BOOKS IN REVIEW
Neoliberalism as Cyberpunk.
Caroline Alphin. Neoliberalism and Cyberpunk Science Fiction: Living on the Edge of Burnout. Routledge, 2021. 144 pp. $160 hc, $65 pbk & ebk.
When the students in my cyberpunk sf class read and discuss Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline’s “Cyborgs and Space” (1960)—the essay credited with coining the term “cyborg” as a cybernetic organism adapting the human body to the inhospitable alien environment of outer space—alongside cyberpunk texts, they raise some version of this question: to what inhospitable alien environment are cyberpunk’s various, often terrestrial, cyborgs adapting? With Neoliberalism and Cyberpunk Science Fiction: Living on the Edge of Burnout, Caroline Alphin provides a strikingly insightful and elegant answer: competition, intensified to a level of generalized burnout.
Sf scholars are familiar with this condition, both as intellectuals contending with various sf traditions and as intellectual workers constantly squeezed by ever-intensifying professional demands, beginning in undergraduate studies, accelerating throughout graduate school into careers and beyond. Who among us has never been touched by the imperative to “Be better at everything ... the new normal of neoliberalism” (120)? Not even a devastating global pandemic has broken this logic’s valorization, with none spared from being made individually responsible for monitoring and managing their own health and productivity; meanwhile, friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, and strangers the world over have fallen ill and died from a catastrophe intensified (if not largely created) by incessant political privileging of economic productivity over wellbeing. The COVID-19 pandemic continues daily to underline the brutality of the world that has made competition and burnout the order of the day, the world of neoliberalism: “As a way to eliminate surplus bodies that fail to function in the production of value, neoliberal governmentality has developed subtle ways of killing its subjects that often function as letting them die” (1).
Alphin intervenes in this world by defamiliarizing neoliberalism and cyberpunk sf to “make it more difficult for neoliberalism to foster a reality that it ‘suggests already exists,’ and to make strange the values, governmental rationalities, and modes of knowledge production that neoliberalism takes for granted as just the way things are” (2). Alphin develops compelling analyses of primary texts ranging from Neuromancer (1984) and Blade Runner (1982) to FitBit fitness tracker promotional materials and user forums, and biohacker discourse; these are framed by engagements with the thinking of a sweeping range of theorists including Achille Mbembe, Donna Haraway, Michel Foucault, Elizabeth Povinelli, Fredric Jameson, and Steven Shaviro. Alphin convincingly argues that not only is cyberpunk sf “a productive force in neoliberalism,” but also that “neoliberalism is ... cyberpunk” (130). Ultimately, Alphin demonstrates how neoliberal governmentality depends on non-spectacular modes of “letting die,” seemingly mundane occurrences disguised as simple, individual failures of the neoliberal subject to compete: to become the biohacker, an intensification of the self-monitoring cyborg, the subject that successfully monitors and manages its own health and productivity to live constantly at the edge of burnout, a subjectivity (re)produced by cyberpunk sf. Such conceptual intervention seems timely and necessary.
As the title and foregoing abstract suggest, Alphin’s book focuses less on cyberpunk as such than on neoliberalism and neoliberal governmentality, with cyberpunk sf understood in terms of the functions it performs within this context. The terms “neoliberal” and “neoliberalism” occur roughly two and a half times as often as references to “cyberpunk.” That said, “cyberpunk” remains the text’s fourth most used signifier, with the top five being, in descending order: neoliberal, neoliberalism, self, cyberpunk, life. While this gives nothing more than a general sense of the text’s concerns, this general sense is accurate. Alphin’s concern with cyberpunk serves her analysis of neoliberalism, the self that it produces, and the life that self must lead—or fail to lead. Alphin’s analysis of cyberpunk sf prioritizes its function as a textual discourse with a vexed relationship to neoliberal politico-economic reality, for even as “cyberpunk is a productive force in neoliberalism, that ... furthers neoliberal reality” (130), it also “brings into focus the very real material consequences of neoliberalism, while reminding us that neoliberalism is a narrative about how we ought to live. Cyberpunk helps make neoliberalism and its worldwide financial networks, hyperobjects as Steven Shaviro suggests, intelligible or conceptually manageable” (34). In Alphin’s thinking, cyberpunk becomes a means by which neoliberal reality is simultaneously produced and made graspable for critical thought.
Alphin’s central project depends upon three critical movements: revitalizing biopolitics as analytical tool, challenging what might be called the reflection school of postmodern cyberpunk sf criticism, and demonstrating how first the self-monitoring cyborg and then the biohacker produce not new agency or emancipation but a capture more pernicious precisely because it dissembles as freedom. Responding to the turn from biopolitics to necropolitics resulting from Achille Mbembe’s work, Alphin argues that biopolitics remains not only useful but also necessary for understanding how neoliberalism kills in ways subtler than those detectable through the heuristics offered by necropolitics. Alphin’s interventions in this direction furnish the theoretical apparatus necessary for developing her critical response to one predominant mode of cyberpunk scholarship, namely the school of thinking heavily influenced by Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), and she situates her analysis as “work[ing] against thinking about the cyberpunk genre as a representation of late-capitalism and as a tool for diagnosing this condition” (3).
By revitalizing biopolitics and approaching cyberpunk as more than a reflection of the neoliberal condition, Alphin creates the condition of possibility for demonstrating how the self-monitoring cyborg and the biohacker (re)produce neoliberal subjectivity. Identifying the “self-monitoring cyborg” as a figure for “the individuals who join (sometimes temporarily and sometimes permanently) fitness/health tracking devices and applications to their body to ‘self-cultivate,’” Alphin distinguishes her analysis from Haraway’s theorization of the cyborg, clarifying that “I am not using cyborg to refer to a transgressive, radical, or liberatory ontology or subject here. In fact, it is just the opposite as there is nothing liberatory or transgressive about this modality of self-monitoring cyborganization” (44-45). Alphin then proceeds to demonstrate how this process of self-monitoring “cyborganization” leads to “the dissolution of the self, since they [the self-monitoring cyborgs] are in fact machinic functions of capitalism” (60). Extending this analysis to biohacker discourse, Alphin shows that “the biohacker is an intensification of the self-monitoring cyborg” (108). She argues that in the figure of the biohacker not only does the neoliberal subject become responsible for enduring the “deprivations of neoliberalism and neoliberal capitalism, whether it is the desolation of the environment, of work, or of the body,” but that also “living intensely enables a kind of resilience that makes these deprivations endurable, and sometimes even exciting or pleasurable” (125). In the process of developing this argumentative thread, Alphin offers novel readings of Neuromancer and Blade Runner, as well as very interesting theorizations of necroscapes and necro-temporality that provide significant opportunities for (re)thinking cyberpunk sf’s relationship to neoliberalism.
Beyond her theoretical and scholarly interventions, Alphin’s methodological commitment to examining and demonstrating how texts produce—and not just reflect—subjectivity and reality provides a useful and generative methodological model for readers, be they researchers, professors, or students. Alphin’s book thus moves beyond a compelling analysis of neoliberalism and cyberpunk sf, becoming also a tour de force performance of the vital necessity of a cultural critique that seeks to demystify how texts (re)produce the very self that approaches them. Furthermore, Alphin accomplishes all of this in a style academic enough to enable the necessary complexity of thought but approachable enough that upper-division undergraduate students should have no problem comprehending it. The result is a book that I recommend to anyone interested in neoliberalism, critical theory (especially post-Foucauldian thought), and cyberpunk sf, a book that can be used in a wide range of intellectual and pedagogical contexts, from research to undergraduate classrooms and graduate seminars. For my part, I know that next time my cyberpunk sf students read “Cyborgs and Space,” they will also read from Caroline Alphin’s Neoliberalism and Cyberpunk Science Fiction.—David Shipko, Johns Hopkins University
A French Take on the Pandemic.
Christophe Becker and Clémentine Hougue, eds. La Pandémie en science-fiction. Books on Demand, 2021. 164 pp. €8 pbk, €1,99 ebk.
Stella Incognita is a French scholarly association for the promotion and development of the study of sf (http://stella-incognita.byethost18.com/). Analagous to our SFRA, it organizes colloquia, but it has also developed one response to the evolving landscape of scholarly publishing by sponsoring juried essay collections available in print from Books on Demand. This volume, which acknowledges in its introduction, “Penser l’après” [Thinking about Afterward], its inspiration in COVID-19, includes seven articles by university-affiliated academics, including a number of graduate students, on the theme of pandemic in (mostly) twenty-first century works of film and literature. In addition, the volume opens with an article devoted to its presence in the late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century French merveilleux scientifique. These studies offer a partial answer to the questions posed by the editors in their introduction: to what extent has sf documented the realities we have all so recently faced, and what answers does sf provide for the problems posed by the pandemic?
The volume includes two essays in English, which I will address first because of their accessibility for readers of SFS. Héloïse Thomas’s “‘Have You Considered the Perfection of the Virus?’ Pandemics, Apocalypses, and the Arts” analyzes how Emily St. John Mandel’s critically acclaimed novel Station Eleven (2014) represents (and elides) aspects of the pandemic, deploys multiple types of temporality (linear and cyclical), and ultimately suggests that meaning-making itself functions like a contagion in the novel, positing the arts as both a nostalgic refuge and a utopian remedy. In addition, Helen Mundler’s “From the Unheimlich to the new Heimlich: Rereading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy from the Perspective of Covid-19” performs the task so very clearly outlined in its title, invoking, of course, how reading novels published from 2003 to 2013 invokes Freud’s uncanny in the context of the current pandemic.
Articles in French also analyze works from the Anglo-American corpus, including “Le virus du language dans The Flame Alphabet de Ben Marcus” by Stefania Iliescu, which looks at how this 2012 American novel anticipates aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and specifically how it depicts the state of crisis and the social evils this entails. The volume closes with an examination of the “Black” or bubonic plague in fiction, “La Peste,” by Jean-Luc Gautero and Camille Noûs; it addresses an array of mostly twentieth-century works from American writers, including Robert Silverberg’s Up the Line (1969) and Michael Crichton’s Timeline (1999), with more extended analyses of Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book (1992) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt (2002).
Film is the topic of two contributions. Jeanne Ferrier sees the proliferation of zombies in film as itself a sort of pandemic in the twenty-first century in “‘Grizzly [sic] ghouls from every tomb are closing in to seal your doom’: les zombies, pandémie filmique du XXIe siècle.” Invoking Kyle Bishop’s “zombie renaissance,” she analyzes how the creatures in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) evolved from precursor films, proposing the idea of “epidemic zombification.” Comparing how the hero awakens to the new state of zombie pandemic in a number of films, Ferrier examines the role of scientific hubris in recent Anglo-American films and looks at their relationship to ecocriticism, adding comment on the French film La nuit a dévoré le monde [The night has devoured the world, 2018]. Manouk Borzakian’s “Des zombies au Covid-19, l’interminable apocalypse” associates twenty-first-century post-apocalyptic films with the phenomenon of déjà vu, identifying their structural similarity to earlier films, from George Romero’s classic cycle to Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995), but also looking at how they differ, what they inject as new. As a geographer, the (dis)ordering and use of space and enclosure are of specific interest to Borzakian; this unique perspective makes this one of the more significant articles in the volume.
For readers interested specifically in French-language sf, Alexandre Marcinkowski, an independent scholar whose name is nonetheless generally well-known in French sf studies, opens the volume with “La bande à bacilles: La belle époque des agents pathogènes dans la littérature de merveilleux scientifique (circa 1880-1930)?” [The bacilla gang: the belle époque of pathogenic agents in the literature of the scientific marvelous]. Situating his corpus of fictional works within the contemporary climate of medical triumph over disease, Marcinkowski provides death-rate statistics for the major pandemics to hit France during this period and describes the movement for public-health policy triggered by the work of Pasteur and his disciples in the realm of bacteriology. He then draws on Guy Costes and Joseph Altairac’s recent repertory of French sf, Rétrofictions (Paris : Encrages, 2018), to survey the body of fictional texts that thematize microbes and public health and safety, a subgenre he calls the “littérature microbique,” a body of over 10,000 related works published from 1851 to 1951. A statistical survey more than a literary analysis, Marcinkowicz’s article is nonetheless an interesting study in establishing a direct relationship between contemporary scientific trends and their thematization in sf literature.
The only study of recent French sf, Nadège Langbour’s “U4 ou la pandémie dans les fictions pour la jeunesse” [U4 or the pandemic in youth fiction] analyzes a young-adult series of four novels by writers Carole Trébor, Florence Hinckel, Yves Grevet, and Vincent Villeminot launched in 2015, thematizing the impact of the fictional “U4” virus. It attacks the populace at alarming rates, sparing only those between 15 and 18 years of age. Langbour approaches pandemic literature as a variation on the ever-growing body of twenty-first-century post-apocalyptic literature, examining how the authors adapt the medical discourse surrounding pandemic illness to their target audience, but also how they engage the themes of authority and control found in highly popular YA post-apocalyptic fictions. She concludes that the “before and after” mentality surrounding a pandemic also becomes a fruitful metaphor for the transitional period of adolescence itself in the U4 series.
It is important that we in the Anglo-American world look occasionally beyond our own belly buttons, and taking a look at Stella Incognito’s website is a good place to start. In addition to other edited volumes, they publish master’s theses and doctoral dissertations on sf-related topics. For those of us who have bought into Andrew Milner’s “Anglo-French origins” of sf theory (Locating Science Fiction [Liverpool UP, 2012]), Marcinkowicz’s article parallels the work of Anglo-American scholars in early sf and calls our attention to Costes and Altairac’s Rétrofictions, which might be a good source for data mining. Although sometimes uneven in quality and interest to the Anglo-American reader, and considering that Stella Incognita is not a university press, this collection maintains a level of scholarly rigor on a par with many similar edited volumes published in the US. While not every article offers startlingly new insights, it is worth including in the research of those studying pandemic and apocalypse in contemporary literature.—Amy Ransom, Central Michigan University
“I live my life a quarter mile at a time” (Dominic Toretto).
Mark Bould. The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture. Verso, 2021. 176pp. $19.95 hc, $9.99 ebk.
In his latest book, The Anthropocene Unconscious, Mark Bould demonstrates that “the art and literature of our time is pregnant with catastrophe, with weather and water, wildness and weirdness” (3). Quoting Amitav Ghosh’s argument that “‘serious literary fiction’ has mostly failed to engage with climate change ... exchang[ing] exclusion for insight” (3), Bould points to a form of “expressive aphasia”: the inability of the novel, cinema, and other narrative forms properly to articulate the nature of humanity’s impact on the planet, as well as the dire consequences of our destruction of the biosphere that at this point can at best be managed, not prevented. In grade-school terms, a lot of fiction is about climate change, and even when it does not say it is about climate change, it is pretty obvious that it is. One should not read The Anthropocene Unconscious as an academic exercise in the field of cultural studies, because it does not do the kind of hand-holding and defensive posturing required of that genre. Do read it as a clear call to action, an attempt to awaken us from our slumber. As Bould argues, “We cannot allow the scale of the crises we are already living through, and of those to come, to trump their urgency” (14).
Bould briefly traces the emergence of the term “Anthropocene” and the debate regarding exactly when the period itself began, illustrating some of the other debates regarding nomenclature and historiography central to the environmental humanities. Listing over three dozen similar formulations, including the Cthulucene, Econocene, and the White (M)Anthropocene, Bould posits that (in his typography)
is the new
There are infinite and generally insignificant variations on how we describe anthropogenic climate change as a geological epoch, when it began, and what its most salient features are. Perhaps more importantly, this point of contention between otherwise like-minded individuals belies a general agreement among anyone with a modicum of scientific literacy that we are in really deep shit.
In Bould’s words, we seem to have settled on “Anthropocene” because it “makes for an easy story. Easy, because it does not challenge the naturalized inequalities, alienation, and violence inscribed in modernity’s strategic relations of power and production” (12). Assigning responsibility for the destruction of the biosphere to humanity as a whole means there is plenty of blame to go around, but there is also no need to blame any one individual, corporation, industry, race, nation-state, or institution more than any other. It is just as difficult to pin down what is responsible for climate change as it is to put our collective finger on who is responsible: capitalism or communism? Fossil fuels in general or oil in particular? A chicken in every pot or a billionaire’s yacht in Rotterdam? It is also easy to get lost in the where: acidifying oceans or melting icecaps? Beaches in Pulau or bayous in Louisiana? The problem with the global climate crisis is one of scale: it matters all over, and it matters in very specific places in very specific ways, and that makes it very easy to get lost.
One wonders whether the “anthropocene unconscious” is that which we are unaware of in our consumerist slumber, or is that which we choose not to be conscious of because of the terror of its implications. Or, perhaps this is an alternative to the “climate subconscious”: that which we are only partially aware of, and which manifests itself in seemingly unrelated affective and behavioral manners. These forms of unknowing are variously present in Bould’s eclectic data-set, engaging with the Anthropocene across a number of forms, genres, and texts.
Bould’s work is most apparently an intensive engagement with Amitav Ghosh’s work in and on the genre of petrofiction and an assortment of critiques of Ghosh’s work. After a short introductory chapter explaining the stakes, methodology, and scope of the work, Chapter One, “Chum to the Maw,” ranges from the trash cinema of the Sharknado franchise to zombie films to the very real specter of climate refugees.
Chapter Two, “Serious Literary Silences,” blasts through most of the western novels you should have read by the time you finished college in about four pages in order to establish the “mundane novel” as a site for the manifestation of the Anthropocene unconscious. Bould categorizes this brand of fiction, developing from the eighteenth century, as “intensive, rather than extensive,” and “focus[ed] on the particular and the individual” (34). Using Jane Austen as one example, Bould characterizes the form as “about a vision of bourgeois individualism,” going on to note that John Updike’s critique of Amitav Ghosh betrays the mudane novel’s “lack of ambition. Its refusal to engage with significant aspects of the world” (34-38). This leads to roughly eight and a half pages treating the more than 6,000 pages of text included in Paul Auster’s 4321 (2017), Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport (2019), and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle (2009-2011) as contemporary examples of work whose verbose mundanity cannot eclipse the problematic relationships between human beings and their environment. Within this category (indeed within the very word “mundane,” rooted in the Latin mundus) we see its capacity to transcend the quotidian and to engage with more worldly, global concerns. The chapter ends with a willful misreading of Ghosh, calling upon the novel to “become more like sf” (47) in helping us to imagine the various iterations of the climate future that would, could, or (dreadfully) will be.
Chapter Three, “The Sound of Silence,” asks us to see the presence of climate and climate change in the fiction of Ghosh, Arundathi Roy, and Paul Kingsworth—three authors that Ghosh himself avers are concerned with climate change in their non-fiction writing, but who do not address it in their fiction. Chapter Four, “The Life Aquatic,” delves deeper into water imagery to talk about more watery stuff such as oceans, rivers, deltas, maritime law, documentaries about cargo ships, urban ruin in post-industrial Michigan and along the Yangtze River, people who are drowning in debt, and water lofted into the atmosphere as steam and mist or cascading in the form of rain and snow.
As the title would indicate, Chapter Five, “We Am Groot,” wades through the Marvel Comic universe with an examination of a sentient tree, but it also examines the Swamp Thing comic book series, Russian cineaste Andrey Zvyagintsev, and a number of other examples of the “environmental uncanny that foregrounds questions of agency and identity” (107). The chapter is introduced with the notion that the mundane novel has excised from itself our connection to the world around us. It is a form that repeats the fallacy of the division between humankind and the natural world. The chapter is about trees, things that used to be trees, and things that look like trees—for example, the heptapods in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016), the film adaptation of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (1998). For Bould, “this kind of environmental uncanny foregrounds questions of agency and identity” (107), circling around questions such as whether non-humans have subjectivity, whether subjectivity can be collective, and whether the environment itself should be considered as a sentient entity.
Bould’s concluding chapter, “The Dialectics of Dominic Toretto,” begins with a reading of the entire Fast and Furious franchise. Ten feature films, two short films, a theme park attraction, and a video game about fast cars “replicat[e]—while contributing to—fossil fuel capitalism’s burning desire to maximize profits before everything crashes” (136). As the franchise’s mostly homosocial pit crew runs out of roads to drive around on, they end up having to drive under Antarctic sea-ice and somehow they drive cars in outer space. This petro-fantastic excess can only be visualized through CGI. Hollywood and the culture of extraction can no longer convincingly manufacture the dream of perpetual growth and will only live on as bits and bytes. The book closes with a call for a new type of unalienated reading—unalienated from the constant presence of extraction and the looming crisis that will result from it. Bould argues that this mode of reading is not a cause for despair, but an opportunity to imagine a number of new possibilities, which he summarizes as the choice between “ecosocialism or barbarism” (142).
In terms of style, The Anthropocene Unconscious replicates many of the forms it critiques, peripatetically leaping across media, texts, national contexts, and time. One might blithely summarize Bould’s exploration of the entire Sharknado made-for-tv film series (2013-2018) as “salvage artefacts, composed of the flotsam and jetsam of American TV” (22) as the methodology of the book itself: he sifts through a seemingly random and overwhelmingly large assortment of cultural stuff. Bould posits that Villeneuve’s Arrival “exemplif[ies] contemporary cinema’s turn to misdirection, manipulation and mind-games, to narrative complexity, to uncertainty and instability” and is characteristic of contemporary digital culture, ruled by “the logic of databases and networks, of sampling, iteration, and gameplay. This generates “productive pathologies” including “paranoia (lateral thinking, making connections), schizophrenia (living with multiple modes of consciousness) and amnesia (running through protocols and procedures without personal or interpersonal engagement)” (116). The book does quite a bit of this as well, but in a very productive way, as Bould draws lines of connection between such seemingly disparate texts as Knausgard’s fiction and Sharknado.
As a scholar of Asian Studies, I am struck by one assumption or aphasia in this book that is illustrative of the challenges of scale when trying to tackle the environmental humanities and global literature at the same time. That assumption regards the centrality of Europe to the history of art and civilization, and unfortunately to the history of the extractive industry as well. Bould’s definition of the “mundane novel” seems to be based on a history that excludes the very first novel in the world—Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji (c.1021 CE)—or any number of other novels. Drawing on Ghosh, Bould rightly notes that people at the global margins are already and will be the first to experience the impacts of global climate change, positing that the ideal author of climate fiction might be an Asian writer “of historical fiction, of contemporary-set fiction embedded in history, and of sf in which the future frames the past” (59). Bould does not unpack what he means here, and I generally enjoy that feature of this book. Left to unpack it myself, and ready as I am to take umbrage at the slightest hint of Asia as the Other, this strikes me as a techno-orientalist imagination of Asia as simultaneously peripheral to modernity and at the vanguard of modernity's horrific long-term consequences. This does not invalidate Bould’s thesis, and it would be impossible to do justice to every work of fiction in, say, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean. Suffice to say that Asia is not the periphery. Asia is not the exception. There is in fact a massive “dataset” out there that just proves Bould’s thesis to be all the more accurate.
Overall, reading The Anthropocene Unconscious feels like the paperbound equivalent of watching someone who is really smart, really silly, has nothing to prove to any goddam tenure committee, and can write lyrically or throw some serious verbal jabs, get high and surf the internet through a screenshare. It is damn good fun. And it should be fun, because the serious stuff about the environmental humanities is so terrifying that I cannot really bear to read it. Save the children!—Nathaniel Isaacson, North Carolina State University
Posthumanism Before Posthumanism.
Thomas Connolly. After Human: A Critical History of the Human in Science Fiction from Shelley to Le Guin. Liverpool UP, LIVERPOOL SCIENCE FICTION TEXTS AND STUDIES, 2021. viii+227 pp. $130 hc.
The relationship between posthumanism and science fiction is well established. The project of posthumanism—to rethink the figure of the “human” and to find something that might come after that figure—has now developed into a critical posthumanism that does not simply try to think of what comes after the human, but thinks of posthumanism as a critical tool for deconstructing the human historically and aesthetically. Science fiction has never been far away from these developments. Donna Haraway famously drew on speculative fiction in her “Manifesto for Cyborgs” (1984), taking inspiration from authors such as Octavia Butler and Marge Piercy. N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman (1999) contains a critical reading of embodiment and transcendence in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). While this relationship between science fiction and (critical) posthumanism is suggestive, the tendency has been for scholars of posthumanism to draw upon contemporary sf texts, only occasionally recognizing the longer history of posthuman forms in the genre, perhaps through texts such as James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973) or Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (1953). In After Human, Thomas Connolly seeks to redress this oversight with a study of posthumanism in sf from the nineteenth century to the 1970s. He uses posthumanism as “a hermeneutical principle aimed at assessing the ideas, values, and notions that surround the human or non-human in these works” (21), a move described as analogous to Ernst Bloch’s theory of the utopian function or Tom Moylan’s concept of the “critical utopia.”
Connolly uses the figure of the Oncomouse™ as a way into the knotty terrain of critical posthumanism and its stakes. The Oncomouse™ is a genetically mutated mouse, created by a Harvard research laboratory and designed to produce tumors at an accelerated rate, allowing scientists to quickly produce cancerous growths for experimentation under lab conditions. This lifeform was trademarked upon its creation in the 1990s and became a focal point for cultural critics, who tended to view the Oncomouse™ as either “a Frankensteinian threat to the sanctity of human life, or as a locus of subversive resistance to the very techno-industries that created it” (12). Connolly aims to pave a third way that allows the relationship between “nature” and “culture” to be navigated in a more nuanced fashion. He begins by clearly mapping out the terrain of critical posthumanism in exceptionally clear writing. This is a contested and developing academic field, and Connolly is adept at honing in on the most important issues at stake and introducing readers to some of the key thinkers in the field, including Rosi Braidotti and N. Katherine Hayles. He then undertakes something of a whistlestop tour of some of critical posthumanism’s philosophical forebears, with a particular focus on the appearance of techné and technicity in nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophical thinking. Situating critical posthumanism within a longer philosophical tradition is clearly important to Connolly’s project as he seeks out posthumanism avant la lettre in his chosen texts, and some of these figures doubtless loom large, particularly Martin Heidegger. Others, however, such as Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford, are less significant for Connolly’s study, although name-dropping them here perhaps opens future lines of research in establishing the roots of critical posthumanism. Connolly’s introduction is particularly strong in its description of the role that “new” or “vital” materialism has come to play in critical posthumanism. In Connolly’s narrative, posthumanism becomes a tool for moving beyond the linguistic turn, for recognizing the importance of materiality and entanglement, becoming a place to query distinctions between the natural and the cultural, the individual and the “environment.”
Connolly’s understanding of science fiction, then, as a literature habitually preoccupied with technology (17), allows him to weave sf and posthumanism together as two intellectual projects with broadly overlapping concerns. Connolly’s case for this longer history of posthumanism in sf is completely convincing: “Since all sf is concerned with humanity’s imbrication within technological and natural systems, even the most avowedly humanist text raises posthumanist concerns” (20). Connolly never gives in, however, to the temptation to present sf as a consistent means of encountering posthuman others—he is well aware that the sf text regularly centers the figure of the human, whose return can offer an anchor for a satisfactory conclusion at the story’s end. Rather, sf operates in a way similar to the Oncomouse™, polarizing options between the fear of the unknown and the liberatory potential of a move beyond naturalized categories and taxonomies.
The book’s four chapters are structured chronologically, broadly engaging with the nineteenth century, the interwar period, the Golden Age, and the New Wave. As well as considering different science-fictional eras, each chapter explores a different archetype of the (post)human: the pre-human, the trans-human, the supra-human and, finally, the post-human. Connolly takes his figures of the “pre-human” from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912) and Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1907). He reads Conan Doyle as a jingoistic defender of empire, finding in his novel the use of Darwin’s evolutionary theory to argue that European Man represents the teleological pinnacle of human evolution. Connolly’s reading is far from dismissive, however, giving consideration to the relationship of human brotherhood that Conan Doyle recognizes between different races and pointing out the author’s public opposition to the atrocities committed in the Congo under Belgian colonialism. This, of course, allows Conan Doyle to hold on to the British as an example of “good” colonialism, one that plays out in the ideological positioning of his novel. While the next section focuses on Jack London, Connolly weaves through an analysis of Wells, showing how the philosophies of socialism and Darwinism are intertwined in The Iron Heel and in much of Wells’s oeuvre.
After Human moves on to discuss the concept of the trans-human in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). I could have perhaps asked for more discussion here of the relationship between Huxley’s vision of the trans-human and the broader tradition of transhumanist thinking, particularly as it has taken shape into the twenty-first century, but this seems almost greedy when Connolly is offering such a carefully thought through consideration of a text that has become well-worn with multiple readings elsewhere. Connolly makes the text seem fresh by considering Huxley as a three-dimensional thinker, referencing his other writings, both fiction and non-fiction, and putting both Huxley and Brave New World into a careful intellectual history. He places Brave New World against E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Skylark series, especially the first novel, The Skylark of Space (1928), as an exemplar of early pulp sf.
Connolly takes the name of his next chapter, “Homo Gestalt,” from the work of Theodore Sturgeon (specifically his 1953 novel More Than Human), but uses this concept to discuss Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels (first trilogy, 1951-1953) and Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars (1956), taking his monograph into sf’s Golden Age. Homo Gestalt, or the concept of the “supra-human,” as Connolly terms it, sees human individuals as parts of a larger, human collective. Asimov’s Foundation offers a benevolent biopolitics that treats humanity as a collective mass that can be steered paternalistically through the doldrums of its own self-destructive instincts. Connolly once again gives a sensitive reading here that differentiates Asimov’s vision of a mechanistic human subject from the fascist subjects rising in contemporary Europe, arguing that Asimov’s humanity remains committed to a universal progress at odds with fascist political movements. These moments of thoughtful and nuanced contextualization are some of the most valuable in the book. He also brings an impressive level of detail to Arthur C. Clarke’s work and appears to have engaged exhaustively with his many writings and interviews.
Finally, Connolly turns to the post-human in J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World (1966)and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974). He begins by opposing these two texts, arguing that The Crystal World subordinates the crystalline landscape of the earth, turning it into an allegory or a displacement for human exceptionalism, a move that positions the human as separate from and superior to the environment. On the other hand, Le Guin—informed by a Taoist perspective that guides much of her fiction and philosophical views—aims to represent characters who are in tune with animal, environmental, and otherwise non-human representatives in her work. As one comes to expect from Connolly, however, the distinctions are never so reductive: The Crystal World “collapses familiar barriers between the human and the non-human’ (161), while a close reading of The Disposessed’s Shevek—in the position of an elevated onlooker, fixing “nature” in his regard (186)—shows the ways in which Le Guin remains in thrall to humanism (just as Joanna Russ argued that her use of male pronouns kept her in thrall to patriarchal systems).
In a study such as this there are, of course, texts that are the main focus and that provide a structuring element. But I do not want to leave the reader with the impression that Connolly’s book simply applies his framework to a series of texts. Each chapter gives a detailed account of the concepts and historic-literary periods to which he gives his attention. He includes a wide range of texts, both canonical and obscure, and includes short stories that might be overlooked by a less careful chronicler—Sophie W. Ellis’s “Creatures of the Light” (1930), for example, provides an intriguing example of early female-authored sf concerned with issues of the human. Thanks to his approach, which shows wide reading and deep understanding, Connolly provides a history of the human and its challenges in sf literature that is complementary, if not crucial, to contemporary engagements with sf from a critical posthumanist perspective. There is some ongoing debate about the role of posthumanism: is this a philosophical field concerned with the posthuman as a figure, a speculative idea for the subject that might come after the human? Or is the emphasis to be on posthumanism, a philosophical position critical of humanism, that can even be described as a practice of reading and interpretation? Connolly begins to move from one position to the other over the course of this monograph, finally arguing that “the ‘human’ ... comprises not a coherent figure in the history of SF, nor even a number of coherent figures, but rather a discursive site upon which may be projected any number of hopes and fears regarding the nature of human society ... and the future of embodied subjectivity in all its various guises” (200). This monograph gives a valuable starting point for considering the developments of human figures in science fiction before posthumanism had been articulated and it contributes productively to current conversations about reading such texts retroactively as engagements with the posthuman and posthumanism.—Anna McFarlane, University of Leeds
Jewish Folklore and Faith, the Popular Fantastic, and the SF Comics and Pulps.
Valerie Estelle Frankel. Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy Through 1945: Immigrants in the Golden Age. Lexington, 2021. 230 pp. $100 hc, $45 ebk.
Valerie Frankel, author of this work and general editor of the series it launches (covering the “enormous canon” (ii) of Jewish-influenced fantastic fiction), considers elements in Jewish faith, history, and culture that have influenced European, British, and American fantasy, sf, and film.
The only chapters focused on sf specifically are the two that consider the pulp magazines and science-fictional superhero comics of the 1930s. European and British dystopias and social critique, considered in other chapters, also partly intersect with sf. The literary and cinematic geniuses associated with the fantastic, though not with sf per se, include Franz Kafka, subject of one chapter, and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, briefly linked to a science-fictional topic in a discussion of his “Chelm” stories celebrating fish-loving tricksters who date back to the Big Bang. Less successful is the survey of children’s books (including Dr Seuss’s And to Think I saw it on Mulberry Street (1937) and H.A. and Margret Rey’s Curious George (1937), which emphasize the authors’ life stories over their writings.
More attention to formal analysis, given the wide array of fantastic genres considered (satire, horror, literary fantasy, surreal parable, speculative fiction, fairy tale, folk legend, films, and childrens’ books)—is probably needed. Yet Frankel makes many insightful and valuable connections, especially in comparative discussions linking Jewish history and lore to twentieth-century writers and filmmakers. Most adaptors of Jewish culture considered here were themselves Jewish, including sf author Henry Kuttner; others, including C.L. Moore, Kuttner’s partner in writing and life, were not. Charles Chaplin, Jorge Luis Borges, and J.R.R. Tolkien are also among the non-Jewish creative figures discussed here who drew inspiration from Jewish folklore, culture, and language.
Discussions of archetypes are especially strong, from Adam’s demon-wife Lilith (unnamed in the Torah) to the golem of Rabbi Loew of Prague (d. 1609), said to have fashioned a humanoid figure from clay to guard the ghetto. Frankel also notes a link between angels in sacred Jewish writings and the Superman saga initiated by Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel in June 1938; their superhero’s name on Krypton was Kal-El (“el” is a Hebrew suffix used for angels’ names). In Hebrew, Frankel explains, the meaning of Superman’s birth-name is “House of God” (171).
A sympathetic account of Lilith appears in C.L. Moore’s “Fruit of Knowledge” (Unknown Oct. 1940); and the golem of folklore, created by humans and serving humanity, is a strong element in Isaac Asimov’s imagination of robots (7): the “Three Laws” that he worked out with John W. Campbell, Jr., also bind created beings to human commands. Earlier, Leslie F. Stone’s “Men with Wings” (Air Wonder Stories, May 1929) and “Women with Wings” (AWS, May 1930) had used both golem and angel imagery (Frankel 54).
Asimov’s family were among the “two million Eastern European” Ashkenazi who fled pogroms “between 1880 and 1924” (13); he was three years old in 1923, when his family immigrated to Brooklyn from a shtetl near Smolensk in Russia. Hugo Gernsback arrived earlier, leaving Luxembourg City for New York in 1904 to sell mail-order radio kits; in 1926 he would publish the first specialized sf pulp, Amazing Stories. When Gernsback purchased Science Wonder Stories in 1929 following his bankruptcy and loss of Amazing, David Lasser, the man he hired to run Wonder Stories, became the “second Jewish sf editor” (41).
Many Golden Age comic-book artists, writers, and editors, hoping to appeal to the general reading public, felt constrained to select mainstream-sounding professional names; among these were Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber), Jack Kirby (Jacob Kutzberg), and Bob Kane (Kahn). Asimov kept his family name yet is described as ambivalent about matters of faith; his mother and paternal grandmother were Jewish but the family was not observant, though he was enrolled in Hebrew school (44). Many of Asimov’s stories emphasize elements in Jewish history and folklore. His first published story, “Nightfall” (Astounding 1941), emphasizes the crucial importance of archives and scholarship to the survival of a civilization burned to the ground every 2,000 years. Frankel points out that in “Nightfall” “the names (Aton, Sheerin, Beenay, Yimot) are very Hebraic” (49).
In The Hobbit (1937), Tolkien worked with Jewish lore. As he imagined his “dwarves” (Tolkien’s spelling), they were “at once natives and aliens in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country but with an accent due to their own private tongue” (Tolkien qtd. in Frankel 82). Unfortunately, stereotypes, not limited to the emphasis on shortness of stature, also influence the portrayal of the dwarves in The Hobbit. Yet beginning with “Khuzdul” or dwarvish, Tolkien drew on his own study of Hebrew to enhance his fantasy languages. Frankel notes that “Gimli’s cry at the siege of the Hornberg is “Baruk Khazad”.... [It] has the sound and construction of the traditional Jewish blessing baruch HaShem, bless or thank God (quoting Zak Cramer ). Furthermore, “the Elvish alphabet, Tengwar, uses only consonants, like Hebrew” (quoting Cramer ). Like the originators of Superman, Tolkien also relies on the angelic suffix, “el”: “It is ... notable that many elves like Galadriel, Tinúviel, and Glorfindel have angel names” (85).
The eye-opening chapter on anti-Fascist/anti-Nazi films of the 1930s and early 1940s mainly covers years when the Film Production Code forbade references to Nazism, though some performers broke this rule. Charles Chaplin’slong-in-progress masterwork, The Great Dictator (Oct. 1940), was preceded in theatrical release by You Nazty Spy (Columbia, Jan. 1940), a short film by the Three Stooges. No fewer than five “Stooges” shorts assaulted Hitler and his Axis allies in typically violent and anarchic scenarios. In “I’ll Never Heil Again” (Columbia, Spring 1941), Moe (playing Hitler) refers to his mustache, which keeps being violently ripped off his face, as his “personality.” Curly plays a dual role, impersonating Göring and Mussolini; Larry plays Goebbels. All are blown up by a bomb disguised as a billiard ball, ending as mounted heads on the wall of the restored king whose country they had invaded.
Frankel’s book summarizes prior scholarly insights as she sketches multiple Jewish texts and contexts. The work is overall highly informative and inclusive, despite not sufficiently addressing differences in form (and purpose) among the very disparate materials surveyed. A minor distraction is the misspelling of names, particularly in long lists. Damon Knight’s first name is given as “Daemon” both on its first mention and in the Index, though it is spelled correctly on the second mention (43). The married name of Cele Goldsmith Lalli, the postwar pulp editor who published the first sf stories of Ursula K. Le Guin and Roger Zelazny, is misspelled as “Lolli” (41). The author rightly sets “Eando Binder” among major Golden Age pulp authors, but does not note that this is a portmanteau pen-name reserved by two brothers, Earl and Otto (E-and-O) Binder, for their collaborations. Consistently thought-provoking throughout, Frankel argues a strong case for the centrality of Jewish ideas and values among numerous twentieth-century authors and filmmakers.—Carol McGuirk, SFS
Paranoid Victimhood in Anglo-American SF.
David M. Higgins. Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alt-Victimhood. U of Iowa P, 2021. x+2346 pp. $39.95 pbk & ebk.
Since the first decade of this century, critical conversations in Western academia have been examining sf’s problematic relationships with European colonialism and imperialism. While such discussions were not unheard of before, Ralph Pordzik’s The Quest for Postcolonial Utopia (2001), Patricia Kerslake’s Science Fiction and Empire (2007), and John Rieder’s Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008) provided the topic with much needed critical foregrounding. Despite such examinations, however, the linkages between sf and the contradictory self-positioning of the US as a champion of the free world while nevertheless acting as a neocolonial power remained comparatively underexplored. Perhaps it will not be wrong to say that since the end of the World War II, the formidable ideological mechanisms of American state and mass media have created a political and ethical hallucination of the US as a benevolent power fighting against global tyranny. This hallucination, given the right spin, can easily turn into a delusion of righteous victimhood. While “misinformation culture” linked to the rise of social media and the ideological polarization of the last half decade have fueled the discourses of reactionary white and male victimhood in American society, such tendencies to construct false narratives have been prevalent for much longer. As Slavoj Žižek noted in Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002) in the context of a proposed and discarded American government “Office of Strategic Influence”—one purpose of which was to spread “untruths” to bolster the American image in the world—“the idea of a government agency directly dedicated to lying was, in a way, only too honest—it had to be shelved precisely in order to enable the efficient promulgation of lies” (109). In other words, to serve its purpose effectively the Orwellian Ministry of Truth must remain unnamed.
David M. Higgins’s Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alt-Victimhood is an excellent book located primarily within the above context. Acknowledging the connections between sf and colonialism, Higgins concentrates on the trope of reverse colonization—the narratives in which authors from a Euro-American hegemonic position (usually white and male) imagine inhabiting the space of the subjugated. He argues that while such narratives of power reversal may demonstrate the dangers of colonial oppression, they may also fuel, and in many cases, produce dangerous fantasies of reverse oppression in the minds of the very people who perpetuated such acts on others. Higgins posits that in the current political culture of America, fear of “reverse colonization” has become a device for rallying anti-feminists, white supremacists, and far right reactionaries, whose paranoid distrust of objective reality leads them to the realm of “alternative facts” propagated openly by media ideologues, and often by mouthpieces of the state. Higgins relates this current scenario to 1960s sf narratives and claims that, despite not being willing promoters of such discourses, authors such as Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, and others often provided imaginative frameworks for the false victimhood espoused by the residents of today’s alternative universe of persecuted white men.
The book is organized into seven parts—an introduction, five thematic chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction, titled “Bizzarro Victimhood,” sets up the framework for the later chapters. Building upon arguments of such scholars as Edward Said and John Rieder, Higgins foregrounds contemporary trends in American fringe cultures as well as in sf communities by referring to such instances as “Puppygate,” in which the conferring of prestigious sf awards to people of color was construed by a group of white supremacist writers and fans as reverse racial victimization. Higgins shows that such imaginary victimhood can also be seen in the bizarre logics of misogynists and the American Alt-Right communities in general, who see themselves as victims of various kinds. In other words, Higgins contends that any attempt at social justice and equal opportunity for people who have suffered at the hands of white men for centuries somehow becomes a mechanism of victimizing these oppressors. This bizarre reversal of positionality, according to Higgins, is nothing short of science fictional, especially because the language of their discourse is full of terminology taken from such works as the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999) and the oeuvre of Philip K. Dick. The author here proffers an interesting argument that after World War II and during the era of decolonization, sf’s narratives of appropriation turn to narratives of reverse colonization. While replacing the older European imperial powers during this time, the US positioned itself as a champion of democracy and a crusader against oppression. Such a contradictory emplacement not only associates the stories of reverse colonization with self-critique, but also makes them, for reactionary audiences, delusions of victimhood.
In Chapter 1, “Liberating Psychedelic Masculinity,” Higgins argues that such works as Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) use ideas similar to Frantz Fanon’s “psychic decolonization” of the oppressed population, but for the purpose of liberating “elite masculine superhero figures” (25). He argues that in these narratives the focus shifts from outer to inner space, and that breaking down the fetters of conventionality to access unrestricted power is seen as a type of “decolonization.” The author deftly argues that such an approach runs contrary to the original intention of every decolonial movement. Their attitude is not different from the white-savior narratives that both precede and follow the works mentioned above.
Continuing this engagement with elite masculinity in the second chapter, “Threatened Masculinity in the High Castle,” Higgins examines the science fictional quality of the “victimhood” of contemporary misogynist reactionary incel (involuntary celibate) subculture through a detailed discussion of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962). He argues that on the one hand, by portraying an alternative history in which the Axis powers won World War II, Dick’s novel exposes various forms of racial imperialism prevalent in America, and on the other, his uncritical presentation of emasculated male characters struggling to cope with powerful females anticipates modern day misogynist victimhood.
The third chapter, “Whiteness of Black Iron Prisons,” perhaps speaks best to the primary goal of the book. In this chapter, Higgins examines works that fantasize about the victimhood of white male protagonists trapped within a system of manipulated reality, from which they attempt to escape. Here the author expertly exposes the imaginary nature of such victimhood by comparing works from the 1960s and 1970s with their contemporary social reality of the actual mass imprisonment of Black people in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. Higgins discusses the tendencies of subjective victimhood and fantasies of escape from a totalitarian reality in many of Dick’s works—fantasies that underlie many of today’s American conspiracy theories. Staying on the topic of victimhood and loss of agency, chapter 4, “Victims of Entropy,” moves into the “postcolonial melancholia” (27) of the British Empire. This move from an ascending empire’s schizophrenic response to its own hierarchical structure to a declining one’s nostalgia for lost glory is excellently done and exposes the underlying continuity between an old empire and a new one. Higgins examines works of both sf and fantasy by British authors Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard in this light.
Chapter 5, “Cognitive Justice for a Post-Truth Era,” makes a move towards finding a balance between the positivist roots of Western imperialism and the relativistic tendencies that inform postmodern and postcolonial discourses. By evoking arbitrary appeals to “alternative facts” seen in the American political discourse of the last half decade and comparing such discourses with the rejection of Western universalism by postmodern and indigenous epistemologists, Higgins argues that “There is an important difference, ultimately, between asserting that truth is whatever we say it might be and arguing that truth claims are often power claims because reality is always more complex than maps or models can adequately represent” (165). In his reading of Samuel R. Delany’s The Fall of the Towers trilogy (1963-1965), Higgins claims that navigating dissonances between modern and postmodern discourses can only be negotiated by carefully balancing empirical reality with the irreducible subjective experience, an approach clearly lacking in the contemporary American scenario.
The book ends with a brief look at the optimistic reverse colonial fantasies that flourished during the same time as those weaponizing victimhood. In “Alternatives to Imperial Masochism,” Higgins invokes Gerald Vizenor’s and Grace Dillon’s ideas to show that although our contemporary mainstream is full of valorizing retributive victimhood narratives (e.g., James Cameron’s Avatar  and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy [2008-2010]), many non-Euro-American narratives, such as Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (2006), eschew victimhood while emphasizing survivance. One should keep in mind, though, that such alternative treatments of imperialism and sf were always present in non-Western traditions around the world and that we should be careful about discovering such “new” trends.
Although works such as Bruce Franklin’s War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination (1988) have previously traced the connections among American culture, aggressiveness, and sf, Higgins’s specific focus on the power of sf narratives in driving cultural trends in our contemporary world is innovative and timely. While some engagement with non-Anglophone imperial cultures would have provided the book with a broader global context of reverse-colonization tropes, this is a fascinating and highly informative account of the science fictional nature of the American obsession with imaginary victimhood.—Suparno Banerjee, Texas State University
Against the Linguistic Turn, Against New and Old Materialism, Ontology Now and Forever!
Monika Kaup. New Ecological Realisms: Post-Apocalyptic Fiction and Contemporary Theory. Edinburgh UP, 2021. 346 pp. $29.95 pk & ebk, $130 hc.
Monika Kaup’s New Ecological Realisms builds on philosopher Markus Gabriel’s claim that new realism is a periodizing term for what comes after postmodernity (196). Kaup launches an assault on the linguistic turn and offers admission to an exhibit on the “rehabilitation of ontology,” conveying renewed interest in philosophical realism. Well worth the price of admission, Kaup’s study provides a clarifying overview of the thinkers, their views, and their relationships, including but not limited to Jane Bennett, Karen Barad, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux.
Kaup assembles four new realist theories to elaborate “realisms of organised wholes” (5) across her chapters: Bruno Latour’s political ecology, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s autopoietic theory, Markus Gabriel’s ontology of fields of sense, and Jean-Luc Marion’s and Alphonso Lingis’s return to phenomenology in the wake of poststructuralism. The book proceeds by way of comparative study to explore the suggestion that “grasping reality” requires “mapping worlds and exploring contexts” rather than “making a collection of everything that there is” (5). Kaup selects Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy (2003-2013), José Saramago’s Blindness (1995), Octavia E. Butler’s Parable books (1993-1998), and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) precisely for their specific deployment of post-apocalyptic narrative.
New Ecological Realisms argues that post-apocalyptic novels are a singular art form that reformulates how apocalyptic narrative works. Kaup relies on Derek Attridge’s affirmation of the singularity of the literary artwork. Kaup writes, “Apocalyptic thinking is inherently ontological: it is about the world as a whole” (6). Moreover, she highlights the inevitability of narrative’s drive to a specific predetermined end: “Its overt orientation towards an overall purposive design makes apocalypse the epitome of narrative as such” (57). In the case of Kaup’s chapters, the novels discussed each envision “new collectives” that set aside “competition and domination” for “cooperation and ecology”: “a trans-species ecological collective of human survivors and artificial species (Atwood); an organised society of the blind (Saramago); a post-apocalyptic religion built on loss and uprootedness (Butler); and a post-apocalyptic self founded on passionate commitment (McCarthy)” (78).
This is not a book about sf, although it will be of interest to some sf critics. Kaup relies on Darko Suvin’s formulation of cognitive estrangement and holds with a distinction between serious sf and futuristic fairy tales. Colson Whitehead’s Zone One offers an example of the latter, as Kaup claims that “the fantastic device of a zombie apocalypse serves as a means to evoke horror and serial combat of the action-adventure type rather than the critical extrapolation of real-world trends” (65). American studies scholar Priscilla Wald’s work on outbreak narratives appears in the book (176), as does Tom Moylan’s concept of the critical utopia (222-23).
Given Kaup’s critique of the linguistic turn, it is no wonder that Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1974) is avoided here for its arch-postmodern inflections (despite its inarguable status as a singular text!), yet as Jessica Hurley reminds us in Infrastructures of Apocalypse: American Literature and the Nuclear Complex (2020), Delany spent time in narratologist and fellow linguistic-turn traveler Frank Kermode’s office writing Dhalgren. Kermode makes an appearance here as well, specifically for Kaup’s theorization of post-apocalyptic time. Though justified by Kaup’s logic and methods, such selections remind me of film-studies scholar Rick Altman’s observation of film genre writing: scholars can define genre precisely by how they select examples and which texts constitute edge cases.
On my read, Kaup’s decision about what information can count as meaningful given the discussion is discerning at best and idiosyncratic at worst. For instance, much care is given to narrate the intellectual history of Bruno Latour’s oeuvre, yet Fredric Jameson, whose work presents serious challenges from a Marxist standpoint to the kind of realism being discussed here, is someone Kaup cites for his claims about sf and literary realism. She relies quite strongly on Jameson’s work in Antinomies of Realism (2013) to bridge literary realism with sf writing. Yet in Kaup’s book Jameson’s sentences stand free of their conceptual framework and dialectical unfolding to make a claim of convenience. Jameson needs no defending, let alone by me! The larger point here is about how intellectual arguments are made, who their audience is, and what that audience is meant to accomplish. When reading work in the starry fields of speculative realism, I am often left wondering if these texts are more for the author’s than the reader’s benefit—a kind of working through in order to know something for oneself.
But this book is different because it values the humanities and humanistic research. For Kaup, the fight for humanists in the university must not be reduced to a critique of the economic playbook relied upon by administrators and government funding bodies. Kaup argues that the ontological turn that New Ecological Realisms describes and enacts is crucial for the ongoing good health of humanities scholarship in the STEM-dominated university. Specifically, the humanities need to “re-establish the singular ontology of their field as distinct from that of the natural sciences,” which in turn requires a strong defense of “the irreducibility of humanistic objects of study” (42). Singularity is to be argued for, while materialist ontologies, old or new, must be jettisoned. They require the thinker to reject any phenomena incompatible with their outlook, and here Kaup develops a new ecological realism that invests in understanding the agency of matter. This discusson about humanities departments flashes by all too quickly.
More specificially, let me now turn to some discussion of New Ecological Realisms. The chapters on Saramago and Butler are superb. I will discuss each before rounding out the review by discussing the McCarthy chapter, and I will pass over chapter two on Atwood and Latour in silence. Kaup reads Blindness allegorically in parallel with the work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela on autopoiesis, which establishes a way of understanding how embodied thought becomes manifest through the working of complex systems. For example, Kaup’s writing about Saramago presents both a reading and claims about the post-apocalyptic wrapped in one package:
Blindness follows a linear narration that moves inexorably forward without much retrospection (or prospection, for that matter) across the apocalyptic break. In its myopic focus on the here and now, the narrative mimics the way the blind are pictured orienting themselves in space, by tentatively feeling themselves forward while immersed in a white fog. Narration and focalisation are trapped in the present, limited to focusing on the events of the medical pandemic and the unfolding collapse in its wake. (175)
Narratology, time, and embodiment: Kaup’s reading situates Blindness as a kind of sf attendant to the contingent charting of human trajectories in a world that suddenly no longer benefits the sighted despite being organized by them and for them. Kaup’s chapter on Butler and Heideggerian philosopher Markus Gabriel seems to work against the larger refusal of representation and mediation in New Ecological Realisms. Kaup’s reading of Butler’s two Parable novels does fascinating literary work on the influence of slave narrative, yet simultaneously disavows a reading of the novels that understands them as part of a network of readers and meaning making. My question is this: do Butler’s novels, ostensibly Olamina’s journals, espouse an eternal truth or are they historical documents existing within a system? Though Kaup's reading is compelling, it feels like a divergence from the core work of New Ecological Realisms to insist on the singularity of these literary, post-apocalyptic works. The historical, genre-based approach offers a flash of mediation, which I find both enticing and working against the grain of the book's larger arguments.
While I found the above chapters to be engaging and thoughtful, something is missing from Kaup’s reading of McCarthy. Kaup develops a literary reading of McCarthy's neo-baroque and minimalistic writing, reading the characters of the man, the boy, and the woman as a set of timeless figures: “The Road depicts the formation of new, post-apocalyptic selves emerging from passionate commitment (‘I am a father’) as well as identification between father and son (‘We are carrying the fire’)” (257). Yet there is no theory here of gender, heteronormativity, reproductive futurism, or other relevant issues. Nell Sullivan’s work on McCarthy in particular is missing from this account. McCarthy presents normative, cis-gendered responsibility. The names the narrative provides the characters, “the man,” “the boy,” “the woman,” are not familial ones. Instead, they are gender categories. That distinction matters because it generalizes these characters in a different way: the man is "carrying the fire" of men, for men. On my reading, literary mediation matters here: we do not read a story about a man and a boy when we read The Road; we read about characters caught in the storyworld implied by a narrator; similarly, it is not McCarthy, but the free indirect discourse of the novel that situates these characters in well-nigh mythical terms, and there are ways of being gendered that are valued by the narrator and other ways of being that threaten that value system. One of the tricky things for me about Kaup's new ecological realisms, as a conceptual terrain, is that the language used to establish it carries heteronormative baggage. These characters do not seem like new post-apocalyptic selves to me.
Counterposed to Kaup’s assessment of the characters is an exciting claim: “Entropy and evolution articulate two contrasting models of cosmic history—the no-future of the coming solar apocalypse and the positive growth of life” (283). If any observation about The Road makes a case for reading it as sf, this does. But given her own particular focus, Kaup develops a literary reading of McCarthy's neo-baroque and minimalistic writing rather than unpacking the implication of science-fictional extrapolation.
This book feels written to be read from start to finish; each chapter accretes reference material from the previous. These references are most often to the literary texts and sometimes to the philosophy. New Ecological Realisms eschews theories of representation even as it explains how and why it does so. For my mediation focused, historical-materialist-trained mind, this book presents a kind of alien consciousness. I can perform the cognitive work of transcoding, but Kaup has insisted directly that new ecological realisms hold out against this move of dialectical criticism. Sf is a concept in the monograph, but it is not discussed as a practice or mode of writing. There is no attention paid to sf culture or sf studies. Instead, we have a work of speculative philosophy that alights on several post-apocalyptic novels as core sites of inquiry. I was thrilled by Kaup’s stunning capacity clearly to express complexity as many times as I was baffled by the particular commitments of this tightly knit way of thinking the world, literature, and communication: both say much about me and I hope they also help to steer Kaup’s best readers to this book. It may be just the kind of criticism they need at present.—Brent Ryan Bellamy, Trent University
Indian SF: The Next Generation?
Sami Ahmad Khan. Star Warriors of the Modern Raj: Materiality, Mythology and Technology of Indian Science Fiction. U of Wales P, NEW DIMENSIONS IN SCIENCE FICTION, 2021. xx+252 pp. £60 hc & ebk.
It has been a good time for Indian sf in English (ISFE) recently, as a number of young writers make their mark, winning a clutch of nominations and awards. As I write, S.B. Divya’s Machinehood (2021) has become the first South Asian novel to be shortlisted in the Nebula best novel category. It has also been a good time for critical writing on Indian sf. Over the last two years, there have been several full-length studies, including books by Pablo Mukherjee (2020), Suparno Banerjee (2020), Urvashi Kuhad (2021), and Ritwik Bhattacharjee and Shweta Khilnani, eds. (forthcoming, 2022). Such has been the volume of recent critical writing that one gets the sense of the genre furiously footnoting itself, creating its own scholarly arcana almost as soon as new works see the light of day.
Part of this output is explained by the academic imperative of publish-or-perish that seems finally to have made landfall on South Asian shores. In the English department where I teach, the number of research proposals on Indian sf has increased by leaps and bounds over the last couple of years. There is a palpable sense of excitement among young researchers as they get to grips with new materials and methodologies and experiment with newly minted academic protocols that are both serious and fun. This is not an easy trick to pull off. But Sami Ahmad Khan’s study of Anglophone sf in India succeeds in doing precisely that. It is a theoretically supple, analytically inventive, and above all, refreshingly accessible engagement with a genre still in the throes of making and unmaking. In his writing, Khan simultaneously dons the hats of both scholar and fan, moving effortlessly between high theory and a gratifying stream of Star Trek references.
Anyone writing on Anglophone Indian sf has to deal with a number of competing paradigms. First, there is the fairly long-standing tradition of sf in Indian languages other than English, with its own ecosystem of magazines and webzines, and its history of false dawns and aborted beginnings. Then there is the osmosis of elements from Indian epic and mythological corpora, both in film and print. Finally, there is the anxiety of western sf’s influence on its Indian counterpart. Khan tabulates these impulses in a brilliantly playful summa of texts and their souls (atman), ranged in a deca-kilo-mega-yotta progression. Thus, sf in India is “Kilo-atman: 103,” “an aggregation of the atmans of various languages within the same genre/mode and national paradigm.” The smallest subset is ISFE, designated as “Deca-atman: 101,” and comprising texts from the “same language, nation and genre/mode” (36-37).
But Khan’s cartography is not one of rigid boundaries and generic silos. Khan is more interested in delivering an “untidy parcel,” loosely tied up in two theoretical strands. The first is the “IN situ model” (202), a broad tent which tries to “map sf texts in specific networks” and proposes three nodes/theses—the transMIT, antekaal, and neoMONSTERS (22). The current study is concerned with only the first of the triad, in which mythology, ideology, and technology (thus MIT) converge to create, vivify, and sustain Indian sf in English.
In considering the origins of ISFE, which despite an early start in the 1830s struggled to match the volume of sf in other Indian languages, Khan proposes an “SF threshold” which any language must reach before its textual production becomes meaningful (23). It is obvious that Khan considers ISFE to have reached such a threshold, and considers this a sign of maturity for Indian writing in English (IWE). Khan notes perceptively that the recent spurt in ISFE is a sign that it has finally grown out “of the shadow of the (anti) hegemonic, postcolonial agenda” of IWE (25). While this is true, I am sceptical that such a critical mass has been reached in ISFE. There are two lacunae that I note: first, the absence of a magazine/webzine culture in ISFE, making the writers overly dependent on book publishing (the recent spurt of ISFE shortform has mostly been sustained by webzines outside India); second, the absence of the possibility of Sturgeon’s Law in the ISFE ecosystem—in other words, the lack of the minimum quanta of bad writing essential to fertilize a form. In recent years, sf in Bengali has come close to fulfilling these conditions, chiefly owing to the untiring efforts of the Kalpabishwa collective in socializing sf to the Bengali readership through new publications, translations, and archiving.
Khan’s study is divided into three broad sections, “Materiality” (what I would call ideology), “Mythology,” and “Technology,” each supported by close readings of ISFE texts. The first section is devoted to studies of Others of various hues—the civilizational, the social, and the gendered, and studies novels written between 2005 and 2013 (Ruchir Joshi, Rimi B. Chatterjee, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Manjula Padmanabhan, Suraj Clark Prasad). The chief note in most of these novels is dystopic, possibly anticipatory of the polity that became pervasive after the general elections of 2014 ushered in a Hindu-right government. In the second section, Khan draws our attention to the anomalies and ambivalences in India’s scientific and technological curricula in the new millennium, where religious rituals routinely accompany the launching of high-end weaponry and rockets. Khan reads this as a synthesis of belief and empiricism, and an “imbrication of the mythic within the science fictional” (98). This, I suppose, is a kind way of looking at what in reality is a growing obsession with India’s golden scientific past, in which assorted sages and seers invented flying machines, quantum mechanics, and the like. In recent years, this narrative has found increasing traction in the Hindu right’s attempt to rewrite the subcontinent’s history.
All of this, of course, is grist for the sf mill, or ought to be. Khan surveys a number of works that, despite their cast of gods and mythological characters, deftly undo the protocols of myth and epic through narrative sleights of hand and inversions. A key text in this regard is the Indian epic Ramayana, which, since the late 1980s, has been weaponized in India by the Hindu right to craft a majoritarian electoral politics. Despite the presence of a multiplicity of Ramayanas across the breadth of South Asia, India has seen the consolidation of one particular, literal, reading of the text, to the exclusion of the others. Khan’s eighth chapter sees ISFE moving in space-time to carry out raids on the epic in short stories such as Swapna Kishore’s “Regressions” (2012) or Abha Dawesar’s “The Good King” (2012), which portrays the modern state of (Sri) Lanka ruled by the mythic king Ravana. In the tenth chapter, Khan looks at ISFE’s engagement with the other great Indian epic, Mahabharata, which in many ways is a more capacious text and rich for sf pickings. Khan considers a story such as Sukanya Datta’s “A Gem of a Story” (2012) as “caught between mythology and indigenous scientific literacy,” an exploration of how knowledge constantly “appears and disappears” across a historical terrain (137). In a pithy and hard-hitting epilogue to this section, Khan enumerates how the narrative of India’s golden past has been deployed for “anti-democratic, pseudo-scientific and anti-egalitarian” ends (144).
In the third of the MIT triad, “Technology,” Khan considers how ISFE engages with emergent technologies such as genetic engineering, cyber threats, chemical warfare, alien visitations, and environmental degradation. While the first four have been longstanding preoccupations of sf across languages, environmental degradation and its most urgent avatar—climate change—is likely to be at the heart of much of new ISFE. Khan notes that while disaster/climate fiction has been a staple of Hollywood, there has been no similar take-up by India’s film industry. This is curious, since some of the earliest sf in India—from the scientist Jagadish Chandra Basu’s Bengal short story “The Runaway Cyclone” (1921) to the novelist Amitav Ghosh’s recent writings—have engaged with this theme. Much of the anxiety of the works in this section centers on the possibilities of technologies gone rogue or unleashed in battle, usually with India’s bête noire and neighbor Pakistan.
In his conclusion, Khan looks forward with hope to a brave new ISEF and the challenges it faces, particularly in readership. Unlike sf in the west, ISFE did not emerge from a pulp tradition, and has therefore always fallen between the two stools of the literary novel and the mass market. Khan notes that “the act of reading a pulp but not popular ‘genre’ in an ‘elite’ language is challenging,” but leaves it at that (205). One wishes that Khan had unpacked this in greater detail. What his otherwise admirable, thorough, and wide-ranging study misses out on is a sense of the readership for ISFE, and the ecosystem of publishers, editors, reviewers, fans (or the lack thereof) that sustains it. Here, some comparisons with sf in other Indian languages might have been useful.—Abhijit Gupta, Jadavpur University, Calcutta
SF as Historical Allegory: Apocalypse and Democracy in Spain.
Dale Knickerbocker. Spain is Different?: Historical Memory and the “Two Spains” in Turn-of-the-millennium Spanish Apocalyptic Fictions. U of Wales P, 2022. 288 pp. $82 hc & ebk.
Dale Knickerbocker is a professor of Hispanic Studies at East Carolina University and one of the US’s most active specialists in the Spanish-language fantastic. His new book Spain is Different? is published in the Iberian and Latin American Studies series of the University of Wales Press and follows the publication of his edited volume Lingua Cosmica: Science Fiction from around the World (U of Illinois P, 2019), a fascinating tour of the many linguistic domains in which sf thrives. In contrast, Spain is Different? focuses specifically on six sf novels published in Spain between 1990 and 2005 by noted names in the field. According to Knickerbocker, these novels express in their (post-)apocalyptic plotlines anxieties regarding the history of Spain between the end of General Francisco Franco’s regime (1939-1975) and the passage of the Law of Historical Memory in 2005 by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s Socialist government. This legislation intended, among other aims, to end the drama of the missing war victims still buried in mass graves. The title Spain is Different? alludes to the slogan that Franco’s Minister of Information and Tourism, Manuel Fraga Iribarne, used in the 1960s to publicize the attractions of Spain among tourists. Knickerbocker’s question is whether Spain really is different—and hence the uniqueness of its apocalyptic turn-of-the millennium sf—or if it demonstrates the same preoccupations that currently articulate sf at an international level. The inevitable conclusion is that Spain is indeed different, yet it is also similar to other nations in which sf plays a similar allegorical function as a vehicle to discuss the tensions brought on by history.
The novels Knickerbocker examines are Rosa Montero’s Temblor [Tremor, 1990], Javier Negrete’s Nox perpetua [Perpetual Night, 1996], Juan Miguel Aguilera’s La locura de Dios [God’s Folly, 1998], Enrique del Barco’s Punto Omega [Omega Point, 2004], Eduardo Vaquerizo’s Mentes de noche y hielo [Minds of Night and Ice, 2001], and José Miguel Pallarés and Amadeo Garrigós’s Tiempo prestado [Borrowed Time, 2005]. Of these, only Temblor and La locura de Dios have been translated (into German and French respectively). It is to be hoped that Knickerbocker’s monograph will interest prospective publishers and will result in more translations. Among the authors analyzed, all well-known in sf circles, Rosa Montero stands out as one of the most accomplished writers in Spain, as a journalist and as a novelist working in diverse genres. Knickerbocker introduces each author adequately, but readers might miss the fact that sf still occupies a marginal position in Spain beyond fandom circles.
Knickerbocker also proficiently presents the theme of the “two Spains” and the historical situation of the nation at the turn of the millennium. Any minimally informed Spaniard can perceive a deep division between the more progressive, left-wing half of the country and the more backward, right-wing half. This is usually attributed to the Civil War (1936-1939) caused by Franco’s coup against the legitimate democratic Republic (1931-1939), but readers of Benito Pérez Galdós’s marvelous series of 46 novels, Episodios Nacionales [National Episodes, 1872-1912], will understand that the Civil War was yet another “episode” in this constant warfare between the two Spains. Knickerbocker dates this split back to King Philip V, crowned in 1700, the first monarch of the current Borbón dynasty and the man responsible for importing into obscurantist Catholic Spain the ideas of the French Enlightenment.
Knickerbocker proposes that in these six sf novels the narrative about the two Spains resurfaces in a fantasy version shaped as much by the old tension between illustrated modernity and repressive religion as by current sf themes, with a special incidence of questions related to overall dominion by oppressive invaders and the clash between different worldviews. He is particularly interested, too, in how the novels debunk the myth of the Transition by which an agreement among all the political forces in post-Franco’s new Spain supposedly healed the wounds left by the Civil War and the regime. In fact, post-apocalyptic representation, Knickerbocker argues, serves in these novels “as a release valve for the repressed desire for an open discussion of the truth of what occurred in the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, for justice for the victims, and for a sense of closure that would give meaning to the traumatic historical experience” (5-6). Knickerbocker claims that the sf novels published after 2005 and/or by younger authors born in the 1970s no longer serve that purpose because the discussion is now open. This seem a rather optimistic judgment, given the rise of the Francoist right-wing party Vox and the reluctance of many local authorities to comply with the Law of Historical Memory.
Famously, Jack Finney always denied that his novel The Body Snatchers (1955) was an allegory associated with fears of Soviet Communist invasion, even though this is the standard reading of his work and of Don Siegel’s popular 1956 film adaptation. We are used to the idea, as Knickerbocker concludes, that “The nature of the work’s microhistory manifests the anxieties and desires underlying the text’s use of apocalypse and science fiction” (160). Yet there is nevertheless a risk of conflating each author’s singular imagination into a common construction responding to the same historical tensions in a rather mechanical fashion. Knickerbocker is very much aware of this problem. In his discussion of Punto Omega, he claims that in del Barco’s novel the “cheerful idealism” that facilitated the Spanish transition to democracy informs “the common effort to achieve the Omega Point” (109). Knickerbocker clarifies that “I do not mean to imply that del Barco consciously chose to model the fiction on these historic phenomena. I do claim, however, that enough striking parallels exist that the latter can be argued to have inspired the former on some level” (110). He insists that the six novels he examines are “rooted in and respond to the same anxieties and desires. The fiction thus allows for an expression of the anguish and longing for justice and closure silenced by the Transition” (110)—yes, indeed, in the same way that any American sf dealing with enslavement by alien species connects with the history of slavery in the US. The apocalyptic plotlines that Knickerbocker analyzes so superbly, however, also connect with international sf themes. In a note about Vaquerizo’s Mentes de hielo y noche, Knickerbocker mentions that his aliens recall the Oankali of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-1989) (231). Exploring the links between Anglophone and Spanish sf, which is clearly dependent on the former, is compatible with seeking specific historical roots and it should be done. Among the many voices in the secondary sources, however, the voices of the authors themselves are missing. They might have plenty to say about the allegorical perspective Knickerbocker uses, either to deny or support it.
Spain is Different? is an excellent introduction to recent Spanish history and to a set of superb sf novels that deserve to be better known both among Spaniards and in translation. Knickerbocker’s theses are certainly persuasive, although the allegorical angle is, arguably, too insistent at some points. The rift among the two Spains is very real and, sadly, deepening, which suggests that apocalypse might resurface in Spanish sf if it is not already present again.—Sara Martín, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
Can We Be Utopian?
Tom Moylan. Becoming Utopian: The Culture and Politics of Radical Transformation. Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. 312 pp. $120 hc, $39.95 pbk, $35.95 ebk.
Tom Moylan publishes his latest book at a time of widespread disquiet in Western democracy. He does not sugarcoat his judgement that we live in a dystopia, a neoliberal capitalist world order in which “fascistic politicians, regimes, and mass movements are gaining ground and feeding official and individual rage,” fattening on a bottomless pit of “virulent xenophobia” (1). Even as he mounts a Leftist utopian response to this emergency, Moylanspeaks to widespread fears of the racist kleptocratic nationalism that has gained mainstream power. As a result, Becoming Utopian sits comfortably with other recent diagnoses such as philosopher Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (2018) and historian Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (2020). Moylan’s project, however, is not simply to tell us that we are in trouble; he seeks to show us a way out. It is, perhaps, comforting that the path he blazes takes us through more than a half-century of his work in the imbricated fields of sf and utopian literature. The comfort comes from the familiarity of the path—we are not starting in the dark—and his trenchant belief that the philosophers, theorists, writers, and activists who labor in these fields have formulated ways of thinking and acting that are helpful for meeting the current emergency. At base, he argues that if we are to save ourselves from a dystopian world order, we must become utopian.
Becoming Utopian may be read on its own, but it is also a valedictory text, assembled from more than three decades of publications in other venues. For those of us who have been following along, the book is most usefully read as the third volume of a trilogy. The first volume is Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (1986), in which Moylan links science fiction with the utopian tradition and identifies the critical utopia as an important modality within it. The second work is Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia (2000), in which he introduces the critical dystopia as a forensic tool for understanding science fiction’s engagement with the sociopathologies of the late twentieth century. These volumes influenced how a generation of sf scholars read and understood paradigmatic writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia E. Butler. Rounding out the trilogy, Becoming Utopian reminds us of that earlier work while reconnecting us to its theoretical architecture in Marxism, feminism, liberation theology, and political activism, all of which inform the author’s life and scholarship. The result is not only an overview of critical debates around utopian desire and method but also a defense of contemporary science fiction as a medium through which we might model liberatory futures that are more than easily co-opted prescriptions for lucrative media franchises.
Being Utopian is not a book that you can consume in one sitting. While it reveals more of the writer than one generally expects from a technical treatise—I appreciated, for example, learning that Moylan comes from a Roman Catholic background similar to my own—it is densely packed and copiously footnoted, necessarily so. While his coverage of Ernst Bloch, Fredric Jameson, Ruth Levitas, Darko Suvin, Donna Haraway, and Kim Stanley Robinson is familiar territory for an sf or utopian studies scholar, some of what he considers may not be. Moylan’s deep engagement with the philosophical ground of liberation theology (and why it matters), for example, is revelatory, for this reader at least. It forced me to pay attention, to put the book down and seek further acquaintance with the Left of a Christian tradition overshadowed by the aggressive rise of white evangelical nationalism.
As a valedictory text that is deeply retrospective, Becoming Utopia does not follow traditional monograph structure. It includes ancillary material that frames the central chapters, establishing its author’s influence in sf and utopian studies. This means that there are entry points other than starting at the beginning and reading to the end. For those of us less familiar with Moylan’s work and the critical terrain of which is he a part, Hugh O’Connell’s 2020 interview with the scholar, “Coda: ’68 and the Critical Utopian Imagination” (205-27), would be a great place to start. It provides both context and direct witness for the formal chapters that precede it. Getting to know Tom Moylan through this conversation is an invaluable aid to the ideas, debates, and readings of the rest of the book. Phillip E. Wegner’s Afterword (228-35) is also a solid launchpad. It is a review-essay that could take the place of my own commentary. Wegner describes Moylan’s contribution to his own work as he champions the value of the book and the example of the already utopian scholar who made it. Wegner’s witness helps us appreciate the value of Moylan’s erudition and the ways it helps us conceive of a better world against habits of thought and practice that insist we can have nothing other than what exists.
I am loath to sum up Beyond Utopia because it is so catholic in terms of its engagement with a century and more of utopian theory, writing, and political practice. And it is certainly not possible to do it justice with the benefit of only one reading or without a strong acquaintance with the philosophers and activists who are fellow travelers in Moylan’s career as a theorist of sf and utopia. I agree with Wegner, however, that Becoming Utopian is an invaluable explication of utopian thought and its link to sf since the 1960s. The book also provides a model for how producing knowledge in these fields is a pedagogically enriching as well as intellectually satisfying engagement with the world in which we live.
Moylan’s intellectual history of these fields is personal, however, not just in terms of its place in his evolving thought but also through its exhibition of the community of thinkers and writers who work in a lively utopian/sf tradition. Through Moylan, readers will find themselves grappling with the thought of Ernst Bloch, Darko Suvin, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Donna Haraway, and Ruth Levitas, as well as Alain Badiou, Saul Alinsky, Karl Marx, and Raymond Williams. The less philosophically inclined will value the literary readings conducted in this light. Margaret Atwood, Kim Stanley Robinson, China Miéville, and Marge Piercy all get extensive treatment. Other important u/dystopian writers such as Octavia E. Butler, Samuel R. Delany, and Philip Pullman are not as exhaustively covered but indicate how Moylan’s utopian concern exceeds the bounds of race and nation. These thinkers and writers are part of a living tradition that grounds Moylan’s life and career.
One of the attractive things about Becoming Utopia is that its author takes care to show us how his long engagement with the field of sf and utopian studies is conditioned by his ethnic, religious, and class background as well as by his activism in the American Left. By positioning himself as more than a disinterested scholar he allows us to discover commonalities with our own experiences. In other words, this book makes sense not only as an exercise in political philosophy, but also as an extension of how a certain kind of intellect becomes socialized at a particular time (ca. 1968) in our political world. In this light, utopian sf functions as a cognitive map of its problems and potentials. For Moylan that map is more than a chart of how the world works. It is also a guide to how one may play an active role in changing it, fulfilling utopian hope. This is a point that Star Trek fan Stacey Abrams has made when explaining how its liberal pluralism (reserving all its problems) has influenced her own political career.
Becoming Utopian also highlights how different critical utopian practice and method is from the neoliberalism that seeks a negotiated settlement with paranoid revanchism. By focusing on the utopian strand of twentieth-century sf Moylan also leads us away from the genre’s mainstream futures that extend the history of terrestrial conquest into the virgin reaches of outer space: extrapolations that, in other words, replicate the glories and the faults of recent history. So, while the fabulists of that astrofuturism such as Robert A. Heinlein are mentioned, they do not play a significant role in Becoming Utopian. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell are given walk-on parts as correctives, but they are part of the anti-utopianism that limited the utopian horizon of the last century. Tom Moylan, instead, directs our attention to such authors as Marge Piercy and Kim Stanley Robinson, who mounted critical interventions into utopian sf. Taking on their political hopes in light of people, places, and ideas marginalized in the imaginative mainstream, Moylan is concerned with not only the models they represent but also the methods that support their practice.
Becoming Utopian also gives us Moylan’s judgment on what a utopian political practice looks like, a strategy that has purchase in the real world. In the book’s seventh chapter, for example, nonviolent protest takes center stage. The most prominent recent proponent of this philosophy was the late John Lewis, not only through his civil-rights activism, but also in his Congressional career, as recounted in his graphic memoirs March (2013-2017) and Run (2018). Here Moylan gives us a brief history of the movement that takes us from Frederick Douglass through William James, from Bayard Ruston to David Dellinger. His treatment goes beyond defending nonviolence as a method, recalling how the Left has debated, and sometimes questioned, its efficacy against violent authority. This debate indicates how difficult it has been to attain broad agreement on a strategy sure to lead us to a better, finer world.
The aim of this book, however, is to present utopian critical thought as a philosophical toolkit that makes visions of a liberatory, cosmopolitan future seem plausible, even achievable. To this end, in the book’s final chapter, Moylan returns us to Ruth Levitas, her formulation of utopian method, and how it rubs against Frederick Jameson’s skepticism that the future is imaginable. Jameson admits that we can see possibilities but draws the line at the efficacy of the fully formed programs constructed by classical utopianism. The utopian impulse, in his analysis, is something that always fails closure. Moylan points out that Levitas rises to Jameson’s challenge with a “radical positivity” that goes beyond the moment of utopian negation (which Nietzsche would reject as the pathway to nihilism) to exploiting the utopian remnant or surplus in any political program. The goal is to realize “a better way of living” that is at variance with the way the world is now (189). With Moylan at hand, perhaps we can imagine and achieve the future after all.—De Witt Douglas Kilgore, Indiana University
The End of Apocalypse?
Christopher Palmer. Apocalypse in Crisis: Fiction from The War of the Worlds to Dead Astronauts. Liverpool UP, SCIENCE FICTION TEXTS AND SUBTEXTS, 2021. 352 pp. £95 hc.
In Apocalypse in Crisis, Christopher Palmer argues that apocalypse, in its Biblical form a reassuring story in which a new or restored world awaits on the other side of historical disaster, has “become more difficult to think with” in our own moment (4). The narrative “has lost its power” (4); it is in crisis in the sense that it can no longer perform the cultural work of revealing a perspective from which historical events experienced as chaotic or threatening come to be seen as necessary or productive. Palmer connects this breakdown to shifts in the content and form of catastrophe fictions, from straightforward narratives featuring well-defined and comprehensible disasters towards formally experimental stories of disasters that are ubiquitous, ill-defined, and mysterious. Aspects of this argument are familiar: Zbigniew Lewicki’s The Bang and the Whimper (1984), for example, argued that fin-de-siècle American fiction is marked by a shift from visions of apocalyptic renewal to what Lewicki described as visions of entropic decay, and in Apocalyptic Transformation (2008), Elizabeth Rosen explored the ways in which postmodern fictions are both invested in apocalyptic narrative and interested in dismantling the teleological underpinnings of apocalyptic optimism. Neither of these studies focused specifically on science fiction, however, and Palmer also expands the arguments by including more recent texts such as China Miéville’s Kraken (2010) and Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts (2021).
After a rather torturous discussion of traditional and contemporary apocalypses in his introduction, Palmer turns to The War of the Worlds (1897), arguing that H.G. Wells “ponders and assesses traditional apocalypse” (69) by calling its tropes and promises into question. Part 1 of the book then jumps to disaster novels of the 1950s, read as traditionally apocalyptic accounts and featuring New Jerusalems ranging from the neo-primitivism of George Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949) to the grand transcendence of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953). In Part 2, Palmer finds in the stylistic experimentation of authors such as J.G. Ballard and Angela Carter not only an aestheticization and psychologization of disaster, but also a basic continuity with the novels of the fifties: here again catastrophe opens the way for something new, albeit with more focus on the destruction involved and with ambiguous, partial, or purely personal payoffs. Part 3 looks at fiction from the 1980s to the 2010s, identifying strategies used by contemporary novelists to resist or complicate apocalypse, such as comedically deflating its tropes or undermining its claims to universal explanatory power by juxtaposing apocalyptic storylines with competing strands of narrative.
The individual readings in the book are often illuminating, particularly in the discussion of points of style, an issue that is often overlooked in discussion of sf texts. But Palmer’s overall claim that these readings add up to evidence of a trend away from optimistic apocalypticism is not convincing. His periodization is messy at best, and gets in the way more than it clarifies. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957), discussed in Part 1, and Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967), discussed in Part 2, have more in common with one another in terms of their denial of apocalyptic hope then they do with the novels with which Palmer groups them, as, in a different way, do Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Doris Lessing’s The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982). More of an issue is the fact that Palmer’s corpus is highly idiosyncratic; this is stimulating in the sense that it embraces texts that are little known (such as Arno Schmidt’s Nobodaddy’s Children, collected 1963, trans. 1995) and authors not commonly associated with sf (such as Don DeLillo), but it does not provide a foundation from which to make claims about the state of apocalyptic storytelling as such. It is not at all difficult to identify recent texts in which apocalyptic faith is maintained. In the final scenes of the 2007 adaptation of I Am Legend, for example, the family Will Smith’s Robert Neville loses at the beginning is restored (in surrogate form) through his own final sacrifice, and the zombie-haunted ruins give way to a spotless church steeple rising above pastoral woodlands; in 2013’s Elysium, Matt Damon’s son of man hero, a savior crucified on a weaponized exoskeleton, brings the New Jerusalem to a dying world by liberating advanced healthcare technologies from the grip of an orbital Babylon. It is of course true, as Palmer argues, that apocalyptic narrative has become so familiar that even a very traditional take on the pattern must exhibit a degree of sophistication and self-reflection to have a chance with audiences, and it is certainly worth noting that both of my counterexamples are schlocky Hollywood affairs. Palmer’s claims may hold for a certain strand of (mostly British) literary sf, but it is simply not the case that “the naïve imagining of the sudden arrival of the end of life as we know it is scarcely imaginable” (204) in contemporary sf as such.
Palmer is aware that the trajectory does not work; he notes early on that H.G. Wells’s critical take on apocalypse is “inconvenient” (69), begins part 3 of the book by announcing that he is “moving away from the historical orientation” (201) of the first two sections, and describes his account as “tentative” at several points. But he has not set the historical framework aside, and this seems to me significant. My suspicion is that Palmer is attached to his chronology because it enables the fundamentally hopeful implication of his book, which is that in moving beyond the reductive and pacifying promises of apocalypse, we are becoming more prepared to squarely face the looming disasters of our own time. Palmer closes the book with readings of Dead Astronauts and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth (2015) as two up-to-date alternatives to apocalypse: on the one hand, a story that imagines a ruined world in order to indict our own headlong rush to ruin the world we live in, and on the other a story that imagines our potential to change course and solve large-scale problems. These readings are convincing, and it would be nice to think that in our era of concatenating crises the escapism of apocalypse has been taken off the table of possible cultural responses and replaced by the clear-eyed engagement with historical challenges that Palmer finds in VanderMeer and Robinson. But this is not the case: the escape into apocalyptic obfuscation remains as potent a strategy today as it ever was. To suggest otherwise is to tell yet another story in which history moves through crisis to resolution, through tribulation to redemption: an apocalyptically optimistic account of the end of apocalyptic thinking.—Connor Pitetti, Ruhr-Universität Bochum
Cities of Hope and Cities of Despair.
Stefan Rabitsch, Michael Fuchs, and Stefan L. Brandt, eds. Fantastic Cities: American Urban Spaces in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. UP of Mississippi, 2022. x+311 pp. $99 hc, $30 pbk.
This volume brings together an impressive collection of essays to argue that “American cities appear to be everywhere” (10) in the global cultural landscape. In their introduction to the collection, Stefan Rabitsch and Michael Fuchs go on to assert: “Indeed, rather than through firsthand experience, we primarily encounter the American city on the movie screen, at the end of the TV remote, or while operating a game controller” (9). As their collection aims to prove, that statement is no less true when applied to works that fall under the label of the fantastic: works of sf, fantasy, and horror.
Also in their introduction, Rabitsch and Fuchs declare that the American city is one defined by “overlapping dualities” (4) such as rich vs. poor, high vs. low, dark vs. light, and so forth. To help bolster this claim, the editors sketch out some of the vacillating historical perceptions of American cities, ranging from the Puritans’ redemptive “city upon a hill” to Thomas Jefferson’s anti-urban agrarianism to the utopianism of writers such as Edward Bellamy. The second half of the introduction consists of Rabitsch and Fuchs’s discussion of what they see as nine essential characteristics of “the Fantastic City”: such a city is representational, relies on scripts, is modular (i.e. assemblage-like), transnational, horizontal, erodes the separation between urban space and its surroundings, is vertical, interlinked with mobility, and is a palimpsest. Within the collection proper, the essays favor an examination of cities in works of popular culture such as big-budget Hollywood films and video games, with some essays focusing instead on works more associated with high culture, such as the literary fiction of Colson Whitehead and Samuel R. Delany.
Fans and scholars of sf will be pleased to find that this genre receives the most attention. With regards to essays focusing (primarily) on science-fictional film, Cynthia J. Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper’s chapter examines The Phantom Empire (1935), a “musical-science fiction-western hybrid” (54) starring Gene Autry, to argue that this Depression-era serial film frets about the sterility of urban environments and modern technology while celebrating the values of the American frontier and heartland. Robert Yeates contributes a timely study of race and racism in three post-apocalyptic works: W.E.B. Du Bois’s story “The Comet” (1920) and the films The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959) and Z for Zachariah (2015). Yeates’s essay poignantly concludes with the observation that “the fact that these three texts tell such remarkably similar stories highlights how uncomfortably similar the problems faced by African Americans are in 2015 to those perceived by Du Bois in 1920” (132). Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns’s chapter analyzes two dystopian films starring action icon Sylvester Stallone and reveals how they “both tap into preoccupations about city violence and urban decay in the 1980s and 1990s” (167). Michael Fuchs and Sarah Lahm shift the focus to virtual realities as represented in the video game Assassin’s Creed III (2012) and the films The Thirteenth Floor (1999) and TRON: Legacy (2010) to explore how virtual environments offer up promises of freedom but inevitably reveal themselves to be places of constraint and limitation. Usefully pivoting away from the Anglo-American focus of much sf scholarship, J. Jesse Ramírez discusses Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer (2008), a film whose setting of Tijuana, Mexico, marginalizes the “cities ... usually represented as epicenters of futurity” (211), such as Los Angeles or London. Further, the film’s depictions of technological disembodiment explore how such technology is steeped in the utopian potential to forge connections across borders at the same time as it might be a dystopian tool for neocolonial exploitation.
With regard to essays focusing on sf literature, Carl Abbott’s comes first in the collection and is, unfortunately, one of the more disappointing chapters. Abbott focuses on cities in the works of Kim Stanley Robinson; he relies, however, on excessive plot summaries in place of a sustained analysis of this important writer. Water (mis)management and urban environments in some dystopian works by Leslie Marmon Silko, Rudolfo Anaya, and Paolo Bacigalupi comprise the focus of María Isabel Pérez-Ramos’s chapter. James McAdams adopts as his chapter’s topic one of the most famous science fictional cities—Delany’s Bellona in Dhalgren (1974)—to explore how Delany presents a phantasmagorical city “based not on power, but on pleasure and tolerance, diversity and experimentation” (187). In his chapter on terraforming in sf, Chris Pak provides a valuable shift away from a focus solely on humans to address larger ecological concerns and the ways in which cities might complicate meaningful relationships between humanity and nonhuman nature. Relatedly, Marleen S. Barr also does important work connecting cities to ecological concerns. Her chapter addresses the staggering amounts of energy needed to construct cities and keep them furnished, illuminated, and so forth, and looks to an sf novel titled The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (1954) by Eleanor Cameron—as well as to contemporary architectural projects—to argue that flora and fungi can provide important models and materials for building more sustainable urban environments.
Constituting a bit of an aberration, Andrew Wasserman’s contribution turns to a pair of video works by artist Kenny Scharf to examine “how the artist revisited mid-Cold War fantasies of nuclear energy, nuclear weaponry, and space travel as usable content for coping with late Cold War fears in American cities” (151). The chapter felt anomalous given that every other chapter in the collection focuses on either works of fiction or feature films. Additionally, given that many of the other chapters tend to focus on popular culture, the inclusion of Wasserman’s piece on some videos created by a member of the 1980s New York art scene felt as if it compromised the unity of the collection somewhat.
Although the collection includes chapters that it arguably might have benefited from leaving out, it also has some lacunae. Of course, no edited collection can fully encompass its topic. The editors suggest as much in their introduction when they state, “It is difficult, if not impossible, to make ... the Fantastic City ... hold still for any extended amount of time” (27). Some important sub-topics related to cities are, however, ignored. For example, when many people think of cities, they often think of nightmarish congestion and gridlock caused by motor vehicles or, due to the compactness of most urban spaces, the enticing potential for quick and convenient car-free movement based on mass transit, walking, or micromobility machines such as bicycles and scooters. And yet even though (as we saw above) the editors highlight mobility in their introduction as one of their nine key characteristics of the fantastic city and proceed to proclaim that “the urban experience is ... interlinked with ... mobility” (23; emphasis in original), hardly any of the essays investigate how fantastic texts relate to the problem and promise of urban mobility. (One exception is Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s essay that smartly analyzes how “cool cars” , skateboards, oil wells, and deserted streets are vital elements in two vampire films.) But more attention to how fantastic texts invite readers and viewers to acknowledge the flaws in many modern paradigms of urban mobility and invite them to imagine alternative paradigms that better promote sustainability, equity, and so forth would have strengthened this collection.
Overall, however, this is a remarkably strong collection, due in no small part to its accessibility. The essays all demonstrate clear writing that never becomes bogged down in pretentious, obfuscating jargon. At times, some of the writers employ a dash of literary and cultural theory, such as when Pérez-Ramos draws upon some ideas from postcolonial theory in her discussion of Southwestern dystopian fiction, or when McAdams uses some postmodern and poststructuralist theory in his analysis of Dhalgren. But none of this use of theory ever overstays its welcome or compromises the lucidity of the analysis. Instead of relying on dense theory, these essays often offer up illuminating historical contextualization of the texts upon which they focus. For example, Miller and Van Riper usefully analyze the character of Queen Tika from The Phantom Empire through the lens of changing gender roles in the 1930s, Yeates analyzes post-apocalyptic texts against the backdrop of police violence against Black men, and Pagnoni Berns draws upon his knowledge of the decline of American cities in the 1980s and the overly aggressive sanitization of them in the 1990s in his reading of the Sylvester Stallone films Demolition Man (1993) and Judge Dredd (1995). In short, clear and insightful historically informed essays form the core of this fascinating book.—Jeremy Withers, Iowa State University
Oblivious No Longer?
Joy Sanchez-Taylor. Diverse Futures: Science Fiction and Authors of Color. Ohio State UP, 2021. x+188 pp. $129.95 hc, $29.95 pbk & ebk.
With the US under stress from a pandemic, fault lines have appeared; one of the most important in our field is how glaringly apparent a general obliviousness to the contributions of people of color has been in sf scholarship. I am glad to see all that “free time” we had under lockdown has been spent eliminating some of that scholarly dearth, judging by the number of books published in 2021 acknowledging the important work of BIPOC sf writers. On my bookshelf alone I see three books: the moving The Dreamer and the Dream: Afrofuturism and Black Religious Thought by Roger A. Sneed; Jayna Brown’s beautifully written and profound Black Utopias: Speculative Life and the Music of Other Worlds; and Miriam C. Brown Spiers’s pointed and perceptive Encountering the Sovereign Other: Indigenous Science Fiction. All will be valuable remedies for that obliviousness and can point scholars toward enriching their understanding of sf in general.
Joy Sanchez-Taylor’s contribution, Diverse Futures: Science Fiction and Authors of Color, is particularly important, I think. It is wide-ranging in its coverage, dealing with works by Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian Americans, and doing so in clear, jargon-free prose, always careful to define terms. It would be a suitable companion to a wide range of audiences: fans, scholars, undergraduates, graduate students, and stodgy old professors. Sanchez-Taylor’s aim is, as she says in her introductory chapter, “An Image of Tomorrow,” “to explain how science fiction authors of color are juxtaposing tropes of science fiction with specific cultural references to comment on issues of inclusiveness in Eurowestern culture” (2). Moreover, she wants to discuss works that “make people of color and their cultural experiences an integral part of the narrative” (3). The introduction, while avoiding blanket generalizations among these disparate and distinctive works, notes some interesting recurring patterns. Often, she says, these works “recycle and re-purpose ‘old’ technologies or blur distinctions between science and spirit,” so she uses “an expansive definition of science fiction” (4). She also asks us “to consider not only the ways that people of color are alienated in Eurowestern cultures but also how science-fiction depictions of othered beings or aliens have contributed to this alienation by privileging a Eurocentric perspective.” She is careful, however, not to “homogenize all races and ethnicities” (8), although she sees thematic connections that justify the organization of her book into four chapters, each about what she sees as a commonly used trope in work by people of color: space travel and first contact. race and genetics, apocalypse and post-apocalypse, and indigenous science. In every chapter, Sanchez-Taylor parses particular texts by BIPOC authors and mentions other works illustrating her theses. Thus, she points out that while “each can be read independently, ... together, they provide a broader context of the current state of science fiction writing by authors of color in US and Canadian cultures” (9). Obviously, then, she leaves a space for further work with sf more globally considered. After these four central chapters, a conclusion and an invaluable bibliography follow.
The first of the central chapters, “Space Travel and First Contact Narratives,” sets up the plan Sanchez-Taylor will use for the other three as well. After a brief explanation of the chapter’s trope, she develops its significance in several densely reasoned explorations of works by writers of color. In this chapter, she looks at sf’s most characteristic trope, that of confronting the alien, a trope that Sanchez-Taylor points out has traditionally “served to impose the same themes of white exceptionalism found in colonized countries” onto sf narratives (15). How, then, can writers of color avoid these colonialist narratives in their work? She claims that “each author in this chapter utilizes science-fiction tropes to draw attention to the power structures between colonizer and colonized and to show the effects of colonization from the view of the colonized” (16). She goes on to develop and complicate this generalization in her discussion of Gina Ruiz’s “Chanclas and Aliens” (2012), Celu Amberstone’s “Refugees” (2004), Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn (1987), Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita’s Lunar Braceros (2009), and Ted Chiang’s “Stories of Your Life” (2002). The analysis throughout the chapter is supple, recognizing, for instance, that characters and situations can represent colonizer in some places, the colonized in others. One particularly elegant point is Sanchez-Taylor’s distinguishing between adaptation as a biological term and assimilation as a social or cultural term, since the biological term is often used as a metaphor for colonization and forced assimilation (38, note 13).
Using a similar organization, chapter 2, “Race, Genetics, and Science Fiction,” explores “three specific tropes of genetics: ... genetic experimentation, genetic mutation, and genetic engineering” (56), with her main textual emphasis on Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix (2015), N.K. Jemison’s The Broken Earth series (2015-2017), Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl (2002), and Octavia Butler’s Fledgling (2005). Again, Sanchez-Taylor demonstrates her ability to recognize both negative and positive uses of tropes, and to explore texts rigorously in accessible language. Indeed, her discussions are so exhaustive here and elsewhere that, while this would make an excellent teaching text, teachers would want to use different sf exemplars for students to parse.
Chapter 3, “The Apocalypse Has Already Come: Post-Apocalyptic Landscapes,” is particularly powerful in its discussion of biopolitics. She explores how BIPOC authors explore “the tension between peoples of color as ‘both dangerous and disposable’ [quoting Henry Giroux] through the use of post-apocalyptic landscapes” as well as “the tensions of living in a post-apocalyptic world that is still predominantly defined by white, Eurowestern culture” (85). The works under discussion are Sabrina Vourvoulias’s Ink (2012), Gabby Rivera’s “1.0" (2019), Colson Whitehead’s Zone One: A Novel (2011), and Ling Ma’s Severance (2018). Regarding the first two works, she emphasizes how hegemonic surveillance and claims of contamination make these dystopic futures mirror a very realistic dystopic present. The second pair of novels makes equally strong arguments for zombie narratives as tropes for “bringing together themes of labor and race” (103). Sanchez-Taylor ends this chapter with the pointed question of “whether humans are ready to decolonize not only their systems of government, but also their minds and hearts” (117).
Rounding out the four thematic chapters is “‘Our Knowledge Is Not Primitive’: Indigenous and Eurowestern Science.” Citing Grace Dillon (Anishinaabe) among sf scholars and Robin Wall Kimmerer (Anishinaabe) among science scholars, this chapter makes clear that Indigenous cultures “[decenter] humanity, with its biases and politics, [to create] a more reciprocal symbiotic relationship between humans and the planet” (119), not only in their scientific and cultural practices generally, but in sf specifically. Sanchez-Taylor uses Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl In the Ring (1988), Tananarive Due’s African Immortals series (1997-2011), Carlos Hernandez’s “The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria” (2016), and Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts (2017) to illustrate this convincing claim. While she is careful to avoid equating one culture or practice with another, she does note that “Hopkinson, Due, Hernandez, and Solomon all look to Indigenous healing and ritual to demonstrate the limitations of Eurowestern cultures’ reliance on ‘rational’ thought and the scientific method” (123). Further, as she reminds us at the end of the chapter, we need to “decolonize our thinking about science and technology, a goal that science fiction authors can help achieve” (146).
The book’s conclusion, entitled “How Long ’Til Black Future Month?’” after N.K. Jemison’s collection of the same name (2018), is a call to arms warning against our turning back to the “normal” state of affairs in sf scholarship, which she sees as a tendency to “isolate and marginalize science fiction authors of color into subcategories of ethnic literatures, rather than embracing their work as science fiction”(147). I have been worrying about this myself: what will happen to scholarship when the hegemony of academia is no longer pressured to open its doors? I note that this volume seems to be the first in a series of scholarly books edited by Susana M. Morris and Kinitra D. Brooks called New Suns: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Speculative, with six other titles listed. This seems promising given Sanchez-Taylor’s warning. Her last sentence echoes the promise of the series: “science fiction authors of color are already imagining new worlds that can warn readers about the consequences of returning to the norm of white supremacy while also creating hope that, this time, the world might listen” (164). I hope so.
It seems churlish at this point to make any complaints but let me get those out of the way now. First, the analyses of individual texts are sometimes so extensive that there seems nothing else to say and, therefore, nothing for students to explore in them. Second, in a connected story, I wished for an appendix, either after each chapter or at the end, of other fiction relevant to the themes explored. Both of these complaints indicate how valuable I think Diverse Futures would be in any sf classroom, undergraduate or graduate, and how helpful I found it in the reading.—Joan Gordon, SFS
Space for All?
Fred Scharmen. Space Forces: A Critical History of Life in Outer Space. Verso, 2021. 266 pp. $26.95 hc, $9.99 ebk.
I know I’m in for an interesting read when an author sneaks a quote from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy under the radar on the first page. Douglas Adams’s quip “space is big” appears in the third sentence in Fred Scharmen’s Space Forces: A Critical History of Life in Outer Space, separated by a mere nine words from a much less jocular opening salvo: “Why should we want to go live in space?”(1). The ability to juxtapose the serious and the comedic is one of the highlights of Scharmen’s style: it also helps point up the fine distinction between the urgency of the question he poses and the degree to which it remains unanswered, as if waiting for a punch line. We don’t live in space yet—and the “going” part has got us no farther than a few quick jaunts to the moon that ended before much of Scharmen’s readership was even born. The idea of space travel is, in this sense, the same as the idea of travel anywhere on Earth: an overture of hopeful dreams followed (if the trip begins at all) by a series of sobering and frequently disappointing realities. Scharmen sets these dreams and realities in relief against each other by offering a series of possible answers to his opening question, laid out through case studies of figures who sometimes made surprisingly significant contributions to the theory and practice of space flight.
One of the challenges a writer faces when structuring a work in an episodic fashion concerns the role of connecting themes. How much should ideas, questions, and problems shared by individual cases dominate the discussion, forming a clearly visible narrative thread? To what extent should each individual case stand alone as an independent story in its own right? Scharmen pulls off the delicate balancing act between the specific and the general with a skill that never lets the reader see the effort that goes into it. Make no mistake: it requires effort to keep some of the themes common to the stories Scherman tells from elbowing everything else out of the way and turning a well-tempered, harmonious account into a clangorous one-note polemic. The most forceful central idea in Space Forces requires particularly deft handling to allow it to hold the floor without becoming a filibuster. Every one of the cases that Scharmen investigates deals in some way with questions of inclusion: Who gets to go into space first? What do they do once they get there? Who joins them later? Who has to stay home and why? It’s all too easy for us to read this from the perspective of a world where Amazon and SpaceX are drowning out the rest of the conversation and boiling all debates about space travel down to discussions about capitalism and commercial interests.
To be sure, money talks, but as Scharmen notes throughout his study, that talk often serves as background noise to other ultimately more influential voices. A number of the figures profiled by Scharmen never had the economic (or political) power to realize any part of their plans for life in space, but the social doctrines embedded in their writings served to influence later well-capitalized and state-sanctioned plans. Scharmen orchestrates two of these voices from the infancy of rocket science—Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) and his friend and mentor Nikolai Fedorov (1829-1903)—into an antiphonal duet for his first full case study. Tsiolkovsky, whose calculations defined the first parameters for escape velocity, was more than just a pioneer in rocketry. He was also a visionary with a far-reaching program for outer-planetary exploitation which “drew on a core of unique mystical materialism” (14). Tsiolkovsky’s mysticism and materialism expressed themselves equally in works of fiction and nonfiction: his novel Beyond the Planet Earth (1920) and his pamphlet The Future of Earth and Mankind (1928) combine tightly reasoned empirical descriptions of the technical aspects of space travel with a looser, almost childlike faith that “conscious collective human effort could overcome the circumstances set up by the blind forces in space” (21). The addition of a metaphysical element to the empiricism was Fedorov’s contribution to the pattern of thought shared by both men, which interlaced an interest in astronomy, a concern for humanity, and a “preoccupation with large-scale, long-term planning” influenced by Malthusian concerns about the sustainability of an industrialized world (17). Anxious about the fate of the planet in the face of dwindling resources, both men’s dreams of space travel revolved around a shared “ambition to optimize the Earth for the needs of a human population” (29).
Not all such dreams involve such a degree of gravitas. Scharmen’s survey features a number of takes on the subject which defy not only gravitas, but sometimes gravity as well. Viewed in contrast with Tsiolkovsky’s earnest speculations about space colonies in orbiting greenhouses, the 1869 short story “The Brick Moon” comes across less like something by its actual author Edward Everett Hale and more like a “Fractured Fairy Tale” from Rocky and Bullwinkle narrated by Edward Everett Horton. Even taking the story’s publication date into account, it’s hard to take the satellite-launching system it describes completely seriously. Laughter would scarcely be an inappropriate response to any apparatus that amounts to an enormous flume ride involving “two giant flywheels” (23). For all its social commentary, “The Brick Moon” is a self-conscious flight of fancy, and Scharmen acknowledges the lightness of tone which Hale deploys to launch his metonymic brickbat at postbellum America.
An appreciation for the mordantly ludic runs through Space Forces, generally taking the form of quick reflective name-drops of oppositional voices who provided sardonic takes on the subject matter at hand. Wernher von Braun’s cosmic schemes during the early stages of the space race are sent crashing earthward by the lyrics of the song written about him by musical satirist Tom Lehrer and by a waspish putdown attributed to the late Mort Sahl. These references bring to mind the extended guying of the US space program and von Braun (in the personage of rocket scientist Wernher von Beige) that played out during the first season of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s adventures.
Scharmen brings similar editorial wisdom to bear on his discussion of the serious cases put forth against all things NASA beginning in the late 1960s. After all, it’s not as if figures deeply embedded in pop culture with deeply held convictions on the space race were in short supply. In order to give the reader a sense of the full range of informed opinion on space travel, Scharmen outlines the contributions to discourses on the subject from Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin, Carl Sagan, and other members of a Who’s Who drawn from the confluence of late twentieth-century sf and popular science education. Their utopian dreams and cautionary tales act as counterpoints to NASA’s projects and problems, at times leading choruses of cheers, at others sounding harsh notes of warning.
The inclusion of figures such as Asimov, Clarke, Le Guin, and Sagan is part of a constant reminder that runs through Space Forces: interplanetary exploration may happen in the vacuum of space, but nothing about its impact on Earth exists in anything resembling a vacuum. As Scharmen points out at regular intervals, public perception is a key component of any large-scale public enterprise; the potentially infinite scope of journeys beyond the confines of our planet makes the winning of hearts and minds the true first stage of any launch. This in turn can make for strange alliances, such as the one forged on early television between von Braun the reconstructed American patriot and Walt Disney, former propagandist against von Braun’s previous employers in Nazi Germany. The further irony behind von Braun’s new role as “the protagonist of a self-directed multimedia PR campaign for space travel” (77) was that, like his work on the V2 project during World War II, it “had nothing to do with peaceful exploration” (73). Rather, its opening gambit involved “an orbiting space station as a base for guided atomic bombing,” a strategy with a punitive and retaliatory function that presages both Reagan’s vainglorious Star Wars initiative and Trump’s vaunted US Space Force (79).
Weaponizing the ionosphere as a means of controlling life on Earth raises an ethical dilemma that underscores everything that Scharmen investigates in Space Forces: “What is the kind of world you are willing to allow to exist in order to get the world you want to make?” (91-92). Firmly rooted in the past, this dilemma has far-reaching implications for the future. Tsiolkovsky’s “Common Task” of converting Planet Earth into a prototypical space station is redolent of the coercive, colonializing impulses of nineteenth-century High Imperialism: its success hinged on the entire population of the tropics allowing itself “to be displaced, and forced to work” (29). J.D. Bernal’s postwar thought experiments with augmenting human capabilities through cyborg elements bring with them not only the hope of a human species better fitted for life both on and away from Earth, but also the specter of an emotionless totalitarian hive mind of “multiple selves temporarily or permanently combined” to commit acts of great good or great atrocity with equanimity (50). More comparatively down-to-earth schemes of the kind put into practice by NASA were not above criticism, either. The eternally budget-conscious Senator William Proxmire once dismissed the agency’s goal of extending its reach beyond the moon in search of habitable worlds as a “nutty fantasy” that diverted much-needed resources from more pressing concerns such as improving race relations through urban renewal (177).
To bring his travelogue of travels not quite taken fully up to date, Scharmen turns to current fantasies put forth by two contemporaries whose personalities and business practices have led others to justifiably describe them as certifiably nutty. Scharmen brings a healthy dose of Senator William Proxmire-style skepticism to the cartoonish Duck Dodgers-versus-Marvin Martian aspect of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk’s rivalry for hegemony over the middle third of the Solar System, occasionally letting fly with an acidulous barb worthy of the late senator himself. The words “it can be depressing to see transcendence get commodified” should be stencilled in Day-Glo orange letters ten feet high on every rocket launched by SpaceX and Blue Origin (231). Not that this is likely to happen, mind you. As Scharmen observes, both magnates are too consumed both with their worship of a possible future that can only exist because of them and their terror of the probable future that is likely to exist in spite of them. After living through a generation defined by this chiliastic solipsism, it’s hard not to agree with the conclusion Scharmen draws from all this nuttiness: “The future, therefore, will be more of the same” (210).
The hope that some of the “same” this future has in store for us involves a sense of humor about ourselves and a sense of perspective, expressed if possible in snappish Day-Glo orange slogans on our space rockets, is, I recognize, my own nutty aspirational dream. I won’t go so far as to say that Scharmen shares my preference for ridiculous brick moons over Martian colonies swarming with Teslas delivering packages bought on Amazon, but I will say that Space Forces shows its author to be open to the idea that our journeys into space, no matter when or where they take us, promise to be a decidedly odd ride. If so, that’s as it should be. What comes across as oddness in hindsight is often a necessary condition for imagination to occur. As Scharmen wraps up Space Forces by reminding us,“In world-building ... expression, aspiration, and imagination—planetary and otherwise—matter as much as, if not more than, the built reality” (235).—Rick Cousins, Trent University
Eli Park Sorensen. Science Fiction Film: Predicting the Impossible in the Age of Neoliberalism. Edinburgh UP, 2021. 168 pp. $110 hc & ebk.
A pandemic was always in our collective futures. It was also going to be an unpredictable event: we knew neither when nor how it would arrive. Nevertheless, our failure to prepare for the pandemic was due, in no small part, to neoliberalism and the assumption that should our post-political world encounter something so terrible, it could be well contained by the systems currently in place. Yet the pandemic has demonstrated liberalism’s limitations. For Carl Schmitt, politics is what occurs when the sovereign declares a state of exception (the suspension of legal norms) in an extraordinary circumstance in order to ensure an eventual return to the normal ordering of things. Since early 2020, we have lived in a state of exception. With Schmitt’s definition of politics in mind, Eli Park Sorensen ends his recent monograph with the reminder that the authoritarian measures enacted in 2020 were otherwise unimaginable (to liberalism) before the pandemic. By enacting states of emergency, governments attempted to hold back the future, that is, a future that would look radically different from the pre-COVID era. Given the governments’ authoritarian measures in the service of public health, however, Sorensen further reminds us that after such crises, the return to a former state often includes a few of those exceptional measures—emergency and normal become synonymous in the permanent state of exception (147).
In Science Fiction Film: Predicting the Impossible in the Age of Neoliberalism, Sorensen investigates politics in the extraordinary circumstances of six sf films. The author begins with Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, arguing that by the late twentieth century we could no longer think “beyond ourselves”: we have “difficulty imagining anything coming after ourselves that will fundamentally improve today’s political coordinates [Western-style liberal democracy]” (145, n.1). This is what Sorensen, after Schmitt, calls the post-political era. While much scholarship on sf cinema “is caught up in Fukuyama’s ... thesis” and posits that sf contains a utopian impulse, Sorensen understands the genre as capable of thinking the political proper, “that is, what it takes to create and ensure the survival of an autonomous political unity within which the normative situation of the present becomes a sustainable possibility” (4). In scenarios where aliens, artificial intelligence, advanced medical technologies, and clones are the norm, sf cinema imagines politics for unpredictable futures.
Following Schmitt’s critique of liberalism—a political system that refuses to acknowledge the future as unpredictable and that organizes itself as a bureaucratic machine with minimal state intervention—Sorensen asks what political life looks like after the end of (political) history. Each film in his six-chapter book reveals how the sovereign functions as the one who declares that the future has arrived (in the form of AI, aliens, or advanced technology), enacts the state of exception, then makes that state of exception permanent. In short, the sf films under discussion “rediscover the true face of power” (18).
To start, the title of Sorensen’s book is a bit misleading. Science Fiction Film suggests a broad overview of many works. Sorensen’s selection of films ranges from 1979 to 2017 and falls within the contemporary genre of Hollywood realist sf (the future technology seems possible from our present era and is also coherent within the temporal setting of the film). Three of Sorensen’s films involve Ridley Scott; Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford each star in two films; Twentieth Century Fox and Sony Pictures each produce two films; Philip K. Dick’s stories are source material for three films; five of the six films have white male leads; and no films have women at the helm as either directors or writers. Luckily for Sorensen, what matters for his short volume is the political theory. What is intriguing about Sorensen’s application of Schmitt’s theory is that it allows him to pose original and sophisticated questions about these much-researched films. With each chapter, although somewhat repetitive in restating plot points and Schmitt’s arguments, Sorensen opens up new terrain for political thinking and this is the book’s greatest strength.
In the opening chapter on Alien (Scott, 1979), Sorensen focuses on the secret mission of the Nostromo. At the start, the citizen-passengers of this ship act on behalf of their individual rights. As a commercial crew, they do not care about a distress signal and would prefer quickly to head home to secure their paychecks. In Schmitt’s terms, this would produce a weak state based on individual desires. Thus, when the android Ash breaks the rules (and the bureaucratic machinations) against quarantining Kane—who later births the xenomorph—he does so to test the limits of that weak state. Ash’s central concern is to establish whether the alien is friend or enemy. For Schmitt, the state needs “to shift the focus from the real danger [to the state’s well-being] (the discontented citizen) to an external, perhaps imagined or random danger like the alien” (35). Once the alien establishes itself as an enemy within the city walls (the ship), the social contract breaks down and the state of nature returns so that the sovereign (Ash and the MUTHR AI as representatives of the Company) can declare a state of exception and gain control over the right to life. The sovereign sends the ship’s crew to their deaths in favor of keeping the xenomorph alive. This is because “Power needs to re-establish itself” such that citizens exchange their individual desires for allegiance to the sovereign and the reestablishment of law and order after the arrival of the unpredictable event that threatens the state (44). Rather than the alien, it is Ripley who becomes Ash’s enemy, because she threatens the sovereign’s absolute power.
In a later chapter, Sorensen considers Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, 2013) against the background of the exception again. On a devastated Earth, Jack Harper believes himself to be the remaining Earth survivor who must fight off the occasional alien attack before rejoining the rest of humanity off-world. Through a series of events, he discovers that he has been working for the aliens all along: he is a clone with the real Harper’s memories. Sorensen argues that for the alien masters to control their clones in the new confusing state of exception, their creations require those memory fragments. In this way, Harper feels he is not living in the permanent state of exception and that any minute he will return to normal. His memory is thus his key to the desired return to human civilization (however implausible that may seem). Through a series of events (such as encountering other humans whom he thought were the enemy aliens), Harper gains awareness of the state of exception and when he realizes there is no going back, he turns on his masters.
Next, Sorensen reads Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002) as the very definition of the end of history: the “precog system” shows authorities a murder before it happens and thus fulfills liberalism’s hope for full mechanical legality and administration. Authorities apprehend and imprison criminals before they commit their crimes: the authorities suspend the future and the exception has become the norm (criminals are captured, sentenced, and jailed by the same authority in mere minutes). The film sets up a clever plot whereby the predictable quality of the precog system makes it vulnerable to an external threat. Knowing its vulnerability, the Precrime project’s boss Lamar Burgess frames the film’s hero, Anderton. Anderton exposes Burgess’s plot: the boss wished to act as the sovereign and make an exception to murder Anderton to keep the Precrime project alive. With Anderton’s help, the precog system is dismantled and the state of exception returns to normal legal and temporal processes.
By this point in the book, however intriguing Schmitt’s lens may be, the limited scope of Sorensen’s analyses gets a bit tiresome. With his next chapter on Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, 2013), Sorensen further investigates why the sovereign controls the right to life. In Elysium, the rich have constructed a new world in suborbital space complete with miracle machines that cure illnesses and possibly stave off death. The inhabitants left behind on the barren Earth first appear as an anomaly but, “because of its disproportionality, [they] becomes the norm” (73). A group of Earth’s radicals leads a charge against Elysium in its new permanent state of exception to secure access to the Med-Bay machines. As Sorensen details, the central problem for the film is not the two separate worlds of haves and have-nots, but the Med-Bay machines themselves: if everyone had access to health care and the right to life, the political (the sovereign’s task to determine friend and enemy as well as the state of exception) would become superfluous. The Elysium authorities defend their station and try to prevent the egalitarian distribution of medical care. They do so for the survival of the state and to hold onto their sovereign’s right to determine who may enter into their suborbital eternal paradise.
In chapters on Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) and Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017), Sorensen charts similar territory. He investigates the status of the replicants and how the respective inventor-villains determine their right to life. Of the earlier film, Sorensen poses a novel question: if the replicants have a four-year life cycle, why the Blade Runners? Could they not wait until the replicants expire? Sorensen has explored the answer in the first chapter: the sovereign is the one who determines friends from enemies and a strong state must distinguish between the two—the replicants thus serve the function of the state’s enemy. By 2049, the replicants no longer have a short life cycle and, miraculously, have given birth. Sorensen mobilizes Giorgio Agamben to posit the replicants as homo sacer, the person(s) excluded from human society to preserve society. Wallace, as the Tyrell figure of the sequel, seeks control of the replicant child because it threatens that formerly clear separation between friend and enemy and the sovereign’s ability to dictate life and death.
The final chapter on 2049 is the weakest of the six, but this is perhaps less Sorensen’s fault than it is Denis Villeneuve’s for his mediocre film. While Science Fiction Film functions well as a smart brief study of sf cinema and effectively communicates Schmitt’s political philosophy, I wonder whether some of its conclusions would be strengthened by a more in-depth look at twentieth-century social, cultural, and political theory. Sorensen places Schmitt into dialogue Walter Benjamin and Agamben but misses opportunities to put him into conversation with thinkers such as Max Weber and Georges Bataille. Nonetheless, the book should be of interest to scholars working on the political and ethical aspects of sf films. There is some genre study included, but Sorensen limits himself to Darko Suvin’s work.—Troy Michael Bordun, University of Northern British Columbia/Trent University
Beyond the Novel: The Plural Nature of Climate Fictions.
Alison Sperling, ed. “Climate Fictions.” Paradoxa 31 (2019-2020). 451 pp. $42 ebook; $48 pbk.
Scholarly interpretations abound as to what constitutes climate fiction, sometimes abbreviated as cli-fi or CF, and its more or less constitutive relationship to sf. Should climate fiction be considered a fully formed genre, a subgenre outgrowth of sf, a genre-blurring hybrid, or a more generalized cultural symptom of an uncertain future? Rather than dwelling in that overdetermined terrain of largely prose-centric genre trouble, Paradoxa’s special issue acknowledges its relationship to sf but moves on to take multiplicity as its point of departure.
“Climate Fictions” emphasizes plurality—of form, media, genre, critic, and creator—with each element positioned as contributing to the still-emerging climate arts movement. After thoroughly engaging recent genre scholarship on climate fiction—no small task—Sperling moves to the issue’s focus: climate fiction as inherently plural and relational. The issue’s very form, not to mention the content of its contributions, clearly raises questions about whether a narrow focus on the climate-fiction novel overlooks the variety of climate cultural production in the twenty-first century.
Guided by multiple lines of inquiry—from aesthetics and form to racial politics and colonialism—this behemoth volume dramatizes its interest in multiplicity and relationality. The issue is organized into three sections, with each part alternating between artist dialogues followed by scholarly essays. The shuttling between a focus on artistic production and analytical prose reinforces the thematic through line: the productivity of relational knowledge in the study of climate fictions. If one were to generalize, the artist dialogues tend to place emphasis upon the uneven vulnerabilities of climate change due to racism and colonialism through a range of prose, video, and performance media. The essays, examining novels, video games, films, and graphic fiction, offer analyses that will be more familiar to scholars of sf and climate fiction. Together these rotating sections, moving as they do between creators and critics, seem to suggest the incompleteness of climate-fictional knowledges which would omit one or the other. One need only recall the progenitors of Octavia Butler’s sf legacy—adrienne marie brown, Walidah Imarisha, Ayana Jamieson, Toshi Reagon, and many others—to gain a conceptual foothold for what the issue offers by putting critical thought and creative worldmaking into intimate contact.
The first section of artist dialogues and essays, titled “Simulation,” considers how climate fiction might attach stories of ecocidal violence to novel ways of living and dying. “Simulation,” in these interviews and articles, implies a connection between artistic modeling and experience or learning. Paula Chaves Bonilla, for instance, creates performance art to combat what she calls the seemingly intractable myth that we call capitalism, along with the suppression of Indigenous lifeways that understand ecology quite differently than a necrophobic settler coloniality. Her performances highlight Nasa Indigenous knowledge of the coca plant and its mythology, aiming to raise a myth counter to capitalism for worldmaking ends. Incorporating Indigenous thought and queer encounters, Chaves Bonilla tells writer and philosopher Simon(e) van Saarloos, “It’s about creating space for different ways of existing” (26). The narrative of colonization and capitalism as an anti-ecological force is drawn out further by the Anishinaabe artist and researcher Elizabeth LaPensée. Akin to the contributions of scholars such as Kyle Powys Whyte, LaPensée tells Stina Attebery, “Climate crisis is a continuum of colonization and industrialization that has reached a peak” (31). Her work attempts to intervene through the use of multiple media forms such as digital games, photography, and comics. These various projects attempt to foster a reflective posture about materially intertwined relationships.
The essays that follow these dialogues theorize “Simulation” in relation to increasingly influential digital media forms such as video games. Bogna Konior usefully captures the thrust of many of these analyses, arguing that “By relegating ‘climate fiction’ to a genre, we miss the opportunity to address the larger epistemological net of our climate episteme, where fiction operates on many levels, from digital climate simulations to cultural narratives about climate change” (58). Pressing beyond a limited genre focus, Konior thinks of fiction in inflationary terms, and climate fiction becomes intelligible as multiple modalities of knowledge, story, and experience. We find this sensibility in thinking about various types of games in subsequent pieces in this section of essays. Péter Kristôf Makai analyzes analog board games, while Cameron Kunzelman and the prolific sf critic Gerry Cananvan both turn their attention to video games. Simulation, for these thinkers, becomes a means by which climate change and the Anthropocene are given other possible narratives and meanings, through the user experience of a simulated world.
The section on “Narrative” shows the value of Indigenous thought, as well as the influence of feminist materialisms and new materialisms, when it comes to the interrelationship of storytelling and ecology. Two conversations stand out among the fascinating discussions. The first is from Khairani Barokka (Okka), an Indonesian writer and artist, who speaks with Viola Lasmana. Okka explains of her books, “A big part of my work, whether with Indigenous Species or with Annah, Infinite, is to show that what we think of as fact is actually fiction, is already fiction” (170). Okka is speaking especially of colonialist fictions that pass as fact. Recalling Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), Okka also attempts to augment fictions that inordinately raise everything to the level of climate or carbon, those that omit quotidian environmental violences that especially impact women and forests in Indonesia. The Waanyi writer Alexis Wright also brings the climate down to earth, so to speak, in her reflection upon fiction writing and climate communication. Of writing her novel The Swan Book (2017), she explains to Stef Craps, “I was thinking about climate change at the time and what the scientists were saying, and I wanted to try to give a reality to what the science was saying, to portray a reality to the dry facts of scientific knowledge” (177). The potential liveliness of narrative, of giving life to changing ecologies, is twinned with Wright’s concern about the deathly threat to Aboriginal communities in Australia. The tension between fact and fiction, the scales of ecological crisis and disproportionate impact, all come to the surface.
The essays in the “Narrative” section explore contemporary Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurism, cosmic narratives of space and time, and ancient climate tales, offering an impressive range of scholarly thought. One particularly strong essay stands out for how it captures the ethos of the special issue, however. Catriona Mills, Rebecca Olive, and Nina Clark co-write their contribution, “Sinking and Floating on a Shoreless Sea: Co-Reading ‘The Fool and His Inheritance,’” after each “co-reads” the shared text from their disciplinary perspective. Their article brings together a bibliographer, a feminist cultural-studies scholar, and a scientist to examine an early-twentieth-century Australian climate fiction by James Edmond. The scholars describe their work not as a means to an easy synthesis, but rather as a model of a practice of dialogical analysis that is complementary and collaborative. If any one piece shows the investments of “Climate Fictions,” we find it here in the reading and writing of Mills, Olive, and Clark.
In the last section, “Speculation,” we find the dialogues aligning on a kind of porous multiplicity. Three contributions excel. First, Julia Naidin and Fernando Codeço collaborate on the CasaDuna project; they discuss how the staging of apocalyptic performances at the rapidly eroding beaches of Atafona, Brazil, induces attention to the changing ecological conditions. The collaborators describe the various reactions that occur at the performances. They note:
This is interesting to think about how fiction is always also constitutive of real discourse and how these definitions of fiction can vary a lot in the same community according to who you speak to. And I understand that I’m in no place to judge them; on the contrary, I understand myself as one more voice, or as an agent in this multiplicity. (312)
The humility of CasaDuna’s speculative enterprise is in naming the inability to know precisely how discourse might be shaped by climate fictions and yet to persist. Equally speculative in terms of its outcomes is the work of Julia Laurence. In the creation of immersive environments, Laurence sets up encounters such as Entangled Garden for Plant Memory, which she labels as “alchemy” for the “impossible” combination of the human and plant world. Finally, Walidah Imarisha, known to many sf critics for Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (2015), returns to her theorization of visionary fiction. Central to visionary fiction is its collaborative practice of writing and dreaming, which Imarisha notes must be necessarily open-ended. She tells the artist and activist Daniela Naomi Molnar, “Because if you are building a world, you can question everything. Nothing is a given in that world” (335). Thus, for these final dialogues, we find conversations that return to the speculative: both the inputs and outputs of climate fictions are malleable as diverse actors and desires collide.
“Climate Fictions” concludes with essays on this speculative theme, particularly aesthetic admixtures in sf and climate fiction. Suzanne Boswell writes perhaps the most elegant piece of cultural criticism in the volume, an insightful inquiry into Caribbean apocalyptic literature and the lack of generic transmogrification, exemplified by the recurrent figure of the zombie. Boswell’s astute observation is about responses to deathly economic and ecological stasis in the grip of eco-tourism. Drawing out an apt distinction, Boswell writes, “These stagnant apocalypses, of course, stand in stark contrast to most Western climate fiction novels, which respond to the Anthropocene’s upheavals with generic innovation, forms of rupture and fractious timescales” (367). Critics of sf will benefit from Alexander Popov and Konstantin Georgiev’s thinking about the “anti-anti-utopia,” along with the conceptualization of “ecocritical dystopianism” from Conrad Scott. Morgan Daly concludes the volume by pressing for graphic fiction, particularly the sf comic book, as a vital addendum necessary to the critical discourse on climate fictions.
The interdisciplinary scholar and the sf critic alike will find much to savor in “Climate Fictions,” not that Sperling or the contributions bring us to any sort of terminus. This, indeed, seems to be the point. We find what seems to be an invitation to observe the collaboration between artist and scholar, and to experience it ourselves. Moreover, the abundance of artistic production discussed might rouse those in or adjacent to academe to consider that the study of prose climate fiction has limitations. This is particularly true when considering the variety of climate fictions taking shape through performance and the visual arts in places around the world.—Michael Horka, Miami University
On Humanist Handmaidens and Posthumanist Possibilities.
Sherryl Vint. Biopolitical Futures in Twenty-First Century Speculative Fiction. Cambridge UP, CAMBRIDGE STUDIES IN TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY LITERATURE AND CULTURE, 2021. ix + 271 pp. $39.99 hc, $32 ebk.
With Biopolitical Futures, Sherryl Vint turns to contemporary sf to interrogate biocapitalism’s colonization of life itself and to theorize a posthumanist response. Hammering the final nail into the coffin of bourgeois liberal humanism, Vint reveals how its construction of the self-enclosed individual of rights was always a mechanism of exclusion, maintaining power and privilege along raced, sexed, gendered, and classed lines. In its place, she argues for a radical posthumanism that can confront our increasingly inimical reality. As such, the book’s rich and compelling argument revolves around a number of vital questions:
What might it mean when the laboring activity from which we are alienated is the very biological functioning of life itself? What might personhood and the concept of the human portend in such a context? And how might thinking about contemporary biopolitics through this recognition enable us to access new ways of understanding the enmeshment of life and capital, and to articulate another form of living? (6-7)
As Vint unpacks, contemporary biopolitics is structured by the imbrication of biology with capitalism. This results in a form of biocapitalism that colonizes the body in order to make life itself a site of alienation, exploitation, and profit extraction: “With the advent of biotechnology, especially genomics and synthetic biology, human technoscience changes production in nature to suit capital’s ends” (6). This enclosure of the previously autonomous concept of life is broadly what is captured by the key animating phrase that reappears throughout Biopolitical Futures as a critical leitmotif: “the real subsumption of life by capital.” Drawing on a rich and nuanced theoretical methodology that combines elements of biopolitics, feminist materialism and science studies, critical race studies, and Marxism, Vint notes how this causes wholesale shifts in theories of labor-power:
In industries such as cryonics, IVF and surrogacy services, transplantation and other biological harvesting practices, synthetic biology, and clinical labor, subjects and objects, organic and manufactured beings, persons and things blur into one another as biology becomes caught up in projects of bioeconomic innovation and as capital becomes interested in humans less for their capacity to provide labor-power and more for their capacity as biological entities. (5)
Given this actually existing biocapitalist regime, Vint argues that milquetoast liberal calls to extend the humanist subject of rights are wholly inadequate to the current regime of real subsumption, as the liberal concept of the human was always predicated on the logics of colonialism that have been transformed and extended by neoliberalism. The increasing degradation of life stems not from some culling of history that outstrips and catches the liberal-humanist dispotif unaware, nor is the humanist dispotif an “incomplete project” (89) that needs to be fully realized. Instead, the contemporary biopolitical equality of exploitation—that is, the extension of exclusion as the real subsumption of all, even previously protected, life—is the very fulfilment of liberal humanism’s intrinsic exclusionary logics. Were this the full thrust of Vint’s critique in Biopolitical Futures, it would be more than worth it. Vint couples this negative critique of the human, however, with the positive theorization of the posthuman dispotif that the former necessitates. As such, Biopolitical Futures points towards a radical posthuman utopianism: “We need a future open to something new, articulated by those less privileged and hence not nostalgic for what was” (89).
To delineate the ways in which biocapitalism fully subsumes all life, extending its exclusionary logics to its culminating universalization, Vint presents “four new biopolitical figurations” (20) as guiding modes of analysis for the chapters that follow: the immortal vessel, the vital machine, the spare part, and the living tool. Fleshing out her dual-pronged analysis—the critique of the raced, sexed, classed, and gendered logics of liberal humanism alongside the need for a new radical posthumanism—each biopolitical figuration acts as “both diagnosis and map, a way to chart how the concept of life is shifting in the twenty-first century and an impetus to steer a different course” (20). The introduction deftly lays out this theoretical groundwork, defining key terms and providing the critical lens that undergirds the close readings of the various biopolitical figurations explored in the main chapters. Denoting the conceptual elasticity and perspicacity of these biopolitical figurations, each figuration receives two chapters that analyze different aspects of it through readings of multiple sf texts.
Chapter 1 examines the immortal vessel as “the transhumanist fantasy of living forever through technology” (20-21). Drawing on the perspective of the elite in Don DeLillo’s Zero K (2016)and the non-elite in Rachel Heng’s Suicide Club: A Novel about Living (2018), Vint argues that they “narrate the crisis that emerges from the fact that people are often no longer necessary in the financialized economy and that, where they are, they need continual update and upgrading as much as the technologies that have displaced so many” (27). Chapter 8, then, reverses Chapter 1’s argument, “to consider immortality as a figuration of the surplus vitality of life itself, of its capacity always to exceed capital’s constraint and control” (182). Here Vint offers perhaps the most utopian expression of the posthuman dispotif. If human rights fail in the face of the dissolve between life and non-life on which the liberal humanist dispotif depends, nevertheless
these spaces of intensified risk can also, paradoxically, become spaces of opportunity.... If anthropocentric ways of protecting some life from commodification have failed, this need not be a disaster of universally unprotected life but may also serve as an impetus to think anew what we value, and why, under the name ‘life’. (183)
Drawing on the work of Samantha Frost, Vint explores the new “biocultural” (185) figure of the human, whereby “all is entangled” to the extent that there “is no clear line that differentiates human from nonhuman, organism from environment, the living from the inorganic” (186). This is explored through Anne Charnock’s A Calculated Life (2013) and Jeff VanderMeer’s the Southern Reach trilogy (2014).
Chapters 2 and 6 focus on the biopolitical figure of the “living tool”— “living labor in its most abject form” (157)—by turning to narratives of sentient AI and synthetic biology. Drawing on the etymological entanglement of the sf robot with the historical figure of the enslaved, “[t]he living tool reveals ways that the gap between organism and thing has decreased, perhaps even collapsed, in the contemporary imagination” (47). Here, Vint further tracks liberal humanism’s dependence on the racialized exclusion of the enslaved and turns to readings of Jo Walton’s Thessaly trilogy (2015-2016) and Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan’s Westworld series (2016 -) to show how “their created beings have personhood, a recognition that puts pressure on liberal notions of the human and the ethical regimes they invent and sustain” (50). Similarly, Chapter 6 illustrates “how the fantasy of manufactured labor reiterates the racialized logics of colonial labor” (22) by examining the human/nonhuman relationships in the larger Blade Runner universe, drawing especially on Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Rosa Montero’s (non-franchise) Bruna Husky novels, Tears in Rain (2011; English trans. 2012) and Weight of the Heart (2015; English trans. 2016).
Shifting to how “the living subject can be reduced to a mere machine in sociotechnical imaginaries” (21), Chapter 3 interrogates the notion of the “pregnant female body as an example of the biological figuration of the vital machine” (71) and draws on the trope of infertility in recent sf. Focusing on Jane Rodger’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb (2011) and Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God (2017), Vint ties older processes rooted in patriarchal, racial capitalism and chattel slavery to biocapitalism’s subsumption and commodification of reproduction through surrogacy. Her argument reminds us that:
The issue, at root, is not only that humanity survives into a future but also who is the exemplar of that humanity, thus engaging questions of the human as a racialized project and revealing that anxieties about sterility are centrally anxieties about the future of whiteness. Attempts to control reproduction give voice to anxieties about shifting demographics and anticipated patterns of increased global migration, specters of fear particularly for white supremacist factions within the United States. (72)
For many contemporary readers, this may be the most pertinent chapter, given the US Supreme Court’s abhorrent attack on bodily autonomy, and whose majority opinion replicates the racist logic of replacement theory with its reference to replenishing the “domestic supply of infants,” relegating those who can give birth to little more than reified vital machines. Reading this chapter in the current moment is utterly chilling and makes Vint’s case for a new posthuman dispotif all the more crucial.
Chapter 7, then, returns to the figure of the living tool to expose how the contemporary pharmaceutical industry and related concepts of “biological citizenship” conspire to reinforce the real subsumption of life by capital. As Vint summarizes, “just as Marx theorized that the worker is alienated from his or her own productive activity when the value it generates is appropriated as surplus by the capitalist, so too are people alienated from their own embodied existence as their health appears to them as something external, an idealized metric to which they must subject themselves” (159). To unpack how sf reflects and ultimately critiques these conditions, she turns to Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous (2017), Sue Burke’s Semiosis (2018), and Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle (2014) for the ways they “optimize vitality as social connection, rather than as efficient function” (158).
Chapters 4 and 5 explore the biopolitical figure of the spare part, through organ transplantation and then more generally via “the widespread commodification of biology” in which the economically precarious “are imagined only as kinds of economic resources” (22). Through close readings of Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last (2015) and Swedish author Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit (2006; English trans. 2008), Chapter 4 analyzes how biocapitalist forms of transplantation render the body as not simply commodified but “as fully fungible, able to be detached from individuals ... and placed in others” (91). With chapter 5, Vint offers a posthumanist updating of Marx’s notions of commodity fetishism and labor-power via her analysis of Carola Dibbell’s The Only Ones (2015), Métis author Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves (2017), and Claire North’s 84K (2018). The first two novels deal with the way that an aspect of life becomes commodified and alienated from its source for the benefit of others, “mak[ing] visible how the intersection of biotechnology with biopolitics produces new zones of exclusion, new subjects whose ontology puts them outside of ethical consideration” (112). With 84K, the emphasis turns to life itself: “human capital taken to its (il)logical extreme, a point at which the human disappears under the pressures to become capital” (132).
Echoing Chapter 8, Vint’s conclusion, which moves away from textual analysis to consider the book’s larger posthuman project in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, similarly mines the present for the seeds of a utopian alternative. Vint argues that the pandemic illustrates the need to reframe our understanding of the imbrication of life and politics for a new biopolitical perspective that shifts from body politic to “bodies politic” (207), a concept “emerging from an understanding of the human as a microbial environment, a microbiome, not a pure and singular organism” (207). As such, Vint strikes a resoundingly utopian note as she considers the possibility of a new biopolitical regime under an ethics of care that arises from our collective experience of the pandemic: “For a time, such measures [as the care for strangers, others, the impoverished] suggest a new biopolitical logic not of sacrificing some lives for others but of protecting even the most disregarded lives for the health of the body politic” (207). It is an urgent riposte to the present anti-utopianism whereby rather than a renewed obligation to the other, we (at least in the US) instead seem to have garnered a taste for the disposability of large segments of the population: the acceptance of our disproportionate COVID-19 death toll rebounds in the renewal of cruel forms of discrimination and exclusion in the name of the dispotif of the human. Within this context, the larger political and ethical ramifications of Vint’s project in Biopolitical Futures could not be more urgent or clear.—Hugh C. O’Connell, University of Massachusetts, Boston
Nathaniel Robert Walker. Victorian Visions of Suburban Utopia: Abandoning Babylon. Oxford UP, 2020. 573 pp. $145 hc.
Often when people say that what is science fiction today will be reality tomorrow, they envision technological breakthroughs in communications, transportation, weapons, medicine, or some other field that will radically alter human life. Such observations immediately turn people’s minds to H.G. Wells’s anticipation of atomic weapons or Jules Verne’s vision of space travel. Many predictions in Victorian sf about how the future would look, however, focus on everyday life, and these surprisingly accurate predictions describe a world so familiar to us that we may forget how truly radical these visions originally were. One prediction about the future made by several British and American writers of utopian sf in the nineteenth century was that cities would one day be abandoned in favor of Edenic suburbs. In Victorian Visions of Suburban Utopia: Abandoning Babylon, Nathaniel Robert Walker demonstrates how Victorian sf writers linked suburbia with social (and often socialist) reform. Many of these writers openly repudiated city life as unwholesome, and even those who did not advocate abandoning cities for suburbs argued for increased green spaces and lower population densities within urban areas. Walker cleverly combines literary criticism with architectural history and explores how building design and urban planning were major components of Victorian utopic literature and presented nineteenth-century readers with a vision of the future that in many ways came true.
Walker divides the study into seven chapters plus an introduction and a conclusion. The first two chapters are dedicated to tracing the history of utopian literature and examining how nineteenth-century sf fits into this tradition. Chapters three and four focus on several different British works that attempted to reform industrial cities, while chapter five shifts its focus to the United States, beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s view of big cities as “sores” on the body of the republic (227) and ending with Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888). Walker treats Looking Backward as the most important text of nineteenth-century utopian fiction, and chapter six focuses on the many responses to this work on both sides of the Atlantic. The final chapter continues to examine the impact of Bellamy’s work, with the added consideration of the many utopian visions that emerged in conjunction with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Walker’s consideration of literature from both Britain and America is refreshing as it gives a more comprehensive view of suburban utopian literature than would be possible if he had just focused on one nation, which happens all too often in nineteenth-century literary studies. There are structural problems within the work, however, as Walker often focuses very narrowly on one work at a time instead of considering multiple works simultaneously through the prism of a unifying theme. The result is that much of the study feels like a long string of explications of novels, many of which are very similar, that obscures the intended focus of the individual chapters. Yet despite this organizational flaw, Walker offers insightful commentary on these novels and weaves together the unifying threads of the futuristic suburban utopias envisioned by their authors.
Walker begins his study by situating Victorian speculative novels within the tradition of utopian literature. Taking into account works and authors such as the Bible, Plato, and Thomas More, Walker argues that in the nineteenth century, sf, as an emerging genre, relied on the framework these canonical texts provided in order to present their ideas about the future. Walker observes that utopian writers echoed both the Old and New Testaments in the language they used to describe their utopias. To support the idea that “God made the country, man made the town” (12), Walker cites utopian writers’ utilization of the story of the Garden of Eden, noting that once Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise, their son, the murderer Cain, went on to found the first city (19). The idea of the wicked city, then, becomes connected to the most evil Biblical city of all—Babylon—to which nineteenth-century utopian writers returned again and again as a city cognate to London or New York in its depravity and suffering. Walker records how these writers also used New Testament visions of the New Jerusalem to represent millennial visions of how urban Victorian society could be redeemed. Just as the Bible provided an ancient vision of utopia, so too did Plato’s writings in The Republic, Timaeus, and Critias provide ideals of cities where social problems had been solved by wise governance. As important as these ancient sources were to writers of Victorian utopian fiction, Thomas More’s masterpiece from 1516, Utopia, was perhaps the most influential of all, especially in terms of architecture and urban planning, due to More’s vision of his ideal city being nestled in nature, with homes and public buildings surrounded by gardens and green spaces. It was this idea of an Edenic paradise ameliorating the problems of the city that appealed most to nineteenth-century reformist writers.
Spurring most of the desire for urban reform were the squalid conditions of tenements in industrial cities. This concern for the lives of the urban poor naturally connected to many other reform measures associated with socialism, and the idea of depopulating dense urban areas and spreading out the populace into vast, never-ending suburbs seemed like the ideal way to combat poverty, crime, despair, vice, and any number of other ills associated with the city, which was itself a product of industrial capitalism. As Walker observes, “Victorian science fiction … picked up on the socialist schemes of earlier reformers to broadcast a consistent valorization of the home wrapped in a garden” (221).Most prominent of all of these socialist writers was Bellamy, and the way Walker details how much of the utopian literature that followed was somehow a response to Looking Backward is one of the strongest arguments of the book. After Looking Backward was published, nearly every other urban reformer, socialist and non-socialist alike, had to respond to Bellamy’s vision of a population dispersed in garden suburbs.
While there were many imitations and extensions of Bellamy’s vision, not all of them were forward looking, and not all of them promoted single-family homes. William Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890), in fact, used the same idea of dispersing cities to Edenic suburbs so that society could return to an existence more closely resembling that of the Middle Ages. Also, while Bellamy wanted a dispersed population with lower-density cities, Morris favored more of a complete dispersal. Other writers also entertained the ideas of destroying great cities—some quite violently—and foresaw the end of both city and country in a vast, never-ending suburb where all homes and public buildings were surrounded by gardens and fields, as Henry Olerich describes in his 1893 work, A Cityless and Countryless World (432). Still others clung to the idea of the city, seeing it as the hope of the future. For these pro-urban visionaries, the reforms that most needed to be made were not to move the poor into their own garden homes, but to move them into ideal apartments/hotels. Some of these envisioned structures were truly massive, and some were even the size of cities themselves, such as Charles Caryl’s elaborate plans for his “New Era Model City,” which was made up of concentric rings and clearly harkened back to Plato’s vision of Atlantis (421). While the visions for these great structures varied widely, many of them shared features such as common public areas and kitchens. As well, running through many of them was a severe reduction or elimination of class differences. But whether utopian writers supported single-family homes or massive apartments, these imagined future dwellings were all set in the midst of Edenic paradises.
Walker concludes his study by considering what these utopian writers got right and wrong. In many ways, Walker points out, the vision of ever-sprawling suburbs came true. Walker cites disparate cities such as Los Angeles (516), Alwoodley, and Atlanta (524) as fulfilling the ideals of large suburbs offering garden retreats to millions of residents who work in the city. What the Victorian writers got wrong, however, is that this was not a complete dispersal that helped the urban poor; rather, the urban elites and middle classes throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries flocked to the suburbs while the poor remained largely in the urban centers, just as they have always done. The capitalism against which the Victorian reformers railed did not end as the suburbs grew. Instead, capitalism fueled the move to the suburbs and oppressive class structures have remained largely intact. Walker also points out other unforeseen problems, such as ecological destruction and stultifying conformity in suburban architecture. Additionally, Walker does an excellent job of pointing out the many places in these utopian texts that are now harrowingly dystopic to readers today, specifically works that advocate white supremacy, anti-Semitism, eugenics, genocide, and the oppression of women.
Walker’s study excels in its interdisciplinary approaches, and scholars in a wide array of fields should benefit by it, including nineteenth-century American literature, Victorian British literature, sf, utopian studies, and historians of urban planning and architecture. Victorian Visions of Suburban Utopia is a reminder of how reading the fiction of the past can offer many insights into our world today. Many of the people who live in the suburbs and exurbs of great cities, and even those who live near green spaces in urban areas, may take our system of cities surrounded by suburbs for granted, forgetting that not all that long ago, most cities were scenes of unimaginable suffering in cramped tenements, and that suburbs were relatively small and disconnected from city centers. Victorian Visions of Suburban Utopia reminds us that the world of tomorrow is, in fact, shaped in the science fiction of today.—James Hamby, Middle Tennessee State University
A Political History of Black American Utopian Literature.
Alex Zamalin. Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism. Columbia UP, 2019. 182 pp. $26 pbk, $80 hc, $25.99 ebk.
Going into this review, I told myself to put aside my bias as a scholar of Black American sf, utopian studies, and Afrofuturism, because Alex Zamalin’s Black Utopia is not meant to be a contribution to literary studies proper. An assistant professor in political science and director of the African American studies program at University of Detroit Mercy, Zamalin engages with utopia in Black American literature as a means to examine historical and contemporary political thinking. Indeed, the first of the book’s three principal arguments, as outlined in the introduction, positions Black utopian literature explicitly within the realm of political theory. He justifies his focus on literature “because this is where utopia was given fullest expression” (16).
My attempts to distance myself, however, have failed. I am, for instance, most drawn to Zamalin’s close readings that compellingly tease out tensions within the featured works. He consistently highlights when a text’s political radicalism—which may include “ideas of popular autonomy, equality, freedom… total liberation,” anti-capitalist, or anti-authoritarian critiques— grates against its antiegalitarian beliefs and slippages—such as “the elitist denigration of popular authority” or “the defense of gender domination and patriarchy” (15). On the other hand, I cannot overlook his choice to sidestep literary utopian studies, which detracts from the precision of his analysis.
Zamalin’s project is as much historical as it is programmatic. He hopes the book will help readers determine which elements of Black utopian and anti-utopian thought should be excavated and elevated and which should be left behind in our contemporary moment. This undertaking is most overtly visible in the conclusion, where Zamalin synthesizes the merits and limitations of the various iterations of Black American utopian thought explicated in the text. He defends utopia against critics such as philosopher Karl Popper, who sees utopia as inherently totalitarian and intellectual historian Russell Jacoby, who claims the utopian spirit is long dead. Zamalin excels at this kind of interdisciplinary engagement, and the impressive scope and volume of perspectives on display in Black Utopia are perhaps what make it most distinctive.
Zamalin’s defense of utopia here is predicated on the second and third major arguments outlined in the introduction. The critique of American culture in both utopian and anti-utopian texts, he argues, exonerates them from any accusation of escapism, and utopia is most fruitful as an imaginative laboratory, “a site from which to test the value of our extant political formulations as it is a horizon toward which we might look to improve our lives” (80). Itself a model of this kind of work, Black Utopia certainly supports such a thesis.
The eight chapters following the introduction move chronologically, and each chapter—apart from the second, “Turn-of-the-century Black Literary Utopianism”—spotlights a particular author/artist. Zamalin moves from Martin Delany (chapter one) to W.E.B Du Bois (three) and George S. Schuyler (four). The middle chapters turn to non-fiction, respectively dedicated to Richard Wright’s travelogue Black Power (1954) and Sun Ra’s works. The final chapters examine sf giants Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler. The chapter structure of Black Utopia is fairly consistent. Zamalin introduces the author within some combination of historical contexts and identifies dominant narratives about the author or their work that he wants to correct, using the chapter’s central text(s) to illustrate the nuance he feels is missing. Examining the authors’ public personae—their statements, speeches, interviews, nonfiction publications, and (shifting) political allegiances—alongside the central texts, he successfully provides greater insight into both. These close readings will therefore prove useful for literary scholars studying the authors or works featured as well as scholars and students of history, political science, and African American studies.
For example, in “W.E.B Du Bois’s World of Utopian Intimacy,” Zamalin opens by acknowledging that Du Bois is most remembered for his founding of the NAACP and its publication, The Crisis, that earned him a reputation for progressivism. Zamalin then highlights Du Bois’s changing and contradictory political attitudes, as he becomes a Pan-Africanist socialist and later a radical Marxist. Despite these shifts in attitude, Zamalin locates an undercurrent of idealism informing Du Bois’s politics that he argues is most apparent in his fiction. Zamalin’s close readings of Du Bois’s short story “The Comet” (1920) and his novel Dark Princess (1928) effectively draw out the oscillation between hope and pessimism that characterized Du Bois’s life and work. These texts, Zamalin argues, undermine critics who read Du Bois as stalwart in his racial essentialism and those who accuse Du Bois of uncritical elitism. Black Utopia situates its subjects within a genealogy of Black utopianism, and Zamalin here notes that Du Bois’s work marks a shift in Black utopian vision, introducing a “self-consciously critical understanding of utopia” (51). “Utopia requires struggle,” Zamalin writes, seemingly recapitulating Du Bois and staking his own claim that “communicating and acting need to be reimagined not as solutions to problems, but as problems to be worked through and worked on, to be deconstructed and reconstructed” (54-55).
This theme of utopia as fluid or as process appears in later chapters, and Zamalin’s comparative gestures reveal other shared themes. His analysis, however, is not principally concerned with making explicit how a given excerpt reflects a particular pattern within a governing theory of Black utopian thought. As noted in the introduction, his concern is not primarily analytical; it is not driven towards examining what constitues Black utopian texts or how to classify them. The introduction does, however, distinguish three “pillars” of Black utopian texts: liberation, justice, and freedom. Zamalin argues that Black utopian texts offer a “unique take” on the question defining the Western utopian tradition more broadly—elite versus collective rule—that he respectively associates with Black utopian texts of the nineteenth and twentieth century.
Generally speaking, Zamalin’s lack of interest in categorization suits his project, and it may explain why he does not locate these texts within the utopian spectrum and its literary history as theorized by Frederic Jameson, Lyman Tower Sargent, Tom Moylan, and others. His lack of engagement with the literary field, however, proves more of a bug than a feature, particularly when it comes to his own desire to complicate the distinction between utopia and anti-utopia. To be sure, the self-conscious critique Zamalin identifies in several of the twentieth-century chapters—and the related concept of utopia as process and praxis rather than as a fixed state—are hallmarks of what Sargent and Moylan categorize as the critical utopia.
Critical utopia, dystopia, and critical dystopia fall between the two poles of utopia and anti-utopia, but Zamalin overlooks these distinctions, reading, for instance, Delany’s Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (1976) as “ultimately an anti-utopian narrative” (113). This novel, however, as Jameson notes in Archaeologies of the Future (2005),is generally regarded as a critical utopia, ironically for the very reasoning that Zamalin provides: “Delany’s anti-utopianism came from his view that utopia presupposed a ‘static, unchanging, and rather tyrannical world.’ Yet this idea was both realized in Triton’s narrative and betrayed by its articulation of a spirit of utopia” (113). Likewise, Butler’s novels can be better characterized as critical dystopias. The nuance that utopian-studies terminology offers would have strengthened one of Zamalin’s central projects—to ameliorate the negative perception of utopia so it can be put to work today. His imprecision in literary terminology associated with utopian studies may also distract, if not turn away, audiences in this field.
From a literary studies perspective, Black Utopia also mishandles Afrofuturism. After the introduction—wherein Zamalin briefly references Afrofuturism as a philosophy, associating it with Sun Ra, and then as a literary movement—he abandons it in the body chapters. Devoting a paragraph to literary Afrofuturism, he quotes Mark Dery’s definition, arguing that broadly all the major texts in Black Utopia could fall within such designation. Zamalin then complicates his own claim using Dery’s now outdated definition (it has been notably expanded by several scholars). He writes that “black utopia is irreducible to Afrofuturism, which has long been associated with science fiction and technology in the future, replete with robots and supercomputers” (10). Deeper research on literary Afrofuturism would not only have protected Zamalin from this misrepresentation, it would also have prevented him from making the claim that Sun Ra’s art and narratives “have largely been ignored as sources of political critique” (98). Countless critical essays analyze Sun Ra’s art as a point of departure from which to discuss Afrofuturist texts and their political work.
Zamalin is not a literary scholar, nor does he frame or present this work in any way as a contribution to literary studies. That said, he has chosen to explore political theory and utopia through literature. Afrofuturism is not only a significant subset of Black utopianism, but studies of literary Afrofuturism have also generated a new lens through which to read Black literature more broadly. By itself it boasts a massive cultural footprint at present, something Zamalin appears to count on as he features it in the book’s subtitle. In the eyes of this particular reader, not giving literary theory and criticism their proper due constitutes an oversight.
Nonetheless, the Sun Ra chapter provides a rich overview of Sun Ra’s work, expertly delving into his poetry, music, performance, personae, and other activist projects. The chapter serves as a pleasant reminder that utopia is not simply an idea but an embodied and lived practice. Literary qualms aside, the greatest detraction from this chapter surrounds a claim that I believe would trouble a wide range of audiences. Inexplicably, as no context before or after the sentence serves to justify it, Zamalin writes, “Ra’s claim that he knew more about the segregated experience of black lives in the United States than white people was laudable but not quite accurate” (101). The assumption underlying this sentence reflects what scholars of Critical Race Theory have termed the empathic fallacy, which suggests that white people have access to the lived experiences of Black people in a nation structured by racism. This sentence diminishes Sun Ra’s message and stands in opposition to Black Utopia’s own project, which is otherwise geared toward breaking down assumptions that reduce a text’s or individual’s political work and lifting up Black perspectives in order to build better and Blacker futures.
Zamalin buttresses Black Utopia’s political potential in his commitment to straightforward language, ensuring that it is accessible to scholars as well as undergraduates across disciplinary fields. In spite of my reservations, I likewise recommend Black Utopia as a fitting contribution to university libraries.—Julia Lindsay, University of Georgia
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