BOOKS IN REVIEW
Whitechapel Gallery/ MIT, Documents of Contemporary Art, 2020. 240 pp. $24.95 pbk.
This volume, edited by Dan Byrne-Smith, is devoted to a recent intensification of sf inspirations and themes in the art world. The book collects some 50 excerpts from books, articles, and exhibition catalogues, drawing both from sf and contemporary arts scholarship. Some of these texts will likely be intimately familiar to readers of SFS: Byrne-Smith reproduces pages from Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979), and sf authors such as Margaret Atwood, Kim Stanley Robinson, and J.G Ballard appear alongside theoretical work from Jean Baudrillard, Donna Haraway, and Timothy Morton, among many others. Texts from arts scholarship largely discuss either the adoption of sf in artistic practices or use sf themes to engage critically with these contemporary artists. Aside from the editor’s introduction, only two of the texts are previously unpublished. The inclusion of these texts in a single volume, however, makes some of them more widely available than they were previously, especially those whose previous appearance was only in less accessible contexts, such as an exhibition catalogues or periodicals.
Including texts from such diverse registers and disciplinary perspectives makes any singular perspective or argument within the book untenable, nor is this Byrne-Smith’s intention; from the editor’s introduction onward, sf is presented as a broad range of sensibilities or forms of practice, rather than in any narrow sense. Byrne-Smith chooses texts that survey a vast field, preferring to reveal multiple ongoing dialogues between scholarship in sf and contemporary theory, and sf-like practices in contemporary art in a wide range of media—painting, photography, sculpture, video, and digital art. The openness with which Byrne-Smith treats sf and the ways in which these various authors treat artworks as sf may reveal new perspectives on already existing discussions in sf scholarship. The book is organized into four chapters, devoted, in turn, to cognitive estrangement, futures, the posthuman, and ecology. Like sf itself, the editorial intent is not to arrive at a specific definition for any of these four concepts. Rather they are used as locators around which individual articles are arranged and each chapter hosts significant, if fertile, disagreements.
The first chapter, entitled “Cognitive Estrangement” after Suvin’s influential definition of sf, is an effort to introduce the reader to the ongoing discourse on defining the genre, or not. It begins with Atwood’s disavowal of the title, recognizing at the outset the difficulty of definition. This is followed by a passage from Suvin and an elaboration of Suvinian cognitive estrangement from Sherryl Vint’s Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed (2014). All of these establish for Byrne-Smith a discussion of the sf genre that acknowledges the critical and analogical capacity for sf to relate to the author, artist, or viewer’s present circumstances.
Estrangement in this chapter is understood in more than one way. Sometimes, the estranged figure is the artist or author. Tom McCarthy writes as a “Martian agent,” recommending against the destruction of Earth in “Letting it Be: A Red Paper on Terrestrial Art” (42-50). Roger Luckhust describes Suzanne Treister’s long-running HEXEN project, in which the artist becomes a time traveler, inventing interventions in history to take an estranged position between her own familial history and the military industrial complex. Gweneth Schanks’s “Visualizing the Now” draws a parallel between Japanese Artist Mariko Mori and Japanese sf’s contact narratives, noting the island nation’s anxiety over alien contact and colonization in the nineteenth century. Schanks goes on to discuss the figuration of the body in Japanese anime and manga, noting that Mori often chooses to use her body as a site of estrangement, as augmented cyborg and alien/immigrant.
Other contributions in this chapter discuss the viewer’s estrangement from their present circumstances in modes perhaps more familiar to sf scholarship: Carrie Paterson’s “How to Build a Universe” reviews an exhibition of the same name at CCA’s Wattis institute, briefly describing the constellation of artists whose present-day practices reveal potential urban futures in San Francisco. Jan Tumlir discusses a group of artists working in LA whose imaginations of the future, of alien colonization, interplanetary travel, or time travel, of technological futurities and the posthuman, or of disaster are all somehow located in and estrange that city. Tumlir concludes that LA itself is already both pre- and post-historical, already an imaginary place in its “endless becoming” (71).
The chapter titled “Futures” records a conversation between J.G. Ballard and Eduardo Paolozzi, in which Ballard describes attending the “This is Tomorrow” exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956. The general impression of that exhibition, they agree, was that “the future was better, the past was worse” (114). This chapter soundly disavows that particular future. Instead Byrne-Smith includes Peio Aguirre’s essay on the semiotic ghosts of Gibson’s “Gernsback Continuum” (1981) and Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s declaration that the “future” is over (see After the Future ), before introducing the plurality of futures and senses of time that unfold from other more diverse global futurisms and their articulation in works of contemporary art.
Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu discusses circular African time in contrast to the western narrative of linear progress. Afrofuturism becomes a figure of alternative and more vibrant futures and a useful foil for now disparaged technoscientific modernities. Elizabeth C. Hamilton describes the image of the Afronaut, especially in diaspora artists Yinka Shonibare, Nick Cave, and Gerald Machona. For Hamilton, the image of the Afronaut becomes both an image of African futurities and a materialist, bodily technology for survival on earth “needed to engage the problems associated with immigration, exile, colonialism, and the attendant xenophobia and racism” (108). Benjamin Noys’s “Cyberpunk Phuturism,” with its self-admittedly kitsch anachronistic ring, identifies Detroit techno, particularly the work of Drexciya, as a critique of the capitalist accelerationism in cyberpunk. This genre, he writes, combined increasing speed, automation, and an aesthetic of mechanization with a longer history of disposable laboring bodies—particularly African American bodies—in Detroit.
The other anchor of this chapter is a piece from Ana Teixeira Pinto that differentiates early twentieth-century Italian Futurists from contemporary futurisms such as afrofuturism, sinofuturism, and Gulf Futurism—these “chrono-political acts” reclaim time, technology, and the future from “triumphalist” western imaginations (139). Taking up other global futurisms, Dawn Chan mentions several artists engaging in Asia-futurism to resist techno-orientalist fantasies, including Tokyo-based Chim-Pom and Ho Chi Min City/Los Angeles-based The Propeller Group. These artists’ increasing visibility in the art world helps to “rework clichés and to position futuristic constructions of Asian identity as original vantage points rather than responses to western fears” (138).
The “Posthumanism” chapter starts with several theoretical texts, including excerpts from Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles, and Rosi Braidotti. This is by far the shortest chapter, and largely relies on interpretations of the posthuman as expressing biological/technological hybridity—what Josh Klein’s 1992 excerpt in this volume explains as “technology changing what it means to be human” (178). Much work in the chapter seems to miss the core of the posthuman critique, focusing on the image of the cyborg and technological augmentation rather than a radical decentering of the human—with all its attendant potentials in relation to bodily autonomy, gender, sexuality, and species being. Jeffery Dietch’s enthusiastic discussion of the “construction site of the self” through body and brain-altering technologies (167) seems positively archaic, dealing as it does with the redefinition of bodies and body parts, fluid and fragmented space-times, and human/machine hybrids in a mode reminiscent of cyberpunk. Siân Ede writes about Eduardo Kac’s engineering of green fluorescent protein (GFP) into different animals, and compares this to the figuration of genetic engineering in fiction, drawing parallels to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) and Fay Weldon’s The Cloning of Joanna May (1989).
One of the final excerpts of the chapter does something to address the potential of a posthuman critique to decenter both western masculine humanism and the trope of human-technological hybridity; the essay by Francesca Ferrando aligns posthumanism with Afrofuturism, both of which recognize that “human” is not a neutral term and that it carries a history of privileges and exclusions on the basis of race and gender, among other categories. For Ferrando, the collage paintings of Kenya-born Wangechi Mutu use the figure of posthuman cyborgs to express the strength of African female subjects. Ferrando also relates Afrofuturism to Chicanafuturism in its potential for postcolonial, indigenous, and mestizaje discourse. One wonders whether Ted Chiang’s short fiction “The Great Silence” (2015), which closes the chapter on cognitive estrangement—it takes on the voice of a disappearing parrot species in the vicinity of Arecibo observatory—might be a better fit for this chapter on posthumanism, especially as it reveals subjectivities beyond a singular humanism.
The final chapter, “Ecologies,” presents some works that often figure in discussions of the environment in sf—especially what has come to be known as climate fiction. The chapter starts with Rachel Carson’s “A Fable for Tomorrow,” from Silent Spring (1962), and is followed by Helena Feder’s interview with Kim Stanley Robinson discussing how to think the future in the horizon of climate change and collective political action in his New York 2140 (2017). Cathy Lane writes about Mikhail Karikis’s No Ordinary Protest (2018), a project to engage a group of children in East London with the environmental issues raised by Ted Hughes’s novel The Iron Woman (1993). Lisa Garforth describes the “ecotopian” novels of Marge Piercy, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Ursula K. Le Guin, arguing that these works still provide a rich discursive framework with which to confront the sphere of environmental policy with more radical imaginations of ecological futurity. T.J. Demos, on the other hand, identifies a “state of crisis in terms of how ecology is addressed within the artistic realm” (202). He accuses the curators of the exhibition dOCUMENTA(13) (2012) of aestheticizing an sf “pop apocalypticism” (205), with very few works able to escape this image of doom. Demos points to The Otolith Group’s The Radiant (2012), which imagines futuristic gardens emerging from the “necropolitics” of radiation at Fukushima and, more especially, the Occupy tent city which operated on the front lawn of the exhibition building in a participatory and ecological manner, and without the admission costs of the elitist art fair inside.
So far, none of these texts does much to trouble the discourse around climate futures in science fiction. Jessica L. Horton and Janet Catherine Berlo remind us, however, that the “new” and “post” prefixes of new materialism and posthumanism are neither new nor post when viewed from a non-European perspective. They discuss four artists working from indigenous perspectives on ecology: Jimmie Durham, Rebecca Belmore, Will Wilson, and Jolene Rickard. Ama Josephine Budge and Angela Chan share a previously unpublished conversation which proceeds from West African and Chinese sf and their unique relationship to climate change and to queer and LGBTQ+ issues in this context. These, Chan argues, present a “lived reality”: not a single global catastrophe, but the “slower and ongoing devastation that vulnerable communities have already begun to face” (218). They describe how climate fiction is often whitewashed, too easily helping the reader within the contemporary geo-political order to identify as the victim, not the perpetrator of climate apocalypse.
SFS readers will be presented with a wide range of work that is somehow identifiably sf, but that has not been the subject of substantial scholarship within the field. As well as valuable discussions of non-western discourses in sf, this collection surely has the potential to invigorate already lively discussions around genre and media. One gets the sense, however, that the audience for this book is not the sf scholar, but rather the art critic looking to contextualize work in that field. The reader coming from sf studies will surely discover something new, as in fact I did, but will likely only encounter well-worn theoretical positions. It is the work in contemporary art itself and the discussions it provokes that are groundbreaking here; as many artists as have been included here, this reviewer can think of dozens more who could also be said to incorporate sf themes in their work. Perhaps it would have been better to leave some of the older theoretical texts aside, to collect their arguments in a more authoritative editorial position, and thereby leave more room for the thoughtful and compelling work emerging from contemporary art.—Joel P.W. Letkemann, Aarhus School of Architecture
Gylphi, 2019. x+281 pp. $29.99 pbk.
At first glance, the subject matter of Science Fiction and Catholicism might seem somewhat narrow or of decidedly niche appeal, but Jim Clarke has produced a thought-provoking study about the influence on sf of not only Catholicism but also spirituality in general. Many critics have commented on the ways in which sf and religion possess affinities, but there is also a distinct subgenre of Catholic-themed speculative fiction, some sympathetic or even written by adherents, others openly hostile, such as Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration (1976). This is a playful though hard-hitting counterfactual tale of the consequences of a successful Spanish Armada on Western history. Jim Clarke tackles these different approaches head on in an introduction entitled “The Contested Territories of Science Fiction and Catholicism” (1-27), noting that the “antagonism between sf and Christianity is partly explained by the fact that both religion and science seek to answer similar questions about existence and reality” (2). One result of these polarized viewpoints is that most scholarly criticism of religious-themed sf has been partisan and theological in nature or, at the other extreme, has been willfully or casually overlooked by those with little interest in spirituality. This book argues that such generic earmarking is not only lazy but also does considerable injustice to a fascinating and wide-ranging body of literature.
Perhaps the most popular identifiably Catholic-themed works are Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996) and its sequel, featuring a Jesuit linguist as its central character, and Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Cantos (1989-1997), in which an evolved Catholic Church plays a prominent role in a future intergalactic empire. Clarke turns his attention to both these series, particularly Russell’s, whose work he suggests is a “space age extension of the mistakes of previous eras” (173), mirroring Jesuit missions to the New World. He believes that Russell sees both positive and negative outcomes to human interference in the societies of planet Rakhat and, although not every reader will agree with his conclusions about these starkly bleak works, his analysis is anchored closely in the fiction here and elsewhere, one of the strengths of the book. Many of the lesser-known short stories and novels that form part of the study’s corpus invite reading or reacquaintance and Clarke is skilled in implicitly forwarding why we should take these contributions seriously. As is sometimes the case, Clarke points out when authors are mistaken about the finer (or more basic) points of theology and doctrine, as is the case with papal infallibity in Clifford Simak’s Project Pope (1981), though he remains indulgent at the license taken in some fictional worldbuilding. Clarke devotes a section to imaginings of robot papacies (61-124), announced in the study’s subtitle, using it as a prism for discussing Catholicism’s sometimes uneasy and often suspicious relationship with new technologies throughout the ages, and this section provides a useful summary of the Church’s evolving positions on issues such as bioethics and artificial intelligence via the neo-Platonist worldview of St. Augustine and the scholastic precision of St. Thomas Aquinas. The latter looms large in Anthony Boucher’s short story “The Quest for Saint Aquin” (1951). Clarke highlights the “coherent Thomism” of the robotic saint (91), who ends up committing suicide not out of despair but rather to best serve God by its own annihilation, while it also senses its potential to usurp humankind and is therefore obeying Asimov’s First Law (Asimov’s 1941 story “Reason,” later incorporated into I, Robot, is a significant intertextual reference).
A central thesis of this study is that sf takes special interest in Catholicism at those moments when it has particular outreach to the wider world, such as in the wake of the Second Vatican Council during the 1960s, which marked a watershed moment of social outreach on the part of a religion that had, until that point, largely excused itself from ecumenical endeavors and reveled in practices of difference such as abstinence from meat on Friday. Clarke similarly views the papacy of John Paul II (1978-2005) as a conservative rollback of the “cultural glastnost at work within Catholicism toward all things scientific” (107-8) that lasted from the end of Vatican II to the early 1980s. This rather polarized understanding of the period does not sufficiently take into account the counter-cultural appeal of an organization such as the Catholic Church. Detective fiction, which possesses so many affinities with sf, has long given unlikely—and at times unlikeable—detectives imbued with a novelty factor, such as Agatha Christie’s elderly Miss Marple, or the establishment outsider Hercule Poirot, or G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Catholic clergy feature in a surprising number of sf tales, since these celibate men belonging to a ritualistic religion are, at first glance, out of place in a genre so forward-facing. They are aliens in these imagined landscapes, and readers respond more positively to fringe figures such as Case in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) or Takeshi Kovacs in Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon series (2002-2005).
Clarke makes a convincing argument that Catholicism, or a mistaken grasp of the religion that he terms faux-Catholicism, has played the role of the Other for much of the history of sf, a trend that he links to the traditional anti-Catholicism of many Western countries. In this light, sf has functioned as a handy counter-narrative against which to push, replete with an arsenal of props. He tracks how the opening up of Catholicism in the 1960s, a process that Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) termed aggiornamento, letting light into a stuffy room, accidentally coincided with sf’s own house being opened up with the renewal brought by New Wave authors, a serendipitous moment in time that “facilitated a thaw in Catholic-sf relations” (251). As the book shows, this long-standing relationship has suffered more than its fair share of mutual misunderstandings but Clarke concludes that it has ultimately benefitted both parties, since the quest for truth and the desire to answer questions lie at the heart of both. There are some absences in the book, such as the sf output of Canadian writer and devout Catholic Derwin Mak or Emmanuel Pic’s La Station solitaire [The Solitary Station, 2012], about a priest abducted by aliens (Pic is a priest and psychologist), but Clarke is to be congratulated for delving into the relatively unexplored territory of sf and Catholicism and furnishing a readable and instructive volume that should interest anyone interested in the spiritual and philosophical questions evoked by sf.—Paul Scott, University of Kansas
Ray Bradbury, “Ray Bradbury,” and “RAY BRADBURY.”
U of Illinois P, 2020. xii+347 pp. $40 hc.
This volume completes the biography that began with Becoming Ray Bradbury (2013) and continued with Ray Bradbury Unbound (2014). It covers the period between 1971 and 2012, from the triumph of the Apollo space program to Bradbury’s death. Based on documentary research, contacts with the people who have authoritative information about major aspects of Bradbury’s career, and Eller’s many conversations with Bradbury himself, it is certain to be our generation’s definitive life of Bradbury. That said, note that the book is focused on Bradbury’s public life; family relations and personal issues are mentioned but not explored. Instead, Eller makes the justifiable decision to share as much information as he can about Bradbury’s last years as a beloved writer and public figure.
Disappointment shadows discussion of that first subject. Early in his career, when he was a young, uncertain writer with a wealth of hopes and fears to work through, Bradbury was driven to produce a cascade of stories that stretched the range of sf. Readers of Astounding might not exactly have welcomed subversive stories such as “Mars is Heaven!” (first published in Planet Stories, of all places, in 1948), but they could not deny their emotional power. By the time of Bradbury Beyond Apolllo, Bradbury was a much older writer, with his uncertainties comfortably subdued. In addition, he had chosen to direct most of his creative energy into dramatic performances, writing stage and screen plays. Consequently, as Eller remarks, “it remained to be seen how he could break out of the growing perception among his friends and publishers that his storytelling powers were now feeding lesser works in other genres” (50). His earlier books continued to sell steadily. Nevertheless, although The Halloween Tree was popular as a book (1972) and an animated television film (1993) and The Ray Bradbury Theater ran on television for four years (1985-86,1988-92), Bradbury’s last years are notable for story collections that mixed earlier works with more recent, less substantial pieces; for volumes of amiable, rather self-indulgent poetry; and for the trio of surrealist, autobiographical mystery novels, beginning with Death is a Lonely Business (1985), in which a Young Writer must come to terms with his fears and desires. Readers can find pleasures in these books, but as Eller describes the contents of one mingled collection, the older stories “served to fill the gaps in Bradbury’s storytelling history from a time when he was at the top of his game” (268).
Much of Bradbury Beyond Apollo, however, is about the ripples of positive influence from those early stories. When Bradbury was at the top of his game, he helped show other writers that emotion was not simply an enemy of rational thought that must be subdued (as it appears to be in in Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll” [Astounding 1940], for example). Rather, it is a vital force in human life, sometimes dangerous but sometimes nourishing. He helped encourage the writing of a larger, deeper sf. Among his readers, Bradbury did not offer detailed arguments in favor of space exploration but rather encouraged a childlike yearning for more. But the voracious readers of those early stories did not need a technological argument; the magazine stories that were assembled into The Martian Chronicles (1950), for example, infected their audience with Bradbury’s dream—and those readers included young people who would become engineers and astronauts working to achieve the dream of leaving Earth to explore the terrors and wonders of space.
Consequently, Bradbury became a talisman of America’s space program, mingling with the people actually taking steps off the planet and with the politicians and celebrities who supported the effort. Like many sf people, he was dismayed that the Apollo program ended with humans still stuck on Earth. As Eller chronicles, Bradbury spoke at innumerable events to boost public/governmental interest in space exploration. He was canny enough to point out how space research produced technology that benefited consumers back on Earth. Mainly, though, he tried to share his emotional yearning. He visualized human consciousness arising out of matter and striving to maintain itself in an uncaring universe, so that we must spread through the stars to survive and to validate our existence. And underlying it all was his certainty that such exploration was a fundamental human need: if adults wondered why we needed to go into space, they should ask their children.
Eller describes Bradbury’s publications sympathetically but with clear eyes. He gives credit for the projects that materialized—such as Bradbury’s part in the creation of the Spaceship Earth ride that is the heart of Epcot at Disney World—and explains how others fizzled. He is careful to show Bradbury’s limits as a public performer, but he also shows Bradbury’s awareness of the dangers of becoming a mere brand name: “I don’t want to act a role. I don’t want to become ‘RAY BRADBURY’” (200). Eller mildly comments that “He had, of course, become ‘RAY BRADBURY’ long ago” (200). Fair enough. Bradbury was no longer appealing merely to a genre audience; for many mainstream readers, he represented the pinnacle of accessible, emotionally satisfying sf. For example, he and Isaac Asimov were the only sf writers among the celebrities invited to a 1990 luncheon for Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, at which Raisa Gorbachev reminded her husband that “‘This is our daughter’s favorite writer!’” (185). So Bradbury earned the soft-focus fondness that eased his declining years. Eller notes approvingly that “It was always a point of quiet satisfaction that ... space pioneers all considered him a spiritual pathfinder as the Great Tale unfolded above the Earth” (230). Overall, this book makes an effective case for Bradbury’s literary and social significance.—Joe Sanders, Shadetree Scholar
Fictions of the Mind.
Science Fiction and Psychology. Liverpool UP, Science Fiction Texts and Studies, 2020. 281 pp. $120 hc.
Sinology has a phrase—waihang: Chinese for layman—that potentially absolves one of ignorance when asking a question at a public event. There is no real reason for not just saying layman in English, but prefacing a question with “I am just a waihang” is a good way to let your colleagues know you are one of them while implying amateur status, nodding at how impossibly big academic fields tend to be, and in the worst case, hopefully deflecting criticism if it turns out your question was just plain dumb. I began reading Gavin Miller’s Science Fiction and Psychology worried that I would be a waihang when it came to the intersection of sf and psychology. I was relieved to see that Miller had anticipated the fact that most of us are waihang when it comes to the deployment of psychological discourse in Anglophone science fiction. Identifying a paucity of work in this field, Miller’s work “aims to rectify that deficiency by investigating how science fiction has made use of ideas from five different psychological schools: evolutionary psychology; psychoanalysis; behaviorism and social constructionism; existential-humanism; and cognitivism” (1). Anticipating our collective outsider status, Miller introduces the basic tenets and history of these fields of psychology, except for psychoanalysis, assuming that this is the field most familiar to scholars of literary studies. As for the fictional works addressed, much of the material will be familiar to anyone who was an avid reader in high school or in undergraduate studies; works that are likely to be unfamiliar are adequately introduced.
Despite most readers’ general lack of familiarity with the field, Miller notes that psychology more broadly is one of the few scientific disciplines that is part of the liberal arts curriculum. Psychology 101 probably ticks off some General Education requirement or another on just about any major. The likelihood that we all took psychology as freshmen and forgot most of it, save perhaps for a smattering of Piaget, is reflective of the broader presence of psychology in popular culture. Psychological discourse is and was pervasive—present in almost all modern spaces—“factories, courtrooms, prisons, schoolrooms ... and urban spaces” (13), in the new logic of hygiene and in the knowledge industry. Whether we are conscious of it or not, psychological principles have been applied to our built environment, shaping the ways we interact with the world around us.
Of particular interest to Miller is the narrative role of the psychological novum. Paraphrasing and expanding upon Darko Suvin’s definition of sf, Miller’s study centers upon close readings of imagined and estranged mental processes. Borrowing from Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Miller notes how these fictional postulates are framed as scientific, lending them an air of authority, and bringing them under the umbrella of the sf mode, even in the absence of other technological nova. Across its various subdisciplines, Miller proposes five functions of psychology in sf: 1) the didactic-futurological; 2) the utopian; 3) the cognitive-estranging; 4) the metafictional; and 5) the reflexive. Psychology may function broadly in one or more of the following ways: as a heuristic tool for predicting future developments; as a means of imagining non-existent utopian or dystopian societies; as a means of presenting contemporary social realities in a new light so as to illuminate them in a way that encourages reconsideration; as a metafictional device for considering the origins and purpose of sf; and for illustrating or critiquing certain assumed psychological principles as understood by individuals or groups (20). Miller adds that “psychological science fiction may popularize psychology by weaving it into narratives of historical progress; it can accept or dispute psychological analyses of the genre of science fiction itself” (7).
Drawing upon Andrew Milner’s dating of the emergence of sf in the late nineteenth century, Miller notes that psychological discourse also took hold in the popular imagination at roughly the same time as a “pre-eminent technology of the human, and thus a significant interlocutor for science fiction as conceived by Milner” (8). “Psychology as a discipline and science fiction as a type” (13) emerge in the late nineteenth century. Much like sf, psychology has expanded and evolved in new and divergent ways over the course of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The sheer volume of psychological research has increased exponentially as its quality has intensified. Psychological discourse began as something akin to spiritism, but has moved into realms such as neuroscience. Miller’s study historicizes these developments, and their appearance in sf, ending at the blurry boundary line between psychology and neuroscience.
Chapter one, “Evolutionary Psychology,” presents a history and critique of the discipline before engaging in readings of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), among others. Deeply influenced by Darwinian thinking, evolutionary psychology understands human thought and behavior to have been shaped by adaptive mechanisms for evolutionary benefit. Of particular interest here is the question of social Darwinism, as many of these works concern themselves with whether future decadence can be warded off by exploiting evolutionary mechanisms. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos (1985) and Naomi Mitchinson’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962), Miller identifies two narrative alternatives to evolutionary psychology in the form of satirical subversion and the estrangement of our predominant ethical paradigms.
Chapter two, “Psychoanalytic Psychology,” is an examination of the “putatively scientific discourse” (82) of psychoanalytic psychology in sf. Works examined in this chapter include, among others, Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896)and The Croquet Player (1936), John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (1956), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Barry N. Malzberg’s The Remaking of Sigmund Freud (1985), and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest (1972). As the most familiar branch of psychology to most literary critics, Miller’s introduction to the sub-field of psychoanalysis is truncated in favor of an examination of how Friedrich Nietzsche, by way of Sigmund Freud, gave psychoanalysis its fascination with how modern civilization curbs human beings’ drive to satisfy primal instincts through displacement. Miller argues that 1984 and Brave New World are important for “thematizing the pessimism written into the hydraulic model of the mind” (42). This chapter also examines the role of Jungian archetypes as an alternative to Freudian theories of repression, examining how Le Guin’s novel metaphorizes the psycho-cultural terrain of the human mind. This chapter closes with a discussion of how other sf works reevaluate psychoanalysis and the ways in which they present psychoanalysis as a mode of investigation of the self.
“Behaviourism and Social Constructionism” are the focus of chapter three, in which Miller examines the notion that “the human organism [is] entirely controlled by its environment.... [B]ehaviourist psychology offers the self as a blank slate upon which the specialist can infallibly inscribe his or her preferred vision of society” (127). Driven by the notion that it is possible both to predict and control human behavior, behaviorism rejects the notion of introspection as a means of psychological explication, seeing human behavior as sets of predictable responses to repeated stimuli. Human nature is again understood as malleable and subject to shaping in the construction of utopian or dystopian societies. B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948), Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (1971), and William Sleator’s House of Stairs (1974) are central to Miller’s analysis in this chapter.
Chapter four, “Existential-humanistic Psychology,” explains that existential psychology emerged from a certain dissatisfaction with existing psychological schemas. In the eyes of existential psychologists, the human mind had been so fully misunderstood that psychologists had to question whether they really understood their patients at all. Proponents of existential psychology believed in what we might now refer to in the vernacular as “self-actualization,” a process by which individuals extracted their own personal thoughts and desires from the set of internalized thoughts and desires that had been imposed by their social context. (169) This is to some extent a case of libidinal liberation—neither channeling nor shaping the libido, but allowing individuals to discover their own desires. Works of fiction analyzed in this chapter include, among others, Vincent McHugh’s I Am Thinking of My Darling (1943), Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites (1967) and The Space Vampires (1976), Doris Lessing’s The Four Gated City (1969), and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976).
“Cognitive psychology” anchors Chapter five’s presentation of readings of works that focus on the metaphor of “mind as computer” (201). Miller notes that cognitive psychology has gained global acceptance as the preeminent psychological approach since its emergence in the 1960s (205). In readings of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955), Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 (1966), and Ted Chiang’s “The Story of your Life” (1998), Miller analyzes how language shapes cognition and perception in their storyworlds: how new languages allow new thoughts and how new grammatical patterns might permit human beings to re-pattern cognition.
In his concluding chapter, Miller sets up a chiasmus of sorts by closing his examination of psychology in science fiction with an examination of how the discourse of sf has permeated psychology. Of particular interest in this final section is Miller’s reading of Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiments in coercion, which under Miller’s scrutiny can be read as a science fiction of sorts, as an oft-repeated narrative about human nature robed in the discourse of science. Popular descriptions of the experiment omit or downplay the degree to which “doctors” in the experiment encouraged participants to administer progressively stronger shocks, eliding the role of authority and coercion in the experiment. The ethically and methodologically dubious experiment, whose true results are perennially miscategorized, can be read as a metanarrative of Cold War discourses of conformity and national decline, rather than as an empirical revelation of human cruelty.
Miller’s analysisfocuses entirely on prose narrative, and he notes that the exclusion of other media is merely a question of “disciplinary limitations” (2). This is the beginning of a lucid delineation of subject matter and analytic frame. Miller demonstrates that he is as conscious of what is not in the book as he is conscious of what is, and that this is the product of careful deliberation. He addresses whether sf and fantasy are useful distinctions, why he does not engage in author biography, and how his study may be at odds with psychology in the disciplinary lens of history. Miller also explains his decision not to engage in “prosopography,” or understanding psychological discourse in sf in terms of a social network of critical actors who both wrote and worked professionally as psychologists. The bulk of the texts selected are included for reasons of diversity, protracted engagement with psychology as a discipline, their overall merit as members of the selective tradition of sf, and finally the “intellectual excitement in the discovery of neglected psychological meanings within them” (11). Miller includes some texts that may have otherwise been eliminated on account of their objectionable escapist or sexist content, but that he deems worthy of analysis for their psychological content. The author eschews other forms of psychology that have wormed their way into fiction, such as the quackery of Dianetics. Miller maintains a laser focus on psychology and only psychology, avoiding the temptation to inject other theoretical models into his readings.
Science Fiction and Psychology is, in fact, almost as fascinating in terms of Miller’s chosen structure as it is in terms of actual content. There are no footnotes. I personally have internalized the notion that good writing is built on footnotes—they are a means of proving that you have done your homework and know your history—but Miller demonstrates thorough and careful scholarship without recourse to that tool. Footnotes are also a chance to work in all kinds of superfluous information that reminds people of what you know that, sadly, does not really fit the argument. There are no such divergences here: Miller’s work stays focused on the core argument, with no chance of descending into minutiae, errata, or apocrypha. This structure is a reflection of the careful and insightful scholarship Miller brings to bear on the subject. I highly recommend it for any waihang interested in a deeper understanding of the relationship between science fiction and the science of the mind.—Nathaniel Isaacson, North Carolina State University
Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. viii+214 pp. $120 hc, $35.96 pbk, $86.40 ebk.
This well-written and lucid book discusses speculative fiction that references the historical Holocaust through dystopias and alternative histories. Its title addresses one of two particularly common statements about the Holocaust—that it is unimaginable. The other is the cry “Never again!” As Glyn Morgan points out throughout his book, many have imagined it with varying degrees of success, both because it is impossible to forget and because genocides continue to occur. Nevertheless, the tone of Imagining the Unimaginable resists cynicism and instead is both sensitive to the reasons behind those statements as well as alert to the ways in which they are consistently challenged.
A number of years ago, I wrote of how alien contact sf often explores the horrors of the Holocaust through a link between genocide and Utopia and how alternate histories generally keep racism and genocide in the background, instead dealing with the rise of fascism (“Utopia, Genocide, and the Other” in Edging into the Future, ed. Hollinger and Gordon [U of Pennsylvania P, 2002], 204-16). Morgan’s concentration on dystopia and alternate history makes clear that “Dystopian and alternative history texts perform [a] delicate balance, remembering while not remembering too precisely, talking about the Holocaust without talking about it, tracing the edges of the trauma to give us some indication of its shape even if none of the details” (10). Thus, they imagine the unimaginable through what Georgio Agamben calls “the aporia of Auschwitz” (qtd. 10). As Morgan goes on to explain, these fictions “allow us to learn something about the Holocaust, to come closer to understanding it, while maintaining the Otherness (estrangement) which the topic insists upon” (13).
In addition to its Introduction and Conclusion, the book is divided into four chapters. The first chapter, “Precursors and Early Texts: Swastika Night (1937) and the Myth of Silence,” begins with two obvious mythic precursors, the vile Mein Kampf (1925) and the equally vile plagiarized forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), works that are as fantastic as any speculative fiction. Morgan then moves on to discussions of Katharine Burdekin’s novel, as well as a number of less well-known works from the 1950s that imagine a German victory, including John Wyndham’s posthumously published Plan for Chaos (1951; pub. 2009), Michael Young’s The Trial of Adolf Hitler (1944), C.S. Forster’s “The Wandering Gentile” (1954), C.M. Kornbluth’s “Two Dooms” (1958), and historian William L. Shirer’s speculative essay, “If Hitler Had Won World War II” (1961). These works recognize that although it became more widely explored after Eichmann’s capture in 1960 and subsequent trial, the genocidal Nazi project was by no means shrouded in silence before that time.
Chapter two, “Problematizing History: The Man in the High Castle (1962), Fatherland (1992) and Making History (1996),” focuses on the three named texts. Only Philip K. Dick’s novel is widely discussed but Morgan makes new and useful points about it and the other two novels. Of The Man in the High Castle, Morgan says that it “locates the Holocaust on a scale of comparable atrocity [suggesting] that it is not temporally inaccessible (it could happen again), nor set apart in brutality and scale (it could have been/could be worse)” (50). Using the novel and a quotation from a 1976 radio interview with PKD, Morgan makes the claim that Dick believed “that within every individual, or at least every group, there is still the capacity for fascistic behaviour,” behavior that is “undeniably evident in societies around the world since 1945 and right into the present day” (49). The two other works, Fatherland by Robert Harris and Making History by Stephen Fry, also “problematize the notion of absolute evil” (41). Harris, referring to such Soviet atrocities as the Katyn Massacre, places the Holocaust “within a continuity of horrific acts” in an alternative world in which Germany has conquered Europe and has a truce with the US. Fry’s time-travel novel also makes clear that anyone is capable of such atrocities, universalizing the possibility of genocide.
Chapter three, “The Damned and the Saved: The Boys from Brazil (1976), The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. (1981), Hope: A Tragedy (2012), and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007),” concerns novels that imagine a “diminished Holocaust” with nevertheless dystopian results, “demonstrating a level to which we might consider Anglo-Americans scarred, or culturally traumatized, by the Holocaust” (73). Or, I might add, culpable. Not only are there good discussions of Ira Levin’s thriller and Michael Chabon’s mainstream success, but also of the lesser known novels of George Steiner and Shalom Auslander that seem to deserve more attention in studies of the literature of the Holocaust. Tucked into the end of the chapter is discussion of a more recent novel that attempts “a level of subversion and displacement,” Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land (2018) (96).
The fourth chapter was quite chilling in the wake of the 6 January 2021 insurrection attempting to overthrow the US presidential election. “Reimagining Horror: The Plot Against America (2004), Farthing (2006), A Man Lies Dreaming (2014) and J (2014)” explores novels that demonstrate “the insidious creep of right-wing politics, the manner in which fascism can present itself as attractive to certain populations at certain times, and the realities of anti-Semitism and xenophobia” (102). Philip Roth’s Plot Against America and Jo Walton’s Farthing “were written in the wake of 9/11” and “warned against the dangers should such trends [as curtailment of freedoms for security] continue unchecked” (144). Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming and Howard Jacobson’s J, Morgan points out, given their depiction of “the far-right, anti-semitism and nationalist politics,” force us to see them “through the lens of the events in 2016, two years later, of the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom” (144). Morgan concludes the chapter by saying that the Holocaust “has become a set of dystopian tropes which we can readily recognize, adapt and reinterpret as context demands” (145).
The book’s Conclusion offers an appreciation of Lisa Goldstein’s The Red Magician (1982), along with a discussion of Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988) and Briar Rose (1992), all fantasies rather than science fiction, to support its declaration that “speculative fiction as a whole has an extensive set of tools with which we can approach a narration of the Holocaust’s impact in Anglo-American culture” (158). While, Morgan says, an author of speculative fiction may be tempted “to provide some manner of closure or redemption,” it is equally true that “mimetic fiction faces ... over-sentimentalizing the Holocaust, or over-sensationalizing the evil of individual perpetrators” (159). The tools of speculative fiction “seek to square the circle, unravelling the paradox [of the Holocaust’s unspeakability alongside its large body of texts] by dislocating the Other of the Holocaust to the Other of the non-mimetic through estrangement” (147-48).
I have not mentioned the Introduction, which I found more descriptive of content than substantive. Indeed, my only complaints about the book have to do with a certain vagueness in its theses, ideas which I might have expected to be laid out in the introductions and conclusions of chapters as well as of the book as a whole. The book certainly implies its theses but does not make them concrete on the page. I had to intuit the commonalities of each chapter to some extent, feeling the patterns more than seeing them. As an editor, I just have to say that the fourth chapter had a number of typographical errors. Nevertheless, readers will find this a thoughtful work, full of valuable insights about the texts discussed and a stimulus for thinking about how valuable the tools of sf are for imagining the unimaginable.—Joan Gordon, SFS
“We Live in Dystopian Times.”
Routledge, 2019. ix+230 pp. $160 hc, $48.95 pbk, $44.05 ebk.
The paraphrased quotation adopted as the title of this review bookends Stock’s Modern Dystopian Fiction and Political Thought. Echoing this sentiment, the adjective “dystopian” has perhaps never been more widely used to describe a period as in this contemporary moment. During a pandemic that poses new challenges and exposes previously existing systemic inequities, many have turned to science fiction and dystopian narratives to better understand present realities and anticipate future possibilities. Although published in 2019, in many ways this text feels as if it is written for this moment, offering dystopian narrative as a means through which we might navigate a turbulent world. Through a series of chronological examples from the first half of the twentieth century, Stock argues that dystopian narratives, when read within their historical and political contexts, function as political texts and can provide readers with political insights into specific moments in time. Conversely, as dystopian narratives are temporally situated within their historical moment, attention to context can support nuanced understandings of authorial intent. Stock takes this argument further, however, asserting that not only are dystopian texts informed by the political contexts in which they are conceived, but also that this process is reciprocal—dystopian texts also have the potential to inform political sensibility. Stock subsequently rehearses processes of analysis through which dystopian narratives can be viewed as important political resources for understanding complex pasts, presents, and futures.
He begins with an example from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, effectively illustrating the ubiquitous nature of “dystopia” in contemporary political and societal sensibility. He argues that the common use of the term “dystopia” in social discourse “suggests an unusually strong and productive relationship between a cultural genre and political life,” asserting that the “study of dystopian narratives may therefore help us to reach a richer and more nuanced view of politics, as well as achieving greater understanding of this literary genre” (2). Through framing dystopia as a political and politicized rhetorical structure, Stock establishes how he views dystopia while situating the genre both historically and within the broader umbrella of utopian studies. Particularly through rooting his exploration in the future-as-past narrative structure found in much dystopian writing of the early twentieth century, he makes a compelling case that there is hope in the political critiques of dystopian fiction. He argues that texts set in the future that look back on the present of the writer make space for negative exploration without foreclosing on the possibility that the future could be different than what is imagined or expected. The introduction provides a strong foundation for the text by tracing the ways dystopian narrative forms were used by authors to engage in political critique, imagine futures and futures-past, and push back against oppressive ideologies designed to foreclose future imaginaries.
Stock envisions his text as consisting of three informal parts organized chronologically—the first part explores texts from 1909-1932. In Chapter 1, “‘Troubles began quietly’: Tension of Emergence in E.M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops,’” he engages in a close reading of Forster’s 1909 short story through the influence of the social Darwinist discourse of the time, framed by historiographic notions of evolution, masculinity, queerness, class, and antisemitism. Through an analysis of Kuno as a queer Jewish character, Stock traces the ways in which he is represented as a “moral degenerate” who is nevertheless “strong, active and highly masculinized” (25); this is a significant political choice in an era characterized by concerns regarding evolutionary “degeneration.” In this world, the characters have limited physical strength, and live inside isolated underground pods; it is impossible any longer to survive on the Earth’s surface. By tracing connections between this particular conception of the future that Forster envisions and societal views at the time that the manual labor of the working class might lead to evolutionary degeneration, Stock illustrates how Forster used Kuno to critique views about strength, evolution, and class:
Using an ironic mode in which the social mores advocated by conservative commentators were followed to their terrible logical conclusion, Kuno becomes a vehicle for advocating a different path of social evolution: literature becomes a means for saying what cannot be said openly in public. Political debate without breaking social mores. (21)
While providing in-depth details about the historical context in which Forster wrote, Stock also reinforces the enduring importance of dystopia as a means of political critique in times hostile to non-normative ideas.
Chapter 2, “‘Libraries full of Kants’: Heretics, History and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We,” builds on the previous chapter by examining how dystopian texts engage critically with politics and culture. Stock provides an extensive summary of We (1924) and an equally thorough overview of Zamyatin’s turbulent engagement with Russian and international politics. He places Zamyatin’s work within the context of literary history, aesthetic thought, and Zamyatin’s own commitment to the figure of the heretic as a symbol of disruption emblematic of endless revolution. Placed in the context of Kantian beauty, Stock asserts that creativity and imagination are at the core of how Zamyatin engages in political critique, as the form of dystopian narrative is mobilized towards satirical representations of revolutionary imaginaries. In the final chapter of this section, “Experiments, with Sex and Drugs: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World,” Stock employs a similar structure by focusing primarily on a single text while concurrently exploring Huxley’s own engagement with cultural and political conversations and issues of the time. He situates the novel in literary modernism as well as in the “social, political, cultural and scientific debates of the early 1930s” (54), examining key issues such as liberal humanism, behaviorist psychology, and the necessity and role of happiness in society. In illustrating the connections between popular debate and text, Stock furthers his argument that dystopian narratives serve as mediators between imagined futures, authorial presents, and understandings of the past, especially in the early twentieth century.
Part two examines texts from the 1930s and 1940s, focusing largely on “lesser-known novels” that occupy “spaces in dystopia’s ‘fuzzy’ hinterlands” (13). In chapters 4 and 5, Stock expands the scope of what is considered dystopian through exploring texts that unconventionally employ symbol and allegory as part of politicized narrative discourses. The texts explored here are paired with the politically religious following of the Nazi party in Germany both leading up to and during the Second World War. Chapter 4, “‘It Has Happened to Europe Before but Never to Me’: Allegory and English Exceptionalism in 1930s Dystopias” explores the work of Margaret Storm Jameson and Rex Warner as “allegorical criticism.” Contrasting Warner’s The Wild Goose Chase (1937) and The Professor (1938) with Storm Jameson’s In the Second Year (1936), Stock examines the different ways allegorical criticism works across moral, political, and historical referential frameworks towards a critique of fascism within the dystopian genre. Stock employs a lengthy exploration of literary criticism in relation to allegory and hermeneutics to understand how dystopian allegorical texts engage with timely political issues. While pacing in this chapter is slow, he effectively illustrates the tensions between symbol and allegory in dystopia through this work. While Warner and Storm Jameson’s works differ in their ability to connect with a clear historical referent, Stock examines how both authors mobilize allegory towards a warning and critique of liberal inaction against fascism.
Chapter 5, “‘Nazism, Myth and the Pastoral in Katherine Burdekin’s Dystopian Fiction,” builds directly on the preceding chapter, exploring Burdekin’s writing through the frameworks of pastoral, allegory, and myth as a historiographic response to Nazism of the 1940s. Focusing primarily on Burdekin’s novel Swastika Night (1937), Stock examines how Burdekin tackles the rise of fascism and Nazi mythmaking by rooting her novel in mythologizing, depicting a far-future where Nazism has become a religion across the world, in order to interrogate the religious proliferation of Nazi ideology in her present. In part two, Stock highlights the roles that allegory, myth, and literary experimentation influenced by utopian and dystopian writing played in the interwar period in order to illustrate the relationship between dystopian narratives and the political turbulence imposed by the rise of Nazism.
Chapter 6, “Dystopia at Its Limits: The Second World War and History,” bridges parts two and three, and is distinct in its focus primarily on the Second World War and on how authors mobilized dystopia toward reflecting on myriad emergent and ongoing crises. On the difference between pre-war and Second World War dystopia, Stock summarizes:
if the allegorical and mythological future-set dystopias of the mid to late 1930s were often politically committed to change in the direction of national politics and international relations, then dystopian fictions produced during the war were more concerned with how the contemporary world might appear through a historical lens. (127)
He takes a different approach to this chapter by covering a range of texts spanning the 1940s, including Karin Boyle’s Kallocain (1940), Rex Warner’s The Aerodome (1940), Margaret Storm Jameson’s Then We Shall Hear Singing: A Fantasy in C Major (1942), and Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (1948). Rather than providing an in-depth examination of the relationship between a singular text and a moment in time, he instead explores the aforementioned texts in order to capture conversations around loss, identity, and historical upheaval. This chapter accordingly has a more substantial conclusion than prior chapters, effectively functioning as a bridge that captures distinct eras of literary work, while tracing how authors during the war specifically used dystopian narratives to navigate social and historical identities in processes of transformation.
Part three explores George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the work of John Wyndham in the context of postwar fears and the nuclear anxieties of the Cold War. Chapter 7, “Bodies and Nobodies: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four” importantly begins by acknowledging the enduring cultural impact that Orwell’s 1949 novel had on public and social discourse surrounding issues of government, power, and surveillance in contemporary contexts. Significantly, this is one of the few instances in the text where the contemporary impact of narratives from this era is directly addressed. Similar in approach to previous chapters, Stock traces Orwell’s political and intellectual influences, and intersperses summary of the text with an unpacking of the ‘future-history’ Orwell constructs between his present and the future of the novel. While Orwell’s text is distinctly dystopian, Stock places emphasis on the Newspeak appendix as an indication that Orwell was hopeful about a future different from the one he imagined, a mixture of “satire, social commentary and critiques of a variety of political ideologies as well as a warning about the future” (173; emphasis in original). The final full chapter, “‘Life in All its Forms is Strife’: The Cold War Nuclear Threat and John Wyndham’s Pessimistic Liberal Utopianism,” expands on the increasing mixture of dystopian pessimism with utopian impulse through an exploration of Wyndham’s postwar work. Stock analyzes Wyndham’s writing as representative of prevalent fears and anxieties characteristic of this era, notably with regards to nuclear anxieties, McCarthyist nationalism, technological change, and fears of societal collapse. Stock engages in a historically rooted analysis of Wyndham’s Cold War era work that effectively affirms his overarching argument that dystopian texts are most productively analyzed through the historical contexts in which they were conceived.
Throughout Modern Dystopian Fiction and Political Thought, Adam Stock offers compelling historical examples that illustrate the political and hermeneutic potential of dystopia as a literary genre. His argument is layered throughout, with each chapter offering distinct interpretations of relationships between text and historical moment, while contributing to the assertion that dystopian narratives ought to be read as political commentary. Apart from the occasional reference to other chapters, each chapter can be read productively in isolation, although each would benefit from a more substantial conclusion to link back to the overarching arguments of the text. Each chapter contains a great deal of historical detail, and the text as a whole makes an important contribution to modernist literary and historical scholarship. This text is not for a general audience, however, or even necessarily for those seeking to explore dystopian genre conventions. While Stock convincingly argues that dystopian texts be viewed as political commentary, he does less to illustrate the ways in which dystopia, in turn, influences political life. Significantly, Stock also does little to bring his modernist analysis forward and does not significantly address his assertion that we “live in dystopian times” (206). Accordingly, his conclusion does not necessarily map the patterns he teases out of the modernist era onto the present; it does, however, signal an important next step towards constructing meaning through dystopian narratives amid the turbulence in which we find ourselves. In this regard, Stock’s text offers us a wonderful place to start.—Brittany Tomin, York University
Shaping the Future.
U of Minnesota P, 2020. 271 pp. $112 hc, $28 pbk.
Phillip E. Wegner’s Invoking Hope: Theory and Utopia in Dark Times consists of seven chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion; the first three chapters are collected as “Reading Theory” and the remaining four chapters are collected as “Reading Utopia.” Some of this material has been previously published “and thus should be understood as responses to events unfolding” (14). Three events are notable for providing the book its locus: first, Wegner participated in several celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516); second, that same year was the centenary of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale (1916), a text that helped make possible “one of the most significant intellectual events of the century: the emergence of the interdisciplinary discursive practice named theory” (17); and finally, the “global tsunami of right populism, culminating in the election as U.S. president of an unqualified, unprepared, and deeply unstable real estate mogul and reality television personality” (23). This was followed only a year later by the V-Dem Annual Democracy Report’s conclusion that “autocratization is now manifesting in a number of large countries including Brazil, India, Russia, Turkey, and the United States” and that the United States in particular “is now significantly less democratic in 2017 than it was in 2007” (qtd. in Wegner 23). As a result, Invoking Hope is an immensely valuable collection in pushing back against current populist trends, and by paraphrasing David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and drawing upon Bertolt Brecht, Wegner's invocation of hope teaches us that “a life spent shaping a world we want ‘those born after’ to inherit, and not the one we fear they shall inherit, is truly a ‘life worth the living’” (27).
The first three chapters are organized around what Wegner calls “some of the most significant axioms” (117) for the collection. “Reading the Event” takes as its foundation the work of Alain Badiou and defines an “event” as “the emergence of an unexpected and radically new way of operating in the specific condition of the science of reading” (49). “Toward Non-reading Utopia”focuses on “non-reading” as a relationship to texts that
stresses the deep, active creativity involved in all reading of, as well all talking and writing about, books. This notion thus shifts our attention away from the impossible goal of giving an accurate account of the singular truth of a book—that is, the fantasy of an objective, disinterested reading—and toward a heightened awareness of the specific and local aims and interests we always have in mind, consciously or not, when we engage in any particular activity of non-reading. (75)
In “Beyond Ethical Reading; or, Reading Again the James-Wells Debate,” Wegner uses the twenty-year debate between Henry James and H.G. Wells to explore “post-ethical criticism, a criticism that
engages in critique, fully acknowledging both the productivity and limitations of earlier practices, tarrying or lingering with them, before proceeding to articulate the axioms or absolute presuppositions of an alternative critical reading strategy, which it then proceeds to demonstrate in action. (102)
The second half of Invoking Hope offers a more dedicated focus on specific texts to focus on “four interrelated evental genres” (25-26)—i.e., modernist inversions of realist genres: the “universal history” (“John Brown, W.E B. Du Bois, and Universal History”), the Künstlerroman (“Politics, Art, and Utopia in ‘Babette’s Feast’”), the comedy of remarriage (“Repetition, Love, and Concrete Utopia in 50 First Dates”), and science fiction (“Conditions of Utopia in 2312 and The Best of all Possible Worlds”). In so doing, Wegner exhibits admirable, insightful, and theory-rich analyses (or “non-readings”) of Du Bois’s John Brown (1909), Isak Denison’s “Babette’s Feast” (1958; film adaptation 1987), and the film 50 First Dates (Peter Segal, 2004), repeatedly foregrounding the texts’ utopian through-line and the work necessary for societal and personal transformation. For example, Wegner concludes that Du Bois’s John Brown, a biography of the abolitionist (1800-1859), “removes the veils, the appearances constructed by the presuppositions and formal demands of national histories, be they liberal or conservative, that mask the global and universal aspects of the struggles underway as much in Brown’s moment as in our own” (141). As a result, in the twenty-first century John Brown continues to make evident that “the universal system or structural violence of racial division and economic exploitation, of which the institution was a particular manifestation, remains in place” (141). Having successfully defended 50 First Dates as worthy of critical interrogation despite (or because of) its pop-culture appeal, Wegner concludes that the film, in its “labor of concrete [as opposed to abstract] utopian figuration,” becomes significant “for anyone interested in the problem of how we too, as clever primates, might live life otherwise and thereby become truly human subjects” (186).
As the final evental genre, science fiction is the focus for the last chapter and is likely of the greatest interest to SFS’s audience; at least it was to me. Turning his focus to Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (2012) and Karen Lord’s The Best of all Possible Worlds (2013), as well Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888), Wegner uses these texts to make the valuable argument that
utopia was never the end of history, but rather only its beginning. In the face of the posthistorical malaise of postmodern, late, or global neoliberal capitalism, or the eras of the Global Minotaur or Trumpism or whatever can be said to follow it … it is only in utopia that the possibility of an authentic event, of the truly new, can make its tiger’s leap into our world. (206)
It is without a doubt an uplifting end to the collection, although I personally wished for greater attention to sf throughout the book, but that is clearly my academic and personal bias, one I suspect other readers of SFS will share and that may shape the book’s audience. Wegner also differentiates “the more specific practices of the evental genre of science fiction … and those of the utopia proper” (196). The former, in Wegner’s analysis, “centers on events, or what [Ernst] Bloch and [Darko] Suvin refer to as Novum, that occur specifically in the material condition of science—even, or especially, when these have consequences for the larger social and cultural whole” (196). On the other hand, “the totalizing formal drive of the utopian narrative requires that it figure possible events in all four conditions [art, science, politics, and love] before it can come to a satisfactory conclusion. In Bloch’s and Suvin’s terms, utopia thus marks the shift from the Novum to the Ultimum” (196). I suspect (and expect) diverse critical responses to this Novum vs. Ultimum differentiation, which helps both to fuel the ongoing relevance of Wegner’s work and to feed into the simmering friction in some corners between the “sf versus utopia” academic camps; nevertheless, Invoking Hope proves a valuable addition to both (intersecting) disciplines, although less so to sf studies.
A strength of the collection is certainly Wegner’s ability deftly to navigate diverse critical-theoretical disciplines to frame his argumentation, with Badiou, Fredric Jameson, and A.J. Greimas’s semiotic square dominating the scholarship. Wegner engages in impressive work and weaves in references to culturally familiar texts—e.g., David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (2014) and Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day (1993)—both to unpack the theory and make it applicable to diverse social contexts. Nevertheless, there are times when a closer interrogation of the theorists is needed, such as when Wegner quotes Badiou’s differentiation between “love” and “friendship” that on its very face reveals that the French theorist has a very narrow understanding of human relationships. This then complicates, if not undercuts, Wegner’s argument vis-à-vis love’s political power. In addition, Wegner generally assumes his readers are well-versed in theory—at one point he writes “I am confident that most readers will be familiar with two of the New Criticism’s most influential early essays, ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ and ‘The Affective Fallacy,’ coauthored by the literary scholar W.K. Wimsatt Jr. and the aesthetic philosopher Monroe C. Beardsley” (43)—so the book as a whole is not for the theoretical faint of heart and may not be particularly welcoming to novice readers. Nonetheless, there are both uplifting (vis-à-vis the ability to think about the future) and despairing (vis-à-vis our contemporary moment) gems that will be accessible to any reader. For example, while reading Invoking Hope, I was also involved in redesigning a series of courses at my home institution that includes revisiting and rewriting Learning Outcomes through the imposed (and problematic) schema of Harold Bloom’s taxonomy. Wegner uses Badiou’s hypertranslation of Plato’s The Republic to argue that “The system of education advocated by Socrates, like that of the New Critical practice of close reading, is one very much oriented more toward collective political than individual economic goods” (56). He contrasts this with contemporary transformations of post-secondary education “into an economic good” (25), arguing that the function of learning outcomes is to introduce “a raft of new programs aimed to make students immediately employable” or to rebrand and reorient “existing studies to tout their economic relevance” (55). Naturally, this struck a little too close to home, as I am sure it will for a significant portion of readers who likewise work as educators in an increasingly corporatized education sector.
Wegner ends Invoking Hope by turning to a comparison of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) and the 2012 adaptation directed by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer. In acknowledging the aesthetic (and financial) decisions that inform an adaptation, Wegner writes that by “eschewing the guarantees of success offered in the film, Mitchell relocates utopia elsewhere, into our actions in the present” (214). Yet the film cannot be discounted because it “offers a thrilling example of utopian romanticism, an optimism of the intellect that aims to encourage an optimism of the will to act to realize such a world” (215). Frankly, in a global climate that is defined by “proliferating pessimisms” (207) and a 2016 US election that was “the beginning of the nightmare from which we have not yet awoke” (54), optimism is needed now more than ever. In this vein, Igniting Hope repeatedly reminded me of Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan’s Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination (2003), a collection that emerged in the aftermath of the 9/11 event. In my SFS review of that earlier book, I argued that Moylan and Baccolini were actively working “to kick at the dystopian darkness until it bleeds the daylight of [u]topia” (SFS 32 [Mar. 2005]: 188). I recycle the same imagery to describe Wegner’s Invoking Hope: it too is kicking the darkness until it bleeds the daylight of utopia and, in so doing, ends with an uplifting (and very welcome) message that should appeal to everyone: “utopia is never no-where, an imagined perfected future, but in fact always already potentially exists in the concrete now-here, in our collective fidelity to the project of making a world we so desire rather than a world we fear” (218).—Graham J. Murphy, Seneca College
Liverpool UP, 2020. 263 pp. $120 hc.
Early in Futuristic Cars and Space Bicycles, Jeremy Withers briefly gives his book a third protagonist—the pedestrian. The presence of humans without vehicles in public spaces is implied by the book’s subtitle, Contesting the Road in American Science Fiction: foot traffic (including traffic using wheelchairs) forms a visible and significant part of the daily migration patterns in towns and cities, both now and before the advent of either the bicycle or the automobile. Before then, public thoroughfares were, as Withers puts it, “socially constructed as commons” for all to traverse freely at their own pace (31). In the past century, the streets once held in common have become arenas where people are relegated to the role of spectators in a combat between machines—a combination road rally and demolition derby that invites its sidewalk-bound onlookers to take sides and cheer for a winner.
Withers is not shy about declaring his preference for the bicycle: this allegiance can hardly come as a shock to readers of SFS who have read his article “Bicycles Across the Galaxy: Attacking Automobility in 1950s Science Fiction” (44.3 ). An expanded version of this article serves as the centerpiece of Futuristic Cars and Space Bicycles. At the same time, it pumps up the volume on Withers’s cheerleading, as evidenced by its new title—“Murderous Cars, Space Bikes, and Alien Bicycles in the Golden Age.” Readers who can tune out the toned-up rhetoric in this chapter will find it easier to appreciate one of Withers’s real strengths: his flair for finding bicycles parked in entertaining and unlikely out-of-the-way locales in sf. The Twilight Zone-ish creepiness of Avram Davidson’s story “Or All the Seas with Oysters” (1958), with its repair shop full of sentient and possibly malevolent bicycles, deserves further investigation as part of a study of sf’s conversion of familiar inanimate objects into threatening life forms. Likewise, the pedal-powered spaceship of Poul Anderson’s “A Bicycle Built for Brew” (1958) is a tempting starting point for a survey of works that lampoon the ridiculous excesses of the Gyro Gearloose-style kludging practiced by sf’s lesser heroes and authors.
Even so, the rhetoric is never far from these bits of detective work, and it has a tendency to produce one-sided interpretations of the source material. Withers’s analysis of Robert Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones (1952) is one example of this. While it is valid to view the bicycles used by the titular Stone family during their planet-hopping peregrinations as “associated with efficiency, versatility and suitability” (81), the fact remains that these bicycles are being carted around the Solar System in a spaceship. Like the bicycles on the back rack of a gas-guzzling Winnebago, the Stones’ bikes can just as easily and productively be seen as emblems of privilege and self-entitlement as they can be seen as symbols of sustainability and individuality.
The “on the other hand …” that is never addressed about The Rolling Stones is also absent from an otherwise intriguing look at the place of the bicycle in sf from the 1980s up to the present day. In order to countervail what he sees as the institutionalized infantilization of bicycle culture, Withers recruits children, adolescents, and young adults as the bicycle’s supporting cast in this final section of his book. As castmates, these youngsters may not be as temperamental as the evil cars and drivers in works such as the comic book series Paper Girls (2015-19), Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009), or Benjamin Parzybok’s Sherwood Nation (2014), but that does not make them any less problematic. In an effort to preserve the bicycle’s moral high ground, Withers overlooks the iniquity of the bike riders in the post-climate change dystopias of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century sf. For instance, the initial impulse to do some form of unspecified “good” may earn the Guevara-esque protagonists of Sherwood Nation a degree of sympathy; the Maoist terror tactics they employ both before and after their two-wheeled Cultural Revolution deserve closer and perhaps less sympathetic scrutiny.
Another question left unanswered by this examination of climate change sf is how bicycles can be seen as anything other than a temporary mode of transport down the path to a truly sustainable world. Everything involved in the manufacture and maintenance of a bicycle depends on the industrialized world’s planet-pulverizing methods of resource extraction, from the metal and/or polymers of its frame to the petrochemicals used to lubricate it to the synthetic rubber and leather used in its tires and seat. An authentically climate-friendly utopia would more than likely leave the world’s last rusted bicycle in the ditch, as more practicable and proven modes of transport and haulage drawn by horses, oxen, and other beasts of burden pass it by.
It is interesting that Withers never makes this particular intuitive connection, because the obsolescence of the bicycle is imbricated in Futuristic Cars and Space Bicycles’ first, and best, chapter. “Perfectibility and Techno-Optimism in the Pulp Era” contrasts two themes in sf between the World Wars: in one, the car is savior of civilization, in the other, its destroyer. The two thematic strands are neatly enmeshed in a short story that serves as the fulcrum of the chapter’s argument and that provides Withers’s book with its cover illustration. George McLociard’s “The Terror of the Streets” (1929) augments a paradox that has bedeviled many a non-sf story featuring a car chase: to combat the lethal lawlessness of motorists, an inventor takes to the road in a hyper-souped-up four-wheeled juggernaut, on a mission to destroy every other car in sight.
The only thing on two wheels capable of pursuing McLociard’s “Terror” is a motorcycle, which highlights what Withers identifies as the relative invisibility of bicycles in sf between the end of World War I and the 1950s. For all that, however, one wonders if there are some references to the bicycle in sf during this period that Withers has overlooked. It is hard to believe that the six-day bicycle race craze of the 1920s and 1930s would not have attracted at least one pulp-era sf author to pen an allegory of its gladiatorial excesses. This is not the only relevant historical question that Futuristic Cars and Space Bicycles leaves unexamined. During its introduction, which treats readers to such mechanical marvels as the Rube-Goldberg-meets-Wile-E.-Coyote jitney in Frank R. Stockton’s “The Tricycle of the Future” (1885), I turned page after page in vain hoping to see a connection made between proto-sf’s enthusiasm for tinkering cyclists and the real-world exploits of a pair of bicycle mechanics named Wright. In addition, the apparently untrammeled power of the automobile which turned it into a terror of the streets was put to the test by World War II-era speed limits and restrictions on fuel and tire purchases. What effects might all this have had on the contours of the sf published during this crucial half-decade in modern history?
One possible effect is that it might have temporarily put the brakes on dystopic sf’s invocation of the automobile as an instrument of rage-based violence and a perpetuator of economic, racial, and gender inequality. Sf’s warnings about the pathological aspects of car culture get a thorough working-over in Futuristic Cars and Space Bicycles: in fact, they are so well worked-over that one cannot help but wish that they had been the topic of a volume devoted exclusively to them. As it stands in Withers’s two-pronged monograph, the automobile often comes across as less the subject of a scholarly investigation than a defendant on trial in a kangaroo court. While the case against cars, bolstered by accident statistics, is damning, not all of sf has issued the kind of summary conviction implied by Withers. As well, the automobile’s equivocal history in sf has also included non-wheeled forms of transportation that function as ideological analogues to cars. A truly balanced interrogation of the place of automotive travel in all forms of sf culture has to account for thinly disguised and ambivalent portrayals of life behind the wheel, such as the traffic-jammed skyways in The Jetsons and other similar light fare.
To turn the trial of the automobile into a criminal matter would require a change of venue, however. Withers’s account makes it a civil suit, with the bicycle as the plaintiff. As advocate for the bicycle, Withers bases his case on the standard motherhood issues: bicycles encourage self-reliance and physical fitness, take up less space, and are emission-free. All of that is well and fine, but the potential virtues of a technology do not automatically bestow virtue on its users. Withers’ pro-bicycle stance is slightly too partisan and unquestioning, and it has a tendency to affect his tone, which frequently makes the reader feel like a leg-weary child getting scolded for leaving their bike at school and accepting a ride home in a friend’s car.
One piece of recent sf that might have provided a useful counterpoint within Withers’s overall argument is the Black Mirror episode, “15 Million Merits” (2011), which proposes a dystopic near-future where the bicycle is the motive force for subjugation rather than liberation. This story, with its banks of perpetually pedaled stationary bicycles powering the infrastructure of a bleakly hedonistic consumer culture, acts as a reminder that not all uses of technology are equally virtuous for all. This in turn reveals where Futuristic Cars and Space Bicycles sorely misses its largely absent third character. In between drives or rides, the motorist or the cyclist becomes a pedestrian: this person’s impulses for good or evil while in control of any vehicle are generally not so very different from the ones that govern them on foot.—Rick Cousins, Trent University.
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