BOOKS IN REVIEW
Mike Ashley. The Rise of the Cyberzines: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1991-2020. Vol. 5 of The History of the Science-Fiction Magazine. Liverpool UP, Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies, 2022. xvi+444 pp. £95 hc.
There was a time when I would regularly receive a selection of Best-of-the-Year anthologies to review. This selection would usually include the annual massive volume from Gardner Dozois. And so I read them, carefully, cover to cover, not just the stories but also the introductions. It did not take long to recognize a familiar pattern in these introductions. They would skim lightly across the high or low points of the year: such-and-such was the big publishing event; so-and-so died; this thing was controversial; that thing was a popular success; these were the big award winners, and so on. Then at some point Dozois would come on to the business of publishing and it was remarkable how familiar the story was from one year to the next. It would seem sometimes as though the same text could be cut and pasted from one volume to the next, with only a few numbers changed. The magazines had a successful year, but circulations were falling. Circulations were always falling. I am sure that if I were to comb diligently through all thirty-odd volumes of The Year’s Best Science Fiction I might find occasional instances of a magazine whose circulation increased, but if they exist at all they are rare. Science-fiction magazines seem to have been a slowly dying breed for most of the last half century.
It is not just that these magazines seem to be kept alive by some financial alchemy even as income keeps declining at an apparently catastrophic rate, but also that now there is a new threat to their existence. Over the last dozen years or so, a number of online magazines have appeared, such as Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Uncanny, that, after the usual false starts and hesitations, have proved to be remarkably stable and successful. These online magazines, “cyberzines” as Mike Ashley calls them, have drawn attention away from the print magazines and are now every bit as likely to pick up top-rated contributors and award nominations. And with far lower overheads, they start from a much better position than their print rivals. Even so, readership figures for the best of the cyberzines still barely match the ever-decreasing circulation figures for the print magazines, although I am not sure what metric allows you to compare the two sets of figures fairly.
Thus, although there seem to be ever more venues appearing for short fiction and, more often than not, disappearing, and although there seem to be more short stories than ever being published, the market for sf short stories is not particularly healthy. It may be healthier than other genres, but that is not saying a lot. The audience for science fiction gets their fix primarily, I suspect, from television, then from film, then, some distance behind, from novels. The short story is, I would guess, so far behind these three as to be almost out of sight.
We have a Romantic myth in science fiction that magazines are integral to the whole story of the genre. It is a myth that harks back to fabled publications such as Amazing, Astounding, F&SF, Galaxy, and New Worlds, back to a time when there were fewer options for feeding an addiction to science fiction. But that myth has not been true for decades, probably not since the 1960s. I have a feeling that if every sf magazine were to disappear overnight, the vast majority of the consumers of science fiction would not even blink. The history of science fiction can no longer be equated with the history of the magazines; indeed, the story of the magazines forms no more than a curious sidebar to the history of the genre.
Not that Mike Ashley would agree with my dyspeptic assessment. His whole career has been built on the fundamental importance of the science-fiction magazine, from early anthologies to the five-volume history that has now stuttered to a somewhat untidy end. Untidy because, of course, the story is still ongoing, the magazines are still losing subscribers, and the cyberzines are still precariously financing themselves. There is no climax to this tale, no moral to be drawn, no obvious conclusion that might be reached; you simply pick a date (in Ashley’s case, 2020, just two years ago as I write this) and you stop writing.
It is an auspicious date: the pandemic, the lockdown and its various ramifications, and war and financial collapse have all squeezed themselves into these last two years, and any of them might have a profound impact on the story of the science-fiction magazines. But even if Ashley had continued his story on for another two years, we might not learn much about these external influences. The history going on outside the hermetically sealed world of the science-fiction magazine barely gets a mention, even if it has a direct influence upon the magazines themselves. In fact, the sf history going on outside the confines of the magazine barely gets a mention. These were the years, for instance, of the Sad Puppies and their even more twisted offshoot, the Rabid Puppies, yet they rate no more than a couple of sentences passed over lightly in the concluding chapter. The Puppies represented a deliberate and concerted attack upon the integrity of the Hugo Awards, and they had a profound effect both in the way voters responded to the threat and in the rules governing the awards. It is arguable, for instance, that the noticeable uptick in recent years in the number of Hugo Awards going to women and writers of color (the two groups most specifically targeted by the Puppies) might be a consequence of the fact that the Puppies’ attacks helped to focus attention precisely on these writers. Thus an historian might want to consider how Strange Horizons, to name one example, along with its companion magazine, Samovar, has gone out of its way to encourage those groups that the Puppies attacked. Certainly, given how much the Hugo Awards, in this volume and in its predecessors, serve as one of the metrics by which Ashley measures the worth or standing of any magazine, one might expect some analysis of these events, but, alas, I have already expended more words on the Puppies in this review than Ashley does in his book.
It is issues such as this, and the question of the Puppies is far from an isolated case, that lead me to conclude that the five volumes that make up this “Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines” do not amount to a history. It is, rather, a data set. A very valuable data set, and one that will doubtless be extensively mined by future historians of science fiction, but the books, to my mind, do not contain the analysis or even the narrative that one would expect of a history.
Ashley’s five-volume history is not really the story of the science-fiction magazines, but rather a romance with those magazines. Ashley is in love with them and they can consequently do no wrong. Anyone who sets out to fund or to edit a magazine, whether in print or online, is treated with admiration. They are the keepers of the flame and so must be respected. Any magazine that publishes work that subsequently wins, or is at least nominated for, a Hugo or Nebula Award, is obviously doing something worthy of praise since in Ashley’s world these are the most consistent arbiters of quality. The notion that a Hugo-winning story might not be the very best piece of fiction published that year is a concept that seems to pass Ashley by.
The pattern that Ashley follows is unchanged from previous volumes. We learn who was involved in editing and in managing each magazine in turn (magazines are invariably dealt with one at a time, with little sense of the wider forest environment beyond the individual trees). We learn what strategies are put in place to cope with the invariably declining finances, whether reducing the page count, reducing the number of issues, reducing their frequency, reducing pay rates, or some form of creative accounting. Finally, there is a brief overview of the type of fiction published in the magazine, along with a mention of stories by some of the more prominent authors, though it is a rare story indeed that warrants more than a one-sentence précis, which tells us absolutely nothing. There is no critical judgement involved, no sense of why we should pay attention to these particular stories or authors, no notion that a particular magazine might be doing something that is good, bad, or mediocre. And Ashley is very strict, very conventional, in his view of what constitutes a “science-fiction” magazine; whenever fantasy or horror, the weird or the unconventional, intrude into the story you get a distinct sense of him metaphorically holding his nose until he has made it through to some technologically safer ground.
This structural approach, by the way, is applied equally to both print magazines and cyberzines. I think we are meant to see the arrival of the online magazine as marking some sort of fundamental change in the ecology of the science-fiction magazine. But after reading this book I am damned if I can understand what that fundamental change might amount to, other than the fairly basic difference between ink on a page and pixels on a screen. Is this a change in the nature of science fiction or simply in the way we access it? Ashley does not tell us.
There are minor differences between this volume and its predecessors. There is nothing on non-English-language science fiction (though this is something that has flourished in the period covered by this volume), and little enough on science fiction outside the USA and Britain. There is nothing on the critical journals, though they seem to have flourished or at least survived better than many of their fiction counterparts. There is nothing on the small presses or what, in the previous volume (Science Fiction Rebels 2016), he called the “SF Underground,” though perhaps he considers that anything online automatically falls into one or other of these categories. In the main, however, this volume is exactly like its predecessors: a rather pedestrian text that surrounds the real heart of the work. And that heart consists of a dense series of tables, most though by no means all compressed into nearly 100 pages of appendices, in which the magazines are rendered into numbers of issues, circulation figures, and the like. As I say, this is a data set, not a history.—Paul Kincaid, Folkestone, UK
Queer SF, Queer Criticism.
Ritch Calvin. Queering SF: Readings. Aqueduct. 2022. xi+204 pp. $18 pbk, $7.95 ebk.
There is much to admire about Ritch Calvin’s new study of queer sf, provided you go in with certain expectations, the precise nature of which are foregrounded by the author himself in his introduction. This is a collection of “essay drafts” rather than essays, of “fleshed out teaching outlines” rather than exhaustive studies of each of the texts and themes invoked (4).
This communal, conversational tone informs the book as a whole. Queering SF is composed of 27 micro-chapters (or “shades,” as he calls them) organized roughly chronologically, that cover works from John Varley’s story “Options” (1979) to Alechia Dow’s novel The Sound of the Stars (2020). I say micro-chapters because they resemble analytic snippets extractable as discussion points and brief précis of the texts, some twentieth century, but mostly post-2010, rather than exhaustively analyzed and argued sections.
Acknowledging the somewhat arbitrary nature of alighting on particular dates as starting points of a chronology such as this, Calvin convincingly begins his analysis with texts from the 1970s, catalyzed by the “first undergraduate course on homosexuality” offered by UC Berkeley in 1970 (10). Calvin’s chatty, conversational analysis takes us through each micro-chapter and gives a good overview of both the texts and general contexts of each, with discussion focusing on one or two texts at a time.
Throughout, the idea of what constitutes a queer text, and its praxis of queering a certain issue or theme, is emphasized. In its iteration as a verb, Calvin keeps the word flexible and multivalent, allowing meaning to emerge organically from each text. Chapter four’s discussion of the “Four J’s” of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) exemplifies this (as well as providing an excellent bibliography of Russ’s works for the curious reader). The chapter also models what is both a strength and weakness of the volume as a whole; while linking each text to timely contemporary issues, Calvin’s analysis often becomes somewhat (and surprisingly) ungenerous in judging a text by the concepts and language of queer life in 2021. Giving his arguments a little more room to breathe may have yielded more satisfying and nuanced analysis, but the brief conclusions to the already-brief chapters usually follow the structure of “X got this wrong, but is still useful for reasons Y and Z.”
Nonetheless, Calvin does include some often-overlooked names in his collection. It was heartening to see Tanith Lee and Katherine Burdekin read alongside authors such as Russ, Le Guin, and Delany, among others. I also appreciated the range of media and venues the author covered, including such online publications as Kaleidotrope, in the discussion of Romasco Moore’s “The Moon Room” (2020). His analysis certainly becomes more thorough as we move into the later chapters. The texts from 2010 onwards, another temporal landmark, seem more favorably judged in terms of their (positive) contributions to/wards a queer canon. In this latter half, certain authors, such as Nino Cipri and Larissa Lai, recur in order to do the theoretical heavy lifting. This is appropriate, since such authors have of course done important work, but a slightly more varied spread of names would have been good to see. That said, Calvin does make a few appropriate nods to non-Western, non-Anglophone visions of queerness, namely in chapters 7 and 10. The discussion of Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl (2002) in particular does a fantastic job in drawing out the nuances of non-Western ideas of science and “progress,” and it is perhaps not surprising that the author is again discussed in the chapter 16. Sayuri Ueda’s The Cage of Zeus (2004), the subject of chapter 11, has a slightly more puzzling treatment: Calvin appears to have a less-than-stellar opinion of the novel, labeling it “uneven” and invoking his students’ judgement of it as “painful” (76). One wonders if there could have been a more appropriate text to include or, at least, one more palatable to students.
As well as favoring more contemporary texts, Calvin sometimes threads the chapters together with tenuous theoretical links. Chapters 22 and 23 are particularly jarring when read in sequence, discussing the comic series Bitch Planet (2004) and Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. (1920) respectively (the latter by way of the updated comic-format reimagining, O Human Star (Blue Deliquanti 2015). Concomitantly, the analytical sections of each chapter start to diminish towards the latter half of the book, devolving to a sentence or two of pithy judgement without any kind of satisfying engagement. This is frustrating, especially when genuinely important moments in queer sf history are discussed. For instance: chapter 28 discusses a series that ran from 2014 to 2018 in the combined online zines, Lightspeed and Uncanny, that made space for certain marginalized demographics to tell their stories: queers, women, people with disabilities, and so on. Analysis of these texts takes the form of a single sentence at the end of the chapter: “Destroying these outmoded conceptions seems about right” (152). Thankfully, a recent and particularly controversial short story (Isabel Fall’s “Helicopter Story” ) is discussed with some nuance in chapter 34, with a good summary provided of the arguments around it.
This is an informative, accessible, yet slightly uneven collection of essays that sketches the parameters of contemporary queer sf. Despite frequent lapses into somewhat colloquial syntax (“angry AF” 172), brief chapters, and analysis that leaves the reader wanting more (including the omission of a sorely needed conclusion that might look to the future of the genre), Queering SF is successful in providing teachers and students alike with a useful survey and bibliography of the field. Perhaps the clearest signs of the book’s importance come in the form of the moments where, in citing a particular text, Calvin mentions that the publisher has since “gone out of business” (141), showing how vulnerable the material is to publishing decisions. This makes a good case for the scholarly attention the book gives to queer sf and encourages more of it.—Phoenix Alexander, University of California, Riverside
Triangulating SF in Translation.
Ian Campbell, ed. Science Fiction in Translation: Perspectives on the Global Theory and Practice of Translation. Palgrave Macmillan, Studies in Global Science Fiction, 2021. xvii+359 pp. £109.99 hc, £87.50 ebk.
Tackling science fiction in translation from a global perspective is a daunting endeavor. On the one and obvious hand, any single volume will always fall short in tracking the many translation flows connecting literary lineages worldwide; on the other and more pernicious one, English-language scholarship on this topic will tend to veer toward English as its main frame of reference, reinforcing from the standpoint of theory what sf scholar Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. describes as English’s “Grand Central Bottleneck” stifling non-Anglophone authors from reaching global audiences. These concerns inform and, more importantly, are challenged by the essays collected in Science Fiction in Translation, amuch welcome intervention at the generative intersection between sf and translation.
An organic consensus emerges from the sixteen chapters presented in this book: that the relation between sf and translation extends well beyond the contingency of the translational exchange—the rendition of sf stories from one language to another. As Rachel Cordasco states in the opening chapter, these are fields connected “in the terms of transformation that they share” (19), one unfolding between the poles of estrangement and cognition, the other between foreignization and domestication. The terms are indeed transferable: informed by the linguistic invention of the novum, sf fabulation can be considered as a narrative process of translation through which what is estranging is rendered back into cognizable terms; similarly, the foreign text presents itself to the translator as an estranging novum, persisting as such, albeit domesticated to varying degrees, in the target reader’s experience. As editor Ian Campbell further remarks, both sf and translation generate “remainders”: in one case, the foreignness of the translated text, whose “sharp edges” poke through the translator’s efforts (Campbell, 5-6); in the other, the reader’s familiar assumptions, to which the estranging effect of the sf text remains anchored. Finally, whereas sf has been historically used by European writers to “either glorify or critique colonialism,” as Erin Twohig notes in her chapter on “Speculative Orientalism” (139), translation has been similarly mobilized in support of the “operative viewpoint” of the colonizer (as argued in Alexis Brooks de Vita’s “The Clockwork Chrysalis” ) as well as “a form of resistance against ethnocentrism and racism, cultural narcissism and imperialism, in the interests of democratic geopolitical relations” (Lawrence Venuti qtd. in Sara Martín’s “Militant Translation” 41).
The essays collected here develop around these junctures, presenting a variety of approaches to translation that include close reading, applied linguistics, formalist analysis, gender deconstruction, and postcolonial critique, as well as case studies spanning from French, Catalan, Spanish, Swedish, Russian, and Hungarian to Arabic, Bengali, and Chinese. The breadth of this spectrum foregrounds translation, not only in its “linguistic transformative sense,” but also as a process of “cultural transaction” (Suparno Banerjee, “Ghosts, Aliens, and Machines” 265), whose instantiations—as Virginia L. Conn brilliantly shows in her analysis of Wang Jinkang’s “The Reincarnated Giant” [Zhuansheng de juren, 2005/tr. 2018]—are often symptoms of shifting national identities, global postcolonial repositionings, and embodied “hierarch[ies] of worth” (230). In both senses, the genre of sf, intertwined as it is with the project of imperial modernity, presents a most productive frame of reference for examining the multiple tensions underlying transcultural literary exchange. As many of this book’s contributions show, beneath the unspoken claims or aspirations of universality upon which these processes rely, they resist ethnocentric assumptions that manifest themselves in translation as domesticating strategies of “invisibility” and “hypertextuality” (Amélie Lespillette, “Philip K. Dick in French” 146), obfuscation (R.B. Lemberg’s “Ungendering the English Translation of the Strugatskys’ The Snail on the Slope), and “cross-cultural erasure” (Brooks de Vita 295); at the level of sf representation we find discourses of othering (Twohig), techno-orientalism (Yen Ooi, “Translating the Chinese Monster in Waste Tide”), and pathological nationalism (Conn).
Concerns over translation’s ambivalence, the translator’s “militant” positionality (Martín), and “the ethical aim of the translating act” (Antoine Berman qtd. in Lespillette 146; emphasis in original) are shared by many of the contributors to this volume, corroborating lines of argument across its chapters. Cordasco’s reflection on the resonances between speculative fiction and translation, for example, evokes the figures of the clone, the zombie, and the monster to interrogate received notions of the translated text as a copy “perceived as somehow lesser or less deserving of respect” than its source (25). Here the lenses of sf and speculative fiction illuminate Walter Benjamin’s notion of translation’s “afterlife,” interrogating the in-between status of the translated text as both copy and original. These figures are reprised by Yen Ooi in her reading of Chen Qiufan’s The Waste Tide (2013/tr. 2019) and by Suparno Banerjee in his reflections on the Bengali literary tradition of kalpabigyaner golpo [stories of imagined science]. In both cases, the figure of the monster speaks to the hybridization of literary traditions and epistemologies in the shadow of the colonial encounter. The juxtaposition of the supernatural with the technological/mechanical in the works of Bengali author Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, but also in The Waste Tide and many other specimens of the so-called “new wave” of Chinese sf, blurs epistemological dichotomies, the “metonymic link between science and European colonialism[,] and the relationship of such a link with ... [pre-existing] epistemic traditions” (Banerjee 270). As Banerjee ultimately argues, the “cultural translation” of sf imagery in the context of rural and small-town Bengal speaks to the influence of industrial modernity in traditional societies, while at the same time undermining Western science’s hegemonic claims to truth.
Encoded in the text, such claims inform world visions, social assemblages, and the production/representation of subjectivities in and outside the text. As Ikram Masmoudi highlights in the work of Palestinian/Jordanian novelist Ibrahim Nasrallah, and as Ian Campbell highlights in the novels of Egyptian writer Bazma Abdelaziz, sf tropes can be productively mobilized to advance social and political critique; yet the same critique can be neutralized in translation. In what is one of this volume’s highlights, Brooks de Vita exposes, for example, how Richard Madden’s translations of enslaved Cuban writer Juan Francisco Manzano’s visionary steampunk poetry, although penned in support of the Abolitionist movement in Europe, “inflict a sweeping interracial, intercultural, and linguistic erasure upon Manzano’s poetic achievements.” Madden’s translations, Brooks de Vita further argues, “satisfy Madden’s own goal of attacking chattel enslavement on the grounds of its inhumanity without compromising chattel slavery’s foundational racism” (292).
Such instances of erasure are particularly evident in the translation of gendered language: with their comparative close reading of Alan Myers’s and Olga Bormashenko’s English translations of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Ulitka na sklone (The Snail on the Slope, 1972/tr. 1980 and 2018), Lemberg shows how translation “ungenders the novel ... by smoothing out, erasing, and replacing most of its gendered expressions” (56), despite gender being a primary concern in the source text. Considering the inevitable problems that occur when dealing with languages that are gendered differently (such as Russian and English), Lemberg argues after Louise von Flotow for a feminist approach to translation aimed at “making the translator’s role visible” (75). Similar concerns inform Tessa Sermet’s chapter on Québec writer Élisabeth Vonarburg’s subversion of phallogocentric assumptions in the feminist utopia Chroniques du Pays des Mères (1992/tr. 1992). Questioning whether the novel’s English translation can accommodate the same linguistic subversion, Sermet envisions the translator not as a fallible mediator, but rather as a collaborator in the novel’s project of unveiling essentialist assumptions and determinist views of language. As Bogi Takács concludes in their analysis of the Hungarian translations of Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation (1953/tr. 1973 and 2008), “translations offer us a space where conflicting cultural assumptions can reveal themselves” (210), foregrounding the translator as a moral actor whose choices have a crucial impact in the text’s reception.
The resonances between sf and translation as productive fields of tension in which existing cultural assumptions are exposed emerge even more clearly from the comparative analysis of translated sf texts—an effort shared by many of the volume’s contributors. The intralingual and interlingual comparison of multiple renditions of the same source texts foregrounds not so much the translator’s accuracy (a judgment predicated on a misguided search for absolute equivalence) as translation’s historicity, affordances, and limits. Translations are products of their time and they age as such, yet as Lespilette argues in her analysis of the “mutating voice” of Philip K. Dick in French, even re-translations that are aimed at fixing past mistakes “remain imperfect and can produce their fair share of deficiencies” (159). In the title of a well-known article published in this journal, Fredric Jameson once famously asked “Can we imagine the future?” (“Progress versus Utopia” [SFS 9.2 (Jul. 1982)]), praising the merits of sf as a genre that dramatizes the contradiction between the open-endedness of future history and the necessary closure of narrative structures (“[the] limit beyond which thought cannot go” ). Similarly, by interrogating translation through sf we may ask: “Can the foreign be translated?” In the attempt to answer this question, here too we incur in a Jamesonian contradiction: foreignizing translations (as advocated by Venuti) may bring us closer to the source text, but as Daniel Helsing’s study on the English renditions of Harry Martinson’s sf poem Aniara (1956/tr. 1991 and 1999) shows, such an approach ultimately reminds us that “truly foreign elements of the source language and culture will remain unrepresentable” (84). Perhaps a way out of this dilemma can be found indirectly by going back to sf’s fictive neology: comparing French and Spanish translations of Anthony Burgess’s Nadsat—the fictional idiolect used in A Clockwork Orange (1962/Fr. tr. 1972, Sp. tr. 2007)—Niall Curry, Jim Clarke, and Benet Vincent remark in the end that “a third language can tell us something valuable about the other two.”
We can expand on this idea by way of a conclusion. Science fiction and translation find in each other analogous “third points” of anchoring. Sf’s estranging fabulation brings attention to the foreign as first and foremost a linguistic construction, thus undermining essentialist (nationalist, orientalist, racist, sexist) assumptions aimed at the other. Similarly, translation’s balancing act between foreignization and domestication echoes the interplay of estrangement and cognition at work in the sf text, foregrounding sf narration as a process of cognitive re-mapping through which the unfamiliar is brought into our subjective and collective fold. The arguments advanced in this collection stem from these triangulations, providing key points of reference for navigating the extensive landscape of figures, tropes, and generic traits of sf in translation.—Lorenzo Andolfatto, University of Fribourg, Switzerland
Defying the Demands of (Re)production.
Kazue Harada. Sexuality, Maternity, and (Re)productive Futures: Women’s Speculative Fiction in Contemporary Japan. Brill, Brill’s Japanese Studies Library, 2022. 214 pp. $108 hc.
Kazue Harada’s study explores the much-dismissed world of speculative fiction written by Japanese women, particularly focusing on themes of reproduction. In the field of science fiction from Japan, which Kazue refers to as Japanese “speculative fiction” for a reason (as I will return to below). Scholarly approaches have largely excluded women writers and neglected questions of gender and feminist issues. The book adds a truly refreshing perspective to scholarship not only by challenging existing male-centered views that have framed the genre but also by critiquing the Japanese government’s long-lasting conservatism regarding women’s reproductive roles. Harada’s book fills an academic void created by the general absence of studies about Japanese sf, and she proposes a wide array of theoretical directions toward the inclusiveness of queer and feminist issues.
The key idea framing Harada’s study is the double meaning of the term (re)production, which aligns human reproduction with the nation’s mission for productivity. Her analysis begins with a statement made by Mio Sugita, a politician and member of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party that is known for conservative policy making. In a 2018 article published in Shinchō45, Sugita claimed that tax money should not be spent on LGBT rights initiatives because same-sex couples do not reproduce and have “no productivity.” Harada plays on the word’s duality as the nation’s productivity and women’s bodily reproduction, critically questioning the deep-rooted belief in the importance of reproduction for the nation’s growth. Harada cites Lee Edelman’s critique in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004) of reproductive futurism, the common belief that having children will ensure the future because reproduction (re)produces labor and increases economic activity. In addition to reproductive futurism, Harada argues, heteronormativity and eugenic selectivism are embedded in the political discourse that promotes reproductivity. She also cites José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of queer futurity to conceptualize the framework for her overall argument that queerness advocates for society’s relationship to futurity and the not-yet-conscious (17). Speculative fiction texts by contemporary Japanese women authors challenge these dominant discourses of reproduction by eroding the borders between humans and nonhumans and presenting alternative visions in the form of hypothetical futures.
Employing the term “science fiction” may often entail lengthy debates and genre controversies, so Harada chooses to use the term “speculative fiction” and rightly maintains the focus on a selection of textual examples from five women authors from Japan. These three fiction writers (Murata Sayaka, Ōhara Mariko, Ueda Sayuri) and two manga artists (Hagio Moto and Shirai Yumiko) “imagine alternative possible futures in order to question historical inequalities of sex and gender differences and social categories based on present social realities in the (re)productive, heteronormative family system of Japan” (26). Based on close reading and textual interpretation, the author provides insightful perspectives on why women writers need speculative features to write about futures against the present state of society hegemonically manipulated by government policies and medical guidelines that incorporate eugenics, allegiance to the biological family, and child-bearing as the consequence of a heterosexual act.
The textual selections serve as both the book’s strength and its vulnerability. In both textual production and criticism, sf has often been reserved for allegedly masculine stories of technology and reason, told from a macrocosmic viewpoint. Harada’s study makes a significant contribution to scholarship by challenging the gendered assumptions surrounding the genre. As much as this is a strength of the book, however, it leaves unanswered many questions for readers who wish to learn more about sf or about Japan. The text selections are all literally contemporary, most appearing since 2010. The clear exceptions are Moto Hagio’s classic manga, such as Jūichinin iru! [There Are Eleven, 1975] and Mājinaru [Marginal, 1980], which were groundbreaking texts opening space for sf and queer identities in and beyond manga. Similarly, discussions of cyborgs and gender in fictions such as Ōhara Mariko’s Haiburiddo chairudo [Hybrid Child, 1990] address gender issues, presenting an unexpected perspective if the reader is expecting cyberpunk anime/game culture from the 1980s. Literary approaches concerning a broad category such as speculative fiction may may have to choose between a cataloging walkthrough/overview and in-depth close textual reading. This book chooses the latter, successfully forming a well-focused perspective on contemporary gender issues.
The text choices also faithfully reveal how sf has been dominated by male authors. Harada means to leave out some groundbreaking texts that interpolate possibilities of alternative reproductive methods (or rejection thereof) by male writers. I would like to reiterate that Harada’s study successfully presents a wide variety of speculations about future reproductive possibilities. It avoids being overly inclusive and rightly focuses on the time period and texts that need attention. Still, readers may wonder if writing speculative fiction about future reproductive experiences, whether bioengineered, digital, or genital, are also open to male (or any gender) authors as well as female authors, especially when binaries of sex are continuously attacked in these fictions.
Japan today is known for its seemingly irreversible trend toward fast demographic decline, leading the world in its continuously low birth rate. Japanese people are increasingly losing interest in having children, let alone marrying or having genital heterosexual sex. Harada’s discussions are richly contextualized with government policies and social norms surrounding the reproductive duties superimposed on women today and their historical contexts. Shirai’s manga WOMBS (2009-2010) tells a story reminiscent of Japan’s wartime imperialism and the colonial national project of maternal reproduction of soldiers. Queer families discouraging human reproduction are portrayed in Udeda’s The Ocean Chronicles series (2006-2013). The continuous government efforts to promote reproduction for more than a century now seem to only intensify as reproduction continues to be more unattractive to the majority of younger Japanese. While not directly referring to this contempory context, Harada’s book provides insightful discussions of new generations defying the national mission for productivity, reproduction, and growth as Japanese society is entering the uncharted territory of the un(re)productive future.—Kumiko Saito, Clemson University
Life, Jim, But Not as We Know It.
Steven Shaviro. Extreme Fabulations: Science Fictions of Life. Goldsmiths, 2021. 181 pp. £17.50.
This elegant and lucid book modestly offers eight chapters of eight close readings of science-fiction texts, structured around questions of life and embodiment—or what the British sociologist Nikolas Rose would call “the politics of life itself,” as it becomes a scientifically manipulable, controllable, and commodifiable thing with the advances of the biosciences. In typical Shaviro style (this is his eleventh book), the short stories, novellas, novels, and one Afrofuturist hip-hop album considered are principally instruments for reading science-fictional futures in a philosophical mode. These are not genre studies or cultural histories of sf texts but, as the minimalist introduction states, texts read as “thought experiments” (1).
The readings here share a theoretical frame and reading practice with those critical theorists loosely associated with speculative realism or object-oriented ontology (OOO), such as Graham Harman and Eugene Thacker. Indeed, Harman’s pleasingly odd exercise in close readings of Lovecraft’s stories in Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (2012) might be the model for Shaviro’s approach here. Eugene Thacker talked about writing not a philosophy of horror, but about the horror of philosophy, its very limits, pushing to expose the unthought of its system of thought, using Gothic fiction and occult grimoires as theory-fictions to break open the constraints of disciplinary knowledge. Similarly, Shaviro is not writing philosophy through sf, but reading sf as a kind of philosophical speculation, thus testing the limits of both philosophy and literary or textual criticism. Whether you get on with this mode or not, these close readings are always worth the time and will be vital reference points for those exploring these texts and writers.
The first two chapters explore the limits of the Kantian philosophy of human cognition in two texts that stage dramas of explicit breeches of Kant’s transcendental frames of human thought. These are Charles Harness’s “The New Reality” (1950) and Adam Roberts’s audacious working out of Kant’s limits of philosophy in The Thing Itself (2015). The philosophical ground of this attempt to think beyond the Kantian frames of thought will be familiar to those well-versed in their OOO or willing to spend time with post-post-post-structuralists such as Quentin Meillassoux. This is the critique of limits of correlationism, the fatal mistake, so the OOO crew argue, introduced into Western philosophy by Kant that the world can only be understood through human frames, given the phenomenological prison of our limited conceptions of time and space. Sf as a vehicle for post-Kantian thought can stage moments of the sublime that exceed Kant’s act to recuperate even these moments of cognitive limit or collapse. These moments in sf hint at genuine alterity, or else dramatize the impossibility of representation of what Meillassoux calls “the great outside,” that rich world of things themselves that carry on perfectly well beyond human limits. So far, so familiar: Shaviro has expertly explored this conceptual terrain in previous works, such as The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism (2014) and Discognition (2016).
Chapters three and four focus on Clifford Simak’s “Shadow Show” (1953) and Ann Halam’s Dr Franklin’s Island (Gwyneth Jones’s 2002 YA rewrite of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau ). This pair explores how “life itself” might become a manipulable object of oppressive conjunctures of bioscience and corporate capitalism, while suggesting that there is a kind of darkness or alien alterity to life that escapes this capture. These are science-fictional spins on work in Gothic or horror studies that explore how terror can be generated out of this sense of life as an alien vitalist force that surges up and through the human body, transforming and remaking it. But where Lovecraft’s response is a reactionary and racialized terror at hybridity or trans-species genetic transfer, Simak’s short story exposes the Cold War ideological fusion of biological sciences with the militiarization of research and the politics of implacable enmity, while Halam examines how her protagonists embrace the imposition of animality and difference not as terror but as pure potentiality. There is a certain compromised utopianism in Halam that rewrites the Lovecraftian (and Wellsian) alarm at any breach of human-animal borders.
Chapters five and six, on Nalo Hopkinson’s “Message in a Bottle” (2005) and Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden (2012), look at narratives of future development of life, and what it might mean to confront futures where life has mutated out of its current human limits. Shaviro reads both texts, intriguingly, as instances of “speculative anthropology” that critique mythic narratives of origins (in Darwin-inflected nineteenth-century anthropology or more recent evolutionary psychology in Beckett’s novel); these stories hint at human futures that cannot be captured by financialization or the apparent control of life itself by the biosciences (in Hopkinson’s story). The unpredictable open mesh of possibilities of life itself and futurity is affirmed here, and affirmed also as the potentiality of sf itself as a genre.
The last two chapters displace these hopeful monsters to explore dystopias that embody Giorgio Agamben’s notion of “bare life”—life reduced to its oppressed subsistence, stripped of rights, imprisoned in toxic cultures and a degraded, dying planetary environment. Shaviro sidesteps fiction to consider a concept album by Afrofuturist hip-hop group clipping (written with a small “c”)—although this is another strand of Shaviro’s interests in how music (and music video in particular) has become a frontier in what he calls “post cinematic affect” (in his 2010 study of the same name). Afrofuturism has always been intrinsically connected to the music scene, and there is a welcome attention to the sonic conceptualization of this dystopian narrative in Shaviro’s writing. The band clipping offer a reworking of an escaped slave narrative on their album Splendor and Misery (2016) (the title is an echo of a Samuel Delany text). Here, as in his final chapter on Gwyneth Jones’s very dark novella, Proof of Concept (2017), Shaviro follows Fredric Jameson’s sense that this is not necessarily the time for utopia—the historical horizon of possibility may not allow it—but it is also an easy defeatism to slide into dystopian imaginings of the end. Perhaps the best we can hope for is how Shaviro describes Jones’s dense and difficult novella—the anti-anti-utopia. There are the barest slivers here of Blochian hope, a barely imaginable path out of the desolated present. There is no need for a conclusion of the book after that.
Shaviro is part of the terrain of radical philosophy (or post-philosophy, or maybe even what Francois Laruelle calls “anti-philosophy”) that combines philosophical explorations of the negative energies and pulsions of the “dark enlightenment”—often using genre fiction as its vehicle—with the more political interests of Marxist and post-Marxist sf criticism. He has published works for Zero Books, the independent publisher initially associated with Mark Fisher and Tariq Goddard (now carried on under the Repeater Books imprint with a different backer). Extreme Fabulations appears from Goldsmiths Press; Goldsmiths College in south London was where Fisher worked in one of the few remaining programmes of cultural studies in the UK. The Press is full of a new and exciting mix of theory, fiction, and theory-fiction into which Shaviro fits very well. Mark Fisher, even after his early death in 2016, remains a presiding figure of the fusion of this study of popular culture through a post-Marxism inflected by inhumanist and object-oriented ideas. Fisher also generated his political philosophy through popular culture, finding a kind of mordant sustenance in genre fiction and apocalyptic post-industrial and Afrofuturist music mixed with heady Deleuzian post-human prose. There is a tendency for some of this work to head towards nihilism and pessimism—Eugene Thacker’s recent work has included the laugh-a-minute Infinite Resignation: On Pessimism (2018). Ray Brassier, quoted early on in Extreme Fabulations, is the author of Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (2007), another favorite with sulky theory boys (and some girls) dressed in black. Shaviro, who long ago channeled Deleuzian delirium to read horror film as a delighted dissolution of the subject in The Cinematic Body (1993), remains adjacent to these fields, but with a more productive political project. These readings are absorbing exercises in a certain theoretical approach that prioritizes philosophy over default contextual framings or cultural historicism. If it remains this productive of insight, long may it continue.—Roger Luckhurst, Birkbeck College, London
Robert Yeates. American Cities in Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction. UCL P, 2021. ix+201 pp. $40 pbk. Open access ebk.
In American Cities in Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction, Robert Yeates sets out to show that “America has its own specific history with urban ruins in fiction” and that these “ruins have functioned in very different ways in the individual historical contexts of particular US cities and in relation to particular media formats” (16). After setting the stage by referring to studies ranging from those by Georg Simmel and Lewis Mumford to James Berger and Stephen Joyce’s much more recent Transmedia Storytelling and the Apocalypse (2018), Yeates explores representations of post-apocalyptic American cities in six particular cultural and media-historical constellations, from fiction in the early twentieth century to the transmedia storyworlds of the early twenty-first century.
The opening chapter situates Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912) in the context of “the inconsistent but vital relationship between the emerging genre of sf and the magazines,” which Yeates considers a reflection “of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century urbanization and industrialization of America” (47). This chapter presents a convincing reading of The Scarlet Plague as an extension of London’s nonfiction writings about the San Francisco earthquake, epitomizing the author’s turn “towards fantastic tales of possible future catastrophes” after 1906 (36). In addition, Yeates outlines the publication history of The Scarlet Plague, drawing on archival sources and providing great insights into Gordon Grant’s simple yet powerful illustrations.
The second chapter moves to the 1950s, when radio became the dominant medium due, in part, to changes in urban planning and transportation. As Yeates explains, whereas “the early twentieth-century commuter look[ed] to magazines for entertainment while aboard public transport, the commuters of the 1950s pilot[ed] private automobiles” and “found in radio an indispensable source of entertainment that could hold their attention without distracting them from their drive” (51). Next to the changes in media properties, Yeates emphasizes a distinct change in the causes of imagined urban disasters, as “wilful acts of sentient forces, whether human or alien” replaced chance and natural causes (55). The chapter discusses two episodes of the fantasy-horror series Quiet, Please (1947-1949) and three episodes of the sf anthology series Dimension X (1950-1951), highlighting the particular media properties of radio plays and demonstrating how these media artifacts negotiated scientific optimism and belief in technological progress with the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Chapter three continues the exploration of Cold War anxieties, this time in the medium of film. Yeates’s focus turns to aerial warfare here, which was employed as a military strategy in World War II and then became a key element of how sf films of the 1950s and 1960s imagined urban destruction. Using The War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960) as his main examples, Yeates echoes Jennifer Fay’s analysis of “nuclear conditioning” through motion pictures in her excellent book Inhospitable World (2018), suggesting that sf movies of the 1950s and 1960s not only reflected the anxieties of their times but also allowed viewers to confront and ultimately overcome their fears of urban and nuclear destruction.
The next chapter provides a structurally not entirely convincing yet nevertheless enjoyable detour to the Blade Runner franchise (centering on the 1982 film) that showcases “what about this franchise resonated at the different moments of its development, and how the texts’ differing contexts reveal the strengths of Blade Runner’s particular take on the post-apocalyptic American city” (91). Starting from the observation that “little has been written to situate [the original Blade Runner] film in the movement of the late 1970s and 1980s towards demonizing and policing sexuality in America’s major cities” (92), the chapter focuses on Othering and how marginalized characters “navigate the liminal spaces of the ruined city as acts of experimentation, improvisation and expression in resistance to the policing of their identities” (115).
Using Wasteland (1988) and Wasteland 2 (2014) as a launching pad, the fifth chapter turns to videogames and their development since the late 1980s from 2D to 3D worlds; isometric projection was a transitional in-between stage. Yeates highlights player choice and virtual movement as key dimensions of how videogames negotiate the ways in which people interact with digital information today. The moral implications of player decisions and players’ exploration of the post-apocalyptic urban environments in the Wasteland games, he argues, combine to invite players to contemplate the worlds they navigate and the repercussions of their (virtual) actions. Discussing such iconic games as the Fallout (1997-) and Half-Life (1998-2020) series alongside the Wasteland games, this chapter stands out for its liveliness; reading it, you cannot help but feel that Yeates really enjoyed writing it.
The final chapter explores the ambivalent attitudes projected onto urban spaces in the Walking Dead franchise (2010- ). Yeates combines insights into the historical developments of cities such as Atlanta, Georgia, with elaborations about how the segregation of gated communities recalls the white flight of the mid-twentieth century to suggest that the role of cities in the Walking Dead constantly oscillates between beacons of hope (e.g., meeting other humans, finding resources, and finding shelter) and places where various types of dangers concentrate (not just zombie hordes but also other humans willing to kill for the scarce resources).
American Cities in Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction compellingly traces the development of the post-apocalyptic American city in the twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries across media. Robert Yeates establishes a convincing (media-)historical trajectory that he develops convincingly as the gradual transition from fiction in the early twentieth century to the digital media and transmedia storyworlds of the early twenty-first century, reflecting socio-cultural changes over those one hundred years. Although the individual chapters feature conclusions that not only summarize the chapters’ contents and arguments but also time and again open up new lines of thinking, the monograph, unfortunately, ends somewhat abruptly. As someone who usually doubts the value of conclusions in monographs, I find myself in the odd position of, in fact, missing a conclusion. Indeed, a closing chapter that ties together the individual chapters (instead of, not in addition to, the brief conclusions at the end of chapters) and expands on some more recent media and technologies, such as virtual-reality games (that Yeates briefly mentions in the final chapter), would have been the proverbial icing on the cake.
In addition, although Yeates tackles questions of race in intriguing ways at several points in the book (e.g., when The War of the Worlds imagines a reinvention of society that is decidedly coded white [83-84] or when Atlanta’s skywalks segregate the city [158-60]), the cultural artifacts discussed in more detail are uncomfortably white. While the direction of the intellectual journey that Yeates takes his readers on partly explains the selection of primary texts, the relative dearth of non-white ways of imagining post-apocalyptic cities reveals another shortcoming: the book does not engage deeply with the fact that the world that the apocalypse brings to an end tends to be a privileged world. Likewise, Yeates mentions global warming and environmental destruction several times in the course of his study, but the potentially apocalyptic outcome of the ecological crisis never takes center stage for an extended period of time.
Despite these points of criticism, American Cities in Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction is a great read whose real strengths are the readings of particular representations of post-apocalyptic urban spaces that are sensitive not only to cultural contexts but also to media specificities. By connecting these dimensions, Yeates succeeds in linking changes in the mediascape with the evolution of the postapocalyptic American city in sf in revealing ways. American Cities in Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction should be of great interest to scholars and students of sf studies, American studies, and media studies, among others. As a matter of fact, the book’s clarity makes it an ideal choice for classroom use.
I would be remiss not to mention that UCL Press is an open-access publisher, which is why a pdf version of the monograph may be downloaded from the press’s website and the OAPEN platform for free. I would suggest, however, that potential readers buy the paperback (cheaper in Europe: €25.99/£20.00) to support the press and OA (the success of which is, of course and unfortunately, also measured by how OA positively impacts sales)—American Cities in Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction is most definitely worth this investment.—Michael Fuchs, University of Innsbruck
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