#73 = Volume 24, Part 3 = November 1997
BOOKS IN REVIEW
Reflections of a Socially Conscious Scientist
Freeman Dyson. Imagined Worlds. Harvard
UP, 1997. 216pp. $22.00
Cleanly written, elegant in insight, this
reflection by one of the great scientist-writers of our time beckons us to the far
horizons of the human experience. As in his notable Disturbing the Universe,
Dyson uses adroitly observed features of our modern technological landscape, and his
experience in it, to glimpse the future's outlines. In this new book he ventures farther
than before, ruminating over how science's thrust will affect humanity over not mere
decades, but many millennia.
Dyson stands in the long tradition that passed
down from H.G. Wells through J.D. Bernal, Olaf Stapledon, and Arthur C. Clarke, flavored
by a particularly British wise abstraction. "Science and religion are two great human
enterprises that endure through centuries and link us with our descendants," he
announces, unafraid to draw faith into the arena as a cultural force science shall forever
have to reckon with (7).
Dyson draws readily upon science fiction,
invoking Wells and Verne, using ideas of talents as diverse as Olaf Stapledon, Aldous
Huxley, and Robert Forward. "Science is my territory, but science fiction is the
landscape of my dreams" (9).
Indeed, he has been a wellspring for sf writers
since his imagining of the Dyson sphere, a civilization that envelops a star and uses all
its energy. Larry Niven and Bob Shaw based whole novels on the short paper that conveyed
this idea, which Dyson invoked to urge astronomers to look for warm infrared sources as
possible evidence of advanced technology. He has always had a gift for seeing the next
step in a series of concepts.
In five admirably concise essays he takes us from
the near past to the far future. Science and technology must progress through trial and
error, he observes, while politics seeks to mandate outcomes and thus brings disasters.
Dirigibles lost out to airplanes partly because of political agendas imposed upon them.
The British Comet jetliner failed because management forced fast engineering results.
Technology, then, must evolve through its own Darwinnowing.
Necessarily he favors small science
("Tolstoyan" ) over big projects ("Napoleonic"). In our era of
dwindling resources, this seems the winning view. Luckily, small science governs in the
crucial fields of neurobiology and microbiology, which will shape the next century.
Attempts to impose big agendas on biology should then be resisted.
Looking still further, Dyson uses Shakespeare's
seven ages of man from As You Like It to outline a grand perspective of our
possible futures. He sets the seven ages as "not the seven parts of an individual
life but the different time-scales on which our species has adapted to the demands of
Our complexity arises from the inherent conflict
between the contradictory demands of these time scales. In powers of ten, Dyson picks his
scales in years: 10x, with x running from one to six, then to infinity.
Anything with x<1, i.e., within a decade, "belongs to the present rather than to
the past or future" (143).
Nearly all our thinking is bounded within ten
years, though the true agents of change, new "institutions and new technologies take
longer than ten years to grow" (144). Within the next decade, foreseeable advances
include a flowering of digital astronomy, completion of the Human Genome Project, and
physical sequencing of DNA through "the biological equivalent of the [charge-coupled
device]. I recommend this invention as a task for any ambitious young person who dreams of
leading a scientific revolution" (146).
On the scale of x=2, a century, we individually
die. "To survive on a time-scale of a hundred years means to survive as a family, as
a nation, as a school of science or art, as an industrial enterprise, or as a religious
community" (147). We have evolved with passionate loyalties to these larger units
which ensure continuity, a consolation for personal mortality. Single technologies can
dominate over this scale, but no more, and Dyson guesses that the next century will dance
to the songs of "petroleum, computers and biochemistry, plus the two newcomers,
genetic engineering and artificial intelligence" (148).
When these latter two are mature, they may be
eclipsed by "radio-telepathy," direct communication between brains. With
ecological problems dominating our political agenda, Dyson believes "the successful
solutions will be local, not global" (148), though "genetic engineering will
change the nature of the problems and will make new solutions possible" (149).
Genengineered crops, parental choice in their children's genetic makeup, and many other
prospects that frighten us today will be commonplace tomorrow.
Dyson takes no position on the delicate balance
between individual freedom to choose and general social norms, as revealed strikingly
recently in the cloning of the sheep, Dolly. Few voices were raised among all the
chat-show hubbub to speak for the essentially private nature of a decision to clone
oneself. As an identical twin, I found the widespread misconceptions about Dolly--who is
not a truly identical being as her mother, since she experienced a different gestation in
a different womb--more telling than the op-ed ruminations. Dyson foresees many conflicts
stemming equally from ignorance and from conflicting definitions of what it means to be
For x=3 "neither politics nor technology is
predictable" (154) and only languages, religions, and cultures retain a true
identity. Even so, "Genetic differences which would be socially divisive and
politically intolerable on Earth may be harmless when the deviant populations are living
on distant asteroids" (155). This classic science-fictional vision invites speciation
which adapts to extremes of heat and cold, varying gravity and pressures, all in the
sun-space that holds vast resources. Our crucial option will be whether we use these
resources to continue our present, historically extraordinary two percent growth rate per
year, for there is no inherent physical reason not to try.
Dyson offers solutions based on separation, so
that diversity does not lead to war: "The most serious conflicts of the next thousand
years will probably be biological battles" (157). The human heritage itself could
become the crucial issue.
At x=4, ten thousand years, "qualitative
changes dominate quantitative changes." Sanity may be crucial, with all boundaries
matters of will. "To remain sane, our descendants must strive to keep the emotional
roots of our species intact.... If we are to survive through a long future, we must stay
in contact with our long past." That past arose on scales of x=5, for "A hundred
thousand years ago, we were busy learning how to be human" (161, all). The galaxy's
the limit, literally. Then x=6 takes us back to our origins, when "we made all the
great inventions that stamp us as human." Granting that we can have "no inkling
of the nature of our future inventions" (165), Dyson still feels that realizing that
we may have such prospects should itself inform our present.
If Gaia, "the control system that ties
together the actions of life and the environment," actually exists, then on million
year scales we can come to terms with it. "From the human point of view, Gaia is
diffuse, poorly defined, dumb, and slow. Her slowness drives us crazy. This is one of the
central facts of the human predicament" (171).
He concludes with the ultimate prospects of an
infinitely lived universe, proposing that perhaps "the laws of Nature are constructed
in such a way as to make the universe as interesting as possible" (173).
Ethics conclude his vision. He favors moves to
bridge the widening gap in wealth both in the advanced nations and along the North-South
axis. He sides with J.B.S. Haldane in condemning science as often a force for sharpening
divisions, as it rewards the bright and quick. Oddly, he does not question whether social
unrest is driven by the gradients in society or by the absolute levels of prosperity. Even
the poor in the advanced nations live better than they did decades ago; is this a brake on
turbulence? Over long perspectives, such issues matter, or else we face perpetual conflict
no matter how wealthy we become.
Conflict begets narrative interest. This trove of
ideas will do the same in the genre, quite predictably.
Benford, UC Irvine.
Britain and Germany at
Fictional War, 1890-1914.
I.F. Clarke, ed.
The Next Great War with Germany, 1890-1914: Fictions and
Fantasies of the War to Come. Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and
Studies #12. Liverpool UP, 1997. 400pp. 32.00 cloth, 12.95 paper.
It has been said that one of science fiction's
most enduring and significant thematic fixations is the preconstruction of possible
histories, whether in the form of prescriptive social blueprints or as prescriptive
cautionary tales. In The Next Great War with Germany, 1890-1914, I.F. Clarke has
set his sights on a particularly rich field of such texts, and in so doing, carries
forward and expands the work he started in Voices Prophesying War.
The second in a new series of anthologies
dedicated to tracing the evolution of future war fiction, The Great War With Germany
1890-1914 is a much more focused collection than its immediate predecessor, The
Tale Of The Next Great War, 1871-1914, which offered a diverse sampling of this genre
from a variety of nations. In the current collection, Clarke has focused exclusively-- and
more or less equally--upon the fiction of both Victorian and Prussian imperialists,
"citizens of the first great technological nations" who "contained and
codified their experience of incessant change within the new practice of
future-watching." Clarke explores the differences in the tone--and nationalistic
agendas--of these stories, while also suggesting that they illustrate the essential
similarity in these nations' reactions to war anxiety, since both respond by producing
"a series of prophetic tales...which had immense influence in the quarter-century
before the First World War."
The majority of the British selections--ranging
from Rear Admiral Colomb's (and others') exacting military projections in The War in
189-- to William Le Queux's sensationalistic The Great Invasion of 1910--exemplify
the Teutophobic "Invasion scare" yarns that were a nervous island-nation's
response to the Reichstag's 1898 commitment to a blue-water navy. German writers crafted
scores of aggressive responses, some of which echo with anticipations of the lebensraum
and racial purity rhetoric that would later be associated with Nüremburg. August
Niemann's introduction to his popular 1904 tale of Germany triumphant, Der
Weltkrieg--Deutsche Traüme (World War--German Dreams), exemplifies this semantic
counterfire, the author typifying his desires as the natural "dreams of a
German" to usurp British supremacy. This exhortation for war against external
constriction and restriction became occasionally more extreme in the hands of authors who
longed for a world in which Deutschland --and Deutschland alone--reigned uberalles:
Karl Eisenhart, in Die Abrechnung Mit England (The Reckoning with England, 1900),
upbraids Germans who have forgotten "that they are Germans and that theirs is a
restricted fatherland." Being "first and foremost a German," Eisenhart's
worldview places the Aryan race not only at the center of all things, but above them:
"Never for a minute did I ask myself," he boasts, whether Germans "had
"right--moral or legal--on their side."
Clarke--as much a historian as a literary
analyst--focuses primarily on how both British and German future war fictions were
linked--practically and perceptually--to the very real and grim conflict that commenced in
1914. Working mostly as a tour-guide in this gallery of (now) obscure texts, he details
their original influence and popularity, but ultimately stands aside, allowing readers to
draw their own conclusions. The selections--which Clarke characterizes as a mixture of
prognostication, preposterous scenarios, and journalistic profiteering--also provide a
valuable historiographic overview of certain aspects of late Victorian history and
culture. The British stories are given additional context by Clarke's examination of their
presence in both the popular consciousness and official political discourse of their day,
as is revealed by excerpts from non-fiction sources. Segments from a Prime Minister's
statement decrying Le Queux's opportunistic alarmism (and the PM's subsequent letter of
apology), and from commentaries of biographers, generals, and journalists (along with
Clarke's own analysis), collectively delineate the weblike strands of power that joined
many of England's military leaders, politicians, and editors into a cat's cradle of common
interest around the turn of the century. In the process, Clarke also acquaints us with the
names of some not-so-obscure authors who either wrote their own future war fictions, or
were actively involved in the discourse surrounding them: Wodehouse, de Maurier, Waugh,
Belloc, Saki (Monro), and Childers, to name only a few.
However--as Clarke repeatedly points out--the
future war fictions of this time are most notable for their almost universal lack of
visionary accuracy in the realm of military operations: they "failed lamentably to
foresee how that war would be fought," envisioning modernized versions of Waterloo
rather than the horrors of extended trench warfare. Indeed, Clarke includes numerous
detractors of this genre, such as Charles Lowe, who sent up the recurrent British penchant
for "spy scares," and his German counterpart, Carl Siwinna, whose parodical
"how-to" manual--Vademecum für Phantasiestrategen (A Guide for Fantasy
Strategists, 1908)--exploded the pomposities and propagandistic artifices of future war
In teasing out the discursive threads that bound
together the governments, media, and story-tellers of both nations, Clarke weaves a
compelling tapestry which illustrates the influence of speculative texts upon political
perception. However, just as Clarke's interests and inclinations seem to suggest a
predisposition to approach texts from the perspective of a historian, he also evinces a
disinclination to explore the implications of this work in the light of critical and/or
literary theory. Whether such considerations are simply extraneous to his project, or
whether his silence suggests a negative judgment on their potential value, is impossible
to say; however, readers whose primary interests lie in the domain of critical theory may
find this omission to be irksome. Indeed, in light of his scholarly acumen and breadth,
Clarke's straightforward assumption and assertion regarding the confluence of text and
events, of narrative imagination and political actualization, may well invite a reader to
wonder if his silence regarding theoretical implications might be purposive. If so, his is
an uncommonly loud--and provocative--silence.
Clarke's text is certainly unscholarly
in one major regard: it is a decidedly accessible and enjoyable read. By turns playfully
waggish and learnedly earnest, Clarke's prose is rich with charm, and his enthusiasm for
his subject is infectious. But, best of all, his virtuoso command of the topic does not
(d)evolve into abstruse considerations of impossibly recondite minutiae--as so often seems
to occur in texts held to be hallmarks of academic rigor(-mortis). --Charles E. Gannon, Liverpool University.
the Intentional Fallacy.
Writing Horror and the Body: The Fiction of Stephen
King, Clive Barker, and Anne Rice. Contributions to the Study of
Popular Culture #51. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press (800-225-5800), 1996. xiv+183. $55.
Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads
is a remarkable document, but as a piece of Wordsworthian criticism nobody would
give it more than about a B plus.--Northrop Frye,
Anatomy of Criticism
A self-professed "sequel" to her
earlier Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic, Linda Badley's Writing Horror
and the Body: The Fiction of Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Anne Rice takes up where
the previous book left off, focusing this time on the problematic construct of the body as
the primary locus of horror for the late-twentieth-century author and reader of horror
fiction. Despite the similarities in the titles of the two texts, however, the later book
is more concerned with issues of gender and horror than with the visual enacting or
representation of the medicalized body in cinematic horror; and, perhaps because she is
more confident about her subject matter, Badley is less anxious about legitimizing it
through a relentless invocation of post-structural and critical authorities--Kristeva,
Cixous, Deleuze and Guattari still emerge to take a bow periodically, but their cameos are
less intrusive and appear less as near-non sequiturs than they did in the first text.
Maintaining that the Gothic body is always connotatively "gendered female" (9),
Badley argues that the works of male Gothic writers, Stephen King and Clive Barker, and
female Gothic writer, Anne Rice, reflect the genre of "anti-horror" because they
invert and subvert "horror's embodied language" (11) and therefore invite gender
as a crucial critical axis.
Almost half of Writing Horror and the Body
is devoted to criticism of Stephen King's fiction, as Badley follows Tony Magistrale's
lead and separates the earlier King from the "Second Decade" of his career,
tracing his relationship to the female body from his more troubled Carrie to his
later, more assured experimentation in Delores Claiborne and Gerald's Game.
Badley's reading of King's early texts as "post-literate," as depending
stylistically on orality, repetition, and reworkings of fairy-tale paradigms, is solid and
interesting, even if it strains occasionally to fashion King into a latter-day Homer. But
when she moves on to study King's take on gender explicitly--where we might expect
Badley's criticism to segue nicely into Carole Clover's introduction to Men, Women,
and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, in which Clover uses King as a
compelling springboard for a critique of the gendered assumptions about horror as a
genre--the differences between her approach and Clover's emerge as profound. While Clover
begins by deconstructing King, by teasing out the illuminating gender contradictions in
his articulation of what he might have wanted to achieve in Carrie, Badley quotes
King extensively in order to map out an authoritative base for her own readings of his
text. In effect, Badley takes King at his word, giving his assessments of his work a
primary authority over her own criticism and that of other critics. According to her
schema, she is reading him correctly because she adheres to what he claims to have
intended, while other critics like Magistrale --who remarks, at one point, on the
narrative inconsistencies in The Dark Half--are simply failing to register that
King is not writing "psychological fiction" (55), because he says as much in an
In fact, one of the central weaknesses of Writing
Horror and the Body lies in Badley's almost slavish adherence to what the author says
about his/her work. For all the invocations of post-structuralist critics, then, Badley
falls into that old trap the New Critics identified long ago, the trap of assessing
intentionality by invoking the authors' extra-textual commentary as supremely
authoritative. With Barker, who discourses at length about his intentions and ideas in
interviews, prefaces, introductions to films, introductions to other people's books, and
elsewhere, Badley, naturally, has a field-day, never acknowledging that one of the
problems in a number of Barker's novels is his tendency to slide into almost-preachy
indulgences and quasi-didacticism. That she reads Barker as absorbing the potentiality of
"Ecriture Féminine" and transforming it into horror or fantasy is also rather
problematic, evading, as it does, the question of whether Barker is (perhaps like King)
co-opting a form of feminism so that it can function once again in a masculine register.
Badley suggests, in fact, that King and Barker
are feminists. Rice, on the other hand, has evident difficulties with her misogyny, for
she is, according to Rice first, then Badley, the victim of a "divided self"
(128). Giving the same enormous credence to Rice's remarks about herself and her artistic
intentions as she did with the authoritative comments of Barker and King, Badley spends a
good deal of her chapter on Rice's Vampire Chronicles detailing the manner in which Rice's
biography (via Katherine Ramsland's Prism of the Night: A Biography of Anne Rice
and Rice's interviews) dominates the artistic and/or ideological trajectory from Interview
with the Vampire to The Tale of the Body Thief. And again, Badley manages to
keep her own potentially insightful readings in check by making them constantly
subservient to Rice's confessions of having a "masculine" intellect (129), a
strong identification with gay rights (128), an "ambivalence toward the female
body" (130), and an "envy" of the male body (123).
In the end, Badley essentially argues that King
and Barker are the better feminists and that Rice is the better homosexual, dodging
adroitly the implications of any essentialist feminism (like "Ecriture
Féminine," for example) and ensuring that any queer criticism involving identity
politics has no place whatsoever. And she thus presents an almost perfect enactment of the
sort of "postfeminist" realignment of gender studies that Tania Modleski details
with such flair in Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a
"Postfeminist" Age. The monstrous body may be gendered female, then, but
"anti-horror's" male writers clearly have, not surprisingly perhaps, no problem
with its reinscription. But surely that cannot be the sum of criticism of either Barker or
King: Badley simply opens the door for a critique that she does not pursue, partly because
she is constrained by her over-investment in an authority other than that of the texts
themselves. What would make Writing Horror and the Body far more interesting and
complex in its interrogations of gender representations is some investigation of the
peculiar gender slippages that occur in all three of the writers--despite, or even because
of, what they say they were attempting to do. As Frye points out, writers are frequently
"indifferent" critics of their own works, at best getting "B pluses"
for their criticism. Badley could do a lot better.--Nicola
Nixon, Concordia University.
Exploitation of Credulity.
Angela Hague, and Marla Cartwright, eds. "Deny
All Knowledge": Reading The X-Files.
Television Series. Syracuse
UP (800-365-8929), 1996. xi+233. $45.00 cloth, $16.95 paper.
Given the ubiquitousness of The X-Files'
promotional machine--of "Official" and "Unofficial" guides and
companions, of dozens of Internet sites, of dime-store paraphernalia, of Rolling Stone
covers and New Yorker articles-- The X-Files is most certainly "out
there," if "there" is anywhere other than one's living room in front of the
television on a Friday night. And, given the number of conference papers that have cropped
up recently (from the MLA and American Studies Association to the just-finished
"Console-ing Passions" conference on television and video), it was only a matter
of time before that fandom/critical activity would be transformed into print. Now, David
Lavery, Angela Hague, and Marla Cartwright have delivered right on cue, assembling a
collection of ten scholarly essays in "Deny All Knowledge:" Reading The
Those of us reaching for the volume might, quite
rightly, have concerns that it represents yet another attempt on the part of
self-consciously "hip" academics to justify their viewerly enthusiasm by
grasping too strenuously for subversive content or by mobilizing critical paradigms under
which some popular icon fairly cracks with the strain of the critique. Witness, for
example, the irritatingly lame collections on Madonna that cropped up in 1993: Fran
Lloyd's Deconstructing Madonna and Cathy Schwichtenberg's The Madonna
Connection. I am pleased to say, however, that Lavery, Hague, and Cartwright's
collection is decidedly more solid overall, even if it contains a number of weaker essays.
The only authors to fall into the trap of overinvested fandom--coyly dubbed
"X-philedom"--are, in fact, the editors themselves in their rather weak and
uninteresting introduction, which vacillates from posing the quasi-ridiculous question of
whether The X-Files reflects its cultural moment to articulating some sort of raison d'être for the volume as their collective hope that it will somehow "enrich
[our] present and future experience of the series in all its complexity" (21).
Luckily, the other authors in "Deny All Knowledge" are more
sophisticated, engaging in forms of critique of the series from the predictable paradigms
of psychoanalysis and gender criticism to the more provocative paradigms of Foucauldeanism
and new historicism.
Although the essays are not organized around
sections, almost half of them interrogate the issue of gender. Susan Clerc's "DDEB,
GATB, MPPB, and Ratboy: The X-Files' Media Fandom, Online and Off" examines
the gender distinctions between various on-line mailing lists and newsgroups for
"X-philes." Rhonda Wilcox and J.P. Wilcox's "'What Do You Think?': The
X-Files, Liminality, and Gender Pleasure" argues that Scully and Mulder occupy
liminal gender spaces, in which Scully participates in the masculine mode and Mulder in
the feminine. Lisa Parks's "Special Agent or Monstrosity?: Finding the Feminine in The
X-Files" maintains that, for all Scully's association with masculine, scientific
rationalism, she is nevertheless associated with the very feminine monstrous that she
searches to comprehend through science--that Chris Carter's series ultimately constructs
the feminine in search of itself. And Elizabeth Kubek's "'You Only Expose Your
Father': The Imaginary, Voyeurism, and the Symbolic Order in The X-Files"
insists that the series systematically attacks and denunciates patriarchal culture through
an undermining of the Symbolic order. The essays by Clerc, Williams, and the Wilcoxes are
reasonable, but deploy very predictable and rather tired definitions of the constructs of
masculinity and femininity, while those by Parks and Kubek are definitely more
compelling--Parks's is the stronger of the two, partly because Kubek's is more long-winded
than it need be, and partly because Parks is almost the only author in the collection who
has some fairly serious and well-articulated reservations about gender representations in The
Apart from two essays that address folklore and
linguistic issues in the series--Leslie Jones's earnest "'Last Week We Had an Omen':
The Mythological X-Files" and Alec McHoul's mildly dull "How to Talk
the Unknown into Existence: An Exercise in X-Filology"--and Linda Badley's
doctrinaire Foucauldean "The Rebirth of the Clinic: The Body as Alien in The
X-Files" the remaining three essays in "Deny All Knowledge"
examine the historical conditions that produced the series. And they are by far the most
provocative and genuinely engaging essays in the entire collection. Michele Malach's
"'I Want to Believe . . . in the FBI': The Special Agent and The X-Files"
looks at the changing representations of the FBI on television, suggesting that Scully and
Mulder typify the ideologically-charged ideal of "normalcy" of the 50s FBI agent
and therefore highlight the comparable "weirdness" of everything else around
them. The other two essays are very fine indeed: Jimmie Reeves, Mark Rodgers, and Michael
Epstein's "Rewriting Popularity: The Cult Files" is a highly
intelligent analysis of the material conditions and shifts in TV culture that unpacks
precisely what allows The X-Files to be marketed and to prosper as a specifically
"cult" series in the 90s; and Allison Graham's "'Are You Now or Have You
Ever Been?': Conspiracy Theory and The X-Files" is a smart and articulate
examination of pre- and post-Cold War conspiracy theories that converge in The X-Files,
in which the external and internal red menace is replaced (via the invocation of 50s sf
films) with the aliens "out there" and a corrupt old-guard FBI still operating
in the "here" of the US.
Fortunately, Lavery, Hague, and Cartwright have
chosen to place the three best essays among the first four of the collection, which picks
up the lag created by the introduction and makes "Deny All Knowledge"
appear to be stronger and more consistent than it actually is. Still and all, the presence
of three or four good essays in a collection of ten constitutes somewhat better odds than
that we normally find in anthologies; "Deny All Knowledge": Reading The
X-Files is, in other words, a much better buy than those Madonna collections.--Nicola Nixon, Concordia University.
Tom Easton. Periodic Stars: An Overview of Science
Fiction Literature in the 1980s and '90s.
I.O. Evans Studies in the
Philosophy and Criticism of Literature #24. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1997. 264pp.
$37.00 cloth; $27.00 paper.
Once upon a time, prior to the current boom in
academic genre studies, the best place to go for criticism of sf was the popular
magazines. Damon Knight, reviewing for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
and assorted other periodicals in the '50s, and Algis Budrys, reviewing for Galaxy
in the '60s, set high standards both for their own critical practice and for the genre
itself; much of this material is collected in Knight's In Search of Wonder
(Advent, 1967) and Budrys' Benchmarks: Galaxy Bookshelf (So. Illinois UP, 1985).
In his introduction to Knight's book, Anthony Boucher--himself a noted magazine critic of
sf--distinguished between reviewers and critics in the following manner:
Reviewing is a lesser art, with a more immediate
functional purpose. The reviewer's objective is to express his reactions to a work in such
a way that the readers of a given periodical will know whether or not they want to read
it. The critic attempts to measure the work by more lasting and more nearly absolute
standards, to determine its place, not for the reader of the moment, but for the
cultivated mind viewing the entire art of which this work forms a segment. (Introduction
to Damon Knight's In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction, 2nd ed.
[Chicago: Advent, 1967], vi)
Most magazine writers, Boucher went on to argue,
were merely reviewers (here he modestly included himself and, among several others, the
longtime reviewer for Astounding/Analog, P. Schuyler Miller), while Knight was
unquestionably a critic.
We may no longer entirely accept Boucher's
exalted criteria for the critic (which of us now believes in "nearly absolute
standards" of judgment?), but I think we can still agree that his distinction is a
fruitful one. The genre was lucky during those years to have critics like Knight and
Budrys writing book reviews, offering insight into historical trends and helping to
establish elevated measures of literary quality. Today, however, save for Norman Spinrad's
occasional pieces for Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (see the material
collected in Science Fiction in the Real World [So. Illinois UP, 1990]), sf
periodicals are dominated by reviewers. This is emphatically true of Tom Easton, who has
been Analog's regular book reviewer since 1982, and of his book Periodic
Stars, which gathers 250 reviews published in that journal between 1986 and 1992.
Easton's claim, in his subtitle, that his book
constitutes an "overview of SF literature in the 1980s and '90s," is thus
significantly overblown. An overview implies a general summation--of trends, patterns,
themes, etc. Here, no such survey is provided; rather, the book consists of a compendium
of individual reviews, alphabetized by author, each roughly a page in length. These
reviews have been only minimally edited, and thus constitute Easton's immediate reactions
to the volumes he was assigned. His basic goal in evaluation, as he announces in his
introduction, was (and presumably still is) "helping my readers decide whether to
rush out and buy their own copies" (7). Since many of the titles reviewed are long
since out of print, and since those which have survived their initial publication are
worthy of being judged by more demanding standards than this essentially utilitarian one,
Easton's advice is no longer helpful. If Easton were a major sf author in his own right
(as are Knight, Budrys, and Spinrad), his scattered opinions might provide intriguing
obiter dicta, but he is not. Frankly, it is difficult to understand why this book was
published at all.
Even as a gathering of reviews, Periodic
Stars is wanting, since many major titles of the period are not covered. Of the
seventeen novels that won the Hugo, Nebula, or John W. Campbell Memorial awards between
1986 and 1992, Easton treats only seven. Moreover, what he does cover generally tends to
indicate the adventure and hard-sf orientation of Analog magazine: for example,
nine books by Mike Resnick, six by Ben Bova, and five each by Jeffrey A. Carver, Michael
P. Kube-McDowell, William T. Quick, Charles Sheffield, and Walter Jon Williams
are reviewed, most of them very minor works (Easton even includes titles by
these authors in sharecropper series such as
ISAAC ASIMOV'S ROBOT CITY
ROGER ZELAZNY'S ALIEN SPEEDWAY).
Of course, he does also discuss some important writers (seven titles by Orson Scott Card,
six each by Greg Bear and Gene Wolfe, etc.) and even a bit of fantasy, though the latter
tends clearly to be personal favorites (seven books by Charles de Lint, four by Esther M. Friesner). But, in general, the coverage is spotty and inconsistent, based not on a
judicious gleaning of representative texts but on the deadline-pressure inspection of
whatever caught his fancy or crossed his desk during these months.
Happily, Easton knows his limitations, claiming
not to be a critic--someone, echoing Boucher, who "dwell[s] upon what a book means,
how it stacks up against the author's past performance and against the standards of
literature, and whether it deserves to survive for a century or so"--but only a lowly
reviewer, whose "job is not to judge books for the ages but to tell readers enough
about a book to give them some idea whether they would enjoy it" (9). Going even
further than Boucher, however, Easton disclaims performing "interpretation and
analysis," which "are the provinces of critics," in favor of basic
plot-summary and rudimentary evaluation of character and style. An example of his method,
from the very first review in the book:
Michael Armstrong's Agviq is an excellent book
because, even though the basic theme--survival after nuclear holocaust--is old enough to
show signs of wear, Armstrong has managed to renew the shine by finding a new setting and
new problems to go along with the main problem. He also handles his characters well. And
he writes nice too.
This sort of pedestrian commentary runs
throughout the volume, livened up by occasional salty language and odd personal asides.
Easton's reviewing is affable, low-key, and generally undemanding. But criticism it
decidedly is not, which makes one wonder what this book could possibly add to Borgo's
series in "The Philosophy and Criticism of Literature." To fulfill my reviewer's
duty, therefore, I am forced to say: Caveat Emptor.
Latham, University of Iowa.
Alien from Monster to Icon.
Stephen J. Dick.
The Biological Universe.
UP, 1996. xvi+578. $54.95.
How did the concept of the alien grow from an
outré manifestation in the late 19th century to an icon of popular culture a century
later? This history, both biological and literary, traces how the idea came to have great
metaphorical power in the hands of both sf writers and imaginative scientists.
H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds and
Kurd Lasswitz's enormously influential Auf Zwei Planeten (1897) set the agenda,
with Jules Verne playing only a minor role. While Lasswitz wrote out of German idealism,
his Martians straight out of Lowell's visions of Mars, he sought to inspire Earthlings
with the advanced thought of those who had battled the red deserts with high technology.
"I shall never forget how I devoured this novel with curiosity and excitement as a
young man," reminisced Wernher von Braun about a text which saw aliens as higher,
better. Wells captured the public imagination with malicious invading aliens, and this
dominated much sf--though not scientific discourse, luckily--for many decades.
Dick traces knowledgeably the studied reaction of
science to ideas about aliens. He is an astronomer and notes the impact Darwin had on even
that most aloof of sciences, by introducing an ordering principle to speculations.
Whatever odd shape aliens might take, they had been shaped by evolutionary forces to fit
planetary or other environments. Dick finds that exobiology is still a protoscience, but
one that has profited from orderly speculation, most certainly including science fiction.
He cites and examines the classic sf texts, with nods to more recent writers like
Stapledon, Clarke, Brin and Forward.
He adroitly overviews the cultural significance
of such debates as the UFO controversy and SETI. The characteristic view of a biophysical
cosmology, with life as a consequence of impersonal physical laws, lies now ''at the root
of an informed worldview--" not only a myth, but perhaps the myth
of modern times (554). This is myth in the Joseph Campbell sense of reflecting the deepest
beliefs and characteristics of a culture. At the heart lies sf, then, which is our
culture's primary way of conveying science to the larger audience.
Though the general thesis will hold no surprises,
this is a readable, scholarly study of how a genre came to be crucial to a culture's view
of its own position in the universe--a trait singular in history.--Gregory Benford, UC Irvine.
Romanian History of Utopian Literature.
Horia Arama. The Collector of Islands. 1981, 267 pp;
The Happy Islands. 1986. 368
pp; An Island in Space. 1990, 384
pages. Index. Bucharest: Cartea Romaneasca, 1981. Paperback. Price not known. [The titles
in Courier type are literal translations of the original titles]
In this as yet untranslated trilogy, Romanian
"science fantasy" writer Horia Arama has undertaken a massive study of the idea
of utopia from its origins to the late twentieth century. One of the first Romanian
writers to begin working with sf following the Second World War, Arama was strongly
influenced by literary contests and publication opportunities sponsored by the Romanian
semimonthly literary supplement Povestiri stiintifico-fantastice (Science-Fantasy
Stories) and its powerful editor Adrian Rogoz, himself an sf writer.
Arama has cast his history of utopias as a
reading journal, organizing the vast literature of utopia around a few leading Ideas.
Observing that innocent utopian beliefs have resulted in the deaths or ruin of many fine
writers, Arama notes that shipwreck forms a characteristic opening for both classical and
modern utopias. In his first volume, The Collector of lslands, Arama goes on to explore
relationships between discontent and longing for the Ideal and continually changing
definitions of human values and happiness. In a chapter entitled "The Archeology of
Happiness," Arama surveys several definitions of happiness proposed from the times of
Homer and Hesiod to Rabelais and the Enlightenment philosophers. A fourth chapter draws on
various ways of drawing portraits of the Prince of Utopia from Thomas More's utopist as
saint to Gerhardt Rittert's twentieth century utopist as demon in The Demonism of Power
(1943). A discussion of utopian economics and longevity gives way to an outline of Roger Mucchielli's theory of three kinds of counterutopias illustrated by such figures as Swift,
Huxley, Sade, Briusov, Wells, Zamiatin, Burgess, Bradbury, and Felix Aderca.
In the second volume, The Happy Islands, Arama
explores the enormous volume of work and thought that has gone into the characterization
of "Earthly Paradise." He takes up in turn myths and legends of the ancients,
ideas of the "natural man," accounts of golden ages, the travels of Marco Polo
and Cook, Rousseau, childhood, the "great year," the Spanish conquest, the
French Revolution, the Palace of Versailles, Fourier, Robert Owen, and Brook Farm.
In the third volume, An Island in Space, Arama
turns to the utopian idea of flight, tracing the notion from the ancients to modern dreams
of high tech futures yet to come. Examples include Francis Bacon's New Atlantis
(1621), James Hilton's Lost Horizon, ways of imagining robots, utopian
catastrophes, literary utopias, and nineteenth-century utopias. Arama concludes with a
plea for the creation of a Romanian utopia, an understandable request given the enormous
task of recreating the country following the fall of the dictator Ceauseseu in December of
The charm of Arama's trilogy lies in its vast
erudition as gradually unfolded through the persona of the author himself as a gentle and
wise scholar speaking directly to the reader while strolling through his personal library,
pausing now and then to muse on a particular volume. It certainly deserves eventual
translation into English, where it could be assessed far more thoroughly than I have been
able to do here.
--Elaine L. Kleiner, Indiana State University, with translation assistance by Angela Vlaicu,
James Craig Holte.
Dracula in the Dark: The Dracula Film Adaptations.
Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy #73. Westport, CT:
Greenwood Press, 1997. xviii+161. $55.00.
It is difficult to decide in what way this book
might be worthwhile. In the first place, it makes no original contribution to the already
vast bibliographic and critical literature on the vampire theme in fiction or film, and
amounts at best to hastily cobbled-together Cliff Notes on extant scholarship. In
terms of its nominal subject, the Dracula film adaptations--I say ''nominal'' because it
wanders rather far afield at times--it isn't a patch on Gregory A. Waller's excellent The
Living and the Undead: From Stoker's ''Dracula'' to Romero's ''Dawn of the Dead'' (U
of Illinois P. 1986), from which it largely borrows its structure and rationale: chapters
(nine in Waller, six in Holte) on the original novel, on the authorized stage adaptation
by John L. Balderston and Hamilton Deane, on early film adaptations such as F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu
(1922) and Tod Browning's Dracula (1932), on 1950s' Hammer Studios versions
and Jesus Franco's El Conde Dracula (1970), on 1970s British and American
television treatments, and on more contemporary developments in vampire film (and some
fiction), all considered as on-going revisions of a classic ur-text. One would hardly
guess from Holte's vacuous coverage, at once thin and padded, that one could possibly
derive over 350 pages of rich, cogent analysis from this primary material, but Waller
does. Waller's book remains the finest study of its subject to date and is unlikely to be
bettered anytime soon, certainly not by Holte's insipid precis.
Waller's book succeeds principally because it has
a central thesis: that the vampire film tradition developing out of Stoker's novel is
concerned above all with the fate of a ''moral community'' menaced by the vampire and thus
requiring defense, both physical and ideological. Holte's book, by contrast, has no thesis
to speak of, though it is filled with undefended assertions plucked half-digested from
other critics: for example, that ''the Hammer horror films of the late 1950s and 1960s
reflected the rise of consumerism, the failure of patriarchal structures to reestablish
the prewar order, the growth of the middle class, and the changing role of women in
society and the family'' (50). This disconnected list, culled in part from fuller
arguments in Peter Hutchings's Hammer and Beyond: The British Horror Film (Manchester
UP, 1993), is dropped into the midst of pages of dreary plot-summary, as if it constituted
some sort of analysis.
Such, indeed, is Holte's method throughout: a
dull rehearsal of basic story elements more or less on the level of journalistic film
reviews, spiced up with occasional half-baked references to psychoanalysis, social theory,
critiques of ideology, etc. Even with such limited aims, Holte has trouble keeping his
facts straight, as when he asserts (79) that John Badham's 1979 Dracula opens
with scenes set at Castle Dracula (it doesn't: it begins with the storm at sea that
accompanies Dracula's arrival in England). And when Holte does essay his own analyses,
they seldom rise above the tritely sophomoric: he argues, for instance, that ''The vampire
in legend, literature, and art provides a figure that unites the lust for blood and the
lust for sex, and in doing so threatens the foundations of civilization'' (10). As an
example of undergraduate writing, I might give the entire effort a C; as an entry in a
major press series on genre studies, I shudder to think what grade it deserves--or what it
portends for the health of our field.
All that Holte adds to Waller's treatment of the
theme are a brief consideration of folkloric and Romantic sources for Stoker's novel, a
chapter on female vampires in film (most of which has little to do with his putative
subject), and some end matter, including bibliographies covering vampire fiction,
anthologies, and works of criticism. These last are nominally annotated, but only
nominally; this is the entry on Waller's book: ''A useful overview of vampire films with
insightful commentary'' (136). Holte also includes chronological filmographies of Dracula
adaptations, of female film vampires, and of ''Other Notable Vampire Films.'' In terms of
comprehensiveness and/or penetration, these additions are essentially valueless; one is
better off perusing Christopher Frayling's introductory essay to his anthology Vampyres:
Lord Byron to Count Dracula (Faber & Faber, 1991) and the relevant material in
Andrea Weiss's Vampires and Violets: Lesbians in the Cinema (Jonathan Cape,
1992), and canvassing the listings in Martin V. Riccardo's Vampires Unearthed: The
Complete Multi-media Vampire and Dracula Bibliography (Garland, 1983), updated by
Robert Marrero's Vampire Movies (Fantasma, 1994) and the various end matter in J.
Gordon Melton's extremely useful The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead (Visible
Ink Press, 1994). Or, if you are interested in cultural studies of the vampire theme, two
recent books that are very worthwhile are Ken Gelder's Reading the Vampire (Routledge,
1994) and Nina Auerbach's Our Vampires, Ourselves (U of Chicago P. 1995).
Certainly, these last two titles prove that the general subject, despite its recent
voluminous coverage, has not quite been done to death or reduced to the reciting of drab
trivia or hackneyed surmises--a fact one would never gather from reading Dracula in
Latham, University of Iowa.
Gregory Stephenson. Comic Inferno: The Satirical World of
Robert Sheckley. Milford Series #66. San
Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press (909-884-5813), 1997. 144pp. $29.00 cloth, $19.00 paper.
In New Maps of Hell (1960), the first
serious critical study of modern science fiction, Kingsley Amis devoted significant
attention to the work of Robert Sheckley, which he viewed as a quintessential expression
of the tendency towards satirical, sociologically grounded extrapolation that marked much
of 1950s American sf. Amis coined the term ''comic inferno'' to describe both this mode of
imagination and the kind of fictive futures it evoked--ironic dystopias driven by
out-of-control technologies into bizarre, antic exaggerations of human foibles and
fears--and Sheckley, along with similar writers such as Frederik Pohl and William Tenn,
were celebrated as major innovators who brought a new sophistication and intelligence to
the field. Despite this strong brief for his importance to the genre, we have had to wait
almost forty years for another substantial discussion of Sheckley's science fiction. Aside
from entries in reference volumes and passing mentions in genre histories, Sheckley has
been largely ignored by sf critics--that is, until Gregory Stephenson's new book. Indeed,
the decade of the 50s, caught between the Golden Age and the New Wave, remains a curious
ellipsis in sf scholarship, and one can only applaud any attempt to restore to its major
writers and themes the sort of expansive critical attention they so clearly deserve.
That said, it must be admitted that Comic
Inferno: The Satirical World of Robert Sheckley is not quite the book one would have
hoped for. I suppose it is pointless to complain about its auteurist animus--especially
given its publication in a series devoted to single-author studies--but I do think its
focus is too narrow: like Stephenson's previous book on J.G. Ballard, Out of the Night
and Into the Dream (Greenwood, 1991), it is essentially a thematic study, making no
attempt to contextualize Sheckley's writing either within the evolution of modern sf or in
relation to contemporary social and cultural history. While he does prominently deploy
Amis's term to describe Sheckley's fiction, Stephenson is not interested in the milieu
that generated the comic inferno as a major form of American sf: the emergence of new
magazine and book markets in the 1950s, the resultant loosening of the hard-sf
stranglehold on extrapolation achieved during the 1940s by Campbell's Astounding,
the social-critical and even counter-cultural agenda embraced by so many of the major new
writers, the consequent rearticulation and revisioning of classic sf themes in terms of
their implications for social and personal development, and the amplification of stylistic
possibilities available to the genre. Indeed, it seems to me that a study of Sheckley's
work (or Pohl's, or Robert Silverberg's, for that matter) could profitably provide a
bridge between 1950s ''social sf'' and the 1960s New Wave, highlighting continuities where
most genre histories stress ruptures and renovations. But this is not the book Stephenson
set out to write, and it is probably idle to chide him for it.
The book he has written is capable,
intelligent, and--within its modest compass-- comprehensive, well worth reading by anyone
interested in the work of a neglected major author. Its organization is simple: following
a detailed chronology of Sheckley's life and work, there are chapters devoted to specific
decades of his sf production, from the 1950s through the 1990s, then a chapter covering
his work in other genres (principally the suspense thriller and the spy story), and a
final overview of his achievement. It is in this last, brief (six-page) chapter that
Stephenson introduces Amis's notion of the comic inferno, a rather belated move
(especially given the book's title) and one that seems largely perfunctory. In his attempt
to apply the term to Sheckley's work, Stephenson so decontextualizes and attenuates it
that it becomes fundamentally irrelevant to his overall discussion. Rather than
participating in a coherent subgeneric movement, as Amis argued, ''Sheckley's fiction
expresses a vision of existence as being at all levels--the individual, the social, and
the cosmic--inherently both perilous and humorous, potentially either infernal or comic''
(126). This is quite true, but it is not the same thing as saying that he is a writer of
comic infernos. It is here that Stephenson's inattention to the larger context of sf
history is most distressingly obvious.
Despite its rather plodding conception,
Stephenson's decade-by-decade treatment manages to display several important, linked
developments across Sheckley's career: in particular, his growing mastery of longer
narrative forms and his gradual transition from social satire to philosophical
speculation. The major contribution of this book, I think, is its spirited defense of
Sheckley's novels, which have never received the attention, either from fans or critics,
that his short fiction has. I must admit that I remain somewhat unpersuaded, valuing the
stories in seminal collections like Pilgrimage to Earth (1957) and Notions:
Unlimited (1960) over the novels I have read (to be honest, only two: Journey
Beyond Tomorrow  and Options ); the latter have seemed to me,
for all their wit and invention, too scattered, too inherently shapeless. Stephenson's
strategy in defending these texts is at once to code their episodic nature
positively--e.g. Journey is ''a fertile melange of topical references, archetypal
resonances, parody, pastiche, gags, satire, and parable, with dashes of Voltaire,
Nietzsche, Kafka, and the Marx Brothers'' (48)--and at the same time to argue for an
underlying structure based on the myth of the questing hero (the theories of Joseph
Campbell are cited, though thankfully only in a brief note). While Stephenson never fully
convinces me that several of the novels are minor masterpieces, he does discuss them with
energy and enthusiasm, whether praising Mindswap's (1966) ''sudden dreamlike
shifts of scene and tone, brilliant pastiches, mad metamorphoses and convolutions of logic
in a surreal, Carollian spirit'' (51), or extolling the hilarious ''parodies of technical
and professional jargon'' running through Crompton Divided (1978). If nothing
else, Sheckley has clearly found a warm and sympathetic reader.
Beyond general observations about career
development, Comic Inferno has no central thesis to speak of; instead, it is a
compendium of more or less close readings of individual texts, drawing out a series of
recurrent themes in Sheckley's work. Stephenson is effective at showing how Sheckley, over
the course of numerous tales, extends and complicates these themes; for example, he
meticulously traces Sheckley's fascination with the intricate agon linking predator and
prey--the ''hunt motif''--from classic early stories such as ''Seventh Victim'' (1953) to
its mid-career expansion as The 10th Victim (1966) and its later ''sequels,'' Victim
Prime (1987) and Hunter/Victim (1988). As Stephenson shows, the hunt begins
for Sheckley as a satirical model of social relations, but slowly becomes an emblem of the
evolutionary struggle between brute egoism and spiritual values. This larger ethical
construction of the theme points to the growing philosophical consciousness in Sheckley's
work, his framing of basic existential and epistemological questions in forms ranging from
futuristic quests to parodies of space opera. At times, Stephenson makes Sheckley sound
like another Philip K. Dick in his obsession with metaphysical speculation, and while I am
not entirely convinced that Sheckley's treatments rise to Dickian heights, Stephenson's
analysis has inspired me to read more of the author in order to decide. Comic Inferno
thus fully succeeds as a spur to engagement with the primary texts, and anyone with an
interest in Sheckley's work, whether scholarly or fannish, is certain to profit from
A final note: Stephenson, a lecturer in English
and American literature at Roskilde University in Denmark, has previously authored, along
with his tome on Ballard, a critical study of Gregory Corso, and is currently completing a
book on the fiction of Robert Stone. While these various subjects might seem rather
disparate, it is possible to trace throughout a basic concern for authors whose work
expresses a skeptical mistrust of authority and embraces counter-cultural values of social
and personal transformation. Stephenson's critical interests thus seem to lie less in sf
studies per se than in contemporary literature which may be said to evince this thematic
pattern. I for one would encourage him to stretch himself in the future and develop a
large-scale argument permitting him to discuss together a series of authors, both genre
and mainstream, rather than consistently settling for these small individual portraits,
which, though shrewd and finely turned, have rather limited ambitions and rewards.--Rob
Latham, University of Iowa.
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