Science Fiction Studies

#129 = Volume 43, Part 2 = July 2016


Rob Latham

Weaponizing the Imagination

Fabienne Colignon. Rocket States: Atomic Weaponry and the Cultural Imagination. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. viii + 179 pp. $110 hc; $39.95 pbk.

William J. Fanning, Jr. Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876-1939. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. v + 274 pp. $35 pbk.

George Case. Calling Dr. Strangelove: The Anatomy and Influence of the Kubrick Masterpiece. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. vii + 204 pp. $40 pbk.

Matthew Edwards, ed. The Atomic Bomb in Japanese Cinema: Critical Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ix + 288 pp. $45 pbk.

Dominika Oramus. Grave New World: The Decline of The West in the Fiction of J.G. Ballard. 2007. Toronto: Terminal, 2015. 264 pp. $19.99 hc; $12.99 pbk.

Rick McGrath, ed. Deep Ends: The J.G. Ballard Anthology 2015. Toronto: Terminal, 2015. 300pp. $39.99 hc; $24.99 pbk.

Whenever I teach an sf novel about nuclear war, I ask students whether the scenario depicted in the text frightens them at all. Have any of them ever woken up shaking in terror from nightmares of mushroom clouds, as I did as a teenager after watching Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1963) for the first time? Their answer is inevitably no, the possibility of imminent nuclear holocaust is not something that troubles their sleep. A few might mention anxieties about dirty-bomb and “loose-nuke” scenarios such as depicted in the show 24 (2001-2010), but visions of global destruction via intercontinental ballistic missiles are no longer on their psychosocial radar screens. It is rather chastening to realize that the horrors of nuclear winter, so gripping for members of my generation, seem to young people today almost quaint, another retrofuturistic survival from the 1950s and 1960s, like googie architecture and lava lamps.

Given that the era of atomic terror seems to have receded with the Cold War, the time would appear to be ripe for a scholarly study that looks back on midcentury fears of global apocalypse with a sharply analytical eye. Such a work might serve as a bookend to critical coverage of the literature and popular culture of the nuclear era, paired with Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (1994), which brilliantly anatomized that era’s advent in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Alas, however, despite its high ambitions, Fabienne Colignon’s Rocket States: Atomic Weaponry and the Cultural Imagination is not that book, not by a long shot.

Colignon’s study purports to examine “the interface between American geography and missile technology” (1), the ways in which the nuclear era has written itself onto the American landscape, and individual chapters are devoted to Colorado (where uranium is mined), Kansas (where Titan missiles are emplaced), Cape Canaveral (where atomic warfare intersects with the Space Age), and New York (where prevailing anxieties about nuclear destruction and defense are localized). Self-consciously modeled on the structure of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the greatest cultural text produced during (and inspired by) the nuclear era, Rocket States begins with an introductory “Ignition” that sparks an arc across the chapters, culminating in a brief coda—“Mobilization: Un/Endings”—that leaves the reader in suspense about the future, just as Pynchon’s novel concludes with a missile hovering, frozen in time, over our heads. This set-up is too self-conscious, too elaborately cute, and Colignon does not help matters by flattening out her source materials into an undifferentiated archive, in which a literary text has the same evidentiary status as a government document or a think-tank report or a work of high (usually French) theory. She claims that “an analysis of [nuclear] technology has to be expressed in an idiom that corresponds to its subject matter: labyrinthine, fantastical, dynamic, rhizomatic, resonant,” and thus her book seeks “to create a textual environment that offers a way of reading US missile culture as dream-work…: unconscious desires, compulsions and pathologies” (1-2). Since Pynchon has already produced a text that does all this—one, moreover, that is unlikely to be surpassed—what Colignon winds up offering instead is a half-digested stew of meditation, analysis, speculation, and metaphoric play that overwhelms the reader in a mushroom cloud of jargon.

Here is a representative sentence, purporting to analyze how Stephen King’s The Shining (1977), which is set in Colorado, links up with Colignon’s core concerns: “King’s text-machines … send out missiles/missives that expose/explode the emergency state of the Cold War (via ‘Spootnik’ and world-circling ICBMs) as the central concern of a colossus—King’s growing corpus of work—that remains, besides, attentive to mechanisms of place: deposits, cold pockets, charges, the taking place of archives, themselves a technologized haunting and ‘broadcasting’” (31). Some vague connection between King’s novel and uranium mining and nuclear radiation is being vaguely hinted at here, but distilling an idea out of this rhetorical haze is hardly worth the effort. Reading Colignon’s run-on sentences, rife with asides that mobilize disparate materials and arguments in an out-of-control linguistic and conceptual chain reaction, is ultimately quite exhausting. Inspired as much by Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, and Paul Virilio as by Pynchon, Rocket States pulverizes historical reality, transforming it into an amorphous technocultural allegory held together by associative links rather than rigorous lines of connection. This is “nuclear criticism” of a sort: indeed, the crucial functions of assessment, appraisal, and analysis have been effectively nuked out of existence, reduced to a debris of buzzwords and gassy generalities. It is difficult to see what this book contributes to the discourse on the nuclear era, especially given that Tom Vanderbilt’s Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (2002) has already offered a superbly focused tour of the landscape traces of Cold War architecture.

If Colignon fumbles the opportunity to provide a widescale perspective on the closure of the atomic age, a number of other recent titles offer useful insights into its emergence, consolidation, and collapse. William J. Fanning’s study of popular treatments of “directed energy weapons” in the years leading up to World War II makes clear that the Cold War did not hold a monopoly on fantasies of global devastation, while George Case’s study of Dr. Strangelove and Matthew Edwards’s collection of essays on Japanese nuclear cinema survey the impact and influence of atomic weaponry on the modern filmic imagination. Finally, two new books on J.G. Ballard, by Dominika Oramus and Rick McGrath, provide brilliantly illuminating excursions into the mind and work of the author most closely associated, even more than Pynchon, with the bleakly beautiful dreamworlds unleashed by the Bomb.

Fanning’s Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876-1939 (an excerpt from which was published in 2010 in SFS and reprinted in Arthur B. Evans’s collection Vintage Visions: Essays on Early Science Fiction [2014]) could hardly form a more stark contrast with Colignon’s Rocket States: where the latter is breezy and jargon-clotted, the former is admirably clear if rather plodding. Fanning’s goal is simple and straightforward: to provide an exhaustive survey of “reports about death rays appearing primarily in newspapers and magazines as well as their use in fiction and other popular platforms” (1). Unlike Colignon, Fanning does carefully distinguish among these various discursive registers; as he shows, treatment of the topic differed significantly in sensationalist media, in government documents, and in novels, short stories, plays, and films, though these treatments often cross-pollinated with one another in intriguing ways. For example, during the first decades of the twentieth century, English inventor Harry Grindell Matthews pioneered wireless technology that permitted, among other things, the remote control of mines and other explosives, an invention that led to widespread news coverage of the possibility “of transmitting considerable power over great distances” (60), including a “heat ray” that could incinerate aircraft, coverage that led to debates at the highest levels of British government and, eventually, to what Fanning calls the “Death Ray Craze” of the 1920s and 1930s. The meticulous excavation of lines of influence, crossing decades, continents, and different forms of media, is where Fanning excels: the research displayed in his book is astonishing, covering a wide array of archives and national traditions.

The volume is divided into two parts, each containing three chapters: Part I offers a study of “The Historical Death Ray”—that is, examples of actual technological inventions, as well as hoaxes based on them—while Part II provides a survey of “The Death Ray in Fiction and Popular Culture.” The second section will be of greater interest to this journal’s readers, as it details a wealth of treatments—both famous and forgotten—of heat rays, electric beams, disintegrator guns, harmonic vibrators, X-ray weapons, and other devices in early scientific romances, pulp sf, boys’ adventure stories, films, and other popular media. Fanning is not a literary scholar, so his focus on these texts is primarily historical, showing their imbrication with developments in applied technology, especially military adaptations. His discussion of how World War I served as a seeding ground both for specific innovations and for feverish public fantasies is excellent, and provides a fruitful supplement and update to H. Bruce Franklin’s classic study War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination (1988). Yet Fanning’s coverage extends far beyond the United States, discussing death-ray news and fiction from England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Australia. Among the fascinating items of cultural ephemera Fanning has dug up are Charles Bennett’s play The Last Hour (1928), which featured a special effect involving the on-stage incineration of two main characters, and a host of death-ray gags appearing in political cartoons and comic strips, including a 1938 episode of “Li’l Abner” in which a “Z-Ray” is used for purposes of mind control. The effect of Fanning’s exhaustive catalog is highly entertaining, if a bit repetitive and, considered in the mass, somewhat overwhelming.

Fanning’s discussion touches on atomic weaponry only to the extent that death rays, whether real or imagined, occasionally involved the deployment of forms of radiation such as X-rays. He specifically excludes from consideration bombs based on the chain reaction of fissionable materials, and his historical coverage ends at the threshold of the war that would end with the aerial bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with weapons that made Edwardian death-ray fantasies seem positively innocuous. The cultural fallout of those bombings can be seen in the 21 essays and interviews gathered in Edwards’s book. Building upon, while exceeding in depth of coverage, such previous studies as Robert Jacobs’s Filling the Hole in the Nuclear Future: Art and Popular Culture Respond to the Bomb (2010), The Atomic Bomb in Japanese Cinema is divided into three main sections: Part I. Gojira and the Bomb; Part II. Japanese Atomic Cinema, 1945-2014; and Part III. Western Perspectives. This set-up is actually the volume’s weakest feature since it lumps together chapters under overly broad rubrics when they would better have been better grouped based upon their specific topics.

While it makes sense to have three essays on Gojira films, given how resonant those movies have been in embodying nuclear fears in the iconic image of the eponymous monster, these essays would have been shown to better advantage by interleaving them with other pieces on different subjects rather than cramming them all together. For example, Jason C. Jones’s essay on the “erasure of politics” in Gojira films could have formed the core of a more focused grouping of chapters that addressed this issue, including editor Edwards’s own excellent essay on censorship during the US occupation and Robert McFarlane’s on Japanese cultural amnesia. Also, Part III is a curious hodgepodge consisting primarily of interviews with US and British directors who have engaged with the atomic bombing of Japan—hence the expansive rubric, “Western Perspectives.” But it might have been more interesting to sort these interviews into different thematic arrangements, alongside (say) John Vohlidka’s intriguing analysis of how the Gojira films have served to express shifting generational attitudes towards the United States.

Concerns about organization aside, there can be little doubt that Edwards has assembled a fine collection of arguments and conversations. Some of the finest essays here show how the shadows of Hiroshima and Nagasaki haunt movies not ostensibly dealing with the subject at all, such as Tony Pritchard’s brilliant analysis of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another (1966) as an allegory of radiation damage and transformation. Adapted from Kobo Abe’s 1964 novel, the film is more a cultural parable than a work of sf proper, despite the quasi-scientific rationale for the biomechanical mask designed by its protagonist. Indeed, the range of genres covered in the book is impressive, including not just sf and sf-related allegories, but avant-garde works such as Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), soft-core “pink films” such as Koji Wakamatsu’s Affairs Within Walls (1965), horror movies such as Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998), and films based on popular manga. The interviews with filmmakers, all conducted by Edwards, are valuable if a bit too dominated by concerns related to production and reception. All in all, The Atomic Bomb in Japanese Cinema is a fine anthology that canvasses films, both classic and obscure, that were inspired by the most appalling technological events of the twentieth century.

As David Rothauser, director of a powerful 2010 documentary about survivors of the atomic attacks, comments in Edwards’s interview with him, one of the reasons so few films on the subject have resonated with Western audiences is because they tend to be, understandably, profoundly grim. By contrast, he advocates more treatments like Dr. Strangelove, where bleak subject matter is infused with a vein of ultraviolent humor. Kubrick’s classic is one of the most critically revered and well-studied works ever to tackle the topic of nuclear war, so one wonders whether a new book on the subject is really necessary. While David Case’s Calling Dr. Strangelove breaks no fresh ground, its workmanlike compiling of information and perspectives serves the valuable purpose of gathering between two covers most of what any reader needs to know about the production and reception of the movie, as well as its ongoing cultural impact.

The book is divided into five chapters, focusing broadly on: 1. Kubrick and Terry Southern’s ludic adaptation of Peter George’s novel Red Alert (1958, a.k.a. Two Hours to Doom), a revisionist take that turned a fairly routine cautionary tale into a freewheeling social satire; 2. the production history of the film, including hilarious anecdotes regarding Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and the deleted pie-throwing sequence that originally culminated the story; 3. an analysis of the film’s structure, focused especially on editing patterns and visual motifs; 4. critical and popular reception of the film at the time of its release, including international responses, and its resonance with contemporaneous technocultural and countercultural attitudes and events; and 5. the afterlife of the film over the past five decades, its influence on world cinema and popular culture, and the consolidation of its reputation as a masterpiece of apocalyptic Cold War comedy. The book is well-researched and clearly written, and while seasoned students of Kubrick will learn little from it, it can be safely placed into the hands of undergraduates and other neophyte viewers, for whom it will provide an efficient critical-historical survey. That said, Peter Kramer’s 2014 entry on the movie in the BFI Film Classics series does all of this as well, while also giving some taste of the relevant academic criticism, which Case largely ignores, while Margot A. Henriksen’s Dr. Strangelove’s America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age (1997), offers a much more expansive—if at times a bit half-baked—sense of how Kubrick’s film links up with the prevailing sociopolitical concerns of the midcentury US. I can also highly recommend P.D. Smith’s Doomsday Men: The Real Dr. Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon (2007), which shows how dangerously close to reality Kubrick’s seemingly over-the-top satire was.

All of which is to say that Dr. Strangelove is such a richly conceived and brilliantly executed text that no single critical or historical study can hope to exhaust its meanings and intertextual resonances. The same can be said of the work of J.G. Ballard, which has been the subject of single-author studies by David Pringle (1979), Peter Brigg (1985), Gregory Stephenson (1991), Roger Luckhurst (1998), Michel Delville (1998), and Andrzej Gasiorek (2005), among others. Yet there is always room for more, as Dominika Oramus’s Grave New World: The Decline of the West in the Fiction of J.G. Ballard shows. Oramus’s book is not actually new: it was originally published in 2007, in a limited edition, by the University of Warsaw, where the manuscript was produced as a Ph.D. thesis. It is now being made more widely available by The Terminal Press, for which Ballard fans can be grateful since it is a probing and insightful—if somewhat overlong and repetitive—study of his oeuvre. While Ballard seldom wrote directly about atomic warfare, it is fair to say that his fiction—indeed, his personal biography—would be inconceivable without Hiroshima and the era of nuclear deterrence it ushered in. Indeed, the Atomic Age had no greater chronicler: who else was so sensitive to the iconic poetry of ICBMs and bunker architecture, to the strange but undeniable allure of apocalypse? It is not for nothing that an image of a mushroom cloud graces the cover of Oramus’s book.

Oramus’s basic thesis is simple: influenced by Freud, the Surrealists, McLuhan, and dystopianists such as Aldous Huxley, Ballard was obsessed with the spiritual and ethical-political eclipse, during the second half of the twentieth century, of Western models of social progress and the rational self, and the emergence of an entropic, inscrutable, but emotionally seductive dreamscape dominated by mass media and the Bomb. None of this is, of course, very original, but Oramus makes a valuable contribution in the organization of her coverage into characteristic Ballardian sites: individual chapters cover “Battlefields,” “Cityscapes,” “Mediascapes,” “Mindscapes,” and “Wastelands.” Starting with an analysis of his autobiographical novels, especially Empire of the Sun (1984), which concludes with the youthful protagonist witnessing from afar the bombing of Nagasaki, Oramus shows just how deeply the events of WWII in the Pacific, where Ballard and his family were interned by the Japanese, impacted the author’s psyche, leaving him not only with a sense of the West’s irremediable decadence but also with an anticipation of imminent catastrophe, evident in later fictions such as “The Terminal Beach” (1963) and The Atrocity Exhibition (1970). It also left him with a jaundiced view of postwar affluence and its attendant consumer comforts, which Ballard associates, according to Oramus, with desublimated impulses towards technological transcendence and ego-death in novels such as Crash (1973) and Cocaine Nights (1996). Meanwhile, novels such as Hello America (1981) and The Day of Creation (1987), relatively understudied works that Oramus examines to potent effect, display Ballard’s fascinated contempt for the “desert of the real” ushered in by postwar media systems, while The Drowned World (1962) and The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) depict false Edens that activate a psychopathological impulse toward the dissolution of the self.

As with Case’s book on Dr. Strangelove, the chief value of Grave New Worlds lies in its comprehensiveness, its virtually encyclopedic reference not only to Ballard’s fictions but also to their critical and cultural reception. Unlike Case, however, Oramus seems rather tone-deaf to the strain of black humor that runs through her subject material: the Ballard that emerges from her pages is a dour pessimist bemoaning the decline of the West, rather than the ambivalent and caustic commentator, tongue planted firmly in cheek, with whom seasoned readers of the author are familiar. Nonetheless, Oramus’s book is very strong on Ballard’s debts to Freud, especially to Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), arguing forcefully that his work is driven by a similarly elegiac sense that the rational self is a fragile construct, rapidly decomposing amidst the “deserted, surreal landscapes” of a “reversed Eden…, the end of creation” (84-85). Under the shadow of the Bomb, Ballard’s characters live in “the eternal ‘now’ of a civilization doomed to die and waiting for this to happen” (83).

Despite the closure of the Cold War in the early 1990s, not to mention Ballard’s own death in 2009, the author’s unique vision continues to inspire fresh critical engagements, as the third installment of Rick McGrath’s annual “J.G. Ballard Anthology,” Deep Ends, demonstrates. Containing assorted materials from a wide range of scholars, creative writers, and artists, these volumes are gorgeously produced and crammed with goodies sure to excite any JGB enthusiast. Specifically, there are 18 sections that include, among other things, a superb discussion by Valentina Polcini of literary intertexts in Ballard’s sf, a remarkably detailed and highly useful chronology by David Pringle of the author’s personal and professional relationship with Michael Moorcock, and a microscopically detailed analysis by Chris Beckett of the opening manuscript pages of Crash. Other chapters are not directly on Ballard but on cultural contexts that reflect a “Ballardian aesthetic,” such as the stunning photo-essay on Las Vegas by Ana Barrado that supplements Ballard’s treatment of that city in Hello America or Theo Inglis’s discussion of the importance of the 1956 “This is Tomorrow” exhibit at the Whitechapel Gallery to the development of Ballard’s sensibility. In terms of chapters relevant to the general topic of this review-essay, Benjamin Noys offers a provocative analysis of Ballard’s apocalyptic futurism while Pippa Tandy analyses how Ballard’s work, with its relentless focus on technologized destruction, amounts to a “Field Guide to the Cold War.”

There are a couple of weak chapters, but all in all, Deep Ends is a luscious (and, at $25, relatively inexpensive) cornucopia of materials that reminds us just how thoroughly Ballard “weaponized” his imagination, turning it into an aesthetic-critical instrument that exploded the myths by which the midcentury West lived and moved and had its being. Happily, editor McGrath has indicated that a fourth annual anthology will be forthcoming in 2016.

Boyer, Paul. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. 1985. New York: Pantheon, 1994.

Brigg, Peter. J.G. Ballard. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo, 1985.

Delville, Michel. J.G. Ballard. Plymouth, UK: Northcote, 1998.

Franklin, H. Bruce. War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination. New York: Oxford, 1988.

Gasiorek, Andrzej. J.G. Ballard. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2005.

Henriksen, Margot A. Dr. Strangelove’s America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.

Jacobs, Robert, ed. Filling the Hole in the Nuclear Future: Art and Popular Culture Respond to the Bomb. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2010.

Kramer, Peter. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. London: BFI, 2014.

Luckhurst, Roger. “The Angle Between Two Walls”: The Fiction of J.G. Ballard. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1998.

Pringle, David. Earth is the Alien Planet: J.G. Ballard’s Four-Dimensional Nightmare. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo, 1979.

Smith, P.D. Doomsday Men: The Real Dr. Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon. New York: St. Martin’s, 2007.

Stephenson, Gregory. Out of the Night and into the Dream: A Thematic Study of the Fiction of J.G. Ballard. Westport, CT: Greenwood/Praeger, 1991.

Vanderbilt, Tom. Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2002.

Back to Home