Science Fiction Studies

#84 = Volume 28, Part 2 = July 2001


Bridging the Divide Between Literature and SF.

Damien Broderick. Transrealist Fiction: Writing in the Slipstream of Science. Greenwood, 2000. 195 pp. $65 hc.

Almost 50 years ago, in Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future (Coward-McGann, 1953), Reginald Bretnor asked for a merger of sf and literature, a wish both voiced and cursed in the interim. During the half-century since we have seen several shifts in the landscape, opening major faults in both regions. Sf books and films and ancillary products have seen undreamt-of commercial success, and the ideas they express are now commonplace in what some observers call—not as a compliment—a "science fiction world." Crossover texts in "slipstream fiction" (a term appropriated from Bruce Sterling) have also proliferated; so has "literary theory," prioritizing the actions of both real and theoretical readers over traditional hierarchies of value, and incidentally providing intellectual support for sf teaching in universities and high schools. Along with photons on the Internet, considerable ink has been spilled over the last two decades (including a special issue of this periodical), concerning sf’s potential for Postmodern expression. Even in this environment, however, the gap is still evident, which may be due partly to cultural inertia. Damien Broderick’s latest critical volume surveys some bridges writers have built across the arroyo, suggesting that one in particular might become a causeway.

In addition to his own sf novels and stories, Broderick has produced a half-dozen volumes of criticism and theory, all cross-referenced in this book because all of it is at least tangential to speculative fiction and imbued with the spirit of forty years of linguistic-based literary theory. Many sf readers and writers no doubt applaud his larger project: to recognize or reestablish relationships between the sciences and the humanities (reuniting C.P. Snow’s "two cultures" is probably out of reach). Transrealist Fiction furthers his contention that sf has widened from its alleged base in technological extrapolation, metamorphosing in part into something reflective of turn-of-the-century culture. That something is the "transrealism" he finds embodied in the writing of Philip K. Dick and Rudy Rucker, expanding on Rucker’s own use of the word: "Not only is transrealism writing about immediate reality—or your idiosyncratic perceptions of it—in a fantastic way, it is also a way of writing the fantastic from the standpoint of your richly personalized reality" (3).

Using Rucker’s definition may not distinguish science fiction from fantasy, surrealism, or mystical enlightenment, but Broderick’s expansion derives from it a tool that already enriches some sf characterization. Before settling down with examples, however, his frustratingly non-linear (he calls it "braided") argument touches other points of overlap between sf and literary fiction, starting with the false start of "speculative fiction" in the 1960s. A major excursus concerns the "slipstream" of writers with literary pretensions who adopt sf concepts, often without knowing or caring that their subject has a tradition in a kind of literature they do not value, and usually without exercising the discipline sf claims—and sometimes delivers. Somewhat shorter shrift is given to films, tv, and thriller fiction at least bordering sf, which have fewer pretensions to art.

Along the way, Broderick discusses the death of realism and the rise of theory, along with the history of sf, its prose styles, its marketing, and the fears of some genre traditionalists of its always impending "death." En route to his goal, Broderick examines in some detail texts by (among others) J.G. Ballard, John Barth, Greg Egan, Stanislaw Lem, Ken MacLeod (a new name to me), Mary Doria Russell, Theodore Sturgeon, Michael Swanwick, and Kurt Vonnegut. Each does his or her own thing to link science-fictional and literary concerns, but none seems as successful as Broderick would like.

A whole chapter discusses the near-impossibility of making accessible in fiction the kind of cultural discontinuity forecast by Vernor Vinge in both his fiction and nonfiction. Modeled on the trajectory of accelerating technological change (particulary in cybernetics and molecular biology), Vinge’s "Singularity" or Broderick’s "Spike" could make culture, let alone fiction, obsolete. This projected posthistoric condition attracts some sf writers and other social commentators, but defying contemporary understanding, it seems to convert fictionally into another vision of Apocalypse. Should it occur in 50 years as projected, any argument over transrealism would seem to be moot.

Varieties of rapprochement between "art" sf and more imaginative literary fiction offer context for Broderick’s two last chapters on how Dick and Rucker make specific use of people they know and how they insert themselves into their fiction. Their obsessive fictional practice may invite such an inquiry, and Broderick virtually admits to shooting fish in a barrel, but autobiographical elements can be found in other sf, too, such as the military experiences of Robert A. Heinlein, Walter M. Miller Jr., and Joe Haldeman. Gregory Benford exploits memories of graduate study at UC San Diego for much of his novel Timescape (1980), and Samuel R. Delany has written of how living people lent themselves to characters in his fiction. If other sf writers don’t divulge such secrets of the trade, perhaps it is because nobody asks, but Broderick seems to assume (though he does not so state) that sf characters are mainly taken from other fiction or from generic stereotypes.

For that failing, transrealism could be an antidote but it may be limited to settings in or near the here and now, its transferability to other writers being far from assured. It is certainly not apparent (and he does not claim) that transrealism will be the next big thing in sf after the "New Wave," feminism, and cyberpunk. Broderick’s introduction places it "Beyond Imagination," but in principle it would seem to replace imagination (or "fancy," as he rightly fancies Coleridge would call it) with hard-earned experience, some of that experience verging on the hallucinatory. Dick played as fast and loose with science and plausible futures as any slipstream writer and Rucker’s "wild" extrapolations have earned him the label of "mystic" (apparently with Broderick’s approbation). Although Rucker has considerable expertise in mathematics, it is not a science but a language in which scientists couch theories that need have no empirical grounding.

For all of his stress on how realism is dead, referentiality seems exactly what Broderick has in mind to make transrealism connect with a wider reading public; how else should a reader take "writing about immediate reality—or your idiosyncratic perceptions of it—in a fantastic way"? In order to demonstrate their reality and their distortions, moreover, Broderick’s discussion of both Dick and Rucker leans heavily on what they have written outside science fiction, more so than on anything clearly detectable in their sf, transrealist or not. Readers estranged from sf who might be transrealism’s obvious targets are unlikely to undertake the biographical research needed to verify the experiential subtext.

Broderick’s use of literary theory actually does little more than show his erudition and set up straw men for him to demolish. Less obtrusive than in Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction (Routledge, 1995), his use of technical vocabulary is domesticated by his sarcastic manner, undercutting theory as he claims to preserve it. As in Starlight, moreover, his denigrating tone also undercuts the attention he wants for his subject. In extending his previous work, to be sure, Broderick deepens previous considerations of the links between sf and literature in our postmodern era, and his discussions of Egan and Vinge, Barth and Russell, Dick and Rucker offer something to chew on. If the argument he leads up to is ultimately unconvincing, the journey there takes us through some interesting byways.

David N. Samuelson, CSU, Long Beach

Prescriptive and Punitive Oughts.

Karen Sayer and John Moore, eds. Science Fiction, Critical Frontiers. Macmillan/St. Martin’s, 2000. xiv + 219 pp. $59.95 hc.

This is an essay collection that emerged from the "Envisioning Alternatives" conference held at the University of Luton in September 1996. The title change is puzzling, given that many contributors do concentrate quite strictly on the utopian/dystopian paradigm of imagining alternative worlds, while the essays are not really innovative enough to suggest that "critical frontiers" are being advanced or extended into new areas. The twelve essays included are divided into two sections. Part One, "Positioning SF Criticism," has an impressive line-up of prominent critics: Darko Suvin, Patrick Parrinder, and Tom Moylan, with Gregory Paschalidis adding an essay on historical dialogues between sf and utopia. Part Two, "Reading SF," has eight essays by a mix of younger scholars, mainly people recently established in academic posts.

Inevitably, readers will attend most to the first section of the book, particularly as Suvin promises to reconsider his foundational concept of the novum in his essay, "Novum is as Novum Does." Moylan also signals an intent to extend his important work, Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (Methuen, 1986), into a consideration of "totality and agency" in 1990s sf. Both of these essays are, in effect, foretastes of work that has now emerged in more extended form, but remain interesting pieces for discussion. As Marxists, both Suvin and Moylan are apocalyptic about the state of advanced industrial societies in the 1990s, Suvin even reaching, quasi-ironically, for his copy of Revelations to color his rhetoric. The first half of Suvin’s essay is a sweeping historical review of the economic and political factors leading up to the collapse of communism in 1989 and the subsequent triumphalist extension of free market capitalism across the globe. The second half reassesses how the defining concept of the novum has fared, after 25 years in which, for many cultural commentators, capitalism has mutated beyond recognition.

Suvin’s principal locus of reassessment is the way in which his initial definition implicitly relied on science as an intrinsically cognitive and progressivist mode of knowledge. The transformation of science funding from state bodies to private, multinational corporations, however, has left much research complicit with late capitalism, most obviously in medical and military areas. Given that markets constantly stimulate demand through novelty, is the science-fictional novum itself generated by the same market logic? Suvin answers his own question by distinguishing the "fake" nova of the market from the continued existence of critically and cognitively-inflected heterotopic writings that rely on what is somewhat elusively termed "refurbished science." This tends to imply that some kind of purification from market contamination is possible, even if recent Science Studies theorists have discussed a wholesale transformation of science into Research—a far more socially, institutionally, and epistemologically complicated set-up emerging through the 1980s and 1990s, that ends any remaining illusions about the possibility of distinctions between pure and market-led scientific praxis. A recent statement, typical of the theorizing of this new topography, is the Helga Nowotny, Peter Scott, and Michael Gibbons collaboration, Re-Thinking Science: Knowledge and the Public in an Age of Uncertainty (Polity, 2001). The absence of any discussion of this new sociology of science in Suvin’s essay and throughout the collection is a disappointment, given how centrally the changing public understanding of science and the transformation of everyday life by the saturation of new technologies has driven much popular fiction in the last two decades.

The failure to follow through on any detailed readings of particular sf texts that might embody Suvin’s "refurbished" heterotopic fiction is acknowledged in the surely ironic throwaway last line of Suvin’s essay, "As can be seen in the best works of today’s sf, Butler or Cadigan or Piercy or Stan Robinson" (22). This is presumably an invitation for other critics to use his paradigm for the local detail. Moylan does combine the sweep of a recent history of late capitalism with detailed readings, dismissing the anti-utopian pessimism of Gibsonian cyberpunk in favor of the more constructive hope evident in the 1990s fiction of Octavia Butler and Kim Stanley Robinson. The readings of Robinson’s ORANGE COUNTY and MARS trilogies thus neatly pick up the baton from Suvin. More than this, Moylan remains insistent that sf ought to offer "emancipatory social visions in these new and harder times" (48). The prescriptive and punitive ought, typical of Suvin’s sf criticism (always its most problematic aspect for me), is here fully operative. Moylan is really only prepared to value Robinson’s work because it reaches his standard of developing "a sense of agency that concerns itself with economy and production, with class struggle, and with a collective engagement that goes beyond identity politics and the dominant ideology of ‘globalism’" (63). Detractors from this prescriptive approach might note that Moylan merely praises the books that most conform to his own politics—and that an essay dedicated to Fredric Jameson unsurprisingly celebrates Jameson’s former student, Robinson.

As ever, Suvin and Moylan provoke thought through their polemical "positioning" of sf. The second half of the book is more variable in achieving this aim. There are essays here that are perfectly competent, but that add little to their over-worked subjects, such as Carlos Seligo on Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), or Gloria Pastorino on William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959) and the film Blade Runner (1982)—indeed, the one attraction of the prescriptive mode might be to issue an order banning all further discussion of Blade Runner for at least ten years, until new paradigms of criticism other than rehashed postmodernism emerge. There are three essays on feminist and proto-feminist sf, including work on C.L. Moore, Marge Piercy, and Sheri Tepper, and an informative account of the anti-nuclear utopianism of the German activist and novelist Gudrun Pausewang. The strongest pieces are probably Jeffrey Tucker’s essay on Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren (1975)—with useful contextualization of the black-male-rapist fantasies in the mid-70s that Delany explores and contests in the novel—and Salvatore Proietti’s discussion of utopian democratic discourses surrounding cyberspace (which is enlightening in making explicit this discourse’s debt to Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous essay of 1893 on the notion of the frontier). Even this latter essay, however, is still obsessed, like Suvin and Moylan, with distinguishing between sf authors that can be marked out as market-complicit and those that hold out a more radical potential. In Proietti’s case, the same names are re-jigged, so that it is now Gibson, Piercy, and Cadigan who are the radicals, with Sterling and Stephenson the apologists. As long ago as 1989, Meaghan Morris wrote of her frustration at the dominance of the progressive/complicit binary operative in cultural studies, and it still seems to control much sf criticism now. Might not the transformations so apocalyptically observed by the politically-inflected criticism here be expected to alter or complicate such straightforward judgments?

A final, sombre word. The Literature department at Luton University raised its profile immensely by holding a number of important international conferences in the 1990s, including one that successfully lured Jacques Derrida to this small industrial town just north of London. As I write, many of the Arts and Humanities faculty members are threatened with redundancy as Luton University addresses a major financial crisis by aiming to focus only on "vocational" training. This is likely, therefore, to be the last volume to appear from this excellent conference initiative. The British government still pronounces the aim of increasing university student numbers, whilst decreasing central funding, and leaving universities open to the merciless logic of the free market. If I have sometimes worried about the prescriptive agendas in the volume under review, this does not mean that I am indifferent to the urgency of the need for cogent political criticism from academics in the Humanities, particularly as we increasingly confront the ravages of the globalized market ourselves.

Roger Luckhurst, Birkbeck College

Superman among the Stars.

Leonard F. Wheat. Kubrick’s 2001: A Triple Allegory. Scarecrow, 2000. 179 pp. $32.50 hc.

To the full-time critic and teacher, there is always something heartening in the fact that, beyond the professional spaces of literary criticism and cultural studies, there are those—not all that many by most standards, perhaps, but not so few as is often supposed—who will take endless pains over the interpretation of works of art for no reason except the sheer love of the task. Leonard Wheat is clearly of this number. A retired government economist, he has already found the time to publish books and articles on subjects ranging from Paul Tillich’s theology to the sport of hiking. Now, relatively late in life (he was born in 1931), he makes his debut as a film critic. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is his favorite movie of all time, and probably no one has ever written about it with more love or in more scrupulous detail.

Readers of these pages may recall that I have myself argued that Kubrick was the greatest filmmaker of his generation, and that 2001 ranks as the only genuine masterpiece of sf cinema. But these claims almost seem pale beside Wheat’s own. For him, the film "is indeed in a class by itself" (139), is "a monumentally imaginative movie" (159; italics in original), and ultimately ranks as "the grandest motion picture ever filmed" (160); in making it, "Kubrick has done more than weave an intricate masterpiece. He has transformed himself into cinema’s overman" (161). Wheat, however, offers more than mere enthusiasm, though enthusiasm is certainly the dominant tone of his book. Despite a rather clunky prose style and occasional slips in logic and evidence, he has done some hard and useful thinking about 2001; and his conclusions, though not always beyond dispute, ought to be pondered by everyone with a serious interest in the film.

Most commentators on 2001 have tended to concentrate on the movie’s visual dimension, especially its unprecedented mastery of special effects; dazzled by Kubrick’s sequence of images (which is enriched by one of the most splendid and precise musical scores in cinematic history), some critics have even suggested that the actual narrative line is largely dispensable and probably inexplicable as well. Wheat strongly disagrees. Though he certainly does not deny the movie’s visual magnificence, his chief interest is in the plot of 2001, which he believes is immensely complex and intricate but quite explicable; and explicating it is the chief burden of this book.

As his subtitle indicates, Wheat sees the film as primarily allegorical, and on three different levels at once. On one level, Wheat argues, the narrative of 2001 allegorizes the events of Homer’s Odyssey; on another, it allegorizes (but ultimately rejects) Arthur C. Clarke’s notion that the next step in evolution beyond homo sapiens will involve the symbiosis of humanity and machines; and, on still another level, it performs its most complex allegory of all, giving cinematic form to Nietzsche’s narrative of evolution from worm to ape to man to superman (or "overman" in Wheat’s rendering) as set forth in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85), probably Nietzsche’s most widely popular book. Of course, not much hermeneutic digging is required to detect, in a general way, the presence of these elements in 2001. The Homeric parallels are explicitly suggested by the film’s subtitle; since Clarke co-authored the screenplay with Kubrick, it is hardly surprising to find some of his ideas in the movie; and the film’s unforgettable use, especially at its beginning, of the opening fanfare from Richard Strauss’s Nietzschean tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1896) signals the Zarathustran dimension of 2001 pretty clearly. Moreover—and as Wheat freely admits—a few of the symbolic readings that he advocates have long been common currency among serious interpreters of the film: for instance, the idea that the single red eye of the murderous supercomputer HAL recalls Homer’s murderous and one-eyed Cyclops, or the idea that the Star Child at the film’s end represents a future stage of evolution. Where Wheat goes beyond previous commentators, however, is in arguing that there are not merely symbolic elements and allegorical tendencies at work in Kubrick’s movie, but three distinct allegorical plots, each rigorous, consistent, and realized in considerable detail. Most of the pages of his book are devoted to substantiating this claim scene by scene, and sometimes almost frame by frame; and he concludes by maintaining that the film’s rich allegorical plot structure makes 2001 an even greater movie than the critical consensus, with its overwhelming focus on visual splendor, has generally held.

Wheat’s argument is in my judgment largely, if not totally, persuasive. As to his overall scheme, some might object that, since his second and third allegories both center on evolution, and since, as Wheat himself says, they overlap somewhat in the unfolding of the movie, they might better be considered as two aspects of a single narrative strand. But I think that Wheat is ultimately correct to insist that two distinguishable and in some ways even opposed stories are at issue here. HAL, the humanoid computer, represents an evolutionary step beyond our own species, but an abortive one. HAL does not triumph, as do the emerging tool-using humans in the film’s opening scenes (who vanquish the old prehuman hominids at the battle of the waterhole), but is defeated and "killed" by Dave Bowman, a member of the old species (i.e., homo sapiens). It is, indeed, the defeat of HAL that makes possible the true evolutionary leap from man to superman that is complexly allegorized during the cryptic scenes in the hotel room and that receives its symbolic culmination in the image of the Star Child with which the film leaves us. Homo machinus turns out to be an evolutionary wrong turn; and the mistake must be corrected before the genuine man of the future—that is, superman—can arise.

I do think, however, that Wheat unnecessarily minimizes Clarke’s importance for 2001 by associating him only with the HAL narrative and not with the larger Nietzschean evolutionary framework. Though I agree with Wheat’s general assumption that Clarke is better understood as one of Kubrick’s helpers than as a full-fledged partner in the making of 2001, he surely deserves some credit for the glorious Zarathustran allegory. The idea of evolution by human-machine symbiosis is indeed one that can be found in Clarke’s work; but the latter also features, and in both fictional and nonfictional form, a strong Nietzschean element as well (at least partly inherited, one suspects, from Olaf Stapledon). The Zarathustran narrative in 2001 is prefigured, for instance, in Childhood’s End (1953), Clarke’s most famous novel before his novelized version of 2001 (1968) itself; and one of Wheat’s favorite Nietzschean aphorisms—that humanity is a tightrope stretched across the abyss between ape and superman—is one that Clarke himself has quoted with strong approval. Though Wheat shows convincingly that Kubrick is indeed the mastermind behind the Zarathustran allegory (as behind the film in toto), this allegory is very much in Clarke’s spirit too. We might add that, after all, many sf authors would surely have been delighted to receive Kubrick’s now famous letter inviting participation in the making of the "proverbial good science fiction movie" that had not yet been filmed; and it was not by chance that Kubrick chose to send the letter to Clarke.

To a large degree, of course, the success of a hermeneutic scheme like Wheat’s must finally depend on the detailed correspondences with which he supports his overall claim of a triple allegory in 2001. Some of his parallels do seem to me a bit strained. For instance, he argues that, in the scene where Dave Bowman disables HAL (or in which man kills God in the Nietzschean allegory), Bowman wears a green helmet and an orange suit because that color combination symbolizes deadly battle: green and orange, Wheat reminds us, are the colors of the warring Republican and Unionist factions in Northern Ireland. Well, maybe. But, since the film, so far as I can discover, gives us absolutely no reason to suppose that Ulster politics (unlike, say, Cold War politics) are a live issue for it, my own suspicion is that the clashing colors are simply meant to remind us that Bowman, who had recently been without a helmet, must have hurriedly put on a non-matching one. Sometimes, too, Wheat’s detailed correspondences seem in logical contradiction to his claim of strictly consistent allegory. He argues, for example, that in the Homeric allegory Dr. Heywood Floyd stands for both Paris and Menelaus—thus suddenly turning the story of Helen’s abduction into one in which a man impossibly cuckolds himself.

But working out the particulars of a complex allegory is always a tricky business—consider the generations of scholarly disagreement over the symbolic meaning of the details in the grandest and most intricate allegory of them all, Dante’s Commedia—and I think that, on any reasonable reckoning, Wheat scores a good many more hits than misses. Indeed, part of the fun of reading his book is deciding whether, detail by detail, one agrees or disagrees with Wheat’s specific reading. I will mention just a few points in Wheat’s scheme that impressed me and, in particular, enriched my understanding of a film that has been one of my most constant and important cinematic experiences for more than three decades. Wheat is surely right, for instance, when he points out that Dave Bowman’s surname directly recalls Odysseus, also a "bow man" in the sense of being the only man known to be capable of stringing and using the great bow; and he is equally convincing when he maintains that the fourth of the film’s black monoliths (the one in the hotel room) stands for the great bow itself, which enables the happy endings of both stories (the slaying of the suitors and Odysseus’s reconciliation with Penelope in the Odyssey, Bowman’s metamorphosis into the Star Child and his homecoming to earth in 2001). Along the way in the Homeric allegory, Wheat suggests a number of other felicitous parallels; my personal favorite is his insight that, when Bowman is lured through the Star Gate and into the tunnel of lights, the story recapitulates the luring of Odysseus by the Sirens—whose symbolic presence at this point in the film may explain the haunting feminine voices heard in the soundtrack.

Some of Wheat’s readings of the Nietzschean allegory are perhaps even more compelling. Heywood Floyd represents the younger Zarathustra, the Nietzschean lower man who is gripped by superstition and creates God in his own image (in the sense that Floyd seems to be the policy-maker responsible for the construction of the Discovery with its supercomputer HAL); while Dave Bowman is the mature Zarathustra, the higher man who frees himself from superstition and kills God (when Bowman disables HAL, as we have seen) and ultimately evolves into superman (symbolized by the Star Child). To attain this end man must move "beyond the infinite," as the film explicitly states; but Wheat’s construction of the Nietzschean allegory enables us to see that this phrase is not just the vaguely resonant tag that most viewers have assumed. The philosophical meaning is precise: in order to become superman, man must leave behind the infinite, i.e., man must reject superstition and kill God in the sense of abandoning belief in Him.

In sum, Wheat’s book, though far from flawless, is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the best science fiction film ever. If sometimes amateurish in the bad sense (its prose, its occasional slips, above all its rather primitive theoretical framework—not a word is devoted to the historical nature and function of allegory itself), it somewhat compensates by a tone of genial and honest unpretentiousness not usually found in professional criticism. I will not emulate Wheat’s own closing flourish and call him the superman of 2001 studies, as he calls Kubrick the "overman" of film. But I will say that, especially in helping us to grasp how fundamental is the philosophical atheism of Nietzsche to this masterpiece by perhaps the greatest of cinematic atheists, Wheat may help us all to get beyond the infinite

.—Carl Freedman, Louisiana State University

On-the-Fly Fabulist vs. Mystical Hermit-Genius.

Gwen Lee and Doris Elaine Sauter, eds. What If Our World Is Their Heaven? The Final Conversations of Philip K. Dick. Overlook, 2000. 204 pp. $26.95 hc.

Andrew M. Butler. Philip K. Dick. Pocket Essentials, 2000. 96 pp. £3.99 pbk.

One measure of the greatness of Dick’s fiction is the feeling conveyed in his most important books that everything is simultaneously real and vanishing. Judging from the content of What If Our World Is Their Heaven?, this quality pervaded Dick’s conversation as well. In the interviews included here, he ranges from information theory to the etymology of the appellation "Sophist" to the subliminal workings of movie trailers; and—again like his fiction—he oscillates between analysis and utter melodrama. Given his exhausting immersion in his novels, for example, it seems understandable (if a bit unhealthy) that Angel Archer should have become a real human being to Dick during the course of writing The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982). But are we really to believe that his pain at finishing that book, and thereby losing Angel, was so great that it caused not just physical anguish but specifically gastrointestinal hemorrhaging?

In the end, it doesn’t matter, since Dick’s truthfulness is irrelevant to his novels. Why, then, do we read such a book as What If Our World Is Their Heaven? Quite simply, to see the writer formulating what would have been his next novel, The Owl in Daylight—an image which Dick takes as a figure of ontological blindness but which also, in an eerie irony given Dick’s impending strokes, is historically an omen of mortality. For this alone, the book is worth the cover price: Dick’s turbocharged, on-the-fly fabulation about the interaction between music and mathematics, which was to form the substance of this never-written novel, is exhilarating to read. One wonders what it would have been like to be in the room listening to him.

And here arises a problem with the book. Gwen Lee, Dick’s interlocutor in these conversations, does little more than agree with or repeat what Dick has just said. The book would have been better served had she either taken a more active role in directing the conversations or edited herself out completely and presented the book as a series of informal talks given by Dick on such topics as: the film Blade Runner (1982), the process of writing The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, and the proposed Owl in Daylight. (The shorter sections covering pivotal events in Dick’s spiritual life—such as the alleged revelations of "2-3/74" and the Exegesis based upon them—add little to extant interviews on those topics and could have been excised without significant loss.) Tim Powers, in his foreword to the book, characterizes the transcripts as "the way the man really talked" (3), and for the reader interested in experiencing Dick’s personality through his conversational cadence, this is valuable. But the scholarly reader looking for a serious discussion of The Owl in Daylight or anything else will be disappointed by the starstruck quality of Lee’s contributions. The book’s editing is also slipshod: there are more than a dozen typos in the Selected Bibliography alone (Roger Zelazney? Stephen Speilberg?).

What If Our World Is Their Heaven? is an affecting and (from the perspective of 2001) elegiac portrait of the man Philip K. Dick at the end of his life. The conversations are engaging, and Dick lives up to his reputation as a brilliant magpie of a thinker. His take on Hollywood, in the conversations regarding Blade Runner, is funny, his moments of both self-analysis and rationalization are telling, and the ruminations on The Owl in Daylight are more than enough to leave the reader wishing that Dick had lived to complete it.

Noting the proliferation of stories about Dick the man, Powers writes that "the image of the crazed, mystical hermit-genius is an attractive and easily swallowed one, and people have a fondness for easy summaries, even if the summaries are wrong and the truth is something more complex" (4). This comment sheds much light on both the virtues and the flaws of Andrew Butler’s Pocket Essential Philip K. Dick.

Butler’s book undertakes to discuss all of Dick’s novels, a few short stories, and selected criticism and biography in 93 pages. Given that this is an impossible task, Butler succeeds admirably. A short introduction, in a hip informal tone, offers exactly the kind of "mystical hermit-genius" capsule biography to which Powers alludes, followed by an overview of Dick’s work and its critical reception. Then come short summary-reviews of each novel, organized according to story, recurring elements, and references to other Dick works, and capped off by a verdict on a scale of 1 to 5. The overall effect is much like that of Lawrence Sutin’s whirlwind tour of the Dick oeuvre at the end of his biography of the author, Divine Invasions (Harmony, 1989), but Butler offers more detail and a much more idiosyncratic critical spirit. The book winds down with a short discussion of Dick short stories that either have been or soon will be made into films, followed by sections on collections, nonfiction, criticism, movies, and other reference materials.

Taken as a whole, it is an admirable effort. Butler has clearly read Dick with a great deal of attention and respect, and his insights into the books are often incisive and never boring; he is one of the few Dick critics who has noticed that Dick was writing about religion from the beginning of his career, and also one of the few willing to point out the shortsightedness of Dick’s Marxist critics in this regard. Unfortunately, the constant striving for coolness results in sporadic but glaring lapses of judgment. How else to explain the grating insistence that Dick’s mainstream novels went unpublished because their mentions of birth control were too radical for Fifties America? This idea of the American Fifties is a little precious, and the contention is unsupported in the surviving correspondence between Dick and the editors who considered his mainstream work—correspondence, by the way, that Butler references in the book. But Butler insists on this idea because it harmonizes nicely with his story of Dick the free-loving radical and because it’s an easy potshot at American prudery.

This tells us a lot about the book’s intended audience, as does the excessive focus on drugs (to the point of mentioning Anacin in Humpty Dumpty in Oakland [1986]). Butler’s book is intended not for scholars but for those readers of Dick who see him as a kind of science-fiction Timothy Leary. There’s certainly nothing wrong with popular treatments of Dick—in fact, it’s a laudable project—but surely this choice of audience does not excuse the book’s more egregious errors and mischaracterizations. For example, in the section on Dick criticism, Butler says that Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Novels of Philip K. Dick (UMI, 1984) "reads a little naively" (89), yet his introductory sketch of Dick’s "character types" does everything but cite its obvious source in Robinson’s book. "The typical PhilDickian protagonist is what I call a Serviceman," Butler writes, adding to his scheme the Bitch, the Dark-Haired Girl, and the Patriarch (13)—which corresponds more or less exactly with Robinson’s Little Protagonist-Wife-Mistress-Big Protagonist "character system" (Novels 17), itself indebted to the work of Fredric Jameson and Darko Suvin. Surely it’s a bit naive to expect Dick scholars to miss such an obvious borrowing.

Butler’s book isn’t aimed at scholars, though, and if that doesn’t excuse the high-handed treatment of Robinson, The Pocket Essential Philip K. Dick is still a valuable resource for Dick scholars. As a compendium of Dickian leitmotifs, it is exactly what its title claims. And if Butler’s Dick is the hipster visionary we wincingly recognize from the occasional pieces on Dick that pop up in newspapers and movie magazines, well, it’s a seductive story, and 93 pages don’t leave much room for subtlety.

Alexander Irvine, University of Denver

Indispensable Survey.

J. Randolph Cox. The Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book. Greenwood, 2000. xxx + 333 pp. $79.50 hc.

The dime novel, which was young America’s favorite reading material from 1875 to 1920, has been terra incognita. Unlike science fiction readers, dime novel collectors, though preserving material that would otherwise have been lost, have never been greatly interested in bibliography or literary study. There have been bibliographies of a few areas, such as Albert Johannsen’s monumental The House of Beadle and Adams and its Dime and Nickel Novels: The Story of a Vanished Literature (in 3 vols.; U Oklahoma P, 1950-62), and series listings by Edward LeBlanc, Denis Rogers, J. Edward Leithead, and J. Randolph Cox (the authority on the 870 or so Nick Carter novels), but until now there has been no overall survey. In the present volume Cox, for the first time, blocks out the field.

In alphabetical entries, Cox gives bibliographic data for the 300 or so dime novel series and story papers: publisher, number of issues, dates, sizes and other production details, price, and whatever else is relevant, including important contributing authors. This is invaluable, for nothing like it has been available. Only someone who has worked in this field can recognize the enormous labor that Cox has put into it, gathering and piecing together fragments of information from collections, erratic bibliographic sources, and publishing records.

In addition to documenting publishers, Cox gives biographical and authorial information about the more important writers, with much new material and many corrections of older, hearsay data. In science fiction these include Francis W. Doughty, Luis Senarens, Cornelius Shea, and Fred Thorpe. Short survey articles cover areas of modern interest such as African-Americans, American Indians, science fiction, and Women. Other articles describe important personalities like Buffalo Bill, Jesse James, Frank Merriwell, and the proto-sf heroes Jack Wright and Frank Reade, Sr., and Jr. I was a little disappointed in the Frank Reade entry, which does not mention Frank Reade, III, who continued the family inventing tradition but, so far as I know, appeared in only two stories. I was hoping that Cox could add something to this.

Very few criticisms can be made of Cox’s data. Probably most important, Cox does not mention that Harry Enton, the creator of the Frank Reade series, was really a pseudonym for Harry Cohen, who gave Yiddish names to the Indians Frank Reade slaughtered. Dates are known for John Babbington Williams, M.D. (1827-1879), who was active in earlier sensational fiction and wrote the first American collection of detective stories after Poe.

Enormous potential disagreement exists, of course, about the nature and boundaries of the dime novel—whether it is a generic range of fiction or a commercial mode of publication. The core groupings of most interest today are extravagant tales for adolescent boys (and a little for girls), but many publishers used the dime novel format for adult fiction, including large quantities of sentimental fiction. Cox takes an acceptable, conservative middle course on this basic delimitation, but a case could be made for adding articles about such "outside" authors as H. Rider Haggard and G.W.M. Reynolds who appeared in dime novel format.

The Dime Novel Companion is indispensable for studying this area of popular fiction, but its relevance to science fiction is necessarily limited. Science fiction is a tiny component of the total dime novels. Out of 50,000 or so publications, only about 400 can be classified as fantastic, and of these, around 300 appear in the Jack Wright and Frank Reade series. As a result, a broad survey such as Cox’s cannot allot very much space to sf. It is, however, a unique, basic book for the study of mass culture, essential for every concerned library.

Everett F. Bleiler, Interlaken, NY

A Sociological Study of Postwar SF in France.

Jean-Marc Gouanvic. Sociologie de la traduction: la science-fiction américaine dans l’espace culturel français des années 1950. Arras, France: Artois Presses Université, 1999. 190pp. 120FF pbk.

Published in an academic book series called "Traductologie" ("translatology"), Jean-Marc Gouanvic’s Sociologie de la traduction features a twofold focus on translation theory and its textual application. Theoretically, this book argues for—and points to itself as an example of—viewing the act of translation as an ideology-driven socio-semiotic practice. It makes use of the work of noted French sociologist and semiotician Pierre Bourdieu, whose methodology is briefly outlined in the Introduction. It then offers a case-study analysis of an important turning-point in the history of modern French science fiction: the huge influx of translated Anglo-American sf into France’s "cultural space" during the years following World War II. The author is a well-known French-Canadian sf scholar and editor whose credits include the Québécois sf journal imagine..., a host of francophone sf anthologies, a book on twentieth-century French sf (reviewed in SFS #69, 23:2 [July 1996]: 276-84), and several articles on the history of sf in Québec.

The first three chapters of Sociologie de la traduction discuss the historical backdrop of this translation invasion: the emergence of science fiction as a uniquely American "socio-institutional model" during the 1920s and, in contrast to the favorable French reception of the translations of H.G. Wells’s scientific romances, the largely unsuccessful efforts by some French sf writers and editors to "implant" translated English-language genre sf in France during the 1930s.

The next five chapters—which together constitute the exegetical heart of the book—then examine the dramatic turnaround that occurred in the 1950s: i.e., how certain French advocates of the genre such as Boris Vian, Raymond Queneau, and Michel Pilotin managed, through their own translating and editorial practices, to create an institutional niche in France for this "new" genre; how the French publishing industry accommodated sf’s growing popularity with a variety of book series and magazines devoted specifically to it; and, finally, how the translations themselves were purposefully "adapted" in content and style in order to facilitate acceptance by the French reading public of the time.

Two (very) selective critical bibliographies—one containing works of sociology, the other studies of science fiction—and several appendices listing French sf collections, translators, and translated titles complete the book’s documentational apparatus. An index of proper names is also included.

I cannot judge the overall merit of Sociologie de la traduction as a sociological treatise. But it is unquestionably the best analysis that I have encountered about how translated English-language science fiction came to dominate the sf marketplace in France during the 1950s. There are several assertions in the book with which I strongly disagree (e.g., Gernsback as the primary popularizer of Jules Verne in the United States); but I found most of the author’s arguments both convincing and well documented. One word of warning, however: scholars who are allergic to heavy doses of academic jargon should avoid this book at all costs. Recommended for graduate libraries and/or specialized collections.—ABE

Pocket Encyclopedia of SF Film.

Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska. Science Fiction Cinema: From Outerspace to Cyberspace. Wallflower, 2000. 128pp. £11.99 pbk.

Despite the assault on the rainforest undertaken by academics writing about Blade Runner (1982) and the Alien series (1979-97), sf film remains a relatively impoverished field of study (see, for example, the overwhelmingly poor selection of material—with a couple of notable exceptions—in Annette Kuhn’s showcase collection Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema [Verso, 1999]). The reasons for this state of affairs are manifold, but central among them is the fact that sf studies and film studies are different value-communities: in broad terms, sf studies approaches sf film as sf, and for a long time has tended to see it as a debased form of the literary genre, whereas film studies approaches sf film as film, and for a long time has considered it a juvenile form fairly indistinguishable from horror. King and Krzywinska have set out to tackle this conflict of values and expectations by arguing that sf film is about both speculation and spectacle, and that it "deals with problems and promises offered by science, technology and rationality in an imaginative context given shape by the aims of the film industry" (2). Although this is a far from radical-sounding agenda, and its subsequent development is somewhat disappointing, it is nonetheless an important lesson in the multiple imperatives behind any sf film text.

Science Fiction Cinema is divided into three chapters. Following Rick Altman’s argument that genres should be defined semantically and syntactically, Chapter One, which introduces some key narrative themes (e.g., utopia and dystopia, constructions of Otherness, the image of the scientist, and the postmodern), considers sf film as a scavenger, an unstable and leaky hybrid. Adopting a broadly structuralist approach, King and Krzywinska point to the industry-inspired "magical resolutions" to the conflicts and oppositions that structure individual movies as a potential source of pleasure as well as disappointment. Chapter Two considers the industrial context of sf cinema, paying particular attention to the "new Hollywood" and the shift to special effects-driven, cross-marketed, heavily merchandised blockbusters. This is followed by fruitful discussions of music, design and props, and some speculations on interactivity, immersion, and new media. The final chapter seeks to unite elements of these two approaches in a case study of Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace (1999) which, if it does not quite succeed in blending "thematic and sub-textual" with "more prosaic industrial" analyses (112), nevertheless begins to point the way.

The main weakness of Science Fiction Cinema lies in its tendency toward the encyclopedic: in just over 100 pages, it refers to 153 movies, two movie serials, and nine television shows. Inevitably this preempts prolonged or detailed analysis of individual movies, and several times the discussion breaks off just as it is becoming interesting. Furthermore, one cannot help but wonder how recently the authors have seen some of the texts they discuss. Is it really a NASA crew (74) in Forbidden Planet (1956)? did Babylon 5 (1994-98) really only run for two years (110)? and is the photo on page 5 really from the 1936 Flash Gordon movie serial?

However, as Science Fiction Cinema is part of a new series intended for general and undergraduate readership (other volumes of possible interest consider horror movies and disaster movies), its wide range of reference might also be its major strength. King and Krzywinska have certainly provided a useful primer, but not so useful that I will cease to recommend Vivian Sobchack’s Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film (2nd ed.; Ungar, 1987) to my own students: it might be a decade or two old but it is still the nearest thing the study of sf film has to an indispensable volume.

Mark Bould, Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College

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