Science Fiction Studies

#83 = Volume 28, Part 1 = March 2001

Tiptree the Theologian.

Inez van der Spek. Alien Plots: Female Subjectivity and the Divine in the Light of James Tiptree’s "A Momentary Taste of Being." Liverpool UP, 2000. vii + 241 pp. £32.99 cloth; £14.99 paper.

In the realm of feminist science fiction, James Tiptree, Jr. (a.k.a. Alice Sheldon) is probably best known for consternating the sf world both for being a woman and for writing exceptional fiction. Who would have thought that such idea-driven, hard sf could be written by a feminine hand? Robert Silverberg summed it up best in his now infamous introduction to Tiptree’s 1975 collection Warm Worlds and Otherwise when he wrote that there was "something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing" (qtd. in van der Spek 8). Today there is an annual award bearing her name given for feminist sf that pushes the envelope of gender expectations in the genre. Yet despite her contributions to science fiction and feminism, there is still relatively little scholarship out there that delves deeply into the complexity of Tiptree’s often bleak visions of the future. This book seeks to do just that. It is a significant contribution to Tiptree studies and to feminist sf theory.

Van der Spek, a "feminist theologian" (3), draws on her background in religious studies, women’s studies, and science fiction, to explore how Tiptree’s 1975 story "A Momentary Taste of Being" deals with "issues of female subjectivity and the meaning of the divine in a postmodern context" (3). Van der Spek explains that Tiptree’s fiction often takes up issues more "traditionally mediated by religious symbol systems ... [including] suffering and salvation, pain and pleasure, flesh and spirit, evil, community, the place of humankind in the cosmos, death, (im)mortality and transcendence, and the relationship of human beings with otherness/the Other" (15). She goes on to argue that Tiptree’s fiction in general, and "A Momentary Taste of Being" in particular, combines a "sense of godforsakeness as much as a postmodern longing for a new senstitivity to the sacred" (16). Van der Spek fuses her discussion of the divine with an analysis of Tiptree’s portrayal of female subjectivity. Tiptree is interested in the condition of women in a patriarchal society that endangers them by virtue of the violence done against them physically, emotionally, and culturally, in no little part as a result of oppressive religious systems. Yet despite her feminist attitudes, van der Spek points out that Tiptree offers few "affirmative representations of female subjectivity" (15; emphasis in original).

In her introduction, van der Spek admits the disparate interests that she seeks to intertwine in a cohesive critical analysis of Tiptree’s "A Momentary Taste of Being." She recognizes the danger to coherence in attempting to create a unified analysis from such a varied background. In fact, she successfully models the kind of criticism promoted by French feminists Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, which approaches the text in a feminine "circular"—rather than a masculine "linear" or "empirical"—style. Each chapter examines the text from a different theoretical perspective, giving alternating readings of the same material, with the exception of chapter 1, "Seed Beds," which contextualizes van der Spek’s theory within feminist and theological studies. This circular approach serves van der Spek’s purposes well. She explores the various forms of femininity postulated by Tiptree; in Chapter 3, for example, she makes a good case for the male character Aaron as a "the dominant side of the same female figure" that Lory also represents (141). In this way, van der Spek gets at the complexity of Tiptree’s vision of the feminine within patriarchal culture, the psychic and social limitations that are culturally constructed rather than physically grounded.

In her last chapter, van der Spek reiterates the unrelenting fatalism and negativity in Tiptree’s portrayal of both men and women in this story. She argues, however, that there are "germs of hope developing in the text’s counter-currents" (187). This last chapter is less convincing than those previous, less successful in weaving together the disparate elements of the argument. Van der Spek’s claim that "A Momentary Taste of Being," when read through a feminist notion of the divine, contains a positive vision of women and of the future, though it has possibility and sparks interest, comes too quickly and seems contrived, especially after numerous chapters devoted to exactly the opposite argument. Specifically, van der Spek argues in this final chapter that Tiptree leaves available the possibility for positive change, that "Tiptree’s text voices irony and desperation, but also hope and desire in relation to the well of life, which is material finitude itself in its generative and annihilative ambiguity" (210). It is in this ambiguity that van der Spek sees a glimmer of hope, for it offers the "possibility of unexpected salvation" (210; emphasis in original).

Though van der Spek’s book (like Samuel R. Delany’s study of Thomas M. Disch’s "Angouleme," The American Shore [Dragon, 1978]) focuses almost exclusively on a single story, clearly she has read extensively in Tiptree’s oeuvre, and has a thorough grounding in Tiptree scholarship. She often makes valuable connections with Tiptree’s other writings, both fiction and nonfiction. (Unfortunately, van der Spek is unable to provide the actual text of "A Momentary Taste of Being," which would have lent greater impact to her scholarship.) Also, her tendency to ask questions without directly answering them can be frustrating. In her final chapter, her argument loses force, seeming to challenge the conclusions made in earlier chapters. Taken as a whole, however, the book is a well-wrought contribution to feminist criticism in general and Tiptree studies in particular, especially in light of the recent revival of popular interest in the author’s work—e.g., Tor’s recent release of Meet Me at Infinity (2000), a collection of some of Tiptree’s short fiction and essays.

—Diana Pharaoh Francis, Western Montana College

Two Authors’ Guides.

James Gifford. Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader’s Companion. Nitrosyncretic, 2000. xii + 281 pp. $32 hc; $24 pbk.

Anthony R. Lewis. A Concordance to Cordwainer Smith. 3rd ed. NESFA, 2000. 189 pp. $13 pbk.

Reliable reference works on individual postwar sf writers are few and far between: fans have the energy and information, but not always the needed research skills, and scholars have the training but—no doubt bearing in mind the prejudices of hiring, tenure, and promotion committees—typically choose more canonical historical figures (H.G. Wells; Mary Shelley) for their major projects. These two books—one a descriptive bibliography of by far the most popular postwar sf writer, the other an eccentric guide to an eccentric (and inspired) postwar writer whose reputation is now in partial eclipse—will be welcomed by those already knowledgeable about Heinlein and Smith. Only Gifford’s book, however, is likely to be useful to readers who are not already aficionados.

Lewis’s concordance has its virtues but (like Smith’s Palace of the Governor of Night, which is invisible except to its architect and owner) they are not likely to strike the eye of the general sf researcher. For one thing, this worthy project (originally published in 1984 and now in its third edition) still has not become a true concordance. In his introduction, Lewis says that he is using the term because it conveys "a secondary religious meaning very important to this author’s works"(6). But concordances can be literary, too: alphabetical lists of all uses an author makes of a term or phrase, with brief contexts given for each use. Lewis lists just one or two sources for most of his terms. And rather than indicating contexts, he paraphrases, explaining terms according to his own interpretation.

I found this occasional explication (he calls it "exegesis") the most interesting thing about the book—the glosses are pleasingly wacky and often informative. But with his telegraphic entries and scattershot etymologies, Lewis is providing a thumbnail sketch of Smith’s master-plot—an expanded dictionary, or maybe a shrunken encyclopedia. He is not furnishing a concordance to Smith, and because it would be very useful to have one, I hope that he will produce a fourth edition that lives up to its title.

Scholars use concordances to track recurring characters, phrases, and images. Lewis does not make these tasks much easier. For one thing, entries should be keyed to a standard edition, while Lewis’s are a hodgepodge. His complete entry for "Turtle-child"—"Was saved by the E-telekeli. The child thought Elamelanie was foolish [UP]"—will make no sense at all to a neophyte, and even an admirer of Smith will be puzzled. For Lewis cites [UP] (The Underpeople) as his source, while today’s readers will remember this scene as occurring in the final chapters of Norstrilia, Smith’s novel, first published under that title in 1975. But in 1968, these later chapters were separately published as The Underpeople, the work Lewis happens to be citing. And that readers today are unlikely to have access to a copy of a thirty-two-year-old paperback hardly seems to concern him. He also fails to note in this entry an important turtle-child in Smith: T’ruth in "On the Storm Planet" (1965).

Lewis’s description of the "Underpeople" suggests the strengths and weaknesses of the major entries:

They are made from animals in the shape of humans. The failed varieties are called Experimental People. [QA] Animals in the shape of humans. Killed if sick; illegal to go to hospitals. The revolt was started by D’joan on Formalhaut III. [DL] The maximum size is six times human; minimum size ½ human. [DL, LC] Could give orders to robots. [SM] Underpeople live mainly underground on earth and are considered to be under real people. Smith meant this to be an analogue with racial problems today. (159)

An encyclopedia would add cross-references to the "Holy Insurgency" and the names of important characters who are Underpeople. And a concordance should list many more references. Lewis gives "The Queen of the Afternoon" (1978), "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" (1964), "The Ballad of Lost C’mell" (1962), and "On the Storm Planet"—but what about B’dikkat in "A Planet named Shayol" (1961)? D’alma in "On the Gem Planet" (1963) and "On the Sand Planet" (1965)? Like T’ruth, these are not minor characters.

Lewis is provocative on the linguistic sources of Smith’s coinages and character names. He speculates, for instance, that Casher O’Neill’s name has some link to "Qasr el-Nil, a building in Cairo"; and as Casher’s home-world is Mizzer, the Sand Planet, the link seems quite probable. And his concluding bibliography includes some of the alternative and working-titles for Smith’s stories, information based on the research of J.J. Pierce that will be indispensable to future Smith scholars, assuming there ever are any (she said gloomily). Overall, however, this rather madcap guide to Smith is too idiosyncratic to create much confidence in its reliability as a reference work.

Gifford begins his book on Heinlein with a disclaimer: "This is not a work of criticism, nor of adulation" (xiii). Though closer to the latter than the former, Gifford’s admiration is expressed not by fannish gushing but by the painstaking detail and thoughtful organization of this work. In form, it’s an annotated bibliography. The prefatory material includes a listing of all titles published, followed by a division of the works into shorter lists—separate chronological breakdowns of the titles considered part of Heinlein’s future history, the short fiction, the novels for adults, the novels for young people, the non-sf stories (only six titles), the nonfiction, and finally the anthologies. The front matter concludes with a chronology that includes personal events in Heinlein’s life as well as details of publications year by year.

The bulk of the work consists of an annotated alphabetical listing of every work published by Heinlein. Full bibliographical information—"serialization and revision [...], awards and award nominations, [...] reprint information" (42)—is given at the top of each entry, and each opening paragraph sketches the plot premises (without revealing twists or surprise endings). "Connections," the following section, considers each work in the context of Heinlein’s writing in general. Odd bits of stray information are provided in what is often the most interesting portion of each entry—the concluding section titled "Curiosities and Anomalies." For "All You Zombies—" (1959) this includes a list of alternative titles that Heinlein jotted down on the first page of his final draft: "The Egoist," "The Solipsist," "I’m My Own Grandpaw," "The Chicken or the Egg," "You Meet the Damndest People in Clancy’s," etc. The memorable final choice comes last.

Until the Clute and Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction expands its coverage of short fiction, the need for works like these on individual postwar authors is going to continue. I can commend Lewis’s concordance only to the small group of scholars already attuned to Cordwainer Smith’s sf. But Gifford’s carefully compiled, handsomely printed work will be useful not only to Heinlein enthusiasts but to scholars of sf in general.


An Exhaustive Yet Limited Study.

Paul J. Nahin. Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction. 2nd ed. Springer-Verlag [American Institute of Physics Press], 1999. xxxiv + 628 pp. $34 hc.

The time machine, as Paul Nahin notes in this second edition of his 1993 work, is no longer an entirely fantastical idea, even if no working model is on the drawing board. Recent research in physics has given time machines a legitimacy they previously lacked, even among science fiction writers and fans, who have long disputed whether time travel is good sf or "mere" fantasy. Nahin’s Time Machines is a kind of comprehensive report on the current state of time machine research in both fiction and nonfiction, replete with analyses and examples from an array of writers in physics, science fiction, and analytic philosophy. The great merit of the book is its exhaustiveness, for which any researcher on this topic, or on neighboring topics within sf criticism, can be very grateful. By his own account, Nahin has attempted to "find and read every time travel story ever anthologized in the English language" (xx). In addition, he has tracked down much of the critical literature on time travel through the academic journals of physics and philosophy. The sixty-page bibliography is, in itself, a magnificent achievement. In fact, the book as a whole is less a sustained critique than an immense annotated bibliography, possibly one of the finest ever produced on a specific literary or philosophical subgenre.

Yet, vast as it is, Time Machines attains its comprehensiveness only within a very narrow construal of the problem of time travel. Nahin’s rules are strict: he is "interested in physical time travel by machines that manipulate matter and energy in a finite region of space.... In addition, the machine must have a rational explanation" (18; emphases in original). Such severe conceptual parameters restrict Nahin’s leeway to judge the quality or relevance of arguments for and against time travel within both nonfictional and fictional texts; he breezily labels such arguments "mistaken" or "illogical" when they fail to comply with the findings of practicing scientists. Of course, stories and fictions do more than just illustrate mathematical or physical theory, and neither the underlying logic nor the conceptual significance of a fiction is much constrained by its consistency with current science. "Illogical," in particular, is a much overused aspersion within the philosophical literature from which Nahin takes his cue; I would have suggested the less common but more precise term "unphysical" to describe what Nahin finds objectionable within many of the stories he interprets.

The chief issue for Nahin is whether time travel can change the past, or whether, as Stephen Hawking has famously claimed, chronology is "protected" from potentially disastrous alterations. Nahin’s specific claim, following rigorously from his and others’ interpretation of the relevant physics and mathematics, is that the past can be affected, but not changed, by action from its own future. In other words, "backward causation" is permitted, but any scenario in which such causation effects something new in the present out of which it originated must be considered logically inconsistent. You can’t change the past because, ipso facto, the past is the way it was. No doubt this is food for thought for philosophers of science, but hardly automatically important to writers, readers, or scholars of literary fiction, even science fiction, unless that fiction is as concerned as Nahin is (and a number of sf writers are) with maintaining good standing among physicists. Alternatively, one may imagine the variety of philosophical questions potentially raised by a story in which time travel does appear to change the past: what constitutes a historical event or non-event? what is the relation of events to the narratives in which they occur? are events physical, social, linguistic, and/or narratological? does an event or a history need a narrative point of view, and if so, what kind? The logic of such a fiction has little to do with physics per se. Nor is this logic substantially different if the fiction is a straightforward "alternate history," before I insert, say, the time traveler’s meeting with Caesar that forestalls the latter’s crossing of the Rubicon, or a message from the future that waylays Brutus on his way to the Senate. With respect to the questions I suggest, a time machine, theoretically viable or not, is merely a convenient access to what is most philosophically or critically interesting within the story of Caesar, or of Rome, or of the world after Rome. Moreover, consideration of the meaning (as opposed to the scientific plausibility) of fictional temporal devices—time machines as well as others—ought eventually to lead critics into branches of theory and philosophy that are largely outside of Nahin’s purview, including phenomenological, semiotic, and narratological traditions.

None of this really detracts from the significance and usefulness of Time Machines, which remains a splendidly rich description of one corner of the newish field of time travel studies. On the contrary, it is to Nahin’s credit that he has covered his own carefully delimited subtopic so superbly that the yawning gap in the critical literature that lies outside his book’s scope becomes all the more obvious. Those who think and write about time travel stories—and this should include, far more than it does, those who think and write about problems of fictionality and narrativity in general—can consider this book, with its focus on time machines as a physical problem, an invitation to write another grand work on the time machine as the paradigmatic narrative problem. With a little provocation, we may discover that the time machine is the fictionally reconstructed essence of any narrative about movement in or through time, which is to say, of any narrative at all.

—David Wittenberg, University of Iowa

Oppositional Politics and Alternative Futures.

Carla Freccero. Popular Culture: An Introduction. New York UP, 1999. x + 202 pp. $50 hc; 16.95 pbk.

On first glance, this book is defined mainly by what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t address advertising, romance novels, mysteries, computer games, most music, or even television. It doesn’t discuss how people use popular texts for escape or identity construction, where the pleasure in them comes from, the material/economic contexts in which they are produced (publishing, film distribution, etc.), or how reading communities such as science fiction fandom act to partially determine the meaning and reception of texts. Despite the claim of its title, this book fails as an introduction to popular culture.

What the book does, however, it does well. Carla Freccero examines a limited number of specific texts by "high" popular creators—such as Spike Lee and Octavia Butler—who have artistic and political ambitions but who work in popular genres. Freccero employs the close-reading techniques developed by traditional literary studies to examine these works, and her skill at semiotic analysis is amplified by the theoretical tools of cultural studies. Indeed, given the foci of the different chapters (identity politics, sexual subcultures, etc.), and the useful glossary of critical terms (which is longer than some of the chapters), this work might better be viewed as an introduction to the many ways such a methodology can tease out layered meanings, especially oppositional meanings, from complex texts. What’s more, in the process of reading works as diverse as Madonna’s videos and Jewel Gomez’s lesbian-vampire collection The Gilda Stories (1991), Freccero manages to introduce all major terms currently circulating within cultural studies. In these brief, cogent encapsulations she communicates dense concepts in clear prose, using examples from the popular texts under examination to illustrate how, for example, the structuralist concept of binary opposition and the socio-historical analysis of imperialism can be seen to intersect.

Freccero explicitly embraces the political aspirations of cultural studies, seeking a better world by deconstructing the past and envisioning alternative futures. One of the ways this is done is by interrogating societal assumptions about the relationship between nature and culture, long a concern of science fiction, as Freccero acknowledges. One of the most useful insights this work offers is how key tropes cut across genres: Gomez’s alternative vision of vampirism and Butler’s complex approach to human-alien mating in the XENOGENESIS trilogy are shown to be interwoven with attempts to articulate the "hybrid" in real-world political struggles, like that of the Chicano community to produce an identity in diasporic conditions.

In Freccero’s final chapter on technoculture issues, two science fiction works receive extended examination: William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and the first three Alien movies (1979, 1986, 1992). She locates Gibson in a lineage that runs back to Philip K. Dick (via Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner [1982]), a series of works intensely anxious about the relationship between "the meat"—humanity’s organic bodies—and the gleaming, seductive surfaces of the machine, be it replicant or matrix. Exploring how race, gender, and postcolonial politics are woven together in Gibson’s world, Frecerro traces the way the "feminine" is first located in the organic, then displaced in intricate ways through the cultures of cyberspace. Frecerro’s examination of the ALIEN series shows how the meaning of the alien itself shifts as the larger politics of American culture evolves, and how the "representative" human figures similarly transform. In doing so, she shows how a generic tradition resists and responds to external forces. She also shows how the films evoke both the history of sf cinema—e.g., Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969)—as well as a larger literary tradition via the many meanings of the Nostromo (the ship’s name in Alien, borrowed from the title of a 1904 Conrad novel).

She also judges the individual films according to her own politics and, in doing so, re-introduces one of the work’s few recurring weaknesses. As she deconstructs what she sees as mainstream readings, she sometimes essentializes and personalizes the alternative readings that she supports in curious and sloppy ways. Her emphasis on left politics also closes out some subcultures from examination. Judging from this work, there were no Christian or libertarian subcultures in the period under examination (1960 to the present), when in reality right-wing subcultures blossomed during the period (providing serious challenges to the movements addressed, and therefore deserving attention for this alone, if not in their own right). These lapses are, however, not major enough to detract from the overall quality of this work.

—Gregory Beatty, University of Iowa

Pleasant, if Unnecessary, Utopian Sketches.

George Slusser, Paul Alkon, Roger Gaillard, Danièle Chatelain, eds. Transformations of Utopia: Changing Views of the Perfect Society. AMS Press (fax: 212-995-5413), 1999. xxiv + 342 pp. $64.50 hc.

In 1991, the Swiss Confederacy commemorated the 700th anniversary of its foundation by the three original cantons of Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwald. Whether Switzerland should be predominantly seen as a dreamland or a dystopia remains unresolved up to the present day. The federal government nonetheless decided to commemorate its birthday by setting up, or at least generously financing, a number of cultural events, exhibitions, and learned conferences on the theme of "Utopia." All well considered, this decision, taken by the country of Henri Dunand and other major figures of Pacifism and Humanitarianism, was certainly a more promising and sensible concept than that of many surrounding countries that see fit to commemorate their independence with military parades and the display of their high-tech weapons of mass destruction.

The city of Yverdon-les-Bains, north of Lausanne, took advantage of the federal manna by organizing, during the summer of 1991, a symposium on utopias and utopianism in its local museum. This charming resort town of Yverdon, located on the Lake of Neuchâtel, indeed hosts a unique museum, La Maison d’Ailleurs (The House of Elsewhere), which was started a number of years ago with a bequest by the late Pierre Versins, the erudite author of the famous Encyclopédie de l’utopie, des voyages extraordinaires et de la science-fiction (éditions L’Age d’Homme, 1972), who gave his personal library to the city. The Maison d’Ailleurs accordingly invited a number of well-known and lesser-known European and American scholars who over a few days talked about the history of utopian thinking, the topoi and paradigms of utopian romances from Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) on, and speculated on the present-day avatars of the genre, ranging from Club Med to the Internet to feminism. This must have been a very pleasant experience. Still a question remains: was it essential to produce the proceedings of this gathering?

The book edited by George Slusser, Paul Alkon, Roger Gaillard, and Danièle Chatelain collects some thirty rather short contributions in French and English. As far as the majority of them are concerned, you will not read here anything you didn’t already know, and I am afraid you will not encounter any idea that can be deemed new or path-breaking. This is simply a collection of five-to-six page sketches about utopian thought in the United States, France, England, Russia, and even Switzerland, about some aspects of More, Campanella, Jules Verne, Bellamy, H.G. Wells et al. (as well as Orwell and Huxley among the dystopianists), accompanied by occasionally interesting remarks about recurrent themes and procédés one frequently encounters in utopian romances. You will also find a few more surprising considerations: e.g., a paper on the topic "Is the Swiss a Utopianist?"—the final answer to which question does not appear to be decisive.

The contributors know their topics and they are reliable and generally pleasant to read. Most of them provide short bibliographies. All in all, though, I find there was no clear need to publish these somewhat foreseeable contributions which do not add anything substantial to our knowledge and reflection.

—Marc Angenot, McGill University

A Century of Black SF.

Sheree R. Thomas, ed. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. Warner/Aspect, 2000. ix + 427 pp. $24.95 hc.

Dark Matter forcefully addresses the paucity of recognition received by black writers for their contributions to speculative fiction. This anthology is a definitive collection of stories and essays representative of a rich yet untapped tradition of speculative writing—a tantalizing gathering of new voices, established writers, and acclaimed thinkers, as well as architects of the African-American literary tradition. Dark Matter is, at the very least, an anthology of historical interest because it is the first of its kind, but it is also much more.

The collection is divided into two sections: Fiction and Essays. The notion of "speculative" fiction deployed in the book may perhaps best be defined as de-emphasizing the scientific component of sf while keeping the idea of extrapolation. In other words, there is no hard sf writing in the collection. The fiction section contains 29 stories or excerpts and is assembled in no particular order—indeed, almost haphazardly. These selected stories fall neatly into the categories of sf (11), fantasy (11), slipstream (5), and a couple of horror stories. In terms of how this material is assembled, I think it would have been more useful for editor Thomas to follow a chronological sequence of publication—although the first story included, "Sister Lilith" by Honoree Jeffers, does start at the beginning of time with an apocryphal tale of Adam’s first wife (while the book ends with Ama Patterson’s contemporary tall tale "Hussy Strutt"). Put another way, I feel the anthology should have opened with Charles W. Chesnutt’s "The Goophered Grapevine," written in 1887, and closed with the more contemporary voices. Instead, pioneers of black speculation such as W.E.B. DuBois and George Schuyler are simply scattered throughout the section. Meanwhile, the anthology heavily concentrates on later works of newer and lesser-known writers: to be precise, 24 of the stories are dated 1982 or later, with 19 of them written in 2000, meaning that only five of the stories are relatively old (1887, 1920, 1931, 1967, and 1974). This fact makes Thomas’s bold claim of a century of speculative fiction from the African Diaspora somewhat tenuous since it doesn’t effectively establish a tradition that can counter the perception of blacks being late-comers to the speculative genres (although Thomas is surely correct that critics of this writing are tardy indeed).

The book does serve as an effective springboard for these emerging young voices, many of whom display wonderful potential. An excellent example of this potential is Jeffers’s short story about a bitter black wife cast aside by the original Adam shortly after Satan informs her of Adam’s growing disinterest in favor of the white Eve created from Adam’s rib. Another good example is provided by Evie Shockley’s "Separation Anxiety," a story set in the twenty-second century where the US government has instituted federal separation of the races: each of the races is assigned to a cultural conservation unit and is responsible for sending its cultural creations to a national archive; yet the true fear of separation occurs when Peaches, a black dancer, hesitates to leave her brother Roo behind for a career in the white world with her friend Trevette. Nalo Hopkinson’s "Ganger (Ball Lightning)" is a fascinating love story concerning a black couple and sexual body suits, in which the suits, left on after intercourse, create an electrical being that attempts to kill the couple. Derrick Bell’s "The Space Traders" is an intriguing story about a group of aliens who offer the US government a clean form of nuclear fusion, a complete cleansing of the environment, and enough gold to wipe out the national debt in exchange for handing over every African American in the country. Finally, Jewelle Gomez’s "Chicago 1927" is an engrossing story about a female vampire. Although there are many other excellent tales by emerging writers gathered in this collection, it doesn’t hurt to be included in a compilation with the likes of Chesnutt, DuBois, Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, Samuel R. Delany, and Octavia Butler. The emphasis on largely unknown writers is a weakness only when one considers what has been omitted: Thomas could have chosen excerpts from Martin Delany’s Blake; or the Huts of America (1862) or Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale (1982), inclusions that would have added to the sense of richness and longevity in the tradition as well as given the anthology stronger ties to mainstream literature. Also, Thomas curiously passes on the opportunity to include (if only for purposes of comparison) some selections by African writers of the fantastic, such as Amos Tutuola, Ben Okri, David G. Maillu, or Flora Nwapa.

While the fiction section provides the bulk of this book (382 pages), the relatively brief essay section (33 pages) is equally fascinating, offering trenchant views on race in science fiction by Delany and Butler, as well as by other well-respected black authors such as Walter Mosley. While this section contains only five essays, the insights to be gained are certainly valuable for those of us who study speculative fiction. The centerpiece of this section is Delany’s 1999 piece "Racism and Science Fiction" (originally published in The New York Review of Science Fiction). In this important essay, Delany contextualizes racism as a system while outlining his own predecessors in science fiction and related genres as well as his successors. He then relates a few specific instances when he was forced to confront racism during his own career. Finally, he offers a way of deconstructing this system by encouraging people of color to participate at sf conferences—starting dialogues between writers and readers of different races, having panel discussions on uncomfortable subjects such as race, and confronting the comfort zone created by racism and prejudice for the white majority. Butler’s succinct essay, "The Monophobic Response," describes the creation of human aliens through the categories of ethnicity, race, gender, and other forms of difference, a process of otherizing that, she argues, causes our need to create science fiction others, which may eventually prepare us for what might happen when humanity acquires definite and clear knowledge of true aliens. Finally, Walter Mosley’s engaging essay "Black to the Future," along with Charles Saunders equally remarkable essay "Why Blacks Should Read (and Write) Science Fiction," suggests that the power to change the world exists in this genre and that blacks as a consequence need more speculative writers.

Who might possibly want to read and study the speculative writings of African Americans, a marginalized people, in an already marginalized genre? The answer should be obvious. Anyone who enjoys reading about possibilities or other worlds, and everyone who studies the concept of race (since race relations are quite frequently symbolized in science fiction), should read this book. In her Introduction, Sheree Thomas successfully establishes "dark matter"—a metaphor applicable to themes of identity (group and individual), the African continent, as well as the influence of black life on society—as a vehicle for discussing the speculative fictions of black writers, works that are seemingly invisible to readers yet have an indisputable pull on the genre. She thus not only draws attention to the fact that black speculative fiction is a substantial area that has not largely seen the light of scholarship, but also provides a plausible, if tentative, critical model to investigate the work of black writers in the field. Dark Matter is highly recommended to scholars and teachers of the fantastic.

—Isiah Lavender, III, University of Iowa

Poetic Speculations.

Judith Kerman and Don Riggs, eds. Uncommonplaces: Poems of the Fantastic. Mayapple, 2000. 148 pp. $15 paper. <www.>.

Whether writers and anthologists describe their work as sf poetry, speculative poetry, or poetry of the fantastic, they are faced with the same dilemma of definition and the related questions of status that circulate within the larger sf genre. Suzette Hagen Elgin, for example, has written that she was motivated to found the Science Fiction Poetry Association because of what she perceived as a need to confirm the literary value of genre poetry, and to support and encourage a "body of rigorous work" ("About Science Fiction Poetry," online at <>). Judith Kerman and Don Riggs, editors of Uncommonplaces: Poems of the Fantastic, state that their collection was conceived after the 1999 International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Fort Lauderdale as a publication of the conference’s poetry readings. Although their anthology is not an authorized publication of the ICFA, it represents work by sixteen poets who have read at ICFA conferences, many of them "conference stars," well-known and respected sf writers, and poets of "more modest reputation." The anthology also reprints poetry by Joe Haldeman, Brian W. Aldiss, Jane Yolen, and David Lunde, that was previously published in genre magazines such as Omni, Asimov’s, and star*line, as well as mainstream poetry magazines like Spoon River Poetry Review.

Kerman and Riggs avoid some of the problems faced by other sf poetry anthologists who have been motivated at least in part by the need to define genre poetry; the editors offer a diverse collection, much of it experimental in form and language, which has not been selected for its extrapolation of stereotypical sf themes. Instead, they have grouped the poetry under conceptual rubrics that address the limits and boundaries of the real and unreal: Beast, Body, Borderland, Dream, Intimacy, Myth, Technology, and others. In the Body section, for instance, free verse and surrealistic poems by Kerman, Harkins-Pierre, Marilyn Jurich, and Gene Doty investigate the body’s physical and emotional borders. Several of the editors’ categories, however, are clumsy and risk oversimplifying the potential interpretations of the poetry.

Uncommonplaces also includes a valuable theoretical section devoted to a discussion of the influence the fantastic has had on each contributor’s work. Judith Clute, whose visual art is reproduced on the volume’s cover, is fascinated by "illumination, not illustration," and this has inspired the surrealistic elements of her work. Jane Yolen (like Dan Timmons and others) acknowledges that folkloric elements and ancient literature, which offer "wisdom encapsulated, compressed and metaphoric speech," inspires her work. Her poems, "Once Upon a Time She Said" and "Märchen," engage both the folk stories that have influenced her poetry and the act of writing itself. Differing views on the place of formalism and formula in genre poetry are addressed by several poets. Joe Haldeman remarks on his own preference for highly structured poetry to express fantastic themes: "Most of the poetry I write is formal. Most of the poetry I sell is not." Haldeman’s "Fire, Ice," a poem that echoes Dylan Thomas and Robert Frost, presents imagery of lamented old age and rage against death. His narrator, fearing the consuming "fire" of cancer, chooses to enter the "cryogenic cold," and Haldeman presents his resultant horror at his complete consciousness while held in a supposed frozen sleep through the formal repetitions of "a sonnet redoublé," a highly structured form in which each of fourteen sonnet stanzas in a sequence repeats as its final line a line from the first stanza. These critical commentaries by well-established and emerging poets are insightful and engaging statements for any reader of poetry, fantastic or otherwise, and the book itself provides a solid resource for teachers seeking to diversify the content of their classes.

—Nancy Johnston, University of New Brunswick

Wide-Ranging But Shallow.

Chris Gregory. Star Trek: Parallel Narratives. St. Martin’s, 1999. vii + 225 pp. $35 hc.

Star Trek is the longest-lasting multimedia phenomenon in the history of American science fiction. Over more than three decades, the Trek franchise has expanded into "one of the most valuable ‘cultural properties’ in the world" (2). There has been a recent explosion of critical studies of Star Trek: Taylor Harrison, Sarah Projansky, and Kent A. Ono’s collection Enterprise Zones: Critical Positions in STAR TREK (Westview, 1996), Thomas Richards’s The Meaning of STAR TREK (Doubleday, 1997), Daniel Bernardi’s STAR TREK and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future (Rutgers, 1998), Jon Wagner and Jan Lundeen’s Deep Space and Sacred Time: STAR TREK in the American Mythos (Praeger, 1998), and Robin Roberts’s Sexual Generations: STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and Gender (Illinois, 1999)—not to mention the SFS special section in July 1997 (24.2). Chris Gregory’s volume is the most recent contribution to Trek studies and aims to be the most comprehensive, looking at the original series and then at its three successors—Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager—and the films as well. Admirably, he appears to have viewed every one of the hundreds of shows produced over the decades.

Gregory argues that "Star Trek has gradually evolved from its original, often ‘naive’ ‘Roddenberryesque’ approach to its latter-day ‘self-aware’ status under the tenure of Rick Berman" (5); that "over the years Star Trek has attained many of the qualities of a mythological system. It has evolved into an interconnected ‘web’ of stories in a way that parallels the development of traditional sagas, odysseys, or mythic story cycles" (9). He divides the study into three parts. Part I examines the narrative conventions of the 1960s series and the changes in the media environment in the 1980s and 1990s that help account for the different approaches of the new series. Part II looks at "the ritualistic role of ‘cult’ television" and the ways in which Star Trek constitutes a modern, ongoing mythic saga. Part III looks at psychological, political, and social themes in the various series. The final, fifteen-page appendix of Trek episodes and films is quite useful. Although the bibliography is extensive, lamentably Gregory cites few articles and none from critical journals such as SFS or Extrapolation.

Gregory, who teaches film and media studies at the University of Lancaster and is the author of Be Seeing You: Decoding THE PRISONER (Luton, 1997), is good at explaining the changing nature of network TV production and viewing habits over the decades. His discussion of the influence of the fan audience (a central phenomenon as well in the development of American print sf) and of Star Trek as a cult phenomenon is particularly interesting. I was previously unaware, for example, that in eight years a dictionary of Klingon sold more than 250,000 copies. All I could think of was William Shatner’s famous remark to an audience of Trekkies in a Saturday Night Live skit: "Get a life!"

Gregory’s interpretations tend to sacrifice depth for breadth, often presenting lists of plot summaries rather than extended analyses of individual works. The analysis of Star Trek as myth has been done in more depth and detail in Wagner and Lundeen’s book, and the analysis of political and social themes is done better in the works by Harrison and Bernardi. I would recommend these other recent critical volumes on Star Trek over this wide-ranging but shallow study.

—Andrew Gordon, University of Florida

[Editor’s Note: As Professor Gordon observes, mythological criticism of Star Trek has become quite extensive of late. In addition to Wagner and Lundeen’s Deep Space and Sacred Time, there are the twelve essays gathered in STAR TREK and Sacred Ground: Explorations of STAR TREK, Religion, and American Culture, eds. Jennifer E. Porter and Darcee L. McLaren (SUNY Press, 1999), which deal with mythological and theological issues in all the STAR TREK franchises.—RL]

A White Elephant.

Terry A. Murray. Science Fiction Magazine Story Index, 1926-1995. McFarland, 1999. x + 627 pp. $65 hc.

It is hard to see what scholarly niche this curious reference work is designed to fill. Murray bills his book as an update to the classic indexes of Donald B. Day and Norman Metcalf, offering contents listings for nearly 5000 individual issues of 134 sf (and some fantasy) magazines and anthology series. There are also title and author indexes keyed to the consecutively numbered issues list, as well as an appendix canvassing the output of particularly "prolific authors" (those with at least 25 stories indexed in the volume). This last feature points to a real problem with the book: the author and title indexes are not cross-referenced, and connections between them can only be discerned by tracking back to the contents list. More generally, this problem indicates the essential uselessness of all such print compendia, which have been effectively supplanted by electronic databases using hot-links for ready cross-referencing.

Specifically, Murray’s book has been rendered superfluous by Stephen T. Miller and William G. Contento’s invaluable cd-rom, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Weird Fiction Magazine Index (1890-1997), which covers over 13,000 issues of 900 different magazines—or, in other words, more than twice Murray’s total (see my review in SFS 26.1 [March 1999]: 146-47). The Miller-Contento cd-rom, which includes a link to an online addendum that updates the work through 1999, also indexes novels, poems, editorials, and other matter (whereas Murray limits his coverage to short fiction), and provides information on publishers, editors, cover artists, columns, and special features as well. (It is also considerably cheaper!) In this wired world, when most libraries have computer stations and online access, books such as Murray’s have become archaic, inelegant, burdensome white elephants whose purchase I can recommend to no one.


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