Science Fiction Studies

#95 = Volume 32, Part 1 = March 2005

Graham J. Murphy

Kick at the Darkness Till it Bleeds Daylight

Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan, eds. Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. New York: Routledge, 2003. xi + 264 pp. $26.95 pbk.

To speak of Utopia is to engage in an ongoing dialogue about locating hope and positive prospects amidst the (dark) horizons of contemporary sociopolitical discourse.1 From this perspective, Utopia can be understood less as a literary genre and more as a mode of articulation. As Ildney Cavalcanti puts it, “Utopia is the expression of desire manifested by means of writing and located in the workings of dystopian narrative” (51), and many of the essays contained in Dark Horizons stress the necessity of both maintaining and steadfastly pursuing Utopian desires, particularly amidst dystopian and anti-utopian cultural sentiments. To paraphrase the lyrics from Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” these essays all attempt to kick at the dystopian darkness until it bleeds the daylight of Utopia. Granted, novices to the discussion may feel that reading Dark Horizons is akin to entering into the middle of an ongoing conversation, but the diverse issues are thoroughly charted by thoughtful articulation, thorough referencing of other works, and Baccolini and Moylan’s excellent overview of utopia/eutopia, dystopia, critical utopia, and critical dystopia in the volume’s “Introduction: Dystopia and Histories.” On the whole, the scope and depth of Dark Horizons makes it a valuable collection of essays that continues to engage and broaden Utopia; nonetheless, like any ongoing discussion, there are moments when the conversations drift off-topic, the terms of debate are a bit muddled, and minor restructuring could organize competing voices into a more intelligible conversation. In the end, however, this text is important in continuing the Utopian dialogue, pushing it in new directions and offering some fascinating explorations of dystopia/critical dystopia that will appeal to those interested in exploring the contiguities of sf and Utopia.

The collection is bracketed by two pieces—Ruth Levitas and Lucy Sargisson’s “Utopia in Dark Times: Optimism/Pessimism and Utopia/Dystopia” and Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan’s “Critical Dystopia and Possibilities”—that address the ongoing struggles of and for Utopia. These pieces highlight two events, or, as Baccolini and Moylan call them, “points of departure” (233) that comprise the backbone of Dark Horizons. The first are the circumstances, subsequent military interventions, and anti-utopian consequences of 9/11. The dialogue between Levitas and Sargisson explores personal struggles, fears, hopes, frustrations, and disappointments in Utopia and contemporary political conditions, issues compounded by 9/11. Ruth Levitas, initially the more pessimistic of the two, remarks that “[h]olding up a critical mirror to the present to expose its negative characteristics and effects is also important, and indeed a necessary precursor to developing and pursuing alternatives. But it is not enough ... the personal is not political enough” (14, 23). In a recognition of light bleeding through the darkness, however, Levitas notes that resistance to the post-9/11 social atmosphere is being felt as “[p]eople are protesting, including protesting about the erosion of civil liberties under the guise of ‘security.’ People are prepared to say ‘not in my name.’ So that perhaps, in these spaces, there is hope” (26). In a parallel vein is Lucy Sargisson’s ongoing belief, a belief shared by all the contributors, that literary works inspire alternative modes of thought desperately needed in the contemporary period. In Baccolini and Moylan’s closing piece, 9/11 is a foundational point of departure because the collapse of the World Trade Towers and the attack on the Pentagon are exemplars of concrete dystopia, a reality “which most people already suffer daily” that was “condensed into a single morning ... [that] grew out of a very real, worldwide situation for which the economic logic of capital and the arrogance of the U.S. superpower are deeply to blame” (233). In addition, Moylan notes that the late-1990s stock-market crash has had an equally devastating effect, as “it is not a crashing plane but a crashing market that is eviscerating savings, pensions, and the tax base, and eliminating jobs—consequently impoverishing millions of people. This dystopian event, on top of the U.S. military response to 11 September ... offers evidence of an anti-utopian reality produced not only through fundamentalist rage but even more by the ruling economic and political power” (238).

The political relationship between 9/11 and market forces reveals the second point of departure for Dark Horizons: the corporate commodification of Utopia. The key essay exploring this commodification is Darko Suvin’s “Theses on Dystopia 2001,” wherein he argues that we are living “morally in an almost complete dystopia—dystopian because anti-utopian—and materially (economically) on the razor’s edge of collapse, distributive and collective” (187). This razor’s edge is psychologically epitomized by Disneyfication, a strategy of

infantilization of adults. Its images function as an infantile “security blanket,” producing constantly repeated demand to match the constantly recycled offer. The infantilization entails a double rejection. First, it rejects any intervention into the real world that would make the pursuit of happiness collectively attainable: it is a debilitating daydream that appeals to the same mechanism as empathizing performances and publicity. Second and obversely, it rejects any reality construction of one’s desire, however shallow or destructive. Wedded to consumer dynamics of an ever expanding market, Disneyland remains deeply inimical to knowledge. (194; italics in original)2

In an echo of Sargisson, Suvin resists Disneyfication by identifying the epistemological function of art as a necessary precondition to political action; imagination is the first step toward political resistance and a “collective production of meanings, the efficacy of which is measured by how many consumers it is able to turn, to begin with, into critical and not empathetic thinkers, and finally into producers” (200).

As a study of Utopia, Dark Horizons is quite strong, engaging a wide variety of authors, texts, and dialogues. Jane Donawerth’s “Genre Blending and the Critical Dystopia” sets the tone for the bulk of the papers by highlighting the dissolution of genre boundaries in three critical dystopias: race- and sex-role reversals in A.M. Lightner’s The Day of Drones (1969), the re-writing of the epic quest in Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1974), and the function of formal satire in Connie Willis’s “All My Darling Daughters” (1985). In Donawerth’s assessment, “merging the dystopia with such traditional genres, writers resisted the generic pressure in the genre of dystopia to anti-utopian closure and produced more open, critical dystopian texts” (43). This resistance to borders is evident in the genre-blurring of the fictions under examination in the essays, including Cavalcanti’s “The Writing of Utopia and the Feminist Critical Dystopia: Suzy McKee Charnas’s Holdfast Series,” an exploration of the intersections of dystopia, feminism, and the traditional quest pattern; David Seed’s “Cyberpunk and Dystopia: Pat Cadigan’s Networks,” an essay mapping feminism and cyberpunk; and Baccolini’s “‘A useful knowledge of the present is rooted in the past’: Memory and Historical Reconciliation in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Telling.”

Essays exploring such genre fluidity, however, are not always effective; as with any dialogue, there is the danger that other conversations might take over the discussion and dilute focus, and this proves problematic in David Seed’s analysis of Pat Cadigan’s fictions. Seed takes a moment to differentiate Cadigan’s work from that of ur-cyberpunk author William Gibson; in doing so, he briefly shifts his attention towards an analysis of the oppositional elements in Gibson’s fictions, his Chandleresque use of noir elements, and the links between Social Darwinism and agency. While interesting, this shift digresses from the focus on Cadigan and for this reason it would serve better as an endnote. In fact, there are many such endnote moments in the paper. Later, in discussing Cadigan’s early growth and her reliance on Ron Goulart’s The Chameleon Corps (1973) for her first novel Mindplayers (1987), Seed analyzes Goulart’s hero Ben Jolson and his links to “circus (Barnum), film (Keystone), and music (Jolson),” as well as Plastic Man comic books (72). But is a full-page discussion of Ron Goulart absolutely necessary for an exploration of dystopia in Mindplayers? In his discussion of Synners (1991), Seed explores the function of Los Angeles and noir elements, but, in introducing Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), he enacts an awkward shift to discuss Richard Kadrey’s Metrophage (1988). While overly-burdened endnotes can have an equally deleterious effect on an essay, a re-articulation of the critical focus and a shifting of tangential discussions on Goulart, Kadrey, and F. Jones’s Syn (1969) to endnotes would strengthen the overall discussion and help to maintain the focus on Cadigan’s oeuvre.

The two superlative essays in the collection are by Naomi Jacobs and Maria Varsam; tellingly, both papers focus critical attention on Octavia Butler. Jacobs (“Posthuman Bodies and Agency in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis”) argues that the issues in Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy involve a “postmodern critique of the humanist subject: the critique of the individual as a rationally self-determining, self-defining being, and of individual identity as the source of agency”; Butler’s critical dystopias suggest “a resource for hope in these very violations and ruptures—indeed, in the evolution of the human toward a posthuman body, posthuman subjectivity, and posthuman form of agency” (91). Jacobs focuses on alien bodies’ enabling new ways of thinking about subjectivity and agency while demonstrating that Butler challenges simplistic validations of (post)humanist collectivity and individuality. In Dawn (1987), the alien Oankali trigger a human fear of losing self-determination, yet “those human beings who hold most tightly to their human identities are also the ones who exhibit the worst elements of humanity. Whether out of stupidity or calculation, they rape, steal, mutilate, and murder, all in the name of keeping intact their supposedly superior species identity” (98). The “‘human’ world that we might expect to be posited as the hopeful alternative, the locus of value, here promises little more than a return to barbarism” (101). In Adulthood Rites (1988), Akin occupies the role of the traditional humanist hero but must merge with other beings to gather information, dissolving his individuality and highlighting the dialectical tension between individuality and collectivity. In contrast, the Martian settlement of the Resisters is not worthy of preservation because “although the volume ends with the apparent triumph of the Resisters’ project, its final scene is one of refugees fleeing a village set on fire by looters—hardly a hopeful indication that the human ‘contradiction’ can be overcome” (106). Finally, Imago (1989) offers a different account of collectivity as Jodahs, the first human-ooloi construct, is in danger of complete dissolution of self as, like a chameleon, “it” morphs uncontrollably in response to “its” surrounding environs. In her analysis, Jacobs argues that Butler’s

extreme depictions of the humanist self, violently defending its integrity against the threatening Other, and of the posthuman self, struggling to maintain any coherence in the absence of constituting Others, might both be read as cautionary accounts of the excesses of humanist and posthumanist thought. In a sense, her work sets up and then blurs the false dilemma between integral and dispersed subjectivities, between an identity politics incapable of coalition-based action and an uncommitted postmodernism allowing itself to be shaped by, “contained” by, whatever opposition it encounters. (109)

While the link is not specific, Jacobs’s discussion of Butler and her community formations calls to mind Levitas and Sargisson’s dialogue regarding alternative intentional communities, social networks that renegotiate notions of individuality and collectivity. Indeed, Jacobs’s analysis of Butler’s Oankali and Resisters demonstrates that even fictionalized intentional communities are not perfect; but following Suvin’s and Sargisson’s assessments that epistemology and art are preconditions to political action, she highlights how Butler allows for an imaginative reconsideration of community and embodiment in the shadow of a dark horizon.

The second superlative essay, written by Maria Varsam (“Concrete Dystopia: Slavery and Its Others”), argues for direct connections among past, present, and future by exploring slavery in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). In Varsam’s analysis, these texts highlight a “‘dystopian continuum,’ one that a) spans the time-space axis, b) links fact and fiction in a non-representational mode, and c) expands the generic category of dystopian fiction while reframing the historical novel of the Afro-American slave experience in terms of a utopian impulse, a process of hope and resistance to oppression,” the purpose of which is to “emphasize the importance of slavery as a living memory and constitute a warning of the danger of history repeating itself” (204). As part of her engagement with the dystopian continuum, Varsam resists author intentionality, arguing that “[w]hat is needed is a text-based definition that the reader takes an active part in generating, since it is the reader’s understanding of the narrator’s message that will establish the distinction between what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ future world” (205). Echoing Suvin’s theory of cognitive estrangement and drawing on the work of Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky, the main stylistic strategy Varsam uses to explore this discrepancy is defamiliarization: by making the world strange, the reader “must empathize with the narrator/protagonist in order to condemn, as the narrator/protagonist does, those aspects of society that constitute the narrator’s oppression” (206). Linking defamiliarization, dystopia, and condemnation, Varsam provides a cogent analysis of the historical affinities between slavery and dystopia and establishes an arc that connects temporally disparate texts. For example, she links Jacobs to both Atwood and Butler by focusing on the position of children as property of white slaveowners/ commanders, the sublimation of sexual desire to maternal function, the enviable value of freedom, and the gendered relations of oppression. Admittedly, unlike Atwood’s and Butler’s novels, Jacobs’s autobiographical slave narrative is not sf; yet the links Varsam makes draw it into a relatively seamless dialogue with the other texts. At the same time, however, there is a cognitive gap in Varsam’s analysis of defamiliarization: how is it established that a reader must empathize with the narrator and subsequently condemn the slave society? Some engagement with the structural manner by which intentionality and defamiliarization lead to an unequivocal critical condemnation is worth pursuing; nevertheless, Varsam’s analysis is a jewel of this collection.

The two film essays are by Peter Fitting and Philip E. Wegner. Fitting’s “Unmasking the Real? Critique and Utopia in Recent SF Films” explores the construction of reality in Dark City (1998), The Matrix (1999), Pleasantville (1998), and The Truman Show (1998). Prior to engaging these movies, however, Fitting makes the argument that Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1991), a novel often defined as a critical dystopia, is in his estimation a eutopia or positive utopia. Also, the Piercy material is intended to introduce a discussion of the critical in critical utopia/dystopia, which he defines as an “explanation of how the dystopian situation came about as much as what should be done about it” (156). This inclusion of Piercy’s novel in an essay on sf films is choppy and a discussion of the critical could have been accomplished without it. Then, in a curious move, Fitting takes “two extreme examples” (156) of the critical and contrasts Atwood’s Gilead (The Handmaid’s Tale) with the future of the first two The Terminator films (1984, 1991), arguing that the former “contains an implicit warning that this may be where we are heading, as well as an account of those elements in our present that have produced this future,” while the future of the latter “is not important in itself, but serves rather to provide a justification for the films’ events” (156). While this may be true and the definition of critical compelling, it struck me as odd that Fitting would contrast a novel with a series of films; after all, cinema conventions are profoundly different from literary conventions, so why contrast two very different media? Perhaps The Teminator and Volker Schlöndorff’s 1990 film of The Handmaid’s Tale would have been more appropriate. Another oddity is Fitting’s selection of films; while all four movies “portray illusory, constructed realities that are inhabited by people ... who are deliberately kept unaware of the artificial nature of their worlds” (157), I was unsure how Pleasantville and The Truman Show qualified as science fiction, notably in contrast with the explicitly sf qualities of Dark City and The Matrix. How is science fiction being defined/deployed so as to incorporate these four movies? This is not to say it cannot be done, but some explanation would be illuminating, especially since Fitting, in his discussion of Dark City, admits that The Truman Show is not sf. Finally, there is scant attention given to The Matrix, particularly odd given the ongoing critical attention the trilogy has garnered; a lot more can be said regarding this movie’s relationship to Utopia than the one paragraph Fitting offers.

The awkwardness of Fitting’s essay is unfortunately compounded by Phillip E. Wegner’s “Where the Prospective Horizon Is Omitted: Naturalism and Dystopia in Fight Club and Ghost Dog.” The essay is an interesting discussion of the relationship of dystopia to literary naturalism. Wegner demonstrates the manner by which Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924) highlight the differences between anti-utopia and literary naturalism, differences that emerge in Fight Club (1999) and Ghost Dog (1999). Yet how do Fight Club and Ghost Dog qualify for inclusion in a collection on science fiction and dystopia?3 Wegner goes on to argue that the blasted urban cores of Fight Club and Ghost Dog are “very much those of cyberpunk fiction: post-industrial urban cores, filled with abandoned buildings, decaying factories, and the waste products and ‘throwaway’ populations of twentieth-century capitalist culture” (174); but blasted urban cores are as much a mainstay of Dick and Ballard as a trope of cyberpunk and they do not automatically define a film as science fictional or dystopian. Categorization proves particularly problematic in discussing Ghost Dog when Wegner identifies the film as belonging to the “more recent subgenre of the dystopia, the superhero comic book narrative” (174). Given the recent ubiquity of superhero-based films, I am unclear how Ghost Dog, subtitled The Way of the Samurai, qualifies as a superhero narrative and at what point the superhero comic-book narrative even became a sub-genre of dystopia.

Wegner’s link between Ghost Dog and the superhero illuminates a final issue: neologistic terminology that complicates the valuable discussions taking place. For example, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is described by Wegner as an anti-utopia, most critics contend it is a classic dystopia, and Wegner notes that Karl Mannheim considers the novel a conservative utopia. This mercurial use of terminology runs throughout Dark Horizons, resulting in an at times bewildering cacophony of terms: Utopia, Anti-Utopia, eutopia, critical utopia, critical dystopia, classic utopia, classic dystopia, anti-utopia, proto-utopia, proto-dystopia, simple dystopia, positive utopia, micro-utopia, flawed utopia, concrete utopia, concrete dystopia, conservative utopia, fallible eutopia, fallible dystopia, counter-utopian thinking, and, of course, the superhero comic-book narrative dystopia. Case in point: in “The Problem of the ‘Flawed Utopia’: A Note on the Costs of Eutopia,” Lyman Tower Sargent argues that the flawed utopia “refers to works that present what appears to be a good society until the reader learns of some flaw that raises questions about the basis for its claim to be a good society” and that it exists as a sub-type of the dystopia, anti-utopia, critical utopia, and critical dystopia (225). Admittedly, perhaps the nuances of the flawed utopia escape me, but given its existence within four different sub-types, is “flawed utopia” even a useful articulation? This issue of critical terminology may be less a problem of the text than a problem of utopian studies in general, but the volume begs for some editorial control of terminology in the name of clarity, especially since the definitions seem to run antithetically to the border-fluidity which, the contributors argue, is taking place in contemporary fictions. In the conclusion, Baccolini writes that she is “afraid, at times, that the search for an adequate language with which to talk about this event [post-9/11 military interventions] may lead to a silencing altogether or to just one appropriate—read normative—use of language (which is another form of silencing)” (248). Clearly, Dark Horizons demonstrates that there is no danger of utopian studies succumbing to a normative language; the search for an adequate language, however, can also find itself in danger of too many voices clamoring to provide some original terminology while neologistic terminology may cloud the horizon rather than clear it.

In spite of its few weaknesses and many competing terminologies, Dark Horizons is a valuable resource in utopian and sf studies. While I am not wholeheartedly convinced that the book will appeal to “concerned citizens” (as the back cover proclaims), it will certainly be an invaluable resource for students and academics alike, an anthology that resists the silencing of anti-utopia and normative language in the (Utopian) hope that art and imagination can chart a path toward an (en)lightened horizon, a present and future that can kick through the darkness of the critical dystopia.

1. In distinguishing between Utopia as a general discourse and specific instances of utopia or dystopia, Moylan and Baccolini include the following information: “We use uppercase to refer to the historical antinomies of Utopia and Anti-Utopia; we use lowercase for instances of utopian expression (texts or practices)” (11).
2. Suvin’s analysis of Utopia and Disneyfication, in conjunction with the bracketing pieces exploring the impact of 9/11, is particularly timely given the initial difficulties of distributing Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, a film critiquing George W. Bush’s handling of 9/11 and the subsequent military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perceived as too partisan for release during the 2004 election campaign, it was dropped by its original distributor, Disney-owned Miramax Films. The film was later released by Lions Gate Entertainment and IFC Films and, as of late 2004, has earned more than $100 million (the record for a documentary), sparking Moore to begin work on a “sequel” about the 2004 Presidential election campaign, tentatively called Fahrenehit 9/11 1/2.
3. This is the same question raised by the inclusion of Pleasantville and The Truman Show in Fitting’s analysis and Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in Varsam’s essay: is “dystopian imagination” intended to be interpreted as a separate field from “science fiction” for the purposes of this volume? This is certainly not the impression provided by the subtitle, nor by Baccolini and Moylan’s identification of their project as focusing on “Anglo-American sf literature and film and on the question of the political future of utopianism in this historical period” (8). While this may not be a major issue, it would nevertheless be useful to understand clearly whether Dark Horizons is addressing the dystopian imagination in science fiction or the dystopian imagination or science fiction.

Graham Sleight

Visions of Delaware

Jutta Weldes, ed. To Seek Out New Worlds: Exploring Links Between Science Fiction and World Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. x + 230pp. $24.95 pbk.

I have mixed views about this book, so it’s best to begin with as neutral as possible a statement of the facts. Jutta Weldes, a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Bristol, has collected nine essays discussing the interplay between the cultural phenomena of science fiction and world politics. The contributors are almost all academics in the field of international relations and world politics, based primarily in the US, but also in Canada, Norway, and the UK. In common, I suspect, with most readers of SFS, I can claim only a lay interest in the study of international relations. I’m sure, also, that most readers of SFS welcome interest in our field from other disciplines. So I realize that the negative comments that follow are going to sound like a proof of G.B. Shaw’s line from The Doctor’s Dilemma (1911) that “all professions are conspiracies against the laity”; to which I can only respond that the reviewer’s job is to put down a considered and honest response to the book on the desk. The first of my reservations about Weldes’s book is that it presents a damagingly limited conception of science fiction; the second is that many of the detailed examples it provides are less illuminating and well-chosen than one would have hoped; and the third is that it presents a damagingly limited conception of international relations.

Weldes’s introduction, sensibly enough, sets out a rationale for the book. Sf, she says, is a significant component of popular culture of the last century. Popular culture can reinforce or criticize the power structures that shape big-picture geopolitics. So there is a two-way interaction that can be examined for signs both of what power wants to tell culture and vice versa. Weldes’s examples are well-chosen: she mentions the influence of Star Trek on NASA, which named the first Space Shuttle “Enterprise,” as well as the nick-naming of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative after Star Wars (2). Perhaps more surprisingly, but equally persuasively, she suggests that Asimov’s original Foundation series (1951-53) represents a particular set of aspirations for liberal globalization, while at the same time encoding the essentially undemocratic deep structure of such a society (3).

By the second chapter, Iver B. Neumann’s discussion of diplomacy in Star Trek, an inescapable problem with the book becomes evident. Of the eight chapters after the introduction, seven are concerned solely or overwhelmingly with works from film or television. Three of these are concerned solely and two more partially with Star Trek. And the Star Trek material focuses predominantly on The Next Generation rather than on the original 1960s series, the subsequent movies, or the other TV series. (One of the other media-centric chapters is devoted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer—a fine and influential series, but hardly sf.) It’s like picking up a volume about the USA only to discover that most of the text is about Delaware.

Neumann’s chapter seeks to describe the range of ways in which diplomacy is represented in Star Trek. He isolates first what he argues is a peculiarly American approach to diplomacy: its (at least surface) appeals to universals of freedom, rationality, and so forth, which distinguish it from murkier Old World Realpolitik. Some of the idealism of this self-presentation is carried over in the Star Trek infrastructure—the Prime Directive, the United Federation of Planets, and so forth—but it is also depicted as having limits. The Borg, for instance, are “post-diplomatic”—that is, they simply don’t negotiate. Moreover, access to the Star Trek ideals is tied to progress: diplomatic contact can be made only with worlds that have discovered warp technology. This is fine so far as it goes, but Neumann’s analysis is hampered by the narrow range of Star Trek material he chooses to look at—primarily The Next Generation’s “Damrok” episode and the Borg plotlines in various TV incarnations. It would surely be far more pertinent to study two of the films: The Undiscovered Country (1991) for its explicit attempts to allegorize diplomatic rapprochement at the end of the Cold War, and First Contact (1996) for its detailed treatment of the crucial cusp moment when two civilizations first meet (and why a third, the Borg, might wish to prevent such a meeting).

Some of the same strictures apply to the following chapter by Naeem Inayatullah on imperialism. Potentially, this is an interesting subject: sf has after all tended, particularly in its pulpier days, to treat aliens as natives who need to be effaced so that new Americas can be created on their worlds. Inayatullah is undoubtedly right to say that shards of this imperialist world-view live on even in the supposedly liberal framework of Star Trek. But I’m not convinced by his argument that TNG “never makes the need to learn explicit [since] to do so would suggest the presence of a lack within the Federation” (58). In other words, the Federation pictures itself as an entity that does not need to change because of its new experiences. I suppose that the need to learn is never made explicit because that would make a commercial TV program seem too much like school; but surely (and more importantly) it’s implicit. The continuing narratives of personal and cultural growth are a pervasive part of all the Star Trek incarnations, almost to their detriment. After all, why else would Picard’s Enterprise have a Counselor (that is, a personal-growth facilitator) on the bridge? Why does TNG make such a big point of incorporating Klingons into the Federation side—showing precisely that the Federation has seen the need to change since Kirk’s era? And what is the Captain’s Log but a device through which the main character can reflect on the experiences just seen, in the manner that gives California a bad name?

By now, a further problem with the book’s approach is apparent. Almost all of the examples used are those in which sf serves as a metaphor for the present state of the world rather than those where an sf world is extrapolated from the writer’s situation. (I’m borrowing here a distinction between sf-as-metaphor and sf-as-extrapolation from Ursula Le Guin’s 1976 introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness [1969].) Some of the most important pieces of written sf in the 1990s are extrapolative works that target diplomacy and world politics as part of their central subjects. I’m thinking of (for instance) Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1992–1996), Bruce Sterling’s Distraction (1998), and Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang (1992). Each of these embodies a serious attempt not to prophesy, but to make some best guesses at where present geopolitical trends might lead. A consideration of them would have significantly enriched Weldes’s book, but none of these three authors gets even an index mention—although Sterling provides a back-cover plug. A look at some earlier extrapolative sf might also have been fruitful. To take one canonical example, Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) posits a crudely imperialist America that looked fanciful during Stapledon’s lifetime but that might resonate somewhat now. Whatever one’s personal preference between the metaphorical and extrapolative approaches to sf—approaches for which Le Guin and Sterling might respectively be exemplars—simply to ignore the latter leaves a huge gap at the heart of this book.

That said, the strongest of the metaphor chapters here is Ronnie D. Lipschutz’s examination of aliens and alienation. Even if it covers very well-trodden ground in discussing Blade Runner (1982) and The Matrix (1999), it makes some thoughtful suggestions about depictions of otherness. Related territory is discussed in the following chapter, where Patricia Molloy makes some similar points about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

These two are grouped together with Aida A. Hozic’s discussion of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) under the heading “Aliens Among Us.” Hozic spends much of her time discussing The Zone in Tarkovsky’s film, and, in particular, whether it can be seen as standing for, say, the Soviet political system. She acknowledges Tarkovsky’s own rejection of overtly political goals in his art, but continues trying to find some (127). While it’s perfectly possible that Tarkovsky was simply wrong, and that unconsciously or otherwise his films can be read politically, he was making a very similar point to one that critics of the fantastic have been repeating for some while. The tropes of sf may sometimes be metaphors, but that’s not all they are; or, to be more precise, analysis that sees them only as metaphors is likely to be limiting and reductive. Much of Hozic’s chapter is spent constructing metaphorical maps of Stalker and talking about those rather than about the territory of the work itself—though she does at the end return to Tarkovsky’s own point of view on the film.

The following chapter, by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Daniel H. Nexon, looks at the Borg in Star Trek and makes a simple point at some length. There’s a problem, their argument runs, with the Borg as an implacable and homogenous collective, since collectives simply aren’t very storyable. We need narratives to focus on individuals. Hence the progressive introduction of representative faces for the Borg, from Picard-as-Locutus to the Borg Queen and Seven of Nine. Unfortunately, the logical next question—whether the same process goes on in media representations of otherwise shadowy collectives in the real world—is only discussed in passing (147).

Geoffrey Whitehill’s chapter, along with Lipschutz’s and Crawford’s (discussed below), seems to me one of the strongest here. It discusses the ways in which sf’s representations of “the beyond”—of transcendence and otherness—vary and are managed. In particular, there’s a very interesting discussion of the movie Starship Troopers (1996), although a contrast with (or a mention of) the original Heinlein novel (1959) would have been useful.

Finally, Neta C. Crawford contributes an examination of the feminist utopian tradition in sf. Again, some of the emphases here will seem odd to those in the field. Le Guin is clearly a central figure in any such discussion, but to concentrate on The Left Hand of Darkness and afford scarcely a mention to The Dispossessed (1974) is, well, an unusual interpretation of what constitutes “utopia.” At the same time, however, Crawford covers many of the bases one would expect: Gilman’s Herland (1914), Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean (1986)—although not Russ’s The Female Man (1975). Throughout, Crawford articulates a clear sense of these works’ relations to the traditions of sf and to larger social and cultural flows.

I said at the start of this review that I thought this book’s approach to international relations was damagingly limited—a pretty hubris-ridden thing for a layperson to say about the work of people who make their livings talking and writing about the subject. It seems to me axiomatic that academic work in the humanities should be accessible to the intelligent and engaged lay reader; that it should, as it were, make a case for itself to the outside world. For this reader, Weldes’s book failed to do so. The range of problems in world politics that it might have covered is immense: the disjunctions between the developed and developing world, the transforming effects of technology, the growing threat to the environment. The vast majority of the chapters here seemed simply disengaged, at most taking a non-specific and ill-defined notion of culture as their closest engagement with the world outside the academy. Nor is it sufficient in circumstances where politics comprises so many urgent and specific problems to merely go hunting for imperialism in supposedly liberal rhetoric or to conclude that encountering the Other is very complex and confounding.

There is, of course, an elephant in the room which has so far gone unmentioned. The book was published in May 2003, and some of the papers contain references from 2001 and 2002. But, with a few fleeting exceptions, no reference is made to the events of September 11, 2001, nor to the subsequent shifts in US foreign policy. The exceptions are a brief and non-specific discussion of “recent events in world politics” in Whitehill’s chapter (190-91); an interesting comparison in Jackson and Nexon between the “Axis of Evil” State of the Union address in 2002 and Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech in 1982 (146); and a fleeting mention in Crawford of a 2002 Bush speech at West Point (196). Otherwise, this absence seems to me extraordinary: whatever one thinks about the causes and effects of September 11, and however much its horror may be equalled or exceeded by other horrors that weren’t shown live on television, it surely remains a turning point in international relations and in how we perceive ourselves as a species. Indeed, sf writers have already begun to respond to it in works such as James Morrow’s “Apologue” (2001), William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003), and Lucius Shepard’s “Only Partly Here” (2003). So its absence in Weldes’s book is an extraordinary one.

To put it another way: it seems to me that there are few times in history when international relations have been more central to the lives and thoughts of people throughout the world. Nor has there been a time when more tools have been in the hands of more people for talking about these issues. (It’s certain, for instance, that one of the most enduring and influential accounts of the second Gulf War will be that of the anonymous weblogger “Salam Pax” <>). Science fiction has, at its best, talked about these issues with clarity and passion—whether in extrapolative or metaphorical mode. This book could have provided an account of that interaction that would be of use to those who felt such matters important. I don’t doubt that the editor and contributors shared such an aspiration for this book. So it’s all the more regrettable that, for much of the time, they have not succeeded.

Shaw, George Bernard. The Doctor’s Dilemma (with Preface). New York: Brentano’s, 1911.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “Introduction.” The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books, 1976. n.p.

Back to Home