Science Fiction Studies

#86 = Volume 29, Part 1 = March 2002

Searching for Gems in Future History

Alan Sandison and Robert Dingley, eds. Histories of the Future: Studies in Fact, Fantasy and Science Fiction. Palgrave, 2000. xviii + 202pp. $59.95 hc.

This overpriced book has a wonderful dust jacket featuring an illustration from Robida’s Le Vingtième siècle (1883, The Twentieth Century) and is dedicated to the pioneering scholarship of I.F. Clarke, whose "ground-breaking research on stories, dreams and projections of the future ... resulted in such studies as The Tale of the Future (1961), Voices Prophesying War 1763-1984 (1966), The Pattern of Expectation 1644-2001 (1979) and the eight-volume British Future Fiction 1700-1914" (xi). Unfortunately, the quality of its contents is not always up to Clarke’s standards, as it features a variegated grouping of thirteen essays by sf scholars and writers whose common theme is supposedly "the historiography of the future" (xi) but whose individual relevance to the topic is sometimes difficult to discern. The editors, to their credit, forewarn the reader of this lack of thematic unity, saying "a compilation such as this is always going to prefer the ‘relaxes’ of eclecticism to inelastic editorial braces" (xi). But such rationalizations do little to convince one to purchase such an expensive little tome whose focus seems almost as disparate as a volume of published conference papers. The table of contents of Histories of the Future reads as follows:

Harry Harrison. Introducing the Future: The Dawn of Science-Fiction Criticism

Ken MacLeod. History in SF: What (Hasn’t Yet) Happened in History

Robert Dingley. The Ruins of the Future: Macaulay’s New Zealander and the Spirit of the Age

Roslynn D. Haynes. Celluloid Scientists: Futures Visualised

Beatrice Battaglia. Losing the Sense of Space: Forster’s "The Machine Stops" and Jameson’s "Third Machine Age"

Bruce Brasington. Boys, Battleships, Books: the Cult of the Navy in US Juvenile Fiction, 1898-1919

Charles E. Gannon. American Dreams and Edwardian Aspirations: Technological Innovation and Temporal Uncertainty in Narratives of Expectation

David Seed. Filing the Future: Reporting on World War Three

Brian Baker. The Map of the Apocalypse: Nuclear War and the Space of Dystopia in American Science Fiction

Alasdair Spark. A New World Made to Order: Making Sense of the Future in a Global Era

Robert Crossley. Sign, Symbol, Power: The New Martian Novel

Tom Shippey. Starship Troopers, Galactic Heroes, Mercenary Princes: The Military and its Discontents in Science Fiction

Damien Broderick. Terrible Angels: Science Fiction and the Singularity

As in most critical anthologies of this sort, some of the essays are especially good (Dingley, Gannon, Spark), a few leave much to be desired (Harrison, Haynes, Battaglia), and the remainder are either of moderate interest or largely off-topic. Rather than comment on each individually, I will discuss two which, in my opinion, rank as the best and worst of the lot.

As an aficionado of early sf, I was especially impressed with the essay on the "New Zealander" by co-editor Robert Dingley. First, unlike its two predecessors in this volume, its title accurately denotes its content. Second, its subject-matter correlates closely to the advertised "Histories of the Future" theme of the volume. Third, it presents a rich ideological-iconographical analysis of the growth and popularity in Victorian England of a new "last man" sf archetype: Macaulay’s 1840 mythic New Zealander, standing on a broken arch of London Bridge and contemplating the collapsed dome of St. Paul’s cathedral amid the ruins of what was once the city of London (as illustrated by Gustave Doré in 1872). According to Dingley,

[T]he New Zealander became lodged in the collective cultural consciousness ... endlessly invoked as an apocalyptic bogeyman, as a joky memento mori, or simply as part of that common vocabulary of allusion which can facilitate relations between writer and reader.... Macaulay’s conceit, then, both in its incidental recurrence and in its more sustained elaborations, haunts the literary memory of the mid-nineteenth century, representing a nightmare future in which the present world order has passed away. (16-17)

The essay offers some valuable historical context for understanding the thematic evolution of this new post-apocalyptic icon. For example, it details how the "Enlightenment’s cultivated predilection for antique ruins" and the ensuing Romantic penchant for "elegiac reflections ... [on] the spectacle of decaying architecture" (19) eventually became a well-worn cliché in Western literature and art by the early decades of the nineteenth century. Macaulay’s New Zealander helped to redefine this topos as "future history" instead of as a simple melancholic remnant of times past. In so doing, at least for the British during the height of their colonial empire-building, the image began to convey a powerful new message:

While the New Zealander and his literary relatives clearly belong within this cultural tradition of ruin-spotting, there are nevertheless crucial differences. The New Zealander may occupy the position of meditative tourist, but he is, precisely, not us: the ruins he observes in the future are our present reality. (20)

Macaulay’s concisely elegant image ... becomes a summary emblem for British cultural anxieties in an age of unprecedented transition. Wren’s dome, which was beginning to resume, in the early nineteenth century, a central role in the iconography of English greatness, becomes a monument to the transience of national glory; the New Zealander, in contrast to his sedately contemplative eighteenth-century ancestors, is a harbinger of doom.... (25-26)

Finally, throughout this well-documented piece, Dingley’s exegesis moves seamlessly between the many literary and artistic manifestations of this popular end-of-the-world image (Shelley, Trollope, Martin, Doré, et al.) and its rhetorical use by politicians and historians in both England and Australia from the 1850s onward (Walpole, Volney, Trollope, et al.). In sum, this is a fine socio-archeological investigation of an important sf motif that has heretofore received, to my knowledge, very little scholarly attention.

The Harry Harrison essay that opens Histories of the Future, however, is another matter entirely. Its well-turned title—albeit of questionable relevance in a collection about future histories—seems to promise insights of historic proportions about the beginnings of sf criticism. But, sadly, the commentary itself turns out to be inaccurate, misleading, and persistently self-promotional. Although lauding I.F. Clarke as an important trailbreaker in sf scholarship (after all, this collection is dedicated to him), Harrison chooses to ignore a large number of other important contributions to the field: not only Philip Babcock Gove’s The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction (1941), Everett F. Bleiler’s The Checklist of Fantastic Literature (1948), and Marjorie Hope Nicholson’s Voyages to the Moon (1948), but also that great body of early sf criticism from the 1920s through the 1960s by editors and academics such as Hugo Gernsback, John W. Campbell, Reginald Bretnor, Roger Lancelyn Green, Mark R. Hillegas, Sam Moskowitz, H. Bruce Franklin, and R.D. Mullen, among many others (see the "Chronological Bibliography of Science Fiction Criticism" on the SFS website at <>). Harrison then proceeds to indulge in a bit of self-aggrandizement by hyping the importance of his own scholarly contributions (in SF Horizons [1961]) while simultaneously downplaying the role of J.O. Bailey’s seminal Pilgrims Through Space and Time (1947) and the influential work of Damon Knight and James Blish, whose essays he criticizes as having "faint overtones of the fanzines," which he dismisses as "amateur, ephemeral and too enthusiastic and uncritical" (2).

Following this cursory and rather self-serving overview of early sf criticism—which might be interpreted as one sf author’s attempt at historical revisionism—Harrison then misrepresents I.F. Clarke’s own work as the study of "alternate history," whereas Clarke himself has consistently referred to it as "future fiction." One is led to wonder if this elision of subgenres is more than accidental since it allows Harrison to offer up his own taxonomic musings about the "three disparate and simple forms" that characterize narratives of "AH" (as he terms it), thereby providing him with a convenient opportunity to remind the reader, with disingenuous modesty, that "I am pleasantly surprised to find that I have written novels in all of these categories" (6).

Other misguided generalizations follow, such as the pronouncement that "Up until the present time no attempt has been made, by either authors or editors, to group these stories and books as a distinct and separate classification of writing" (4). Granted, the most recent anthology edited by Harry Turtledove and Martin H. Greenberg, The Best Alternate History Stories of the Twentieth Century (2001), was not yet on the market when Harrison made this claim. But a few well-known predecessors—Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg’s Alternative Histories: Eleven Stories of the World as It Might Have Been (1986), Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenberg’s 4-volume series What Might Have Been (1989-92), and Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt’s Roads Not Taken: Tales of Alternate History (1998)—certainly were. Further, over the past couple of decades, there have been a growing number of scholarly studies that, either in whole or in part, discuss "AH" sf: books such as Paul Alkon’s Origins of Futuristic Fiction (1987), articles such as Marc Angenot, Darko Suvin, and Jean-Marc Gouanvic’s "L’Uchronie, histoire alternative et science-fiction" (imagine ... [1982]) and George Slusser’s "History, Historicity, Story" (SFS [1988]), as well as several Ph.D. dissertations by academics such as Joseph William Collins (1990), Edgar McKnight Jr. (1994), Nicholas Gevers (1997), and Karen Hellekson (1998, recently published as The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time [2001]). In fact, a quick search of the Internet reveals a number of websites that deal with alternate histories. The best of them is "Uchronia, The Alternate History List" at <> which has been in existence for over ten years. Interestingly, this site’s "Anthologies and Collections" page lists more than sixty alternate history entries (accessed on Jan. 6, 2002).

As the above works and references suggest, Harrison’s claim that "I foresee no great spate of books since writing the AH novel does require a great deal of time-consuming research, which, unhappily, many authors are loath to do" (6) seems questionable indeed. As with so many other assertions made in this superficial and highly biased essay, it is evident that Harrison did not do his own "time-consuming research" before writing it.

Let me hasten to say that most of the contributions to Histories of the Future are more substantial and less self-promotional than Harrison’s. Nevertheless, because of their wide-ranging heterogeneity in subject-matter, approach, and originality, the scholarly value of this book is much less than it could have been. I’m certain that, if I.F. Clarke had himself edited such a collection, the results would have been quite different.—ABE

Share and Enjoy 

M.J. Simpson. A Completely and Utterly Unauthorized Guide to THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE. Pocket Essentials, 2001. 96 pp. £3.99 pbk.

"Oh, this book? It’s great. Read and enjoy" (8). So says Simon Jones, known to Hitchhiker’s Guide fans as Arthur Dent, in his introduction to this extraordinarily comprehensive volume about Douglas Adams. I couldn’t agree more.

"To research this book, I have plowed through two decades worth of the fanzine Mostly Harmless. I have also read dozens of articles and interviews in magazines and on the web, and I have delved into my own personal archives of Hitchhiker’s Guide ephemera and original interviews," says author M.J. Simpson (13-14), and it shows. His organized and intelligent approach to the life and works of Adams enables Simpson, past president of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Appreciation Society, to successfully present a staggering amount of information in an articulate and eminently readable manner.

Surprisingly, this is only the second book written about the phenomenon that is The Hitchhiker’s Guide. The first, Don’t Panic, was written by the talented Neil Gaiman in 1988 and is now out of print. Simpson includes a favorable review of this book and includes quotes from Gaiman about the project.

"Is this really something the world needs?" asked Simon Jones (7) when he was contacted by the author and asked to write the introduction. After reflecting on this question, Jones decided that it was exactly what the world needed. "A definitive where and when sort of book would settle all sorts of pointless and time wasting debates" (7). Beginning with the Hitchhiker’s Guide radio series, Simpson chronicles the stage productions, the books, the recordings, the television series, the film, the two fantastic novels featuring "holistic detective" Dirk Gently, other works by Adams, <> (a website launched by Adams and newly hosted by the BBC), and the related materials appearing on the web. He also discusses various versions of the Guide and the following it attracted overseas (did you know that Finland is the only country to have a professional dramatization of The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul [1988]?).

This book is truly comprehensive. It gives the cast, broadcast date, and a story summary for each episode of the Hitchhiker’s Guide radio series and the television series; the dates, venues, and directors of various stage productions; publication information for each book; and information for the various recordings. For each project he discusses, Simpson provides not only an eloquent synopsis but also a detailed commentary and an interesting historical perspective. He writes of everything from Dr. Snuggles to Dr. Who, and tells of Adams’s involvement with Monty Python. Quotes from Adams, his friends, and his colleagues are distributed generously throughout the text, as are little-known facts and figures.

Simpson’s use of humor achieves a perfect balance, enhancing his presentation of intriguing facts and insights without diverting attention from the focus of the book. For instance, throughout the book, Simpson returns to an observation he makes early on regarding Adams’s approach to work: "He has—how should one phrase this?—never quite got the hang of deadlines" (11). Adams would have been the first to agree with this, according to the BBC website, which quotes him as saying, "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they go by."

Simpson knows his subject, and his years of research and his work with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Appreciation Society have paid off in what is truly a Pocket Essential. It is a fitting tribute to the genius of Douglas Adams. Fans will not want to miss this book, as it contains information they didn’t even know that they didn’t even know. For instance, did you know that Marvin is the only robot listed in The Guinness Book of British Hit Singles? Or that The Hitchhiker’s Guide was the first unabridged audio book to be released on compact discs? Share and enjoy.

—Michael-Anne Rubenstien

Between a Text and a Hard Place. 

Peter Swirski. Between Literature and Science: Poe, Lem, and Explorations in Aesthetics, Cognitive Science, and Literary Knowledge. McGill-Queens UP, 2000. xviii + 193 pp. $60 hc; $24.95 pbk.

Peter Swirski closes his densely documented volume with the call that "literary scholars cannot go on practicing the kind of disciplinary cross-pollination in which it is the supposed authority but not the actual methodology (or full-blown theories) of other fields that guides their research" (139). In itself, his advocacy of moving interdisciplinary literary scholarship away from a metaphorical appropriation of scientific concepts and theories and towards an authentic scientific method raises provocative possibilities. Organized into six major chapters excluding the introduction and a brief conclusion, Between Literature and Science puts Swirski’s proposal to the test. Essentially, each chapter demonstrates how this model of critique could work by offering examinations of Poe or Lem from differing and rigorously presented disciplinary perspectives.

For example, Swirski’s reading of Lem’s The Invincible, among other of his texts, demonstrates compellingly, through theories of biological and technological evolution and the nature of artificial intelligence, that Lem’s oeuvre does not work as and ought not be read as purely fiction. However, at the same time that this volume presents the potential benefits of an "actual" interdisciplinary framework, it also reveals the challenges inherent in such a methodology. In the course of a relatively short text (147 pages), Swirski will incorporate concepts, terminology, and theories from material found in any one of the included ten different bibliographies. These listings cover subjects ranging from "Edgar Allan Poe: General" to "Computers," from "Game Theory" to "Aesthetics." The insights developed during the course of a chapter or during moments within chapters are frequently powerful, yet the overall effect of the text can be overwhelming.

Between Literature and Science is neatly divided between its examinations of Poe’s "The Purloined Letter" and Eureka and Stanislaw Lem’s oeuvre. Of the two, the reading of Lem that occupies the second half of the book is more consistently successful and will hold more interest for the sf community. In particular, his playful and provocative discussion of Lem’s concept of "bitic literature," that is, literature written "spontaneously" by a computer without the prompting or assistance of a human agent, provides Swirski with a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate the potential fruit of an authentic interdisciplinary epistemology. Swirski argues that Lem’s investigations into computer intelligence and evolution (as in "A History of Bitic Literature," 1984), into "biterature," as Swirksi dubs it, could lead to new formulations of textual influence and to new challenges for literary criticism. In particular, when computers start to generate language on their own, and this is a "when" and not an "if" for Swirski, how will human readers/scholars respond if "computer writing begins to approach or later transcend the limits of what is intellectually accessible" (118)? Overlaid against the science of artificial intelligence, the Turing Test, and other relevant developments in computer science, the argument moves well. More importantly, this section serves his introductory assertion that only investigations "sympathetic to the speculative freedom of literary fiction and the analytic rigour of science" (xii) can truly reveal Lem and Poe’s "cognitive ambitions" (xi). Unfortunately, the book’s opening attempt to situate Poe in this light is not as uniformly successful as its discussion of Lem. To a large degree, this results from Poe being buried or needing to be buried by the interdisciplinary rigor Swirski brings to the effort. During Swirski’s readings of Poe’s famous "The Purloined Letter" (1845) and his enigmatic Eureka (1848), the reader is led through both a litany of Poe’s scientific and philosophical interests and errors and a history of the science and philosophy of his era and beyond. Both are not possible at once. Frequently, the Poe text in question serves more as the occasion to examine an interdisciplinary concept or problem rather than as the subject of an interdisciplinary inquiry. Chapter One’s examination of "The Purloined Letter" offers a good case in point, given its thorough discussion of game and decision theories juxtaposed against its largely implied analysis of the story. Similarly, at times, Chapters Two and Three echo the feel of The Education of Henry Adams (1906). Moment to moment, some remarkable clarity is offered, but on the whole, the effort reminds the reader of how much homework still needs to be done. In his own contemporary examination of the Virgin of literary creation and the Dynamo of scientific inquiry, Swirski needs to give both Poe’s texts and the presentation of his analytical framework more time and space.

The section on Poe also suffers as a result of Swirski’s insistence that Poe be taken seriously in his scientific intent, even though Eureka’s "new epistemology, as well as specific theses, suffer from fundamental shortcomings" (60). Like Brevet Brigadier-General John A.B.C. Smith from Poe’s own "The Man That Was Used Up" (1843), the substance of Poe the scientist comes apart in a way that belies its appearance as soon as one looks at it too closely. The argument that Poe meant Eureka to develop a cosmology that would "revolutionize the world of Physical and Metaphysical science" (qtd. 28) because that is how he introduced Eureka to the Society Library in New York must be held at arm’s length. Even Swirski himself later admits that continued interest in Eureka likely stems more from Poe’s rhetorical power than his scientific acumen (61-63). Poe’s ability to manipulate and mimic the complex and central questions of his moment in order to create "an air of discursive fairness, objectivity, and completeness" (63) should remind the reader that Poe’s interests were often self-promotional and commercial before they were anything else. Thus, it seems necessary to downplay any claim that Eureka can build a stable bridge over the chasm to which Swirski’s title refers.

This critique aside, readers will find in Between Literature and Science a remarkable breadth of scholarship and rigor. However, readers who are just looking to this text for a model of the way to navigate the waters of interdisciplinary literary study in an authentic way may find more than they can handle. Quite simply, Swirski demonstrates through his own exhaustive scholarship what it means to do interdisciplinary literary investigation and what it means to embrace science’s methods and not just its metaphors. The reader with a more substantial background in one or more of the specialized fields Swirski utilizes in his discussions of Poe and Lem will find Swirski’s work bold. The depth of the research he offers and the scope of the project he attempts in Between Literature and Science creates a kind of intellectual history not unlike Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991). Just as Lasch evaluated representations of "progress" over the course of centuries on both sides of the Atlantic and in different "disciplines," Swirski looks at the long-standing tension between the imaginary and the empirical from the early nineteenth century until the present moment. Though Between Literature and Science may finally be too brief to flesh out this history completely, the examination it provides, tied to the work of Poe and Lem, is of value

—Scott Ash, Nassau Community College

Insiders, Outsiders, and Comics.

Bradford Wright. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Johns Hopkins UP, 2001. xix + 336 pp. $34.95 hc.

Bradford Wright’s Comic Book Nation provides a solid history of comics when they were still relevant to mainstream culture—that is, from the late 1930s to the 1970s. The study attempts to do more than that, however, and in that wider ambition is not nearly as successful.

Comic Book Nation thoroughly examines all the major trends and touchstones in the first half-century of the medium. Wright explores the ideological projects that informed the various genres—superheroes before and during World War II (comics’ Golden Age); crime, romance, and horror at the start of the Cold War; the rise of Marvel Comics in the 1960s (comics’ Silver Age); the "relevant" superheroes of the early 1970s—and does excellent readings of various stories, some well-known and others quirkily obscure. He explores sf as a motif in Silver Age comics, contrasting the attitudes of rivals DC Comics and Marvel in a manner familiar to comics aficionados: DC valorized science as a tool of civic duty, Marvel saw it as a Pandora’s box that unleashes monsters. The prose is straightforward and at times affectionately ironic: the best joke is describing the superheroic predilection to violence as "their particular brand of conflict resolution" (31). The exposition can be ponderous, however, as in a retelling of Spider-Man’s origin: such a lengthy description feels less like the necessary establishment of critical context than a walk down fanboy memory lane.

Wright does a particularly strong job of addressing the comic book crises of the late 1940s and mid-1950s, when the reading of funnybooks was equated with juvenile delinquency. He explains how Frederic Wertham successfully played down the larger implications of his attack on comics, implications that questioned commercialism itself and would have alienated many supporters of his his anti-comics crusade. Wright also makes a canny observation when he connects the rise of comic books among youths of that time with the increased affluence of America and its expanding consumer culture. This notion of a growing American commercialism and how it allowed imaginative and economic space for a separate youth culture is the source of the book’s subtitle. Wright mentions other forms of popular culture that preceded comics (i.e., pulp magazines), but persuasively poses comics as the first form to cater exclusively to youth, paving the way for youth-oriented movies, rock music, and other forms of youth culture. Though Wright repeats the "comics came first" argument often, he offers few direct ties to the forms that followed. Nevertheless, one gets the sense that, while comic books foreshadowed Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Elvis Presley, they were not in the same league as those cultural icons.

Wright does a straightforward and relatively insightful job exploring comics and how they reflected the concerns of contemporary youth until the 1980s. From there, however, the book clearly falters. Wright treats the last two decades of comic books as a tedious afterthought: the chapter describing the direct distribution market, which supplanted newsstand distribution of comics in the early 1980s, has considerably less meaningful analysis than earlier chapters. The book does not even mention the rise of Image Comics in the early 1990s, a phenomenon which changed comics as surely as the rise of Marvel in the 1960s. On the one hand, one can understand a decision to give the past two decades short shrift: since the direct market became the main economic system of American comics, sales of comic books have shrunk to a small but dedicated readership. As Wright duly notes, while comic books have been the source of many other aspects of popular culture—movies, TV shows, video games—comic books themselves have languished and have became irrelevant to the cultural mainstream.

However, just because the comic book nation no longer transforms youth culture as it had previously, that doesn’t mean transformations of a different kind are not occurring. While Wright explains the changes comic books have undergone as a business since the direct market’s rise, he does too little to tie this phenomenon to the broader fragmentation of youth culture. Within his primary focus on the mid-twentieth century, assumptions of a monolithic youth culture—one that shares the same consumer habits, that identifies with the same icons—seems valid. (I wouldn’t know firsthand; I was born in the late sixties.) But that is no longer the case, and has not been for a considerable time: youth culture has many subcultures, some of which are diametrically opposed to one another. The best Wright manages is the oft-heard observation that TV and video games have replaced comics as youthful pastimes; fair enough, but that’s an incomplete picture stemming from too-broad generalizations about how youth culture functions today.

Framing comic books more accurately within a fragmentary model of youth culture would have given Comic Book Nation a useful means to explore recent transformations. Image Comics and their ilk appealed strongly to the teens who invested in baseball cards and collectibles as veritable junk culture bonds; among Goths, Sandman author Neil Gaiman is a literary demigod; the rise of Japanese animation and the American otaku has spurred interest in Japanese manga among youths who’d never consider reading American comics. Wright could have looked at 1960s underground comics to see how the counterculture of that era presaged the popular subcultures of this era. He expressly chose not to do this, however, and his failure to consider youth culture’s development as a bloom in diversity, not just a packaged consumer rebellion, results in a less substantive analysis of the position of comics in today’s cultural landscape.

By the end of the book, one has the sneaking suspicion that Wright was less concerned with a complete history of American comics than with a nostalgic exploration of the funnybooks he treasured in his own childhood. This explains strange omissions—along with the failure to mention Image, for example, he states that writer Alan Moore has given up writing superhero comics despite Moore’s return to the genre several years ago—but also makes the last chapters strangely myopic, if not critically useless. His epilogue, which briefly outlines selected developments in the past decade, is gutsy enough to ask, "Must There Be a Comic Book Industry?" (285). However, his book ends with distinctly fannish treacle: "In this culture, comic books do have a place. And they will endure so long as they bring out the superhero in us all." This closing note is not the statement of a historian or a cultural theorist, but of a fan who’s ignored the evidence that he himself has provided. Never mind that not all comics are about superheroes, or even that the comic book industry is distinct from comics as a medium: comic books cannot bring out the superhero in us all if the vast majority of the population never reads them. Comic books continue to appeal to various subcultures— geeks, Goths, greedheads, and gaijin, for starters—but such nuances and their consequences have eluded this book completely.

For those who want an insider’s exploration of comics from the Silver Age to the mid 1990s, I highly recommend Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs’ excellent second edition of The Comic Book Heroes (1997). But if you need a primer for what happened at the very beginning, Comic Book Nation is one of the most helpful sources you can find.

—Ray Mescallado, University of Iowa

The Cross and the Ecological Switchblade. 

Ernest J. Yanerella. The Cross, the Plow, and the Skyline: Contemporary Science Fiction and the Ecological Imagination. Brown Walker Press, 2001. 319 pp. $29.95 pbk.

Ernest J. Yanarella uses the symbols of the cross, the plow, and the skyline to represent the apocalyptic, pastoral, and urban traditions within American culture and science fiction. He does so as a literary critic, a political theorist, and an ecologically concerned person seeking a vision for a viable future. The ambitious range of goals this multiple perspective leads him to identify (1, 9) also reflects the fact that this book "emerged from a collection of conference papers written over twelve years or more" (Acknowledgements). Part I (§1-6) explores these three areas with attention to a wide range of sf works in the context of thoughtful commentary on American history and culture. Part II (§7-8), on American populism from 1890 to 1900, reads like papers for a highly specialized section in an academic conference, in stark contrast to his scathing attack on the Gaia hypothesis in part III (§9-10 and Conclusion).

One of Yanarella’s chief goals is to "advance the unfolding political agenda of an ecological consciousness and multifaceted social movement being felt around the globe" (9). Given the varied contents, readers may get more out of the book if they read the Conclusion first so that they can see more clearly how this goal drives the whole project. Yanarella wonders what good futures we can hope for if it is true, as he believes, that cities must remain at the heart of our global culture, and that we must find ways to take a "letting be" approach to nature rather than arrogantly assuming we are wise enough to "dominate" it.

Yanarella begins, in Part I, with a look at Jewish-Christian apocalyptic theology and its influence on the early American sense of destiny. He argues that "[t]he idea of America as the New Jerusalem with its citizens a ‘chosen people’ and its special mission of world redeemer was ... sedimented in the American literary imagination," and that until recently American writers have focused on the "positive, regenerative side of apocalypse, not the negative, destructive side" (32). That is, our apocalyptic heritage of hoping for a new world better than this one has powerfully driven American political and literary imaginations, as is evident in the enormous range of utopian and science fiction works we have produced.

Our quest to envision and build a better future has struggled, however, between a longing to restore an Edenic paradise—a pastoral, agricultural, Jeffersonian democracy—and our fascination with machines and cities. Yanarella explores this tension in Parts I and II, both in terms of broader cultural studies and with regard to science fiction in particular. He finds, for example, that "[b]ecause the central impulse of contemporary science fiction leads many of its writers to perceive futuristic cities as merely another barrier blocking humanity’s quest to appropriate the unknown, negative images of the city have an almost hegemonic grip over most urban science fiction. Yet fleeting images of the New Athens and the New Jerusalem can be uncovered in this subgenre"(162). His principal conclusion is that none of the authors is able to envision an adequate solution to the tension between our pastoral dreams and our urban/technical drives.

Suddenly, in the turn of a chapter, our scholarly Dr. Yanarella becomes Mr. Hyde attacking the Lady Gaia. In Chapter 9, "The Gaia Hypothesis and its Shadow: Earth as Gaia and the Specter of Terra (Terror) Forming," he accuses supporters of the Gaia hypothesis of "the arrogance of humanism" (226), "scientific hubris" (229), "planetary domination" (231), and chiefly of casting the long shadow of "terra/terror forming" Mars (226). He attributes the Gaia myth to the "passionate interest in Martian habitation as a bureaucratic-political interest by NASA and the other elements of the space-industrial-scientific complex in search of a post-lunar project" (231) and condemns "their crude indifference toward the intrinsic worth of Mars’ primal landscape" (234). The Gaia hypothesis, he argues, leaves us with no ethical framework for seeing our own worth within nature, for calling us to responsibility for the harm we do nature, or for preventing us from wreaking havoc on other planets.

In Chapter 10, he extends his attack to writers of hard science fiction, including Isaac Asimov, Gregory Benford, David Brin, and Kim Stanley Robinson. He accuses them of "closure" rather than openness, of "writerly certitude and self-assuredness," and of "dualistic opposition and/or the positing of dominant-subordinate relations based on coercion and submission" (262-63). Despite an otherwise glowing critique of Robinson’s MARS TRILOGY, Yanarella rebukes him for not wholeheartedly condemning the "terra/terror forming" of Mars. Yanarella castigates Robinson’s idea of humankind spreading the seed of life throughout the solar system "for its arrogantly humanistic and strongly masculinist shadow," and claims that the trilogy’s extensive debates over terraforming "fail to engage at the deepest levels the terroristic core of the enterprise" (282). In Robinson’s work, he complains, "human consciousness receives unchecked warrant to intervene in a godless universe as its imperial and directing consciousness in order to spread seeds of life" (285). We must turn, instead, to those works of speculative science fiction which are more modest in their vision of human power and wisdom.

Yanarella concludes Part III with an effort to point the way by reference to Martin Heidegger’s "fourfold—earth, sky, gods, mortals" (298). "Sparing the earth and receiving the sky means respectfully allowing the things of the earth and in the sky to be how they are in their essence and not try to subjugate" them. "Awaiting the gods means adopting openness to the sights of the divine in our intimate surroundings or acknowledging their absence" (298-99). The "authentic city of the future must take into account the ecological needs of the earth and sky, the divine origins and summons of the gods, and the limits of human beings in their finitude" (299). The kind of concrete action required by reverence for the "fourfold," however, is left totally unexplained.

This commitment to the "fourfold" is why Yanarella sees the terraforming of a lifeless planet in terms of "terror" and "domination." Certainly there is a discussion to be had here, but Yanarella so demonizes the opposition that it is hard to see how the discussion can go on. Whereas Part I drew me into the challenging visions of science fiction and the ecological imagination, at the end I could not see how we could even work for the environment, much less travel into space or hope to live on another planet, without invoking Yanarella’s wrath.

—Bob Mesle, Graceland University

A Brief Survey of Invasions. 

Denis Gailor. Intriganti paure: Il genere della invasion story nella narrativa inglese, 1871-1980. Palermo: La Zisa, 1999. 117 pp. 13000 lire.

Notwithstanding its brevity, Denis Gailor’s book—which has apparently gone unnoticed in Italy among reviewers (I heard about it first from SFS’s Rob Latham)—is a very interesting study and an enjoyable read. It is a tantalizingly short overview of the invasion theme in British fiction.

Gailor’s survey moves from chapters on George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871) and on his immediate imitators, notably William Le Queux, to later chapters addressing Saki’s When William Came (1913), Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898), Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), John Wyndham’s novels, Nazi-invasion tales such as Len Deighton’s 1978 SS-GB (1978), and Cold-War tales such as Kingsley Amis’s 1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek (1980), with a very brief coda on texts tackling more contemporary motifs such as General John Hackett’s The Third World War series (1978, 1983, 1985).

The book has many strengths. Gailor’s corpus is a partly autonomous subset of the Future Wars genre whose history is mapped in I.F. Clarke’s Voices Prophesying War (1966, rev. ed. 1992), and the book provides critical analyses of many neglected texts. The main thrust in tales of invasion, Gailor writes, has less to do (as in Clarke’s general argument) with a rhetorical convergence of military advancement and contingent fears about neighboring powers than with Britain’s own self-image as a nation. Gailor’s work—despite a glaring paucity of explicit theoretical references—is a study in nationalist rhetoric. The invasion story appears to be a tool which has endured, with only minimal variation in its overall patterns, throughout the century following Dorking.

The ongoing popularity of German—or Russian—invasion novels, however, does not allow us to advance claims about direct references to immediately contingent themes: the invasion story is not a cautionary tale about a concrete menace from a specific country, but rather a strategy (or, perhaps, a ritual) for reasserting Britain’s wounded primacy through a masochistic fantasy of desirability. The endlessly pursued, harassed, and indeed raped maiden is never denied her appointed, comforting role as object of the foreigners’ appropriative grasp. All these writers start from the reluctant acknowledgment of "a situation of moral declension among the English people" (15; Gailor’s italics), and present the invasion itself as a new "deluge" (15), an ordeal allowing Britain’s virtue to come back to the surface and/or a punishment for the betrayal of the nation’s ancestral destiny. The invasion story’s British Everyman, in witnessing the empire falling apart, is forced "to wonder what exactly is the role God has intended to attribute to his homeland, and how leading should the role be" (16). And, in the end, he often finds reassurance: defeat can be interpreted as self-sacrifice and as evidence of inherent moral superiority (whose living repository must at least include the narrator), opening up a hopeful future of revanche through the portrayal of both beautiful losers and—in post-Chesney epigones— surviving resisters.

Gailor conducts a text-by-text exploration of the motifs and formulas—à la John Cawelti—of this subgenre as they develop and become standard fare for further works. Chesney evokes the enemy’s technological superiority and innovativeness as signs of its inhuman, unnatural essence (downright savagery is hinted at: the invaders have never seen a silver fork!), along with references to social(ist) and feminist threats as internal enemies which he ties in with a prevailing national condition of off-guard self-confidence. His brand of reactionary, technophobic militarism is shared by his (as a rule qualitatively much worse) emulators; Le Queux and Saki add continuing notes of admiration for the invaders’ efficiency. The latter also introduces a subplot about the collapse of family bonds (the private sphere of the exemplary failed couple recapitulating the public sphere of the collapsing nation), putting the blame on women’s "corrupt" inability to understand the virtuous "innocence" (49) of the very few remaining good men, as well as making specific references to German ethnic inferiority. Albeit with more sophistication, this is the kind of moralism that sustains Wells’s presentation of the fighters against the Martian invaders. Invasion stories about Nazi Germany and Communist Russia seem to be the most crudely formulaic, with the exceptions of Deighton and Amis.

Original and skillful readings of the lesser known novels by Le Queux, Saki, Amis, and Deighton are the book’s highest moments. Nevertheless, there remain a number of weaknesses. Too many texts could be mentioned that are left out of the analysis, such as M.P. Shiel’s The Yellow Danger (1898) and Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night (1937), while too much of the book is devoted to works tangential to this subject, such as John Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903), and works by Orwell and Wyndham. Their inclusion as stories about the thwarted preparation for an invasion could have been justified only in the context of a much longer study. Too many texts are discussed briefly in one paragraph. Finally, no awareness is shown of some pertinent critical works on British sf such as Darko Suvin’s Victorian Science Fiction in the UK (1983), Brian Stableford’s Scientific Romance in Britain (1985), or Nicholas Ruddick’s Ultimate Island (1993), as well as of I.F. Clarke’s work in the 1990s and of the Italian edition of Dorking (ed. Carlo Pagetti; tr. Riccardo Valla; Milan: Nord, 1985).

As it stands, the book is an important start (whose sections on Wells and Amis are in different forms available in English-language journals) and suggests many fruitful directions for further studies. I would strongly recommend an enlarged version, expanding both the range of the in-depth textual discussions and the theoretical framework. Such a revision would add much to the scholarly value of Gailor’s fine study.

—Salvatore Proietti, Universita di Roma "La Sapienza"

Philip K. Dick Arrives in Italy. 

Francesca Rispoli. Universi che cadono a pezzi: La fantascienza di Philip K. Dick. Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 2001. 196 pp. 22000 Lire.

Philip K. Dick has finally made it into the Italian big time. Or so it would seem from the steady flurry of reviews in the Italian dailies and magazines accompanying the forthcoming publication of PKD’s complete novels under Carlo Pagetti’s general editorship for Rome’s Fanucci. There was once a genre cult, with criticism monopolized by fan writing (sometimes of remarkable acuity and rigor, as in the case of Vittorio Curtoni) and by Carlo Pagetti’s indefatigable work. The 1989 collection edited by Pagetti was a pioneering venture in sf scholarship that was not followed by consistent contributions until the recent onset of a veritable Dick revival which has produced books by Gabriele Frasca, Carlo Formenti, and Fabrizio Chiappetti, all at least partly devoted to Dick, as well as a number of essays by Umberto Rossi and others, plus the forthcoming volume collecting the contributions to the Macerata conference (cf. Rossi’s note in SFS #83).

The Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick is Italy’s first significant book-length study of Dick, published by an established editore di cultura, and it sets a remarkable standard. What matters most is Rispoli’s insistence on Dick as writer. The semi-canonized "postmodern" Dick seems to have gone well beyond what Istvan Csicsery-Ronay has called "diffusion," becoming a prophet, a theorist, a philosopher, with a cult of personality bordering on the hagiographic in Emmanuel Carrère’s 1993 popular biography, Je suis vivant and vous êtes morts: Philip K. Dick (1928-1982), a book that was immediately and successfully translated into Italian. In the best examples, we have an attempt at "respectable" legitimation through Dick’s affliliation with highbrow writers (for Frasca, Beckett and Pynchon): science-fictionality remains something to be transcended, and a very high price is paid for the privilege of (to use Bourdieu’s term) "distinction." Only the sf writer Valerio Evangelisti keeps arguing for rootedness in the genre, pulps included. Everywhere, the point is the reconstruction of Dick as spokesman and/or anticipator of postmodernity, with his "speculative" fragments made to recreate a systematic thinker. And if Formenti meritoriously implies that VALIS (1981) is not the "Exegesis" (that the prophecy was not spoken by the prophet), Chiappetti gives us a montage of some characters’ "metaphysical" musings and attributes them wholesale to the author/philosopher. Some theorists of the contemporary condition definitely feel the need for heroes.

Rispoli’s book is a readers’ guide aimed at a non-specialized (non-academic and non-fan) readership, but—unlike earlier English-language efforts by Douglas A. Mackey, Hazel Pierce, and Patricia S. Warrick—it acknowledges the existence of theory (Baudrillard, Debord, Harvey, Jameson), sf theory (Suvin, Jameson), and a body of criticism on Dick. In this sense, this is the best volume-length study of Dick since Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick (1984). Relatively unburdened by plot summary (but not much is still too much), the book—reassuringly for the Italian reviewer—assumes an audience familiar with the main debates in contemporary cultural theory, and (I wouldn’t want to put a "but" in here) succeeds in giving a very readable introduction to Dick’s overall preoccupations.

The study limits biographical narration to the opening pages and focuses on the sf novels, with a much-too-brief final coda on "Dick at the Movies" (including praise for the largely unseen French version of Confessions of a Crap Artist, Jérôme Boivin’s 1992 Confessions d’un Barjo) and an appendix consisting of a letter from filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin reminiscing that the original 1974 script received from Dick for the planned filming of Ubik was different from what was later published as Ubik: The Screenplay (1985). For Rispoli, Dick’s central theme is the one presented in the title, "universes falling apart," developed in the book’s chapters, which are organized in roughly chronological order: crises in power systems, in perception, and in the subject itself, all of which are literalized in the general collapse of universes.

As I would paraphrase it, Rispoli’s general argument is that the reality breakdown—albeit sometimes a catastrophe—is a strategy of liberation against a totalizing Narcissism trying to assimilate everything and everyone into the res extensa of a world in its own image, and the resistance revolves around Sisyphus figures. Dick’s (anti-)hero is, Rispoli writes, someone "who feels the need to make some meaning out of the universe, but who fails; or better, lets failure occur, if the only remaining option consists of self-enclosure within an illusion of reality, or in the imposition of this reality onto others" (22). In Dick, the postmodern rejection of grand narratives is a radical skepticism involving all attempts at theorizing a unifying Zeitgeist for the present state of affairs—which nevertheless escapes the trap of hopelessness. The one exception is A Maze of Death (1970), which Rispoli rightly characterizes as his bleakest work (90). The resisting self is always a self fighting to defend a principle of relation and "empathy" (let’s say, Tagomi is to Frink as Huck is to Jim, going to hell for a friend’s sake) against the predatory, all-controlling forces incarnating an Emersonian, Ahab-like principle of asocial self-sufficiency.

Rispoli’s readings span all of Dick’s career as sf novelist (including his final triptych but not his non-sf posthumous works). Her crucial texts are The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Ubik (1969), in which I would have stressed the role of lieux de mémoire (which Alessandro Portelli insisted on during discussion at the Macerata conference) such as the Americana artifacts of the former and the devolving machinery of the latter. Her analysis of Ubik would have benefited had she noted that the regression from 1992 New York to 1939 Des Moines is not the result of Jory’s malignant agency but rather, as I argued in my Macerata presentation, the sign of his fallibility vis-à-vis the enduring presence of resisting others. Against the absolute self-assurance of monistic determinism (what Dick’s characters call the primacy of "the abstract" over "the real," as Baynes puts it in High Castle, or that of "the impersonal" over the community as Dr. Stockstill says in Dr. Bloodmoney [1965], as well as the takeover of the concrete Frauenzimmer Pris by the eternal "Pristine Womankind" in We Can Build You [1972]), history is always the result of conflicts among world-views and partial perspectives. There is always a deadly catch, a power fantasy at work, when someone announces their coming end.

The reviewer’s usual nitpicking: the Palermo conference on "SF and Criticism" was held in 1978, not in 1980; in the reference to Rusnak’s "Dickian" film The Thirteenth Floor (1999), mention could have been made of its source, Daniel F. Galouye’s Simulacron 3 (1964) and of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 TV version of the same novel, Welt am Draht. As for the bibliographical apparatus: the disappearance of the "et al." from the entry on the SFS collection On PKD, whose editorship is attributed solely to R.D. Mullen; Dr. Futurity’s (1959) magazine version is "Time Pawn," not "Time Spawn" (1954); the Italian translation of "Fawn, Look Back" (posthumously published in SF Eye) is missing; among Pagetti’s essays, at least his 1977 introduction to La svastica sul sole deserved a separate entry; and even though any attempt at completeness would have made even an Italian-only biblio too fat, Rispoli seems unaware of a number of essays published in nonspecialistic contexts (by Alessandro Portelli, Umberto Rossi, and Anna Scacchi). In the context of Philip K. Dick’s ongoing critical revival in Italy, Rispoli’s book might be just the beginning—but it is a very promising one indeed.

—Salvatore Proietti, Universita di Roma "La Sapienza"

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