Science Fiction Studies

#136 = Volume 45, Part 3 = November 2018


Eulogy for Ursula Le Guin. I learned of Ursula Le Guin’s death while driving with my radio tuned in to the Vermont Public Radio station on the day her death was announced. My instant thought, that I should write a eulogy, was almost instantly succeeded by another: that I am not particularly qualified to do so. But the initial impulse remained in my mind; and I presently discovered that I wasn’t as unqualified as I thought, thanks to the fact that my Le Guin file folder contains 25 letters from her rather than two or three (as my infallible recollection had had it). A few of those letters position me to testify to something which only one other still-living person could attest to (and, in principle at least, could do better than I): the special relationship Ursula had to SFS (and vice-versa). Two of those letters, from March of 1978 and April of 1985, she wrote in support of an application for Canadian government funding for SFS. In the first of those two, she characterizes the journal as “a vehicle of genuinely interested, sometimes passionately interested, reading and scholarship”; in the latter, she says something similar, concluding: “It has in very large measure defined a discipline—which would be lost without it.”

In another, dated 2 June 1981, she declares herself “happy to accept” an invitation to serve on SFS’s Editorial Board. I almost never asked anything of her in that capacity. The two exceptions she declined, for one or another principled reason. She did, however, weigh in on a controversy arising from my (not entirely successful) attempt to get the Editorial Board to agree to a policy on language usage that acknowledged the existence of women.

As our letters reveal, I never met Ursula in person. Alas. Whatever sense I have of her comes from her published writings. She was, however, one of those writers—and they are not legion—whose publications—and in her case especially her fiction—give access to the mind they emanate from, not just to its thoughts, its ideas. There is a short passage in P.K. Dick’s The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982) that can serve for clarifying what I mean. I use it epigraphically in my last book on sf, Visions and Re-visions (2006); but that book is hard to come by and it’s unlikely that you’ve read it. I’m not even sure that all of its few reviewers did. I’ll therefore quote it here. “[B]ooks are real to me ... they link me not just with other minds but with the vision of other minds, what those minds understand and see” (141). I should add, however, that reversing the order of the linkage is closer to my point.

Of all the books of Ursula’s that I’ve perused (and here I should confess that I have not read all of them), the one which most gave me access to and insight into her mind, into the workings of her mind, was and remainsThe Dispossessed (1974). (That book of hers, more than The Left Hand of Darkness [1969], was the one that initially got the most attention in this journal, which was largely responsible for promoting her reputation.) I retain a vivid memory of having read a typescript that Darko Suvin passed on to me. To use the lingo of the early 1970s, it blew me away.

At the time, I was conscious of being attracted to the book’s philosophy, not just its politics. Both the Right and the Left would and did agree that its perspective is Left-leaning. But The Dispossessed is profoundly and subtly nuanced in that respect (among others). The very fact that orthodox Marxists criticized it—none of them savaged it, but they did take exception to aspects of its politics—stands in proof of that. I was not instantly aware of a far deeper attraction. That remained mostly intuitive until I started working on an interpretative essay, “Ursula K. Le Guin and Time’s Dispossession,” which takes up twenty-five pages (not counting endnotes) in the above-cited book of mine—almost as many as I devote to my close reading of The Man in the High Castle. (Ursula read and commented on both of those essays.)

I won’t repeat what I say about The Dispossessed in Visions and Re-visions. (If I could have said it in a hundred words or two or even condensed it into such a compass, I wouldn’t have used 15,000 ... hard as that may be to believe.) Instead I’ll concentrate on an aspect of The Dispossessed that I didn’t even remark in my essay.

I told Ursula that I deem that book of hers to be one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century American literature. I didn’t intend that as flattery (I don’t do flattery, and not just because I’m no good at it). I really believed what I said, and I still stand by that judgment. What didn’t enter into my appraisal—at least, didn’t consciously enter into it—was an aspect of that work of hers that’s perhaps hidden in plain sight. I’m referring to its impersonation (in Leslie Fiedler’s sense of the term). It is a masterpiece of gender impersonation. Indeed, I’m inclined to say that it’s the greatest achievement by any fiction writer impersonating someone of the other gender. The one chief (or perhaps I should say, simple) reservation I have about saying any such thing comes from my being considerably more ill-read than most people doctored in literature. My other reservation emanates from my ignorance (close to nescience) of how other men think. The one thing I feel secure about is that Ursula was right to make the focal consciousness of The Dispossessed that of a man. Most women (not, perhaps needless to say, including Ursula) cannot afford to interrogate themselves in the way that Shevek does. And I surely need to make clear immediately that I’m not saying women are inherently inferior to men. I don’t think any such thing and never have. (I have at times entertained the opposite proposition.) My point arises from sociological considerations rather than those of a biological sort (i.e., genetics). My own observations suggest that women are still brought up and still treated in such a way that introspection tends to generate and exacerbate self-esteem problems. In saying that, I’m also suggesting how it happened that after writing The Dispossessed, Ursula became increasingly preoccupied with women’s issues (which for me as for her, aren’t just women’s issues).

The sense I have from her published works of who Ursula was (and is) tallies with her letters to me. They are gracefully written (and presumably without study or affectation, given that she always replied within days of receiving one of mine), usually illuminating in one way or another, sincere, and forthright. But above all—and I believe she would approve of this epitome—they reveal a person of the highest integrity.—Robert M. Philmus, Montréal

Science Fiction and the Digital Humanities. Science fiction as a literary genre dates back at least to the nineteenth century, with notable works of proto-sf stretching back to antiquity. The Digital Humanities (DH), in contrast, is a fairly new field that is still finding its footing today. While sf has embraced works of speculation that focus on the potential of digital technology, it is in no way reducible to it. But the inverse cannot be said of DH. In other words, although sf gets along perfectly well without the “digital”—and indeed has thrived without a concrete notion of computers, computation, or digitality until fairly recently—my hunch is that the field of the Digital Humanities would not exist in its current form without science fiction. Science fiction’s influence on this nascent field can be seen in a variety of important works that demonstrate clear overlap. Listed below are several exemplars of sf that have been important in shaping discourse about the intersections between—and the boundaries of—digitality and humanism. Each text is paired with one scholarly essay or book that employs it in its study, and each pairing is briefly annotated.

John Brunner. Shockwave Rider. London: Harper, 1975.
Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker. The Exploit: A Theory of Networks. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2007.
In their discussion of contemporary network structures, Galloway and Thacker note that “Science fiction classics such as John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider popularized the vitalism of computer viruses” before the term “virus” became a common word within the lexicon of information technology.
Pat Cadigan. Mindplayers. New York: Bantam, 1987.
Anne Balsamo. “Engineering Cultural Studies: The Postdisciplinary Adventures of Mindplayers, Fools, and Others.” Science + Culture: Doing Cultural Studies of Science, Technology and Medicine. Ed. Sharon Traweek and Roddey Reid. New York: Routledge, 2000. 259-74.
In her exploration of an alternative educational model for engaging with the sciences, Anne Balsamo engages deeply with Cadigan’s Mindplayers as a way to think about the Literature, Communication, and Culture program at Georgia Tech.
Orson Scott Card. Ender’s Game. New York: Tor, 1985.
Rita Raley. Introduction, “Writing.3D.” Iowa Review Web (Sep. 2006). Online.
In her introduction to a special issue of The Iowa Review Web, devoted to the emerging genre of electronic literature, Raley uses Ender’s Game as a way to explore the multidimensional aspects of immersive screen spaces, and to answer the following questions: “How do we read a text that removes the stabilizing spatial coordinates of the page and no longer maintains a top-centric and left-centric orientation? How do we read texts that do not simply simulate dimension but in fact materialize and operate on the z-axis?”
C.J. Cherryh. Cyteen trilogy. New York: Warner, 1988.
Katherine N. Hayles. How We Became Posthuman. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1999.
A fundamental text for thinking through the materiality of information, Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman offers extensive engagement with a variety of works of science fiction that are in dialogue with the history of cybernetics. In the book’s eighth chapter, “The Materiality of Informatics,” Hayles discusses Cherryh’s Cyteentrilogy in the context of sf and embodiment.
Philip K. Dick. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Doubleday, 1968.
Koskimaa, Raine. “Cyborg and Posthuman.” The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media. Ed. Lori Emerson, Ben Robertson, and Marie-Laure Ryan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2013.
Dick’s most popular work appears in a variety of works about digitality, identity, and the boundaries between artificial and human intelligence. In this succinct entry for the Hopkins Guide, Koskimaa references Dick’s androids within the context of the emergence of cybernetic organisms as a scientific and literary category.
William Gibson. AGRIPPA (A Book of The Dead). New York: Begos, 1992.
Matthew Kirschenbaum. Mechanisms. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2008.
In his important study about the materiality and durability of digital objects, Kirschenbaum offers an in-depth analysis of William Gibson’s work in general and the peculiar digital artifact of AGRIPPA in particular.
William Gibson. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.
Alan Liu. “Transcendental Data: Toward a Cultural History and Aesthetics of the New Encoded Discourse.” Critical Inquiry 31.1 (2004): 49-84.
Gibson’s Neuromancer is one of the most crucial works of sf for the way it has shaped popular and critical discourse about digital technology. In this essay Liu uses Neuromancer to frame his discussion of what he terms “data pours,” i.e., “places on a page—whether a web page or a word processing page connected live to an institutional database or XML repository—where an author in effect surrenders the act of writing to that of parameterization” (59).
Anne McCaffrey. The Ship Who Sang. New York: Walker, 1969.
Donna Haraway. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist- Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-81.
McCaffrey’s Ship has been cited by a variety of scholars who explore the work’s depiction of gender and disability, and it remains vital for the way it imagines physical embodiment and the porous boundaries between human beings and machines. In her “Manifesto,” Haraway uses McCaffrey’s Helva to ask the following question: “Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?” The question reinforces the importance of materiality and embodiment to digital scholarship.
Neal Stephenson. Snow Crash. New York: Bantam, 1992.
Lisa Nakamura. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Neal Stephenson’s conception of the Metaverse, a complexly coded virtual environment inhabited by three-dimensional avatars, helped nudge the concept of cyberspace into its next, more technologically convincing, evolution and has inspired several scholarly works about networks, systems theory, and coding practices. In Cybertypes, Lisa Nakamura moves beyond an analysis of formal technological apparatus to discuss the way in which the Snow Crash, and other works like it, “provide the racial templates for online interaction” (61).
Bruce Sterling. “Premonition of Spasm or Why I Read Arthur Kroker.” CTHEORY. 22 May 2008. Online.
Arthur Kroker and Marilouise Kroker. Hacking the Future: Stories for the Flesh-Eating 90s. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996.
While Islands in the Net (1988) is one of Bruce Sterling’s most convincing depictions of neo-liberalism, globalism, and network tech, his overall oeuvre has been fundamental to scholarly discourse about digital culture. In Hacking the Future: Stories for the Flesh-Eating 90s, Arthur and Marilouise Kroker never mention Sterling by name, but the entire work is informed by Sterling’s vision of cyberpunk. In “Premonition,” Sterling mentions the Krokers: “when Kroker says something like ‘We are the first citizens of a society that has been eaten by technology, a culture that has actually vanished into the dark vortex of the electronic frontier,’ I find myself prepared to agree. I agree, and I soberly nod my head, and I kind of roll the beauty of that phrase over my tongue, and then I spit it into the bucket of sawdust I keep beside my personal gigabyte hard-disk. And then I log onto the WELL and read my e-mail.”

This brief selection is wholly insufficient to account for crossovers between sf and aesthetic discourse about information technology. In addition to the problem of the smallness of the sample, there is the fact that the extent to which critics engage with works of sf to buttress their arguments about digitality varies widely, from shallow reference to deep engagement. Additionally, the so-called “Digital Humanities” employ a wide range of practices and attend to an even wider array of scholarly focus to which this list does scant justice. But even as a tiny sample it reveals interesting insights. Cyberpunk fiction seems to hold primacy of place in discussions of computation, and the largely male authorship of cyberpunk suggests some interesting things about the way IT is gendered, both in sf and in real-world practice. What other works of science fiction have served as precursors or have helped pave the way for thinking about the digital medium? We invite readers to add to this bibliography by nominating texts that we have overlooked.—Lisa Swanstrom, SFS

Reply to Elana Gomel’s Review of Science Fiction Criticism. I would like to thank Elana Gomel for her thoughtful review of Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings in the March 2018 issue. I do feel impelled, however, to correct her strange and tendentious reading of the implications of the volume’s organization. Specifically, Gomel assumes that the separation of chapters in the final three sections implies some sort of sharp theoretical segregation. She asks, rhetorically: “‘Ideology and world-view’ [Section III] is separated from ‘The non-human’ [Section IV] and ‘Race and the legacy of colonialism’ [Section V]. But why?” (192). The answer is quite simple: because it made no sense to have one giant section containing 22 chapters. Yet Gomel inflates this pragmatic editorial decision into a damning indictment of the editor’s purported blindnesses: “It is hard to argue that racism is not an ideology or that the dichotomy of human/non-human does not have political consequences” (192). This is a straw man: the book never argues that, explicitly or implicitly. In fact, as Gomel acknowledges, the last three sections essentially form a unit considering mostly recent criticism on the issues of alterity and difference. As my introduction states, “Section III opens a consideration of SF’s sociopolitical implications, a theme that, in various ways, continues through the remaining sections” (2; emphasis added). Thus, far from Sections IV and V inappropriately “reifying” race and species into “immutable categories,” the discussions in these sections extend and ramify the sociopolitical debates adumbrated in Section III. In short, just about everything Gomel presents as a crucial demystification of the allegedly “problematic” assumptions built into the volume’s organization is a pure phantasm, based on careless reading and an over-eagerness to leap onto the barricades.—Rob Latham, Twentynine Palms, CA

Call for Essays: Special Issue of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction: “Moon Rise.” To mark the 50th anniversary of the first successful manned Moon landing, we invite articles for a special issue of Foundation, examining how the Moon has been depicted since 1969 in science fiction. As Marjorie Hope Nicolson showed in her classic study of Voyages to the Moon (1948), fantasies of moon flight have been an integral part of world literature since classical times. Since moon flight became a reality, how have these stories changed? From adventure series such as Space 1999 to films such as Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009) and novels such as Ian McDonald’s Luna sequence (2015–), Earth’s satellite has remained a source of fascination. What does this fascination reveal about our anxieties and desires since the colonization of the Moon became a genuine possibility? Articles should be approximately 6000 words long and written in accordance with the style sheet available at the SF Foundation website. The deadline for entries is 28 January 2019. All entries should be submitted to the following email address <>. —The Editors of Foundation

Call for Essays: Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction: Foundation Essay Prize 2019. Foundation announces its next essay-writing competition. The award is open to all post-graduate research students and to all early career researchers (up to five years after the completion of your PhD) who have yet to find a full-time or tenured position. The prize is guaranteed publication in the next summer issue of Foundation (August 2019). To be considered for the competition, please submit a 6000-word article on any topic, period, theme, author, film, or other media within the field of science fiction and its academic study. All submitted articles should comply with the guidelines to contributors as set out on the SF Foundation website. Only one article per contributor is allowed to be submitted. The deadline for submission is Monday, 3 December 2018. All competition entries, with a short (50 word) biography, should be sent to the following email address:<>.The entries will be judged by the editorial team and the winner will be announced in the spring 2019 issue of Foundation.—The Editors of Foundation

Call for Essays: “But now, we must eat! Food and Drink in Science Fiction.” In her contribution to Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film (2004), Laurel Forster remarks that “food appears as an important element in a surprising number of … science fiction films” (253) and helps “illuminat[e] social, national, and even global structures, agencies, and order” (251). Thus, the interrelationships between food and science fiction offer “a valuable means of understanding the link between the individual and controlling powers around her/him” (251). This proposed collection, to be edited by Cindy Miller, Steve Rabitsch, and Michael Fuchs, will discuss food and drink in science fiction across media—movies, television shows, literature, video games, comics, etc. Submit a 500-word proposal by 15 November 2018 to <>. All submissions will be acknowledged. —Cindy Miller, Steve Rabitsch, and Michael Fuchs

Call for Essays: Special Issue of Messages, Sages and Ages: Reading Reality through Science Fiction. The academic journal Messages, Sages and Ages, based at the English Department of the University of Suceava, Romania, invites contributions for an issue on “science fiction as reality-check,” guest edited by Roberto Paura (University of Perugia, Italy). As speculative fiction, science fiction (sf) in literature and film has proved able to lay bare the contradictions of modernity’s techno-utopian projects far ahead of its time. Over seventy years ago, Isaac Asimov anticipated today’s debate on the relationship between automation and technological unemployment; and in the Cold War years, post-apocalyptic fiction played a decisive role in making clear the dangers of nuclear war and stimulating reflection on its likely long-term consequences. In our effort to come to terms with sf’s popularity and broad reach in contemporary culture, we ask: what do we learn from these narratives? How can sf novels, movies, and TV-series be used as a reality-check for the whims and desires of western culture? We invite submissions in English of no more than 9,000 words from senior and junior scholars. Topics might include: the Anthropocene in contemporary science fiction, sf and transhumanism, climate fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, technological existential risks in contemporary fiction, and technological unemployment in sf. Send author-blind papers, abstracts of 200 words containing five keywords, and a brief cv (no more than 300 words) as Word documents to both <> and <<. The deadline for submissions is 1 June 2019. —The Editors of Messages, Sages and Ages

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