Thinking Through the Science Fiction Machine.
Niegeschichte: Science Fiction als Kunst- und Denkmaschine. [Neverstory: Science Fiction as Art- and Thinking-Machine]. Matthes & Seitz, 2019. 942 pp. €38 pbk, €25,99 ebk.
With Niegeschichte [Neverstory], German sf author and cultural critic Dietmar Dath presents an erudite, well-written, and stimulating account of sf as cultural history. While the book mainly focuses on literature, it also discusses other narrative forms including films, the visual arts, and even pop music. Niegeschichte, however, wants to be more than sf history. Dath balances an in-depth account of the genre’s development with an ambitious interpretive approach. Two strains of theory frame the historical narrative. Readers familiar with Dath’s work will not be surprised by the central role of Marxist aesthetics, and in particular the claim that “art is a form of understanding” (22, all translations mine): Dath is one of the most prominent Marxist writers in Germany. Additionally, the text deploys elements from conceptual mathematics, especially category theory, to explain the poetic relations within and among the artworks he discusses. While the theoretical explorations at times expand into the overtly abstract, they are generally well argued and detailed enough to carry Dath’s arguments over nearly one thousand pages.
Niegeschichte appears to be written for the casual sf reader: the dustcover blurb advertises it as an “introduction to [Dath’s] favorite topic.” Its chronological organization and the (mostly) canonical text selection underline the book’s introductory character, as does Dath’s personal investment and his talent as a writer. His honest display of excitement for many of the analyzed stories, novels, and films is often infectious, and the well-structured narrative of the historical part shows that Dath’s talents as a novelist transfer seamlessly to the cultural-historical approach. Niegeschichte also makes frequent allusions to films, literary texts, and philosophical theories from outside the genre. These references allow readers to draw parallels between sf and other areas of cultural history. But the book’s analytical aspirations go far beyond introducing new readers to the sf canon. Rather, its main goal is to analyze its history in order to develop a precise understanding of its main characteristics. In this sense, Niegeschichte is a historical-materialist account.
Chapter I presents both personal and analytical motivations behind the book and clarifies the grounding of Dath’s poetic thinking in Marxist theories, from Marx himself via George Lukács to East German writer Peter Hacks. Dath makes clear that the references to non-sf artworks and general theories not only draw in casual readers, but also support his claim that sf presents a unique narrative mode that “opens up a cultural history of its era” (27). Dath calls sf an “Art- and Thinking-Machine,” as the book’s subtitle has it. A machine is “everything that replaces, supports, and expands our memory—i.e. writing, image, storage—and everything that allows us to manipulate these stored data more effectively …: the alphabet, mathematical symbols, all rules to manipulate them, words, sentences, equations” (96). The historical narrative presented in Niegeschichte is also an inspection of this machine, answering the questions “What kind of machine is SF? Who constructed it? Who possesses it? Who uses it? Against what? What for?” (103).
A central concept of the book is what Dath calls “Aufhebungsfunktor” (“suspension functor” 72, passim). It combines Coleridge’s suspension of disbelief with Dath’s ambitious program of a poetics inspired by the mathematics of category theory, of which functor is a central concept. Dath understands sf not as the accumulation of all texts that deal with future civilizations, spaceships, aliens, and/or time travel but rather as the genre’s formal and functional characteristics. Category theory does not describe discrete objects or sets of them, but “when, how, where, and in which ways something can be transformed into something else” (71). And these are exactly the questions Dath poses about sf history. The suspension functor describes the suspension of our “expectation of experiencing the world” and substitutes an alternative set of rules—those that are characteristic of the three branches of fantastic literature: sf, horror, and fantasy. Sf relies on what Dath then calls “negative induction,” or “neginduction” (79, 268-69). Although the rules of any science-fiction story can be arbitrary, sf narratives need to explain and unfold them in a logical fashion. These concepts allow Dath to tell the story of sf through the genealogy of its poetic and epistemic forms. For all its intellectual rigor and the undeniably stimulating perspectives that Dath gains from these ideas, the same points could have been made with a less daunting (and at times, circuitous) theoretical model.
The historical trajectory Niegeschichte proposes follows a conventional storyline. Each chapter introduces a great variety of texts and authors. Surprisingly, these sections do not feel repetitive at all because of Dath’s attention to each story’s particularities. Though some analyses are stronger than others, and some remain opaque (as in the case of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren ), most of these sections present unique takes on classic texts. Individual interpretations are not independent, but always part of the greater trajectory of Dath’s functional sf history. Despite Dath’s many readings, there remain some blind spots. For examples, the Strugatzky brothers are barely mentioned, and outsiders such as R.A. Lafferty do not appear at all. And while non-anglophone writers are introduced as well, their roles are always defined by their relationship to anglophone sf.
Chapter II is devoted to what Dath calls “Proto-SF.” Beginning with Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe as inventors of the suspension functor, this chapter then focuses on Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Chapters III and IV explore the birth and blooming of Gernsback’s and Campbell’s Golden Age. Chapter IV mostly zooms in on Robert Heinlein (although he shares the chapter with Isaac Asimov and Ivan Yefremov). Despite his admiration for Heinlein’s craftsmanship, Dath does not ignore some of the more problematic aspects of Heinlein’s work. Discussing Farnham’s Freehold (1964), he offers a convincing analysis of its racist undertones and shows the continuity between Heinlein’s problematic fictionalization of race relations and contemporary racism.
Niegeschichte is dedicated to Harlan Ellison, who appears throughout the book in the many roles he played in sf history—as author, editor, and script writer, but he looms largest in chapter V, which discusses the New Wave. This chapter features the greatest concentration of individual readings, discussing authors from Michael Moorcock and Ellison to J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, and Octavia Butler. One section even discusses David Bowie’s contribution, or indebtedness, to New Wave sf. Highlighting the individual characteristics of each text yet also stressing their common concerns, this chapter is an impressive display of the functional claim that guides Dath’s account, and certainly the one where its historical coherency is displayed most densely.
Dath mentions Joanna Russ’s sf criticism as a model for his own critical writing in Chapter I (21), and Chapter VI, which is devoted to Russ’s work, claims that she has often been misread as overtly dry and complicated. These accusations, Dath argues, stem from the fact that many readers misunderstand Russ’s main conclusions. As he writes about The Female Man (1975): “Again, Russ thinks one step ahead of the average person who has a try at sf: the opposite of utopia is not dystopia. Likewise, the opposite of the victory of the oppressed is not the victory of the oppressors, but a reality without prospects where it seems unimaginable that the conflict between the two would ever come to an end” (476). Dath reads Russ’s fiction and criticism as intimately related, describing her poetics as being focused on “critique and immanence” (thus the title of the chapter’s last section, 312). In Dath’s convincing reading, Russ writes sf that does not function as a mirror for the world today, but instead radically reflects the limits of utopian thinking itself. This makes her, in the context of Niegeschichte, a writer with a unique insight into the way “negative induction” guides sf’s imagination.
Chapter VII focuses on the diffusion of the genre that many critics and writers associate with the success of Star Wars (1977). Its strongest point, besides its discussion of cyberpunk, is its thoughtful differentiation between the moving image and literature. Again, Ellison takes center stage, both as a critic of Star Wars and as a script writer for Star Trek (“The City on the Edge of Forever,” 1967). The strength of this chapter, however, lies in Dath’s sharp distinction between the aesthetic characteristics of text and moving image. Discussing his own struggles in writing about films, Dath argues that one needs to read moving images as exactly that—images. This leads to a wonderful reading of the illustrations of Chris Foss, whose painting “Cities in Flight: A Clash of Cymbals” (1974) is reproduced on the cover of Niegeschichte. By diving into cyberpunk throughout the second half of the chapter, this illuminating discussion of sf’s intermediality and the different modes of reading it requires changes to historically organized sections. One wonders if this chapter could have been divided in two. This is one of the rare occasions in which Niegeschichte seems to collapse before the huge amount of material it wants to cover.
Chapter VIII presents a second close reading of a single author. Greg Egan’s work, Dath claims, is on a level with “Verne’s or Wells’s, Ellison’s or Russ’s” (621) in terms of its importance to the development of sf. Here, Dath most clearly deviates from writing an introduction to sf. Instead, he dives into an ambitious and demanding reading of Egan’s work. Building on Egan’s own sophisticated integration of science into his fiction, Dath shows how the Australian writer creates a radical version of sf that “partially fulfills, partially expands, and partially demolishes” the limits of sf’s poetic program (621). Dath stresses the importance of probability theory and modal logic for Egan’s poetics. In a detailed analysis of Egan’s novel Permutation City (1995), Dath shows that the scientific topics of Egan’s novels can also be identified as guiding their poetic structure. Here, the mathematical concepts Dath uses in his introduction work well with his readings of Egan’s prose (and those of both Ted Chiang and Cixin Liu, whom Dath introduces as Egan’s poetic kin).
Chapters IX and X pick up on this synthesis and present the theoretical conclusions Dath draws from his historical account. Chapter IX sums up the book’s aesthetic claims, the idea that sf’s functional attributes enable “world extrapolation via world building as reflection” (793). This chapter further builds upon readings of Egan’s work (here, the story “TAP” ). Dath underscores an argument he makes throughout the book, namely that the science any given story fictionalizes also provides its poetic structure. In chapter X, this aesthetic insight illustrates sf’s epistemological claims. Inspired by Russ, Dath reads sf from a historical-materialistic standpoint. The stories, protagonists, and theories sf explores are not part of an escapist world unrelated to ours, but very much part of it. Niegeschichte’s subject, Dath explains, is the “historical-social praxis of sf,” which he hopes to “arm against the machines that beleaguer mass consciousness, and that Mark Fisher called ‘capitalist realism’—the induced stupidity of the imperialistic ‘There is no alternative’” (871) This sentence, hidden in parentheses, may be the most outspoken programmatic sentence of the book. Even if one disagrees with Dath’s theoretical choices, one must acknowledge that Niegeschichte provides many well-structured arguments regarding sf’s potential to imagine and think through alternative futures for our contested present—even if (or precisely because) these futures are written in stories that never will be.—Christoph Schmitz, Duke University
Translingual and Transcultural Ties between Western and Chinese SF.
Found in Translation: “New People” in Twentieth-Century Chinese Science Fiction. Association for Asian Studies, 2021. 144 pp. $16 pbk.
Jing Jiang’s Found in Translation is a concise but comprehensive exploration of the translingual and transcultural ties between Western and Chinese sf from the late nineteenth century through the end of the twentieth century. The book focuses on the motif of the so-called “new people” with whom Chinese sf writers were often preoccupied over the past century. Through close readings of both original Western works and their Chinese counterparts focused on the idea of creating new people, the author reveals how this motif has undergone various metamorphoses throughout the history of Chinese sf.
This book is a fine complement to existing scholarship. Recent years have witnessed the publication of several English-language scholarly monographs on Chinese sf, such as Nathaniel Isaacson’s Celestial Empire: The Emergence of Chinese Science Fiction (2017), Lorenzo Andolfatto’s Hundred Days’ Literature: Chinese Utopian Fiction at the End of Empire, 1902–1910 (2019), Hua Li’s Chinese Science Fiction during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw (2021), and Will Peyton’s Chinese and Western Literary Influence in Liu Cixin’s Three Body Trilogy (2021). These monographs are either author-based studies or focus on one specific historical period. Jiang’s book employs the idea of “new people” as a thread to draw different historical periods together and reveal how Chinese sf has assimilated various features of Western sf while still evolving into a relatively indigenous literary genre in China. By means of the overarching concept of “new people,” the book embarks upon in-depth exploration of some important issues such as realism and posthumanism in Chinese science fiction. It situates Chinese sf “within a dynamic model of world literature,” exploring the interwoven connections between Chinese sf, translation, and the nation-state (2). It traces how various Western sf works have crossed linguistic and national barriers to reach China, and how various generations of Chinese sf writers have assimilated, transformed, and expanded various Western sf motifs in their own works. Found in Translation demonstrates the important role that sf has played during the past century in building a modern China. It shows how the elitist aspects of Chinese sf were emphasized at the expense of the genre’s connections to popular culture.
The book is chronologically structured and topically organized. It contains an introduction, four chapters, and an epilogue. Chapter One, “Medicine for the Mind, Panacea for the Nation,” situates the emergence of Chinese sf within the context of intellectual discourse about China’s modernization from the mid-nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century. This chapter illustrates how prominent Chinese intellectuals such as Liang Qichao and Lu Xun stressed the instrumental potential of science fiction in disseminating knowledge about modern science and democracy in China, thereby promoting sf as a subgenre of modern-day fiction. Following earlier research by Patrick Hanan, this chapter also examines the pioneering work done by the Anglican missionary John Fryer (1839-1928) in the late Qing period. Fryer not only promoted modern science and underscored the importance of modern fiction, but he also viewed the synergy of modern fiction and science as a panacea for rooting out late imperial China’s “three evils”—opium addiction, formulaic civil service exam essays, and foot-binding. Fryer’s writings exerted much influence over prominent Chinese intellectuals such as Yan Fu, Liang Qichao, and Lu Xun, who embraced Western science “as a new, enlightened way of understanding the world characteristic of the modern age” (17).
Chapter Two, “Scientifically Formed or Reformed,” focuses on early Chinese sf writers’ fascination with creating artificial humans in a laboratory; this literary theme “gave rise to a literary vision” of “the malleability or programmability of the soul” (40). This chapter traces the transnational journey of the American novelist Louise J. Strong’s sf story, “An Unscientific Story” (1903), through multilingual translations. The original story’s skeptical and critical views about creating human life in a laboratory setting metamorphose into a celebration of scientific advances capable of doing precisely this in Lu Xun’s Chinese translation, given an entirely new title, “The Art of Creating Humanity” [Zaorenshu, 1905]. This Chinese-language version was based on a Japanese translation of the English-language original, and it inherited the Japanese translation’s celebratory tone about scientific advances. In contrast with Lu Xun’s optimistic view, Bao Tianxiao’s two Chinese translations, “The Art of Creating Humanity” [Zaorenshu, 1906] and “The New Art of Creating Humanity” [Xin zaorenshu, 1910], offered a more cautious view about creating artificial life, raising some sober questions about “the boundary between humans and machines” and “the free will and autonomy” of lab-created organisms (42-43). This chapter also examines techniques for remaking the Chinese mind through brain-changing surgery in Xu Nianci’s “New Tale of Mr. Braggadocio” [Xin Faluo xiansheng tan, 1905] and reshaping the human soul by means of radio-programming technology in Gu Junzheng’s “Dream for Peace” [Heping de meng, 1940]. Ironically, these late Qing and early Republican Chinese writers’ obsessions with creating human bodies in a lab setting and remolding the human mind were later taken up by Mao Zedong and utilized for ideological thought control in the Yan’an and PRC eras.
Chapter Three, “Report from the Future: Science Fiction as a Mode of Realist Writing,” examines connections between Chinese sf and literary realism during the post-Mao cultural thaw from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. The chapter demonstrates that from the 1950s to the early 1980s, PRC sf was “fundamentally a mode of realist writing” in the sense that it took “the representation of the real to be its ultimate task” and was aesthetically aligned with literary realism (53). During the post-Mao cultural thaw, Chinese sf aimed to “prophesize, rather than fantasize, a future reality and to report it back to the present” (53). In order to substantiate her argument, the author traces the translingual and transnational journey of the American writer David Rorvik’s novel In His Image: The Cloning of a Man (1978) from the US to China. While the original open-ended work reveals Rorvik’s deep skepticism and uncertainty about the ethics of human cloning, its Chinese sequel, Ye Yonglie’s Reaping What One Sows [Zishi qiguo, 1979], and Ni Kuang’s Backup [Houbei, 1981] reveal these Chinese authors’ “unshakable faith” (74) in human cloning and in science and technology to “demystify and forestall any uncertainty in the future” (65). Both Chinese narratives unequivocally embrace the technology of human cloning, exploring the fate of cloned humans and related legal and moral issues.
Chapter Four, “Posthumans and ‘New People’ in Postsocialist Imaginations,” reveals tensions between humanism and posthumanism as presented in three Chinese robot narratives written in the early 1980s. The chapter examines how Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (1920) offers a narrative template for Chinese sf writers seriously to affirm the human factor in various posthumanist episodes. The author offers a close reading of Xiao Jianheng’s Professor Shaluomu’s Fallacy [Shaluomu jiaoshou de miwu, 1980), Wei Yahua’s “Dream in the Land of Tender Bliss” [Wenrou zhixiang de meng, 1981], and Tong Enzheng’s “The Death of the World’s First Robot” [Shijie shang diyige jiqiren zhi si, 1983]. All three narratives examine social interactions between humans and machines such as robots, confirming humanity’s capacity to experience pain and suffering, emotions, and free will. Jiang’s analysis reveals how these early 1980s sf narratives resonate with various contemporaneous Chinese debates among intellectuals regarding a renewal of humanism in China. Hence, this chapter strengthens the author’s argument in Chapter Three that Chinese science fiction presents the future as “a new vantage point” for commenting on present-day social issues (76).
The epilogue draws upon discussions from the four preceding chapters to present the book’s conclusion that a C.T. Hsia-style “‘obsession with China’ [as argued in Hsia’s History of Modern Chinese Fiction (1961)]) as the collective emotional complex shared by almost all modern Chinese writers translates into a more concrete concern in Chinese sf to establish a body of worthy citizens who collectively inhabit and make up the modern nation” (93). The last section of the book deals with Chinese sf’s obsession with new people specifically related to the human body and language. This section explores four narratives: Mark Twain’s Eve’s Diary (1906), Lu Xun’s “Mending the Sky” [Butian, 1922], Feng Jicai’s “Eve on the Last Day of the World” [Mori Xiawa, 1997], and Lao She’s Cat Country [Maocheng ji, 1933]. While Twain’s Eve’s Diary comes across “as a deeply personal work” commemorating his late wife, Chinese writers such as Lu Xun read Eve as a new image of a woman who embodies “boundless energy and curiosity” (98). Consequently, Twain’s utopian Eve turns into a lonely, “beautiful and noble individual against an unsightly and ignoble crowd” in the three Chinese dystopian narratives. Furthermore, Eve’s linguistic gift in Twain’s narrative turns into an “alienation of language and breakdown of communication” in these Chinese writers’ works (101). The discrepancies between Twain’s narrative and its Chinese counterparts further demonstrate how Western literary motifs that took root in China have undergone mutations in cultural, national, and historical perspectives.
This book is a timely contribution to ongoing discussions about humanism and posthumanism in contemporary global technoscientific culture. It is also an important contribution to both Chinese sf studies and world literature studies.—Hua Li, Montana State University
Wild Blue Media: Thinking Through Seawater. Duke UP, 2020. 240 pp. $99.95 hc, $25.95 pbk.
It can be estranging for terrestrial readers to read and write about the sea. Melody Jue’s compelling new monograph Wild Blue Media: Thinking Through Seawater focuses on the ocean’s ability to disorient and displace, using seawater to challenge the terrestrial biases in media theory and philosophy. Positioning the ocean as a “horizon of possibility” (xi) for human thought, Jue underlines the importance of embodiment, perception, and mediation to the ways in which scholars, artists, and writers engage with underwater worlds.
Melody Jue is the recipient of the 2021 Speculative Fictions and Cultures of Science Book Award from the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) for Wild Blue Media. This recognition is well deserved, as the monograph makes important contributions to a wide range of fields, including (but not limited to): media studies, the emerging interdisciplinary field of ocean studies or “blue humanities,” literary theory, science and technology studies, and sf studies. Like the wider field of the blue humanities, Wild Blue Media seeks to shift critical inquiry from land-based environments to the planet’s expansive seas. In doing so, Jue participates in a growing conversation about the ways media theory accounts for physical environments, including in such works as John Durham Peters’s The Marvelous Clouds (U of Chicago P, 2015), Nicole Starosielski and Janet Walker’s Sustainable Media (Routledge, 2016), and Sean Cubitt’s Finite Media (Duke UP, 2017).
Jue’s rhetorical and theoretical emphasis on disorientation runs throughout the monograph, framing her methodological intervention as well as her engagement with sf studies. Jue begins the introduction with an anecdote about an early dive in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. She reflects: “I quickly realized that becoming a good diver was going to require extensive rehabituation.… It would be some time before, as Jacques Cousteau once put it, I would experience my ‘flesh feeling what the fish scales know’” (2). This sets up an analogy between the disorienting experience of learning to scuba dive and the process of displacing land-based understandings of direction, movement, and transmission within Western media theory. She argues that this process of rehabitation for a new diver from “terrestrial habits of movements and orientation” to ways of being underwater can be adapted to the theorization of media. As a “wild” and nonhuman environment, the ocean can be used to strain and expand habituated understandings of depth, direction, light, and sound (xii). Jue uses this milieu to “test” the limits of media—radio, newspapers, telephones, computers, satellites, cinema—as well as human perception (xi).
Seawater can activate theory’s “sensitivity to the role of the milieu” (2) through both its unique properties (salinity, pressure, increased density, coldness, electrical conductivity) and the ways in which artists, writers, and activists have engaged with specific oceans in their work. Jue describes this intervention as a “milieu-specific analysis”: a way of identifying how ways of thinking about communication and the world develop in relation to one’s environment (3). Changing this environment can help to shift forms of thought and raise new questions. Engaging with embodiment and milieu in this way, Jue’s method uses self-reflexivity as well as theories of situated knowledge in feminist science studies (see Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women, Routledge 1991).
Metaphors of submission, disorientation, and estrangement from scuba diving frame each of the book’s four chapters. In the first three, Jue imaginatively “submerges” (her word) a concept from media studies—interface, inscription, and database—into the ocean to investigate how our understanding shifts within a new milieu (5). This methodology of “conceptual displacement” is strongly informed by the tools of cognitive estrangement and extrapolation offered by sf. According to Jue: “the utopian and science fictional impulse of this book is to explore the ocean as a force for conceptual reorientations that sometimes estranges what we thought was familiar” (5). As a “science fictional strategy” (4), this methodology hinges on a speculative thought experiment: what happens if I take x and stick it in the sea? What does this teach me about x and about the oceanic environment x interacts with? What might I learn about my ways of thinking in the process? As she demonstrates across the book’s four chapters, conceptual displacement can take the form of physical immersion of media artefacts and human bodies into the ocean, technically mediated immersion (such as with hydrophones and underwater cameras), or “speculative immersion” through film, literature, and the arts (7). This expansive approach to speculative inquiry is perhaps the monograph’s most important contribution to sf scholarship, as Jue offers a method which can be applied a wide range of texts and contexts beyond speculative or fantastic literatures.
Chapter 1 builds on media theories of the interface as a flat surface users operate to control information as they examine the biological interface of the human lung when diving. Unlike interfaces such as keyboards and screens from studies of digital technologies, Jue argues that the lung becomes an interface through humans’ dependency on “an ecology of air” underwater (35). The chapter offers a phenomenological reading of the interface through close readings of memoirs and other nonfiction narratives about “the sensory and cognitive estrangement of breathing underwater” (36). Focusing on Jacques Cousteau’s autobiographical accounts of early experiments with the aqualung in Le Monde du silence [The Silent World, 1953] and Dr. Sylvia Earle’s Sea Change: A Message from the Ocean (1995), Jue theorizes the submersion, saturation, and volume of biological interfaces. Interestingly, she also touches upon the ways that gender mediates divers’ experiences of the ocean and the design of diving technologies (submarines, scuba tanks) as prosthetics for human survival. Chapter 1 concludes by turning to multispecies connections between human lungs and the ocean as “the blue ‘lungs’ of the planet” (37). She explores submergence as a strategy of climate change protest with the example of the Maldives’s 2008 underwater cabinet meeting, designed to draw international attention to the impacts of rising sea levels on the island nation.
Chapter 2 returns to Jue’s interest in sf, centering on Vilém Flusser’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis [The Vampire Squid, 2011] and the concept of inscription. Flusser creates “a media fable” about photography through the figure of the vampire squid (72), and he speculates on what media might resemble for the cephalopod. Reading Vampyroteuthis Infernalis both literally and allegorically, Jue explores the challenges of recording and transcription in the abyss of the deep ocean. She uses the vampire squid to consider inscription technologies such as photography, and to speculate how “information might be preserved underwater through the inscription of memories on subjects” rather than through engraved hard surfaces, photo-imagining, and electric polarities in terrestrial recording media (75-76). This attention to the ocean-specific conditions of media in the benthic world of the vampire squid opens up a parallel between the abyss and the photography darkroom.
In Chapter 3, Jue considers the materiality of seawater and the ways oceans make possible a different form of database storage than digital technologies. Whereas media theory predominately assumes “a default environment of air” for computational storage and “hard substrates” (113), Jue explores how the ocean might serve as a liquid storage substrate. The chapter focuses on two interactive databases, Google Ocean and ATLAS in silico, which offer users digital visualizations of oceans. Analyzing the projects’ representational choices, aesthetic, and form, she explores how matters of scale shape database logic. At the same time, Jue explores “the discursive and material imaginations of databases and oceans” and the ways “the language of fluidity” shapes ideas of digital storage (116).
Chapter 4 synthesizes the preceding conceptual reworking of interface, inscription, and database through a study of underwater museum environments. Here Jue’s narrative and methodological uses of diving come most strongly to the fore. She conducts a comparative media analysis of two underwater museums: Jason deCaires Taylor’s Museo Subacuático del Arte (Underwater Museum) in the Cancún National Marine Park, opened in 2010, and the geological “museum” of the “Dos Ojos” (Two Eyes) cenote in Tulum, Mexico, off the Yucatán Peninsula. Jue compares the experiences of visiting these places as a diver and accessing them digitally through online photographs and Google Street View. For Jue, these underwater places can prompt us to reconsider what we expect from museums, the interfaces through which visitors experience them, and the ways that seawater participates in a dynamic way with the “formation of history” (145).
Throughout Wild Blue Media, Jue is careful to underscore how the ocean is not a stable category: it is in constant motion, shaped by temperature shifts, currents, and climate. Nor are all oceans the same. The chapters address a number of different media projects, technologies, and entanglements with seawater, underscoring how oceans embody different cultural meanings and histories. This level of specificity is important because it avoids abstracting the ocean into a vague cultural signifier or absolute, alien other. One of the strengths of Wild Blue Media is the way it holds the general and the specific at the same time, while foregrounding the practices of technological and cultural mediation through which humans come to know the sea.
In addition to its methodological and theoretical contributions, Wild Blue Media offers timely considerations of both theory’s environmental ethics and the relationships between academics’ working environments and our scholarship. Responsible scholarship about the ocean, Jue contends, must address the anthropogenic effects of human activities (15)—including glacier melt, rising sea levels, a warming ocean, and microplastic pollution—and the uneven contributions of the Global North to the climate crisis. This attention to the ethical and political implications of doing ocean studies surfaces in her attention to the ways that theory can inform environmental activism. There is a tension within Wild Blue Media around the urgent need for climate action and the slower work of academic writing. Reflecting on the process of writing during “a time of extreme environmental change,” she remarks that it often felt like an inadequate response to the crisis (166). She voices a question that dogs many of us in the environmental humanities: would advocating for policy change and climate solutions be a more productive use of our time? The answer Jue lands on will be reassuring for some readers and dissatisfying for others. Critical scholarship, she argues, can act as a form of pre-activism or preparatory work, raising questions about how people tell stories and create media about environments (166). Environmental scholars can use Wild Blue Media and other ocean theory to examine the “latent media imaginary” within theories of the Anthropocene and public discourses about the nonhuman world (25). Jue’s concluding remarks about theory’s “pre-activist role” reflect broader conversations about the material ways that we can integrate activism into our scholarly practice and use our scholarship to seed social change.
Wild Blue Media’s relevance to the contemporary moment has only grown in the past year, as the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed humanities scholars to grapple more meaningfully with embodiment, mediation, and the milieux in which we think, breath, and write. Although “we generally think and write indoors,” pandemic shut-downs created additional levels of estrangement and physical displacement in our thinking (Tim Ingold, “Earth, Sky, Wind and Weather,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute : S29; qtd. 6). Read in this context, Wild Blue Media invites us to radically question our milieu, including the university itself. How might we use our embodied experiences of teaching remotely, conferencing online, and juggling care work and remote work to develop new theories of media—and new academic norms? With this in mind, Wild Blue Media would have benefited from a more sustained engagement with disability studies and crip theories of embodiment and perception, given Jue’s commitment to displacing ingrained “terrestrial habits and assumptions” through milieu-specific analysis (2).
In sum, Wild Blue Media makes an important and timely contribution to the oceanic turn within literary theory and media studies. Notably for a monograph focused on mediation, the book is also a beautiful object. Jue’s skill and passion for diving informing the volume’s design as well as her contributions to media theory. The front cover features a lush color photograph of the giant kelp forest off the coast of California’s Gull Island marine protected area, taken by Jue herself. Several of the color plates are digital photographs also taken by the author on diving trips, most strikingly of Jason deCaires Taylor’s underwater installation “Silent Evolution.” These photographs, like Jue’s opening anecdote about diving, show how deeply mediations of seawater permeate the creation of this book. The result is an engaging and elegant reminder of the ways that our imaginations continue to beckon us overboard.—Rachel Webb Jekanowski, Memorial University, Grenfell Campus
Constructing Human Futurity.
Universitätsverlag Winter, 2020. 240pp. $99.95.
Mainstream literary criticism once tended to dismiss sf as popular literature with little socio-cultural significance. Since around the 1970s, however, attitudes have changed. Science fiction has come to be recognized as reflecting on and extrapolating from real developments in technoscience, helping us make sense of the complex dialectic of science and civilization. The book under consideration is one such attempt to facilitate an understanding of how science and culture impinge on each other and how those intersections affect the construction of our real and literary future(s).
Lampadius explores this sense-making function of sf by focusing on two related tropes, evolution and the artificial human being. The Darwinian concept of evolution—a gradual process involving continual change and interactions among different forms of life—runs counter to the anthropomorphic, religious notion of divine Creation. Over time, the idea of evolution has emerged as a metanarrative applied to the interpretation and understanding of a broad range of phenomena. The literary figure of the artificial human creature—created artificially or made artificial through interpenetration with human-made objects—embodies our understanding of the technologically mediated evolution of the human. Thus sf novels that employ the trope of the artificial human become literary artefacts of crucial importance to our understanding of ourselves.
Lampadius explains the cultural significance of tales of the artificial human in the Introduction to his book and defines the range of the book’s coverage of the theme. His choice of twentieth-century Anglophone sf is understandable, although the omission of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) in this critical discussion of the literature of artificial evolution is striking. In the second chapter the author further elaborates on the cultural history of the metanarrative of evolution and the role of sf while analyzing H.G Wells’s handling of the theme in The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). Chapter 3 continues the analysis of the reflection of our artificial future in sf, introducing the sub-theme of robots as both embodiment of human artifice and players in the artificial evolution of humanity while offering a perceptive analysis of Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (1920). Eugenics, or what Lampadius terms creative evolution, is discussed with reference to George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah (1921) and the epic dimensions of the motif of evolution are underscored in a discussion of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930).
Chapter 4 starts a new train in this historical analysis of sf with a consideration of utopia as a sub-genre and its human implications. The discussion, however, focuses chiefly on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). The third and the fourth sections of the chapter, dealing with the politico-economic ramifications of the construction of a utopian state based on artificial mass production of babies and other commodities, are the strongest. The next chapter concentrates on the motif of the robot in sf and its human significance. The analysis of how literary robotics impinges on the discourse of evolution and what that means for the construction of our technoscientific future centers around Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (1950) and Jack Williamson’s The Humanoids (1949). Chapter 6 continues the theme of artificial reproduction introduced in Chapter 4. Cloning and other modes of artificial propagation are discussed in the context of human reconstruction of nature through technology, the problem of retaining human specificity, and related philosophical questions.
Chapter 7 deals with the hybridization of the human in consequence of the dialectic of the virtual and the real. This discussion of cyborg humanity—based on William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984)—is noteworthy especially for the analysis of cyberspace as a new venue for the expression of the human. Before concluding the book Lampadius continues, in Chapter 8, with the theme of the digitization of humanity. Lampadius explores how digital genesis impinges upon the evolution of new dimensions of life, including new configurations of gender, in Greg Egan’s Diaspora (1997).
Unfortunately, the book discusses no works by women, although the theme is common among women authors. Many women write futuristic sf involving humanoids and exploring all the themes stressed in the book. The only female-authored text that gets any special mention in the book is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1817), the ur-text of sf. Each chapter ends with a “Conclusion and Outlook” that are very repetitious, and the addition of an index would have made the book friendlier to navigate.
Nevertheless, The Human Future? makes a meaningful contribution to critical discourse on the construction of human futurity in twentieth-century Anglophone sf, augmenting our knowledge of the inter-relationship of science and culture, life and literature. The plethora of themes that press upon the broad subject are handled in most parts without the prose lapsing into turgidity, and this, in an ambitious academic volume, is a virtue to be celebrated.—Suparna Banerjee, Krishnath College
How Chinese SF Conquered China.
U of Toronto P, 2021. 234 pages. $65 hc & ebk.
In her straightforward and well-researched study Chinese Science Fiction during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw, Hua Li focuses on the literary production of sf in the post-Mao period, lasting roughly from 1976 to 1983. This short span of literary history has generally been overlooked in existing discussions about Chinese sf, which tend to emphasize either its emergence during the late-Qing early modern period, or the global enthusiasm for works associated with the recent “New Wave,” as signaled by the success of Liu Cixin’s Three Body trilogy. According to Li, the post-Mao thaw usually refers to the period beginning with Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and ends with the 1983 Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, but the works covered in Li’s monograph extend to a longer time span, from the 1950s to the 1990s.
The significant contribution that Chinese Science Fiction during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw makes to the dynamic and growing field of Chinese popular culture is threefold: first, Li pays careful attention to works of Chinese sf that have previously been marginalized in English-language scholarship, particularly those belonging to the subgenre of “tech-sf” (jishu kehuan), a mode of utopian writing about the promise of technology by mostly novice writers that failed to flourish in the 1980s, but whose thematic concerns, as Li demonstrates, eventually shaped the work of subsequent giants such as Liu Cixin. Second, Li rightfully situates Chinese sf in conversation with the broader category of world literature, especially in relation to Japanese, Russian, and anglophone sf, such as in her detailed discussion in Chapter 5 of the translational linkages between Xiao Jianheng’s short story “Buke’s Adventure” (1961) and the issue of organ transplantation promoted in Soviet-era sf narratives and theories (100-103). Finally, the book traces Chinese sf’s transmediality (kua meiti) to an earlier pre-digital age of “small-scale, fledgling, and yet significant media convergence” (135), confirming the genre’s lasting adaptability and appeal.
Methodologically, Hua Li builds on the work of literary scholar Ken Gelder, adopting a “quasi-academic or para-academic reading” approach to analyzing works of popular fiction that attempts to balance more academically bound “form-and-ideology interpretations” (4) with a deeper dive into the production, distribution, and consumption of Chinese sf. Eschewing close readings of texts, Li explains that her project analyzes the sociopolitical and cultural factors that have shaped Chinese sf, in order to identify their uniquely “Chinese” circumstances (5). For example, in chapter one Li shows how sf must strive to overcome the limitations associated with two genres, kexue wenyi (literature and art in service of popularizing science) and children’s literature, to finally assume “its rightful place in Chinese literature as an independent subgenre of popular fiction” (5).
Organized into eight chapters, the book begins with a concise introductory overview of the field, followed by four chapters devoted to individual authors, all prominent and prolific figures in Chinese sf: Zheng Wenguang, Ye Yonglie, Tong Enzheng, and Xiao Jianheng. Together, these chapters are a convincing testament to the flexibility of the genre in the Chinese context, ranging from Zheng Wenguang’s anthropocenic turn in his Mars series (1954-1984) and Ye Yonglie’s sf crime thrillers, to Tong Enzheng’s archaeological take on aliens and Xiao Jianheng’s youth fiction about robots.
In the book’s last three chapters, Li works up to her main argument that sf from mainland China during the post-Mao cultural thaw, despite being a “government-backed literature,” can nevertheless be characterized by subversiveness—in Li’s words, “blooming, contending, and boundary-breaking” elements (165). Chapter six sheds light on the forgotten category of tech-sf writers in the context of China’s Four Modernizations movement, as initially proposed by Zhou Enlai in 1963, then promoted by Deng Xiaoping in the late-1970s. Chapter seven analyzes the rich and diverse repository of multimedia Chinese sf found in cartoons (manhua), illustrated storybooks (lianhuanhua and xiaoren shu), radio, television, and film to explain the factors that facilitated sf’s movement from the literary sphere to that of pop culture. Chapter 8 concludes by highlighting Chinese literature’s wavering between social realism and socialist realism through much of the twentieth century, and shows that sf was no exception to the trend. Li’s wide-reaching range of literary and scholarly references is impressive, as she draws connections between Chinese sf and other popular genres such as romance fiction and crime fiction.
Clearly, Chinese Science Fiction during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw will satisfy contemporary Chinese sf fans looking for recommendations of new reading (and viewing) material from this earlier period. More broadly speaking, sf fans will also be pleased to find connections between Chinese sf and canonical sf writers such as Ray Bradbury (45) and Robert Heinlein (50). But for those less familiar with modern Chinese history, the question of why the period of 1976-1983 is worth understanding may remain a puzzle. Li insists in chapter one that this is an “important moment in the history of Chinese SF” because it serves as a bridge between 1950s and 1960s sf and Chinese New Wave sf in the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (3). And on the last page, Li concludes that studying the thaw period “helps us better understand the contemporary wave of PRC SF that has gained global recognition, especially since the 2010s” (180). As such, the book’s overarching aim appears to be proving that Chinese sf “has been an unbroken chain” (133), a bold claim given the tumultuous political shifts in the last century of Chinese history, many of which are characterized by cycles of cultural repression. For instance, how else to interpret Ye Yonglie’s deliberate move in 1983 from sf to reportage (72)?
Yet Hua Li’s book provides a refreshing corrective to the common (western) misconception that Chinese sf is a brand new phenomenon and complements academic scholarship about this historical juncture that privileges elitist literary modes. Two years ago, the New York Times Magazine boasted “How Chinese Sci-fi Conquered America” (Alexandra Alter [23 December 2019], online). Chinese Science Fiction during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw does not go so far as to promise that 1970s-1980s Chinese sf will “conquer” international readers, but it certainly makes a persuasive case for the genre’s persistence in mainland China to the present day.
In November 2021, I went to the Victoria Art Gallery to view the “Retainers of Anarchy” exhibit of contemporary Chinese art by the Vancouver-based Hong Kong artist Howie Tsui. To my surprise, Chinese Science Fiction during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw was featured prominently on display at the museum’s gift shop. Initially I mistakenly thought that perhaps the eye-catching book jacket art was by Tsui, but no (the illustration is actually by Chen Wei), the museum store employee informed me that he had been drawn to the title on a list of publications about Chinese pop culture. The encounter speaks to the scarcity of academic research on—and global thirst to learn about—this topic, and proves why Li’s book makes such an important contribution to the field.
One point worth further reflection: the author notes in chapter one that in the 1980s “there was no clear distinction between SF fans and general readers in the PRC,” in contrast to the “present situation in which SF has become a type of ‘fan literature’” (28). Whether or not this is an accurate assessment of sf consumption in mainland China, where by far the most popular form of literature now falls into the category of mystical fantasy (xuanhuan) web literature, the popularity of the Three Body trilogy in translation acts as a compelling counterexample to the genre’s perceived appeal as being limited merely to hard core fans, suggesting that, on the level of world readership, we may share more in common with the reading practices of the thaw period than assumed at first glance.—Angie Chau, University of Victoria
The Culture of “The Culture”: Utopian Processes in Iain M. Banks’s Space Opera Series. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2021. x+286 pp. £85/$120 hc.
At both the beginning and end of his new book on Iain M. Banks’s celebrated Culture series (1987-2012), Joseph S. Norman mentions a peculiar fact of modern technoculture: when the Falcon 9 rocket manufactured by Elon Musk’s SpaceX completed its mesmerizing flight in 2016, slowly touching down like a car being parallel parked, the platform it landed on was named after an immensely powerful AI ship from Banks’s novel The Player of Games (1988), the Of Course I Still Love You. In fact, the platform is just one of several “autonomous spaceport drone ships” (ASDSs) made by SpaceX that takes its name from the idiosyncratic and hyperintelligent ships of Banks’s series. Musk is enamored with the Culture, clearly, but for Norman the naming convention also indicates “the extent to which contemporary technoscience is both inspired by, and catching up with, the fictional speculations of SF” (2). If this is the case, our present moment certainly has become science-fictional, given that space opera, the subgenre within which Banks’s series operates, is notorious for its far-future and extravagant imaginings of posthuman bodies, faster-than-light travel, advanced megastructures, and so much more. Could it be that our own moment has caught up with the phantasmagoria of sf’s most imaginative subgenre? Are we living in the era of space opera?
Probably not. And Norman has no interest in pursuing such superficial platitudes. He is concerned, however, with mapping the representations of Banks’s society in relation to utopian thinking (hence the subtitle of his book), and with discerning the degree to which those representations also extend to notions of empire. In doing so, he explores some of the fundamental aspects of utopian thought, including the tricky and uncertain terrain that connects, sometimes inconceivably, the present moment and the utopian future. As such, his work in this book does in fact explore the relation between space opera and “now,” looking carefully at the political context of Banks’s early novels—the rise of Thatcherism and neoliberal capitalism—as well as its figurations of technoscience, posthumanism, feminism, humanism, art, and a range of additional topics that attach Banks’s spectacular visions to the somewhat more mundane considerations of our own reality.
At the same time, it may be the case that Banks’s Culture series qualifies as a legitimately utopian effort by breaking with the mundanity of our present (as opposed to creating a bridge to it). Borrowing from Fredric Jameson, Norman suggests that the utopian form’s real value is not in describing the details and contours of utopian societies—as undertaken by Thomas More and others—but rather in the very act of imagining a fundamental shift or break with the social, cultural, economic, technological, etc., status quo. Jameson calls this “thinking the break” (Valences of the Dialectic , 423), a phrase that Norman uses repeatedly, including in the title of his second chapter, “Thinking the Break: The Culture as Postscarcity Utopia.” The idea here is that the very act of utopian imagination is itself utopian. One does not have to usher in the break, or describe the break analytically, or justify the break politically, but rather simply “think it.” And this is something that Norman facilitates with aplomb. His book is well-researched, confident, and offers numerous insights into the various and colorful ways that Banks “thought the break” with his own contemporary society. This is useful framing, allowing Norman to focus on the various and complex intersections of Banks’s fiction with utopianism, instead of arguing in a more traditional manner that the Culture society is in fact perfect—this is impossible, of course, because perfect for some is imperfect for others. Indeed, Norman goes to great lengths to underscore the various problematic and even concerning aspects of the Culture, which although existing as a postscarcity and post-money civilization, continues to engage, for example, in interventionist practices that could easily be construed as imperialist. And there are other problems, including what some consider a “strong essentialist tendency” (145) in its portrayal of gender and sexuality, which more often than not relies upon “a clear gender binary” (149).
But despite these dents in the Culture’s utopian visage, dents that Banks himself foregrounded masterfully in his novels, the Culture series is an often hypnotic and compelling undertaking to “think the break.” In fact, Norman’s analysis makes it clear that Banks’s fiction—and perhaps even sf in general—simultaneously offers an avenue for breaking with the kind of one-dimensional and efficiency-obsessed rationalism that dominates modern technocultures, where real political debate is replaced with “getting things done on time” and where alternative forms of thinking and being are unfathomable. This is Herbert Marcuse’s primary subject in One-Dimensional Man (1964), and although Norman does not reference Marcuse or his conception of one-dimensionality, his book is enormously successful as a showcase for the Culture’s ability to push our thinking and imagination beyond efficiency, iron-clad rationalism, mass consumption, advertising, and the other preoccupations that Marcuse insists wither away the modern citizen’s capacity for critical and utopian thought. The Culture series certainly “thinks the break,” then, but it also breaks with a form of one-dimensionality that has become not only entrenched but apocalyptic—one need look no further than the climate catastrophe and the unwillingness of one-dimensional politicians and bureaucrats to envision alternatives to our destructive habits.
This book is indispensable in other ways as well. While interest in Banks and the Culture has seen an upsurge over the last decade or so, and while we now have a handful of full-length monographs covering his oeuvre, this is the first to be oriented around a particular theme in relation to Banks—in this case, utopianism. Other works, such as Paul Kincaid’s recent entry on Banks in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, have functioned as more general overviews of his sf output. Considering the complexity of the subject and its long history as a literary and political form, Norman’s approach is appropriately multifaceted. He analyzes Banks’s fiction within six broad categories (corresponding to the six chapters of the book): world systems, where the interventionist tendencies of the Culture are discussed; thinking the break, where the post-money and postscarcity features of the Culture are analyzed; posthumanism, where the technoscientific marvels of Banks’s work are dealt with; the handy wo/man, which plays with Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s technologiade archetype and explores the Culture’s representations of sex and gender; a section on religion, exploring forms of atheism and humanism within Banks’s work; and a concluding section on utopian forms of art within the Culture. Each chapter is valuable in its own way and readers will undoubtedly form preferences based on their own interests; for me, the section on art was particularly appreciated, especially for the manner in which it discusses the elaborate environments of the Culture’s GSVs, enormous and sentient ships that house entire Culture societies.
No utopia is perfect, and neither is any text. Although the robust sections of Norman’s book allow him to approach the subject from interesting and productive angles, each subsection is somewhat short and truncated, functioning almost like a snippet of thinking and analysis. My impression was of reading William Gibson’s more recent novels, where chapters are short and oriented around a singular word or concept. As with Gibson’s fiction, here Norman’s various subsections come together to form a rigorous, multifaceted narrative, but in a work of nonfiction they can seem patchwork and unfinished. For instance, an early subsection discussing the novel Inversions (1998) in relation to the planetary romance type is mostly plot summary, and lacks the kind of commentary or analysis one would expect from this type of monograph. In a subsection on the concept of empire, Norman touches on Hardt and Negri’s use of the term, but after a scant three paragraphs, the trajectory is abandoned. This is unfortunate, especially for such an intriguing connection that could easily support an entire study. In other cases, plot summary is repeated in sections the are close to one another, creating an unnecessary repetition, especially for those engaging in longer reading sessions. And in a subsection dealing with Banks as pro-AI, Norman mentions the World Futurist Association (WFA) and quotes their assertion that “the evolution towards free goods and a lack of scarcity is, in fact, already under way, thanks primarily to technologies (such as computers and the Internet) that have enabled and driven the growth of digitization over the last twenty years” (76). Five pages later, in a subsection on information as commodity, the same quotation is used and presented as if it were new information. None of this is particularly damning, but the approach Norman has taken here is something of a fix-up, where short insights and investigations are pulled together under broader rubrics to form the overarching analysis. Methodological considerations aside, the text still stands as an invaluable contribution to the study of Banks’s Culture series, in particular its relation to the space opera subgenre and the history of utopian thinking.—Chad Andrews, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Lexington, 2021. 174 pp. $95 hc, $45 ebk.
Michael Pitts’s Alternative Masculinities in Feminist Speculative Fiction is a book that needed to be written. It sheds light on a body of work underappreciated for its critique of hegemonic masculinity and its effects on society. Pitts traces the development of this critique over several decades as it evolves along with feminist discourse, becoming more intersectional and historically situated.
He argues that “gender and national identity are mutually constitutive concepts” (1), using Todd Reeser’s theory of a “gendered nation” (7). The novels analyzed in the book help to question how these concepts and identities are produced using a feminist utopia as a lens. This is a “critical utopia, for feminist writers seeking to critique masculinities in ways not available to them by realist fiction” that limits utopian imagining, instead “imbuing it with revolutionary feminist reframings of the good society” in which these writers imagine “the transformation of masculinities” (4). Pitts begins his exploration with novels published in the early 1970s that were “utopias directly opposing normative masculinities, [and] they outline the changes masculinities must undergo for the better, feminist society to be realized and, while challenging essentialism and the overlooking of race and sexuality within feminist circles, generally reflect second-wave feminism” (8).
The first chapter discusses Dorothy Bryant’s The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You (1971), a novel that offers the presumed sf audience of young men a cautionary tale about toxic manhood. It traces the transformation of a man who ascribes to hegemonic patriarchy, telling how he learned to perform and identify with a healthier, feminized masculinity that cares for others rather than only himself. He begins as an exploitative, rapacious bully who, through his encounter with a feminist utopia, develops empathy and compassion along with an ethics of care. Pitts argues that this novel represents the possibility of men learning alternative masculinities.
The second chapter moves on in the decade with an analysis of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974). This novel poses the ever-present danger of hegemonic manhood by showing how enticing capitalist patriarchy is for men, offering privilege and power to the violent, dominating manhood it validates. This book, according to Pitts, usefully shows how vigilant men must be to avoid performing this version of manhood through the novel’s depiction of a man raised in a feminist utopia with no division of genders who is seduced by a society similar to the contemporary US, which offers power over others.
The third chapter examines Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). Pitts notes that this novel crucially pivots from a focus on men to a story about a Latina woman, depicting how she must navigate systemic racism and patriarchal authority in both domestic and institutional medical settings, contrasting this with a feminist utopia in a possible future. This future is threatened by another possibility presented as a hypermasculine future that further subjugates women, rendering them into commodities to be rented by wealthy men. The novel is intersectional in its exploration of subjugation and offers a choice of futures between feminist and hypermasculinist.
The fourth chapter discusses Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesistrilogy (1987-89), expanding on the discourse of intersectional feminism with a post-apocalypse protagonist, Lilith, a Black woman rescued by an invasive extra-terrestrial colonizing species to enable them to breed a new hybrid species of humans and Oankali, as they call themselves. These novels, as Pitts explains, radically reimagine gendered and racialized social positions after our contemporary society has been eradicated by nuclear war. Ultimately, they posit a possible feminist utopia founded by Lilith’s hybrid child, a non-binary human/Oankali/Ooloi who plays the role of a third crucial sex for reproduction of the species and mediates sexual contact between male and female. Throughout the series, Lilith and her brood must struggle against holdout groups of patriarchal authority, often by defending against violence while at the same time navigating their subjugation by the Oankali.
Pitts’s study ends with a discussion of N.K. Jemisin’s complex Broken Earth trilogy (2015-2017). These fantasy novels, set in a post-apocalyptic world, examine toxic hegemonic patriarchal masculinity by contrasting it with feminist utopian islands, adding through their use of cataclysmic magic an ecological and global perspective to the subject of alternative masculinities.
Alternative Masculinities in Feminist Speculative Fiction provides a much-needed exposition of the important work that these writers produced about types of masculinity. It traces the evolution of a critique that reimagines masculinities, estranging the performance of manhood as only sf allows. It also maps the ways in which feminist discourse has become more inclusive and intersectional since the publication of Bryant’s novel in 1971. It is a valuable addition to masculinity studies that presents alternatives for the future of gender performance and the effects of masculinity on women.—Ezekiel Crago, Aims Early College Academy
De-Automating Capitalist Automation.
Routledge, 2021. 116 pp. $21.95 pbk, $59.95 hc, $20.65 ebk.
A specter is haunting the world—the specter of imminent, impending, inevitable automation. All theorists, critics, and commentators across the political spectrum have gathered to exorcise this specter in their own ways: Silicon Valley gurus, Wired magazine, techno-utopian liberal theorists, and even—albeit from a distance—proponents of one form or another of so-called Fully Automated Luxury Communism.
Against the common belief that full automation is imminent, impending, or at least inevitable at some point, J. Jesse Ramírez’s brief monograph presents itself as a “technoclasm” and—like my previous paragraph—it is inspired and driven by the anti-capitalist impetus and the critical provocation of Marxian and Marxist thinking. Self-consciously updating Roland Barthes’s mode of critique—the “semioclasm” of his classic Mythologies—Ramírez’s book approaches contemporary (post-2008) automation discourses as a mythological “business sf” that mystifies the functioning of capitalism under the promise of an imminent technological singularity: “Extrapolating from the premise of capitalism’s technological dynamism, today’s leading prophets of automation foresee a civilization-changing redistribution of mental and manual labor through robots, artificial intelligences, and myriad other automated systems” (3). Thus, by untangling the ideological framework of automation mythologies, Ramírez—joining efforts with critics such as Aaron Benanav—shows that whether or not this transformation is welcome, and whether it is imagined as a utopia or as a dystopia, the underlying telos and the associated assumptions about contemporary technologies all fall under the same mythological structure—and it is the structure of these automation mythologies that becomes the main target of the book’s “technoclasm.”
Dividing his book into three parts, Ramírez moves from a definition of “Business Science Fiction” in part I, to a story of “Original Automation” in part II, and finally a collection of critical analyses of “Disenchanted Objects” in part III. It must be said, although it may have already been inferred by the reader, that even though Ramírez’s focus may be broadly cultural and technological—especially as it draws from a considerable variety of fields of inquiry, from academic, journalistic, and marketing materials—his book is envisioned as “most importantly ... a work of science fiction studies,” a work focused on what Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (2008) defined as “science-fictionality” (2).
In this manner, Ramírez’s definition of “business sf” will clearly resonate with other approaches that are interested in the recuperation of sf tropes, forms, and discourses by capitalist corporations. It is precisely by examining automation discourses as sf that Ramírez insists and clarifies that “the future of automation is not a fact; it is an economic science fiction seeking to create facts” (7). Singling out the works of Martin Ford, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, Jerry Kaplan, and Nicholas Carr, the first part of the book makes the argument that “Some of the most widely read and cited treatises on contemporary automation are works of business science fiction—they are just not labelled as such” (17). Ramírez’s idea here is that, once we “unlock the sf side of automation discourse” (19), we may recognize how “business sf” functions as a discursive attempt to foreclose futures alternative to those dictated by capitalism. A couple of details will be highly illustrative of Ramírez’s propositions here. On the one hand, he interestingly proposes that “Moore’s Law can be understood as the business sf, the genre’s ur-myth” (22), insofar as it is based on speculation and sustained by corporate make-believe. Moore’s Law’s function would therefore be that of naturalizing the market logic of compounding growth, thus turning a political-economic project into a seemingly unavoidable technological “evolution.” On the other hand, Ramírez proposes that “business sf” also has a popular but repressed counter-story, one that it seeks to displace, even as it consciously draws from science-fictional tropes in general: the idea of the Terminator. Even though this fictional AI machine “is indeed far removed from the state of the art in automation ... there is truth in the embellishment: the truth of domination” (27). Although the Terminator narrative (especially the franchise) falls into a number of ideological reifications, it “might also be useful for technoclastic thinking because it is a disavowed symptom of automation myths” (29). That is, automation is not merely nor necessarily about replacing or reducing work, but also about strengthening capital’s power over human labor.
The book’s second part moves into a definition of “the myth of original automation,” in a theoretical move that intentionally parallels and updates Karl Marx’s critique of classical political economists’ myth of primitive accumulation. In this part, Ramírez deconstructs automation mythologists’ “sanitized history” of past technological “development” in order to unveil the historical realities of “dispossession and struggles around settler colonialism, race, gender, and class” (34). In reexamining past examples of “automation,” Ramírez’s argument can again be explained through two of his most prominent and pedagogic illustrations. On the one hand, this part delves into the anachronism that underlies assertions about farmers losing their “jobs” to machinery, insofar as this projects the notion of wage labor into a context in which labor was not fully market-dependent, but (at least partially, and within patriarchal structures) aimed at subsistence and relative autonomy. By rehearsing this old Marxian explanation, Ramírez wants to draw our attention again to the fact that, historically, automation has not merely “replaced jobs” or “freed labor”; instead, it has also generally gone hand in hand with acts of dispossession, resulting in populations’ increased market dependence. On the other hand, Ramírez also invites readers into reconsidering the role of slave labor in American and capitalist history. Insofar as slaves’ bodies were disciplined into performing mechanical labor with robotic efficiency for the sake of capital accumulation, this attempt at “slavery’s automation” (40) would be the unacknowledged predecessor of today’s technological automation. Thus, Ramírez proposes that we think about American “techno-republicanism,” a dominant project-ideology that “shares modern republicanism’s definition of freedom as non-domination but repudiates the classical republican argument that slavery is necessary for the citizen’s freedom.... [However] the techno-republican doesn’t want to abolish slavery but technologize it” (41). In this sense, Ramírez’s overall argument seems to cohere with one of Marx’s key conclusions: that even if automation can potentially lighten or eliminate the burdens of labor, it has historically been employed for the opposite, for intensified domination.
Part III of Against Automation Mythologies proceeds in the way of Barthes’s critique, as it is essentially a series of micro-essays, each of them focused on a specific “Disenchanted Object”—that is, a particular technological invention or project aimed at automation. This is the part of the book that seemed—to this reviewer—most original and enjoyable, insofar as it enables the reader to see “technoclastic” thinking in action, applied to a collection of thoughtfully selected, relevant case studies. The first example is a failed “son” of automation: the robot Baxter, a mechanical, humanoid co-worker which would alleviate the human employee’s physical efforts. Backed by considerable investment and trumpeted by automation prophets, the robot nonetheless generated almost no demand and it was a business failure. Beside taking this as an obvious proof against the feasibility of full automation, Ramírez explains Baxter as an example of business sf falling into its own ideological trap: because of actually believing that automation is about helping labor, Baxter’s creators forgot that, in a capitalist economy, the only incentive to automate would be to be able to fire workers. In this sense, “Baxter’s economic impact was not capitalist enough” (51), as Ramírez slyly puts it. The following two examples take a broader view and, in a different way, emphasize automation’s character as a capitalist project, by focusing on the automation strategies of Amazon and Uber, respectively. On the one hand, Ramírez invites us to reassess Amazon’s warehouse system as an example of automated Taylorism, aimed at a disciplining of human labor through mechanization; on the other hand, Uber is criticized as a “science fiction” that operates upon speculative means of “making its workers disappear” (65), whether by means of legal fictions or through the ever-elusive development of the self-driving car.
Subsequently, the next two essays move back into a critique of specific technologies: the smart home and the care robot, both of which illustrate how business sf is concerned with automating reproduction as much as production. Ramírez’s critique of the “smart home” specifically focuses on how, despite automation’s utopian promise of reducing gendered housework to a minimum, the smart home—in line with the effect of historical home appliances, as was once analyzed by Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s More Work For Mother (1985)—both reifies housework and even increases its intensity. Furthermore,
in the smart home, social reproduction becomes a commodity like any other, and capitalism’s hidden and disavowed condition of possibility is smoothly integrated into it—for paying customers. In other words, the smart home’s “solution” to the crisis of social reproduction simply assumes that the crisis has already been solved and that Americans who are currently working insecure jobs while providing for elderly family members and helping kids with homework have magically acquired the means to pay for the homes, devices, apps, and subscription services that will free them. (78)
Ramírez makes a very similar argument with regard to care robots in the next chapter, and it is my impression that his writing here is at his most politically relevant and urgent. Discussing care robots, his argument incorporates the complexities of racialized labor: “the science fiction of care robots ... reiterates the techno-republican dream not of abolishing servitude, but of perfecting it by technical means; not of recognizing and respecting the labor of women and racialized others, but of robotically simulating it” (83). In this regard, Ramírez shows not only how the commodified automation of housework and care is a faux fix, he also makes it clear that automation mythologies are, in the end, “boringly unimaginative” (85).
The last of Ramírez’s short essays focuses on Watson, a computer designed to contest and win on the Jeopardy! show. Watson is above all an AI publicity stunt, as IBM acknowledged, but is also deeply symptomatic of the logics of business sf. In a way that resembles the victories of IBM’s DeepBlue and Google’s AlphaGo against chess and go champions, respectively, what interests Ramírez is how Watson and similarly automated “intelligences” are a reification of “the cultural authority of white male nerdiness” (88), giving these machines a source of legitimation and authority. Having arrived at the end of the book, it is not a surprise anymore to find out (yet again) that automation does not do away with pre-existing structures of power; above all, automation reenforces and reifies the axes of oppression that operate in capitalist societies.
The book ends with a more hopeful, or at least ambivalent, conclusion. In a self-conscious turn, Ramírez asks: “is there a ‘tender, open possibility’ in automation myths that my technoclastic treatment of business sf has overlooked? Have I, like Barthes, locked myself out of utopia?” (95). Here, mobilizing Fredric Jameson’s dialectical approach to mass culture, Ramírez compensates for his critical negativity by acknowledging that automation is not only reification, but is necessarily also utopian—and in such ambivalence would lie the potential for alternative, repoliticized imaginings of automation. Clarifying that he sympathizes with Aaron Bastani’s idea of a Fully Automated Luxury Communism, he nonetheless urges fellow leftist thinkers to avoid building “a castle made of business sf sand” (99).
Overall, the achievement of Ramírez’s book is to have successfully estranged and demystified hegemonic conceptions of technological “progress”that still persist in contemporary automation discourses. Simply put, his achievement is to have deautomated hegemonic ways of thinking automation. Beyond the book’s purposes, Ramírez’s hope seems to be that once the future of automation is not seen as already predetermined, it can be reopened for politically engaged, utopian speculation. For anyone interested in critical-utopian thinking, Ramírez’s monograph should prove reinvigorating and inspirational: a technoclasm that can blow up automated modes of thinking.—Miguel Sebastián-Martín, Universidad de Salamanca, Spain
Delany’s Autumnal Anthology.
Fantastic Books, 2021. 271 pp. $31.35 hc, $21.99 pbk.
On Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren is an eclectic collection of reviews, essays, interviews, and one poem all relating to Delany’s most famous novel, published in 1975. This anthology began its existence as a set of Xeroxed documents relating to Dhalgren in Samuel Delany’s personal possession and stayed that way for years before it was published. The book we have now exists thanks to Bill Wood, Delany’s personal assistant, who helped to make some last-minute additions to the anthology and prepared it for publication with Fantastic Books. On Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren is arranged into six sections, covering everything from some contemporary reviews of Dhalgren to its relationship to various other texts, including John Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual” (1956) and Delany’s own Hogg (1995). These unusual additions make this a unique collection that opens up a number of forgotten or otherwise unexplored avenues into the world of Dhalgren scholarship.
One of the most useful aspects of On Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren is that it presents a fairly comprehensive timeline of Dhalgren’s reception history through the twentieth century. The opening section is titled “Contemporary Reviews, 1975-1976,” and in only seven reviews it does a good job of demonstrating the variety of responses Dhalgren received when it was first published. Dhalgren has long been established as an sf classic, and it can be easy to forget what a controversy it kicked up in the sf community when it first appeared. Wood’s anthology presents the range of that controversy nicely, bookended in my mind by the reviews of two sf sf greats: Theodore Sturgeon and Harlan Ellison. Sturgeon called Dhalgren “the very best ever to come out of the science fiction field” (23), while Ellison with signature Waldorf-and-Statlerian flare called it “an unrelenting bore of a literary exercise afflicted with elephantiasis, anemia of ideas and malnutrition of plot and character development. It is a master talent run amuck, suiciding endlessly for chapter after chapter of turgid, impenetrable prose” (21). I also appreciate the inclusion of a review in a college newspaper by Steven Paley and a review in The New York Times by Gerald Jonas; these demonstrate the interest that college-aged and general audiences had in Dhalgren, and it was these audiences more than genre readers who were responsible for its initial commercial success.
Following the contemporary reviews is a short section of reviews for Dhalgren’s 1996 Wesleyan UP reprint. This documents how Dhalgren over time was eventually canonized as an sf classic and also picked up the imprimatur of serious academic literature. Wood’s anthology also includes a small selection of “Critical Reactions” from the scholarly literature on Dhalgren,with an emphasis on its narrative structure and use of language. Delany’s own critical writings on Dhalgren, included in the anthology under the section “Delany on Dhalgren,” also put a predominant focus on structure, sign, and myth. Additionally, this section documents Delany’s peculiar history of oblique Dhalgren criticism. Delany has proven that he has quite a lot to say about the novel, but he always does so through the proxy of either penname or metacommentary.
Beyond just documenting Dhalgren’s own reception history, the collection also invites comparison with three intriguing sources that are not much talked about in Dhalgren scholarship: John Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual,” G. Spencer Brown’s Laws of Form (1969), and Delany’s Hogg. “The Instruction Manual” is reproduced in full under a section titled “Sources,” and the collection explains its inclusion by stating that Delany’s encounter with it in the early 1970s “resulted in a major restructuring of Dhalgren’s material” (139). In the “Critical Reactions” section there is an essay by Kenneth James called “Subverted Equations,” in which James discusses Delany’s connection to G. Spencer Brown’s Laws of Form, an obscure mathematical-philosophical work, and attempts to demonstrate the influence of that work on Dhalgren and Delany’s Return to Nevèrÿon series (1979-1987). Finally, the collection ends with an interview with Delany about the making of Hogg, his (in)famous pornographic novel. Delany discusses how he wrote Hogg at the same time that he wrote Dhalgren and says that “it took place in the same city, except that it had a waterfront.... Bellona is the same city minus the waterfront” (250). In Dhalgren, the character Tak theorizes that something bad must have happened to Bellona’s swamp; I like to think that the author temporarily flooded it to set the scene for Hogg.
Dhalgren has a fascinating mini-history of cover designs, suggesting the ways that publishers have tried to frame “the riddle never meant to be solved” (10) contained within, and I appreciated the inclusion of many of these covers. The anthology contains the original cover from Bantam Books (10), which makes heavy use of sf imagery and Delany’s credentials as a genre writer to package Dhalgren as a more conventional sf novel than it actually is. The more staid covers from the Wesleyan University Press (42) and Vintage Books (146) reprints both “say ‘literature’ louder than ‘science fiction’” (47) and demonstrate how, contrary to Bantam Books, these presses tried to distance Dhalgren from its roots in genre fiction.
The cover for On Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren is notable in its own right. It presents a photomontaged picture of Bellona and its two moons digitally stitched together from stock images. This is appropriate enough, given that Bellona was created by cobbling together any number of American cities in the author’s imagination, but the style itself is associated with semi-professional, independent small presses and is fairly contemporary—much newer, anyway, than any of the documents actually contained in the book. The cover also names Bill Wood as the only editor, which is peculiar, since it is an open secret that Delany himself had a large hand in the project. Interestingly, this seems to continue Delany’s history of writing oblique Dhalgren commentary, documented in the book’s own “Delany on Dhalgren” section.
On Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren presents a unique and often compelling collection of material, but the editorial apparatus for curating that material is somewhat wanting. Images such as the covers I mentioned above are inserted without any explanatory captions, the section introductions make errors and sometimes feel incomplete, and the anthology is in need of a general introduction to explain its goals. The anthology’s muddled use of editorial voice is also problematic. Most of the section introductions talk about Delany in the third person, but then in the introduction for “The Making of Hogg” it mysteriously reverts to Delany speaking in the first person about his history with the novel. The anthology’s footnotes are particularly bad about this, with footnotes from the original author mixed in with comments in the voice of the anthology editor and comments in the voice of Delany himself, with no consistent system for distinguishing among them. The astute reader may note that this unclear mixture of multiple voices gives the book a texture not entirely unlike Dhalgren itself. This technique worked better in the source text, however, and a little more scholarly polish would go a long way if the book is ever released in a new edition.
These quibbles aside, On Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren is a worthy, not to mention deeply personal, collection of work. Despite its contemporary design and the name of the young man on its cover,this is undoubtedly a work of age. It bears the undeniable imprimatur of Delany’s archive and his voice, and that voice carries the tone of a man taking accounts. It is not a book you should go to if you are looking for the most comprehensive or up-to-date Dhalgren scholarship; only one of the essays here was written during the current century, and even that piece, Delany’s “Looking Back at the Autumnal City,” is gazing at the past. Rather, the anthology should be valued as a history of those flashes of insight that both inspired and were inspired by Dhalgren. It is a Xerox record of the stars that once shone over Bellona’s sometime waterfront.—A.J. Rocca, Western Illinois University
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