#90 = Volume 30, Part 2 = July 2003
BOOKS IN REVIEW
The First of the Last Men.
Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville.
The Last Man. Trans. I.F. Clarke
and M. Clarke. Introduction and Critical Material by I.F. Clarke. Wesleyan Early
Classics of Science Fiction Series. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2002. xli +
157pp. $45.00 hc; $17.95 pbk.
This complex work is one thing, its complex history another. To take the
story first, de Grainville’s book, Le Dernier Homme, was first published
in 1805 in Paris; it therefore speaks from a predominantly Christian age, and is
full of Christian allegory without, however, any reference to Christ or the
Bible. But the Book of Revelations has had its influence, as has Milton’s
Paradise Lost (1667). T.S.Eliot in 1936 claimed that Milton wrote English
“like a dead language,” and this faithful translation suggests that as much
might be said about the French author.
The main human participants in the drama are Omegarus, who is to become the
Last Man, and Syderia, whom Omegarus loves. Various supernatural or inexplicable
personages are also important—in particular Adam, doomed to live on and suffer
from beginning to end of human existence; Ithurial, who sometimes acts as God’s
mouthpiece; the noble and beautiful Nature; the Spirit of the Earth, a more
calculating male version of Gaia; and Death, swinging his traditional scythe.
These personages and various humans act in the unfolding of a complicated plot,
set on a ravaged Earth.
Unusually, Omegarus has it within his province to decide whether or not the
world shall end. The Spirit of the Earth tries to persuade him to have a child
by Syderia, so that the natural cycle of life will continue and the world will
not end. No mention is made of the animal kingdom. Omegarus flies in a
miraculous aerial globe to Brazil, where he finds Syderia and marries her. The
omens are against him; he may not consummate his marriage, for any children,
driven by famine, would kill each other. The couple are seized by passionate
longings; but Syderia would kill herself rather than give in to Omegarus.
Omergarus flees, whereupon God grants him a vision of a possible future where
cannibalism prevails. So Earth must be destroyed.
The portents of doom are grisly enough. Church bells toll the funeral knell
of humanity. Mountains and oceans are alike in terrible disturbance. Comets
converge on the Earth. God had promised he would not destroy the Earth as long
as the human race had the power to perpetuate itself. Now, released from the
laws he has imposed upon himself, God gives the signal for the resurrection of
the dead. Heaven resounds with rejoicing, shudders run through Hell, trumpets
sound as the scattered remains of dead humanity are revealed. Human bones and
ashes are spewed forth from graves everywhere.
Earth becomes disfigured. Mountains seem to be suspended in air. Frightening
gulfs open. Entire cities vanish.
When the end comes, Omegarus fades from the picture. Alone on the stage are
Syderia, the Spirit of the Earth, and Death himself. When Death kills Syderia,
“the reign of time had ended, and a vista of eternity had opened up” (132).
Death and the Spirit hold a final dialogue or aria.
The teller of this tale says that he longs to know the fate of Omegarus.
Refusing him, the Spirit of Futurity says—rather like Prospero addressing his
audience—“If I were to show you the scenes you long to see, your curiosity would
still not be satisfied” (135).
I have, no doubt inadequately, simplified a grand operatic plot, which shifts
between the religious and the secular. The participants move amid the relics of
an advanced culture that has reverted to barbarism. What a modern reader may
find mystifying is that we have Cantos instead of chapters; de Grainville had
planned an epic poem in the manner of Paradise Lost. The heightened
language and prolific use of simile indicate as much.
Possibly the author might have continued to work on his manuscript had he not
committed suicide, so that his book was published posthumously. No more than
forty copies of the first edition were sold.
We have met with The Last Man previously, if not in the flesh, then in
Chapter Five of Paul K.Alkon’s grand book, Origins of Futuristic Fiction
(U Georgia P, 1987), where de Grainville is allotted a chapter to himself.
Certainly de Grainville seeks to amaze, and largely succeeds, but the real
amazement is the appearance of this book from Wesleyan. It is actually the first
authentic translation into English.
A version of The Last Man was published in London in 1806, scarcely
eighteen months after the first French publication; but its origins were not
revealed and it came disguised as a book by an English author—perhaps excusably,
since Britain was at war with Napoleon. The pirated edition contained many
inelegant phrases; probably it was made in haste. Some passages were subtracted,
new ones were added. Among the inserted passages was one that seemed to point to
recent advances in science. This suggests an interesting contrast between
Catholic France and secular England.
Professor I.F. Clarke’s Preface is as absorbing as the text that follows.
Employing both detective work and scholarship, Clarke, aided by another
distinguished scholar, Pierre Versins, has rescued the true text; this is his
and his wife Margaret’s translation. Clarke raises the question of whether Mary
Shelley, whose The Last Man was published in 1826, had read de Grainville.
The question is left open. It seems hardly likely that Shelley had purchased one
of those forty copies; nevertheless, it is a curious coincidence that both
narratives begin with an entry into mysterious caverns. More to the point, de
Grainville was experimenting with a new mode, future fiction—a mode that has now
set like a vice.
It is to the patience of such scholars as the late Pierre Versins (author of
the Encyclopédie de l’Utopie, des Voyages Extraordinaires et de la
Science-Fiction, Editions L’Age d’Homme, 1972) and Professor Clarke (author
of Voices Prophesying War, Oxford UP, 1992 ), and many others
working in this field that we owe our understanding of the authors who lived and
worked before the coming of the pulp magazines. This appearance of a book first
published in France in 1805 is a real cause for celebration and congratulation
to all concerned.
—Brian W. Aldiss, Oxford
Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth, eds.
reload: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. xiv + 581 pp. $29.95 pbk.
reload is a collection of critical essays interleaved with fiction
that impressively illustrates how strong the female presence has been in
cyberpunk, conflating cyberpunk and cyborg into cyberfeminism in a convincing
way to do so. As the editors say, “The stories and critical/theoretical pieces
gathered in this volume offer multiple alternatives to narratives of the hacker
console cowboy, narratives of the feminist cyborg, and the myths of a
‘gender-free’ cyberculture” (2). The volume has two introductions; fifteen
critical essays, only one reprinted; eleven works of fiction, all reprinted and
four excerpted from novels. For me, this was a book more exciting in concept
than in execution because I wanted it to be a compendium on women in cyberpunk
that could be used for a focused science fiction class. While I found several
fascinating and useful essays, and more fascinating and useful fiction, the
volume itself was not uniformly either as fascinating or as useful as I had
hoped. It is, nevertheless, a worthwhile and stimulating collection.
Had this been the book I had hoped for, it might have included Haraway’s
generative “A Cyborg Manifesto”—now, admittedly, widely anthologized elsewhere.
It most certainly would have had suggested reading lists, preferably annotated,
of both fiction and criticism, since many of the usual suspects in both
categories were missing from the volume. Where, my ego asked, were Veronica
Hollinger’s and my essays from Storming the Reality Studio (1991)? Where
was Pat Cadigan or Joan Slonczewski or Sheri S. Tepper? They can’t all be here,
but a few lists would have been invaluable, especially since there is no general
Works Cited list for the volume. The book would also have provided introductions
to the works, especially to the fiction, and more especially to the excerpted
fiction, placing it in relation to the criticism and to some general organizing
plan for the volume. The volume’s introductions would have clarified the book’s
organization and that organization would have been clearer in the first place.
The criticism and fiction would have been juxtaposed in illuminating ways, as
happens only once, when Hollinger’s “(Re)reading Queerly: Science Fiction,
Feminism, and the Defamiliarization of Gender” (1999) is placed directly after
C.L. Moore’s “No Woman Born” (1944), which Hollinger discusses. Wouldn’t it have
been helpful if Bernadette Wegenstein’s “Shooting Up Heroines,” a critical work
dealing with Laura Mixon’s Proxies (1998), had been placed in proximity,
instead of several chapters and a subheading away? My wish list would have, I
think, resulted in a wonderful text for teaching.
That may not have been the editors’ aim, of course, so I’ll just add one more
category of carping before discussing the book’s real strengths. I did not see a
strong editorial hand, a problem I’m noticing more and more these days. Almost
all of the critical essays were written for this volume, but the quality of
their writing varied widely, as did the methods of documentation. All of this
should have been polished and standardized. The index was minimal and not a
useful tool. And why is the book called (lower case) reload? A stronger
editorial presence would have made a significant difference.
All that said, reload nevertheless has much to offer, especially as an
introduction to a surprising range of fictional worlds. I learned about fan
fiction based on a character in an Antonio Banderas movie, Eaters of the Dead
(1976), in Sharon Cumberland’s “The Five Wives of Ibn Fadlan: Women’s
Collaborative Fiction on Antonio Banderas Web Sites.” In Jyanni Steffensen’s
“Doing it Digitally: Rosalind Brodsky and the Art of Virtual Female
Subjectivity,” I learned about a CD-ROM, No Other Symptoms: Time Traveling
with Rosalind Brodsky (1999), following the adventures of a time-traveling
virtual character invented by the digital artist Suzanne Treister. Mary Flanagan
discusses women in computer games in her “Hyperbodies, Hyperknowledge: Women in
Games, Women in Cyberpunk, and Strategies of Resistance.”
The fiction includes names one might expect: Octavia Butler, James Tiptree, Jr.,
Melissa Scott; old favorites worth revisiting such as Anne McCaffrey and C.L.
Moore; strong contemporary writers such as Candas Dorsey; and an exciting writer
new to me, Sue Thomas, though her excerpted novel, Correspondence, is
copyrighted 1991. I found a number of the critical essays rewarding, especially
Heather Hicks’s “Striking Cyborgs: Reworking the ‘Human’ in Marge Piercy’s
He, She, and It” and Lisa Nakamura’s “After/Images of Identity: Gender,
Technology, and Identity Politics.”
Even though this is not a perfect volume, it fills significant gaps, as the
editors’ introduction points out: “the absence of a volume that introduces
women’s cyberfiction and the absence of a volume that considers gender and
technology issues from fictional and theoretical viewpoints with and against
each other” (1). It acknowledges an important social gap as well “between those
who have access to technological resources and those who do not” (13). Finally,
the gaps the book fills are more important than those it doesn’t
The Illustrated Posthuman.
Bruce Grenville, ed.
The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture.
Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery and Arsenal Pulp Press, 2002. 280 pp. $27.95 hc.
In his preface to this catalog for an exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery,
curator Bruce Grenville notes that the 2002 show was over ten years in the
making, a time scale that may account for both the rewarding breadth of the art
in this volume and the dated quality of the essays. The catalog brings together
a wide range of art that invokes mechanical or mechanized bodies, from Eadweard
Muybridge’s nineteenth-century photographic studies of animal locomotion to work
by contemporary Japanese visual artists such as Takashi Murakami and Mariko
Mori, both influenced by the styles and subjects of sf comics and animation. The
provocative juxtaposition of these diverse images is the most stimulating part
of this book. In particular, there is a laudable amount of art from Japan, an
uncanny double for the West in any theorization of the robotic, but one that has
often been slighted or repressed in Western writing on the cyborg. Yet most of
the essays in this volume feel outdated, consisting either of familiar material
already published elsewhere (including Donna Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs”
and Freud’s “The Uncanny”), or applications of Haraway and Freud that strike one
as rather elementary at this point, given the critical distance the cyborg has
traveled in the years since the publication of Haraway’s call to arms.
Visually, this is a beautifully produced book, even down to the layout of the
text. There are over sixty photographs, many in color, all striking. The art
covers a wide range of media, including painting, sculpture, photography, film
and video, performance art, and industrial design. Readers familiar mainly with
fictional cyborgs may be interested in their art analogs, and even those who
know some of these visual traditions are likely to find something new here. The
essays that deal with the earlier material are among the most rewarding. Bruce
Grenville’s introduction includes a helpful survey that traces the cyborg
through several historical moments. And Allan Antilff provides a more focused
case study of the “egoist cyborg” in the art of Francis Picabia as well as in
the work of the British Futurists (the Vorticists). Antilff’s engrossing
examination of the relationship between technology and the avant-garde during
World War I makes this one of the most interesting essays in the book.
The reprinted texts include the essays by Haraway and Freud mentioned above,
as well as an excerpt from William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), an
English essay by Toshiya Ueno previously disseminated on the Internet, and a
1959 Scientific American article by Bruno Bettelheim, about a child
psychotherapy patient who believed himself to be a machine. These canonical
works are worth rereading, but they are all readily available elsewhere, and the
fact that they constitute well over half of the book’s text leaves one feeling
Freud’s inclusion here notwithstanding, the formulation of the uncanny that
relates most directly to the Harawayan cyborg is arguably a pre-Freudian one
elaborated by Ernst Jentsch, who suggested that the essence of the uncanny was
an uncertainty about whether something was alive or dead. Freud rejected
Jentsch’s characterization and instead located the uncanny in the return of
repressed fears or experiences. So a study of the uncanny cyborg that refers to
Freud must go beyond Haraway’s blurry line between human and machine and answer
the question of what it is that is repressed and recalled by the cyborg. None of
the essays attempts this meaningfully. Grenville suggests that what is repressed
is our fear of machines and the threat they constitute, but this idea hardly
seems to require Freud’s elaborate framework. The most promising theorization of
the uncanny is by Jean Randolph, whose brief epilogues to the previously
published essays gesture at a reconfiguration of the uncanny in terms of
Kleinian psychoanalysis. One wishes for a full-blown essay by Randolph to fill
out this intriguing idea.
Drawing on Haraway rather than Freud, an essay by Randy Lee Cutler follows
the well-trodden ground of much post-Harawayan criticism in arguing that the
texts at hand (in this case Lee Bul’s headless, limbless sculptures of
anime-like heroines, and Mariko Mori’s photographic performances of female
Japanese stereotypes) appropriate popular exploitative images of women from the
media and transform or parody them, but without totally escaping their original
disturbing logic. Since this kind of ambiguity is clear from the first moment we
look at these works, what one hopes for from an essay like this is some more
specific explanation of how that transformation or parody is undertaken, or some
conclusion about whether the images do or do not escape their exploitative
origins. But Cutler’s readings are frustratingly vague on these points.
Toshiya Ueno is one of the most important and interesting academic critics
writing on visual sf in Japan today, and one can only hope more (and more
recent) work by him will appear in English. The essay reprinted here,
“Japanimation and Techno-Orientalism,” is a 1996 formulation of Ueno’s
influential notion of Techno-Orientalism, adapted from David Morley and Kevin
Robins: not only is Japan a screen on which the West has projected its
technological fantasies, but Japan itself has internalized these
characterizations and now projects an image of itself that conforms with the
In this volume it is left to the other essays to elaborate and update Ueno’s
thesis. Ueno himself links his ideas to the uncanny via Kant’s sublime in a
short afterword—a tantalizing piece that ends too soon. Makiko Hara argues
rather predictably that Techno-Orientalism is a promising framework for
understanding Japanese artists like Takashi Murakami and Mariko Mori, who have
achieved an international reputation by appropriating images from Japanese pop
culture. But, as in Cutler’s essay, there are few conclusions beyond the works’
ambivalence. Masanori Oda takes things a step further in a more finely executed
piece that sheds light on the cartoonishly ominous and stereotypically Japanese
quality of works like Kenji Yanobe’s radiation suit sculptures and Shōmei
Tōmatsu’s photographs of “artificial life” (259).
Despite the book’s meticulous visual design, a number of inconsistencies in
the editing make it difficult to use. For example, most of the reprinted essays
are reproduced as photographic facsimiles of the original texts. These pages
have the original page numbers on them, rather than being consecutive with the
rest of the book’s pagination, but two other essays that quote Haraway’s
“Manifesto” do not even cite the version reprinted here.
The nostalgic desire to reproduce the original appearance of the texts
(including even the advertisements that surround Bettelheim’s article in
Scientific American) seems to reflect a rather uncyborg-like attachment to the
printed page, and that raises the paradox of representing some of this art in a
book at all. For example, Grenville notes that Murakami’s “Superflat” sculptures
are materializations in three dimensions of the 2D images of comics and
animation, but there is a further Baudrillardian irony in the fact that, when
those sculptures are photographed and reproduced in a volume like this, the
result is almost indistinguishable from the original comic.
All in all, for readers interested in visual dimensions of the cyborg across
a range of times and cultures, this book easily justifies its modest price.
However, those expecting rigorous theoretical engagement from the essays will be
—Christopher Bolton, University of California,
The Machine of a Soul.
N. Katherine Hayles.
Writing Machines. Cambridge, MA:
MIT, 2002. 144 pp. $45 hc. $17.95 pbk.
With its ridged plastic cover and trim shape, Writing Machines looks
ready to pop into a disk drive. With its manipulated page layouts, multiple
fonts, and magnifying-glass distortions, Writing Machines looks like a favorite
old book to which I’ve added clippings, underlines, and marginal notes. Both
statements are (or will be) true in a sense because: (a) as N. Katherine Hayles
tells us, the hardware we use both extends and interacts with our own
physiological information systems, and (b) I suspect that I will use this little
volume for a long time to study the interplay between text and materiality in
the production of meaning.
Readers have long been accustomed to—lulled or misled into—finding meaning in
the verbal constructs of a text, ignoring the material aspects of publication,
the physical forms of works, and their methods of transmission and reception;
the transition from children’s books to adult readings is precisely marked by
the disappearance of illustrations and the elevation of text as the sole source
of information. The examination of print text, after all, is almost always what
we mean by interpretation and criticism. Despite such discipline, says Hayles,
we never quite lose awareness of the physical circumstances of reading, and of
the way a book feels in the hand, so that we recognize almost instinctively that
“if books are seen only as immaterial verbal constructs, the rich potential of
this interplay is lost” (75). The extent of such loss is clear to anyone who has
handled, for instance, a holograph manuscript, a William Blake plate, or a pulp
comic. But aren’t these the exceptions, or the special topic of bibliographers?
Aren’t modern codices purposely designed to make interpretation physically
transparent, letting us get at the textual meaning more easily? We cannot see
how our reading processes affect meaning until we have a point of comparison
outside the book—until, with the rise of electronic text … now.
Each new technology writes back to its predecessors; computers help us see
what books do, just as moveable type highlighted not only the inferior functions
of manuscript books but the superior ones as well. Likewise, e-text, as Hayles
reminds us, does not merely take place on the monitor screen. It also involves
the reader in new types of physical activity: positioning the body, scrolling,
clicking, keyboarding; these efforts break the transparency of book reading,
reminding us that our understanding of text is conditioned by physical factors
of the book—its weight, paper quality, font, binding, even its smell—as well as
by the environmental circumstances of our reading. Further, despite dire
predictions, available technologies in postmodern society tend to be
accumulative rather than supersessive. Sales of fountain pens and fine notepaper
are booming even as PDAs proliferate, and e-text has not killed the book any
more than the Hammond B3 sounded the end of the grand piano.
Will this focus on interpenetration yield a new type of writing, a literal
science fiction or at least a technological one? Hayles responds by breaking the
formality of critical discourse and giving us “Kaye,” perhaps an
autobiographical cousin of Kafka’s “K.” and Coetzee’s “K,” who swings through
this stuff like a jazz dancer—reading, really, with her whole body, answering
the text with exclamation points and outbursts of joy that a respectable
academic, shall we say, might not allow herself. N. Katherine Hayles and Kaye
then lead us through the examination of three instructive examples: Talan
Memmott’s electronic Lexia to Perplexia (2000), Tom Phillips’s artist’s
book A Humument (3rd ed., 1997), and Mark Z. Danielewsky’s novel House
of Leaves (2000).
Lexia to Perplexia uses the physical characteristics of the computer
to construct or obscure meaning. Memmott “devises a wide range of NEOLOGISMS”
(50) based on computer interaction with existing language (I think it is the
perky Kaye who mimics readers’ notetaking practices by pre-supplying highlights
and underlines); these include such DOS-like transformations as changing “self”
into a bionic “cell.f” and “using * as a wild card, so *.fect could be read as
infect, defect, disinfect, etc.” (53). Elsewhere, onscreen text is deliberately
overwritten, emphasizing the temporality and fragility of what our over-reliance
on print forces us to assume to be fixed script. Thus, “the shift in materiality
that Lexia to Perplexia instantiates creates new connections between
screen and eye, cursor and hand, computer coding and natural language, space in
front of the screen and behind it” (63). Caveat lector.
The discovery of artist’s books is effectively Kaye’s, so the discussion of
A Humument is more effusive than that of Lexia to Perplexia.
Phillips’s work begins with a mediocre nineteenth-century novel, purchased
cheaply and perhaps at random, which he overpainted so that only a few words per
page remain visible, connected into “rivers” of text by the intervening blank
spaces between words and lines. A narrative of sorts emerges, and some
characters are developed within the limitations of available letter
combinations, such as the protagonist Toge whose name can appear only on pages
containing the words “together” or “altogether” (88). The main effect of
Phillips’s intervention, however, is not the accidental possibility that a
connected story will emerge, but the continuing high awareness that textual
ontology is a lesser, and perhaps reductive, function of the larger
interpenetrations among objective material, the artist’s consciousness, and the
reader’s active participation.
House of Leaves is pure text, or texts—as if instantiating all the
tendencies of readers to move through texts with running commentaries of their
own, with marginalia and footnotes, with asides and interruptions. A main
narrative is presented (a found manuscript, a device going back to the
seventeenth century); the finder backs this with his comments, sidebars, and
autobiography; a further editor adds more notes, all of which are kept separate
through font shifts and page layout. The reader thus follows several paths at
once, keeping track of a Mysterious House story (how old is that?) which itself
involves several narrative layers held in check by crosscutting and
backtracking. “Consequently,” says Kaye, and she’s not kidding, “the story’s
architecture is envisioned not so much as a sequential narrative as alternative
paths within the same immense labyrinth of a fictional spacetime that is also
and simultaneously a rat’s nest of inscription and surfaces that prove to be as
resistant to logical ordering as the House is to coherent mapping” (115-116). By
this time, opacity has totally replaced transparency, so that, again, our most
consistent awareness is of the activity—the positioning, the contingency, the
struggle—of the reading process itself.
Kaye’s response to one textual project could well characterize Hayles’s
volume as a whole: “Cagey, she thought, very cagey. Not to mention a stunning
interrogation of the assumptions that underlie our acts of reading and writing”
(104). Hayles, who has long written about and appreciated science fiction,
demonstrates here that the “stunning” is triggered not only by what is said but
in the presentation of the vision. As we move through Writing Machines,
watching Kaye and N. Katherine and ourselves interacting, we may be carried back
to those earliest encounters with hybrid texts, hypertexts—those children’s
picture-and-text books—and remember that what started us off in the first place
was the expansiveness and generosity of story, the wonder and stunning joy of
throwing ourselves completely into it.
—John Scheckter, Long Island University
Roz Kaveney, ed. Reading the Vampire Slayer: An Unofficial Critical
Companion to Buffy and Angel. New
York: St. Martin’s/Palgrave, 2002. 265 pp. $14.95 pbk.
Rhonda Wilcox and David Lavery.
Fighting the Forces: What’s At Stake in Buffy the Vampire
Slayer. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001. xvi + 290 pp.
The existence of these two books (a third, Red Noise, was published by
Duke University Press in late 2002) demonstrates that Buffy the Vampire
Slayer (including Angel and other spinoffs) has attracted as much
commentary as just any other TV show in living memory. Lavery has edited several
anthologies on television shows, including two volumes devoted to Twin Peaks
(to one of which this reviewer contributed), and single books on The X-Files,
The Sopranos, and, forthcoming, Seinfeld. Lavery and Wilcox also
co-edit Slayage (www.slayage.tv), an
online journal of Buffy studies. Kaveney helped edit John Clute and John Grant’s
excellent Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), well-known to readers of SFS.
Kaveney’s anthology is more British in flavor, with a tinge of Birmingham
cultural studies and feminism, while Wilcox and Lavery’s has slightly more the
feel of an American academic symposium, but there is such cross-pollination
among contributors that these distinctions are permeable. Both books include
people working outside academia as well as within it, without substantial
difference in tone. The two volumes very much share a similar orientation. They
are concerned both to study and to enjoy Buffy.
These volumes show how criticism of television has changed during the past
decade. There is none of the old postmodern fustiness, the sense of training
jargon-filled cannons upon minnows. Part of this is because the shows themselves
have changed. Buffy is full of knowing self-reference and is thus
potentially as aware of criticism as criticism is of Buffy. Its uncanny
mixture of pushing-the-envelope theme and style and an almost jarringly
conventional Sunnydale environment makes it hard for the critic to condescend to
the show or to unearth “hidden” meaning within it. This allows the most rigorous
theoretical adept to read the show in a mode of immanent critique endogenous to
the Buffyverse. The contributors are also fans of the show, and they feel no
need to code-switch constantly.
The promise of the Lavery/Wilcox pun on “what’s at stake” is fulfilled in
both books. Both collections have their slash fiction essay. Slash fiction, for
the uninitiated, is amateur speculative fan-fiction concerning characters from a
work having sexual relationships that do not actually occur in the original
product. It is a lively underground literature. Both books consider other
aspects of fan activity on the Internet, and the way fan feedback constitutes
the show’s meaning and is even “actively acknowledged” (Justine Larbalestier in
Lavery, 228) by the scripts themselves. Both books have feminist and queer
studies essays. Finally, both contain episode guides, cast lists, and the sort
of encyclopedic background also available in the many purely fan-oriented
Buffy books (the Watcher’s Guides, and script books, as well as the
novelizations, some of which, especially those by Nancy Holder, are quite good).
Both will appeal to the more intellectual of the show’s core teenage
constituency, helping empower them with respect to the often crypto-vampiric
institution of academia.
Nearly every essay the reader wants is in these two collections. Boyd
Tonkin’s essay on Buffy’s Southern California setting in Kaveny’s
collection is intriguing as Tonkin, writing from England, inevitably relies on
news headlines plus postmodern-standard sources. But this very distance gives
his analysis perspective. Anne Millard Daugherty, in Kaveny’s book, explores how
Buffy Summers, as played by Sarah Michelle Geller, is not just a “prissy
heroine” but an “icon for female representation” (Kaveney 164). Readers of
SFS may well remember Donald Keller’s reviews for The New York Review of
Science Fiction, and thus will appreciate his essay on spiritual—and
demonic—polarities in the Lavery book. Farah Mendelson’s essay in the same book
is enlightening on the interactions of the major female characters, while
Gregory Erickson’s essay, in Kaveney, on religion and Buffy, though a tad too
pluralistic, is nonetheless provocative.
One topic missing from both books is the canonicity of Buffy within
1990s media—particularly with the WB as a “fifth network” and the way it came to
be seen as the “white” channel (Buffy, Felicity, Dawson’s Creek ), while
its coeval “sixth” rival, UPN, was the “black” channel (Moesha, The Parkers,
Malcolm & Eddie). Buffy’s shift to UPN in fall 2001, seen as a kind of
elegiac crux by several of the contributors, provides an ironic coda to this
distinction. Or it could be said that, in comparison to the older networks, both
WB and UPN have been more multiracial in casting, so Buffy has operated
within a grid of heterogeneity. For all its popularity, Buffy is the consummate
example of niche marketing, since its aggregate ratings have never been large.
(The third book, Red Noise, as yet unseen, does look likely to cover
these issues.) Also, why was the 1992 film of Buffy so universally
panned, while the 1997-and-after TV series is acclaimed? It surely cannot be
only the quality of the content that differs.
Lavery observes that “it is possible to be a devout West Winger and not have
heard of Aaron Sorkin, or to be a Sopranos regular and be oblivious to
David Chase” (Lavery 252). But Joss Whedon’s authorship of Buffy and
offspring, the sense that the shows depend on his creative power and his ability
to “change the pattern completely” (Lavery 104), is inescapable. This goes
against the grain of what has been happening in literary studies for the past
sixty years. From the Intentional Fallacy to the Death of the Author to the
horizon of expectations, authorial presence has nearly vanished. Lavery hints
that media studies started out with an acknowledgement of collectivity, and thus
can then discover an extraordinarily creative mind like Whedon’s. The “flashy,
operatic, witty, inventive” (Kaveney 33) genius of Whedon, even as merely “first
among equals” (32) among the writers and producers of the show, can be talked
about now in a way that the genius of a traditional literary writer might not.
This is one of the many pleasurable paradoxes to be found in these first fruits
of Buffy criticism.
—Nicholas Birns, New School University
Rob Kitchin and James Kneale, eds.
Lost in Space: Geographies of Science Fiction.New York: Continuum, 2002. xii + 211 pp. $99.95 hc; $29.95 pbk.
I must begin with an acknowledgment of an acknowledgment: James Kneale thanks
me for helping him in the early part of his studies into science fiction. After
that, I hope that I do not finish reading the volume to which the
acknowledgments are attached with a sense of it all being my fault. We were
callow young academics, just started on PhDs, when we met at a weekend in 1991
devoted to the works of Philip K. Dick, and we started to correspond through
this new-fangled (to us) email thing. Just over a year later, we organized a
conference together, pretty well entirely by email (although my account crashed
at the crucial point, suddenly putting more distance between us). But, over the
years, life and the jobs lottery intervened, so, aside from sporadic
are-you-still-alive? correspondence, a long silence has fallen on the
Even back then we were aware of the potential for the interdisciplinary nature
of science fiction studies—after all, Kneale was doing his PhD in a department
of geography at University College London—and, since then, geography has indeed
embraced law, medicine, management theory, and so on. Kneale’s own work involved
ethnographic research into readers of science fiction, especially cyberpunk, the
first fruits of which appeared as an article called “Lost in Space: Impossible
Geographies” in Derek Littlewood and Peter Stockwell’s collection
Impossibility Fiction: Alternativity—Extrapolation —Speculation (Rodopi,
1996), in which, by reference to conversations with a focus group, he argued
that the chaotic space of William Gibson’s sprawl could be tamed by a rational
reading strategy on the part of the reader.
It is the cyberpunk tradition that much of this volume concentrates on—the
postcyberpunk of Neal Stephenson, the feminist cyberpunk of Marge Piercy’s
He, She, and It (1991), and one of the precursors to cyberpunk, J.G.
Ballard. Kim Stanley Robinson is here in his own right, of course, but also
because he was situated along with a number of other American sf writers as
antithetical to cyberpunk. Nor is film ignored—there are three very useful
chapters on the mode. Blade Runner (1982) predictably gains some
attention, but, fittingly, so does Dark City (1998). In some ways, the
volume reads as if sf began in the mid-1980s, as there is little sustained
discussion of texts prior to this date, aside from the chapters on alternate
histories and on Ballard. The book is rounded out with chapters on science: the
science-fictional geography of the popular-science book and the use of the
Frankenstein paradigm in the GM foods debate.
Rob Kitchin and James Kneale’s starting point for their introduction is Gibson,
along with theorists Rosemary Jackson and Carl Malmgren, plus Tzvetan Todorov
(the ghost at the feast of Kneale’s earlier chapter in Impossibility Fiction,
presumably eased out due to a limited word count), among others. It might be
assumed then that this is going to be science fiction explained to geographers,
rather than geography explained to science fiction scholars. There is a section
in Kitchin and Kneale’s introduction entitled “What is Science Fiction?”, but
not an equivalent “What is Geography?”, which has clearly come a long way since
we had to learn capital cities and color in rainfall maps. The person at the
next desk to Kneale in the early 1990s was doing a PhD on S/M subculture in
London pubs, and this seemed typical of the department; there was a corner of
the office given over to people studying sand and climate, physical geographers,
but no one seemed to speak to them. The section in the introduction here headed
“Textual Geographies” traces geography’s cultural turn, discussing how the
discipline has used literature, film, and other texts as subjects for study, and
as generators of imaginary spaces that can be cognitively mapped. But this
apparent redefinition of geography is not explained in as much depth as is
science fiction. In a sense that is the job of the whole book.
Given the geographical theme, it is perhaps odd to find that the collection
begins with Barney Warf’s essay on alternate history, here more grammatically
styled alternative history or (following Niall Ferguson) counterfactual history,
“The Way it Wasn’t: Alternative Histories, Contingent Geographies.” For those of
us with traditional notions of geography, there are at least a number of maps —a
version of an Islamic empire encompassing the Mediterranean, and a larger United
States. The point is rightly made that political geography is dependent on
history—the choice of this parallel or that river as a boundary is purely
arbitrary, and culturally constructed. Warf sees this view as offering a break
from teleology that normalizes the present, as well as a notion that allows for
an optimism about future options.
In some ways Michael Longan and Tim Oakes’s “Geography’s Conquest of History
in The Diamond Age” begins from an opposite perspective. In disentangling
Stephenson’s use of China and Chinese history in his novel, they argue that
Stephenson has a “tendency throughout the novel to reaffirm the deep structure
of Chinese culture. Cultural China becomes an inescapable feature of a broader
civilizational discourse that underlies The Diamond Age” (54). On the one
hand, there is Occidental subjectivity, which has come to be seen as contested
in the post-Enlightenment period, with a suggestion that this makes it easier to
deal with cultural, social, or technological change; on the other, there is the
Oriental consciousness (represented here by the Chinese), which is characterized
by stagnation and resistance to change, as well as by a lack of individual
identity. The authors acknowledge but do not unpick the Orientalism of this
position: it would perhaps have been more politically useful to know how much
the failure of the impossible geography to develop within science fiction is an
ideological blindspot in Stephenson’s writing or a more literal truth about
China, the real place. If the former, then it needs to be bracketed together
with the fear of the Asiatic hordes in Snow Crash (1992) and the politics
of the Pacific Rim through the 1990s.
Michelle Kendrick’s “Space, Technology and Neal Stephenson’s Science Fiction”
widens out Stephenson’s geography to take in both novels, but presumably does
not know about The Big U (1984), as she describes Snow Crash as a
second novel (Zodiac  being the actual second). I say “widen,” but
it points the way towards an exploration of inner geography that characterizes
much of the rest of the book. Kendrick notes that the contemporary body has
become a gendered space to be explored and mapped—in part through the Human
Genome Project, which offered us a first draft of the human body. Such a code
interacts fictionally with the codes that describe the Metaverse of Snow
Crash, and with various kinds of virus (micro-organism, computer, and
mimetic) invading the flesh. Perceptively, she sees Hiro Protagonist as lacking
any “of the postmodern angst that marked earlier cyber-cowboys, such as Gibson’s
Case” (60). The Metaverse becomes a simulation of the real world, and thus
presumably shares the characteristic of being the masculinized space of risk
that Kneale noted in his 1996 chapter. Kendrick devotes an endnote to how Y.T.
disrupts gender stereotypes, but concludes that “Stephenson ultimately turns his
gender narratives back to traditional roles—perhaps ironically, but always
predictably” (72). Technology remains a threat, and technology remains gendered.
Barbara J. Morehouse explores notions of gendered technology via Haraway’s
cyborg in her chapter, “Geographies of Power and Social Relations in Marge
Piercy’s He, She, and It.”
Jonathan S. Taylor’s “The Subjectivity of the Near Future: Geographical
Imaginings in the Work of J.G. Ballard” is one of the more ambitious literary
chapters, in that it allows itself to range across an author’s entire work. If
Ballard is the novelist of inner space, then he perfectly fits the sort of
geography being explored here. Taylor predictably but sensibly brackets together
the disaster novels of the 1960s, the urban disaster trilogy of the 1970s, and
then, more problematically, Vermilion Sands (1971), Cocaine Nights
(1996), and to some extent, Rushing to Paradise (1994), which explore the
leisured landscapes of the future. This modeling of course leaves The
Atrocity Exhibition (1970), The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) (a
work on the edge of being suburban and potentially belonging in this group),
Hello America (1981), and the two semi-autobiographical novels, Empire of
the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991), to one side, as well
as Ballard’s clearest allegory of mapping personal onto actual geography, The
Day of Creation (1987). Nevertheless, Taylor locates Ballard as a writer
with surrealist aspirations, not only in terms of his imagery, but also in the
way that “Ballard’s mission is to offer us alternative views of what our world
truly looks like underneath the veneer of our conventional understandings of it;
what it could look like should the future direct us along particular
trajectories; and at times what he hopes it will look like” (102). As with
Stephenson, I think there are levels of irony in Ballard to be taken account of,
and perhaps Taylor takes Ballard too much at his own word. Nevertheless, his
conclusion that Ballard’s works are demonstrative rather than didactic is sound.
Stuart C. Aitken’s “Tuning the Self: City Space and SF Horror Movies” centers
on Dark City as the most interesting of the fake urban environment films
of the late 1990s. (Both Dark City and The Matrix use Australian
spaces to stand in for American cities, as if the Australian urban space is not
quite real.) A publicity still from Dark City on the first page of this
chapter, of a couple (presumably Murdock and his “wife” sitting on a bench, with
a city visible across the water) point us towards a non-sf text, Manhattan
(1979), but the picture is not explored. Nevertheless, this is a crucial chapter
for bringing together the collection’s themes: the dialectic between the
landscape and the individual; the mapping of personal, bodily space; and the
genderedness of space. The parallel spaces of the body and of the city can be
read by means of psychoanalysis, albeit at the risk of crude readings in which
“monuments and monumental buildings present and re-present the phallus” (115).
Dark City, the Alien sequence, Blade Runner, Metropolis
(1926), and others can be read in terms of psychosexual spaces. Aitken draws
upon Steve Pile’s work in The Body and the City (1996) to argue that the
space of the city is not so much phallic as facial (presumably as in the face of
a die). However, this is a “shift from one masculine space to another” (116), as
the city is a capitalized space under the control of a father-like manipulator
of the flow of capital. The skylines of Manhattan and Los Angeles become iconic
faces of their respective cities, idealized into postcards, contrasted with
postcards of other, more idyllic, scenes of elsewhere: the colony worlds in
Blade Runner, Shell Beach in Dark City. Such views offer the
possibility of the establishment of “loving, heterosexual relations” (119)
elsewhere, in a failed attempt to escape the law of the father: “in gaining the
country/seaside/nature, space is once more produced under the tyranny of three
intersecting lines of power that begin with masculinity and align with the
bourgeois family and capitalism” (122).
For me, Marcus A. Doel and David B. Clarke’s “An Invention Without a Future,
A Solution Without a Problem: Motor Pirates, Time Machines and Drunkenness on
the Screen” is the best chapter, certainly the most interesting, in the entire
volume, drawing on early film magazines, early films, and even patent
applications. It might be argued that film between 1895 and about 1906 is itself
science fiction. Actual science fiction is obviously thin on the ground—Méliès’s
works, of course, including A Voyage to the Moon (1902), but also Arthur
Melbourne-Cooper’s Motor Pirates (1906), briefly discussed here. The
mechanics and mental impact of film are science fictional irrespective of
content. Films, even at their most basic, can distort time, space, and
causality, all aspects of interest to geographers. Film can be speeded up or
slowed down, and even shown in reverse.
It is a happy coincidence that the publication of H.G. Wells’s The Time
Machine and the first screenings by the Lumière brothers happened in 1895,
and The Time Machine inspired R.W. Paul to propose an entertainment that
would include moving photographs. Doel and Clarke note that The Time Machine
is based on The Chronic Argonauts, published in 1888, the year that Louis
Le Prince may have made a film in Leeds, before becoming another disappearing
scientist (like Wells’s own Time Traveller). They appear not to know about
Leeds-based textile magnate and libertarian Wordsworth Donisthorpe, who may have
filmed Trafalgar Square in about 1890 or 1891, who envisaged traveling back in
time through film, and who shared a publisher with Wells.
Tom Gunning has characterized the films of this period as forming a “cinema
of attractions,” dividing the world up into a series of discrete
attractions—like the rides or sideshows at a fairground, which provide thrills
for an alienated metropolitan audience. In the interplay between reality and
illusion, the viewer suffers the pleasurable thrill of the uncanny. The Hale’s
Tours incorporated this into an amusement ride, and Paul’s Time Machine would
have also incorporated such technology. Such geographies are very much tied to
the site of the body.
It is difficult ever to be entirely pleased by interdisciplinary work. From
the perspective of my understanding of literary theory (although I only think of
written sf as literature on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays), I might feel that
one or two of the writers are too confident about saying what the author means,
while I probably do not quite catch the drift of points that must be obvious to
geographers. From my own experience of the interdisciplinary, it is easy to be
divided by what you have assumed to be a common language, but that is not to say
we should not make such attempts to communicate.
There are a small number of factual errors (for example, Haraway could not
discuss Robocop  in her “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” since the film
postdates it), but we are all guilty of this. A couple of the publishers given
in the bibliography are wrong (for example, The Man in the High Castle
 was not originally Bantam, nor was Do Androids Dream of Electric
Sheep?  initially published by Ballantine), and in a number of cases
I’d like the parenthetical references to give page numbers as well. But this is
all carping, which does not detract from the arguments of the book. Indeed, I
found myself in agreement with much of the book; I did not find myself
disagreeing, but rather disputing, which I think is more helpful. This is a book
to open up debate, rather than the last word on the subject.
—Andrew M. Butler, Buckinghamshire Chilterns
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