NOTES AND CORRESPONDENCE
H.G. Wells’s “The Country of the Blind”: Anticipating Medical Models of Disability. “The Country of the Blind” was first published in 1904 in The Strand Magazine, but in 1939 Wells changed the ending for a final published version. He explains in his preface that he “always had an uncomfortable feeling about this story; I have run it over in my mind in bed, on walks and other unsuitable occasions, and at last I sat down to it and gave quite a new twist to it” (8). Multiple scholars have discussed the drastically different endings. In the initial version, Nuñez, the mountaineer protagonist, climbs the mountain wall and escapes from the village, running from the proposed surgery to remove “those irritant bodies”—his eyes (343-47). In the 1939 version, however, while contemplating the benefits of his “gift of sight,” the escaped Nuñez notices a crack in the mountain, sign of an impending rockslide, and returns to the village to save his much-loved Medina-saroté and to warn the other villagers, though they ignore his warning (34).
Beginning with A. Langsley Searles in 1944, there has been a consensus that “the difference [between the versions] lies solely in the ending” (74).1 Patrick Parrinder, writing in SFS, lists all the reprinted versions of the story, noting that “[f]or the present purpose these texts are identical” (75). Wells himself says in his 1939 preface that “[t]he two versions open with practically identical incidents, which I have never wished to alter; they run parallel until the distant mountain masses crack” (8).2
My note concerns another difference that is significant for the story’s representation of disability. The passage, included in 1904 but omitted in 1939, occurs a few paragraphs before the conclusion. It concerns Nuñez’s agreeing to lose his eyes by a potentially fatal enucleation to avoid losing Medina-saroté:
For a week before the operation that was to raise him from his servitude and inferiority to the level of a blind citizen, Nuñez knew nothing of sleep, and all through the warm sunlit hours, while the others slumbered happily, he sat brooding or wandered aimlessly, trying to bring his mind to bear on his dilemma. He had given his answer, he had given his consent, and still he was not sure. And at last work-time was over, the sun rose in splendour over the golden crests, and his last day of vision began for him. He had a few minutes with Medina-saroté before she went apart to sleep. “Tomorrow,” he said, “I shall see no more.” (344)
The excised passage presents a patient’s recognition that his sightedness is viewed as a disability that must be “cured” by life-altering surgery. The medical model, one of the foundational tenets of the current disability-studies movement, is defined by Michael M. Chemers as one that “understands disability as disease, with all that implies: weakness, contagion, and need of a cure” (22; emphasis in original). In the excised passage, Nuñez awaits a potentially fatal and deforming surgery: in order to be with his unsighted beloved, he must consent to be blinded—“cured” of his vision.
Wells did not explain why he omitted this passage in 1939. The exclusion, previously unnoticed by scholars, is not minor, for in it is re-emphasized the story’s central reversal: when the sighted Nuñez enters the village, he is the one denied equality. This subversive switching of what is considered “normal” and “abnormal” is expanded upon in the excised passage, altering the reader’s perception of Wells’s ironies. The medical model is seen earlier in the text as well when Wells describes the loss of sight experienced by the villagers as a “strange disease” and “this plague of blindness” (323), implying a contagious process. A final link the short passage provides to the current disability-rights movement is its anticipatory glimpse into citizenship issues for disabled persons and the perceived “inferiority” that often lurks behind discussions concerning able-bodiedness. Nuñez understands that his being accepted as a community member depends on his complicity in being blinded. Current intellectual-disability studies have noted that rights “have often been restricted for disabled persons by the argument that rights are extended to people only to the extent which they can show a capacity to exercise them” (Rioux 220).
Including this deletion in discussions about the story provides not only a more well-rounded image of Wells’s vision of those “blinded” by society, but also of his ability to foresee some of the more contentious tenets of today’s disability-studies movement.—Brenda Tyrrell, Iowa State University
1. Searles’s article also appears in The Wellsian 14 (1991): 29-33.
2. Searles responds to Parrinder’s findings in “More (On) Revisions of “The Country of the Blind” in SFS 17.3 (1990): 417-18.
Chemers, Michael M. Staging Stigma: A Critical Examination of the American Freak Show. New York: Palgrave, 2008.
Parrinder, Patrick. “Wells’s Cancelled Endings for ‘The Country of the Blind.’” SFS 17.3 (1990): 71-76.
Rioux, Marcia H. “Disability, Citizenship and Rights in a Changing World.” Disability Studies Today. Ed. Colin Barnes, Mike Oliver, and Len Barton. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2002. 210-27.
Searles, A. Langley. “Concerning ‘The Country of the Blind.’” Fantasy Commentator 1.5 (1944): 74-76.
─────. “More (On) Revisions of “The Country of the Blind” in SFS 17.3 (1990): 417-18.
Wells, H[erbert]. G[eorge]. The Country of the Blind. London: Golden Cockerel, 1939.
─────. The Country of the Blind and Other Selected Stories. Ed. Patrick Parrinder. London: Penguin, 2007.
The Apocalyptic Imagination, Extro-Science Fiction, and Kalpabigyan. This is a response to Amy Ransom’s “Playing Dice with the Universe” (SFS 43.3), a useful review-essay on three books by the speculative philosopher Quentin Meillassoux and his label “extro-science fiction” (“XSF”) coined in one of them, as well as the XSF aspects of Indian sf, the special focus of that issue of SFS. With regard to Meillassoux’s Science Fiction and Extro-Science Fiction (2015) and its discussion of Asimov’s “The Billiard Ball” (1967), Ransom comments on the
substantial difficulty ... [of] Meillassoux’s lack of engagement with other theories of sf. My impression is that his differentiation of what we might call “classic” sf from “extro-sf” may not be a completely original insight, although his manner of arriving at it is. I would welcome a deeper interrogation of this short book in relation to existing genre theory. (557)
What Meillassoux calls “XSF” is allowed for in my theory of sf as an aspect of the apocalyptic imagination and its overlaps with the mimetic and hermetic imaginations, the three imaginations forming a logical gamut.1 My apocalyptic-imagination category involves the new-worlds-for-old replacement of the reality we know with a different reality. In my book, I define it as
concerned with the creation of other worlds which exist, on the literal level, in a credible relationship (whether on the basis of rational extrapolation and analogy or of religious belief) with the “real” world, thereby causing a metaphorical destruction of that “real” world in the reader’s head. (New Worlds 13)
Religious belief here extends to any kind of world-impinging belief, including faith in any world literally (i.e., not allegorically) impinging on our own that cannot be rationally justified. That includes Meillassoux’s conception of a reality where natural laws do not apply.
He chooses to understand the Asimov story as XSF on the basis of personally displacing Asimov’s concluding, supposedly rational explanation, with the assumption of a contingent reality in which natural laws do not apply. Asimov himself does not suggest this option. On the other hand, the conclusion of James Blish’s A Case of Conscience (1958) explicitly provides for a comparable XSF reading. A reader, if s/he wishes, may understand the destruction of the planet Lithia as the consequence of a deliberate exorcism ritual rather than of a nuclear chain reaction, or may continue to consider both possibilities. Depending on the proportional impact of belief trumping scientific knowledge, non-sf or XSF possibilities belong within the category of the apocalyptic imagination and also within overlapping areas with the mimetic and hermetic imaginations. The logical combinations here are multiple but finite. If the non-sf or XSF element is deemed to exceed 50% of a narrative’s final effect, that narrative exits the sf genre and exists within some variety of the apocalyptic mode. If its impact is deemed to be less than 50%, a science-fiction genre identification remains appropriate.
In varying degrees this choice is a feature of Indian sf because of its balancing of scientific explanations with supernatural or apocalyptic philosophical (and cosmological) assumptions. My Venn diagrams (see Note 1) consist firstly of these intersecting spheres: other worlds out of time and space (a religious or Poe-esque conception), other worlds in time and space (standard sf including dystopian and some utopian sf), and the present world in other terms. I visualize this last category as itself comprising three spheres: a direct reconception of the nature of reality (e.g., we live on a flat Earth), a reconception of the human (e.g., we are actually robots), or an outside manipulator is identified (a god named Brahma or Siva for example, or an alien). These are ways whereby the paradigm sf conceptual breakthrough or philosophical/metaphysical apocalypse situation occurs, and they account for the predominant generic importance of the visionary over the satiric estrangement character of sf—its sense of wonder or the sublime. Other worlds out of time and space can be readily subsumed by my “present world in other terms” category. The same is less obviously true of other worlds in space and time if a conception such as Meillassoux’s is entertained.
Anwesha Maity’s “Estrangement, History, and Aesthetic Relish” in the special issue on Indian sf includes this statement:
As Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay argues in his Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry on Bengali science fiction, kalpabigyan, the Bangla term roughly analogous to sf, has multiple referents that make its scope much larger than sf as understood in English. Kalpa is the etymological root for kalpana or imagination, as well as a marker for time in Hindu cosmology—one kalpa or aeon is one day of the Creator Brahma lasting 4.32 mortal years (Vishnu Purama) while bigyan refers to scientific knowledge. (460-61)
I submit that my conception of three kinds of reality-altering sf (in mobile relation to the reality replacing/correcting mode of the apocalyptic imagination), and my idea of all sf’s being caught up in the encompassing apocalyptic imagination’s overlap with the mimetic and the hermetic modes (the last encompassing the fantasy genre), allow for both Meillassoux’s conception of XSF and the tendency of Indian sf to encroach on something that might be called XSF.—David Ketterer, University of Liverpool
1. See my New Worlds for Old. In my essay “Locating Slipstream,” three Venn diagrams more fully illustrate these relations. The best version of the diagrams can be viewed in the translation of this essay in the 2013/2014 issue of the Italian web journal Anarres; it may be helpful to consult the diagrams at<http://www.fantascienza.com/ anarres/articoli/31/posizionare-lo-slipstream/>.
Ketterer, David. New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature. New York: Doubleday, 1974.
─────. “Locating Slipstream.” Foundation 40.1 (2011): 7-13.
Maity, Anwesha. “Estrangement, History, and Aesthetic Relish: A Reading of Premendra Mitra’s Manu Dwadosh.” SFS 43.3 (2016): 460-61.
Ransom, Amy. “Playing Dice with the Universe: Meillassoux’s After Finitude, The Number and the Siren, and Science Fiction and Extro-Science Fiction.” SFS 43.3 (2016): 553-62.
On Heinlein and Detective Fiction. Recently, as I prepared to discuss Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951) in my sf course, the following ruminations about the stupidity of bureaucrats by “Sam,” the narrator-protagonist, caught my eye:
Counter argument: what I thought I saw was physically impossible. I could hear Secretary Martinez’s restrained sarcasm tearing my report to shreds. My guesses referred only to Kansas City and were insufficiently grounded even there. Thank you kindly for your interest but what you need is a long rest and freedom from nervous strain. Now, gentlemen—
“Pfui!” rather than “Phooey!”: I could recall seeing that spelling only in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels. For example, in The League of Frightened Men (1935), Wolfe is not content with demonstrating that Ferdinand Bowen rather than Paul Chapin murdered Dr. Loring Burton. Instead, he scolds Bowen, lists his mistakes, and concludes thus:
Another inexcusable thing was your carelessness in leaving the gloves on the table. I know; you were so sure that they would be sure of Chapin that you thought nothing else mattered. You were worse than a tyro, you were a donkey. I tell you this, sir, your exposure is a credit to no one, least of all to me. Pfui! (208-09)
Typically (as here), Wolfe’s “Pfui!”, like Sam’s, signals his impatience with lesser minds.
What made me wonder whether Sam is in fact using a Nero Wolfe-inspired spelling was that outwardly he has little in common with the sedentary Wolfe. Instead, Sam resembles Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s chief operative and the witty narrator of all the Nero Wolfe novels. If it were not for his employer’s level of culture, Archie might very well have been a hardboiled or noir detective such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. That is precisely what we are led to expect of Sam after the opening scene of The Puppet Masters, in which he is awakened by the ringing of the phone implanted in his head and suddenly finds that he has company, a blonde who has been awakened by his talking to someone on a phone that she cannot see:
I acknowledged and sat up with a jerk that hurt my eyeballs. I found myself facing a blonde. She was sitting up, too, and staring at me round-eyed.
“Who are you talking to?” she demanded.
I stared back, recalling with difficulty that I had seen her before. “Me? Talking?” I stalled while trying to think up a good lie, then, as I came wider awake, realized that it did not have to be a very good lie as she could not possibly have heard the other half of the conversation. The sort of phone my section uses is not standard; the audio relay was buried surgically under the skin back of my left ear—bone conduction.
“Sorry, babe,” I went on. “Had a nightmare. I often talk in my sleep.”
“Sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine, now that I’m awake,” I assured her, staggering a bit as I stood up. You go back to sleep.”
“Well, uh—” She was breathing regularly almost at once.... The blonde was snoring gently.
I let my subconscious race back along its track and realized with regret that I did not owe her a durned thing, so I left her. There was nothing in the apartment to give me away, nor even to tell her who I was. (2)
Together, I believed, these two passages pointed to the likelihood that Heinlein’s book was in part modeled after detective stories. In class, I mentioned “Pfui!” briefly before calling attention to the blonde as an element of hardboiled detective fiction; I even read aloud a passage with a similar tone from Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1953). But I also noted that the blonde and “Pfui” appeared in passages that were deleted from the first edition and all others published in Heinlein’s lifetime. The deletion of passages like this would have made it more difficult for readers of pre-1990 editions of The Puppet Masters to make the case that Heinlein’s style, in this book at least, is similar to some of the detective stories of his time. The brief appearance of the blonde, in particular, sounds like something out of a hardboiled detective novel. Starting with an indication that Sam has a hangover and ending with his only regret, that as far as he can remember he has not had sex with the woman whose name he cannot recall, the passage is a near-perfect example of the atmosphere and sexual politics of hardboiled fiction. And it conveniently sets up our mental portrait of Sam as a loner, so that when he falls in love with “Mary,” another agent, we know it signals a major change in him.
A few days later the March 2017 SFS arrived, and with it Carol McGuirk’s interesting note, “Asimov, Boucher, Heinlein, and Detective Fiction; or, Is Jubal Harshaw’s Role Model Nero Wolfe?” As far as I know, Professor McGuirk is the first person who has made the connection between Heinlein and Rex Stout, specifically by comparing Jubal Harshaw, in Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), with Nero Wolfe. Among other things, she notes that Harshaw uses two expressions that Wolfe often uses: “Pfui!” and “Shut up!” (197). She also shows in some detail that such sf novels as Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel (1954) and Anthony Boucher’s Rocket to the Morgue (1942) owe a debt to detective novels, and she argues persuasively that detective fiction style contributes to the “rereadability” of these novels. So she has thought more about these genre crossings than I have.
Even so, she doesn’t mention The Puppet Masters, and for a few weeks I thought that I might have a take on that novel that had not yet been discussed in print. Then I happened to read Christopher Lockett’s “Domesticity as Redemption in The Puppet Masters: Robert A. Heinlein’s Model for Consensus,” published a decade ago in SFS, and realized that the article contains much more than its title suggests: to cite part of the abstract, the argument is that “making use of the conventions of noir narratives, Heinlein depicts a ‘secret agent’ protagonist whose efficacy in fighting an alien invasion—a thinly-veiled allegory of communism—derives from his slow evolution from hard-boiled lone wolf to community-oriented family man” (58). Lockett does not mention Nero Wolfe, but he covers the noir or hardboiled angle quite well, even calling attention to the blonde in Sam’s bed and saying that Sam’s “language, attitudes, and sensibilities are explicitly reflective of such hard-boiled detectives as Marlowe, Mike Hammer, and Sam Spade” (43). His evidence is set forth clearly and persuasively. The hardboiled detective angle has been covered as well as I could imagine.
Still, there is Sam’s “Pfui!” It is hardly the earliest such utterance in Heinlein’s work: following leads that Carol McGuirk kindly sent me, I found “Pfui!” in Heinlein’s work as early as 1939 and 1940, in “Life-Line” and “The Roads Must Roll” (The Past through Tomorrow 18, 35); there are probably more early instances. By 1939 Rex Stout had published five Nero Wolfe novels: Fer-de-Lance (1934), The League of Frightened Men (1935), The Rubber Band (1936), The Red Box (1937), and Too Many Cooks (1938). Later, there were also radio series featuring Wolfe, the third of which, The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, written by Alfred Bester and starring Sydney Greenstreet as Wolfe, was broadcast on the NBC Radio network from 20 October 1950, to 27 April 1951, as Heinlein was engaged in writing The Puppet Masters. So Heinlein had opportunities to encounter the curmudgeonly Nero Wolfe, a kindred spirit, and he made judicious use of Wolfe’s expression of disdain. Inserted a little over halfway through The Puppet Masters, long after the anonymous blonde, Sam’s “Pfui!” signals his contempt for bureaucrats, but it also is a sign of his increasing maturity. By the end of the novel he will mature further, becoming a family man and a version of his own father in what Lockett calls “the final transition from the archetypal hard-boiled loner to the model of the 1950s patriarch” (52). A decade after that, in Stranger in a Strange Land, the patriarch role will belong to Jubal Harshaw.—Patrick A. McCarthy, University of Miami
Heinlein, Robert A. “Life-Line” and “The Roads Must Roll.” The Past through Tomorrow. New York: Ace, 1987. 1-16, 32-62.
─────. The Puppet Masters. Rev. ed. New York: Ballantine, 1990.
Lockett, Christopher. “Domesticity as Redemption in The Puppet Masters: Robert A. Heinlein’s Model for Consensus.” SFS 34.1 (2007): 42-58.
McGuirk, Carol. “Asimov, Boucher, Heinlein, and Detective Fiction; or, Is Jubal Harshaw’s Role Model Nero Wolfe?” SFS 44.1 (2017): 192-98.
“The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 18 Aug. 2016. Online.
Stout, Rex. The League of Frightened Men. 1935. Full House: A Nero Wolfe Omnibus. New York: Viking, 1955.
Serious Literature? Science Fiction at the MLA. In The Great Derangement (Chicago, 2016), Amitav Ghosh makes the provocative claim that “serious literature” is ill equipped to confront our current ecological realities. Because it is beholden to modern literature, with its insistence on individual experience, its disdain for the collective, and its allegiance to Enlightenment ideals of progress and egalitarianism (for an elite few), Ghosh suggests that serious literature has no tools for imagining collective action in the face of climate change. In Ghosh’s assessment, literary realism is especially ineffectual because it quashes speculation. Nothing is allowed to enter the realist narrative that will appear shocking, out of the ordinary, or out of sequence when woven into the primary narrative thread: “It is thus that the novel takes its modern form,” he writes, through “‘the relocation of the unheard-of toward the background … while the everyday moves into the foreground’” (Moretti, qtd. in Ghosh, 17). He argues that such conventions fail us when we attempt to narrate our increasingly and shockingly unpredictable global climate.
Ghosh’s argument is as urgent and timely as it is strange—urgent and timely in the face of our increasing awareness of the consequences of anthropogenic global warning, and completely strange in its disregard for the way that science fiction has been working out these same questions since the inception of the genre. (Indeed, Ghosh acknowledges this in his brief discussion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein , which emerged as much as a consequence of a peculiar natural phenomenon—the eruption of Tambora—as it did as a result of literary inspiration. After this glancing side note, however, sf recedes from Ghosh’s analysis.) This omission is all the more perplexing given Ghosh’s status as an established, respected writer of sf. Instead of championing sf, he focuses his analysis on the way that Literature with a capital L has failed us. His study is interesting, full of insight and illuminating readings of canonical literary texts, yet his underlying argument is misguided. Literary fiction and genre fiction are not mutually exclusive categories. To support this claim, I offer the following recap of sf papers and panels at the 2017 annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. MLA, perhaps the most conservative of all the gatekeepers of “serious literature,” offered an astonishing number of sf-oriented panels and papers.
This year’s convention took place from January 5-8 in Philadelphia. The theme was “Boundary Conditions,” appropriate not only for the many conversations surrounding national, social, and political boundaries but also because of a widespread interest in challenging the boundaries of genre. While several sessions or papers focused on sf as a genre—the MLA has a forum dedicated to the genre, so there is always at least one such panel—the sessions that focused on environmental crisis also took on a science-fictional emphasis. The session on “Extro-fictions from the Middle Ages to the Anthropocene” focused on the following set of questions:
What narratives beckon from the unknown or unimaginable? Might we read texts from the past as anticipations of human beings unmoored from their home, Earth? Do they offer resources for readings that do not presuppose secure terrestrial grounding? To confront the arrival of the anthropocene, what narratives assist in imagining a zone of existence that is beyond earthly grounding, extro-terrestrial?
The panel organizers grounded their meeting in a discussion of Quentin Meillassoux’s Science and Extro-Science Fiction (Minnesota, 2015) and considered the epistemological limits of both science and fiction in the face of climate change.
This panel, like several others, used sf to speculate about our shared future as well as to have conversations about important social issues. “Dangerous Visions: Science Fiction’s Countercultures” saw science fiction as a way to challenge dominant power structures. The panelists addressed sf and queer theory, Afrofuturism, the limits of counterculture in sf, and “Monstrous Desire” in Latina/o sf.
There were also panels that examined sf in literary traditions often underrepresented at the MLA. These included “Asian American Science Fiction,” “Speculative Latina/o: Histories of the Future,” “Alien Lines: Science Fiction Comics,” and “Chinese Science Fiction: Past, Present, Future.” Several single-paper presentations focused on works of sf as part of panels designed to confront larger social issues. In the “Vanishing Islands?” panel, Elizabeth Callaway’s “Islands in the Aether Ocean: Science Fiction and the Myth of the Island Paradise” used the ecology of Frank Herbert’s Dune to think about new planetary futures; in “Creative Responses to Black Lives Matter,” Elizabeth Anne Wheeler’s “Surreal Abandonment: Science Fiction, Environmental Racism, and Disability” referred to sf to think about the BLM movement; and in “Race, Science, Speculation,” Britt Rusert focused on “The Scientific Roots/Routes of Black Speculative Fiction” within the context of eugenics.
The most recent MLA, then, instead of banishing sf from the ranks of serious literature, welcomed sf into the fold. Perhaps this is because, unlike the so-called “serious fiction” that Ghosh prioritizes in his analysis, sf has a long, robust tradition of both celebrating and challenging the concept of scientific progress, of both introducing the weird and the outrageous into everyday narrative events and situating such weirdness and outrageousness within the framework of scientific possibility. The most vital sf even questions accepted epistemology, extrapolating about alternative models of knowledge and experience. This year’s MLA showed that literary scholars in greater numbers are warming to, and perhaps taking comfort from, science fiction’s speculative potential.—Lisa Swanstrom, SFS
“Iraqi SF” at the London Literature Festival: Living in Future Times, October 2016. With the sf genre’s focus on future projection, “Iraqi SF” was an apt focus for the penultimate day of the Southbank Centre’s Living in Future Times festival. Held on 15 October and chaired by Ted Hodgkinson, the panel featured Hassan Blasim, editor of a new anthology of Iraqi science fiction, Iraq +100 (Comma Press, 2016), its contributing author Zhraa Alhaboby, and translator Jonathan Wright.
The project is a collection of short stories written in Arabic and translated into English; editorial manager Ra Page of Comma Press suggested that all the stories be set in 2103, a century following the 2003 invasion of Iraq led by US forces. That the premise initially met with resistance from contributors suggests, said Blasim, the absence of a distinct tradition of science fiction among Iraqi writers. Yet while justified, the statement belies a recent rise in the popularity of sf in Iraq, as indicated by the enormous success of Blasim’s own work in Arabic and in translation, of playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak’s work, and of Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, forthcoming in translation and winner of the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
Another conspicuous absence was also identified by Blasim: gender diversity in Iraqi sf, an assessment supported by the predominantly male authorship of the Iraq +100 anthology itself. Although Blasim denied that female characters and writers have been systematically excluded, Alhaboby struggled to name a prominent female Iraqi writer as an example. The conversation then turned ineluctably to the towering influence of Scheherazade, the female narrator of The Thousand and One Nights. That the tales in the Nights continue to inspire authors is clear from stories in the anthology that feature reanimations of Scheherazade and of Kahramana, a female character in “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” Yet while female figures have been central to Arabic fiction generally, and especially to the Arabic literary fantastic, women writers in Iraq remain comparatively underrepresented.
Alongside the Nights, the origins of Iraqi science fiction during the discussion were traced back to the Epic of Gilgamesh. At the same time, connections were drawn between contemporary Iraqi sf and the profusion of sf in Europe around the first half of the twentieth century. While in those days Europe fixated on aspirations and anxieties accompanying the prospect of future industrial and technological revolution, Blasim argued, today’s Arabic sf exhibits and explores fears of acquiescence to foreign governance. Iraqi sf is indebted to pioneering works of Arabic mythology and legend, but is also influenced by a global literary marketplace in which the genre remains dominated by European languages.
Published in English translation, the anthology naturally elicited questions as to the role of an English-speaking readership. Both Blasim and Wright argued that literature in translation is imperative to fostering cultural understanding across frontiers of geography, language, and social class, with Blasim joking that his partiality for European novels enabled him to avoid culture shock on arrival in Finland as a refugee in 2004. The theme of border-crossing is enduring in Arabic fiction and film: to give just a handful of examples, there are Emile Habiby’s Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter (1991), Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, (1963), Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun (2007), and a film by Elia Suleiman, Divine Intervention (2002). Blasim as both a writer and an activist is similarly drawn to the crossing of borders. His stage play The Digital Hats Game (2016) envisions a world in which a virtual game can be used by a group of “hacktivists” to influence events in the real world, assisting them in their efforts to ameliorate conditions for refugees. Reconciling dispersed and fractured communities is, for Blasim, a goal of the Iraq +100 anthology, which aims to cultivate solidarity among the authors involved.
Such solidarity was displayed throughout the discussion in a shared frustration over depictions of Iraq in the mainstream media. The language of gaming resurfaced here, with panelists and audience members alike arguing that violent conflict in the region is often treated as a kind of spectacle. For Alhaboby, embedding her writing in historical events is a strategy for deconstructing representations that stereotype Iraq. At the same time, writing in a science-fictional mode allows her to write outside time and space, as exemplified by her anthology contribution, a story set in a dream. Historical accuracy emerged as a pressure point, with Blasim disputing the suggestion that generating public awareness of the history of Iraq was a goal in the composition of the anthology or a responsibility of its contributors. A tension developed around the idea of literature as information. On the one hand, remaining mindful of the material circumstances in Iraq that underlie today’s literary representations, including those within Iraq +100, was vital; and Blasim ardently emphasized that “when you write science fiction about the future, you’re really writing about the present.” At the same time, Blasim in particular was keen to avoid straightforward allegorical readings, suggesting that such an approach prevents explorations of possible greater social and political stability through speculative fiction. It was further suggested that “the shock of violence” in Iraq has even had some inadvertently positive effects, including greater willingness and freedom to critique dogmatic presentations of religion.
Like Blasim’s own fiction, the event was characterized by moments of levity and laughter amid an otherwise earnest, sometimes very sober, discussion. Blasim, the central focus, spoke mainly in Arabic, with translator Wright acting as interpreter. Though not a role usually undertaken by Wright, this was impressively executed, and conversation flowed—an outcome attributable, perhaps, to the long standing professional relationship between Blasim and Wright.
Though Blasim, Wright, and Alhaboby share common goals relating to their work for the anthology, each offered individual insights, with productive debate arising from their differences of opinion. Deftly chaired by Hodgkinson, the event allowed plenty of time for questions and comments from a very forthcoming audience; these led to a lively dialogue. The level of bilingualism displayed by attendees foregrounded the need and appetite for Arabic-English translations. Indeed, Wright remarked that the field of Arabic literature in translation is populated by swathes of willing translators constrained by a lack of necessary financial support. The conversation strayed far beyond the premise of the talk as advertised—a signal, perhaps, of Iraqi sf as a nascent collective, with a potentially vast scope in terms of subject matter.
The event concluded on a positive but measured note. When asked what he hoped the anthology would change, Blasim replied that he hoped it will encourage diversity in Arab literature and stimulate new ways of thinking. Yet he insisted that this was “a hope, not a certainty.”—Sinéad Murphy, King’s College, London
The International Conference of Utopian and Science Fiction Studies, Beijing, China, 3-4 December 2016. This was one of many worldwide events celebrating the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). The conference was co-sponsored by the School of Chinese Language and Literature, Beijing Normal University, and the Science and Literature Committee of the China Science Writers’ Association; it was co-organized by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences at Chongqing University. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet with Chinese scholars and writers in the field, and to continue the dialogue between Science Fiction Studies and the Chinese sf scene that we began in earnest with the publication of our special issue on Chinese science fiction (March 2013). That issue was co-edited by Professor Wu Yan of BNU, one of China’s leading sf scholars, and he was also one of the chief organizers of this meeting in Beijing.
The conference was attended for the most part by academics and writers from mainland China and Hong Kong. Several scholars from the US also attended, including Hua Li and Nathaniel Isaacson, both of whom have contributed essays on Chinese sf to SFS. Kim Stanley Robinson was invited as special keynote speaker, and he opened the conference with a fine presentation on “The Future of Utopia.” As he and I were (as far as I could tell) the only attendees who did not speak Mandarin, we did not have the advantage of simultaneous translation in order to understand many of the presentations, but I cannot say that we felt disadvantaged. Rather, it was fascinating to be a part of this particular community of engaged writers and scholars, even if only for a very little while. As for our own presentations, both of us were well served by expert translators who transformed our English into elegant Mandarin as we read them.
It was a joy to meet so many people involved in science fiction on the other side of the world, including up-and-coming writers such as Fei Dao (Jia Liyuan) and Xia Jia (Yang Xiaoya), whose work is becoming available in English at sites such as Clarkesworld and in collections such as Ken Liu’s recent translated anthology, Invisible Planets (2016). I was also very lucky to attend an extensive interview (complete with simultaneous translation) with Robinson and Chinese author Liu Cixin on writing science fiction, held in the large lobby of the rather breathtaking Genesis Beijing cultural complex. The interview was open to the public and the place was packed. Readers may recognize Liu’s name as author of The Three-Body Problem trilogy and winner of the 2015 Hugo Award for best novel. Not surprisingly, Liu is currently China’s most famous sf writer. It was quite a trip.—Veronica Hollinger, SFS
“Science Fiction and the Climate Crisis.” Although the deadline (1 July 2017) for submitting proposals may already have passed, we would like our readers to know that SFS is planning a special issue for November 2018 on “Science Fiction and the Climate Crisis,” co-edited by Brent Ryan Bellamy (Memorial University) and Veronica Hollinger (SFS). We see this as participating in an ongoing and urgent conversation with colleagues in the humanities, the social sciences, and the sciences. In the energy humanities and other interdisciplinary fields, the climate crisis unfolds differentially as description, allegory, abstract model, immanent materiality, slow apocalypse, and the end of humanist philosophy. We are considering submissions that address the intersections of science fiction and the climate crisis in historical and/or theoretical terms and in multiple media forms, from the pulps to science-fiction media and art. We hope to include papers that reflect on and explore genre hybridity, including modalities such as climate fiction, petrofiction, and slipstream.
This special issue will seek to address a complex series of questions. What does one look for when science fiction overlaps with the climate crisis? Is it the punctual events of the thriller genre or the slower pacing of a carefully considered longue durée that grabs critical attention? How does the climate crisis figure in sf in light of the energy regime? How does energy figure in sf—as foreground or background? What are the differences between figurations of the coal crisis and nuclear disaster? How does the way we use energy affect the reach and scope of sf writing? Which sf authors or texts stay nervous about the climate crisis? In addition to papers focused on the ways in which sf engages the climate crisis, energy regimes, and multiple ecologies (real or imagined), we are interested in discussions that draw on feminist and queer futurities, swerve with the nonhuman turn, and follow the utopian impulse.—The SFS Editors
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Science Fiction at 200. Science Fiction Studies is soliciting papers for a July 2018 special issue celebrating the bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), a work that forever changed science fiction. In Frankenstein, Shelley experimented not only with new subjects and emerging sciences that presented horrific possibilities but also with narrative and form. Her use of multiple frame narratives, one nested within another, marked a notable shift from eighteenth-century fiction, while her merging of gothic and scientific motifs broadened the emerging genre of science fiction. Her refusal to provide a clear didactic lesson left readers to judge for themselves the actions of Victor Frankenstein, and her ending left the Creature’s fate unclear. Adaptations and appropriations of Shelley’s narrative and form have abounded, and Frankenstein continues to inspire sf today.
Shelley’s novel did not always enjoy canonical status, yet it has always influenced the definitions, forms, narratives, and media of contemporary sf and contemporary authorship. In what ways does Frankenstein continue to transform how authors and readers understand the limits of science fiction? How do the novel’s genre-bending and metafictional components influence definitions of sf as a genre? What does Frankenstein have to say about current political and global issues, such as citizenship, immigration, and war? The editors envision this special issue as a celebration of the legacy of Frankenstein, the light it continues to cast on science fiction.
Essays that explore the intersections of recent sf novels and critical approaches are particularly encouraged, as are essays that consider cross-media adaptations of Frankenstein (art, comics, film, literature, musical theatre, TV, and/or video games) and Frankenstein-inspired narratives. Other potential approaches include animal studies, adaptation aesthetics, the cultures of 1818 and 2018 (citizenship, immigration, war), digital humanities, digital media, disability studies, feminism, geo-humanities and globalization (geocultural-specific readings of Frankenstein and/or appropriations), gothicism (contemporary, female gothic, postcolonial), intertextuality, medical humanities, neuroscience, philosophy, poetry, popular culture, and new versions of Frankenstein. Proposals for work on Romanticism, the Shelleys and their circle, Mary Shelley’s later works, science and technology (AI and robotics, scientific theories and discoveries), and visual culture also are welcome. Send proposals (300-500 words) by 1 Aug. 2017 to Michael Griffin <firstname.lastname@example.org> and Nicole Lobdell <nicolelobdell@ depauw.edu>. Completed papers (6000-8000 words) will be due by 1 Oct. 2017.—Michael Griffin, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Nicole Lobdell, DePauw University, Guest Editors
Michael M. Levy (1950-2017). It is with sadness and a great sense of loss that the editors of SFS note the death of our esteemed colleague Mike Levy on 3 April of this year. Mike was a true giant in our field, known for his pioneering scholarship on children’s and YA science fiction and fantasy (such as Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction , co-written with Farah Mendlesohn); his chapters in a variety of reference volumes, including the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, the Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, and Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction; his many book reviews in the New York Review of Science Fiction, the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Publisher’s Weekly, Fantasy Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books; and his long-time professional leadership in both the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts and the Science Fiction Research Association, where he served as an officer for many years and helped to organize many conferences. In 2007 he received the SFRA’s Clareson Award for lifetime service to the field. In addition to all these contributions, Mike was also an editor for Extrapolation since 2002 and served as its managing editor since 2014.
Each one of us probably has a personal story to tell about Mike and how he affected our lives. Together they would paint a picture of a highly respected scholar, a hard-working colleague, and a kind and always thoughtful mentor who will be terribly missed.—The SFS Editors
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