emphasizes “laboratory” not only as a space enabling Suvinian “cognitive estrangement” in Indian sf, but also as a space of “wonder” in postcolonial social dynamics—a space that he rightly argues to be “modern temples” producing diverse bodies of knowledge (41). He further links “laboratory” with the view that India herself was a “laboratory state”—a new Utopian social experiment balancing its nationalist impulses with internationalist agendas. Mukherjee sees a reflection of these symptoms in the laboratories present in both the series mentioned above. His insightful analysis shows that while the more conventional laboratory of Professor Shanku (a scientist) directly foregrounds these debates over the ethics and politics of technoscientific inventions through his own inventions, Ghanada’s “laboratories” act as shifting signifiers. Ghanada primarily intervenes in scientific processes of other people and through such interventions creates significant ethical and political implications, which in many cases align with the post-war global order. Such positioning, according to Mukherjee, tests the limits of Nehru’s Non-Aligned Utopianism.
In “The uses of weapons,” Mukherjee turns to one of the central concerns of mid-century scientific and sf thinking—the relationship between technoscientific progress and the lethal potentials of such developments. By placing the question of national security and military advancement of the postcolonial Indian state within the context of Nehru’s professed aim of “peaceful” use of science, Mukherjee exposes the conundrums of the non-aligned political stance. He argues, however, that the comical and “bathetic” treatment of weapons in the writings of Mitra and Ray and a general lack of superweapons in the conventional sense differentiate Indian sf from its Cold War counterparts in the West (87). Rather, regular depiction of biological weapons or weaponization of nature and bioforms may reflect the unease of a postcolonial nation’s alignment with any major global political block.
The third chapter, “Energy Matters,” explores Ray’s and Mitra’s sf in the context of energy politics. Mukherjee here uses the principles of the energy humanities to examine the connections between sf and postcolonial India’s energy insecurity. He argues that India’s technoscientific ambitions faced their stiffest struggle against the global hegemonies in the bid to secure its energy needs and move from a primarily manpowered state to a modern mechanically powered economy. Such anxieties are reflected in the repeated association of energy extraction and imminent disaster in Mitra’s Ghanada stories, as well as in Ray’s handling of biological and conventional energy in the Shanku stories. Mukherjee’s keen analysis shows that in their narratives, Mitra and Ray do not solely focus on extraordinary energy concerns but on the function of energy in everyday life—from atomic energy, to electricity, to food—the concerns that drive a postcolonial nation. The author’s exploration of the boundary between the human and the non-human/robotic within this energy context remained a little confusing, however, although largely without disrupting the overarching arguments of the chapter.
The conclusion examines the “continuities and discontinuities” (150) among the works produced during the late non-aligned India after the death of Nehru, and those produced during its height. The author discusses the changing technoscientific concerns and policies of India and the relationship of such changes with sf—the effects of postmodern science and its affiliation with non-scientific approaches being a major issue. In this chapter, Mukherjee, along with studying the later works of Mitra and Ray, also analyzes works of Adrish Bardhan (Bangla), J.V. Narlikar (Marathi), and Vandana Singh (English). While Bardhan’s and Narlikar’s early works coincide with India’s non-aligned years, Singh provides a distinctly post-non-aligned pattern. The author indicates that, as both Narlikar and Singh are practicing scientists as well as authors of sf, their works give insight into an intriguing transition between the eras and into the effects of this transition on the relationship between technoscientific thinking and sf in India.
Final Frontiers is a meticulously researched and engagingly argued book that foregrounds an sf tradition largely unknown outside of South Asia. Yet the authors and works discussed here are hugely influential within their culture. Furthermore, India’s rise as a global power over the last 73 years has followed the trajectory of technoscientific advancements set during the non-aligned years. It was about time the relationship of this technoscience to its contemporary literary imagination received a comprehensive exploration. Final Frontiers performs this task commendably.—Suparno Banerjee, Texas State University
Full of Whoosh.
Palgrave Macmillan, Literary Lives, 2019. x+452 pp. $24.99 pbk. $19.99 ebk.
In this addition to Palgrave’s Literary Lives, the publisher notes: “The books in this series are thoroughly researched and comprehensive, covering the writer’s complete oeuvre” while exploring its contexts “in an accessible and engaging way” (ii). Adam Roberts is certainly as comprehensive and engaging as anyone could wish, dealing in accessible language with 93 of the 107 books that H.G. Wells published over his long writing career. Just to have read Wells’s entire oeuvre is an achievement of which few Wellsians can boast (I certainly cannot.) It must be like taking on a marathon hike lasting months during which the weather gradually worsens, the trail becomes ever more overgrown, and the scenery gets drabber.
In his Preface, Roberts explains why he undertook this daunting project. Like Wells, but a century later, he grew up on the Kentish periphery of London “a sickly, bookish youth” (viii) from an undistinguished background. Identification led to profound respect for Wells as a writer and “an equally genuine, if more conflicted, love for Wells the man” (ix). His passionate admiration for what he convincingly argues are Wells’s major achievements in almost every genre of prose fiction and non-fiction, and his qualified love for the small, ugly, bumptious, squeaky-voiced counter-jumper, whose personal behavior and public opinions still offend many people today, is evident everywhere in the book. Even if he cannot single-handedly restore Wells’s reputation or readmit him to the canon, Roberts does everything he can to register H.G.’s cultural influence on his time and to detail the benefits of reading widely in and about Wells.
That said, there is a negative aspect of this book that I must deal with up front, because after all I am reviewing it in a particular context, namely for a scholarly sf periodical. Though this is a literary biography, Roberts notes at the start that “I make no claims to have uncovered any new material about Wells’s actual life” (v). This implies, of course, that as the book’s biographical aspect is largely dependent on existing studies, then its net worth is to be found in its literary commentary. Yet while this commentary is always engaging, it is not scholarly.
Let me elaborate. Over the course of its 462 pages, Roberts does cite some of the major Wells biographical and critical studies. But consider: chapter 3 is entitled “Science Fiction” and deals with three works, The Time Machine (1895), The Wonderful Visit (1895), and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). Leaving aside for the moment two big generic questions raised by this grouping, let us look at the cited secondary sources for this chapter that, as is the practice in this volume, are listed in a Bibliography at the end of the chapter itself. There are only four entries in this chapter’s Bibliography, and only two—Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie’s 1973 biography of Wells and Leon Stover’s 1996 critical edition of The Time Machine—bear directly on the subject at hand. The generic questions that the chapter does not touch upon at all are: why is it now appropriate to discuss works of what Wells called scientific romance in a chapter entitled “Science Fiction”? And why is a reading of The Wonderful Visit, a gentle proto-magical realist fantasy, included in this “Science Fiction” chapter, while discussion of, say, The War of the Worlds (1898), must wait until the next chapter, headed “Bicycles and Tripods”? As readers of SFS know, the bulk of Wells criticism is on the scientific romances, so one would think that Roberts, as both an academic and an sf novelist, would take particular care to build on existing work in these chapters. Is he deliberately downplaying the importance of the scientific romances in Wells’s oeuvre, as the author himself did later in life? No, I do not think so. It is simply that Roberts’s book is not intended as a work of scholarship. It is an idiosyncratic set of personal ruminations about Wells’s life and writing.
Be that as it may, Roberts on Wells is always interesting, and he covers one aspect of Wellsian biography very well indeed, namely, the avowed importance of sex to H.G. He points out that “erotic frustration” (7) was a keynote of young Bertie’s personality, noting how “the realisation that fulfilling our desires displaces rather than satiates desire” was an insight that Wells “as he matured as a writer, would go on to explore with great imaginative richness” (18). He characterizes Wells as a man with unusual reserves of libidinal energy, what H.G. himself splendidly termed “whoosh” (148). He is, I think, right to insist that Wells’s “will-to-unconcealment” (163) in erotic matters is a key to both his personal ethos and his aesthetic.
The Coda to Roberts’s study is too short to do more than sketch Wells’s legacy in popular culture. I think that there is a study to be written about how much the current welter of too-much-information about the so-called private lives of celebrities owes to Wells as a writer “constitutionally disinclined to secrecy” (v). As for whether Wells was “highly sexed” (Roberts 7) or “merely normally sexed and only abnormally outspoken” (Wells 336), we shall never know, though it is Wells’s self-description that has an inarguable element. In respect to Roberts’s qualms about H.G.’s chronic infidelities to his wife Jane (362), all we can say is that Wells behaved as many husbands then did and as many husbands and wives still do, the significant difference being that he did not lie about what he was up to. We do not know what Jane really felt, but we do know that lies are generally to be deplored in intimate relationships and that H.G. and Jane stayed married until death did them part.
As for Roberts’s readings of the scientific romances, I found much to praise and much with which to disagree. I am not so convinced by Roberts’s view that the Time Traveller in The Time Machine (1895) has a pedophilic relationship with Weena (47); as the Eloi are no longer human, sex with Weena would involve bestiality. Moreover, Roberts’s derivation of “Eloi” from the plural of Greek ἢλὸς [ēlos] (46) is surely incorrect, as that very obscure word, unlikely to be known by Wells, means not “vain” or “useless” but “a barren spot”; it is ἠλε ς [ēleos] that means “vain.” As for the Sphinx and its riddles, there exists a large body of exegesis on this issue that Roberts ignores.
On the other hand, Roberts characterizes Griffin in The Invisible Man (1897) very well: “irascible, egotistical, at once petty-minded and grandiose” (65), a plausible description of a brilliant but flawed scientist. The Martians’ “ulla, ulla” in The War of the Worlds does indeed sound “quasi-Islamic” (68) and thus alien in this fin-de-siècle context. Might not Wells’s proximity to the Shah Jahan mosque in Woking where he wrote the novel underlie this particular sound? Given that the mosque briefly appears in the novel, it offers a likelier explanation than a gloss on Latin ullus (73). In a creative and appealing reading, Roberts proposes that the whole of The First Men in the Moon (1901) is “a novel about narratorial unreliability” that is touched with a profound “satirical levity” (95, 100). I have always found “The Door in the Wall” (1911) inexplicably haunting, and Roberts offers as good a reading of this fine story as I have come across: “one of the most affecting portraits of that palpable but indefinable sense of loss entailed by growing up—Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode in science-fictional form” (35).
Some of Roberts’s best passages concern Wells’s realist fiction. I enjoyed his description of The Wheels of Chance (1896) as “a bicycle premonition of Ballard’s Crash” (61). He praises Love and Mr. Lewisham (1900) for its youthful energy, its touching pathos, and, more surprisingly, for its “deliberate aesthetic structure and form” (86-87). He calls Kipps (1905) a masterpiece of the “comic-pathetic mimetic mode” (121), and presents it as a “very tightly constructed work of literary art” (125) unified by a major trope centered on the polysemous idea of “cutting” (127). Only when he then claims that Kipps is “a Tolstoyan novel” (132) does he overplay his hand. His proposal that the substance alluded to in the title Tono-Bungay (1909) is cocaine in its constipating aspect is ingenious. But unless his chapter on The History of Mr Polly (1910) is a satire on academic overinterpretation, its argument that Dante’s Inferno (1320) is the structuring principle of this novel is wildly over the top and far from clinched by its final point that Dante’s epic is “a comedy” (212). Yes it is, but only when taken as a whole; Inferno alone is definitely no laughing matter.
Roberts’s point that Wells in The World Set Free (1914) failed to anticipate how atomic bombs would actually work is interesting, though better is his useful distinction between “Entropy Wells” pre-1914 and “Radioactivity Wells” thereafter (236). I find his argument that Wells’s animus against Henry James in Boon (1915) was driven as much by “unconsidered homophobia” (251) as by aesthetic differences quite convincing. His analysis of The World of William Clissold (1926) contrasts that experimental epic novel with contemporaneous ones by Joyce and Proust (333-39) in a way that may be useful in determining the validity of Sarah Cole’s recent claim in Inventing Tomorrow: H.G. Wells and the Twentieth Century (2020) that Wells was a Modernist. After Roberts’s recommendation, I shall definitely read Christina Alberta’s Father (1925) and maybe even dip into The Bulpington of Blup (1932), though in return I would urge him to check out John Huntington’s 2006 edition of Star Begotten (1937), as I think this corrects persistent misreadings of this late sf novella.
On the non-fiction, Roberts is admirably forthright about condemning the “authoritarian, eugenicist and racist elements” (104) in Wells that first emerge strongly in Anticipations (1901) and that continue to tarnish later works, even if some critics have wished them away. Roberts’s explanation for Wells’s anti-semitism and racism takes into account “a writer’s sensibility” that creates worlds with a “wave of the authorial pen”: “We don’t, after all, put Agatha Christie and Harold Shipman in the same ethical basket” (109). True, but Agatha Christie never stridently lectured the world for 45 years about how to solve its sociopolitical deficiences. Roberts is, however, right to note that nationhood (if undefined) is the villain of The Outline of History (1920), and has been “the nursery of uncounted evils in human affairs” (311) even as nationalism today raises its ugly head against the tide of globalization. But I cannot agree that The Outline fails because it undertheorizes the nation state. Its account of world history in a cosmic context conduces toward the view of humanity as a single biological species in the same small planetary boat. Cultivating such a view is more urgent than ever in the unfolding disaster of the Anthropocene.
There is a further problem with this book that I must now raise. The manuscript has not been copyedited well, or perhaps at all. There are dozens of typos and far too many solecisms of the “dying” for “dyeing” (22), “discrete” for “discreet” (271), “lead” for “led” (288) variety. Some words are plain wrong: “excession” for “excess” (ix), “miniaturely” for “minutely” (151), “prodigality” for “prodigiousness” (153). We meet Ford Madox Heuffer (93), Christine Pankhurst (179), and Oswald Mosely (373). Unnecessary hyphens are placed between the two elements of phrasal verbs: [s/he] “reads-up” (193), “drops-in” (297), “escaped-from” (423).
Such flaws are sometimes more than irritating. Part of a discussion of The Dream (1924) reads, “Harry’s sister Fanny is ‘a conspicuously lovely girl’ runs away from home with is lover” (317). Amber Reeves is described as the father of one of Wells’s children (376). And such problems extend to the apparatus. On p. 11, someone with no forename called Harris is mentioned just before a long quotation from Experiment in Autobiography (1934) dealing with young Wells’s submission of an article to the Fortnightly Review. Most readers will identify this person as Frank Harris, the periodical’s notorious editor, but whoever compiled the Index did not; there the Harris reference is attributed to the critic Janice Harris. Many publishers currently employ poorly trained copyeditors and incompetent indexers, if they employ them at all. But the final responsibility for the integrity of the text is the author’s.
To reiterate: this is not a scholarly study but an account of a personal engagement with the oeuvre of a great writer who has fallen out of favor with the reading public for many reasons, one of which is that several of his masterworks were almost submerged under a flood of topical, polemical writing intended to have an immediate impact and a short shelf life. Roberts’s study, properly discriminating, always affectionate, and full of the “whoosh” that characterized its subject, will amuse, entertain, enlighten, baffle, and infuriate Wellsians, sometimes simultaneously.—Nicholas Ruddick, University of Regina
Academia, Fandom, and Philip K. Dick.
Philip K. Dick: Essays of the Here and Now. McFarland, 2020. 226 pp. $39.95 pbk.
In 1972 Willis E. McNelly, a professor at California State University, helped Philip K. Dick relocate to Fullerton, California. Dick remained there for the rest of his life and many of his later novels were directly inspired by his experiences there, including A Scanner Darkly (1977) and Radio Free Albemuth (1985). He was also frequently involved in campus activities, and he eventually left his manuscripts and papers to the special collections department of the university library. Thirty-five years later, another professor at CSU, David Sandner, sought to highlight Dick’s connections to the local area by creating a student project in a course on Digital Literary Studies. Students involved in this project created the website Philip K. Dick in the OC, which identified various locations in Orange County that were important in Dick’s life and work. Following the success of this project, Sandner was invited to host the 2016 Philip K. Dick Conference, whose theme was “Here and Now,” as it sought to emphasize Dick’s ties to Southern California as well as the continued relevance of his work today. This event was part academic conference and part fan convention, as it featured a series of scholarly presentations as well as informal talks given by friends and fans. The conference was also accompanied by a film series featuring adaptations of Dick’s works, two local art shows featuring pieces inspired by his works, and the release of two student-edited fanzines: Philip K. Dick in Orange County and The Aramchek Dispatch.
One result of these projects is Sandner’s new collection, Philip K. Dick: Essays of the Here and Now, and the hybrid nature of the conference is reflected in the hybrid nature of the book, which includes scholarly essays, oral histories, fan art, and excerpts from various zines. In the first part, for example, Ursula Heise’s “Philip K. Dick’s Futuristic Ecologies” analyzes the significance of Dick’s apocalyptic narratives within the context of the current climate crisis and the concept of the Anthropocene. Umberto Rossi’s “From Soft Totalitarianism to TV Introjection” analyzes the often ambiguous representations of television in Dick’s novels: he initially feared the device as an instrument of social control that promoted viewer passivity but later speculated that television realities might also have the potential to facilitate authentic experiences and even spiritual revelations. Richard Feist’s “Voices, Consciousness and the Bicameral Mind” focuses on the philosophical and scientific theories of consciousness that influenced the writing of A Scanner Darkly, including studies of split-brain phenomena developed by psychologists Robert E. Ornstein, Michael S. Gazzinaga, Joseph E. Bogen, and Julian Jaynes. Sean Matharoo’s “Ubik Does Not Yet Exist” employs the theories of French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux to explain how the psychedelic aspects of Ubik (1969) are linked to its critique of capitalism, as the unstable realities in the novel create the conditions of possibility for social and political change. Michael Kvamme-O’Brien’s “Evolving Dickian Criticism” examines Dick’s interest in French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and in particular how Dick used Chardin to explain his own visionary experiences as a process of spiritual evolution. Gabriel Cutrufello’s “Rereading Dick’s Mainstream Fiction Within a Science Fiction Framework” and Gregg Rickman’s “Philip K. Dick, the Earthshaker” also identify certain recurring themes that connect Dick’s sf novels to his neglected mainstream novels, such as the prevalence of simulated realities, entropic decline, and pattern recognition. These scholars thus describe Dick as an eclectic thinker whose works are worthy of serious critical attention due to their scientific, philosophical, and media-theoretical aspects.
Unlike the first part, the second part features transcripts of various informal talks and discussions with Dick’s friends and fans. For example, Jonathan Lethem’s contribution (a transcript of his keynote address) provides a personal account of the history of the Philip K. Dick Society—a fan organization dedicated to promoting Dick’s work, founded in Southern California by the famous rock critic Paul Williams, who also served as Dick’s literary executor for several years after his death in 1982. Lethem not only emphasizes the significance of fan efforts to promote Dick’s work at a time when his novels were almost entirely out of print, but he also explains their appeal to a younger generation through their associations with other countercultural phenomena, such as punk music and underground comix. Unlike the scholarly essays, therefore, Lethem’s oral history focuses primarily on the subcultural value of Dick’s works, and he even refers to this burgeoning fan community as “the Philip K. Dick subculture.” Several CSU alumni, including writers Tim Powers and James Blaylock, also describe their personal memories of Dick and the significance of Southern California in his life and work. This section also features an informal discussion of the film adaptations of Dick’s works with film scholars Daniel Gilbertson, Gary Westfahl, and Paul Sammon, who offer personal anecdotes about the difficulties of getting the films made, the ways in which the original works were distorted by the Hollywood production system, and the value of the films in helping to sustain and promote critical interest in Dick’s works. The appendix also includes various artworks and excerpts from student-edited fanzines, which similarly emphasize the subcultural aspects of Dick’s works and the importance of his ties to Southern California. The excerpts from zine editors Christine Granillo and Nicole Vandever even attempt to bridge the various strands of the conference by claiming that there is no inherent difference between academics and fans: “We are all AMATEURS, and ACADEMIA is a fancy word for FANDOM” (207).
Sandner’s collection thus provides a wide range of materials that will be of interest to both scholars and fans. Instead of integrating and assimilating these disparate contributions, however, the collection seems to reveal certain tensions between these reading communities. While the scholarly contributions make a strong case for the intellectual and literary value of his works—a project that Lethem refers to as the “gentrification of Philip K. Dick”—the fan contributions more often emphasize their subversive and subcultural values. And while Lethem asserts that this gentrification was only made possible through the efforts of an organized fan community, he also implies that mainstream literary recognition has the potential to weaken Dick’s status as a subcultural icon, just as the film adaptations often dilute the more radical and unusual aspects of their source material. Despite the claims of the zine editors, therefore, Sandner’s collection seems to show that readers are drawn to Dick’s works for a variety of reasons and that they do not necessarily share the same critical methods or interpretations.—Anthony Enns, Dalhousie University
U of Wales P, New Dimensions in Science Fiction, 2020. xiv+265 pp. £65/$90 hc.
Emerging from a conference at the University of Zurich on the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), Simon Spiegel, Andrea Reiter, and Marcy Goldberg’s edited collection Utopia and Reality fleshes out the possibility of a utopian documentary cinema. In their introduction, Reiter and Spiegel note a consensus among scholars: fiction films are unsuitable for depicting utopias—they lack exciting stories with melodramatic climaxes, so studios produce greater numbers of dystopian narratives (I will be the first to admit that I was on the edge of my seat during the climax of Snowpiercer  and that I teared up during The Road ). Undaunted, the editors of Utopia and Reality encouraged scholars to turn to documentary films to locate utopianism. Documentary films are suitable for utopian thinking because “utopias are not fiction proper” (2; emphasis in original). Utopian literature’s common goal is not to present “a political programme” nor develop a social organization “meant to be put into action” (2-3). Instead, in the interview that opens this collection, utopian-studies theorist Lyman Tower Sargent identifies a two-fold motive in utopian texts: “all utopias begin with disappointment ... the disappointment with reality” and they are shaped by the belief that “reality has to change” (17). For the editors and contributors of Utopia and Reality, then, “documentary film-making has been permeated by a utopian impulse from the start” (7).
Consisting of nine chapters, and the interview with Sargent, Utopia and Reality’s range of subject matter is impressive. Discussions of utopias often bookend the chapters, with detailed narrative and/or formal analyses of one or two documentaries in between. The results vary: a few chapters have strong through-lines in utopian studies, others adopt the idea of utopia as a framing device, and, at worst, a couple treat utopia as an afterthought. By the end of the book, I still wondered what the concept of utopia offered to film, media, and cultural studies, and how it might be more productive than other theoretical framings explored in the volume. It is perhaps a shortcoming of the concept of utopia that so many of the chapters require additional theoretical lenses to demonstrate their respective theses. This misfire aside, either on my part or by the contributors and editors, I found rich and original insights about the political potential of documentary cinema, particularly in contemporary forms that fall outside of the short and feature-film contexts.
Feature-length documentaries get the full treatment in the second section of the volume, “Alternative Documentary Practices,” so I will start there. In Chelsea Wessels’s contribution, her thesis applies to each of the three chapters in the section (adapted here for a more broadly construed argument):
Ultimately, I argue that [the films’ potential for viewer engagement does] ... not create a utopian non-fiction text but rather engage[s] with utopian goals by inviting the viewer into activism. The ... documentary does not depict utopia, but by offering models of resistance and collaboration in its production, formal features and distribution, the films suggest that a better world is possible. (169)
Wessel tackles two recent documentaries through the lenses of ecofeminism, social realism, and melodrama. Unfractured (2017) follows Sandra Steingraber’s fight against big oil and gas in New York and employs the melodramatic mode to tell her story. Melodrama, however, is less likely to activate spectators politically. On the other hand, the multiple narrative threads in Cheshire, Ohio (2016) about the titular town and its purchase by American Electric Power, alongside its open ending, urges viewers to consider communal responses to problems central to ecofeminism. To argue a similar point about documentary films, in her chapter Andrea Reiter explores two post-Yugoslavian documentaries about the fraught political history of that area. She mobilizes the term “prospectivity” to conceptualize the “rhetorical and aesthetic strategies in film ... to present a hopeful perspective and ... to initiate future-oriented thinking about positive social change” (140).
Matthew Holtmeier takes an aesthetic approach in his chapter on The Pearl Button (2015), a film interested in the relationship between water and the Selk’nam, an Indigenous tribe in Chile. Holtmeier adopts two frames: bioregionalism—defined as a way “of inhabiting the earth ... specific to the [region] in which one resides” (116) and “cosmovisions”—defined as film technologies capable of extending “beyond human perception by exploring the extra-human potentials of editing, cinematography, and sound” (117). The film engages critical utopianism through formal analyses of three interlinked displays of cosmovisions: 1) filmic palimpsests tell the history of the land and peoples; 2) superimpositions and aerial shots establish the plurality of life and waterways in Tierra del Fuego; 3) speculative images create “multi-scalar relationships” (133) between the cosmos and human bodies. Holtmeier concludes that bioregionalism (like ecofeminism and prospectivity) is utopian.
These chapters posit the utopian potential of their respective films and of their hypothetical spectators. They led me to ask the following questions: are all political documentaries “politically activating” (Reiter 158)? If so, do all political documentaries therefore have a utopian impulse? Based on the above analyses, I think we would be hard-pressed to find a film with utopian impulses that is not political or a political film that is not utopian.
After the opening interview with Sargent, the first part, “Tracing Utopia,” considers the differences between fact and fiction and asks whether their blurring opens a space for the politicized viewer. Susanna Layh demonstrates that Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) creates an ideal Soviet city while oscillating between “factuality and fictionality” (27), i.e., documenting everyday life caught unawares but also transforming that everyday life into an imagined construction of a single city (the film appears to present one city when, in fact, it includes footage from five different cities). The artificiality of Vertov’s work is not an issue, however, as Layh articulates how his film alienates viewers and calls them to reflect on contemporary Soviet life, new technologies, and the cinema itself as a place where “utopia literally comes to life” (40).
In Peter Seyferth’s contribution, utopia comes to life for a fictional Vancouver community. Seyferth details the mobilization of mockumentary for political ends in Made in Secret: The Story of the East Van Porn Collective (2004), a film about a feminist porn collective that agrees to screen publicly one of their otherwise private works exclusively for Made in Secret. Seyferth is less interested in pornography than he is in articulating how this fictional portrayal of a filmmaking team demonstrates “collective decision-making through consensus-oriented deliberation” (68). Made in Secret is thus a utopian endeavor as its status as a virtual entity attempts to seduce “recipients to develop similar virtuals into actuals” (70). The film is then a piece of “successful [anarchist] propaganda” (76).
Spiegel pursues the theme of propaganda further in his chapter on ISIS-produced online videos (adapted from his Bilder einer besseren Welt , reviewed by Seyferth in SFS 47.2 ). For Spiegel, the so-called caliphate’s videos are unique among utopian productions since they simultaneously depict an ideal state while demonstrating the achievements and existence of that very state. ISIS propaganda, unlike the politically activating films explored in the second part of Utopia and Reality, do not want “to make people actually do something, but rather to accept that things are already good the way they are [and] ... that the regime is taking care of everything” (95). The Structure of the Khilafah (2016) describes the organization of the Islamic state, thus resembling a classic literary utopia, while The Rise of Khilafah (2015) adopts Hollywood narrative conventions and VFX to introduce the currency of the state, the Gold Dinar, positioning the Gold Dinar as a political weapon against the West’s petrodollar system. Both films function as critiques of Western society and capitalism at the same time as they highlight the caliphate’s (fictional) strength.
The third part of the volume considers an expanded documentary cinema. The Urban-Think Tank (U-TT), an interdisciplinary design collective based in Zurich, investigates their filmmaking practices and thinking through “trans-utopia,” not a singular vision of an ideal reality, but “shared and co-created visions of reality that continuously emerge among individuals” (192). One such example is their film about Torre David, an abandoned 45-story structure in downtown Caracas, Venezuela, inhabited by squatters. The decentralized narrative of their film—influenced by Walter Ruttman’s Berlin (1927), a film influenced in turn by Vertov’s early works—helped the collective share not one vision of utopia, but many, as each squatter inhabited the building as they saw fit.
Instead of a trans-utopian ethos, Dale Hudson explores the “post-utopian” impulses of two student-made digital documentaries. Hudson describes the films as post-utopian to suggest their critical distance from the practice/field of utopianism, but I find this to be a rather unsatisfactory explanation. This aside, the interactive website of Lahore’s Landing (2015), depicting the unseen elements of the city as an effort to counter (Western) media’s images of Pakistan as a failing state, “embodies a kind of transnational millennial ethos of affecting change through interventions on a modest scale in localized iterations” (224). Local/regional utopianism runs throughout Utopia and Reality—perhaps an ideal mode of social/political organization is less a fiction than it is about collaborative efforts to change the status quo on a small scale. The local utopian impulses depicted in Lahore’s Landing, however, contrast with The Black Gold (2017), a data-driven website that details the economics of Norwegian oil. The site prioritizes “political concerns over formal preoccupations” and in doing so, “understands democracy not as a utopian goal, but as an aspirational responsibility” (231). The Black Gold becomes post-utopian in its pedagogical function—Norway, while far from a utopian state, could nevertheless serve as a model for other nations in the global transition to renewable sources of energy.
The highlight of the volume is Jane Gaines’s closing chapter. Although failing to engage utopian studies, her work connects with Layh’s chapter and with the political power of (early) documentary cinema and recording technologies to bring about social change. Gaines compares an early document of protest, Bonus March (1932)—a First World War Veterans march on Washington for the bonus promised by Congress—with the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, which was “kept alive online with images and testimony” (239). Gaines’s point of comparison is the embeddedness of both sets of filmmakers and activists. Bonus March’s cameraperson Sam Brody recalled shooting as an active participant in the march with his small camera and the Arab Spring video footage was immediately uploaded to social media for viewing and, with this immediacy, “effectively produce[d] the uprising as ongoing” (241). Gaines’s chapter also contests Western media’s coinage of the Arab Spring protests as a “social media revolution.” Gaines notes that while the uprisings received much attention, empirical data suggests the social media interest (hashtags, etc.) was largely from the West, not from Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia. Gaines thus concludes that social media activism and its potential powers to change the status quo remains open, unresolved, uncertain, and hopeful. Given this current collection, the future of documentary film studies is also hopeful.
A small point of contention is Utopia and Reality’s inclusion within the New Dimensions in Science Fiction series. While the titles of the other books in this series suggest that they reflect upon ongoing issues for sf studies, this volume is a bit out of place. The utopian impulses of documentary films and media urge transformations of the (diegetic) present through existing means, not through fictional or fantastic ones. I acknowledge the parallels between science fiction and utopian studies, but Utopia and Reality could have found a better home in a documentary cinema or media studies series. The volume would not pique an sf scholar’s or fan’s interest since there is no engagement with the genre (except for the brief mention of Blade Runner  as the U-TT discusses their architecture projects). With all the hats I wear as an interdisciplinary scholar, contract instructor, and consumer of films, media, and culture, Utopia and Reality best appealed to my interests in documentary cinema and activism, so scholars in those fields should take note. Chapters from this volume, such as the exceptional contributions by Spiegel and Gaines, could also supplement teaching in visual culture, media studies, journalism, and politics courses.—Troy Michael Bordun, University of Northern British Columbia/Trent University
Following the Thread.
New York: Hippocampus, 2019. 236 pp. $20 pbk.
In a fashion that is of a piece with its subject matter, Robert H. Waugh’s sprawling work, The Tragic Thread in Science Fiction,is driven and defined by the sense of wonder, curiosity, and vastness that has defined the genre itself. In this series of loosely connected and variously sized chapters, Waugh leans on his distinctive voice to drive the project, examining authors as diverse as Olaf Stapleton, William Gibson, and James Tiptree Jr.
This style, more than the titular thread of tragedy, unites the book’s chapters, bringing an interrogatory eye to the etymological, the mythological, and the genealogical. Waugh’s love of language shows both in his lush writing and in the subject of his argumentation. These essays continuously zero in on the Latin roots of names, tracing them back to the classical canon, and plumbing the implications of these various connections. This analytical style is made more impressive as it is supported by Waugh’s own translations of German and Latin texts. These threads are primarily tied together with Waugh’s associative structure, relying on the organic flow between ideas to drive the work forward. The effect, at times, is that of being at a dinner party whose host seems to have read and thought carefully about every book under the sun.
David Lindsay’s “A Voyage to Arcturus” (1920) receives the most attention, opening the book in a trilogy of essays examining its influence, influences, and language. Fritz Lieber also receives three essays but shares one of these with James Tiptree Jr. Olaf Stapleton and Arthur C. Clarke each receive two essays dealing with both their most famous and lesser known works. The collection is rounded out by one-off essays on Mervyn Peake, William Gibson, and H.P. Lovecraft. Often the precise thread of tragedy which the title promises is lost in the freewheeling tumble through diverse authors and, one could argue, genres, but the dinner party offers sumptuous food for thought, nonetheless, if particularly to those already considerably familiar with the subjects beforehand.
I said that the book’s composition reflects its subject and in no way is this truer than the feeling of academic time-travel. The book embodies the classical tradition of literary criticism, tracing cultural lineage from canonical texts, asking the big questions of philosophy and psychology, and looking for grounding aesthetic and artistic principles. The examination of sf through such a critical lens is particularly novel since the genre only really began to share the academic stage in the last decades of the twentieth century. And it is this gap that I believe Waugh’s book most substantially fills, establishing an anachronistic meeting of sf with the critical discourses that dominated just before the genre’s wider acceptance.
This convergence produces a number of pairings which will delight readers whose own eclectic reading matches Waugh’s: David Lindsay with Goethe’s drama, Olaf Stapleton with Petrarch’s poetry, Arthur C. Clarke with Matthew Arnold’s lyrics. Like fusion cuisine, it is often the most surprising of these combinations that provide the keenest insights and most compelling material. It is a rare pleasure to spend time thinking through T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922) alongside Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels (1946-1960). The chapter on Gibson is particularly satisfying in this way. Beginning with a quote from Wittgenstein and including extended references to the Christian Bible, Waugh makes surprising and evocative claims about Gibson’s religious inclinations and meditations on memory.
Looking at Waugh’s previously published work, it should come as no surprise that the essay on Lovecraft is another high point. Even though Waugh suggests that it serves as something of “an epilogue to the collection” (208), it is chock-full of its own insights and demonstrates both the scope of the project as a whole as well as an easy familiarity with Lovecraft studies. Waugh’s inclusion of supplementary materials such as letters and other correspondence add a welcome texture to his speculations on influence and intertextuality.
The same pleasures for the reader familiar with the diverse bibliography of the study become a liability for those unfamiliar. Because Waugh’s subjects span two centuries and continents and because the critical framework is not theoretically unified but rather a collection of diverse influences, readers will likely find sections of the book alienating. This alienation is compounded at times by the associative style which moves between ideas and relations rather than having a more systematic organization.
Most of the revelations are aesthetic and genealogical in nature. Waugh often argues the centrality of intertexts or influences and the formal aims and structures defining the texts. Readers looking for social commentary will find less to engage their attentions. Those who love studies such as Campbell’s divisive classic, Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), will likely find Waugh’s sweeping gestures compelling and familiar. Those with concerns about Campbell’s universalizing frameworks will see those same issues realized here. An argument could be made that Waugh’s homogenized view of the Western canon reproduces the problematic biases that motivated its reimagining in the twentieth century—lacking racial and gender diversity and flattening any difference between European values and other ways of meaning-making.
Insofar as Waugh’s book engages in advocacy, it does so in two ways. First, it champions a number of works largely ignored by sf criticism, let alone by the literary community more broadly: Stapleton, Lindsay, and Leiber receive sustained attention. Second, Waugh’s formalist treatment of these and other writers encourages us to appreciate and celebrate the artistic coherence and complexity of many works that, when they are examined, are seen primarily in terms of their ideas rather than their aesthetics, as sf seems so often to invite.
All told, Waugh’s book offers a rare opportunity to recognize and celebrate a number of neglected works and it brings a mode of criticism from which recent literary studies have moved away to more recognizable works.—Justin Cosner, University of Iowa
A Mixed and Mislabeled Bag.
McFarland, 2020. 290 pp. $55 pbk.
Interrogating the connections between the sf genre and the world-making/world-shaking implications of economics has always been a vital part of both sf and sf scholarship. Many of the foundational figures who have shaped sf criticism—Suvin, LeGuin, Russ, Haraway, Jameson, to name only a few—have put the relationship between economic systems and the speculative imagination at the center of their work. Since the 2008 financial crisis, in particular, there has been a new focus on economics in sf criticism. This effervescence of scholarship builds on and extends Marxist, post-Marxist, and “heterodox economic” critiques of late capitalism and thus of mainstream economic thought. Indeed, many of these recent studies dig deep into the arcane minutiae of contemporary finance, marketing, and management science discourse to reveal the inherent science-fictionality of economic world-making.
The time is ripe, then, for a measured and scholarly response from the partisans of orthodox economic doctrine. A volume of carefully reasoned essays which argue clearly and in good faith for the analytical power and social utility of mainstream economic approaches to the fantastic would be a welcome addition to this important conversation in the genre.
Science Fiction and the Dismal Science is not that volume. Ironically, those looking for careful analysis of economic themes in science fiction will get the least utility out of this book because, despite the claims made by the cover information and the editorial apparatus, only about a quarter (75/273 pages) of this book directly engages with economics in any substantive fashion—and much of that “dismal” material has serious issues that detract from its scholarly value. Underneath this economics-themed wrapper, though, is an eclectic collection of often fine essays, the accurate title for which is Proceedings of the 2018 George Slusser Conference on Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Those interested in Slusser’s work and legacy have the most to gain from this volume, which offers scholarly engagements with his ideas, hagiographic tributes from his collaborators, and two previously unpublished essays by Slusser himself. Of this wealth of Slusser-focused material (which, at 90 pages, makes up a third of the volume), two pieces stand out. The first is Joey Eschrich’s “Complicating the Frankenstein Barrier: Science Fiction Futures and Social Transformation.” In one of the best close readings of the volume, Eschrich explores Slusser’s model of the genre in which sf artists, much like Victor Frankenstein, are engaged in a “Promethean struggle, grappling with seemingly insurmountable obstacles to conjure up radical technological futures,” in order to “implant a wholly new idea into the heads of inventors and bring a technological problem from beyond the horizon into the field of vision” (35-36). But like Victor, Slusser laments, sf too often abandons its radical visions, fleeing back into the “wastes of some blank and mute present” (30).
While expressing appreciation for the scholarly breadth and rigor Slusser brings to bear in theorizing this barrier, Eschrich argues that the concept really only applies to “a certain kind of sf” exemplified by the transhumanist technorationalism of hard sf and classical cyberpunk (36). As is often the case in hard sf, Slusser sees humanity’s “inability to imagine a transcendent technological future [as] rooted in a Cartesian duality where pure, rational mind is held back by the flesh” (31), resulting in “a rational future forever held back by an atavistic present” (30). Thus Slusser’s “barrier argument focuses on disjunctive change” (36), demanding sf that is “truly different than our present: a disjuncture, a break with history” (30), rather than “merely our current sociopolitical and sociotechnical dramas dressed up in fanciful costumes” (31). As Eschrich argues, there is plenty of sf that is interested in exploring and extrapolating from the tensions of the present and the materiality of the body. Far from being a symbol of sf’s failure to face the future, Eschrich highlights how Shelley’s novel constructs “a near-future social order that values women’s voices, mitigates abuses based on social class, and centers community and conversation over trailblazing, perilous [technorational] ambition” (35). Eschrich’s piece is a timely reminder that, precisely because sf is such a vibrant and diverse genre, it contains “more than one kind of project” for engaging the future and so we need to theorize “multiple sets of goalposts” to fairly evaluate them (36).
The second standout is one of the unpublished Slusser pieces, “Father of the Strugatskys: The Origins of Russian Science Fiction.” Here Slusser provides an extended reading of Osip Senkovsky’s little-known The Fantastic Journeys of Baron Brambeus (1833). Slusser finds in the Journeys “a sense of what the particular Russian form of ‘science fantasy’ is and will remain, right down to the work of the Strugatskys” (151). In the course of Brambeus’s scientific journeys, “foreign enthusiasms and theories [are] put to the test of Nature.” The irrationality Sendovsky satirizes in both German idealism and French romanticism “shatters on hard facts and hard science,” even as “nature plays around,” surrounding the characters with “preposterous and yet uncanny synchronicities” (151). This tension between hard facts and puckish reality, Slusser argues, generates a “both-and form of logic” that characterizes Russian sf, where “knowledge is not purely a function of reason [but] is tied as well to endurance, to surviving the contradictions and paradoxes [of] a world where natural forces and social contexts interact and intermingle” to uncanny effect (153).
Slusser’s essay on The Fantastic Journeys is one of three excellent essays on non-Anglophone sf, the others being Stephen Potts’s “Looking Backwards: Soviet Utopianism and Post-Soviet Dystopias” and Lisa Raphals’s “Chinese Science Fiction and its Doubles.” Taken together, Slusser and Potts provide a compelling window into the evolution of Russian sf from 1833 to today. Raphals provides a similarly sweeping overview of Chinese sf from antiquity to the present, while also going into depth about the ways that indigenous Chinese systems of medicine, alchemy, and natural science have influenced the development of the genre in China. The coherence and continuity of this trio make it the strongest section in the volume.
The other notable non-Slusser-focused pieces are a bit of a grab bag. Gary K. Wolfe offers a new periodization of the genre, culminating in the present’s “Age of Perspective.” Ari Brin offers a brief but fascinating exploration of photography and surveillance in nineteenth-century sf. Co-editor Jonathan Alexander provides a nuanced look at Simulacon-3 and its film adaptations. While solid pieces on their own, there is little connection among their arguments or among their loose engagements with economic themes. The best parts of Alexander’s subtle essay, in fact, come when he argues that, “while compelling,” the prevailing “economic reading ... elides consideration of both aesthetic and sexual dimensions of the narrative” (63). Unfortunately, the strengths of Alexander’s piece—a concise, generous, and accurate survey of existing economic-focused scholarship, a nuanced consideration of its shortcomings and lacunae, and a carefully argued alternative reading backed up by textual evidence—highlight exactly what is lacking in most of the “dismal” material enshrouding the Proceedings.
These shortcomings are especially apparent in the general introduction meant to frame the volume. Many of the problems stem from the awkward conjunction signaled by the volume’s subtitle: “Essays on Economics in and of the Genre.” These are quite different questions and different registers of the term “economics.” That is not to say that bringing them together could not be productive, but this demands careful differentiation both between which sense the editors refer to every time they say “economics” and which senses of the term they are looking for when they canvas the primary and secondary works they discuss. Unfortunately, little such care is apparent here. Instead, the introduction tends to veer between senses or conflate them altogether. Part of this can be attributed to defining the scope of “economic” inquiry as widely as possible to fit the motley texts assembled here, but it is also clear that the editors’ own interests in the “economics of” were often in tension with their need to court readers’ interest in the “economics in.”
Exacerbating this lopsided editorial attention is the editors’ style of engagement with their primary and secondary sources, which is dismissive to the point of non-engagement and/or selective to the point of irrelevance. Broad claims staked on narrow evidence are pronounced as self-evident. To support the claims that sf—as a genre and a scholarly community—“rarely offered stimulating ideas about our economic futures” (3), because “science fiction has insufficiently addressed economic issues, or has done so only in a superficial manner” (5), the editors rely on a single representative: “The Rise of Dismal Science Fiction: To Understand our Economic System, We Need Speculative Stories,” a March 2018 Slate article by Annalee Newitz. But why select this 1300-word popular article, written for a non-sf audience, rather than one of her scholarly works on the subject? How representative is Newitz’s argument of the current conversations in the field? The editors give no answer to such questions. Instead, Newitz is chosen as the symbol of sf’s failure of vision for two reasons. The first is mundane: Newitz’s title uses the same “dismal” turn of phrase that editor Westfahl did in an earlier essay he cites here. The second reason, though, cuts to the heart of many of the problems here. What the editors define as “sufficient” and “stimulating” is “science fiction that would actually offer some specific ways to solve our problems, not merely make its readers better able to do that work themselves” (4). Against this standard, Newitz is derided for “lamely concluding that ‘maybe by confronting our problems in metaphors and thought experiments, we equip ourselves to solve them in the real world’” (4). This is, of course, the same “Frankenstein Barrier” logic Eschrich diagnoses later in the volume. Valorizing the prophetic, disjunctive aspect of sf becomes a way to disparage engagement with the present and the present’s lines of force, the social and structural network in which economics, like technology, makes meaning. The more one’s work examines the structural inequalities and messy materiality of the present—as left thinkers tend to do—the less “stimulating” your work becomes. Through this logic, the editors can condemn most contemporary sf writers and scholars working with economic matters as “lame” and “naïve” without having to substantively engage with them.
In several of the volume’s “dismal” entries, editors Westfahl and Benford invoke a kind of fundamentalist Gernsbackianism to justify this logic, but the devil can quote scripture too. Gernsback argues in “A New Sort of Magazine” (Amazing Stories [April 1926], online) that his new genre of “scientifiction” is uniquely suited to capture the ways that “our entire mode of living has changed with the present progress.” While Gernsback focuses on scientific progress, it is only through its entanglement with the emerging world-system of industrial capitalism that “science, through its various branches of mechanics, electricity, astronomy, etc, enters so intimately into all our lives.” In this language of intimacy and “mode[s] of living,” then, Gernsback signals that sf is interested not only in the future but also in the newly vertiginous present, not only in the material products of the new capitalist science but also in exploring the forms of subjectivity afforded by a system in which “everything solid melts into air.” From this perspective, Gernsback would agree with Eschrich that “social acuity is a marker of sf achievement.”
Unfortunately, the cavalier treatment of sources in the body of the volume taints one of its most interesting features, the “Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Works related to Science Fiction and Economics.” This 16-page section ambitiously attempts to “provide comprehensive listings” of both. On one hand, this is clearly a Sisyphean task, so gaps and omissions are inevitable. But the pattern of omission, particularly among the secondary sources, reveals a real ideological myopia. No listing for John Rieder’s Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System (2017)? SFRA award winners Sherryl Vint or Steven Shaviro? Not even something as “canonical” as Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future? Such blinkered perspective limits the usefulness of the Bibliography for serious scholars.
To conclude, while there are many excellent pieces in Science Fiction and the Dismal Science, on the titular subject of economics in sf this volume represents, at best, a conversation at the periphery of the field. To claim that economic issues are underrepresented and undertheorized in science fiction scholarship, one must ignore the last ten years of conferences of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts and of the Science Fiction Research Association, dismiss many fine articles published in SFS and elsewhere, and pretend that scholars like Rieder, Vint, Shaviro, Gerry Canavan, Rebekah Sheldon, David Higgins, etc., are not leaders in the field today, both theoretically and organizationally. Those interested in moving scholarship on economics in sf forward should look elsewhere.—Joshua Pearson, California State University, LA
U of Minnesota P, 2019. 106 pages. $7.95 pbk. $4.95 ebk.
Matthew Wolf-Meyer is a cultural anthropologist who also reads a lot of science fiction. This short book (published in Minnesota’s Forerunners series, which endeavors to present scholarship in more compact forms and for an extra-academic audience) is devoted to the parallels between anthropology and science fiction: “social theory and speculative fiction are two sides of the same coin” (5). Wolf-Meyer’s starting point is the awareness that most white middle-class educated professionals (including himself, together with a large percentage of his readers) tend to be stuck in “suburban provincialisms” (17) beyond which they (or we) find it difficult to think. Anthropology and science fiction are both products of white, Western, middle-class “complacency” (a word that appears a number of times in the text); but they both, at their best, represent efforts to overcome these constraints and to help to move us to “choose a different future” (12). We desperately need to “try to find something that disrupts the futures we have been given” (15).
Beyond this general need to imagine a more “sustainable, equitable world” (18) than the one to which our current social arrangements seem to be leading us, both social theory and science fiction can work as forms of model-building. They both endeavor to “imagine the rules that undergird a society and its human and more-than-human relationships” (5). This effort is sometimes problematic; whenever we encounter something genuinely new, the danger is that “its alienness, its unexpected potentials and actions will be translated into models, theories, and language that adhere in disciplines as they already exist” (11). But at their best, social theory and science fiction can model novel possibilities in ways that do not just reproduce and extend the present. It is hard to imagine the end of the world, for “the apocalypse is never singular; it is always multiple. In its multiplicity, the apocalypse is unimaginable” (4). But we can approach disaster by breaking it down into its components: “to imagine the apocalypse in its singular forms,” one at a time, might still help to “make plain possible ways forward—and how they build upon the past” (5). Theory for the World to Come exhorts its readers to “choose your future: throw in with what has been or try to find something that disrupts the futures we have been given” (15).
Wolf-Meyer also reminds us that “history lingers” (90); we cannot simply negate the influence of what has already happened. The United States today still bears the scars of slavery, upon which it was built. But the other side of this inheritance is our awareness that “history is suffused with contingency” (90). Nothing had to happen the way it actually did and the future is still open. We do not have to perpetuate the bad old ways that we have inherited, even if we cannot entirely escape their influence. Given the truth of radical contingency, “there are other ways to think of the world, to build social theory, to speculate about our futures, and to imagine, critically, the failures that North Atlantic traditions have precipitated” (9). Wolf-Meyer outlines “three forms of future historiography” that are enacted in works of speculative fiction: “intensification, extrapolation, and mutation” (19). These represent different modes of imagining the future. Extrapolation considers what might result from things going on in the same way as they do already: how will capitalism, for instance, if it is not sharply reformed, continue to deal with climate change? Intensification imagines “making a force unrelenting or an institution more total” (19): one of Wolf-Meyer’s examples is Paul Verhoeven’s original Robocop (1987), with its horrific vision of militarized policing and the ever-increasing “displacement of politics in favor of shareholder appeasement” (34). Mutation envisions radical change; it is “about surprise, about the unexpected, and how individuals and societies respond” (19).
I have gone into Wolf-Meyer’s theoretical presuppositions at such length because they establish the framework for what he accomplishes over the course of the book. Theory for the World to Come moves back and forth between autobiographical reflections and readings of works of speculative fiction. The book is grounded in the three major areas of the United States where Wolf-Meyer has lived for extended periods of time: Detroit, California, and upstate New York. Each of these places has its own social and cultural specificity and its own formations of political economy. Wolf-Meyer moves through these locations of personal memory and of shifts in the development of capitalism, and considers how his understanding of them has been modulated by science-fictional responses to them.
Growing up in the largely white suburbs surrounding Detroit, Wolf-Meyer recalls almost never going into the city itself: “the stories” his parents and other adults told him “painted the city as a barren, lawless, postapocalyptic landscape” (22), much like the one imagined in Robert Kirkman’s zombie comic and television series The Walking Dead. It was only later that Wolf-Meyer came to understand the history behind this situation: the racism that led to white flight to the suburbs and the relegation of the city itself to a mostly Black zone, impoverished, underfunded, and walled off from its surroundings. This racist history resonates in two opposed futuristic visions of Detroit: the dystopian nightmare of militarized policing and corporate dictatorship in Robocop and the flying-saucer utopianism and psychedelic body positivity of George Clinton’s classic Parliament-Funkadelic albums, recorded in Detroit in the 1970s and early 1980s. Wolf-Meyer also discusses two works that deal with the ways in which the industrial cores of Detroit and other Midwestern cities were affected by both automation and capital flight: Paul Schrader’s film Blue Collar (1978), which is not particularly science-fictional (though it does feature a scene of murder by robot), but which has a lot to say about class, race, and labor relations in Detroit; and Kurt Vonnegut’s prescient sf novel Player Piano (1952), which offers its own unusual slant on automation and life-work balance. Wolf-Meyer also contrasts these two visions with a much earlier work of proto-science-fiction, William Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890), which gives its own Victorian Marxist take on meaningful work as opposed to alienated labor.
Wolf-Meyer spent seven years teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the middle section of the book reflects on what it was like to live in an affluent suburban California bubble, where liberal sentiments coexist with rampant divisions of race and income and “where capitalism became intensified into property-interested libertarianism” (59). Wolf-Meyer goes into the ways that California has been shaped by dealings in real estate, as well as how these property relations are reflected upon by sf writers such as Kim Stanley Robinson (in his Three Californias trilogy [1984-1990]) and Octavia Butler (in her Parable series [1993-1998]). Both Robinson and Butler explore the seductive allure and the ultimate failure of what might be called the California ideology of affluent capitalism, and both of them explore the dilemmas of how hard it is to “think ourselves outside of capitalism.”
Wolf-Meyer has lived in Binghamton, New York, and has taught at the University of Binghampton since 2015, and this geographical locale provides the background for the final section of his book. Where northern California is defined by its Silicon Valley-led economy in hyperdrive, and hence is “a place where the future is something that people anticipate,” Binghampton is a permanently depressed post-industrial landscape, riddled with empty factories and water and ground pollution, and populated with “strip malls and big-box stores”: a place “where the future seems to never come” (70). In contrast to the apocalyptic and unpredictable dangers of earthquakes and fire in California, Binghamton is menaced by predictable yearly floods. Wolf-Meyer conceives the odd stasis of this location by drawing upon the classic television series The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), whose creator, Rod Serling, came from Binghamton, and the 1984 exploitation film C.H.U.D, with its urban cannibals as metaphors for environmental devastation.
The final chapters of Theory for the World to Come depart from autobiography to consider temporalities that extend beyond individual human lifespans. The penultimate chapter considers “the nihilism of deep time” in the work of Dougal Dixon, whose books imagine far futures of widespread posthuman mutations on the one hand and animal diversification after human extinction on the other. Despite the wild proliferation of bizarre forms in Dixon’s work, Wolf-Meyer discovers a dreary conservatism underlying it all. For Dixon, “regardless of what we do to learn from our mistakes, we are doomed to repeat them” (89). The ruthless laws of Darwinian evolution mean that human beings can never escape vicious predation; we are stuck forever with the alternative between total self-destruction and rigid self-limitation.
In contrast, in the final chapter of his book Wolf-Meyer looks at speculative works that consider the possible rectification of history. First he discusses Native American writer Stephen Graham Jones’s novel Ledfeather (2008), a meditation on the hauntings of deep history. Then he considers, at greater length, Orson Scott Card’s novel Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus (1997), a speculative effort at the rectification of history. Card uses the familiar science-fictional trope of time travel in order to propose an intervention that prevents the extermination of native peoples that followed Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas, and that further prevents the slavery and environmental devastation that resulted from European intervention. The chapter explores both the values and the limitations of Card’s radical conceit. Wolf-Meyer insists, with the help of this example, on the lesson that runs through the entire book:
Social theory in this speculative idiom is not just a game of “what if?” but a challenge to complacency and resignation. Not content to simply diagnose the problem that faces society, speculative fiction asks us to think about how it might be otherwise and what might be done to bring a better future into being. (100)
I hope that my summary of this volume gives a good sense of how much Wolf-Meyer accomplishes in the space of little more than thirty thousand words. Theory for the World to Come discusses a surprisingly broad variety of speculative works, framing their extrapolations, intensifications, and mutations in the context of the lived experience from which they depart, and upon which they retrospectively shed much light. The book is light on its feet, but weighty in its concerns. It is written in a straightforward and almost conversational style, but it addresses important questions about how we live, what histories we inherit, and how we might imagine futures different from the one to which neoliberal racialized capitalism endeavors to doom us. And by building bridges between science fiction and anthropology, Wolf-Meyer awakens the sense that there are many perspectives still unknown and still to explore beyond the categories in which we sometimes find ourselves trapped.—Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University.
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