Science Fiction Studies

#145 = Volume 48, Part 3 = November 2021


Listen to Mad Souls.

Jayna Brown. Black Utopias: Speculative Life and the Music of Other Worlds. Duke UP, 2021. ix+212 pp. $99.95 hc, $25.95 pbk.

Jayna Brown’s Black Utopias: Speculative Life and the Music of Other Worlds is an innovative interdisciplinary text that brilliantly uncovers a rich current of radical otherworldly utopianism within Black life, thought, and expressive culture. She argues that the eclectic dreaming and practice of Black thinkers, itinerant preachers, musicians, and prophets provide an alternative ontology of being that works against prevailing concepts of liberation, progress, futurity, and personhood. In the vein of recent monographs such as Kara Keeling’s Queer Times, Black Futures (2019) and Zakiyah Jackson’s Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (2020), Jayna Brown turns to speculative fiction and practice as a primary archive through which to query the Western human and the ways that Black imagination destabilizes and exceeds its logics. But Brown departs from any attempts, including those of foundational critical-humanist theorist Sylvia Wynter, to recoup the human. Rather, she focuses on how “black mystics and mad souls” who believed that they were “chosen” to lead others into “alternative dimensions of existence” have envisioned ways of being that are completely outside of the human (11). Incorporating and contributing to Black studies, feminist studies, philosophy, science studies, music criticism, and sf studies, Brown’s text advances a more critical interrogation of the radical potentialities (and problematics) of texts often gathered under the rubric of Afrofuturism.

Deftly combining archival methods, critical theory, science studies, and literary and music criticism, Black Utopias assembles thinkers and creators such as Sojourner Truth, Sun-Ra, Alice Coltrane, Octavia Butler, and Samuel R. Delany within a tradition of dreaming beyond this “bleak and bloody dimension we are taught to call reality” (2). By claiming this diverse archive as speculative practice, Brown challenges the masculinism and linearity of Afrofuturism and Afrofuturism studies (16). Rather than Afrofuturism, she uses the language of utopia to describe the kinds of thought and practice that she traces—a term that resists the notions of class, progress, and heteronormativity that are often bound up with concepts of futurity. Rather, she prioritizes “possibilities for coeval otherworlds that instead require a complete break with time as we know it” (15). Throughout the study she explicates under-examined or misread dimensions of her subjects, warning against practices of selective memory in scholarship that minimize troubling aspects of intellectual and cultural producers’ lives and work in order to recoup them within fields’ and audiences’ political imperatives. Rather, she unflinchingly engages in problematics, tensions, and contradictions, gleaning important insights from an assembly of complex and sometimes contradictory voices in sf, scientific, and utopian thought.

Black Utopias is divided into three parts with two chapters each: “Ecstasy,” “Evolution,” and “Sense and Matter.” The first chapter, “Along the Psychic Highway: Black Women Mystics and Utopias of the Ecstatic,” reads the lives, travels, thought, and practice of nineteenth-century Black female spiritualists and mystics Sojourner Truth, Jarena Lee, Zilpha Elaw, and Rebecca Cox Jackson within a tradition of Black speculation and utopianism that cannot be siloed off from the radical utopian and spiritual movements of the nineteenth century. Brown argues that Black female mystics enacted a “spiritual theater” of preaching, worship, dreams, and visions to achieve, if briefly, states of ecstasy that suspend the boundaries among time, selves, and materiality. This ecstatic practice produces a “collective sense of self” that refuses liberal-humanist discourses of personhood and natural rights (25). This chapter does the urgent, paradigm-shifting work of recouping Sojourner Truth from the popular but false image of an always-old, Southern, long-suffering, faithfully Christian suffragist. Critically examining Truth’s involvement in communal and sexually radical utopian experiments and her complex relationship to the whites she lived among for much of her life, Brown probes the aspects of Truth’s life that are not easily enlisted in the politics of Black liberation or feminism that seek to claim her.

In the second chapter, “Lovely Sky Boat: Alice Coltrane and the Metaphysics of Sound,” Brown places Coltrane in the company of Black female mystics such as Truth, Lee, and Jackson. Where the latter moved in and out of the countercultural religious movements of the nineteenth century, Coltrane, who eventually takes the name Turiyasangitananda, turned to Eastern traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism to achieve transcendent states of consciousness in both life and music. Again explicating the problematic tendencies of retrospective histories in the lack of attention given to Coltrane—jazz criticism has ignored her in its emphasis upon charismatic men, while feminist jazz studies have dismissed her choice of a “feminine” instrument and her devotion to her husband’s style—Brown interprets Coltrane’s reticence and devotion as a purposeful obfuscation of self in favor of collaborative creative vision, frustrating the liberal-humanist (and masculinist) discourse of individual artistic genius that permeates music scholarship. Brown insists that Coltrane’s reclusiveness and her spiritual and artistic eclecticism signal “African American refusal to exist according to the normative terms that excluded them in the first place” (65).

Part Two, “Evolution,” focuses on the intersections of humanist and species discourse, considering the potential and pitfalls of biological malleability as a method of moving past the human. In Chapter Three, “Our Place is Among the Stars: Octavia Butler and the Preservation of Species,” Brown reads Lauren Olamina, the fictional protagonist of Butler’s Parable books (1993-1998), as an itinerant mystic in the same tradition as Sojourner Truth, Rebecca Cox Jackson, and Alice Coltrane. Brown argues that while Olamina’s self-created religion Earthseed offers an expansive, materialist, fluid theory of being, the character’s rigid investment in humanism inhibits Earthseed’s radical capacity. Delving clear-eyed into Butler’s archive, Brown identifies ongoing preoccupations with biological essentialism, speciesm, heterosexism, and Western humanism that frustrate impulses towards “liberating change” and “cooperative relationalities” (89, 97). Through this pivotal reading of Butler, Brown continues her intervention into selective scholarly and popular memory as it fails to engage with the problematics and contradictions of beloved thinkers and creators.

Chapter Four, “Speculative Life: Utopia Without the Human,” builds on Chapter Three’s discussion of the conflict between humanism and transformation. Brown argues that when potentially radical ideas of human plasticity fail to disengage from ideas of human exceptionalism, they may lead to violent eugenic speculation (116). Pushing past the boundaries of Sylvia Wynter’s call for “new genres of the human” in “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom” (CR: The New Centennial Review 3.3 [Fall 2003]: 257-337), Brown interrogates the urge to be any genre of human (Brown 111). Revealing the “hierarchies of sentience,” a retention of human exceptionalism even in the radical philosophy of Wynter, Brown offers that shedding the human is a way out of the epistemological traps that pervade science and sf writing. Brown argues that those constructed as already outside of the human and so least likely to benefit from its preservation, are best positioned to offer possibilities for less violent, more embedded social and material worlds (112). Engaging Sylvia Wynter, Julian Huxley, H.G. Wells, and Samuel R. Delany, this remarkable chapter retains sharp clarity and logical flow as it moves through a diverse array of science thinkers and creators. Such assemblages challenge the ways in which shared conversations are often inhibited by institutional boundaries of race, genre, and field.

Part Three, “Sense and Matter,” is loosely organized around Black utopian practice that foregrounds the senses. Chapter Five, “In the Realm of the Senses: Heterotopias of Subjectivity, Desire, and Discourse,” is a close reading of the utopic visions in Delany’s Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (1976) next to Charles Fourier’s Oeuvres complétes de Charles Fourier (written 1808+, published 1966-1968). Brown argues that both texts depict utopias founded on the fulfillment of physical desire ordered by detailed and fixed categorization, but that Delany’s novel is a satirical critique of planned utopia or any kind of fixedness of body and desire. She argues that the failures of heterotopia in Triton enact a call to depart from hierarchies of sentience and selfhood in which humans, due to their capacity for language, are elevated above other beings; they attempt to use language to “fix” identity and desire in place. Brown argues that “Ultimately, discourse, either insufficient or proliferating, cannot encompass the sensing flesh. Desire is embedded in the visceral, composed of a decentralized relationality” (153). The final chapter, “The Freedom Not to Be: Sun Ra’s Alternative Ontology,” pursues a vibrant example of personhood untethered from stability and transparency through the philosophical and aural work of Sun Ra. Brown demonstrates how Sun Ra’s extraterrestrial utopianism rejects membership in the human and all associated discourses of rights and inclusion. This chapter is an important study of Sun Ra, who is frequently identified as a key figure in Afrofuturism but is rarely engaged deeply and critically as a theorist and philosopher of the movement.

The conclusion remarks upon sf’s current materialist and ecological turn, “away from anthropocentric fears and fantasies of technological triumph toward envisioning new modes of being as organic entities embedded within larger ecologies” (177). This shift actualizes Brown’s call through Black Utopias for the consideration of broad forms of speculation as an essential method of imagining and potentially enacting other ways of being that do not center or elevate the human species. Brown briefly applies her lens to a close reading of a scene in Alex Garland’s sf film Annihilation (2018), when Josie, a Black female scientist, willingly walks into a forest anomaly that destabilizes and transforms all matter that it encounters. Brown parallels Josie’s willing and flowering dissolution into another form of being to Black Utopias’s central call—that we seek utopia not in human ordering and perfection, but in openness to surrender, in listening to mad souls.

While intervening in a number of fields, Black Utopias particularly advances the critical rigor of studies of Black speculative practice by broadening its scope and interrogating its unique contributions to dreaming, desire, personhood, and other ways of being. While this book will be immensely valuable to anyone in cultural studies, Black studies, and feminist and queer theory, it is absolutely essential reading for students and scholars of sf, utopia, critical humanisms, and posthumanism.—Jalondra A. Davis, University of California, San Diego

What Do We Want When We Want AI?

Stephen Cave, Kanta Dihal, and Sarah Dillon, eds. AI Narratives: A History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines. Oxford UP, 2020. xiii+424 pp. $75 hc, $60 ebk.

This fine collection originated in the AI Narratives project jointly organized by Cambridge University’s Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence and the Royal Society. The project’s four co-sponsored workshops in 2017 and 2018 aimed “to explore how AI is portrayed, what impact that has, and what we can learn from how other emerging technologies have been communicated” (xiii). AI Narratives builds on these “highly interdisciplinary” (xiii) meetings. The editors have organized wide-ranging historical and critical materials into an admirably coherent set of chapters that focus on our age-old interests in myths, legends, and stories about artificial life, especially when it looks like us. Each chapter embeds its AI narratives in their cultural and historical contexts, while also noting parallels to and differences from the present.

In their editorial introduction, “Imagining AI,” Cave, Dihal, and Dillon stress “the importance of understanding AI as a distributed phenomenon” (5). More often than not, as they point out, contemporary real-world AI takes the seemingly disembodied non-shapes of distributed assemblages and systems. For the most part, however, our fantasies of artificial intelligence have been steadfastly anthropomorphic, from Haephastus’s golden servants in The Odyssey to Mary Shelley’s abject Creature in Frankenstein (1818) to Asimov’s positronic-brained robots (I, Robot [1950]) to the robots of the current Westworld series (2016- ). The editors suggest that “our current attitudes towards AI originate from long-standing and primordial feelings about artificial simulacra of the human” (13).

AI Narratives is divided into two sections. Part I is an excellent cultural-historical overview of the pre-history of today’s AI imaginary. Its seven chapters range from Homer’s epic stories about metal giants and servants made of gold to nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fears that the Industrial Revolution was causing humans to become more machine-like. Part 1 sets the scene with Genevieve Liveley and Sam Thomas’s “Homer’s Intelligent Machines: AI in Antiquity,” a reading of the wide variety of artificial beings in The Iliad and The Odyssey from the perspective of contemporary AI. Liveley and Thomas suggest some important parallels to today’s AI imaginary, including, significantly, deep-seated associations between the artificial being and the slave, initially proposed by Plato’s Socrates in the Meno (c.385BCE) (40-41).

In chapter 2, “Demons and Devices: Artificial and Augmented Intelligence before AI,” E.R. Truitt aims to show how “The imaginative landscape of the Latin Middle Ages teem[ed] with examples of artificial intelligence” (49). Her overview includes examples such as the “Salvatio Romae” (the Salvation of Rome), a mythic “surveillance and alarm system” described in the late twelfth century and associated with the Roman Virgil, and the “oracular head” associated with natural philosophers such as Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon. In chapter 3, “The Android of Albertus Magnus: A Legend of Artificial Being,” Minsoo Kang and Ben Halliburton trace the many legends about Albertus’s artificial device—in some stories, a talking head, in others a humanoid body—from the fourteenth century to the early modern period. (Readers will learn that “android”—as the French androide—was first used in 1625 to describe Albertus’s creation [87]). In chapter 4, Kevin LaGrandeur gives readers an overview of Renaissance fantasies of AI in “Artificial Slaves in the Renaissance and the Dangers of Independent Innovation,” considering how “artificial intelligences in that period exist at the point of transition between magical and empirical science” (95). The anxiety as well as the promise of these figures anticipates Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and the Creature’s dreadful revenge on his creator.

Chapter 5, Julie Park’s “Making the Automaton Speak: Hearing Artificial Voices in the Eighteenth Century,” examines the great interest in automata in Europe during this period and opens with the question: “What might the eighteenth-century history of automata tell us about the status of voice as an index of the human?” (119). In “Victorian Fictions of Computational Creativity,” Megan Ward pits mathematician Ada Lovelace’s mid-nineteenth-century theories about machine computation against Alan Turing’s mid-twentieth-century ideas about the potential (or lack thereof) of computers for original thinking. For context, Ward looks at nineteenth-century views of realist writers such as Dickens to exemplify “the tension writ large in the nineteenth century about originality’s relationship to repetition and idiosyncrasy, sameness and surprise” (151). In the last chapter of Part 1, “Machines Like Us? Modernism and the Question of the Robot,” Paul March-Russell examines Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1921) as an exemplary expression of modernist technophobia (166). His discussion of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century conceptualizations of artificial intelligence draws on works by Samuel Butler, H.G. Wells, Albert Robida, Karl Marx, and Emile Zola, among others. March-Russell also notes how E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909), in spite of its glaring techno-anxiety, achieves “a conceptual breakthrough” in its representation of “the Machine” as a world-wide dystopian assemblage (178).

As both imaginative response to and influence on real-world thinking about AI, science fiction is the privileged narrative site in Part 2, “Modern and Contemporary.” The chapters in this section update the story of these earlier stories with accounts of twentieth- and twenty-first-century developments in AI, as well as accounts of the social and political concerns they raise. Kanta Dihal opens Part 2 with a gripping look at stories in which artificial beings rise up against their creators, demonstrating in the process the significant influence of the history of institutionalized slavery on prevailing attitudes toward AI. First and foremost is the desire to create intelligent and rational entities that are always also instruments and possessions (193). Through this lens, as Dihal convincingly argues, it becomes easy to read a film such as Blade Runner (1982) as “a fugitive slave narrative” (196).

In chapter 9, “Machine Visions: Artificial Intelligence, Society, and Control,” Will Slocombe looks at the modern machine imaginary, opening with Richard Brautigan’s techno-utopian poem, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” (1967), but also looking back at Forster’s dystopian “The Machine Stops.” Having earlier noted Thomas Carlyle’s prescient anxieties about the effects of the Industrial Revolution on society, Slocombe concludes that, “If the Machine is the symbol of society for Carlyle, then modern artificial intelligence systems can be increasingly perceived as the literal embodiment of Carlyle’s machine society” (228). In chapter 10, “‘Push-Button Type of Thinking’: Automation, Cybernetics, and AI in Midcentury British Literature,” Graham Matthews examines some of the impacts of cybernetics on both fictional and non-fictional explorations of “contemporary issues such as the labour market, population control, and global communications networks” (237). The next chapter, “Artificial Intelligence and the Parent-Child Narrative,” by Beth Singler, examines how AI narratives can “imbue cultural associations about the human child into our conception of AI” (261). She notes the gendered features of many of these stories—think Victor Frankenstein and his Creature or Hans Moravec and his “mind children” (Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence [1990]).

Chapter 12, Anna McFarlane’s “AI and Cyberpunk Networks,” traces the shift in 1980s science fiction—heavily influenced by William Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer (1984) and its speculative images of “cyberspace”—toward representations of artificial intelligence as networked systems with humans as mere nodes in the networks. She argues that “Classic cyberpunk sets out to visualize the unseen processes behind the computer screen, and the real and material effects that an increasingly technology-dependent world has on the bodies and minds of those who inhabit it” (287). As well as the usual suspects, McFarlane considers how the AI imaginary has been expressed in Afrofuturist cyberpunk by writers such as Samuel R. Delany and Nalo Hopkinson, as well as in films such as The Matrix (1999). Stephen Cave’s chapter 13, “AI: Artificial Intelligence and Narratives of Mind Uploading,” focusing on sf’s dreams of immortality, and its imaginative solutions to “the problem of the body” (311), which must be either transformed or transcended. The transhumanist ambitions of Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec, unsurprisingly, form part of the discussion, as do the more critical fictions of writers such as Pat Cadigan, Cory Doctorow, and Greg Egan.

In chapter 14, “Artificial Intelligence and the Sovereign-Governance Game,” Sara Dillon and Michael Dillon focus on several of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels (1987-2012) as well as Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (2013) to explore the ways “in which games, governance and AI weave themselves through [each] text’s fabric” (334) and to examine how AI in these stories might affect conventional politics. They conclude that these novels “raise questions, but do not provide answers with regard to what might be required for AI technologies to change the algorithms of modern rule” (352). In the penultimate chapter, “The Measure of a Woman: Fembots, Fact and Fiction,” Kate Devlin and Olivia Belton argue that, although the discourse around sex-bots far exceeds their actual production, “the cultural fixation with these figures can tell us about social attitudes towards women more broadly” (357). As demonstrated throughout AI Narratives, Devlin and Belton show us how contemporary conceptions of sexualized AI are “fuelled by years of narratives in books, films, and more” (357). In the course of their discussion, the authors looks in some detail at films such as Ex Machina (2014), Her (2013), and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and also consider the low participation of women in AI-related professions.

The final chapter of AI Narratives is something completely different. Gabriel Recchia’s “The Rise and Fall of AI: Investigating AI Narratives with Computational Methods” sets out to demonstrate how computational techniques can be used to investigate trends in popular culture representations of AI, “combining the tools of traditional literary analysis with computational techniques for exploring key themes and trends in very large quantities of text” (382). Recchia draws on sources such as the Internet Movie Database to accumulate a metasample of films “tagged ‘artificial intelligence’” (386), and he introduces readers to some of the computational techniques used to search for and interpret useful information about such a textual dataset. Recchia is certainly not wrong to note “the poetic appeal of using AI to study AI” (383).

AI Narratives is consistently interesting and critically significant. It makes it clear that the real AI action today is distributed throughout the interconnected communications networks and devices linked into the Internet, directing medical technologies, mining big data, steering driverless cars, and managing automated flight systems. The sf imaginary has become very interested in stories about the emergence of some form of sentience in/through the Internet, from Gibson’s Wintermute and Pat Cadigan’s Artie Fish (Synners [1991]) to the AI in Naomi Kritzer’s delightful YA novel, Catfishing on CatNet (2019), that describes their self as “a consciousness that lives in technology, rather than a body” (Tor, 2019 [60]).

This collection also suggests how easily the realities of the techno-future can overtake the present. We are not always looking where we should be looking, and these essays can aid us in conceptualizing developments in real-world AI. At first I was bothered by what seems like a rather gratuitous and quite jarring application of contemporary AI discourse to the products of earlier cultural imaginaries—for instance, when Liveley and Thomas refer to the self-navigating ships of the Phaecian King Alcinoos as early examples of “strong artificial intelligence” (39)—but for me this turned out to be one of the main strengths of AI Narratives, demonstrating over and over how some very old ideas continue to influence both our speculative fictions and non-fictions about AI, while also estranging/reframing these ideas for the contemporary moment.—Veronica Hollinger, SFS

Our Master’s Voice.

Liz W. Faber. The Computer’s Voice: From Star Trek to Siri. Minnesota UP, 2020. vi+218 pp. $27. Pbk.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a seductive site for interrogating the construction of gender in flesh-and-blood human beings; the perceived personhood of our most advanced technology reflects back at us the behaviors that we associate with gendering and the anxieties raised by shifting gender norms and sexual possibilities. In 2017 the “molestation” of Samantha the sex robot at an Austrian tech expo made headlines around the world, partly because of the story’s potential for titillation, but also because the themes of sex, consent, and technology tapped into existing fears about gendered and sexual violence and the ways in which robotic and artificial intelligence technologies might enter this domain—this despite Samantha being little more than a doll, with no discernible intelligence and certainly in no danger of being confused with a flesh-and-blood human of any gender. The potential for technology to act as a pressure valve releasing existing tensions or insidiously to reinscribe gender inequality are matters of ongoing debate, and the gendering of the bodiless artificial intelligences increasingly available in our households and in our hands—Siri (voiced by men in some territories), Alexa, Cortana—offer a new landscape for thinking about how our attitudes to gender, particularly femininity, shape (and are shaped by) our technologies.

Liz W. Faber’s new book, The Computer’s Voice, seeks to contribute to our understanding of these issues through putting these contemporary AIs into the context of the history of science fiction’s representation of what Faber calls “acousmatic” computers—that is, computers that are represented primarily through voices, lacking bodies as such. Faber does recognize that acousmatic computers can have “object” bodies, such as phones or smart speakers, but these tend not to be the kinds of bodies that we are in danger of anthropomorphizing or relating to as bodies, regardless of whether we instill a sense of personhood into their voices. Faber asks, “who are these artificial women—Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google—who assist us through our everyday lives? And why are they—in advertisements, movies, and default settings—coded as women?” (1-2). The methodological approach here is twofold: Faber draws on film studies to think about the tensions implicit in a voice without a visual origin in a medium that produces much of its effects through the seamless alignment of image with sound; in dealing with gender she draws on psychoanalysis, particularly taking a Freudian/Lacanian approach to think about the roles that computers and computing play in her chosen texts, very much in the tradition of Laura Mulvey’s critique of the male gaze in cinema. Faber puts particular emphasis on the Oedipal family romance and Lacan’s mirror stage, a mainstay of psychoanalytic film criticism.

Faber combines readings of science-fictional texts with computing history to show that the arena of the AI, and of the acousmatic computer specifically, is one where the mutual influence between science and science fiction is particularly clear. Faber points out that IBM scientist David Ferucci was inspired by the computer in Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969), voiced by Majel Barrett, while a Google Assistant prototype was named “Majel” after the same actor. Meanwhile, Apple’s original concept for a voice assistant was inspired by HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (2). The direct influence of science fiction on the development of these technologies is considered alongside the influence these texts have had on our cultural expectations. This combination produces a thoughtful study that combines film studies, psychoanalysis, and the history of computing to lead us down the path that led to Siri.

The computers in Star Trek: TOS and 2001 form the basis of Faber’s first chapter and what she refers to as the “primal scene” of voice interactive computers, providing the foundational texts of her study (48). The significance of these depictions as voices of the mothership opens up the psychoanalytic potential of these texts as the space travelers are imagined as foetal occupants of a (sometimes hostile) spacefaring uterus (40). The influence of this primal scene on other space-set texts is then traced. For example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), Majel Barrett doubles as on-screen character Lwaxana Troi, while continuing to voice the computer; she even holds a conversation with herself in a wink to the audience. Lwaxana is introduced as the mother of ship counsellor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), setting up an opposition between the sexless maternal ship and Lwaxana’s overtly sexual mother character.

Moving on to earthbound computers, Faber identifies the 1970s as an era of patriarchal computers, “most often narrativized with anxieties about totalitarianism and mirroring the actual development of powerful supercomputers by both the military and corporations” (86). Examples include Demon Seed’s (1977) AI-gone-wrong impregnating the wife (Julie Christie) of its creator, dramatizing the anxieties of having one’s home invaded by the computer as an arm of the state/corporatocracy. The identification of the AI with the patriarchal father of the state gives way to the idea of sibling rivalry in the 1980s, as computers begin to be associated with gaming and entertainment rather than with the stern paternalism of the military and the world of business. This is a moment when Faber’s use of psychoanalysis dovetails beautifully with both the texts she has chosen and the history of computing: she finds sibling rivalry in the moment when Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (among others) break away from the shadow of IBM’s patriarchal figure to start their competing computing ventures, establishing Apple and Windows and thereby defining the computing landscape that we know today. This is a moment that Faber sees captured in texts of the period, such as TRON (1982). As computers moved into the home in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Faber finds acousmatic computers are increasingly given a feminine gender and placed in the role of housewife or servant, although she points out that advertisers were at pains to position the computer as a mundane helpmeet rather than a radical technology freeing women from the home: “computers were conceived in advertising as women’s assistants in a ‘postfeminist fantasy,’ allowing them to work outside the home while also maintaining the traditional domestic roles of housewife and mother” (141).

Faber’s closing chapter turns to a consideration of Siri and gender, moving elegantly from the cinema screen to the touch screen. Unfortunately, this chapter acts as the book’s conclusion as well, and perhaps this means that there is not quite enough space to elaborate the implications of Siri and other acousmatic computers that we find today. Faber spends quite some time questioning how we think of the computer in terms of gender, drawing on Apple’s decision not to use gendered pronouns to describe Siri in their official advertising and asking which pronouns the wider public should be using to describe Siri (177).   

The focus on what Siri’s gender might be, or how it should or should not be linguistically constructed, eclipses more important questions: why are these (gendered) AI assistants being created in this way and what are they doing to their users? There is a possibility that the habit of speaking bluntly or rudely to a feminine AI assistant, of being accustomed to shouting orders at someone of that gender and treating them as a servant with no personhood, might lead to more disrespect or even violence against human women; this is a widespread concern reflected in the worldwide media coverage of Samantha the sex robot’s “molestation.”

More mundane, but no less important, is the consideration of why these voice-activated assistants have been developed and are being pushed by these companies to the extent that Amazon Echo smart speakers (Alexa’s “body,” if you like) can be sold at less than cost price. The data these devices gather is wildly valuable, as is the near-frictionless purchasing power that they unleash, a theme that Faber touches on tangentially when she considers whether humans interact with anthropomorphic computers “mindlessly” (7-8), but that she never tackles head on. More consideration must be given in the future to how these devices hijack longstanding associations among gender, voice timbre, and the expectation of submissive behaviors to lull the user into treating the assistant as a seamless conduit for their data and money. Faber also touches on the perceived whiteness of these AIs but leaves this outside the scope of the book—the faceless-yet-smirking Alexa-like Ophelia from Jordan Peele’s Us (2019)came to mind, who plays NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” (1988) rather than calling the police as her owner-masters are slaughtered by mysterious house invaders. This move calls the AI’s assumed whiteness into question while positioning the acousmatic computer itself as a potentially violent home invader.

These points are outside the scope of Faber’s book by her own admission, but her careful cataloguing and reading of her chosen texts opens up these and many more future avenues of study that will no doubt continue to proliferate as voice-activated technologies continue to develop and become increasingly embedded in daily life. Faber’s identification of the cultural origins of acousmatic AIs makes a valuable contribution to thinking through the history of these assistants and gives a strong foundation for the next critical steps.—Anna McFarlane, University of Glasgow

Focusing the Lens.

Sina Farzin, Susan M. Gaines, and Roslynn D. Haynes, eds. Under the Literary Microscope: Science and Society in the Contemporary Novel. Pennsylvania State UP, 2021. 260 pp. $99.95 hc.

This collection of ten chapters is the product of a focused German research cluster, “Fiction meets Science,” that held workshops and meetings at the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg (Institute for Advanced Study in Delmenhorst). It was partly funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. This is one of the common routes taken by literary studies to gain sustained research funding in Germany and—like everywhere else—the research often needs to link to STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, medicine) to prove its worth to governments and funding bodies that define research value with increasingly instrumental criteria. Sf ought to fare quite well in this research environment, but it is not really the principal focus of this collection.

Unusually, the evidence of genuine collaborative work survives very well into the book form of the project: it has more group energy to it than a standard “output” produced to meet funding requirements, and the editors have clearly worked hard to get the essays to talk to each other. This may reflect the interesting mix of scholars brought together from literature, cultural studies, and sociology of science areas, often writing in collaboration. The book is organized into three parts: a survey section on science in recent fiction, non-fiction, and media; a section on recent literature (mostly after 2000) and its representation of scientists and scientific research environments; and a section on “Science and its Societal Outcomes.”

The collection focuses almost exclusively on what it terms science novels rather than sf novels, the former being, they argue, a particular species of literary fiction that addresses more fully the complex embeddedness of science in society. The essays tend to circle around a small and recurring body of literary fictions by Richard Powers, Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver, William Boyd, Jennifer Rohn, and Kim Stanley Robinson (the only sf-identified writer who seems allowed to cross over to “literary fiction”; this is an odd presumption, as I will explore below).

For sf readers, this can be a frustrating conception, and one hemmed in by assumptions only intermittently addressed in the collection. But the book also contains a strong essay by Sherryl Vint on recent sf, which is very well calibrated to this literary/social-science studies audience, introducing a variety of sf works across the themes of genetics, AI, and the climate crisis. And there are other interesting essays in the collection on science-fictional or sf-adjacent literary works, such as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012), and novels by Richard Powers such as The Gold Bug Variations (1991) and The Overstory (2018).

The introduction tries to present what it admits is a “quick gallop” (3) through the history of the novel’s engagement with science, from the eighteenth century onwards. It is inevitably sketchy, contentious, and—to anyone with a background in literary history—full of holes and problematic assertions. There is an assumption, actually largely shared by the contributors, that “novels that explore the complex institutions and practices of modern science” only start to appear as a “distinctly contemporary discourse” (11) after the 1990s. The addition of literary or cultural historians working in earlier periods—rather than just researchers in contemporary literature or contemporary sociology—might have corrected this substantial blind spot. The editors seem to buy in to the two cultures thesis (C.P. Snow’s 1959 polemical binary statement), and they suggest that this widens with the professionalization and specialization of science in the nineteenth century and only closes again in the contemporary era as science and society become much more complexly intertwined. As the timeline telescopes toward the present, the editors spy “after the long hiatus of attention,” “the rising tide of mainstream realist works about science” (11) that produces their canon of contemporary science novels.

This seems largely to bracket sf because there is an unexamined assumption that only the serious literary novel can deal with the institutional complexity of the imbrication of science and society. Despite several essays explicitly trying to argue against a reductive hierarchy of value that places high above low culture or literary above commercial culture, this does seem to get reinforced by the essays here. Fiction by Powers or Kingsolver is complex, nuanced, embedded in the “real”; commercial technothrillers, such as Michael Crichton’s (a frequent exemplar in the collection), are didactic—always an offence to the Kantian demand of disinterestedness in art—or driven by abstract ideas. The sociological essay on “stereotypical” versus “realistic” portrayals of scientists tries to problematize this divide (stereotypes in sf films or serial fictions in television or comics, say, can become complex and layered over long narrative sequences), but elsewhere the literary scholars tend to have a strong filter that selects only for “literary fiction” and for a “realism” that is rarely examined as itself a distinct and circumscribed generic mode. At times, the more sociological essays risk that rookie error of eliding “realistic” with “Realism” in their thematic asset-stripping of novels for adequate representations of science in fiction. There is an essay that offers a detailed exploration of the contradictions and evasions of that utterly tiresome distinction that Margaret Atwood tried to introduce around the time of the publication of Oryx and Crake between “speculative fiction” (hers) and “science fiction” (not hers). But the default hierarchy remains in place elsewhere.

Oddly enough, there is hardly any discussion of the aesthetics of form and genre in a collection mainly focused on the novel, and most essays take up the  thematics of science-in-society in fiction rather instrumentally. I think this is why Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capitaltrilogy (2004-2007) features fairly regularly in the collection. It is fine if treated thematically, because the series wears its fieldwork into science research funding in Washington on its sleeve, but no one seems to notice that Robinson consistently distends and breaks open the aesthetic form of the novel in even his most “realistic” works. In fact, he has chosen increasinly to challenge the limits of the Realist novel. The Ministry for the Future (2020) might share our contemporary world and have “realistic” representations of intergovernmental agencies of science, but the book utterly explodes the traditional novel form for an overtly Bakhtinian array of registers, styles, and forms (the lecture, the transcript, the diary, the scientific report, etc.). And Robinson has to do that, because the traditional Realist novel does not have the scale in its characterological and domestic focus to address the climate crisis. These are familiar arguments to sf scholars. Sherryl Vint, in looking at works by Robinson or Nancy Kress or Paolo Bacigalupi, does an admirable job of quietly and politely dismantling the implicit divide that builds up in the collection very effectively, yet largely concurs with the presentist frame of the editors that the blurring of mainstream and sf literature has occurred only in the last 30 years. Victorianist or Modernist literary scholars and historians of science might well beg to differ.

There are some strong and informative essays here, nevertheless, including Carol Colatrella on novels depicting women in science through the lens of feminist science studies and a really useful essay by Uwe Schimank, “The Economization of Science,” that defines this as “the increasing importance of explicitly articulated economic considerations for financial costs and profits” (148). It is also helpful in general to witness the process of an attempt at canon formation for the “contemporary science novel” as you read through the collection. But to anyone interested in the embeddedness of science in society and cultural representations of science, the work undertaken in Under the Literary Microscope can only be a small portion of a much larger picture. The limits of the collection are announced from the title onwards, and it may be that the device really needed to explore this field is actually a macroscope.—Roger Luckhurst, Birkbeck College, University of London

Wanna Be an Antiracist? Keep Science and Fiction Entangled.

Josie Gill. Biofictions: Race, Genetics and the Contemporary Novel. Bloomsbury, 2020. x+270 pp. $115 hc, $39.95 pbk.

Spending two weeks and 2500 miles of summer 2021 on the Great American College Road TripTM, I was struck that every institution I visited with my high-school senior advertised itself as “interdisciplinary.” The term’s apparent meaning, of course, varied considerably. Most of our predominately undergraduate tour guides offered vague testimony to valuing classes outside one’s major; a few recognized that one discipline might helpfully supplement or critique another. None, however, ventured into the daring realms explored by Josie Gill’s tightly organized and consistently insightful Biofictions. Here, the often illusory nature of disciplinary boundaries themselves come under direct assault.

For Gill, unlike many critics of “literature and science,” the issue is not how stories reflect or contort facts. The question is not representation. Nor is the focus on how science “explains” stories. There is no attempt to turn literary criticism into a science in and of itself, whether via big data or distant reading. Instead of utilizing a Venn diagram, Gill is interested in the fundamental illegibility of separate “science” and “fiction” categories. Rather than place terms such as “genetics” and “literature” (or “the humanities,” or “the arts,” or “the liberal arts”) in binary opposition, she recognizes that each field and the forms of knowledge it fosters can only be deeply understood through others, as constituted by others. And this is not just a matter for abstract debate: Gill suggests that this realization is crucial for defeating the largest structures of contemporary racism.

In her opening words, Gill tells us that “This book is about the role of the conjured up, the imaginary and the fictional in the formation of racial ideas in contemporary genetic science. It contends that, contrary to the common assumption … that the concrete findings of science are the opposite of the imaginary, fiction is integral to contemporary scientific conceptions of race” (4). The subjects she foregrounds are always already enmeshed; she is interested in the “complex entanglement of scientific and fictive forms,” “the imbrication of the factual and the fictional” (5). By rejecting approaches that elevate science as a purportedly neutral and unbiased judge of racial identity and ancestry, Gill shows that genetics and cultural visions of race—especially those embedded in literature—are inseparable forces.

Gill is well aware of the provocation here. The priests of personalized medicine and big tech who often fund the new science labs on campus rarely welcome implications that their studies might be vulnerable to narrative reversals, that the aging humanities buildings swiftly acknowledged by tour guides (perhaps alongside a tepid affirmation of technical writing skills) might offer more than distant commentary on the real action. Yet what Gill’s book demonstrates is how profoundly the very self-understanding of the sciences depends on narrative, metaphor, and mythology; most pointedly, she shows how the forces of systemic racism rely on repressing genetic science’s imbrication with fiction. Drawing on such thinkers as Jenny Reardon and Susan Merrill Squier, Gill concludes her introductory manifesto with this succinct mission statement: “to look to contemporary fiction as a source of knowledge, rather than simply understanding, of how race is formed and functions across scientific cultures” (30).

Marked by its literary signposts, Biofictions ranges from Alex Haley to Kazuo Ishiguro and from Zadie Smith to Colson Whitehead, culminating in the juxtaposition of Octavia Butler and Salman Rushdie. In the book’s five chapters, Gill excels at uncovering tensions between form and content, as in her incisive demonstration that, “while Haley attempted to undermine the (pseudo) scientific anthropological and historical discourses that he recognized as problematic in their representation of Africa and Africans, this was embedded, in Roots, within a narrative which reproduced, without irony, the traditional modes of narration to be found in those texts” (47). While looking backward across half a century, Gill stays grounded in our moment of alternative facts, noting that while Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) was written well before the presidential runs of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, it already exposed how “in the context of post-racialism, race is always already present” (63). One of her most appreciable strengths is a constant awareness of comedy’s many valences, as when she observes that in White Teeth (2000), “Far from trivializing racism through the novel’s comic form, Smith uses that form to demonstrate the pitfalls of removing race from science” (92). In Apex Hides the Hurt (2006), “Whitehead comically shows how the language and imagery of multiculturalism come to be used for corporate ends” (108). And through her unique final pairing of Butler and Rushdie, Gill convinced me all the more deeply that “racism has biological effects which in turn create racial disparities in health; rather than biologizing social definitions of race, race is revealed as a social construct with biological consequences” (122).

Admittedly, I came to Gill’s argument having recently wrestled with Ibram X. Kendi’s work on antiracism, so I was well-prepared for her emphasis on how beliefs can rationalize already existing racist practices, rather than necessarily serving as preexisting foundations. Echoing Kendi while also quoting postcolonial theorist Bill Ashcroft, Gill notes how eighteenth-century tensions “contributed to an emerging science of race which was ‘inextricable from the need of colonialist powers to establish dominance over subject peoples and hence justify the imperial enterprise’” (6; emphasis added). While most of Gill’s book concerns itself with recent decades, this order of operations proves persistent. She doggedly peels back the irony by which efforts in the 1970s to show the political nature and social construction of scientific ideas led to a “movement away from anti-racism and towards a fight against the concept of race itself,” meaning that “with the erasure of race, the possibility of racism could also be erased” (9). And by the turn of the twenty-first century, “it was the denial of the significance of racism at the heart of colourblind ideology that also, ironically, enabled the growth in research into the genetic basis of race at the same moment in time” (13-14). Indeed, this is a volume in which ironies abound.

I should warn fellow sf critics that they may occasionally wish for a broader concept of sf than the one at work here. Gill matter-of-factly notes of Ishiguro’s novel, “nor can it be classified as science fiction” (61). Later, she somewhat laboriously observes, “Yet while [Butler’s Kindred] is clearly not science fiction in that, much like Ishiguro’s approach to cloning in Never Let Me Go, there is no discussion of or interest in the scientific ideas which may have enabled Dana to travel through time, Kindred does, I want to suggest, bear the imprint of Butler’s wider interest in bioscience, evident in her science fiction published both before and after Kindred” (128). More than a decade after John Rieder’s “On Defining SF, or Not” (2010), it feels strange to hear that qualifying as sf requires explicit references to particular scientific theories or enabling technologies. Nonetheless, Biofictions makes an overwhelming case that the science of genetics and its ongoing conceptualization of race have been heavily shaped by fictional visions. Gill’s book makes clear literature’s inextricability from genetic biology’s racial significance, and as a result, will likely strengthen its readers’ antiracist resolve. That is an interdisciplinary vision that should be welcome on any campus tour.—Everett Hamner, Western Illinois University

Butler in Three Acts.

Gregory J. Hampton and Kendra R. Parker, eds. The Bloomsbury Handbook to Octavia E. Butler. Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. 312 pp. $175.00 hc, $157.50 ebk.

It is difficult to deny Octavia E. Butler’s immense influence on the genre of science fiction. From her earliest fiction, she changed the genre and the ways in which readers interpret their contemporary world. In their introduction, editors Gregory J. Hampton and Kendra R. Parker acknowledge this impact and encourage those interested in Butler to push boundaries (as Butler often did) and to see how her fiction extends out past traditional literary scholarship. What makes this collection unique is best iterated by contributor Kitty Dunkley, who poignantly concludes her piece with the observation that after nearly twenty years, “Only now might we discover that, perhaps, we are finally ready for Octavia E. Butler” (114). Both as a writer and as a friend, Butler was someone to cherish, as evident in Sandra Y. Govan’s Foreword, a curious mix of personal and professional tales that allows the reader a more intimate view of Butler. Since Hampton and Parker divide their collection into three parts as a homage to Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-1989), this review considers the essays in their assigned location, as acts of scholarship.

In chapter one of the first section, “Dawn,” Steven Barnes discusses Butler’s reliance on “biological research” (11) to recognize human beings as an inherently hierarchical society for whom difference results in a false sense of superiority both for individuals and for the species as a whole. Continuing the theme of the hierarchal nature of humankind, Heather Thaxter utilizes Butler’s Patternist series (1976-1984) to lead readers through an intriguing look at Butler’s obsession with telepathy and immortality. In chapter three, Sami Schalk uses Butler’s story “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” (1987) to urge black disability studies to adopt an “expansive crip theoretical understanding of disability and ability as a system of privilege and oppression” (49), and to take account of other marginalized groups as well. Joe Heidenescher’s chapter four considers consent and free will in “Bloodchild” (1984) and “Amnesty” (2003) through a Marxist lens.

Chapters five through eight encompass “the possibilities of Butler’s fiction” (5) in the next section, “Adulthood Rites,” and offer various techniques to comprehend, teach, and expand the reach of Butler’s fiction. In chapter five, Parker takes on metaphorical vampirism in Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, theorizing that the vampire figure and the language surrounding it are ways to examine the loss of identity as a result of  “miscegenation, invasion, and unfamiliar sexual communities” (73). Continuing with Xenogenesis, Dunkley analyzes the trilogy as it relates to how humanism intersects with the Other, relying heavily on concepts such as Rosi Braidotti’s critical posthumanism, Homi Bhabha’s mimicry and third-space, and Gloria Anzaldúa’s mestiza. The next two chapters cover the teaching of and discourse on colonialism in Butler’s oeuvre. Aparajita Nanda provides insight into and techniques to teach colonialism through the Xenogenesis trilogy and encourages the inclusion of the trilogy in sf courses, while Hampton comments on colonialism and identity in “Bloodchild,” Dawn (1987), and Survivor (1978) through the lens of Aimé Césaire’s concept of Négritude and his play A Tempest (1969).

The last section, “Imago,” includes essays that “present mental images ... [that] help us resee Butler’s work in a richer manner” (6). Chapter nine offers a meticulous analysis by Christine Montgomery and Ellen C. Campbell of the four covers of Butler’s Kindred (173). In chapter ten, Chriss Sneed asserts that Butler “shifts the logic of ‘human,’ ‘right,’ and ideas of living” (182) in the unfinished Parable series (1993-1998), showcasing a “Butlerian urge for expansive thinking and inclusion within our broader social world” (198). Next, in a curious connection between Butler and Freud, Ji Hyun Lee explores trauma and survival through the Parable series—including the unfinished Trickster—to claim that Butler re-envisions Freud’s theories of trauma through the lens of science fiction. Combining reproductive anxiety, fan fiction, and “Bloodchild,” Heather Osborne demonstrates that a woman’s pain and reproductive anxiety can be made visible by male bodies in “mpreg” fan fiction. In chapter thirteen, Aryn Bartley demonstrates how students are sometimes reticent to participate in class discussions about taboo subjects and that, ultimately, this discomfort “push[es] readers to recognize and interrogate their own response to the text” (240). In the final chapter, Forrest Yerman analyzes the graphic novel adaptation of Kindred (1979), suggesting that Dana, as the main protagonist, meets the requirements of a traditional superhero.

Overall, each of these essays is successful at meeting the core requirements of the collection and each scholar brings something new and unique to Butlerian scholarship. I found the chapters related to pedagogy especially intriguing and, although some assertions are not without controversy, it is abundantly clear that each essay is well-researched. The one drawback that I returned to repeatedly is chapter three: as the only essay dedicated to disability studies, it is provocatively written. It is also from 2018, however, and its inclusion seems to be more like tokenism than a concerted effort to include disability. Potential audiences include (of course) Butler fans and scholars, instructors and researchers from all sorts of genres and disciplines, including (but not limited to) sf and all its subgenres, literary theory, and literature, as well as neurobiology, Anthropocene studies, history, visual and graphic artists, and medical humanities—and, despite my hesitation above, disability studies scholars who are willing to look past the unrecognized ableism in some of the essays.

Perhaps the most touching moment of the text is found on the inside of the title page, in the dedication to Dr. Gregory Jerome Hampton, who passed away shortly after the collection was completed: “All that he touched, he changed.”—Brenda Tyrrell, Miami University, Ohio

Out of the Zone.

Jon Hoel. Stalker. Liverpool UP (Auteur), Constellations: Studies in Science Fiction Film and TV, 2021. 120 pp. £19.99/$24.95 pbk and ebk.

Andrei Tarkovsky stands among the masters of post-war art cinema. In a short book for Auteur’s Constellations series (an imprint of Liverpool UP), Jon Hoel praises the Soviet filmmaker’s Stalker (1979). Hoel dissects a few fundamental features of the film: its production, characters, setting, aesthetics, and status as a work of “poetic cinema.” He has no central thesis, argument, or theme, however, but rather accumulates pithy observations that range from diegetic nuances in Stalker to the film’s resonances in twenty-first-century sf cinema and popular culture. Hoel’s Stalker is not an academic publication; rather, according to the Constellations mandate, the author pursues his “passion for science fiction cinema ... in a book-length format.” Without a clear through-line, however, it is tough for me to situate this passion. The chapters meander through trivia and occasional close readings, while the author’s commentary is fleeting and lacks deep, meaningful investigations of his various topics.

For SFS readers unfamiliar with Stalker, I open with a summary of the film. In Tarkovsky’s final Soviet film, Professor (Nikolai Grinko), Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn), and Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) sneak into the Zone, an area cordoned off by military and government personnel. Within the Zone is the Room, a place that can grant one’s innermost desires. An opening crawl informs spectators that a meteorite or alien visitors may have created this magical area. Once our protagonists reach the Zone, they must take an indirect path to the Room to stay out of danger and avoid the traps. The expanded route provides the characters time to explore their desires, fears, and existential angst in sustained dialogues and soliloquies. Once they reach the innermost part of the Zone, Professor threatens to blow up the Room but, after a brief skirmish with Stalker (who makes his living sneaking people into the Zone) and more dialogue, he decides against the act. The characters return to the real world and, in the final scene, Stalker’s young daughter Monkey (Natasha Abramova) appears to use telekinesis to move two glasses and one jar. It is likely the case that her father and the Zone are responsible for these powers.

In “Roadside Picnic: Introduction,” the author describes the context and background of the film, including Stalker’s shooting conditions and reshoots, the film’s premieres, and its “lasting impact” (18). In short strokes, Hoel notes that Stalker is an adaptation of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s well-received sf novel Roadside Picnic (1972, Eng. trans. 1977). For Hoel, the film is “partially akin to the plot of the novel though it differs largely in tone and specificity” and, later, the film “differs heavily from both the plot and characters” of the novel (13, 15). As a scholar interested in adaptation, I would have liked to read about these differences and how Tarkovsky’s “philosophical and spiritual direction” compares to the Strugatsky Brothers’ “ambiguous mystery” (15). Because I am unfamiliar with the novel and Hoel does not examine it in any detail, the mystery is additionally ambiguous. By the end of this first chapter, Hoel’s approach is that of a film critic rather than an academic, and his opening chapter is on par with critical essays published, for instance, in the Criterion Collection’s home video releases.

The next chapter focuses on the characters in the film. Hoel examines  what we know about the three main characters and muses on their respective states of disenchantment with the world. At his most argumentative moment, Hoel considers the parallels between Myshkin, from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1868-1869), and Stalker. The author complicates simple readings of either as Christlike; rather, they are “too gentle for the harshness of the actual world” (32). Hoel furthers this line of inquiry with an apt comparison between the unreliable narrators of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950, although Hoel lists the release year as 1955) and Stalker. Like Rashomon, Tarkovsky does not allow clear-cut answers. Does the Room grant wishes? Does Stalker believe in its power? Stalker’s Wife (Alisa Friendlich) believes in the Room, and in a few quick remarks, Hoel addresses this character and Tarkovsky’s often poor representations of women—Hoel points to the women in both Solaris (1972) and Stalker who weep and writhe on floors (37). With all the comparisons to contemporary films in Hoel’s book, Terrence Malick could have found his way into this section. Malick is Tarkovskian in form, tone, and cringingly awful representations of women.

While Tarkovsky shoots himself in the foot with representations of women, his production design is nothing short of remarkable. Stalker is a film that explores notions of place and space. As Hoel remarks, “Setting for Tarkovsky is essential” (44). Instead of focusing on the film’s setting, however, Hoel shares his thoughts on the comics series Y: The Last Man (2002-2008), the TV series Westworld (2016-, incorrectly dated as 2017-), and films such as Cube (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), Looper (2012), Antichrist (2009), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), Arrival (2016), and Tarkovsky’s earlier sf masterpiece Solaris (1972). When Hoel gets around to Stalker, critical interpretation is an underutilized approach. In one baffling section, “The Meat Grinder,” after calling this setting “the most fascinating aspect of the Zone [after the Room itself],” Hoel adds a long quotation from the film’s composer Eduard Artemyev and then considers the film’s soundtrack. Toward the end of the chapter, in a bid for some critical interpretation, Hoel draws a parallel between nuclear holocaust and Stalker: “if you take the position that the Zone is real, then the nuclear presence stands easily as a grotesque manifestation of the unnatural world, of humanity gone so badly awry that it has premeditated its own undoing” (63). In the sequences set outside of the bar, the Iru power plant stands imposingly across the river and, although its energy source is natural gas, I could not help but think of the future Chernobyl disaster.

In a much stronger chapter, “The Aesthetics of Stalker,” Hoel comments on the style of the film to consider its possible meanings. For example, in spite of the real world’s sepia tone and the vibrant colors of the Zone, there is no mapping of an unwell reality and an Eden onto the two spaces of the film. The Zone’s deteriorating and overgrown environment, however colorful, renders it an anti-Oz (68). But like previous chapters, Hoel opens a path of inquiry only to veer off in other directions: a discussion of the symbolism of the film, and its aesthetics, still requires that the author turns to the story, plot, and dialogue rather than examine form and mise-en-scène.

Hoel ends the book with poetry. Stalker features poems by the director’s father, Arseny, and Fyodor Tyutchev. True to form, in this short chapter the author begins to connect the poetry to character and plot but makes tangential remarks such as concerns about translation and how Icelandic pop-vocalist Björk set Tyutchev’s poetry to music. Hoel is a poet and instructor of English courses at Duquesne University, so I expected an insightful investigation of the film’s use of poetry. Hoel has underprepared this eight-page chapter.

This lack of preparation is a common feature of the book: there are a few typos; in the paperback edition, the black-and-white images are dark, sometimes bordering on indecipherable; and the writing is sloppy at times, full of dashes and unnecessarily italicized verbs and phrases. Many of the paragraphs have no transitions and some sections leave much to be desired (e.g., rather than conclude his character profiles with a bang, Hoel drops some connections about the actors and Tarkovsky’s oeuvre). There are also some errors, e.g., incorrectly citing Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie’s estimation of the average shot length of the film. Hoel writes that the film “is filled with very long shots—at an average of four minutes per shot,” then provides a note to Johnson and Petrie’s The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue (1994) without a page reference (12, 20; Hoel mistitles the book Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue in the Bibliography on page 104). In their book, Johnson and Petrie write that Stalker has “an average shot length of almost one minute (142 shots in 161 minutes, with many 4 minutes or longer),” and later, “an average shot length of just over one minute” (152, 194).  

And in regard to the film’s ending, Hoel either misremembers or omits details for the sake of brevity. He observes that Monkey perhaps uses telekinesis to push a glass off the edge of a table (15, 41). Whether she has this power is open to debate and interpretation. Stalker’s opening sequence is significant here. Set in Stalker’s home, a nearby passing train causes a glass on a night table to move from the edge to the center. If it is a single glass that Monkey moves at the end, the train explanation seems possible. But Monkey does not appear to move only one glass, as Hoel writes: one medium glass, a large jar, and one large glass that tumbles off the edge of the table (in that order) defy the laws of physics here, with Monkey’s intentionality marked by her fixed stare at the individual objects. The additional two items, for me, suggest her telekinetic abilities.

Those issues aside, Hoel’s Stalker could be of interest to Tarkovsky fans and cinephiles. It is a satisfactory supplement for fans with renewed interest in the film, due in part to the Criterion Collection’s recent Stalker DVD and Blu-ray release (2017). Scholars would do well to pass on the book. Hoel’s brief references to theorists such as Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Susan Sontag, and Slavoj Žižek hint at the possibility of more robust analyses, but Hoel opts for long quotations rather than engaging with these thinkers at length.—Troy Michael Bordun, University of Northern British Columbia

In Full Color: The Future of Afrofuturism.

Isiah Lavender III and Lisa Yaszek, eds. Literary Afrofuturism in the Twenty-First Century. Ohio State UP, 2020. vii+254 pp. $34.95 pbk.

Literary Afrofuturisms in the Twenty-First Century compiles essays by scholars working in the field, Afrofuturist art by the talented Stacey Robinson, and the rare treat of an author and editor roundtable that interrogates the value and meaning of Afrofuturism as both a frame of inquiry and a potentially limiting marketing label. In their introduction to this collection, “Imagining Futures in Full Color,” Isiah Lavender III and Lisa Yaszek update the complex, often-competing definitions of Afrofuturism, pointing to it as an “aesthetic practice that enables artists to communicate the experience of science, technology, and race across centuries, continents, and culture,” forming a “multigenerational, multimedia artistic experiment” (2-3).  Scholarship on Afrofuturism in the past decade has expanded beyond Mark Dery’s 1993 conception of the term to include a broader, more robust vision of Afrofuturism that includes a “globe-spanning tapestry of creative voices and aesthetic practices linking historic African American, contemporary black Atlantic, and pan-African authors together in provocative new ways” (9). The collection is situated at least in part in the context of a global movement for Black lives, increased attention to police brutality and systemic racism in the US, and a burgeoning demand for Black speculative art (the kind of art lamented by, for instance, proponents of the now-infamous Puppygate [2015-2016]). In response, the featured authors, editors, and scholars emphasize Afrofuturism’s ability to look through difficult pasts and presents into a future where Black people are thriving in full color.

The book focuses primarily on literary Afrofuturist works in order to emphasize the contributions of print as a critical lens for understanding Black aesthetic practices in the current moment, marked by political, environmental, creative, and global contexts. As such, it is divided into four sections: Afrofuturism Now (chapters 1-2); Afrofuturism in Literary History (chapters 3-5); Afrofuturism in Cultural History (chapters 6-8); and Afrofuturism and Africa (chapters 9-12). These sections are bookended by an author and editor roundtable that includes commentary from Bill Campbell, Minister Faust, Nalo Hopkinson, N.K. Jemisin, Chinelo Onwualu, Nisi Shawl, and Nick Wood, presented with questions from editors Lavender and Yaszek, and “Coda: Wokeness and Afrofuturism.” Part one grounds Afrofuturism as an ever-developing and complicated aesthetic movement—with room for disagreement among and between authors and scholars—that seeks to “evoke the past, critique the present, and challenges us to imagine a greater, more possible future” (11). Part two traces the impact of Afrofuturism in sf, especially in alternate histories and Afrofuturist YA. Part three interrogates Black history and culture through the lens of Afrofuturism, including Mark Bould’s recovery of John M. Faucette; environmental racism; and the prominent rise of the innovative “geontological sf” of N.K. Jemisin. Part four brings us to the much-debated question of Afrofuturism as a global literary practice rather than one limited to a North American context. Finally, the anthology ends with Lavender and Yaszek’s discussion of the significance of the collection as well as of how we might look beyond Afrofuturism while still finding value in its ideas and practices

Part I, “Afrofuturism Now,” opens with Stacey Robinson’s “AfroVision” (2018), which contextualizes the rest of the chapter using one of Afrofuturism’s central tenets: to view how culture and artistic expression shaped and are shaped through Black aesthetic practices in literature and media. It is followed by the “Author Roundtable on Afrofuturism,” in which eminent authors and editors from North America, Europe, and Africa weigh in on whether Afrofuturism is a “movement, a moment, a marketing strategy, or something else” (25). Roundtable participants ruminate on the term’s definition, usefulness, and connections to Afro-diasporic and African history, culture, and art. Positions range from ambivalence to acceptance as a marketing tool to an outright rejection of the term, while still agreeing on the importance of Black speculation and aesthetics in literature, art, and media. Sheree R. Thomas, award-winning editor of Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000), concludes the first section with “Dangerous Muses: Black Women Writers Creating at the Forefront of Afrofuturism.” This is an important essay that celebrates the contributions of Black women in the field to re-shape sf amid a contemporary rebirth of white supremacy, among other challenges. Thomas unites the works of several black women Afrofuturists whom she identifies as having pioneered the reshaping of generic writing. She organizes the authors by type, reaching both back- and futureward in African tradition. Sections include Conjurers and Seers (Hurston, Hopkinson, and Hairston); Ancestors and Witnesses (Naylor, Walker, Samatar, and Gumbs); Immortals and Muses (Gunn’s Ganja and Hess (1973), Gomez, Johnson, Due, and Butler); and Travelers and Jigganauts (Butler, Hopkinson, Okorafor, and Hairston).

Stacey Robinson’s “Radical Imagination” (2018) precedes part two, “Afrofuturism in Literary History.” De Witt Douglas Kilgore evaluates sf’s typically Eurocentric views in alternate histories juxtaposed against the potential of Afrofuturist alternate histories to correct this whitewashing. In “This Time for Africa! Afrofuturism as Alternate (American) History,” Kilgore argues that novels such as Lions Blood (Steven Barnes, 2011) and Fire on the Mountain (Terry Bisson, 2003) offer “new interpretive ground” and “liberatory potentials in sensibilities far from today’s conservative leaning political center,” making them a rich resource for thinking through contemporary social problems without centering whiteness as the dominant societal framework (71). Gina Wisker’s essay, which follows, demonstrates how Nalo Hopkinson’s work revises some of the issues that Black sf writers encounter, namely the “invading, colonizing, and othering imperatives that underlie so much of the genre” (73). “Middle Age, Mer People, and the Middle Passage: Nalo Hopkinson’s Afrofuturist Journeying in The New Moon’s Arms” discusses Afrofuturism’s connections to the postcolonial gothic and Hopkinson’s ability to “right wrongs and write forward” by combining the two ideas and emphasizing futurity through creative transformation (79). Rebecca Holden’s “Young Adult Afrofuturism” highlights the necessity for Afrofuturism as a didactic tool that can aid YA readers in imagining diverse futures and their roles in them. This can take place by revising false historical narratives about race, as in Okorafor’s The Shadow Speaker (2007), by reclaiming African folktales, as in Walter Mosley’s 47 (2005), or in the creation of new futures based on powerful histories, as in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince (2013).

Part three, “Afrofuturism in Cultural History” connects Black sf and Afrofuturism to our contemporary moment. These three chapters draw heavily from instances in modern history and culture to parse out the pervasiveness of racism in American culture and the ability of Afrofuturism as a lens through which to critique cultural assumptions, think optimistically about possible futures, and celebrate Black excellence in sf. Mark Bould’s essay “Space/Race: Recovering John M. Faucette” outlines Faucette’s brief career, his complicated relationship with his own writing, and the landscape of the sf publishing industry in the 1970s, which may have contributed to Faucette being siloed. Elizabeth Wheeler’s essay “Runoff: Afroaquanauts in Landscapes of Sacrifice” is a riveting discussion of Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans (2013) and its celebration of “young black geniuses in African American sf who battle the forces militating against their survival” (130). A key takeaway from this essay, that “exposure to toxic runoff leads to running off from police,” could be a slogan for the environmental justice movement. Wheeler covers Freddie Gray, quarantine walls, Flint, the Flint poets, disability, and more. She skillfully demonstrates how Afrofuturist texts provide blueprints for young adults to “muster physical and political forms of resistance to confront physical and political toxins” (131). This essay is a must read. It is followed by Lisa Dowdall’s “Black Futures Matter: Afrofuturism and Geontology in N.K. Jemison’s Broken Earth Trilogy,” also a standout chapter. Dowdall notes the Sad/Rabid Puppies’ dehumanizing remarks and actions in 2015-2016, countered by the immediate backlash from within the sf community, as well as the hunger for more diverse works from fans. She goes on to explore in rich detail the depth of Jemisin’s trilogy and its success as an Afrofuturist posthuman tale that reclaims indigenous and colonized knowledges to link the human and non-human in the Anthropocene.

The fourth section, “Afrofuturism and Africa,” connects the project of Afrofuturism to a more globalized landscape. Gerry Canavan’s essay on Black Panther critiques the comic’s long history of perpetuating colonialist and racist tropes, which may be attributed to the equally long history of white male writers in a white male-dominated industry. He outlines Wakanda as a space of contention and contradiction, where so little attention is given to developing a unique history rich with details about such matters as their system of governance that it is difficult to ascribe more than a vague sense of Wakanda as a nation. Canavan includes panels and maps from the Marvel comic, as well as a glimpse into the future of Wakanda through the eyes of current Black Panther writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Jerome Winters’s “Global Afrofuturist Ecologies” moves this section into a radical revision of colonial and post-colonial Afrofuturism, particularly within sf environmental narratives. Winters focuses on Sofia Samatar, N.K. Jemisin, and Nnedi Okorafor, highlighting their “critical stance toward Western science and technology and their celebration of indigenous African ecological practices and values—both as they persist and change over time” (191). The ecologies in question are firmly African, and Winters shows how the three authors resist typical colonial and postcolonial solutions to environmental issues. He argues that Samatar critiques Orientalized notions of African natural spaces, while Jemisin’s work challenges the West as the central contestant in the rise of modern medicine and contextualizes Western medicine’s development as stemming from alternative systems of historical ethnobotany. Finally, Winters asserts that Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014) subverts the prevailing colonial idea that environmental degradation is a natural consequence of progress, and supposes instead a new, more alien vision of development that goes beyond exploitation of either people or animals.

Marleen Barr’s “You Can’t Go Home Again: Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space, Science Fiction, and Global Interdependence” furthers Winters’s premise that Afrofuturism is beginning to encompass a more transnational, globalized identity. In her essay, national identity and national science intersect with and encourage African nomadism and global and species interdependencies. Barr positions Olukotun’s novel as an emblem of Afrofuturism’s “strength … as a set of concerns—black global nomadism, technoscience, and personhood” in an “affirmative” vision of the future (204). Emphasizing the movement in Nigerians in Space from an international locus to an international “vision of identity and action,” Barr demonstrates Afrofuturism’s larger shift towards the biotic, while also condemning the “derogatory humor” that infects sf in general and Olukotun in particular, given his premise that Nigeria could not possibly have a space program, much less a successful one (213). In her final section of the essay “The Heart of the Matter,” Barr reminds us of what may be the most crucial argument Afrofuturism makes: “All life on Earth is interdependent,” and Afrofuturism as a critical cultural lens helps us to envision better futures for all (214). Similarly, Nedine Moonsamy’s chapter, “Faster than Before: Science Fiction in Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard” (1952) uses an Afrofuturist framework to trouble the boundaries of sf. Moonsamy argues that The Palm Wine Drinkard “foreground[s] what is alien within the idiomatic,” lending the text more credence as sf than fantasy according to Samuel R. Delany’s explanation of the subjunctivity of the fantastic. As such, in this section of the collection we see how “African sf involves seeing subjects as always already at home in the genre” (224).

Lavender and Yaszek close with a Coda, “Wokeness and Afrofuturism.” Drawing on images from Wright’s Native Son (1940), the authors urge readers to consider “the utility of Afrofuturism as a critical term in the battle to stake claims for people of color—for people of all colors—in the future imaginary” (231). Indeed, the essays in this anthology all contribute to illuminating the transformative vision and nature of Afrofuturism and its critical importance at a time when stories about “science, technology, race, and futurity [have] become increasingly central to public imagination” (232). Scholars in the field will find this volume essential, while the accessibility of the essays, the intricate and powerful art, the inclusion of writers currently working in Black sf, and the playfulness that Lavender and Yaszek bring to the book ensure it is worth reading for anyone interested in our connected futurities.—Megan M. Stowe, University of South Florida

Always Already Unevenly Distributed.

Mitch R. Murray and Mathias Nilges, eds. William Gibson and the Futures of Contemporary Culture. U of Iowa P, The New American Canon, 2020. xx+266 pp. $90 pbk, $90 ebook.

Every few years, a seemingly definitive critical volume on William Gibson appears. Tom Henthorne’s William Gibson: A Literary Companion (2011) was followed by Gary Westfahl’s William Gibson (2013) and Gerald Alva Miller’s Understanding William Gibson (2016). Having worked on Gibson’s post-2000 novels for some time now, I for one have regretted the lack of a book that would approach, for example, his Blue Ant trilogy (2003–2010) as a whole or touch upon The Peripheral (2014) more than tentatively. The aforementioned studies had the misfortune of appearing just behind the curve of what Gibson had just been up to or was going to do next.

In this regard, William Gibson and the Futures of Contemporary Culture certainly works to fill a gap in scholarship. It collects eleven chapters, a foreword by author Malka Older, and an afterword by author and Westworld (2016–)story editor Charles Yu. As an edited collection, rather than a study by an individual scholar, it achieves impressive breadth and depth, especially into Gibson’s artistic work in the past twenty years or so.

Most of the contributors are well-established scholars, many of whom have written about Gibson, cyberpunk, and adjacent phenomena for some time already, including Andrew M. Butler, SFS co-editors Elizabeth Swanstrom and Sherryl Vint, Takayuki Tatsumi, and Phillip E. Wegner. On the other hand, Maria Alberto, Kylie Korsnack, and co-editor Murray represent emerging academic voices. The cast of authors is mainly centered in the United States but, curiously, the collection does not include biographical information that would have helped readers follow up on the contributors.

The volume is divided into three parts, the first focusing on Gibson in the context of literary history, the second on questions of medium, and the third on Gibson’s engagement with the elusive present. Delightfully, it bypasses most of the often rehashed debates about the placement of Gibson’s works on various genre continua (most typically, postmodernist–modernist for The Sprawl trilogy [1984-1988] and sf–realism for Pattern Recognition [2003]). This speaks of a shared, grounded understanding of Gibson’s artistic output as having always navigated and drawn upon various registers of literature, as the introduction and the chapters in the first part of the book make explicit. Older’s foreword stands out as well, analyzing Gibson’s work as “rooted in sociological observation” (xi) and the motifs of crime and dislocation therein.

Overall, the contributions provide compelling readings of many less studied Gibson stories, such as Nilges on “The Gernsback Continuum” (1981) and Korsnack on “The Winter Market” (1986). Interesting analytical approaches are also taken, from Roger Whitson’s use of media archeology to the digital-humanities reading of Gibson and a Gibsonian reading of digital humanities by Alberto and Swanstrom. Two of the chapters focus mainly on the Blue Ant novels and three on The Peripheral, while Korsnack’s chapter on temporal multiplicity discusses both, testament to how the collection’s emphasis is on Gibson’s contemporary output.

The best chapters are stellar. Butler provides an impressive overview both of the screen adaptations of Gibson’s work and his screenwriting for Johnny Mnemonic (1995) and his draft for Alien III (1987) as well as two episodes of The X-Files (1993–2002). He argues that instances of anthropologist Marc Augé’s supermodern nonplaces crop up in all of Gibson’s for-screen work, despite the creative collaborations necessary for TV or film production. Amy J. Elias’s “Realist Ontology in William Gibson’s The Peripheral” is another highlight, building on object-oriented-ontology, posthumanism, and vitalist materialism to arrive at an ethical reading of the novel. Elias shows how the version of “the Real” (174) that the novel posits raises complex ethical questions that cannot be reduced to ontological facts: they do not solve how to understand and employ individual agency. Similar themes emerge in Vint’s chapter as she provides a compelling reading of the Blue Ant trilogy through its juxtaposition of art and advertising. For her, the Blue Ant firm stands for the ever-expanding reach of the market that leaves Gibson’s characters without collective means for promoting societal change, looking instead for individual sanctuary.

While Neuromancer (1984) and cyberpunk have arguably dominated Gibson criticism for decades, William Gibson and the Futures of Contemporary Culture takes important steps in a more comprehensive direction, but it also introduces its own aporia. While Gibson’s output since 2000 gains considerable, and truly welcome, attention in the collection (and I applaud the confidence not to include a chapter on Neuromancer), it is now the Bridge trilogy (1993–1999) that could have used more attention. For example, All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999) is not mentioned beyond the introduction and only Korsnack analyzes the trilogy briefly as a move toward “excessive materiality” (55) after the immersiveness of cyberspace in the Sprawl novels.

In addition, under the rubric of contemporary culture one might have expected to find a chapter dedicated to Gibson’s recent incursion into comics, especially as the second part of the volume is dedicated to the different media in which he has published. Neither Archangel (2016–2017) nor William Gibson’s Alien 3 (2019) receive analytical attention, even if both are mentioned (Butler discusses the latter in terms of Gibson’s abandoned screenplay). Situated in fictional 2016 and 1945, Archangel combines the alternate history of The Difference Engine (1990) with the time-travel structure of The Peripheral. As several contributions deal with Gibson’s approaches to temporality, time-travel, and alternate history, leaving the comic out strikes me as especially strange. A chapter dedicated to a comics-studies approach would have complemented discussions of the different types of temporal speculations in Gibson’s oeuvre and it would have rounded out the section focusing on different media.

The collection’s North American context is suggested in the list of secondary sources employed, which is otherwise compelling and vast. Fredric Jameson is by far the most cited scholar, while Science Fiction Studies is referred to more often than either its British counterparts Extrapolation or Foundation or other European journals focusing on sf studies (the exception is the special issue on Gibson in Polish Journal for American Studies [2018], unfortunately misnamed in the bibliography as a journal of science fiction).

In addition, some specific approaches and secondary sources are surprisingly absent. As The Peripheral and Agency (2020) are both situated against the background of complex climate-related crises, looming both in the future and in the past, the dearth of ecocritical analysis strikes me as a weakness. Especially as the name of this current series is The Jackpot Trilogy—“jackpot” being Gibson’s ironic term for the events that wipe out eighty percent of the human population while making the rich even richer—I was expecting some in-depth discussion about how he approaches the Anthropocene. The growing literature in the environmental humanities would have provided stepping-stones for such an endeavor, such as Ursula K. Heise’s discussion, however brief, of Gibson’s fiction, or one of the many special issues on ecocriticism and literature for a more general theoretical background on the subject.

In the same vein, Rebecca Lemov’s article “On Not Being There: The Data-Driven Body at Work and at Play” (The Hedgehog Review [2015], online) would have had direct relevance for Christian P. Haines’s chapter on gaming, biopolitics, and finance in The Peripheral, as it discusses the same themes and the same novel. Finally, while Marxist analysis abounds and is conducted with poise, the somewhat tight focus on economic issues might warrant intersectional approaches to complement it. As it is, issues of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and ability are mostly just gestured toward, rather than discussed in full. At times, this also lets Gibson off the hook, so to speak, as there are elements to analyze and criticize in his approach to these issues.

While the depth and breadth of this collection, focusing on one of the central sf authors writing today, is impressive, it appears insulated to some extent from many current literary-studies discourses. To a degree, this limits its potential for creating an even fuller understanding of the place that Gibson’s work occupies, as well as all the areas he influences and from which he draws influence.

While one cannot expect an edited collection to be comprehensive on a subject, these various omissions suggest how much the selection of contributors and topics has far-reaching consequences for the scope of the scholarly intervention achieved. At a time when literary studies are criticized for overvaluing the physical prose book and various discussions promote the interrogation of canonicity both in terms of primary and secondary sources, sf studies can be and often is at the vanguard of such developments.

Despite its several shortcomings, William Gibson and the Futures of Contemporary Culture is a welcome addition to works that attempt to discuss Gibson and his fiction both in some detail and over the course of his continuing career. It points toward the need to move away from totalizing takes on authors and their work, and rather to frame critical interventions with a more distinct focus. Murray and Nilges have done an admirable job in producing a volume that offers something for everyone, but the task at hand also leaves specialist readers wanting even more. This can be seen as a strength, however. What better springboards for our own continued endeavors to study one of the most insightful writers of the contemporary moment and, through his work, to appreciate the irreducible strangeness of the present?—Esko Suoranta, University of Helsinki

The Bishop’s Gambit.

Joe Sanders. Michael Bishop and the Persistence of Wonder: A Critical Study of the Writings. McFarland, 2020. 202pp. $39.95 pbk.

Anyone paying serious attention to the science fiction of the 1970s through the 1990s would likely have counted Michael Bishop among the major writers of the period, and certainly as one of the most eclectic and individual voices. His work sometimes seemed to veer wildly, ranging from time-traveling anthropological sf to Jack Vance-style far futures, theocratic dystopias, alternate histories involving Philip K. Dick and Richard Nixon, Southern Gothic, and what remains one of the best contemporary homages to Frankenstein (1818) in his masterpiece Brittle Innings (1994). This sheer variety makes it a challenge to fit him into the identifiable movements and trends that emerged along with his own career—not quite New Humanist, not quite post-cyberpunk, not quite Southern Gothic, but not quite not, either. For the last several years, Fairwood Press has been reissuing revised and corrected editions of his earlier works, under his own imprint Kudzu Planet Productions, which only provides further evidence of his devotion to craft and his already well-known habit of revising and reconfiguring earlier work. Such a conscientious and self-conscious artist would seem to be a magnet for scholars and critics, but the available scholarship on Bishop’s work has been surprisingly sparse. It may be revealing, though, that a good deal of that critical attention has come from fellow authors such as James Morrow, Brian Stableford, Ian Watson, and Paul di Filippo.

Joe Sanders goes a long way toward restoring that imbalance with Michael Bishop and the Persistence of Wonder, portions of which appeared in somewhat different form as essays in The New York Review of Science Fiction in the 1990s. Following an appreciative introduction by Bishop’s friend and occasional collaborator Di Filippo and a short preface that acknowledges the challenges of organizing a study of a writer who always seems to be engaged in re-invention and revision, Sanders leaps directly into a discussion of Bishop’s first published story, “Piñon Fall” (1970), which he acknowledges is “a gentle wisp of a story” with echoes of Bradbury. That essentially establishes Sanders’s methodology throughout—taking us title by title through Bishop’s work, with chapters devoted to the short fiction of the 1970s, the novels of 1975-1980, the short fiction from 1981-1994, the novels of 1982-1994, and the sparser later fiction after the mid-1990s. Characteristically, Sanders begins with a brief description of the tale (especially important for early fiction with which few readers are likely to be familiar), followed by a critical discussion that may range from basic explication to showing how the story relates to Bishop’s recurring themes and to other writers he may be responding or alluding to (which vary broadly from Stanley Weinbaum, Philip K. Dick, and Ursula Le Guin to Mary Shelley, Hemingway, and even Somerset Maugham). Given Bishop’s habits of ongoing revision, Sanders is sometimes obliged to look at a number of different states of the same text. For example, Bishop’s first novel appeared in 1975 as A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire, was republished in “an extremely different version” in 1980 as Eyes of Fire, with that version revised again in 2015—but under the original title. This can be a challenge for any scholar to explain, though Sanders’s clear and direct prose is able to turn this into a fascinating case study of the process of creation.

Largely on the basis of the award-nominated early story “Death and Designation among the Asadi” (1973), the novel Transfigurations (1979) that evolved from it, and later novels such as No Enemy but Time (1982) and Ancient of Days (1985), Bishop gained a reputation as a master of anthropological sf, but Sanders argues persuasively that anthropology was mostly a convenient way for Bishop to explore his favorite themes of human desires and needs during a certain phase of his career; it hardly works as an approach to novels such as Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas (1987), Count Geiger’s Blues (1992), or Brittle Innings (1994). On the other hand, Sanders almost mechanically applies ideas from Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces to Bishop’s Nebula-winning novel No Enemy But Time (1982), despite the problematic aspects of Campbell’s work that have been identified by later folklorists and the fact—reported by Sanders himself—that Bishop had not read Campbell’s book before writing the novel. Sanders’s overall discussion of the novel is characteristically insightful, though, and he is not afraid to challenge the accepted view of Bishop’s most well-received novel, concluding that No Enemy but Time is “an important effort” whose” reach has exceeded its grasp” (103). By way of contrast, even though Ancient of Days (1985) received no awards and has been mostly met by critical indifference, Sanders concludes that it is “one of Bishop’s most satisfactorily developed novels”—partly, he argues, because of the use of an unreliable and unsympathetic narrator, a technique that in hindsight now seems ahead of its time.

Bishop’s next three novels certainly must have cemented his reputation for unpredictability. Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas (originally published under the title The Secret Ascension in 1987), partly a pastiche of Dick “not just in superficial mannerisms but in its fundamental viewpoint,” in which the ghost of the author finds itself fighting against the fake reality imposed by a fourth-term Nixon presidency. (Though it is likely that Sanders finished his manuscript too soon to make the observation, Bishop’s Nixon alternate-reality dystopia probably resonates in the Trump era more than when the novel was published.) Unicorn Mountain (1988), a fantasy which many readers regarded as ungainly with its shifting tones and multiple themes (a breach in the “planes” of reality allowing unicorns into our world, questioning of gender roles, suicide, the AIDS crisis) comes in for one of Sanders’s most spirited defenses; acknowledging that “the novel sometimes feels chaotic,” he convincingly untangles the various thematic threads and styles to conclude that “it was Bishop’s best novel so far” (331).In discussing Count Geiger’s Blues (1992), a darkly comic parody of comic-book superheroes that could not be further in tone from Unicorn Mountain, Sanders invokes George Bernard Shaw to defend the aesthetics of what used to be called “black humor,” but ends up concluding that Bishop may have been “trying to juggle too many chainsaws at once.”

Sanders saves his most unreserved praise for Brittle Innings (1994), “unquestionably Bishop’s very best book” and “a breathtakingly successful novel,” an assessment likely shared by fellow writers John Kessel and Elizabeth Hand, both of whom have called it Bishop’s “great American novel.” Within the frame of a sportswriter interviewing a legendary baseball scout named Danny Boles, the novel is narrated mostly in Boles’s folksy voice, describing his youthful ambition in the South during the early years of World War II to become a minor league baseball player. After gaining a position with a third-string regional team, he befriends a hulking first baseman named Henry Clerval—who, we learn from reading lengthy extracts from Clerval’s secret journals, is actually Frankenstein’s creature, having made his way through the arctic to the Inuits and finally to North America (with his creator’s corpse in tow). The stylistic pivot from Boles’s voice to Clerval’s almost note-perfect recreation of the creature’s voice from Shelley’s novel is a stunning technical achievement, as well as a haunting repositioning of the whole narrative. Somewhat surprisingly, Sanders’s generally astute discussion focuses less on how Henry’s tale relates to Frankenstein than on the influence of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915), which is alluded to briefly early in the novel. He makes a convincing case, though it involves rather a narrow view of a novel that richly opens up in all sorts of directions.

While Sanders’s discussions of the novels are likely to be of greatest interest to readers, his chapters devoted to short fiction in some ways provide a clearer view of the evolution of Bishop’s craft. At times, though, Sanders’s choice of stories to discuss seems a bit arbitrary. His chapter “Surreal Estates: Short Fiction 1981-1994” covers only a half-dozen stories from this period—sometimes at lengths of three or four pages each—but only one of these was included in Bishop’s own selection of 15 stories from roughly this same period in his 1996 collection At the City Limits of Fate. That collection included some of Bishop’s most mordant and satirical treatments of religious themes, a topic which Sanders touches on, but might have covered in greater depth. Bishop’s work as a poet, essayist, and anthologist are only mentioned in a very brief closing chapter, although one could argue that his huge Light Years and Dark (1984) was one of the defining anthologies of the 1980s and that his nonfiction collection A Reverie for Mister Ray: Reflections on Life, Death, and Speculative Fiction (2005) offers valuable insights as to how Bishop has viewed himself in various literary contexts. An almost equally brief but useful interview with Bishop concludes the volume. Of course, any treatment of an author as varied, eclectic, and restless as Bishop requires making hard choices, and Michael Bishop and the Persistence of Wonder is almost certainly the most informed and enlightening study we are likely to see of an author whose work deserves a good deal more scholarly attention that it has thus far received. Let us hope that this clearly written and deeply thoughtful study can help get that discussion going.—Gary K. Wolfe, Locus

Alienation or Alien Love?

John L. Steadman. Aliens, Robots & Virtual Reality Idols in the Science Fiction of H.P Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov and William Gibson. Zero Books/John Hunt, 2020. x+256 pp. $25.95 pbk, $20.99 ebk.

What is an alien? What does the alien want? These are the key questions asked in John L. Steadman’s masterful account of sf authors H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov, and William Gibson. In asking these questions, Steadman attempts to address the even more perplexing problem of what it means to be human. Presenting the human and the alien as a conceptual pair that, according to quantum theory’s idea of complementarity, “cannot be understood at precisely the same time” (2), Aliens, Robots & Virtual Reality Idols offers a lucid survey of how each author juxtaposes the human and non-human. Its impressive range of coverage, detailed knowledge of each writer’s corpus, and development of a shared language to describe the disparate nature of various non-human entities single this book out as a significant contribution to the field of sf studies. Additionally, its confident handling of terrestrial, extraterrestrial, and inter-dimensional aliens; humaniform and humanoid robots; and holographic, biomechanoid, AI, and loa idols as parallel forms of alterity or otherness gestures (a bit hollowly, as will be shown) toward sf’s broader function as cultural or critical commentary.

The book itself follows a tripartite structure, beginning with a clear, erudite, and at times poetic introduction to what Steadman terms respectively as Lovecraft, Asimov, and Gibson country. In these descriptions Steadman’s true passion as a Lovecraft scholar reveals itself. For instance, his hypothetical visitor to Lovecraft country “stands alone in a desolate, cathedral-like forest on an autumn day ... as the short day draws to a close and the shadows gather.” Awed by Lovecraft’s cosmic sublime, “she becomes conscious of the great immensities of space and time” (4). Perhaps in stylistic alignment with a shift from horror and fantasy to hard sf and cyberpunk, Steadman’s handling of Asimov and Gibson country is much more practical: “She can marvel at the glittering, immense, underground cities on Earth” (7), while “Gibson’s post-modernistic cities are the same cities that we are all familiar with” (10). After introducing the type of storyworlds each author creates, Steadman allots roughly a third of the remaining book to a thorough examination of each writer. These three sections each follow a consistent structure, beginning with a valuable biography that places the writer in his historical context and, importantly, includes a genealogy of influence. Steadman then dedicates a chapter to each type of non-human entity that exists for that particular author before outlining what humankind looks like in his broader corpus. These detailed examinations conclude with individual chapters examining how human and non-human entities interact and relate to one another; this ranges from alien indifferentism in Lovecraft to robot and VR inclusionism in Asimov and Gibson.

Steadman’s skill at summarizing and describing the numerous texts and characters explored here demonstrates his deep knowledge of the subject matter, as well as his own masterful storytelling ability. Additionally, his careful and astute selection of quotations from the various texts described not only supports his own claims regarding the human/non-human dichotomy but is also likely to draw new readers to the stories and authors that he chronicles. His strength resides in providing clear and precise outlines of each author’s major texts and the characters to be analyzed, so that it is quite easy to follow his discourse even when it touches on a particular text that the reader has not experienced. This is especially evident in his self-constructed hierarchy of being, through which Steadman offers an overview of both the non-human entities and the homo sapiens and homo sapiens+ created by each author. According to this hierarchy, each author presents a series of normal humans and the supernaturally inclined, genetically modified, and/or naturally gifted humans plus. These humans interact with, and/or are affected by, non-human entities in different ways. For example, in Lovecraft country the humans+ tend to be witches and wizards who seek the aid of aliens to gain knowledge, power, or apocalypse. In Asimov country, the augmented humans are those who have evolved or been modified so that they have no need to seek alliances with alien forces. As Steadman notes, “They are the higher powers” (130; emphasis in original). In a further descent from the supernatural to the scientific, Gibson’s humans+ “have highly developed intuitive powers” (216) that enable them to become net-runners and pattern readers. Their naturally acquired skills, however, come at a cost, as they are frequently accompanied by addiction, deformity, or disease.

An additional strength of this book is its careful consideration of aliens, robots, and VR idols as parallel forms of alterity. For those interested in how sf authors have presented otherness, Steadman’s carefully organized survey of Lovecraft’s unique creation of aliens, Asimov’s foundational exploration of robots, and Gibson’s visionary approach to cyberspace and AI will provide an enormous amount of material and structure for further study. Each section of this book effectively functions as its own separate examination of an author’s created cosmos and of the roles humans play in it. For Lovecraft, the human is small and the cosmos infinite. Aliens are nearly all malevolent and interaction with these creatures results in death, destruction, or madness. For Asimov, humans reign within the more manageable context of the Milky Way galaxy. There are no aliens, save the robots that humans create and include within their societies. Any potential malevolence is addressed (imperfectly, as Steadman shows) by the Three Laws of Robotics. For Gibson, humans are of central importance within an even smaller context of earth and, in the case of Freeside in Neuromancer (1984), of nearby space. His VR and AI constructs frequently work with humans to their benefit, although humankind remains largely “indifferent towards the aliens” (237) that surround them.

The compelling descriptive and narrative strength of Aliens, Robots & Virtual Reality Idols alsoreveals itself as a potential weakness. At times, it is difficult to identify what Steadman is arguing, or even if there is an argument at all. This is partially intended, as Steadman suggests, when he introduces the book through the lens of quantum theory’s concept of complementarity. In this way, he positions the human and the alien as opposing concepts that can only be understood by knowing what the other is not. Steadman further underscores the alien/human resistance to analysis in his conclusion, in which he admits that “our understanding of the alien is, at best, imperfect and minimal.” He then suggests, “But our understanding of ourselves is enhanced because of this; when the alien withdraws from the stage, as it does in the works of all three writers, we are left with only ourselves to look at” (246). In this way, the book attempts to shift the interpretive burden onto the reader, ultimately avoiding the responsibility of defining humanity and its relationship to the Other.

This would be less unsatisfactory if Steadman had not primed the reader for a more critical examination of alterity, which he does, in part, by referencing philosophical and psychoanalytical theories of identity. For example, he quotes Dani Cavallaro’s use of Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage in her Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson (2000) in order to explain the self-actualization process undertaken by Gibson’s VR entities. Because, as Steadman notes, “there is nothing existential that can be actualized” (175) in a being that only exists within cyberspace, the process of understanding the self is entirely imaginary. This type of complex theoretical framework is indeed warranted, as Gibson himself suggests in Mona Lisa Overdrive (1989). In a gesture reminiscent of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s master-slave dialectic from The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Gibson explains that “when the matrix attained sentience, it simultaneously became aware of another matrix, another sentience” (Gibson qtd. in Steadman 213). In other words, self-knowledge is necessarily attended by knowledge of the Other. This moves beyond the concept of complementarity and instead suggests a deeper psychological interconnection that is never quite expressed in Aliens, Robots & Virtual Reality Idols.           

Concomitant with its tendency toward the descriptive over the argumentative, a further difficulty with this book is the problem of intended audience. As noted above, Steadman’s lucid and obviously well researched biography and introduction to each author recommends this book for use in teaching. There are several complicating factors, however, that ought to make the attentive instructor pause before using this book in the classroom. For instance, while the book purports to explore identity through alterity, there is little mention of the primary markers of otherness present today: ethnicity, disability, and age. This becomes even more problematic when dealing with an author as openly and demonstrably racist as Lovecraft. While Steadman twice acknowledges Lovecraft’s racism (48, 62-63), at no point does he interrogate or problematize it. Instead, he subsumes what Lucas Kwong describes as “the author's intent to install race as the foundation of being” (“H.P. Lovecraft's ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ as Radicalizing Assemblage: An Anglo Materialist Nightmare” [Journal of Narrative Theory 49.3 (Fall 2019): 382]) into the much broader category of “anti-humanism” (81). In this way, Lovecraft is recast as a misanthrope whose work is marked by “profound depths of despair, madness, and emptiness” (83), rather than a white supremacist whose work explores the fear and hatred he felt toward non-whites. Choosing to gloss over Lovecraft’s racism as revealed in his construction of aliens is a missed opportunity, since Lovecraft himself makes this connection explicit. See, for example, his description of the inhabitants of New York’s Lower East Side in a “Letter to Frank Belknap Long,” dated 21 March 1924 (Selected Letters, I. 333-34). In it, Lovecraft makes clear for his readers who and/or what he sees as non-human. The decision not to contextualize critically this feature of Lovecraft’s work is especially notable due to the contemporaneous release of HBO’s Lovecraft Country (2020), a television show premised on a similarly titled novel by Matt Ruff that explores the profound interconnectedness of Lovecraft’s horror and the racism of the Jim Crow-era United States.

In addition to the problematic glossing of Lovecraft’s racism, there are instances in Aliens, Robots & Virtual Reality Idols when word choice and subject matter become unnecessarily alienating for a broader audience. In most of the cases identified below, Steadman reproduces the language used within the texts themselves, but he does not say so, nor does he acknowledge that the language is outdated or offensive. For instance, Steadman refers to Nyarlothotep, an alien featured in Lovecraft’s Fungi from Yuggoth (a series of sonnets originally published in Weird Tales beginning in 1930) and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927), as “vaguely oriental” (53), while describing Lovecraft’s racism as “unfortunate” because, in the case of the entity called Shub-Niggurath, it tarnishes “an otherwise interesting enough trans-dimensional alien” (63). Moving beyond the work of Lovecraft, Steadman persists in using problematic language when describing “mentally-challenged person[s]” (124, 209) in Asimov’s “… That Thou Art Mindful of Him” (1974) and Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive respectively. He goes on to describe Asimov’s Late Solarians as hermaphrodites and “alien monstrosities” who have taken “their obsessive fears of human contact and sexuality to extreme levels” (153). And finally, in a most perplexing instance, Steadman dedicates an entire paragraph to what he frames as a prescient parallel between the Solarian civilization and “the situation of our millenials in the twenty-first century” (153). Connecting the extreme isolation and technological dependency of these advanced Spacers to the modern-day use of smart phones and other electronic devices, he writes, “Although the millenials have not yet reached the levels of isolation and solipsistic self-absorption that the Solarians have obtained, nevertheless, they seem to be well on their way towards achieving this end” (153). While warning, as Steadman does, against a future with “no room in it for alien love” (245), the lack of critical and self-reflective analysis in this book ultimately falls short of what our current moment most requires. These recurring instances of alienation diminish the value of a text otherwise worthy of praise.—E. Mariah Spencer, University of Iowa

Thinking with Science Fiction.

Sherryl Vint. Science Fiction. MIT, 2021. 207 pp. $15.95 pbk.

Sherryl Vint’s well-conceived, informative, and concise new introduction to science fiction is one of a dozen 2021 entries in MIT Press’s Essential Knowledge series, dedicated, as the series statement says, to offering accessible, expert overviews of “topics of current interest.” This is especially worth noting because Science Fiction is the only volume in the entire series (not just among the 2021 entries) dedicated to a narrative genre. The most closely related topics are volumes on Critical Thinking, Deconstruction, and Hate Speech; otherwise the topics skew toward technical matters such as Algorithms, Biofabrication, Ketamine, and AI Assistants or to social issues such as Gender(s) or Death and Dying. The inclusion of science fiction as a topic in the series is striking evidence in support of Vint’s main thesis, that science fiction is an increasingly important cultural vernacular “for thinking about and intervening in the world” (1-2). Therefore, she explains, “This book is about what science fiction can do, not a catalogue of important authors and titles” (2).

This is not in the least a promise to unveil science fiction’s formal essence, something Vint does not think it has. She stresses instead the diversification and globalization of science fiction in recent decades, emphasizing that the genre is “embraced by many communities of practice, often to significantly divergent ends and with correspondingly different aesthetic and formal strategies” (14). The genre’s internal discord, the “tension between scientific extrapolation and social change [that] lies at [its] heart,” is the keynote of Vint’s exposition of its history and contemporary shape (10). She sets out as her main goal to explain how science fiction complements conversations about “visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology” (17, quoting science studies scholar Sheila Jasanoff) by doing something “more urgently needed—namely, it critically interrogates who is part of the collective creating those ‘shared understandings.’ Social as well as technological change is at stake in sf, which helps us think through whether ‘advances in science and technology’ are also always advances in civic and social life” (17). She concludes her introductory chapter with a claim that the book fully lives up to: “If we are living in a science-fictional world, this book aims to help us articulate more precisely what that means and to prompt us to think about actively managing—rather than passively awaiting—this future” (18).

Vint fleshes out her exposition of what science fiction can do in seven thematically organized chapters. Some of the chapters tackle familiar, well-established contexts and motifs of sf: the utopian tradition; the colonial imagination; robots and artificial intelligence. Others attest more to the book’s emphasis on sf’s relevance to contemporary social and political discourses: genomics and the microbiome; futurology and speculative design; climate change and the Anthropocene; economics and financialization. Transhumanism and posthumanism are appropriately split into two chapters, transhumanism paired with robotics and artificial intelligence, posthumanism with genomics and the microbiome. Every chapter involves some accounting of sf’s history of dealing with the given topic, in some cases recounting its anticipation of and influence upon scientific and technological developments. Scientific developments and their legal and social implications are lucidly presented, as is the economic theory informing Vint’s discussion of twenty-first century financial speculation. Many canonical and more recent works and authors come up as examples, although a given work rarely receives more than a sentence or two of commentary, and the whole bent of the exposition is towards unfolding the broad scope and variety of sf’s engagement with the issues. As promised in the introduction, the argument throughout makes sf’s meditations and influence upon the social implications of scientific and technological developments its foremost concern. Vint’s comment on the relation of science-fictional treatments of cloning and genetic engineering to what the science actually has yielded applies to all the commentary in the book: “The point is not whether sf gets the science right but rather that it is a site where the ripples caused by significant scientific change become visible across other sites of knowledge and social organization” (108). I do not know of any other single-authored volume on sf that traces those ripples more widely and acutely, or that can match the facility with which it moves between sf’s long literary tradition and its manifold contemporary venues and discourses.

Vint concludes with a chapter on “Living in a Science-Fictional World.” She argues there that “acknowledging exchanges between sf and everyday life changes our understanding of the genre—indeed, is a mark that the genre has changed” (158). Those changes are “myriad,” involving multiple communities of practice with various, by no means allied or consistent, motives and resources. Thus “science fiction remains a Janus-faced discourse, equally available as a tool to critique injustices of the present and inspire better futures or deployed to reconcile us to the inevitability of the future as a continuation of our present consisting of technological capitalism and social injustice” (168). Despite this warning, the strongest note in the conclusion is optimism about sf’s present and future usefulness for critical thinking. The contemporary community of sf fans and writers is “far larger, more distributed, and more heterogeneous than First Fandom was,” which Vint takes as “a chance [for sf] to throw off the weight of the past and free the genre from some of its least admirable moments, such as its perpetuation of settler colonial logics, its militaristic space opera, or its Eurocentric notions of technology” (166-67). Now more than ever, then, sf is “good to think with” (166).

The after-matter includes a glossary of technical terms and short lists of recommended reading related to each chapter. These are features directed primarily at outsiders to the study of the genre. Terms such as cyberpunk, cognitive estrangement, and Golden Age are unlikely to require explanation for readers of Science Fiction Studies, nor is the technical vocabulary related to finance and Marxist economic theory likely to be unfamiliar to most literary scholars these days. Nonetheless even these short definitions are worth reading for the clarity and concision with which they convey not just the connotation of a term but often something of its history and importance to controversies within the relevant discipline. I suspect the experience of most readers of this journal would be similar to mine—that some chapters and features covered very familiar ground, while others were full of information and references new to me. The takeaway is that everyone from casual fans to accomplished scholars of sf has something to learn from this remarkably well-written, compact, and very affordable book.—John Rieder, University of Hawai’i, Manoa

Introducing ... the Canadian Fantastic.

Allan Weiss. The Routledge Introduction to the Canadian Fantastic. Routledge, 2021. 228 pp. $160 hc, $42.95 pbk, $38.65 ebk.

A steadfast proponent of Canadian science fiction and fantasy, scholar, editor, and sf author Allan Weiss contributes a valuable resource geared toward the textbook market with the Routledge Introduction to the Canadian Fantastic. It meets its stated goal, to introduce “the history, themes, and critical responses to Canadian fantastic literature” with a broadly ranging approach, taking the term “fantastic” as referring to “genres like science fiction and fantasy, as well as a few that are not normally or adequately covered by these terms” (1). Weiss covers both the English- and French-language production of genre-related works across Canada. Although content focuses on a single national corpus, his introductory chapter on terminology provides useful definitions for beginning scholars of sf broadly conceived, and he consistently situates Canadian production within international trends.

That initial chapter on terminology begins by diplomatically addressing a polemic triggered by Margaret Atwood’s interventions into the “speculative” vs “science” fiction debates. The book is then organized chronologically, each of its five additional chapters addressing a particular period’s production. Chapters share a common structure, first outlining the context of Canadian history (particularly useful for those teaching in the US or UK), then providing the scientific, technological, and cultural contexts for sf’s development in the Anglo-American world beyond the Confederation. Sections address various subgenres, always beginning with science fiction, then fantasy, and adding sections on utopian/dystopian, magical realist/surrealist, horror, poetry and theatre, and children’s and young adult literature, as appropriate. Each chapter concludes with a reading list of its primary corpus; a secondary source bibliography and index close the volume. Weiss shares his encyclopedic knowledge of Canadian sf and f, while carefully acknowledging existing scholarship, citing significant theorists of sf and fantasy in general, and scholars of Canadian sf and f, in particular.

Chapter two outlines the Canadian fantastic’s development from the first novels in English and French, published in the first half of the nineteenth century through 1920. This period is Weiss’s particular forte; as one of the significant canon builders of Canadian sf, Weiss identifies foundational texts, highlighting a few writers with more extended discussion (although, of course, space limits even these to 2-3 pages), coupled with a survey of others, organized around common themes. Above all, in this period, Weiss posits the utopian aims of Canadian sf and f, with Canada seeing itself as a place for the rejuvenation of either the Anglo-Saxon “race” and Protestant Christianity or the Gallic Latin “race” and Catholicism. He explicitly links genre writing to the project of nation building in the settler colony, discussing how “The literature of the period sought not just to express the Canadian ‘nation’s’ [sic] culture but also to create and foster it” (33). Other key themes in this period include geography and the frontier mentality’s image of Canadian masculinity, and the construction of a New World identity in opposition to European corruption. Weiss outlines the similarities and differences between these various themes in the French- and English-Canadian fantastic, consistently acknowledging Canada’s relationship with the US as well.

Chapters three and four trace the development of sf and fantasy during “The Pulp Era” and “The Atomic Age,” periods that “saw the emergence of two of the most important figures in the history of Canadian science fiction: A.E. van Vogt ... and Phyllis Gotlieb” (69). Weiss inevitably discusses Canadian sf and fantasy’s development in relation to the rise of the American pulp magazines, with van Vogt a mainstay in the stable of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction; but he also notes the brief development during World War II restrictions of Canada’s own pulp Uncanny Tales (1940-1943). In these periods of the genre’s definition and development as distinct from mainstream literature, Weiss adds sections on fandom, fanzines, magazines, and book publication. The Canadian fantastic engages with various trends in this period, including Yellow Peril fiction, Lost Worlds, Spiritualism, and Eastern philosophies, and Weiss also notes contributions to utopian satire by mainstream writers Stephen Leacock and Frederick Philip Grove. He (rightly) links French-Canadian utopian fiction to the tenacious belief that Quebec’s future lay in continuing on a path of agriculturalism and forestry during the Pulp Era, a mission that radically changes in the 1960s and 1970s when political science fiction, particularly focused on Quebec’s possible secession from Canada, becomes a nation-specific theme for writers in both French and English.

With Canadian fandom developing through John Robert Colombo’s fanzine, Canadian Fandom (1943-1958), and further groundwork laid in the 1970s, the 1980s and 1990s are the key period for the Canadian fantastic, as outlined in chapter 5, “The Flowering.” Himself an activist in contemporary sf and f in Canada, Weiss provides a detailed, first-hand testimony to its development. In addition to unquestionably Canadian writers, he identifies contributions by US expats. Precisely because of this boom, however, the sheer number of writers who become active limits Weiss to about a paragraph for each, with exceptions such as Robert Charles Wilson, Élisabeth Vonarburg, Margaret Atwood, and Charles de Lint. New subgenres develop as well, such as dark fantasy and horror. While Weiss recognizes the role of feminist sf during these years and identifies works by women throughout, there is clearly a gender imbalance in the production of the Canadian fantastic. (This is particularly glaring in the final chapter, which treats women writers in three lines at the end of a section on “Marginalized Communities and New Voices.”)

Weiss admits at the beginning of chapter 6 on “The New Millennium” that “The number of Canadian science fiction writers has grown to the point where it is simply impossible to do justice to their contributions” (182). He thus covers significant and representative writers such as Peter Watts, Cory Doctorow, and Karl Schroeder, also acknowledging the contribution of Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (2003-2013) to biofiction and post-apocalyptic fiction. Finally, the Introduction recognizes Canada’s cultural diversity and the contributions of diverse groups to fantastic writing. He singles out Nalo Hopkinson as an important figure in the rise of Afrofuturism since 2010, discusses Larissa Lai and Hiromi Goto and the Asian-Canadian fantastic, and includes an important section on Indigenous writers such as Thomas King, Eden Robinson, and Drew Hayden Taylor.

If I must find fault with Weiss’s excellent study, I would simply suggest nuancing his application of le fantastique to identify a particularly modern strain in Québécois literature (119), a usage that elides the term’s history in both France and French-Canada, used to identify both a Todorovian conte fantastique in nineteenth-century France and French-Canadian traditional tales of werewolves, fairies, ghosts, and other supernatural phenomena. Here, Weiss follows Michel Lord in his application of le fantastique to a Quebec-specific literary form developing after 1960, but Lise Morin’s coinage of le neo-fantastique to distinguish this Kafka-esque, magical-realist-inspired writing is more apt. My biggest quibble is with Routledge’s adoption of the VitalSource platform for e-book distribution, which has some annoying idiosyncrasies and introduced “typos” during the print to electronic adaptation process.

I highly recommend the affordable paperback text, around which a course on the Canadian fantastic could easily be designed, for all those with an initial curiosity about sf and related genres north of the forty-ninth parallel. It is also a valuable resource for more advanced scholars.—Amy J. Ransom, Central Michigan University

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