Science Fiction Studies

#95 = Volume 32, Part 1 = March 2005

Fantastic But Not Altogether Utopian.

Martha Bartter, ed. The Utopian Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Twentieth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy 105. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004. 149 pp. $64.95 hc.

The conference paper is a quirky creature, its half-life unpredictable. At its best, it is short, pithy, and witty, with easy-to-understand examples that clarify two or three main points. At its worst, it is written hastily, its argument or context hard to grasp, a formless entity designed to get the author a trip to Florida. Editing a collection of conference papers, then, is a challenge. So is editing a collection of papers on utopia, a famously fuzzy topic. The Utopian Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Twentieth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts does not fully succeed in meeting these two challenges, but it nevertheless contains many interesting essays worth reading.

As Thomas J. Morrissey’s witty and well-written introduction shows, we are living in times when consideration of utopia and dystopia comes naturally, and is essential. Human pride threatens our potential for utopia. Morrissey writes, “While individuals are being disempowered, humans as a species are more powerful and dangerous than at any other moment in history” (9). This gap between the individual and the group underlies most of the discussions of utopia/ dystopia in this volume. As Roger C. Schlobin concludes his essay “Dark Shadows and Bright Lights: Generators and Maintainers of Utopias and Dystopias,” “utopias will always celebrate the power of the individual will, and dystopias will negate it” (15).

The strength of the collection of 14 essays (plus the introduction) lies in the range of primary sources discussed. Here we have essays with utopias/ dystopias set in locales from Africa to Mars. The range of sf and fantasy is impressive: high fantasy, cyberpunk, drama, classic sf, among other forms. According to the introduction, the papers were organized into five categories: “(1) the why and where of utopia, (2) the reactions to hegemonic mechanization, (3) the postcolonial Other in utopia, (4) the question of hope, and (5) thinking and doing utopia” (5). The best sections are the first three.

Schlobin’s essay and “Mapping Utopia: Spatial and Temporal Sites of Meaning” by John C. Hawley, in the first section, provide a solid background for the topic of utopia. The longest section, on anti-mechanization, is generally strong. Particularly welcome is an examination of utopia in drama, an oft-ignored genre, as Jeanne Beckwith gives us in her lively essay, “David Mamet’s The Water Engine: The Utopian Ideal as Social Control.” Donald E. Morse’s essay, “We Are Marching to Utopia: Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano,” is a clear and interesting take on the problems created when machines become the be-all-and-end-all. Vonnegut’s question “What are people for?” (29) is at the root of all the essays dealing with mechanization. Carl Swidorski carefully examines the socialist roots of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy: the utopian vision of Mars reflects that of socialist movements and historical materialism on Earth. Dennis M. Weiss’s essay on William Gibson’s cyberpunk universe explores the rootlessness of modern life and Gibson’s ambivalence about technology’s role in utopia. In the third section, looking at utopia and home from a postcolonialist perspective is fruitful in Lynn F. Williams and Martha Bartter’s “You Can’t Go Home Again: Kirinyaga by Mike Resnick.” They demonstrate a conundrum of utopia: “if it is perfect, it should not change, yet without change it becomes rigid, uncreative, and ultimately dystopian” (97).

The collection suffers from a lack of utopian scholarship. Although the first three essays do provide a solid utopian grounding, most of the essays do not follow their example. There is a wealth of utopian thought out there: the Society for Utopian Studies has its own journal, and utopian thinkers abound. Most of the essays, however, do not refer to any works about utopia at all, or mention them only briefly. Grounding their perceptive comments about specific works in the general theory of thinkers such as Ernst Bloch, Ruth Levitas, and Lyman Tower Sargent would have given writers more authority and depth in their discussions. The collection missed an opportunity to bring together two separate schools of scholarship: sf/fantasy and utopia. Cross-fertilization would have made the essays richer.

Many of the writers in this volume do not even define utopia for their own purposes, and as there are various ways of defining utopia/dystopia, they can be misunderstood. It should not be up to the reader to try to figure out what makes an essay part of the utopian discourse. Two essays avoid the discourse altogether: “Women and Mad Science: Women as Witnesses to the Scientific Re-creation of Humanity” by Cherilyn Lacy is a terrific essay that ties Frankenstein to The X-Files in a fascinating way, but it does not seem to belong in a utopian collection; “News from Somewhere: A Case for Romance-Tradition Fantasy’s Reformist Poetic” by Kelly Searsmith likewise is interesting, but deals with fantasy and subversion, not with utopia.

Sharper editing would have strengthened and unified the collection. Authors should have been encouraged (although that can be difficult) to attend more to utopian/dystopian criticism and to polish their work. The essays could have been more effectively arranged: the last two groupings, the “question of hope” and “thinking and doing utopia” sections, are vague. The two essays on Sheri S. Tepper’s fiction seem to go together naturally as feminist papers, but they are separated. On a micro level, the editor should have cleared up messy contexts, underdeveloped one-or-two-sentence paragraphs, and missing quotation marks. Seeing the apostrophe used to make a plural, as in “human’s,” is a dystopian sight.

In all, The Utopian Fantastic is weighted more toward the fantastic than the utopian, but reading it will provoke thought, the utopian aim of all scholars.

—Elaine Ostry, SUNY-Plattsburgh

Shouting Loudest.

Wheeler Winston Dixon. Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema. London: Wallflower Press, 2003. xiii + 169 pp. 12.99 pbk.

The opening sentence of Visions of the Apocalypse makes evident the themes and tone of what is to follow: “This is a book about the end of cinema, the end of the world, and the end of civilization as we know it” (1). Throughout the book’s introduction, three chapters, and conclusion (entitled “Coda”), Dixon makes similar statements of epoch-defining significance. These are usually directed at the commercial machinations of the culture industry: “Only death can presage resurrection. Only death ensures immortality. Only death permits endless repackaging” (5). These are Dixon’s rhetorical tools as he attempts to situate contemporary Hollywood filmmaking in the context of America’s post-9/11 political climate, and to think through this current moment of cultural crisis in relation to earlier cinematic representations of the apocalypse. Visions of the Apocalypse is as scornful of the rapacious will-to-profit exemplified by twenty-first-century multimedia conglomerates as it is of the deceptions practiced by America’s political leaders, and it understands the two as interpenetrating each other.

In Chapter One, “Freedom from Choice,” Dixon surveys the restrictive economic matrix in which cinematic production and distribution is caught, and laments the difficulty of finding any but the most obvious (and obviously profitable) cinematic product.

Chapter Two, “Invasion USA,” considers the patriotism and self-justification of American militarism shown by Hollywood cinema in the wake of 11 September 2001 in films such as Black Hawk Down (2001) and We Were Soldiers (2002). A series of parallels is established between the last three years of American cinema and its historical precedents, particularly Hollywood after Pearl Harbor, and film production in the era of McCarthyism. Dixon also muses upon the films and computer games whose destruction of New York assumes portentous significance in light of 9/11, and the cultural products that scrambled to make use of the attack upon the World Trade Center. Dixon ranges across Al-Jazeera reportage, Internet rumors, Chinese DVD pirates, music companies, and film production as he traces the warning signs of a permanent War on Terrorism in which Hollywood cinema is pressed into the service of America’s culture of surveillance.

The third chapter begins with another breathless statement: “Time is running out. I can feel it” (97). Initially, Dixon seems most concerned about time “running out” for what was once called “high art”; he laments the incursion of Disney into Broadway and the intrusion of Oprah’s Book Club into the ecology of publishing. He then mourns the commercialization of the French film industry, although Visions of the Apocalypse celebrates the remaining practitioners who continue to work against the grain of the “mainstream cinema marketplace” (107). Dixon contrasts the low-budget filmmaking of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood to the meager opportunities available to independent productions in the twenty-first century. Producers such as Robert L. Lippert and Val Lewton, by accepting “strict budget and scheduling requirements” (123), were permitted a great deal of autonomy by their studios, whereas “commercially marginal” (122) films are now held in contempt by executives. Dixon draws similarities between the dominant tendencies of contemporary cinema and video games: both share an “absence of characterization” and a “reliance on violence and weaponry at the expense of any human element” (124). Dixon indicts “the social landscape of contemporary America” (129), with its culture of guns and death, for fostering the violence it simulates on computer and cinema screens.

Although Chapter Three condemns President George W. Bush’s “policy of perpetual alarmism” (129), the book’s “Coda” reproduces the anxiety of the national security state: “Every nation that wants nuclear capability can purchase it, either through legitimate channels or on the black market.... [E]veryone is at risk” (131). Dixon jumps from theme to theme in a disjointed finale. Was the Nazi scientist Werner Heisenberg deliberately sabotaging his own research into the German atomic bomb? Was the original Woodstock music festival really the symbolic core of 1960s freedom and liberation? Dixon seems to suggest otherwise, and argues that the cinema and its audiences have always been in thrall to total destruction: “we have always been playing with disaster” (132). Visions of the Apocalypse cites innumerable productions from around the world and since the 1930s to show there are few “genocidal dreams” that the technology of cinema is not willing to put on screen. The book ends by offering the specter of fear as a motivating force behind the implicit contract between cinema and audiences, “trying to visualize our perfect death” (143). The rhetorical question “What are we afraid of?” is posed: “The answer is simple. When we dream of the certainty and inevitability of the apocalypse, we are afraid of life itself” (143).

Shining through Visions of the Apocalypse is Dixon’s profound appreciation of the capabilities of cinema, seen most memorably in a brief discussion of the performance of Christopher Lee’s eyes. The book’s intellectual journey is stunning in its sweep of texts and media, but this is also one of its failings. The breadth of research creates many argumentative detours; these do not always lead convincingly back to the book’s thesis, nor are they always sufficiently woven into the fabric of the study as a whole. It is difficult to envisage which readers will be surprised by Dixon’s “revelations,” as it is hardly novel to draw attention to the seriousness of the international situation or the apocalyptic banality of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking. “Think the magazine in your hands is the product of an independent vision?”(34). Who does? Readers are unlikely to be so naïve that Dixon’s “Guess again” is necessary (34).

Dixon’s achievement is in assembling and wielding many diverse sources, and in showing the institutional apparatus that has led the cinema to repeat so often its devastated vistas. The attempts at understanding Hollywood’s visions of the apocalypse psychologically, sociologically, or philosophically are not pursued with enough rigor or critical insight to be of equal interest. Unfortunately, Visions of the Apocalypse is prone to the tendency it decries in Hollywood filmmaking, the deployment of the spectacular at the expense of the substantial. The book’s grand statements regularly obscure any nuances, the presence of which might have alleviated its overbearing apocalyptic tone. The polemical voice of Visions of the Apocalypse is unsuited to moments of subtlety, especially when considering something as complex as the consumers of entertainment conglomerates: “an increasingly bored and restless public, unsure of where their next meal is coming from, unable to escape the cycle of grinding poverty that supports these media giants” (15). As part of his interrogation of the commercial impetus dominating filmmaking, Dixon quotes the president of marketing at Universal Pictures, for whom the biggest challenge of promoting films is “being able to shout loud enough” (32). Dixon seems to conduct his critique of the industry by attempting to shout louder still.

—Paul Williams, University of Exeter

The Unique Voice of Brazilian Science Fiction.

Elizabeth M. Ginway. Brazilian Science Fiction: Cultural Myths and Nationhood in the Land of the Future. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2004. 288 pp. $50.00 hc.

The author, an associate professor of Portuguese and Brazilian literature at the University of Florida, gives us a historico-cultural-sociological interpretation of the development of science fiction in Brazil between 1960 and 2001. The author’s central premise is that the forms and emphases that Brazilian science fiction has taken are colored by the nation’s own history—both older and recent—and its relationships with “first world” countries.

One central problem for the author is the scarcity of primary texts. In the first place, since publication runs in Brazil are limited due to the relatively small reading public, it is difficult to find many texts and very few of them have been translated. In the second place, a taste for science fiction has been limited to only a portion of the already small audience. Some of the early texts were even circulated primarily in mimeographed copies. Therefore, the author gives fairly extensive summaries of the stories and novels—mostly the former—which she uses for analysis. Thus, she makes these works more accessible to an English-speaking audience, and also to those Brazilians who know English but have not encountered these texts.

Ginway uses certain Brazilian national myths as a point of departure: Brazil as a tropical paradise, Brazil as a racially blind democracy, Brazilians as a sensual and docile people, and Brazil as a country with a perennial potential for national greatness. While there is a kernel of truth in all myths, it is a flawed truth in all these cases. The country is not a fertile paradise; it has its own brand of racial prejudice along with enormous differences in socioeconomic levels; the images of sensuality and docility are aimed at least in part at the tourist market; and the country has been referred to as the “land of the future” for more than a century. One might recall the speculative, tongue-in-cheek name for the country invented by Brazilian economist Edmar Bacha in 1974: “Belíndia.” This very graphic term reflects the fact that a relatively small proportion of the country has a standard of living equivalent to that of Belgium, while other much larger parts are more like impoverished areas of India.

The author divides the development of recent Brazilian science fiction into three phases. The first of these emerged in the 1960s, highly influenced by Anglo-American science fiction but already putting its own national spin on classic themes such as space travel, aliens, and robots. Brazil was often portrayed symbolically as submissive and stereotypically feminine, relatively helpless in the face of the technological superiority of other countries or of aliens. The second phase corresponded more or less with the 1970s, and featured a strong dystopian and anti-technological element in reaction to the rapid industrialization pushed by the 1964-85 military government. As a result, ecological themes also became more prominent. The third is a present-day, post-dictatorship phase, a more complex period which, in addition to the classic themes, features a more tolerant attitude toward technology but still concerns itself with Brazil’s reaction to foreign influences and globalization. There is more hard science fiction, the appearance of Brazil-oriented alternate history, a blurring of traditional gender roles, and the country’s own version of cyperpunk (which has been dubbed “tupinipunk”—a play on the name of the tupiniquim indigenous group). Most of the book is comprised of the analysis of these three periods, with extensive discussion of how science fiction in Brazil has developed in a way different from that of other countries, notably the United States, reflecting uniquely Brazilian emphases and attitudes.

In the author’s synopses of the Brazilian novels and short stories, the many brief quotations from the works and their titles are unfailingly given in both Portuguese and English. It is particularly gratifying to see the care which has been taken to reproduce the Portuguese texts accurately, including the diacritical system which will not be familiar to many readers. In other studies it is not uncommon to see less attention paid to the accuracy of the texts’ original language. In a few cases one might quibble slightly with the translations of individual words: funcionário (106) might be better rendered as “bureaucrat” than “functionary”; Secretária (110) as “Ministry,” “Department,” or even “Secretariat” than “Secretary.”

Ginway has produced a very readable, accessible, and thorough synthesis of Brazilian science fiction in the 40-year period from 1960 to 2001, a period of increasing sophistication and development of its own uniquely Brazilian voice. She states clearly that she does not necessarily see her book as a history of recent science fiction in Brazil, but it is not difficult to read her study in that particular way. She shows how the genre has diverged from the Anglo-American model which was its initial inspiration, and has taken some new paths based on the Brazilian world-view. Readers familiar or not with the country’s socio-cultural milieu can also learn a great deal about recent trends in Brazilian society and better understand this very complex nation. This sort of analysis might well be used as a model for studying the science fiction produced by other developing countries.

—Jim Rambo, DePauw University

Rich in Information, Poor in Order

Timothy Morton, ed. A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.New York: Routledge, 2002. 216 pp. $25.95 pbk.

The introduction to A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein lays out a clearly defined mission statement from the very start: “This book is designed to help the undergraduate student and advanced high-school student find their way around the text of Shelley’s great novel, its historical and cultural context, and criticism on it” (1) as well as “to give a completely digested, or at least a strongly oriented, view” of Shelley’s text (3). The editor, Timothy Morton (who has also edited Shelley and the Revolution of Taste [Cambridge UP 1995] and Radical Food [Routledge 2000]), declares his hope that, “if this is the first time you have looked into Frankenstein, you will find this a helpful and easy volume to use as a reference tool alongside a proper complete text” (1), classifying the book in no uncertain terms as a means for new readers to gain access to social, cultural, interpretive, and critical discourses through a broad spectrum of textual offerings. Through a detailed compilation of explanatory narratives, essays, letters and other contemporary documents, reviews, photographs, excerpts from critical texts, abstracts, and bibliographies all pertaining to Mary Shelley’s influential novel, Morton covers well the scholarship surrounding Frankenstein from its conception to the present day. Insofar as its content is concerned, the book has achieved its goal, though the structure and methodology of the text at times confuse rather than enlighten the prospective reader.

The rather overwhelming wealth of information in the book is loosely organized into four parts, and each part is further divided into separate sections. Part One, entitled “Contexts,” includes an overview, a chronology, and a series of contemporary documents; it attempts to situate Shelley’s novel in terms of historical and cultural boundaries; Part Two, “Interpretations,” deals with the performance history and critical history of the text; Part Three, “Key Passages,” provides a chapter-by-chapter summary of the novel, as well as a limited discussion of pertinent issues and questions; and Part Four, “Further Reading,” is a thematically partitioned bibliography. While there is a great deal of interesting and useful information in each of the four parts, a further division into chapters might have avoided leaving the reader feeling inundated with data and documentation. The organizational structure at times is also confusing; for example, it is unclear why the editor chose to put “Early Receptions of Frankenstein” (37), “Performing Frankenstein” (43), and “Modern Criticism” (80) together in the “Interpretations” section of the book. The separate parts lack a logical cohesion or guiding narrative voice that might help a young, inexperienced reader keep his or her feet in this tidal wave of information and documentation.

Likewise, a more analytic approach to the “Key Passages” section might have served to ground new readers more thoroughly in Shelley’s novel, and despite the editor’s claim that he has “interspersed guiding notes within the extracts in order to make their navigation somewhat easier” (127), often the “guiding notes” are no more than scraps of plot summary bridging the gaps between excerpts of the novel. Here the editor seems invested in a descriptive approach to the novel rather than addressing the question of why we should consider these passages “key.” At times, however, the notes are genuinely useful, directing the reader to a specific article or excerpt elsewhere in the book and drawing attention to individual conceits throughout Shelley’s novel. This imbalance of description vs. analysis appears in the “Performing Frankenstein” section as well. On the surface, this part of the text is a very useful and exhaustively researched series of lists charting the performance history of the novel, including (but not limited to) its adaptations in theater, film, television, and music. Only some of the items in these lists are annotated, however; others are merely offered as a bibliographic record, and I would have preferred a more consistent and even-handed application of method throughout the section.

In terms of style, the editorial voice of this book often lapses from clear and concise into simplistic and overly self-conscious language. Granted, the intended audience is high-school and college students, but the text as a whole suffers from the “show, don’t tell” syndrome. All too often the editor announces his plan before he executes it—“I have chosen” (2, 37, 127), “I have included” (3), “I have submitted” (80), “I have interspersed” (127), etc.; and the effect is to draw the reader’s attention away from the subject at hand and aim it towards the text’s more problematic structure and organization. Perhaps an explanation of the editor’s overarching methodology would have been more appropriate than fragmentary statements of intent interspersed throughout the text.

This is not to say, however, that A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can’t be an effective resource tool. While simply thumbing through the text may result in frustration and confusion, it has an excellent index, which I think is the most useful portion of the book. My interest was piqued, for example, when I came across an item entitled, “Goon [yes, that’s goon as in g-o-o-n] with the Wind” (196), or the entry directing me to page 48 labeled “Mr. Potato Head commercials” (198). Curious as to how these oddities related to Mary Shelley’s novel, I was actually moved to investigate them. There are other touches that serve to make the book more reader friendly as well; a series of black-and-white photographs and illustrations from movies, performances, and other pop culture venues liven up the “Performing Frankenstein” section, and there is a very good table of these illustrations on page xi. The editors have cleverly used blocks of grey text throughout the book to separate the editorial voice from documents by other authors, and tools such as the Table of Contents, the Chronology, and the Directory of Figures make negotiating the information in the text much easier.

So would I recommend this book as a pedagogical tool to high-school or undergraduate students who are reading Frankenstein for the first time? Overall, I would have to say I would not. As a university English instructor who teaches Frankenstein to undergraduates, however, I might be moved to use A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a teaching tool myself, as a guide to documents and sources, articles and trends in critical theory. This is not a book to read from start to finish; rather, it could be useful as a guide or, as Morton himself describes it, as a “kind of hub, or bay, that will connect [students] with other books in the library or articles in the periodicals room” (3). While this book could overwhelm a student, it might well be helpful for any teacher interested in showing how Frankenstein was influenced by—and has influenced in its turn—nearly two centuries of Western literature.

—Sharon Emmerichs, University of Missouri-Columbia

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