From its beginnings in the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne to the virtual worlds of William Gibson's Neuromance
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How science fiction has been a tool for understanding and living through rapid technological change. The world today see
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Postcolonialism as a critical approach and pedagogic practice has informed literary and cultural studies since the late
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Postcolonialism as a critical approach and pedagogic practice has informed literary and cultural studies since the late
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"Christians agree that they are saved through the death and resurrection of Christ. But how is the atonement achiev
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Timeline -- Introduction: before the 1900s -- 1900s -- 1910s -- 1920s -- Conclusion: late modernism.
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Table of contents :
1 What is science fiction?
2 The literature of technologically saturated societies
3 Cognitive estrangement
4 The megatext
5 Speculative fiction
6 Communities of practice
7 The literature of ideas
8 The literature of change
9 Science fictionality
BLOOMSBURY GUIDES FOR THE PERPLEXED Bloomsbury’s Guides for the Perplexed are clear, concise and accessible introductions to thinkers, writers and subjects that students and readers can find especially challenging – or indeed downright bewildering. Concentrating specifically on what it is that makes the subject difficult to grasp, these books explain and explore key themes and ideas, guiding the reader towards a thorough understanding of demanding material.
Other titles available in the series include: Modernist Literature: A Guide for the Perplexed, Peter Childs Postcolonialism: A Guide for the Perplexed, Pramod K. Nayar Kafka: A Guide for the Perplexed, Clayton Koelb Joyce: A Guide for the Perplexed, Peter Mahon T. S. Eliot: A Guide for the Perplexed, Steve Ellis
A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED
Science Fiction SHERRYL VINT
L ON DON • N E W DE L H I • N E W Y OR K • SY DN EY
Bloomsbury Academic An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
50 Bedford Square London WC1B 3DP UK
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www.bloomsbury.com Bloomsbury is a registered trade mark of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published 2014 © Sherryl Vint, 2014 Sherryl Vint has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Author of this work. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. No responsibility for loss caused to any individual or organization acting on or refraining from action as a result of the material in this publication can be accepted by Bloomsbury or the author. British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. eISBN: 978-1-4411-1960-5 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Vint, Sherryl, 1969Science fiction : a guide for the perplexed / Sherryl Vint. pages cm. – (Guides for the perplexed) Includes bibliographical references. ISBN 978-1-4411-1874-5 (hardback) – ISBN 978-1-4411-9460-2 (paperback) – ISBN 978-1-4411-0281-2 (epub) 1. Science fiction–Study and teaching. 2. Science fiction, English–Study and teaching. 3. Science fiction, American– Study and teaching. 4. Science fiction films–Study and teaching. I. Title. PN3433.7.V56 2014 809.3’8762071–dc23 2013036175 Typeset by Newgen Knowledge Works (P) Ltd., Chennai, India
1 What is science fiction? 1 2 The literature of technologically saturated societies 17 3 Cognitive estrangement 37 4 The megatext 55 5 Speculative fiction 73 6 Communities of practice 93 7 The literature of ideas 113 8 The literature of change 135 9 Science fictionality 159 Chronology 173 Notes 183 Further Reading 189 Bibliography 193 Index 199
This book emerges from many years in the generous science fiction scholarly community and I fear a list of those to whom I owe debts of learning will inevitably be incomplete. The list should start with Douglas Barbour, my PhD supervisor, who introduced me to the possibilities of speculative study. I have also benefitted tremendously from the knowledge of my co-editors of Science Fiction Studies, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr, Arthur B. Evans, Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham, and Carol McGurik, and my co-editor at Science Fiction Film and Television, Mark Bould. Others to whom great debts for conservation, conviviality, and keen critical insight are owed include Paul Alkon, James Allard, Andrew M. Butler, Ted Chiang, Judy Collins, Melissa Conway, Neil Easterbrook, Carl Freedman, Pawel Frelik, Neta Gordon, Barry Grant, Karen Hellekson, David Higgins, Nalo Hopkinson, Ann Howey, Katie King, Brooks Landon, Jim Leach, Mike Levy, Roger Luckhurst, DeWitt Kilgore, Kevin Maroney, Javier Martinez, Farah Mendlesohn, China Miéville, Graham J. Murphy, Wendy Pearson, John Rieder, Joe Sutliff Sanders, Patrick B. Sharp, Sharon Sharp, Steven Shaviro, David Wittenberg, and Lisa Yaszek. They have taught me much about sf and its various communities of practice, and this book has benefitted immeasurably from their expertise. Any errors, of course, are mine alone and despite their good influence. Early portions of the research for this book were supported by a grant from the Brock University Faculty Association and I thank them for their support, and thank Malisa Kurtz, the RA whom they funded, for her excellent work. As always, thanks to Lisa LaFramboise for feats of editorial brilliance and deadline magic.
What is science fiction? In the not-too-distant future, workers of the mechanical guild who maintain the complex conveyer-belt system of “roads” that serves millions of pedestrian commuters plan a strike, but a wily supervisor realizes this is the work of one easily removed agitator. The true core of workers is dedicated to public service and a quasimilitary ethos of service to the country’s (economic) needs. The strike is averted and transportation rolls on. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a battle wages between the evil Galactic Empire and the freedom fighters of the rebel alliance. A young man from an isolated rural community discovers that he is a secret prince of this empire, the long-hidden son of the evil ruler’s lieutenant; he joins the resistance, redeems his father, and overthrows the empire to restore the republic. A young woman finds herself confronted with three alternative versions of herself, doppelgangers that prove to be genetically identical but radically different in personality and physical stature, due to their different experiences. One comes from a world of only women, another from a world where men and women are in open war, and yet another from a world still shaped by 1930s gender roles. Our protagonist is a professional woman negotiating 1970s feminist desires and cultural backlash. Are all of these stories science fiction (sf)? Readers familiar with the genre will recognize the first narrative as Robert Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll” (1940), the second as the basic narrative structure of episodes IV–VI of the Star Wars franchise (1977–83), and the last as Joanna Russ’s novel The Female Man (1975).
Although radically different, each of these texts might be considered the “centre” of some understanding of science fiction. Heinlein’s story details the technological feat of the roads and the social innovation they produce, all the while celebrating technocratic values of rational management and a social hierarchy based on the “meritocracy” of genius. Heinlein is considered by some one of the genre’s greatest writers, recipient of the first Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction Writers Association (SFWA), and this particular story was nominated by the same group as one of “the greatest science fiction stories of all time”1 by its inclusion in the first Science Fiction Hall of Fame (1970) volume. Lucas’s epic saga shares many features with space opera published in the earliest sf pulps—thrilling space battles, heroic masculinity, stunning technology, and imperiled women—but also relies on the trope of destiny and a mysterious force, features associated more with fantasy than with sf. Nonetheless, at least in terms of sf film, it is difficult to overstate Star Wars’s influence in reshaping and re-energizing the genre. Finally, Joanna Russ is perhaps the most important feminist writer of sf, her work as author, critic, innovator, and activist key to challenging (and changing) gender stereotypes in the genre. The Female Man is considered by many to be the most important feminist sf novel, and it is also crucial to the aesthetic reshaping of the genre in the 1960s and 1970s in ways similar to contemporary innovations in postmodern fiction. Although the term “science fiction” might seem self-evidently to offer up a group of images, icons, themes, and narrative formulas easily equated with the name, the genre is notoriously difficult to define. The name science fiction and the long-established tradition of regarding certain writers who dominated American sf in the 1940s—Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Frederick Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon—as representing the Golden Age of the genre privileges sf’s relationship to scientific extrapolation and rationalist logic. From this point of view, media adventure spectacles such as Star Wars have the props of sf, but lack the underlying engagement with ideas that this fan community has considered to be the genre’s core.2 Yet even before Star Wars launched a lucrative cycle of Hollywood blockbuster sf films that continues to this day, the genre always had a media presence in Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, comic strips, and associated merchandise, alongside its main commercial form in 1920s and 1930s pulp magazines. Similarly, Joanna Russ’s philosophical, polemical, and intertextual
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story of women’s struggles under patriarchy further challenges the boundaries of the genre, using sf techniques to reconfigure social rather than technological regimes. Which is the “real” sf, or, if they are all equally but differently sf, what is this genre?
Origins The name science fiction was popularized3 by Hugo Gernsback to describe the pioneering new fiction he wished to cultivate in the magazines he founded, Amazing Stories (first published in 1926) and Science Wonder Stories (first published in 1929, and where Gernsback shifted his terminology from “scientifiction” to “science fiction”). Some date the emergence of the genre to these specialty pulps and Gernsback’s efforts to create a literary form suited to the technological age. Others note that Gernsback merely codified— some would argue commercialized and compromised—an already existing literary form that included fantastic voyages, utopias, disaster fictions, tales of invention, and scientific romances. Thus, part of the difficulty of defining sf is that there is no consensus on when, precisely, it began. Some critics strive to apply the label, once coined, back in time as far as possible, seeking to posit this kind of speculative imagining as a long-standing part of Western cultures. Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (c. 1600; pub. 1632), about a lunar voyage, was written in part to experiment with the idea of how the earth’s motion would look from the moon; it is sometimes nominated as the first sf, but occult rather than scientific forces propel Kepler’s traveler. Other critics note the similarities between sf and the utopian tradition launched by Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), or draw connections to satires of imaginary voyages such as Gulliver’s Travels (1726). One of the most influential nominees for first sf is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), a novel that not only gave us many of genre’s staple preoccupations, such as the limits of scientific understanding and humanity’s relationship to created beings, but also firmly placed its innovations in the realm of science rather than the supernatural. Noting the importance of this shift in Shelley’s work, Paul Alkon argues that sf “might indeed be defined as the narrative use of science to create myths allowing novel points of view to the imagination” (7). This conceptualization helps negotiate one of the difficulties in describing sf: the genre’s name implies some
special relationship to science, but when one looks closely at most of what passes as sf, much of it has only a tentative relationship to scientific fact. Instead, sf is a cultural mode that struggles with the implications of discoveries in science and technology for human social lives and philosophical conceptions. The genre is interested in real science, to be sure, but it is equally concerned with mythologies of science, as Alkon notes, with the dialectic between “our perceptions of science” (85) and the way its innovations have been changing material and social worlds since the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution. Some fans describe their love of the genre in terms of the “sense of wonder” it provokes in them, an affective response that some critics have linked to the aesthetic experience of the sublime. Yet whereas gothic literature, which also counts Frankenstein as an ancestor, participates in the natural sublime as theorized by Burke and Kant, much sf might better be understood in terms of what David Nye has called the technological sublime. Nye argues that the Romantic concept of the sublime— that feeling of awe and terror as one is overcome by the spectacle of the infinite visible in nature—shifted in the early twentieth century and developed a new and specific form in the United States. No longer associated with the wonders of God’s creation or man’s insignificance in the face of a powerful Nature, it focused instead on objects of technology, such as railroads, bridges, skyscrapers, and factories. Rather than inspiring a feeling of mixed fear and awe in the face of human limitations, the technological sublime instead divides “those who understand and control machines [from] those who do not”: it is a “sublime made possible by the superior imagination of an engineer or a technician, who creates an object that overwhelms the imagination of ordinary men” (60). Science fiction participates in both promoting this myth of technological mastery and transcendence, and deflating it. It provides the language, images, and concepts that celebrate our cultural preoccupation with science and technology, and that express our anxieties and fears regarding how they are changing our world and our selves. We might think of the myths of sf as ways of providing imaginary solutions to the real contradictions and tensions of a world in which science has displaced religion as the hegemonic explanatory discourse, a world in which the products of technoscience are ubiquitous in everyday life. Gary Wolfe argues that the icons of sf perform this kind of cultural work when they become detached from “particular fictional contexts and
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gai[n] currency in the popular culture at large” (88). These icons of sf—motifs such as alien encounters, robots and other created beings, travel through time or outer space, apocalyptic or perfected futures, posthuman descendants, and Artificial Intelligences— mark a work as science fictional. Yet it is clear that no simple tally of their presence will help us get closer to defining the genre: no single work will contain all of these icons, and it is impossible to create an exhaustive list of all the icons the genre might generate. Instead, it is more productive to think of the cultural work performed by such icons, their role in imagining a world that is in some way different from the one we take for granted and their power to create mythologies that help us grasp the experience of human life in a world dominated by scientific thinking.
Genre definitions Sf is often described as a genre that has the power to literalize metaphor, to build worlds that capture something true yet unrepresentable in the literary mode of realism. It is thus unsurprising that the genre was formulated and named in the twentieth century, a period marked by rapid and substantial technological change: increased urbanization, aided by new transportation networks such as the system of highways, widespread motor vehicle ownership, and commercial air travel; the electrification of cities and homes, transforming domestic space through innovations such as artificial refrigeration and other home appliances; the discovery of antibiotics, vaccines for diseases such as rubella and polio, and immunosuppressant drugs that transformed medical practice and individual health; the increased mechanization of war from the poison gases of World War I to the remotely guided missiles of contemporary warfare; the space program, which put Americans on the moon and transformed our imaginative relationship to our planet through an image of the world from space; and the IT revolution in personal computing, which changed not only the nature of work but also leisure through personal electronic devices and social media. Science and technology shape our lives in ways both extensive and intimate, from the public cultures of big science and global economies to the private lives of family structures and personalized media environments. Although sf does not predict the future as is sometimes claimed, it is the mythological language
of technoculture and thus it plays a central role in producing the future through the dreams and nightmares it offers for our contemplation. In 1970, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock suggested that contemporary Western cultures were experiencing trauma related to the rapidity of technological and social change, and we might see sf as a cultural site where we work through this shock of the new. The genre is thus a way of thinking about and experiencing a reality that is itself slightly askew and not merely a particular configuration of settings, plots, and images. In the fuzziness4 of its borders and the heterogeneity of its participants, sf is not that different from other genre categories. Recent genre theory, particularly that drawn from film and television, has emphasized that genre is produced by a process of evaluation and description, and is not a fixed object that can then be found in the world and studied by critics. In Film/Genre, for example, Rick Altman argues that genres are objects that come into being after the fact, as observers seeking pattern privilege some textual features over others. The marketing desire to reproduce characteristics that have sold well to the public, Altman suggests, is key to this process, and Gernsback’s proselytizing efforts on behalf of what he calls “A New Sort of Magazine”5 certainly fit into this model. Similarly, in Genre and Television, Jason Mittel argues that genres are cultural categories used by programmers, audiences, academics, marketers, and others; genre, then, is best understood not as a set of qualities intrinsic to specific texts, but rather as “a process of categorization that . . . operates across the cultural realms of media industries, audiences, policy, critics and historical contexts” (ix). These processes actively shape our experience of texts so categorized. Similarly, this book will explore sf as a genre that is always in process, something actively made (and often in competing ways) by a variety of stakeholders that include creative forces (authors, directors, artists), marketing imperatives (producers, network branding, editors), and audiences (fan-based and beyond). Thus we will explore this perplexing genre from a variety of points of view, seeking to arrive not at some totalized answer to the question of “what is science fiction,” but rather with a prismatic view that allows us to see multiple visions of sf simultaneously, each a partial and fragmented explanation of the genre, with the vision of the whole providing not a simple or singular image but rather multiple, and at times contradictory, possibilities, held in productive tension.
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In “On Defining SF, or Not,” John Rieder explores what is at stake in these many struggles to define the genre. Rieder notes that what is important in seeing genre as a historical and mutable category—that is, seeing that what we call “science fiction” in 1940 looks rather different from what we call “science fiction” in 2014—is that this mode of framing sf asks us to attend to “how and why the field is being stretched to include these texts or defended against their inclusion” (194). This framing compels us to see genre as a social and political category as much as a formal and aesthetic one. Yet, as Rieder points out, this definition can tend toward tautology. Damon Knight once famously quipped, “science fiction is what we point to when we say it” (qtd in Rieder 192), but this convenient definition rather begs the question: who are “we,” and what is being sought in the pointing? Refusing models that privilege a single origin point, even if they then allow a wide range of offshoots to grow from this first seed, Rieder contends that histories of sf should be less interested in defending specific origins for the genre, and should instead embrace a strategy of “observing an accretion of repetitions, echoes, imitations, allusions, identifications, and distinctions” whose interpenetration demonstrates “the way that sf gradually comes into visibility” (196). Part of this work of making sf visible concerns its relations with neighboring genres, other unstable formations from which sf at times seeks to distinguish itself (such as the purging of science fantasy from “proper” science fiction under John W. Campbell’s editorial vision in the 1940s), or with which sf at other times seeks alliance (such as the affinities between New Wave sf and postmodern literature in their common interest in experimental form and metatextuality in the 1960s). By labeling certain texts sf, Rieder explains, authors, critics, advertisers, or editors rhetorically intervene in the genre’s distribution and reception. They advocate its use by a particular community of readers, trained to read in a particular way. The result is that the act of labeling certain texts “science fiction,” and hence shaping the genre to particular forms and ends, is also an act that produces the genre’s communities of practice. Unique among popular genres, sf is characterized by a highly interactive relationship among its authors, readers, and fans, particularly in the early days of the pulp magazines when fiction labeled sf was largely read by only a small group of enthusiasts. The pulp magazines almost immediately began to publish letters columns, and Gernsback actively sought feedback from his readers about future publications
(it is impossible to determine how much this was an expression of shared enthusiasm for the genre, and how much a marketing ploy designed to create a steady readership). Clubs to discuss sf followed and shortly thereafter began to produce their own publications, fanzines, which form the earliest sites of critical response to the genre and are the source of terminology that remains in use today (the most famous being “space opera,” coined by Bob Tucker in the January 1941 issue of Le Zombie). This close relationship between an enthusiastic group of fans and sf’s emergence in the magazines, however, can tend to obscure the fact that they are not the only people “practising” sf. Focusing on this version of the genre’s history to the exclusion of other possibilities, such as its instantiation in nonprint media, or the use of sf techniques in fiction published in other venues, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), produces a unified and yet only partial account of the genre. Rieder thus calls for sf critics to begin to pay attention not merely to “the choices writers make when composing texts or that readers make, or ought to make, in interpreting them” but further to “the practice of generic attribution” (204), from sites of both high and low culture, as part of the genre’s history and meaning. We will need to understand multiple communities of practice to grasp sf’s perplexities.
Gernsback’s new sort of magazine We begin, however, with Gernsback and the community of practice that emerged from, yet also exceeded, his creation of the genre label as a marketing category. Gernsback announced that his magazine launched a new kind of fiction, but even as his description promotes sf’s uniqueness, he draws on existing publications to define the kind of story he means to categorize and cultivate: “the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision” (3). As Rieder has suggested, we can understand Gernsback’s statement here to go beyond a mere description of the genre he wants to promote/invent and instead as an intervention into the reception of these quite distinct authors, encouraging his readers to see relations among them that constitute sf. His further descriptors, “charming romance,” “scientific fact,” and “prophetic vision” all emphasize qualities that Gernsback wants others to
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repeat and imitate: the story itself, as entertainment, is privileged, but sf will draw upon science (and here we might recall Alkon’s qualification that empirically this has been perceptions of science more than the scientific fact Gernsback evokes). Finally, and this is Gernsback’s particular contribution and preoccupation, the genre is celebrated for its ability to envision the (presumed wondrous) world soon to come through the marvels of science and technology. The masthead marking editorial columns in these early issues of Amazing Stories proudly proclaims, “Extravagant Fiction Today . . . Cold Fact Tomorrow!” For Gernsback, sf was to be more than a new genre: it was to “blaz[e] a new trail, not only in literature and fiction, but progress as well” (3). Even in this seemingly obvious moment of genre definition, however, multiplicity, contradiction, and competing yet overlapping communities of practice abound. Although our retroactive labeling of both Verne and Wells as common fathers of the genre encourages us to see them as engaged in similar projects, from the point of view of the literary marketplace of the late nineteenth century they had little in common. Verne drew extensively on the tradition of colonial adventure fiction, organizing many of his tales around voyages of discovery, and displayed a concern for precise details of measurement and careful explanations of his novel technologies. As Alkon notes, “Verne makes futuristic devices such as the Nautilus part of his contemporary world rather than taking readers forward imaginatively to a different future where such things are commonplace” (58). Publication of his work in Hetzel’s Magasin illustré d’éducation et de récréation reverses the order of priority between scientific education and entertainment as framed by Gernsback, and in general Verne’s work seeks to mingle accurate scientific details with his adventures, even if scientific facts are at times strained, such as with the interior sea in Voyage au centre de la Terre (1893). Indeed, Verne dismissed any similarity between his work and Wells’s, complaining “I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannonball, discharged from a cannon. . . . He goes to Mars in an airship, which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation,” which is all very entertaining, he concludes, but “show me this metal” (qtd in Alkon 7). Verne is right to point to this distinction. Although both he and Wells write about worlds different than the worlds of realist fiction or contemporary Europe, and although both are concerned
with the impact of science and technology on contemporary life, they are writing in different venues, and for different communities of practice. Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires6 wrestle with the extraordinary pace of change as new communication and transportation technologies radically reshape European colonial economies and urban lives. He eagerly seeks out what is new in biology, geography, astronomy, and oceanography, and constructs adventure stories in which he, his protagonists, and his readers may revel in the wonders of modern science and discovery. Wells, in contrast, writes scientific romances that tend to de-emphasize the role of the individual hero and focus on long-term, evolutionary perspectives. His most famous contributions to the genre grapple with the implications of new discoveries in geology, paleontology, and especially biology in the form of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Human agency and action are decentered on this timescale, and although the immediate future in The Time Machine (1895) might promise more of the marvels of technological innovation later celebrated in the pulps, the more distant future portends a bleak polarization of human beings into two different species, while the far future eclipses humanity entirely and offers a vision only of an entirely alien and alienating planet. More overtly than Verne, Wells uses sf in the mode of literalized metaphor, mobilized for social critique. For example, his future humans, bifurcated into Morlocks and Eloi, are not simply a thought experiment about differentiation and evolutionary change, but more importantly a comment on antithetical and isolated class identities in contemporary England. The isolation of working class from aristocratic class, he suggests, has grown so pronounced as to parallel the process of speciation by which separated populations of an organism each select for environmentally favorable traits until they are no longer recognizable as the same species. Further, the Time Traveller’s experiences teach him to question the timelessness (and wisdom) of his own social values when he learns that those descended from aristocratic stock are not dominant in this future. In this and other work, Wells challenges human hubris and effectively uses the techniques of sf to enable his readers to see the world in a new way. Both Wells and Verne are writing under the broad umbrella of mythologies of science, but whereas Verne privileges minute examination of the changes wrought by technoscience on daily life, Wells focuses instead on the philosophical and social implications of scientific discoveries:
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our understandings of our ethical choices and perceptions of our material world cannot remain static as the scientific worldview permeates Victorian society and rewrites common knowledge. Poe is the most neglected of Gernsback’s initial exemplars of sf, his reputation linked more to the contemporary rise of American gothic fiction and pulp detective fiction. Science is central to many of Poe’s works as well, although his focus on technique tends toward the forensic tradition of detective fiction, whereas his interest in social critique emerges in exposing the violent horror that underlies much quotidian life. The work of gothic writers is frequently associated with the sublime, but here we find it expressed in all its horrifying glory, overwhelming human cognition and reminding us of forces greater than our manipulation of nature through science. Poe thus brings to this early configuration of sf a version of the sublime that resists its transmutation into the more comforting sense of wonder associated with the technological sublime. Looking at a number of Poe’s stories, we find evidence of a much broader range of engagements with the sublime than in the sf that immediately follows, although this sensibility returns in more recent sf. In “M.S. Found in a Bottle” (1833), for example, what begins as an adventure tale of exploration quickly becomes uncanny. As the explorers’ ship is driven further and further south by a storm, daylight disappears and “thick gloom, and a black sweltering desert of ebony” (4) surrounds them. In the abyss of a huge wave, our narrator encounters a mysterious ship that sails with ease through the hurricane. Jumping aboard, he discovers that he need not hide from the sailors because these “incomprehensible men! . . . will not see” (7) him, yet his unease grows as he notes the decrepit condition of ship and crew. Growing bolder, he explores more of the ship and confronts the crew, at first attempting to rationalize his observations and master the situation. But cognition fails and the story ends with the collapse of language: the narrator describes their wild plunge into “the grasp of the whirlpool . . . amid a roaring, and bellowing, and thundering of ocean and of tempest” (11) and the ship goes down. The manuscript itself is all that returns from this otherworldly realm to attest to the experience, its rational explanation terminated by this sublime encounter. Although Verne and Wells are more frequently cited than Poe as progenitors of sf, the evocation of the sublime as fundamentally incomprehensible and potentially frightening is also part of the
genre, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s haunting story “The Sentinel” (1951), and perhaps even more strongly Stanley Kubrick’s film version of the expanded narrative, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Clarke’s original story conveys its narrator’s wonder at finding the artifact on the moon, the “great lifting of [his] heart, and a strange, inexpressible joy” (246) when he realizes that he is confronting a manufactured rather than natural object. At the same time, however, his excitement is mixed with terror as he contemplates the evolutionary timescale of its origin, a technology that far exceeds anything accomplished by humans and placed on the moon before we had become homo sapiens. Although the narrator strives to transmute this feeling of awe into its positive form of wonder, he remains haunted by human helplessness before such a superior species: “Perhaps they wish to help our infant civilization. But they must be very, very old, and the old are often insanely jealous of the young” (249). In Kubrick’s film adaptation, we are left with even fewer explanatory hints, confronted only by the mysterious hotel room in which, it seems, Dave (Keir Dullea) is transformed into the starchild. Whether this is the apotheosis or extinction of humankind is unclear. Modes of sf that draw upon the paradigms established by Verne and Wells abound as well, such as the careful engineering detail used to establish Larry Niven’s Ringworld series (1970–), or the transformation of space opera conventions into a critique of colonialism in New Space Opera writers such as Ian McDonald and Gwyneth Jones.
Science fictions My point in stressing the diversity of Verne, Wells, and Poe is not to suggest that Gernsback was “wrong” in identifying them with his new genre label, nor is it to privilege one particular inheritance over another. Rather, my point is that our understanding of sf must necessarily be multiple, and further that this heterogeneity describes not merely the genre as it exists in the twenty-first century, but also the range of texts that have been retroactively incorporated into histories of the genre and the ways in which Gernsback’s call to write new fiction for modernity was taken up. Just as Rieder argues that instead of searching for the origin of sf, histories of the genre should explore how multiple possibilities cohered into specific formal features and thematic tendencies that change over time, this book will not seek to explain and defend the genre of science fiction.
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Rather, it will explore a number of influential conceptualizations of the genre that have been offered by different critics, striving to gain a total but not totalized picture of the genre by shifting among these various strategies for describing it. This book is organized conceptually rather than chronologically. My treatment of sf texts as examples to illustrate various meanings will function as case studies, not as a comprehensive treatment of all of the genre’s major writers and movements;7 I have provided a timelime as an appendix to help readers see how the various examples discussed fit within a larger history of the genre’s major texts, movements, and writers. Since one of the factors shaping the definition of sf is historical context, some of the frameworks discussed will lend themselves more readily to certain historical periods than to others, and the examples discussed will inevitably reflect this tendency. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the interaction between concept and chronology is fluid rather than fixed: although each description emerges as a specific intervention at a particular time, part of the intellectual work of labeling is the backward propagation of the concept to incorporate previous work, precisely as we see Gernsback drafting Verne, Wells, and Poe as sf writers. The purpose of this book is not to provide a history of sf, then, but instead to convey the scope of various communities practicing sf. To readers new to the genre, some of these communities and examples may seem surprising, introducing them to a genre that exceeds the garish pulp aliens and big space battles they have come to associate with sf; for readers more familiar with the genre, this approach may prove frustrating in its refusal to privilege one paradigm over others, although I too inevitably have my own favorites. My larger purpose, however, is to convey a wide-ranging sense of sf as a site of ongoing cultural struggle over the meanings and relevance of science, literary capital, and cultural politics. I take it as axiomatic that each way of conceptualizing the genre obscures certain texts and perspectives, and illuminates others, so readers are encouraged to assess and challenge these frameworks and boundaries rather than merely accept them. I offer this range of perspectives in the belief that one cannot understand sf without simultaneously understanding these debates. Science fiction is not a “thing” but is always actively being made from heterogeneous materials, and larger questions of market, cultural politics, and aesthetics inform these struggles
over definition. To call a text “science fiction” is to change the way we look at that text, as well as to attempt to change the overall understanding of the boundaries of this genre and its relation to other genres. We need to think about sf as a network of linked texts, motifs, themes, and images, a network in which it is always possible to make new and novel connections among existing nodes, and to which it is always possible to link previously unconnected material. Each paradigm examined in the following chapters enables certain kinds of conversations and precludes others, and each should be taken as an invitation to enter into a collective “we” of science fiction practice. Before I turn to my first framework for understanding sf, there is one final point to be made about the scope and limits of this text. In order to facilitate classroom use, I have chosen examples mainly from short stories that are frequently anthologized or from novels regularly in print.8 Although it is my conviction that nonprint forms of sf are as important to the genre as is print sf, my examples are largely from print sources for two reasons: first, this book provides an overview of the critical response to sf as much as to the genre itself, and most of its history as an object of academic study has focused on print forms; second, it remains the case that most university courses devoted to sf concern sf literature. Finally, although sf flourishes in a variety of countries and languages, this book addresses the Anglo tradition of sf and sf scholarship, a tradition that includes a number of writers (Verne, Stanislaw Lem, Karel Čapek) whose work has been translated into English and had a significant impact on the sf written in English.
Discussion questions 1 What comes to mind when you think of the genre
designation science fiction? What do you think are essential qualities for a text to be considered sf? Is sf a genre you regularly consume? Why or why not? Return to these answers once you have completed the course, and consider whether you would still answer in the same way. 2 In the beginning of his review of China Miéville’s novel
Embassytown, sf scholar Neil Easterbrook discusses a problem he sees when scholars not familiar with sf review
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works that use science fictional ideas and motifs. Such reviewers, he argues, frequently have a pre-established prejudice against sf and thus if they like a work, they insist the work uses sf but somehow isn’t sf. “This is an old critical conceit,” Easterbrook writes. “If it has aliens or warp-drive, then it’s sf; if it has emotion or metaphors of the human condition, then it isn’t. Derangment by estrangement, we might call the persistence of this formula, if we wanted to be charitable. Ignorance and superficiality if we didn’t” (see full review at http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=107). Is there a difference between using sf and being sf? Can serious works of literature never be sf? Why or why not? 3 Read Gernsback’s first editorial from Amazing Stories,
“A New Sort of Magazine” (see footnote). Although he has not yet used the term, Gernsback is describing his vision of what sf can and will be. Does the sf of today fulfill his vision? Why or why not? Is this a good or bad development for the genre?
The literature of technologically saturated societies As we saw in the previous chapter, the term “science fiction” came into popular usage to describe a distinct genre in the early twentieth century, based on examples drawn from the late nineteenth century. In this chapter we will consider the claim that sf is a genre of late modernity, one that emerges only after a series of cultural shifts related to science and technology have permeated contemporary life, an argument made by Roger Luckhurst in his cultural history of the genre, Science Fiction (2005). Seeking to situate the discussion of sf within a rich network of disciplinary knowledges and historical contexts, Luckhurst sees sf as a literature that emerges from and engages with the particular preoccupations of late modernity. He defines sf as “the literature of technologically saturated societies” (3). Luckhurst dates sf to the late nineteenth century and beyond because he links the genre’s emergence to certain cultural and intellectual shifts that are pervasive by this period, although many begin earlier. Consistent with the heterogeneous and shifting definition of genre outlined in Chapter One, his discussion links the emergence of sf to shifts in literary cultures and markets, to the shifting hierarchy between science and religion as hermeneutic systems, and to new patterns in daily life and work. The first condition for sf, the extension of literacy and primary education to the majority of the population, including the working
classes, is one that has been underappreciated in prior histories of the genre since this is not a condition for the emergence of sf alone but rather for the emergence of the broader notion of a popular literature. Closely connected is the second condition, the displacement of older forms of mass literature, such as sensationalist dime novels and penny dreadfuls, by the new specialty magazine culture. Dime novels already carried stories we now recognize as sf, such as the gadget adventures of Frank Reade, but they were not marketed and distributed differently from other modes like the Western tales of a fictionalized Jesse James, or the detective adventures of heroic Pinkertons. Early story magazines, such as Argosy (1882–1978) or The Strand (1891–1950), similarly published a mixture of story types. Market competition, however, soon led to a desire for product differentiation that resulted in dedicated western, detective, romance, and other magazines. Street and Smith Publishers, who would later acquire Astounding Science Fiction (which arguably became the most influential magazine in the field after John W. Campbell became editor in 1937), launched this innovation, and the transformed marketplace created a space for Hugo Gernsback to “invent” sf and launch his own specialized story magazine.
Science and science fiction As well as changes in the publishing context, Luckhurst stresses important changes in the relationship between science and everyday life that occurred before sf became a viable enterprise. The increasing centrality of scientific understanding and its embodiment in technology produced a need for a population educated as scientific workers, leading to the emergence of scientific and technical institutions. These workers, students, and teachers formed a ready-made audience of those inclined toward the subjects of sf, but more importantly they were a symptom of the fact that quotidian culture was visibly transformed by technology and science. An earlier culture of scientific practice had been largely confined to the isolated laboratories of individual, self-funded researchers, those whose wealth in land and other capital allowed them to pursue science as a hobby. In America in particular, modern science became incorporated into the myth of the individual self-made man, a democratizing impulse in which a
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genius such as Thomas Edison could rise to fame and fortune due to hard work and merit. Edison’s inventions (often improvements on existing technologies), such as the phonograph, the motion-picture camera, and the system of mass electrification, transformed daily life in a way that is perhaps difficult to imagine in an era in which we take such devices for granted. For Edison’s contemporaries, however, the idea that someone’s voice could be preserved beyond his or her lifetime, or that motion could be captured, replayed, frozen, or reversed, were marvels that challenged commonsense understandings of time and space. The real key to Edison’s genius, however, was the mass production of novel technologies, an innovation that ensured their rapid transformation of daily life, as well as his own wealth through his careful attention to patents.1 Although the myth of Edison stresses individual creativity, the real engine of progress and change was his industrial research centre, Menlo Park, where team effort produced many of the innovations credited to Edison alone. Central to his role in popularizing interest in technology were Edison’s conflicts with rival industrialist George Westinghouse over whether direct current (Edison’s patent) or alternating current (Westinghouse’s) should be used to electrify America. Although AC eventually became the standard due to its greater efficiency and longer range, Edison successfully kept his own DC power economically viable for a considerable period, fostering public fear of AC by developing and promoting the electric chair as an emblem of AC’s lethality, and by organizing the public execution of Luna Park’s elephant, Topsy, who had become violent with her handlers. Topsy was executed via AC in 1903 at a public event that Edison captured on a widely screened film, demonstrating both the “danger” of rival AC and the “marvel” of his movie camera. Edison’s mixture of invention, publicity stunt, and economic imperative in this event exemplifies the ways both science and myths about science permeated daily life, producing fertile ground for the emergence of sf as people sought an aesthetic mode that could capture and work through these awe-inspiring contemporary realities that were both dreadful and wonderful. In addition to the changes wrought by technology, new scientific paradigms were also radically transforming intellectual cultures in the late nineteenth century, the most significant being Darwin’s theory of evolution, which challenged common understandings of geological time. Darwin had an enormous influence on the work
of H. G. Wells, one of the students trained in the new scientific institutions of the late nineteenth century, and much of Wells’s work is illustrative of sf defined as the literature of technologically saturated societies. His The War of the Worlds (1898) also gives sf one of its key archetypes, the alien invasion. Wells opens the novel with an invitation for readers to rethink their commonplace assumption of anthropocentrism (which is also a critique of the ethnocentrism of colonialism), framing the novel as a retrospective narrative after the invasion has shocked the narrator out of his previous worldview. Although evolution is not mentioned, the opening is organized around readjusting our sense of time to encompass a vastness that far exceeds recorded human history, just as new discoveries in geology and paleontology were confronting Wells’s contemporaries with the realization that the planet’s life had existed long before humanity. The opening also evokes scientific observation as key to this transformed mindset. “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century,” the novel begins, “that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own” (3). The evolutionary perspective and the scientific gaze converge as the narrator continues, “With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope does the same” (3). Human hubris is decentered as we become not the pinnacle of god’s creation but rather one species among many, supreme from our perspective but perhaps merely microbes from another. Yet it is not merely the philosophical evolutionary perspective that challenges humanity; the novel also hints at the threat that lies beneath a new scientific relationship with the world. While Francis Bacon portrays the creation of a utopia in The New Atlantis (1624) through scientific observation and analysis that will lead to the mastery of a passive nature, Wells reminds us that scientific discoveries as often demonstrate our lack of “empire over matter,” revealing a world more complex and powerful than our paradigms allow. This opening paragraph concludes with one of the most famous quotations in sf history, Wells’s description of the Martians as “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” who regard our world “with envious eyes” (3). In this move, Wells not only establishes tales of alien invasion/encounter as part of a new kind of literature, but he also demonstrates how the centrality of scientific
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understanding changes aesthetic as well as scientific paradigms. The War of the Worlds is not a novel of bourgeois interiority, but one that requires a literary imagination capable of thinking beyond mere human perspectives. Challenging taken-for-granted ways of understanding the world—the perspectives that are embodied in the conventions of realist fiction—is thus key to both Wells’s theme and his technique. The novel is generally read as a critique of British imperialism accomplished by reversal: devastating the imperial centre of London, portraying the British as overwhelmingly outgunned by superior Martian technology, and pointedly reminding the reader at several points that, although the Martians appear monstrous to human experience, from their own they are not doing anything particularly heinous or indeed different from British actions in its colonies. Thus we are chastised to remember not only “the vanished bison and the dodo” made extinct by human activity, but also Tasmanians “swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants” (5), although here Wells betrays some remaining immersion in the biases of his era when he refers to the Tazmanians as having a “human likeness” rather than simply as human. The War of the Worlds, then, charts changing social attitudes toward science, and also uses the novel possibilities of sf (alien invasion) to confront readers with a foreign perception of colonialist resource accumulation. The first section of the novel, “The Coming of the Martians,” is a catalogue of Britain’s utter lack of preparedness for the consequences of a world made by science rather than by Christian mythology. This contrast is marked in particular by the curate’s inadequacy in the face of this crisis, leading our narrator to question, “What good is religion if it collapses under calamity?” (70). The narrator quickly loses patience with what he calls the curate’s “trick of helpless exclamation, his stupid rigidity of mind” (131), and eventually feels compelled to kill him rather than risk the curate’s lamentations revealing their position to the Martians. The novel’s portrayal of the scientific worldview, however, goes far beyond revealing that punishment for sin is an insufficient, even offensive explanation for human suffering under the Martians. Christianity promotes an anthropocentric view that privileges humanity above all other species, while science requires us to realize that nature has no special interest in homo sapiens. Moreover, humans are not even privileged in their ability to use science in Wells’s view, a motif
found in later sf as we shall see. Science, like the military and the clergy, offers no effective resistance to the Martian invasion. Instead it is the capacities of the natural world, something we might better understand yet not master through science, that saves humanity: bacteria are not a part of Martian ecology, the humans speculate—“That they did not bury any of their dead, and the reckless slaughter they perpetrated among us points to an entire ignorance of the putrefactive process” (179)—and thus Martians are susceptible to infection by microbes. The biology of decay and infection, not human intellect, saves us. Wells challenges not only the taken-for-granted worldview of religion that is being displaced by science in his era, but also the conventions of realist fiction that privilege human figures and concerns. Our narrator is an observer, not an agent in these events, and his actions do nothing to shape the outcome of the invasion. Early in the novel, he castigates the anthropocentric hubris of writers who, “blinded by [their] vanity,” never “expressed any idea that intelligent life might have developed there far, or indeed at all, beyond its earthly level” (4). When he concludes his narrative after the death of the Martians, he returns to his study and finds an unfinished manuscript on his desk: “In about two hundred years,” it begins, “we might expect—” (177). The events of the invasion interrupted the narrator’s writing, and returning to his manuscript after that experience, he acknowledges that he can no longer anticipate the future as he did before. Realizing that there is life on Mars has fundamentally altered his understanding of the universe, and “whether we expect another invasion, or not, our views of the human future must be greatly modified” (181). The consequences of the invasion are threefold. First, it “has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence” (181), prompting a more conscious human agency in making the future through choice, rather than capitulating to what is given as necessary and inevitable. Second, it has produced a “broadening of men’s views” as they realize that they are not alone in the universe, prompting “the conception of the commonweal of mankind” (181). Finally, the least elaborated point, “the gifts to human science it has brought are enormous” (181). We might think of these changes, wrought by the invasion, as analogous to the cultural benefits that sf, ideally, can bring. In its technique of creating imaginative future or other worlds, sf compels us to think about the relationship between human action and social
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structure, about the ways we have chosen and can continue to choose the societies we wish to inhabit and the people we wish to be. The genre facilitates the decentering of human perspectives in narration of events, creating the potential for us to see beyond the narrow frame of our own cultures and values, and at its best encouraging more inclusive and heterogeneous understandings of humanity. Finally, by focusing attention on scientific ways of understanding the world, the genre may encourage more scientific literacy, a quality Wells portrays as progressive. By framing the narrative between a critique of the limitations of nineteenth-century literature and a declaration that previous ways of conceptualizing the future are outmoded, The War of the Worlds implicitly suggests that the scientific worldview, which transforms the narrator’s understanding and leads him to think of the future differently, should have an equally transformative effect on contemporary British culture. “Our view of the human future must be greatly modified,” this novel suggests, and sf is the literary mode that will enable us to do this.
Hard sf Wells’s engagement with the influence of science and technology on daily life is expressed largely through this engagement with the philosophical and cultural shifts attendant on the hegemony of science. Scientific understanding of evolution and biology informs his narrative, but its action and themes are largely focused elsewhere. By the time Gernsback launches the pulps and coins the term “science fiction,” the label encourages a variety of paradigms for understanding how this new kind of story is related to science. Gernsback thought of his magazine as an imaginative testing ground for novel technologies, concepts he felt might make their way from fiction to fact, and sf fandom is replete with stories of inventions inspired by the genre. In this view, sf contributes to scientific progress; sf that draws explicitly and extensively on the language of science, that embeds its plots and innovations within contemporary scientific knowledge (and extrapolates beyond), and that organizes its narrative around such scientific data is a subgenre of the field called “hard sf.” The term emerged in the 1950s and was used predominantly nostalgically, to categorize the Golden Age sf of the 1940s as better integrated into contemporary science than the “soft” social concerns of more recently published fiction.
The War of the Worlds allies itself firmly with science in the ongoing battle between scientific and religious authority, but simultaneously maintains an awareness that the changes brought by science and technology will not solely be positive. Fiction published in the early pulps, in contrast, tends toward technooptimism, a vision of the world as only and inevitably improved by new technologies and the hegemony of science, the kind of view epitomized by Gernsback’s own novel, Ralph 124C 41+, originally serialized between 1911 and 1912 in Modern Electrics, one of several technical magazines Gernsback published before turning to fiction pulps. Gernsback’s interests in amateur science and invention flow seamlessly into his investment in a genre he believed would presage a techno-utopian future, and both electrics and fiction magazines are modes of preparing for this future. Ralph 124C 41+ is a conventional adventure story (the extraordinarily talented Ralph saves his girl from a dastardly villain) and its narrative serves only as the thinnest of pretexts to move Ralph from scene to scene of wondrous future technologies: television, a video phone, solar energy, synthetic food, spaceflight, and more are envisioned in this work. Gernsback offers little in the way of imagining how these technologies might be achieved, but strives to create a sense of the wonder of living in a world where such marvels are commonplace. The fondly remembered sf of the Golden Age, such as Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll,” discussed in Chapter One, is generally enthusiastic about technology in this way, eagerly embracing a future that has replaced religion with science and worrying little about the potentially detrimental social consequences of progress defined as increased technology and wealth. Science thus enters much sf as the logic by which the narrative is structured, the rationale of testing a hypothesis or of logically working through a premise. The values attached to observation, objectivity, and reason by scientific practice mark such stories as part of a culture of science, as is apparent in Stanley G. Weinbaum’s popular pulp story, “A Martian Odyssey” (1934). From one point of view, this story shows little relationship to science, since it is set on a Mars where human explorers can live and breathe. Yet it betrays a curious interest in details of scientific observation and method, and is rigorously rational in presenting details of this inhabitable Mars through a scientific lens. Ares Expedition members, chemist Jarvis, biologist Leroy,
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engineer Putz, and astronomer Harrison, must undergo rigorous training in “acclimatization chambers . . . learning to breathe the air as tenuous of that of Mars” (137), the difference in gravity is mentioned more than once, and we are given precise details about the delicate equations related to speed, altitude, wings, air density, and “under-jets” (138) that propel their scouting trips. The story is organized around the question of how to communicate with the alien, which Weinbaum describes as a problem of scientific investigation. Careful scientific observation is key: Jarvis recounts his experiences in the alien landscape as he must walk back to camp after a crash, revealing to the reader only the details he knew at the time, explaining the hypotheses he formed, and rationalizing his actions based on objectivity. Jarvis observes what he believes is a struggle between two animals, an ostrich-like being and what appears to be “a bunch of black ropey arms,” but he is compelled to intervene when he notices that the bird-like being, Tweel, has “a little black bag or case” (141), this evidence of technology (manufacture) taken as a sign that this is an intelligent fellow subject, not an animal. Jarvis’s rescue of Tweel makes them traveling companions. They are able to use verbal language to exchange names, and gesture helps them work co-operatively, but further exchange of words proves frustrating because they “just didn’t think alike” (142), although they have more luck with mathematical equations and astronomy diagrams. Once Tweel has marked himself as part of a scientific understanding of the universe, Jarvis accepts that he has a mind, albeit one that works differently, and that Tweel’s ways of processing and representing data are as valid as human ones. As Jarvis recounts these experiences to his shipmates, they continually offer theories about Tweel’s nature based on rational observation, focusing on scientific (that Tweel takes no water as an adapted desert creature, for example) rather than social (that he recognizes Jarvis’s greater need and foregoes water) frameworks of explanation. Tweel successfully conveys the idea that builders of pyramid structures they observe are not “people” but merely animals by telling Jarvis “no one-one-two” (148): lacking mathematics, the sign of reason, these creatures are irrelevant. Reason as a sign of valuable life situates this story firmly in the scientific worldview: although Jarvis’s adventures form the details of its plot, “A Martian Odyssey” is really concerned with the question of evaluating Tweel’s intelligence, and hence whether he “and his
race are worthy of [human] friendship” (153). Jarvis continually offers evidence that is challenged and tested by his crewmates. Tweel warns Jarvis not only about the pyramid-making creatures, but also about the ropey-armed predators, dream-beasts who lure their prey by perceiving and projecting victims’ thoughts, an idea Tweel conveys through the phrase “you one-one-two, he one-one-two” (152). He encapsulates the final Martian species they encounter as “one-one-two—yes!—two-two-four—no!” (154), a phrase Jarvis interprets to indicate that they are intelligent creatures, yet “not of our order, but something different and beyond the logic of two and two is four” (155). These barrel-shaped creatures behave in incomprehensive ways, rushing about with carts and parroting back Jarvis’s phrases without any sense that language is a communicative and reciprocal medium. Since they do not think in the logical way validated by the story’s investment in a scientific worldview, they are no more potential friends for humanity than are the mindless pyramid-builder or the predatory dream-beast. Thus, Jarvis feels no qualms in stealing from them a crystal with “the property of hard x-rays or gamma radiations, only more so; it destroyed diseased tissue and left healthy tissue unharmed!” (157), and the story ends as he reveals his acquisition. “A Martian Odyssey” thus normalizes a scientific worldview as a sign of being fully human both in its narrative and in a narrative logic that encourages readers to think in this way as well. With Jarvis’s crewmates, we are directed toward questions of how life on Mars works (the pyramid builders are silicon-based, for example, and Jarvis offers an account of how he thinks they reproduce through a reactive gas), and we are discouraged from curiosity about the less-accessible worldview embodied by the barrel creatures. There is no sense of allure attached to the mystery of how their different logic construes the world and explains their otherwise meaningless actions. Similarly, we are not encouraged to interrogate the colonialist underpinnings of the story, as John Rieder notes in his insightful reading, 2 or to take the barrel creatures’ side in the attack on Tweel and Jarvis, who have, after all, stolen the crystal. Similarly, the story never questions whether reason should be the most important criterion of intelligence (and hence worth) or whether evidence of technology should automatically place a species in a superior position. When Jarvis thinks of the pyramids as a technology of building, for example, he is curious about their
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makers, but he loses all interest when he finds out they are traces of a mere biological function rather than architecturally planned structures. This privileging of beings who display intelligence, measured through evidence of abstract reasoning and often conveyed through mathematics, remains a dominant motif in sf depictions of the alien. “A Martian Odyssey” is not hard sf, but it nonetheless relies on science and technology to have meaning. In 2011 Neal Stephenson published an essay titled “Innovation Starvation”3 that lamented the loss of the grand visions and scientific optimism he associates with sf of the Golden Age. He argues that we have lost the capacity to imagine science and technology as world-transforming initiatives, and hence materially to transform the world using them: “Scientists and engineers who came of age during the first half of the 20th century,” he contends, “could look forward to building things that would solve age-old problems, transform the landscape, build the economy, and provide jobs for the burgeoning middle class that was the basis for our stable democracy.” Stephenson sees disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 not as evidence of the risks and reward attendant on engineering projects, but rather as a symptom of the fact that “we have lost our ability to get important things done.” Even though we have known since at least 1973 that dependence on oil is a serious problem, for example, we have had no solutions coming out of science. Stephenson proposes a project he calls Hieroglyph Theory, and more recently Arizona State University established a Project Hieroglyph website based on Stephenson’s ideas, to encourage and facilitate collaborations between the sf imagination and scholarly research agendas. Project Hieroglyph announces its mandate as follows: The name of Project Hieroglyph comes from the notion that certain iconic inventions in science fiction stories serve as modern “hieroglyphs”—Arthur Clarke’s communications satellite, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ship that lands on its fins, Isaac Asimov’s robot, and so on. Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research described hieroglyphs as simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees. What science fiction stories—and the symbols that they engender—can do better than almost anything else is to provide not just an idea for some specific technical innovation, but also to supply a coherent picture of
that innovation being integrated into a society, into an economy, and into people’s lives. Often, this is the missing element that scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and entrepreneurs need in order to actually take the first real steps towards realizing some novel idea.4 This is one of the most significant elements of the relationship between science and sf, this “coherent picture of that innovation being integrated into a society,” but it is important to stress that this picture need not restrict itself to the techno-optimism of Ralph 124C 41+ or the naturalizing of a view of science as strictly rational and objective in “A Martian Odyssey.” Rather, sf as the literature of technologically saturated societies can also engage critically with science, as does The War of the Worlds, critical here not meaning detracting but rather evaluative. Like scholars who study the practice and history of science to show its location within contemporary cultural values, sf is a way of exploring both what is enabled by looking at the world scientifically, but also what science disregards in its models, the questions that “A Martian Odyssey” does not want us to ask, but that other sf, such as Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean (1986), makes central to its narrative in its contrast between an ecofeminist and techno-rationalist approach to planetary life.
Campbell’s Golden Age The Golden Age especially tends toward optimism about science and progress, a reflection of contemporary technocratic values that favored governance by technical experts (defined largely as scientists and engineers) and posited that such a society would move beyond limited, partisan views toward a true meritocracy guided by the most reasonable, hence best, ideas. John Huntington uses the phrase “rationalizing genius” to describe this kind of sf, which he parses in multiple ways. It is fiction “that attempts to make genius a clear rational category” imagined as a measure of intelligence; it “attempts to justify genius, to make up reasons for it”; and it expresses “a ‘genius’ for rationalizing, in the sense of making excuses” (1). In his careful readings of a number of Golden Age stories through this framework, Huntington demonstrates both the appeal and the blind spots of this kind of fiction, particularly
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its tendency to disavow its own rather conservative politics as simply an apolitical, rational depiction of the way things are. The relative consistency of sf during this period is often credited to the editorship of John W. Campbell, who took over Astounding Stories in 1937, editing it until his death in 1971. Campbell had a significant influence on the careers of many writers now regarded as central to the field, although by the end of his career he had alienated almost everyone with his rigidity. Campbell is generally credited with making sf more mature than it was during the Gernsback era, emphasizing characters and the social world in which a technology was deployed over the fetishization of gadgets. He changed the name of the magazine from Astounding Stories to Astounding Science Fiction, and in 1939 briefly launched another magazine, Unknown, where he tried to segregate fantasy stories away from “real” sf. He favored strong, masculine heroes, a universe in which scientific method could reliably lead to truth, and the repression of emotion, although as Huntington points out, emotion is generally displaced, or rationalized, rather than fully eradicated in such work. Campbell’s tremendous influence on the field during the period of his editorship, and his commitment to the ideals of scientific plausibility and technocratic rationalism, enshrined an image of early sf that firmly linked the genre to science. The type of sf he championed remains at the core of many people’s understanding of the genre, a tradition continued, for example, in hard sf and in military space opera, which shares with technocracy ideals of meritocracy, discipline, and rationality. Campbell tended to view the universe as a potentially hostile environment, and he preferred stories in which alien encounters were hostile and human values inevitably triumphed. If we think of Gernsback’s ideal being a patent shared between sf writer and inventor, Campbell’s ideal might be an sf-writers think-tank. Such a vision was briefly materialized in the Citizen’s Advisory Council on National Space Policy, formed under the Reagan administration and central to his Strategic Defense Initiative, which included sf writers5 among astronauts, military officers, and scientists. This kind of intervention represents the extreme end of conceptualizing sf as the cultural representation of the rational and scientific management of society. Campbell’s own story “Who Goes There?” (1938), adapted multiple times into the films The Thing from Another World (Nyby and Hawkes 1951), The Thing (Carpenter 1983), and The Thing (van
Heijningen 2011), encapsulates the values of sf conceived as rationalist worldview. The story concerns the discovery of a long-buried spaceship crashed in Antarctica, and the crisis among the men stationed at the research camp where the body of an alien, the thing, is examined. The first conflict is about whether it is safe to thaw the creature since microscopic life may exist in frozen stasis, potentially creating a viral threat, pitched as a battle between physicist Norris and biologist Blair. Blair is tainted in the story not only by his association with a softer science, by also by his overall softness in comparison with the others, especially engineer McReady, the story’s hero. While Blair is described as “baldpated” (335), fidgety, pale, bony, and “birdlike” (363), McReady is introduced as “a figure from some forgotten myth, a looming, bronze statue that held life” (336). Blair is also presented, at least initially, as more intellectually curious, insisting on the scientific value of studying the thing; he refuses to read its ugliness, to human perception, as a sign of evil. Norris, in contrast, insists that common sense inevitably leads to the conclusion that anything that ugly is malevolent. Blair calls it “another example of Nature’s wonderful adaptability” (347), but we are encouraged to regard Nature’s fluidity with suspicion, to prefer the hard and fixed equations of physics, when the story quickly moves to its second crisis: the entire creature, not mere microscopic life, reanimates and, far more disturbing, the creature may take the form of any life with which it has contact. “Who Goes There?” continually evokes the kind of sublime horror of the alien unknown that we might associate with some of Poe’s work, but it just as quickly contains this horror through consoling rationality. McReady almost physically holds the men from panic through his masterful calm and powerful mind, refusing to give in to panic as they realize that they cannot tell who is “real” human and who imitation thing. The group is continually at risk of turning on one another through paranoia, indulging the irrationality of fear, but Campbell carefully ensures that this remains a technocratic sf story, not horror, through a plot structured around finding a logical way to distinguish human from thing. They debate microscopic examination of tissue samples (thwarted by the perfect imitation of alien nuclei), try a blood serum test (inconclusive since the thing has already contaminated all the animals they might use for testing), and use behavioral observation and deductive reasoning (which reveals that a person infected by
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the thing shows no loyalty and is equally willing to kill another infected or a “real” human). Yet this lack of collectivity among the alien’s distributed selves, in contrast with the solidarity of the men, proves its undoing, and McReady deduces its weakness: each bit will strive to preserve its individual life, and thus blood extracted from a thing will strive to save itself from electrocution, while human blood will not. Armed with this plan, the men stoically agree to be tested one by one, and McReady bitterly regrets the necessity of killing those of his fellows who prove imposters, wishing he could inflict a more violent death on the thing that has stolen such great men from him, “something with boiling oil, or melted lead in it, or maybe slow roasting in the power boiler” (379). The story is conveyed through the language of science. Blair explains that all cells are “made up of protoplasm, controlled by infinitely tinier nuclei” (353), which in the case of this creature are controlled “at will” (354), thereby allowing it to shape its cells to imitate its victim. This language works to contain the potentially uncanny sense of horror the thing might evoke and redirects the reader’s affect toward the rational puzzle being solved as the characters develop the test. Huntington argues that “Science Fiction stories spend an enormous amount of energy handling the problems emotion seems to cause and developing psychological and social models which will in some way diffuse emotion” (69), and “Who Goes There?” uses the rhetorical authority of science to do this. Thus, the men are authorized to kill one another violently once an individual has been identified as thing rather than human. Most of the men stick together through this ordeal, but Blair— already marked as effeminate and hence beyond the camaraderie of masculine rationality—isolates himself in a cabin. Despite the factual scientific merit of isolation as a way to contain biological contamination, Blair’s action is presented as a capitulation to his overwhelming fear, a failure to face the problem head-on and engineer a pragmatic solution, as McReady does. Using such language and the framing of the story as a series of hypothesis tests enables Campbell to present the excessive violence in the story’s conclusion as a logical necessity, rationalizing a violence that would otherwise emerge “irrationally,” as pent-up rage directed against an insufficiently masculine member of the group. The final thing has taken the form of Blair, long locked away in his cabin and working on antigravity technology that would allow it to escape Antarctic isolation and take over all living matter
on earth. Their final confrontation with it is an extended scene of violence that goes far beyond the earlier, more clinical killings, done brutally with an axe and a blowtorch. The rage and fear the men feel, continually rationalized away in their careful discussions of testing procedures, is projected onto the thing: its face is “hatewashed,” its screams described as “feral hate” (382), and by the time they confront it, it has lost its human semblance and appears as a mass of tentacles and oozing flesh. McReady finally kills it with a blowtorch, indulging all the sadistic desire for torture he earlier expressed, relentlessly burning the thing as it “shrieked, flailed out blindly with tentacles that writhed and withered . . . the dead eyes burning and bubbling uselessly” (382). The story ends with emotions safely contained, motives of personal animosity obscured, and the surviving men congratulating themselves for having saved earth from an alien menace.
Science and gender The contrast between Blair and McReady in the story suggests a hostility toward not only emotion but also queer sexuality, women, and by extension concerns of the domestic associated with femininity, in favor of stories such as this one about the masculine concerns of public, scientific culture in a homosocial environment. Yet as Lisa Yaszek reminds us in Galactic Suburbia, although we associate the idea of technologically saturated society with the big public science of global communications, atomic weapons, and computers, “many Americans first experienced technocultural life in a manner that was both more humble and more profound: through the industrialization of the home” (8). Although not frequently published in Campbell’s Astounding, women writers participated in sf throughout its history, and they brought a very different perspective to the questions of how science and technology were changing daily life. Yaszek points out that changes to women’s work through the industrial production of household goods and new electric appliances created the ideal of the housewife as “domestic scientist” (9), thus linking domestic space to technocratic ideals. Women writers often cast a critical eye on the rationalism and ideals of progress uncritically celebrated in other sf, and expanded the genre’s understanding of technoscience to encompass the ways it changed family and personal life, as well as public culture.
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Judith Merril is perhaps the most important female writer of this period, not only for her own fiction but also for her later work as an editor (which we will explore in Chapter Five). One of her most influential stories, “That Only a Mother” (1948), was the only story by a woman6 to be included in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame collection, and it aptly demonstrates not only the crucial intersections of public science and domestic life, but also resistance within the field to the technocratic ideal promoted by Campbellian sf. Consistent with much sf published in the late 1940s, the story is critical of the narrowly focused techno-rationality that produced the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and pessimistic about the new world created by a world-destroying technology. The story is written from the perspective of Maggie, a wife patiently waiting at home and writing to her husband, Hank, who is deployed at a secret facility clearly linked to nuclear warfare by her fears about mutations in her baby and her comments about his paleness when he finally returns home after being “underground all this time” (218). Early sections of the story shift between Maggie’s determinedly optimistic tone, which inevitably drifts toward expressing her anxiety, and an admonishing voice she channels to try to quell her fears, urging herself to “take the nice newspaper’s word for it” (212) or else to “read the social notes or the recipes” (213). Her assurance to herself that her pregnancy will be normal since the worst cases of mutation are “predicted and prevented” becomes a critique of science detached from social and ethical context when she muses, “We predicted it, didn’t we? . . . But we didn’t prevent it” (213), implicitly drawing the entire nuclear weapons program into question. The story explores the difference between an embedded, socially engaged perspective on the social consequences of nuclear weapons and an abstract, techno-rationalist view of their “logical” necessity. For most of the story we hear only Maggie’s thoughts about their newborn daughter as she writes to Hank, although his absent but implied replies hint to the reader that something is amiss. She tells him, for example, that their baby “didn’t actually have to stay in the incubator; they just thought it was ‘wiser’” (215), and her next letter begins with the firm refutation “well the nurse was wrong if she told you that” (216). We are prepared by context to expect that the baby has a mutation, and Merril creates a false sense of security in her reader when the child speaks and we learn of the gap between
her “four-year-old mind” and her “ten-month-old body” (217), likely reminding readers of a number of earlier sf stories in which humans evolve superior intelligence, such as A. E. van Vogt’s hugely popular Slan, originally serialized in Astounding in 1940, whose superhuman, psychic mutants were adopted as analogs for sf fan identity. Maggie’s comments about the child’s problems with her diaper and crawling, however, quietly prepare the reader for the story’s concluding revelation: Hank returns home and is shocked when he holds his daughter to feel “No wrinkles. No kicking. No . . .” (220, ellipses in original). We are left with a final image of Hank, as “his fingers tightened on his child” (220), and the knowledge from Maggie’s newspaper reading that, overwhelmingly, fathers kill mutant children. Gender difference is central to the story’s meaning. The title reminds us of the cultural ideal of unconditional motherly love, and at least part of Hank’s shock comes from Maggie’s lack of reaction to the limbless child. Overwhelmed by emotion, he asks Maggie “why . . . didn’t you . . . tell me?” (ellipses in original), and she responds, “Is she wet? I didn’t know” (220). Like Maggie’s earlier musing on prediction and prevention, this phrase potentially takes on a double meaning: Maggie literally does not see the child’s physical mutation. Huntington sees in this story the stereotypical association of femininity with feelings and masculinity with reason. We may value Maggie’s choice to love her child without reservation rather than dismiss her as delusional, he notes, but she does embody “an interpretation of reality based on feelings”; Hank, in contrast, “sees clearly,” yet Merril’s story opens up the “possibility that Hank’s rationality is murderous” (104). In this way, “That Only a Mother” provides another model for how sf engages with its surrounding culture of science and technology. Its setting in domestic space and its narrative focus on family insist that these contexts, as much as laboratories or military installations, are sites where science and technology change daily life. Thinking of sf as the literature of technologically saturated societies, then, encourages us to see the genre as a cultural and aesthetic response to how technoscience changes not only our material world but also our cultural values and practices. It may even be asking us to rethink what it means to be human. The genre’s engagement with science runs the spectrum from celebration to critique, although the tremendous influence of technocratic visions
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of the Golden Age has shaped popular understandings of the genre toward the technophilic. Conceptualizing the genre in this way creates an understanding of sf as a link to the intellectual dominance of science, and as an aesthetic mode centered on responding to attendant cultural changes.
Discussion questions 1 Examine the Project Hieroglyph website (see footnote).
Do you agree that sf has a role to play in technological development? How important is the relationship to science in defining the genre? 2 According to the definition of sf explored in this chapter,
one of the conditions shaping the genre’s emergence were a number of technological changes that reshaped daily life: train travel seemed to bring distant places closer together; telegrams allowed rapid communication across vast distances; phonographs produced the wonder of human voice preserved and mechanically reproduced. What are the most significant technological innovations in your lifetime? How have they changed your daily life? 3 Sf has a long history of both celebratory, optimistic
representations of the wonders produced by technology, and cautionary, pessimistic warnings about its potential risks. Which mode seems most relevant to the place of science and technology in the world today? Does science seem the most important way to understand things or are there factors missing from scientific explanations that might perhaps be provided by sf?
Cognitive estrangement The version of sf that emerges from this discussion—the literature of technologically saturated societies—is one familiar to fans of the genre, especially those coming to it via print. Early academic discussions of sf, as I have noted, have their roots in fan communities, with many founding scholars of the field coming out of fan writing and organization, such as Thomas Clareson and James Gunn. The study of sf crept around the edges of respectable academia in the 1950s, and gained increased visibility when Clareson founded the journal Extrapolation (1959) and the Science Fiction Research Association (1970). Academic interest quickly moved into this new intellectual territory, and other specialty journals soon followed, the most prominent of which is Science Fiction Studies (SFS), co-founded by R. D. Mullen and Darko Suvin in 1973. SFS shifted the discussion away from a predominant focus on American pulp-and-paperback writers, drawing on European traditions of the fantastic and publishing work that theorized the genre’s formal properties. Readers coming to the genre through academic study, then, encountered a different sense of sf and a different set of questions and concerns than those emerging from fan communities. Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979), a study of the genre’s poetics, has perhaps been the most significant influence on academic understanding. Suvin argues that sf is a literature premised upon radical discontinuity with the empirical world, yet one whose features are “not impossible” (viii) in that world. He feels that sf is “allied to the rise of subversive social
classes” and contrasts it to an “opposed tendency toward mystifying escapism” (ix) that he associates with religious visions of otherworldly fulfillment and genre fantasy. Yet Suvin sets himself a difficult challenge, dismissing as “perishable” at least 90 percent of what was published under the label sf at the time, defining the genre not by its “empirical realities” but according to its “historical potentialities” (viii). He wants to discount most of pulp sf as a wrong turn in the genre’s path, privileging instead texts by writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Stanislaw Lem, and Philip K. Dick, authors whose work uses the techniques of the genre to present “dynamic transformation” of the world rather than the “static mirroring” he associates with realist fiction. Science fiction, in Suvin’s view, is “not only a reflecting of but also on reality” (10). Suvin defines sf as “the literature of cognitive estrangement” (4), developing the concept from Bertolt Brecht’s work on alienation in theatre, a quality of works that force the audience to realize that the setting is a construction of reality, not simply reality itself. Suvin suggests cognitive is another word for science, although by “science” he means something broader than experimental method; he insists that the difference between the text’s world and our own be based on rational extrapolation, not mere fantasy. True sf for Suvin provides a socially transformative vision of a full social world, and he is suspicious of the limiting attitude of hard sf that demands that a tale conform to “a ‘real possibility’—to that which is possible in the author’s reality and/or according to the scientific paradigm of his culture”; Suvin prefers the more enabling “ideal possibility,” that is, “any conceptual or thinkable possibility the premises and/ or consequences of which are not internally contradictory” (66). Cognition and estrangement interact dialectically in sf, allowing us to not only recognize the world of the story but also to see it as strange, prompting creative understanding and critical reflection about the difference between the text’s world and our own. Works of cognitive estrangement achieve this effect through a novum, a new thing introduced into the textual world that serves as the catalyst for the difference between the textual and the reader’s worlds. For Suvin, the novum must “be hegemonic in a narration in order that we may call it an SF narration” (63); that is, not only must the novum be something that is different between our world and the text’s world, but the implications of this new thing must also be worked through in a totalizing way. The estranging effect must transform the fictional world, not serve as
mere window-dressing for a tale of adventure that might equally be set in an unchanged social world. The novum must be “so central and significant that it determines the whole narrative logic—or at least the overriding narrative logic—regardless of any impurities that might be present” (70). Suvin sought to link sf with an established tradition of utopian and dystopian writing, and thus he privileges an ideal of sf as social critique. Understanding a work as sf thus requires more than an inventory of certain settings, technologies, or beings (such as aliens or robots); for Suvin, sf is defined by the skewed perspective it encourages us to take on both reality as experienced and reality as it is represented in realist fiction. Sf forces us to confront ideas and conventions that have been made to appear natural and inevitable, by giving us a world founded on other premises. The dialectical interaction between what is familiar and what is alien thus opens up a more critical understanding of the structures underlying and shaping the familiar world of daily experience. This movement back and forth between a normal world that begins to appear strange, and a strange one that becomes more normalized as we immerse ourselves in the sf world, is the source of the genre’s ability to be a reflection on reality as well as of it.
Cognition versus spectacle We might think through the differences between Suvin’s hope for the “historical possibilities” of sf conceived as cognitive estrangement and his disappointment with the “empirical realities” of much of what is labeled sf by comparing two recent films of alien contact, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 and James Cameron’s Avatar, both released in 2009. On the surface, both films immediately evoke sf: their characters include aliens, they depict technologies unknown to the viewer’s world, and their plots are driven by human/alien conflict. Both thus depict worlds that are estranged from our familiar one, but the films differ if we ask whether this estrangement is cognitive: that is, whether this difference dynamically transforms the world such that the film is a reflection on as well as of reality. We might begin to answer this question by thinking about what constitutes the novum in each: what is the difference that determines the narrative logic? Is this difference worked through in such a way that, logically, the differences the novum entails are
accounted for? Or is the difference simply an exotic detail that makes the fictional world superficially different from our own, yet not cognitively estranged? The novum must make an irreversible and significant change in the world, or else the fiction—by Suvin’s standards—is not true sf, just conventional fiction with sf-themed props. In District 9, the novum is the presence of the alien refugees in a militarized ghetto near Johannesburg, their huge spaceship looming over the city as a visible icon of the difference between this fictional world and ours. The dialectic between familiarity and alienation is emphasized by both the South African and temporal settings: although the events of the film are roughly contemporary with its release date, District 9 posits an alternate history for its world where this ship appears in 1982, a time (in our world) of worldwide opposition to South Africa’s apartheid policies and considerable violence between protestors and the military. Viewers are urged to see the analogy between apartheid and the aliens’ plight by a miseen-scène filled with signs marking “human only” zones, as well as by the framing of parts of the film as a documentary analyzing the history of human/alien interactions: “the entire world was looking at Johannesburg,” one interview subject notes. Another crisis launches the plot of the film: grown tired of the resources required to segregate the aliens, derogatorily called “prawns,” in the District 9 ghetto and of the violence and crime created by isolation and poverty, the government has contracted Multinational United (MNU) to intern them elsewhere, at camps enthusiastically described as new homes but clearly shown to be zones of imprisonment. Wikus (Sharlto Copley), a white employee of MNU, serves as the face of the corporation in “documentary” footage recording this forced relocation. He rationalizes this plan equally to his interpolated audience and to the aliens to whom he delivers eviction notices, and viewers are positioned to sympathize with his initial view of the aliens as dangerous and uncivilized through depiction of behavior that, to human eyes, is inexplicable and often frightening (such as eating cat food, including the can). At the same time, however, the evident parallels with the racism of apartheid make viewers uncomfortable with such reactions, and we are inevitably and uncomfortably drawn into sympathy with the aliens despite their strangeness. District 9 refuses its viewers both the comforting, anthropomorphized identification with aliens that are cute, as in E.T. (Spielberg 1982), or the
equal yet opposite pleasure of blameless hatred of alien others that are menacing, as in The Thing (Carpenter 1982). Instead, the play between our tendency to share Wikus’s view of the prawns as less worthy because they are inhuman, and our realization that the segregated prawns are analogous to nonwhites under apartheid law, confronts us with cognitive estrangement. We are compelled to recognize that the aliens remain other than human because of their insect-like appearance and their incomprehensible language, but it is also clear that they are thinking beings and that communication can and does occur across species difference through Wikus’s interactions with alien beings, which are at first manipulative, as he compels them to sign eviction notices through bribes or threats, but later more co-operative, after Wikus becomes infected with a fluid from their biotechnology and begins to become alien. The film can be understood as the story of Wikus’s transformation from MNU pawn unable to see the aliens’ suffering to a more humane (if less human) subject able to construct his understanding of the world in entirely different ways once he has lost his privilege and has seen the aliens’ lives from the inside rather than from without. The film is structured to provide the reader with a similar transformation. The process reflecting back on the world, central to cognitive estrangement, is accomplished in District 9 largely through its mix of styles, combining segments shot straightforwardly as narrative cinema (we are to forget that the camera is there, and view the screen as if it were reality) and those filmed as if part of a documentary of the events surrounding Wikus’s transformation. The documentary-style segments include interviews with a number of experts and with Wikus’s family and colleagues, commentary by UKNR News Chief Correspondent Grey Bradnam (Jason Cope), footage from embedded journalists in the eviction mission, shots from military or news helicopters, recordings made in MNU’s labs, and scenes framed as if aired on television news at an earlier time. This plethora of different kinds of footage (the steady, carefully framed talking heads in interviews; the wildly swinging camera of the embedded journalists that reacts to events on screen) depicts different understandings of the events (critique of MNU’s interest in alien weapons technology by Bradnam; sensationalism of alien violence in diegetic news reports) and thus continually reminds us that in every scene we are seeing only one part of the story, one way of framing and understanding it. The film begins using less documentary-style footage, moving into more conventional Hollywood-style narrative cinema, once Wikus has begun his
transformation and is on the run from MNU authorities, showing us an experience not accessible to humans in Wikus’s world, and accommodating a marketing need for cinematic spectacle in the film’s climatic battle scenes. Yet we are frequently given an establishing shot on these scenes, as if taken from a CCTV camera or other diegetic source. The film’s combination of Wikus’s transformation and two modes of presentation has the effect of privileging the Hollywood-style narrative segments as if they were simply “reality”—the truth about the aliens’ capacity and motives, Wikus’s suffering, MNU’s villainy. The film uses the tension between the understanding we gain from such scenes and the interpretation of events conveyed by the documentary segments to urge us to reflect critically on the reality that our media encourage us to take for granted. Early scenes in the documentary style emphasize that there is little sympathy for the aliens among the human population: person-on-the-street commentators complain about crime and insist that the aliens “have to go,” even though they know the alien ship is nonfunctional and the aliens cannot return to their planet.1 The corporate face of Wikus cheerily assures viewers that “South Africans” can soon rest easily knowing that the problematic refugees have been relocated far from Johannesburg, and at no point does anyone express concern about the aliens as living beings. Cuts between scenes of narrative action and “documentary” footage often emphasize, however, how little humans know about the aliens. An entomologist (Tim Gordon), for example, explains that they are a helpless worker caste, unable to think for themselves, yet viewers have seen that they have a sophisticated technology far exceeding that of humans. Only a single alien character, Christopher Johnson, is individualized, but the brief scenes we see of him interacting with his peers suggest that he is not necessarily more capable than the others, just perhaps better able to communicate with humans. He and Wikus form a brief partnership of sorts, mainly conducted in gestures, and the only name we learn for him is the humanized one given by the government. Christopher is played by Jason Cope, who also plays Bradnam, the news correspondent most critical of MNU’s treatment of the aliens; this casting, combined with Wikus’s biological transformation from human to alien, works to humanize the aliens (in the sense that we see them as beings like ourselves, with capacities for emotion and reason, valuable as living beings and deserving of respect), but without anthropomorphizing them
(Wikus actually becomes more sympathetic the less human he looks). This capacity to create solidarity across difference, rather than imagine harmony because the alien proves, after all, to be just like the self, is key to District 9’s ability to function as cognitive estrangement: the analogy created between the aliens and a history of racial apartheid in South Africa blurs also into ongoing racialized economic exploitation in new neo-liberal globalization through a narrative that combines this allegory of the past with a critique of MNU’s economic interest in the District 9 land and the alien weapons technology. The film encourages us to look with new eyes not only on the history of apartheid, but more importantly at the ongoing economic exploitation that is the continued legacy of colonialism, and that continues to create apartheid-like zones of economic exclusion, often along racial lines. We must determine ethical action in this context, just as the humans in District 9 are faced with the consequences of their historical choices regarding the aliens. We see evidence of the film’s interest in the wider context of economic and racial exploitation in the fate of the one prominent member of Wikus’s MNU team who is nonwhite, Fundiswa Mhlanga (Mandla Gaduka). In early scenes, he is marginalized and placed more at risk, forced to go into the field without the bulletproof vest others wear, for example. In documentary footage after the events, he is imprisoned for violating corporate secrecy by leaking files about MNU’s illegal, and often lethal, experiments on aliens (crimes not investigated). Similarly linking the exploitation critiqued in the film with its continuation in post-apartheid-era South Africa is the fact that the eviction scenes were filmed in a shantytown from which human occupants had recently been removed. Unfortunately, District 9 also fails significantly in its portrayal of Nigerian immigrants (victims of many of the same stereotypes used to dehumanize the aliens), who are uniformly violent, irrational, and dangerous in the film, a misstep that has been the source of considerable critical commentary. 2 This failure is so significant that for some viewers it undermines the critique enacted in the story of the aliens. Avatar is also a tale of a human sent initially to compel aliens to serve human interests; he is also similarly transformed and becomes one of aliens, but this film’s story is organized around a different logic of estrangement and world building. District 9 uses a mix of footage, including modes that foreground the camera’s presence, to
encourage viewers to compare the world framed by the film and the world of daily experience framed by news media; however, Avatar is a film of overwhelming, immersive sf spectacle, the first using new 3D technology that extends the diegesis back into the screen as well as out into the space of the audience. Much of the pleasure of the film comes simply from experiencing the environment of the alien world, Pandora, created by this technology. Whereas Wikus’s transformation to greater sympathy with the aliens came through seeing more of his social world and seeing it differently, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) becomes like the native Na’vi by learning their ways and living among them, becoming part of a different world rather than seeing his own in an estranged way. The first half of the film is driven not by plot but by immersion in spectacle as both Jake and the audience experience the wonders of the digitally rendered and fantastically beautiful Pandora. The film explicitly frames Jake’s experiences in terms of dreams, moving toward a conclusion in which he rejects his human existence as the delusion/dream and embraces the Na’vi way as the real world. His opening voiceover tells us that since he lost the use of his legs in a war injury, he frequently dreams of flying. Unable to continue his life as it was, Jake struggles to “wake up” and accept the reality of his disability. His impairment heightens the wonder both he and we feel as he ventures into Pandora in a fully abled avatar Na’vi body, this better body serving as symbol of the better way of life they represent. As Jake trains in their ways, we hear him talk in voiceover (his research diaries) about concepts of harmony with the world spirit that shape their culture, but the real transformation is the seduction of Pandora’s beauty and Jake’s able-bodied experience as the avatar. From the beginning, Jake’s presence on the planet is marked by otherworldliness: he is chosen by Ewya, its deity, prompting the Na’vi people to train him, and later she allows him to transfer fully into the avatar body and leave behind his damaged human existence. As he dreamed, he does fly in this new life, riding flying species, as do the natives, and eventually he becomes the only one able to ride the dangerous toruk and save the people from the human threat, placing Jake in a well-established colonial tradition of white men who are true inheritors of indigenous culture and wealth. 3 Yet Avatar also stands out from this tradition, since Jake learns to value a different kind of wealth, the living ecology of Pandora, rather than the material wealth that brought the evil corporate
Resources Development Administration (RDA) to this planet, mining for the mineral unobtanium. This name gives away the fact that the corporate plot is something of a MacGuffin in the film: the mineral’s value is never explained; it serves to set up a contrast between two ways of life, a human way that destroys the planet in service of quarterly profit, and the Na’vi way of living in harmony with the world. Money is continually emphasized in the human world: Jake notes that technology exists that could repair his damaged spine, for example, but at a price not affordable “on VA benefits”; he is only on Pandora at all because he is replacing his twin brother, a scientist whose DNA was used to make the “insanely expensive,” hence not to be wasted, avatar; and Jake’s brother was killed in a mugging for the cash in his wallet. Jake can be conscious, awake, in only one world. His avatar body falls into unconsciousness when he awakens in his human form, and returning to the avatar body is a process like falling asleep and entering a dream world. When he decides to shift his loyalties to the Na’vi, a feeble and disheveled human Jake tells his video diary, “life out there is the true world and in here is the dream,” and the audience, too, perceives the vibrant avatar Jake and the richly hued mise-en-scène of Pandora as more real than the cold palette of the research facility. By the end of the film, after the visually stunning battle and Na’vi victory, Jake’s final voiceover is addressed not to his human past but to his Na’vi future: “the aliens went back to their dying world,” he concludes. Like Wikus, Jake becomes other, but in this case the transformation does not involve seeing his former reality newly from the point of view of those marginalized within it, but instead involves escaping into a different and better reality. The human world is not a site of political engagement that he might seek to transform, but a bad dream from which he has awoken and to which he condemns a humanity he now sees as alien. Evaluated from the point of view of cognitive estrangement, then, Avatar fails to achieve the critical reflection on reality that Suvin champions, and seems instead an example of the mystifying escapism he condemns. The ambiguous ending of District 9—Christopher’s escape in a ship that might return to rescue the others, or to retaliate against humans, or not at all—preserves the dialectic between the fictional world and the world of the viewer. Jake is able to escape the consequences of his own participation in the human world (his wartime injury) and the consequences of being a traitor
(humans regard him as such, but they are one-dimensional villains and leave the planet). Avatar offers no way to work through the complications of how one might transform the human experience of reality to redress the ecological injustices Jake now sees as a Na’vi: he is simply in one world or the other, dreaming or awake. Wikus, in contrast, cannot so easily transcend the consequences of his decision to support Christopher’s escape, just as the humans cannot escape the consequences of their ongoing mistreatment of the aliens. With Jake the audience has experienced an affective embrace of the Na’vi way of life, but we must wake up, leave the theater, and return to a reality disconnected from Pandora. With Wikus, the audience has experienced a cognitive displacement in our usual ways of thinking about the dispossessed; we come to sympathize with Christopher and, presumably, no longer share the views of people interviewed in the documentary footage, who feel that the plight of the refugees is not their concern.
The limits of cognitive estrangement Understood in this way, the alien novum of District 9 is totalizing in the way that Suvin privileges. The looming threat of Christopher’s return compels urgent thinking about the future of human and alien relations, and the analogies that the film creates between its aliens and marginalized, refugee humans urge us to think about these possible futures as well. District 9 has not only been a reflection of this reality, but also a reflection on it by prompting us to see, through Wikus’s experiences, how we make rather than find an inhuman other. Avatar uses its novum as a way to simply reset history, allowing Jake to have another experience of colonial first contact, with the Na’vi serving as an indigenous people we learn from rather than exterminate. This is a powerful and pleasurable fantasy, but Jake escapes from a reality in which history unfolded otherwise rather than transform his own culture. The aliens in Avatar seem to encourage us to want to escape it with Jake, evidenced by the phenomenon of Avatar “depression syndrome” experienced by viewers who found the visual rendering of Pandora so beautiful and effective that they were left bereft, even suicidal, by the realization that they could never like Jake become Na’vi. Whether this is hyperbolic description or something more significant,4 nonetheless this affective response suggests that
Avatar provokes mystifying fantasies of escapism rather than critical reflection on social change, and thus the contrast between it and District 9 exemplifies what is at stake for Suvin in privileging cognitive over other modes of estrangement. Yet other reactions to Avatar suggest the problem with seeing cognitive estrangement as the only politically enabling kind of speculation: many indigenous groups have embraced Na’vi costumes to draw attention to their own struggles over resources and land rights. The affective transformation the film provokes might be as significant as the cognitive transformations Suvin privileges. Perhaps Avatar marks an update on Kingsley Amis’s conception of sf as fiction about “the idea as hero” into a new kind of media sf with “the image as hero” (199), as James Chapman and Nicholas Cull suggest. Suvin’s conception of sf as an inherently more politically reflective mode has been extremely influential, but it has not passed unchallenged, especially recently as critical theory has taken an affective turn. Carl Freedman made the first significant reframing of Suvin’s definition in Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000), revising the strict parameters of “cognition proper” to include what he calls “the cognition effect” (18), measuring the work’s estrangement not by correspondence between cognitive faculties and logical extrapolation, but rather by the attitude toward the estrangement taken within the text itself: is it produced by otherworldly or supernatural means, or does the text present the estrangement using the rigorous logic we have come to associate with cognition, even if it relies on assumptions known to be scientifically false? The cognition effect is a matter of attitude, not of facticity, and thus even magic can become a kind of science, as it is in China Miéville’s Bas-Lag trilogy, where thaumaturgy is the chief mode of research and engineering. From the point of view of the cognition effect, the case of Avatar becomes more problematic: considerable science-based extrapolation went into the design of Pandora’s otherworldly creatures, for example, yet their chief effect is their visual and emotional impact, qualities that do not require one to recognize the science that informs them. As well, the seemingly fantastical process by which Jake is severed from dependence on his human body is given an explanation in scientific language, if not precisely a scientific explanation, through research data that suggests all life on the planet is connected through the transfer of energy among beings that Grace (Sigourney Weaver) theorizes is analogous to the work
of neurotransmitters, enabling the Na’vi to upload and download data from their brains to the planet via their sacred trees. “I’m not talking about some sacred voodoo here,” she angrily announces as she tries to forestall mining in favor of more research, “I’m talking about something real that we can measure through biology.” Yet despite this cognition effect in the film, we continue to perceive a difference between it and District 9 in the films’ relative capacity to reflect critically on reality, suggesting that cognition is perhaps not the key to the quality Suvin sought to privilege. In a critical essay, “Cognition as Ideology,” Miéville demonstrates that what is central to producing this sense of the cognitive is the text’s “charismatic authority” (238): the more it sounds like science, the more we take it to be logical (and by extension, true). As Miéville develops this idea, the cognition effect becomes something like a willing suspension of disbelief, rooted in the reader’s willingness to capitulate to the scientific tone of the text and, by extension, to the authority of technical expertise broadly construed. From this point of view, Miéville contends, the established hierarchy by which sf is preferred to fantasy is turned on its head: indeed, if we see sf as conceding to the established hegemony of scientific rationality, fantasy becomes the genre more likely to resist the status quo and promote revolutionary visions. Miéville is far too subtle a critic to let us rest easily with this simple inversion, however. He quickly goes on to point out that however “tempting” such a rigid reversal might be, it is also “utterly ridiculous” (242), and that what criticism requires is the understanding that both sf and fantasy are equally, if differently, constrained by their organizing ideologies; criticism requires more nuanced and specific investigation of the genres’ individual narrative logics as they change over time, and of “the fundamental alterity-asestrangement shared across the field” (244).
Science fiction as critical theory This shared estrangement is key to literature’s capacity to reflect critically upon our social world. Freedman contends, “the conjunction of critical theory and science fiction is not fortuitous but fundamental” (23). Although the formalist criteria through which Suvin tries to distinguish politically engaged, “real” sf from other fiction that has only an sf surface proves an unstable foundation, academic treatments of the genre have nonetheless privileged a
canon of texts that use sf scenarios and techniques to question our assumptions about a taken-for-granted reality and often to promote other possibilities for community, subjectivity, and social meaning. Freedman maintains that sf and critical theory are both premised on similar ways of reading the world, and that sf is the genre “most devoted to the historical concreteness and rigorous self-reflectiveness of critical theory” (xvi). If we think of critical theory as a set of tools and techniques that help us understand how ideology creates the world with specific values and identities, how it encourages us to understand certain things as natural and fixed and others as historical and mutable, we might think of sf as a genre that lets us see the traces of this ideological work. Alterity, the term stressed by Miéville, is important to this quality of sf. “The sciencefictional world is not only one different in time and place from our own,” Freedman insists, “but one whose chief interest is precisely the difference that such difference makes” (xvi). This formulation, while it lacks the formalist rigor that would enable us clearly to sort “real” sf from non-sf, does a better job of articulating the quality of sf that interests many academics. “Vintage Season” (1946), by C. L. Moore, a tale of time travelers from the future, captures this interest in the gap between the sf world and our own by showing us glimpses of our world through the eyes of these future humans, for whom our present is no more than an animated tableau. The story achieves its effect by only gradually moving into this perspective, beginning with the familiar. Their reluctant landlord, Oliver, finds the visitors’ flawless perfection disconcerting, expressing “that peculiar arrogant assurance that comes from perfect confidence in every phase of one’s being” (517–18). Believing them foreigners, he associates their difference with the privilege of wealth. Oliver finds himself fascinated by these strange guests. “All they said and did had a queer sort of inversion to it,” he thinks, “as if a mirror had been held up to ordinary living and in the reflection showed strange variations from the norm” (520). He is drawn into seeing his world differently as he observes these strangers observing his world, and he is excited by the aberrant attention they pay to minor things. He is also sexually excited by Kleph, whose exotic allure makes him neglect his fiancée, Sue, who now seems boringly mundane. This contrast heightens Oliver’s sense of the contingency of his values and perspectives. When a jealous Sue meets Kleph and attempts to stare her down, for example, Sue falters first although she is the
more conventionally attractive woman. This comparison opens for Oliver a new experience of temporality in which he recognizes that “fashion is not a constant. Kleph’s curious, out-of-mode curves without warning became the norm, and Sue was a queer, angular, half-masculine creature beside her” (532). Temporal differences in fashion, in taste very broadly construed, quickly take centre stage in the story as Oliver is exposed to a multisensory symphony by one of their most revered artists, Cenbe, whose work is about “interpreting certain forms of disaster” (548). Hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting this work, Oliver is overwhelmed by horror, “glimpses of human faces distorted with grief and disease and death—real faces” (534), and is further shocked to discover that for Kleph this work is an experience of “magnificence and magnificence only” (535): their tastes differ. Other clues lead Oliver to realize these are time travelers touring the best, the vintage examples of, each season: Chaucer’s fall, spring with Oliver, then on to winter at Charlemagne’s coronation. They are also tourists come to witness a disaster, hence their interest in Oliver’s house: a meteor demolishes the city up to his doorstep. Oliver is disoriented by the destruction, “not sure for a few minutes whether or not it was a dream,” and overwhelmed by “staccato noises of screaming” mixed with “undulating waves of the shrieks of sirens,” the entire experience becoming “a terrible symphony that had, in its way, a strange, inhuman beauty” (544) like the future art. Kleph and her companions display “avid, inhuman curiosity” (545) but are otherwise unmoved by a disaster that is doubly distant to them: long since over in the past, and mediated by abstract, aesthetic contemplation. The story thus prompts readers to see their own temporal experience in an estranged way. Oliver realizes that their rule against intervention in the past means that it is possible for them to change it: they could have warned him, or provided inoculations for the plague they know the meteor has brought. Cenbe, who has come to use the disaster in his next composition, calmly explains, “If we changed our past, our present would be altered, too. And our timeworld is entirely to our liking” (548); Oliver finally understands “from across what distances Cenbe was watching him” (549). The time travelers are cold, inhuman like their inhuman art: Oliver’s suffering for them is unreal because it is distant in time, and they are deaf to pleas that their own comfort should be put at risk for
the sake of those, like Oliver, whom they regard as abstractions rather than people. By estranging our experience of time, the story prompts us to see our own concerns from the outside, from the point of view of disinterested others, just as Oliver understands that his plight is intangible to the time travelers. The dialectic between cognition and estrangement, the familiar world of the reader and the different world in the story, hinges on the analogy between temporal and physical distance. Just as Cenbe and the others are unconcerned by suffering that is distant in the past, Western capitalist cultures display indifference to the harm they cause those who are spatially distant from the privileged, whether by the segregation of the working classes into slums or the geographically based economic inequities created by colonialism and global trade. This parallel is suggested in the story by Oliver’s original conclusion that wealth is what set apart Kleph and the others. Just as the time travelers could change the suffering in the past, we might change injustice in the present world, but in both cases the full ramifications of intervention are not clear and established privilege is inevitably at risk. “Vintage Season” confronts us with an estranged vision of the world in which we are not the privileged, able to think abstractly—if at all—about suffering that supports our lifestyle. Such distance is distinctly inhuman in the story, and readers are positioned with the fragile, human perspective. Potentially, then, thinking about what Freedman calls “the difference that difference [between our world and the story’s] makes” encourages us to resist our own tendencies to regard distant human suffering as an abstraction, and to be willing to risk comfortable existing conditions for a more equitable world. The gap between fictional and material worlds is smaller in Geoff Ryman’s “Dead Space for the Unexpected” (1994), a story that uses the sf technique of exaggerated features in the contemporary context to make visible the dehumanizing effects of corporate culture. Jonathan, a sales executive, is the epitome of the rationalized use of time for productivity, every moment of his day efficiently scheduled and planned including the “dead space” in his schedule, allocated for the unexpected. Manically concerned with achievement, he works in a corporate environment that has found a way to quantify and evaluate even the affective and embodied responses various management studies have established as most effective, such as
type and duration of eye contact, mirroring body language to put people at ease, and “LLA, Low Level Attraction,” which can be simulated to “generate good Team bonding” (823). Jonathan’s day begins with firing Simon for “slowed-down reaction times” (837), a meeting Jonathan hopes will generate a high performance score, as did his masterful handling of the mandated warning one month before, when Jonathan demonstrated “all the appropriate feelings—sympathy, regret, and an echoing in himself of the sick, sad panic of redundancy,” scoring “9.839 out of 10, a personal best for a counseling episode” (826). He dispassionately observes that unemployment condemns Simon to a life without “clean shirts, ties without food stains, a desk, the odd bottle of wine, pride” (827), but barely contains his own emotional obsession with his scores. The novum in this story is the small difference that Jonathan’s corporation can quantify his emotional reactions, measured through calibrated contact lenses that record eye movement, a specifically patterned shirt that accentuates breathing patterns for observation, and a watch strap that analyzes Galvanic skin resistance. Each detail of Jonathan’s life is painstakingly analyzed, and he has internalized this ethos perfectly, assessing each action from agreeing to a meeting format—“the difference between discussion and presentation was the difference between procedures up for grabs, and procedures already set and agreed”—to having another cup of coffee—“too many stimulants, you lost points”—before he responds (830). Genuine emotions such as frustration or fear are continually repressed and channeled into responses deemed more productive, resulting in a culture of cognitive dissonance. For example, Jonathan engages in a struggle over work allocation with rival, Sally that is conveyed in the language of a military campaign; yet on the surface both express the expected good management qualities of warmth, openness, trust, and co-operation. In this aggressive world, “visible sincerity” is just another metric on which to score. By changing only the fact that affect can be quantified, Ryman’s story reveals the sociopathic aggression required by contemporary notions of efficient management. Jonathan’s day is almost disastrously derailed, but his skill at “being a bit of a bastard” (836) saves him. Two employees who sympathize with Simon behave inappropriately in Jonathan’s office, threatening his daily scores because “bad behavior from staff depressed their own scores, but insubordination knocked the stuffing out of their manager’s profile”
(836). Jonathan quickly recovers, finding ways to channel his aggression by reminding one that he is “responsible for ensuring we hold to financial targets,” although the employee has just explained that he lacks control over relevant aspects of the billing cycle, and the other that he can “recommend Medical Leave” for her blood pressure condition, a policy that translates into “you may just have lost your job” (836). Jonathan learns that Simon’s affect after being fired is profiled to indicate “industrial sabotage” (833), which proves to be directed at the scores. Simon has gained access to such a highlevel password that he can change scores and erase the signs of having done so; it is a power that could easily destroy Jonathan. Once again his skill in duplicity leads to his victory: Jonathan confronts Simon and claims that unauthorized use of the password was the reason for his termination; although Simon does not admit to sabotage, “silence was not a denial, or shocked surprise” (837) and thus the metrics support Jonathan. By making visible the aggression that informs a corporate culture that presents itself through the rational language of efficiency, “Dead Space for the Unexpected” estranges our experience of this world, drawing our attention to its hypocrisy. Ryman makes visible the violence against workers’ lives and dignity produced by systems that value efficiency above humanity, and sacrifice people without regret as they age. The phrase “dead space” takes on multiple meanings by the end of the story. The empty or dead space on the schedule has been used, as we have seen, for action devoid of human compassion, epitomizing the deadness of corporate culture and of those who monitor and manage themselves according to its edicts. When he goes home, Jonathan consoles himself that “life was tough, but that was business. Home was different.” But the story is quick to undermine his delusion: his daughter Christine is playing a video game, and as she proudly announces her score, “a part of his mind said in a slow, dark voice: get them young” (838). That night he dreams of himself, old and employed, his aged, fingers insensitive to the newsprint of the job ads. The future, too, is a dead space if we let our world shift the short distance required to make Ryman’s story realism rather than sf. Defining sf as the literature of cognitive estrangement creates a canon of texts that promote critical reflection on contemporary material reality. The genre conceived in this way relies on a gap between the reader’s world and the fictional world that requires
material explanation, and the tendency of this mode of narrative is to prompt us to see given reality in a new way. The framework of cognitive estrangement is premised on the belief that human agency creates our social world, and thus understands sf as a tool that helps us see more clearly the ways we do so.
Discussion questions 1 Watch the film District 9 discussed in this chapter.
Compare the way it represents the alien figures with the way it represents the Nigerian gang members. Does the film cognitively estrange your understanding of racism? How? Overall do you think the film does more to question racism or to reinforce it? 2 Consider Suvin’s definition of sf as the literature of
cognitive estrangement as it applies to two texts discussed in Chapter Two, H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds and Stanley Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey.” Are both reflections on reality as well as reflections of reality? Do their themes rely on the significance of the difference between the text’s world and our own? 3 Does “Vintage Season” cognitively estrange your
experience of The Great Fire of London in 1666? Of the ongoing conflicts in Rwanda related to control of minerals used to manufacture personal electronics? Does estrangement of distance in time function differently than estrangement of difference in space? Why or why not?
The megatext Despite the fact that there is considerable debate about the precise definition of sf, a number of images reliably spring to mind when one hears the label. These well-recognized emblems of the genre have been organized and categorized by a number of critics. Many have focused on a specific use of language to achieve the effect we call sf. Marc Angenot, for example, argues that the genre is best understood as the semiotic practice of what he calls “the absent paradigm,” an idea he develops through structuralist linguistics. Signs (words) gain their meaning from two sources: conventions shared between reader and writer (i.e. English speakers know that the word “cat” refers a class of beings that includes housecats, lions, tigers, kittens, and more) and through difference (words in this field connote differences of size, color, and domestication; also, the word “cat” is not the word “dog”). Readers can “reconstitute the meaning of some signs in the texts” only if they know “the full array of classes complementary to a given sign” (12). In sf, parts of this system are always absent; the reader must interpolate a world of referents that exceeds analogues that might be found in his or her material world, and in this way the larger world of the novel is produced through the act of reading specific words and creating larger frameworks of meaning around them. The genre invents new words to refer to the new things it imagines, and slowly many of these words come to be shared across texts, creating new communities of shared linguistic convention. Similarly relying on the idea that sf readers are trained to read language differently, Samuel R. Delany argues that science fiction
is defined by a specific way of using language to create meanings different from the meanings possible in realist fiction. Statements such as “her world shattered” (43) may no longer be just a metaphor in sf, while one of Delany’s most extended examples, “the red sun was high, the blue low” (44), whose possible meanings he works through as they emerge word by word, succinctly lets readers know that the setting is not earth but an alien world with two suns. Delany distinguishes language use in fiction by its subjective level: sf is the fiction that has not happened, a mode that includes might happen, will not happen, has not happened yet, and could have happened in the past but did not; this mode is distinct from both naturalist fiction’s could have happened and fantasy fiction’s could not have happened. The particular subjunctive level of sf, Delany contends, “expands the freedom of choice of words that can follow another group of words meaningfully; but it limits the way we employ the corrective process as we move between them” (44): that is, sf expands the realm of might happen beyond the constraints of naturalism’s could, but it cannot alter what is known of the material world to the extent of fantasy’s could not. More recently, in Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? SeoYoung Chu suggests understanding sf’s poetics as an intensification of rather than an other to realism. She argues that sf is “a mimetic discourse whose objects of representation are nonimaginary yet cognitively estranging” (LOC 44–5) and argues that the genre’s chief project is to thus find ways to make available for concrete representation, and hence understanding, experiences that exceed referents available to realist language. Language is central to the specificity of sf, but language alone does not capture its aesthetics. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr organizes his thinking around what he calls sf’s seven beauties, qualities that make the genre a distinct “mode of thought and art” (5). These beauties begin with sf’s way of using language, fictive neology, but extend to other ways the genre creates “a mood or attitude, a way of entertaining incongruous experiences, in which judgment is suspended” (3). This attitude is generated via fictive novums, future history, imaginary science, the science-fictional sublime, and the science-fictional grotesque (both dislocations from “habitual perception” ), and the technologiade (modifying existing story structures to orient them toward the transformation of human societies by technological innovation).
Each method of conceptualizing sf stresses that there is some quality that repeats in the texts we recognize as sf, whether this is a particular set of motifs or icons, a unique way of using language, or a recurring set of thematic preoccupations and critical orientations. The predictability of genre, of course, is not unique to sf: any popular genre is formed by the repetition of commercially successful qualities, and indeed the only recently waning hierarchy between genre and other fictions rests on the belief that genre is formulaic and predictable while literature is innovative and surprising. Science fiction is nonetheless positioned somewhat differently than other popular genres in its relationship to repetition because it has an unusually close relationship among writers, readers, editors, and fans; the fan community that formed when sf first appeared in the pulps continues today and is knowledgeable about its own history. This self-reflexivity of the genre is referred to as the “sf megatext,” a term coined by Damien Broderick to explain the way that sf is “generated and received . . . within a specialised intertextual encyclopaedia of tropes and enabling devices” (xi). Deriving his term from comparison with the postmodern metatext (a work of fiction that refers back to itself as fiction), Broderick argues that the megatext reveals the way that sf explicitly refers back to earlier instances of itself, each text adding to and playing with the larger body of signs, images, and scenarios that make up sf’s shared world. The idea of the megatext goes beyond mere allusion and seeks to capture how the intertextuality of sf works differently than in other genres. Megatext describes a context in which writers operate within an understanding of a certain set of established images and motifs, such as cyborgs or hyperspace or FTL travel, that do not belong to any single text or author, but are shared, each new iteration both relying upon established meanings and associations, and also opening them up to new possibilities, creating a vast and interconnected web of meanings that exceeds what appears in any single text. Certain prominent texts become dense centers of gravity, inevitably pulling the meaning of icons toward their influential formulations. For example, any created being in sf carries a trace of Frankenstein’s Creature and every tale of alien invasion is shaped by the connection between alien invasion and colonialism established by The War of the Worlds. This conception of the genre requires a certain kind of apprenticeship of both
reader and writer to fully perceive the complex web of meanings evoked by certain words, images, and scenarios. Thus, Broderick suggests, it is impossible to try to define sf by compiling some sort of exhaustive list of required techniques; we should grasp it instead as “an analytic device for understanding the moves in the game of writing and reading, as negotiations in a social institution regulating the terms of the contract between reader and text” (39). A large part of the pleasure of reading sf comes from the interplay between familiarity and novelty that is created by interactions between individual texts and sf’s larger history.
Robots in the megatext Isaac Asimov’s robot stories are one of the most prominent examples of this playfulness in action. His series of stories, set in a future of ubiquitous robots, are organized around the Three Laws of Robotics (a formulation suggested by Campbell) that become the constraints for robotic beings not only in Asimov’s stories but in almost all subsequent sf. Asimov’s Three Laws—“One, a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”; “Two . . . a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law”; and “three, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws” (37)—are first fully articulated (versions appear in earlier stories) in “Runaround” (1942), a story whose climax pivots on forcing a robot out of a feedback loop caused by conflict between the second two laws by putting a human life in danger. Articulating these rules allows Asimov to create a fictional world in which humans can interact with robots in predictable (and mainly safe) ways, and also creates a series of logic puzzles that serve as engines for this fiction. In “Liar!” (1941), for example, a series of misunderstandings is launched by a mind-reading robot, RB-34 “otherwise known as Herbie” (285): it misleads the plain robotopsychologist Susan Calvin into believing her colleague, Peter Bogert, is romantically interested in her; it convinces the ambitious Bogert that Alfred Lanning, the director of US Robot & Mechanical Men, will soon step down, enabling Bogert to take his place; and finally, it insists to Lanning that it does not know what has gone wrong with its assembly to
create its unique ability to read minds, thereby flattering Lanning’s intellect. Dr Calvin, who learns of the deception when Bogert announces his engagement, quickly realizes that the robot has been lying to them because of the first law. It cannot allow any harm to come to a human being, including “hurt feelings,” “the deflation of one’s ego,” and “the blasting of one’s hopes” (293): it has told them all what their minds most wanted to hear, from Calvin’s longing for love as well as science, to Lanning’s desire to believe that if he could not discover the mathematical error of Herbie’s assemblage then no one could. The story is rather cruel in its depiction of Calvin’s thwarted desires in particular, “the inexpertly applied rouge” converging into “a pair of nasty red splotches upon her chalk-white face” (291) marking her attempts to be attractive as pitiable and hopeless. Nonetheless, it is her superior reasoning and ability to see clearly beyond her hopes to plausibility that solves the mystery of the robot’s lies. The men are less willing to give up their dreams for cold fact. Bitter with both Herbie and herself, Calvin ruthlessly confronts the robot with an impossible dilemma: hurt the men by revealing the solution to the error in its manufacture (a blow to their egos), or hurt the men by refusing to reveal it (a blow to their pocketbooks). Rather than be victimized by an emotional response to depression, she embraces the logical faculty privileged by Golden Age sf, defining herself more successfully than do the men (or the robot) and driving the robot to insanity by repeating the insoluble mantra, “if you don’t tell them, you hurt, so you must tell them. And if you do, you will hurt and you mustn’t, so you can’t tell them; but if you don’t, you hurt, so you must; but if you do, you hurt, so you mustn’t. . .” (295). The value of logic over other capacities is at stake in another Asimov robot story, “Reason” (1941). On Solar Station 5, engineers Powell and Donovan struggle to convince a newly assembled robot, QT-1 (Cutie), that humans have created him to replace human labor on stations that channel solar energy to earth. Relying on reason and sensory data, Cutie concludes that it is impossible that humans could have created him. “Look at you,” he insists, “the material you are made of is soft and flabby, lacking endurance and strength, depending for energy upon the inefficient oxidation of organic material.” Further, humans periodically “pass into a coma, and the least variation in temperature, air pressure, humidity or radiation intensity impairs your efficiency.” In short, humans “are makeshift” while Cutie is “a finished product” (165), capable, durable, and
efficient. The story concludes with Cutie performing as Powell and Donovan wish, but he never capitulates to their interpretation of the situation. Theorizing that both he and the humans were created by some third entity he calls the Master, Cutie submits himself to fulfilling the Master’s directives. Donovan and Powell’s version of events is a product of their lesser ability to reason, he concludes, but he is capable “of deducing truth from a priori causes” (173) and thus requires no mythology. The crisis of an electron storm raises concern that Cutie will fail to keep the solar energy beam focused on the receiving station, potentially causing massive damage on earth, and Powell and Donavan’s insistence that “we’re the bosses” (170) is blithely ignored. Yet the morning after the storm they discover that all is well because Cutie has had his own interpretation of his task, keeping “all dials at equilibrium in accordance with the will of the Master” (175), which achieves the same end. “Reason” thus reinforces an ideal by which reason is privileged over emotion and a hierarchy between humans and robots is sustained; the story simultaneously makes visible the contradictions and tensions that strain the stability of such views. The limitations of privileging logic over all other human capacities is suggested by the absurd (from a human perspective) conclusions Cutie deduces and, despite a conclusion that reinforces human hegemony, Cutie offers good reasons for regarding robots as superior in some contexts. The sf megatext will take up and explore pathways hinted at in these stories, such as C. L. Moore’s “No Woman Born” (1944), about a dancer who comes to prefer her reincarnation in an impervious robot body, or the child-substitute robot boy in Brian Aldiss’s “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” (1969), who struggles with the question of whether or not he is real since he knows his Mummy does not love him as she would an organic boy. The film Forbidden Planet (Wilcox 1956) names its robot Robby (Asimov’s first is named Robbie), and includes a scene in which the crew realize that a human is behind the attacks on the planet when they order this robot to attack what they think is a monster and he refuses because he cannot harm a human. Eventually, revisions to the robot megatext cohere into a new concept in the megatext, the superior artificial being, whether cyborg or AI, who threatens to displace humanity. Awareness of this larger body of work, of what has been explored or critiqued in earlier texts, enhances the genre as each new iteration ideally both innovates and contributes to an ongoing exploration of recurrent ideas.
Echoes of both these Asimov stories can be heard in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode “The Changeling” (September 29, 1967). The Enterprise crew discovers a probe named Nomad, sent out from earth in the twenty-first century, that interprets its exploratory mission as the requirement to sterilize imperfection, a quality it attributes to all biological life. Mistaking Captain Kirk (William Shatner) for its creator Dr Jackson Roykirk, Nomad is willing to accept commands but is suspicious of the limitations of these life forms, just as Cutie doubts Powell and Donovan’s authority. Scanning the mind of Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Nomad finds “a mass of conflicting impulses,” a sign of imperfection, and erases her memory. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) discovers that Nomad’s encounter with an agricultural probe conflated its original exploratory mission with that probe’s mission to sterilize soil samples. Knowledge of the megatext, however, adds to this characterization, connecting Nomad to other robots who question their creators’ authority. Kirk defeats Nomad much as Calvin destroyed Herbie. Nomad has made a number of errors, Kirk tells it: mistaking Kirk for its creator, failing to correct this mistake (another error), and then not immediately killing Kirk (a third). Only imperfect beings make errors, and if Nomad’s mission is to destroy imperfect beings, then it must destroy itself. It is not necessary to know Asimov’s robot stories to understand this Star Trek episode, but knowing them enriches our sense of the episode’s meanings. Through knowing the sf megatext, we can understand the episode to be in dialogue with issues that recur in sf: the relationship between humans and robots, the privileging of reason over emotion, the value of biological over artificial life. The genre returns to such questions in some of his most celebrated texts, such as the disposable androids that haunt bounty hunter Deckard in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968): their difference rests on the question of empathy, a capacity androids are said to lack, a reversal of the typical preference for reason. The rights, or lack thereof, held by artificial beings are explored and refined in later sf, from Jael’s chimpanzee-DNA-derived artificial lover in Russ’s The Female Man, who horrifies the other women, to the fully integrated thinking drone and AI Mind citizens in works such as Iain M. Banks Culture novels (1987–2012). The Star Trek universe returns to these themes in a direct homage to Asimov’s vision in The Next Generation character Data (Brent Spiner), an android whose positronic brain is described as Asimov’s
dream made reality (“Datalore,” January 16, 1988). Over a number of episodes, the series explores megatext questions such as the relationship between emotion and humanity in “Brothers” (October 6, 1990), when we learn that a potential capacity for emotion distinguishes Data from his unstable brother Lore; Data’s status as an autonomous being in “The Measure of a Man” (February 11, 1989), in which a trial determines that while Data is a machine he is not property; and the question of what it means to be a living entity entitled to autonomy in “The Quality of Life” (November 14, 1992), when Data defends machines called exocomps from being treated as mere tools after they have shown capacities for decision-making and self-preservation. In each of these episodes, the series activates prior knowledge not only of the show’s history (in “The Quality of Life,” Data makes reference to his trial from “The Measure of a Man”) but also the wider megatext of sf. Additions to the megatext also work retroactively to help us see previous work in a new light. The trial to determine Data’s status, for example, evokes the specter of a created race of beings deemed property, “whole generations of disposable people,” which as Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) notes has already happened in human history. The direct analogy between slavery and the use of robots highlights otherwise perhaps unnoticed aspects of racial allegory in Asimov’s work, such as the robots’ potential resentment at being kept servile by the first law, explored briefly in “Little Lost Robot” (1947).
Parabolic narrative This vast shared set of images and ideas means that the best works of sf are always both fictional and critical, new additions to the field and critical commentaries on the genre’s history. Brian Attebery has refined the idea of the megatext to argue that sf plots are structured like parabolas, an image that explains why the notion of genre formula is insufficient to capture the variety in sf. The parabola, an arc shape that opens to infinity at one end, describes the narrative trajectory of sf in which, evoked by this specific icon, an author can rely on the reader to supply background information evoked by this specific icon, and the story then opens up to multiple possibilities of improvisation, a process Attebery likens to playing jazz. Key to Attebery’s shift from sf as megatext to sf as parabola is motion: sf parabolas are both self-conscious and social; they are about formal
qualities of the genre but they are fluid dynamics, not fixed items in a massive database. In Attebery’s example of the multigenerational starship that opens Molly Gloss’s The Dazzle of Day (1997), for example, descriptive language identifies the setting as a space station without ever naming it as such, enabling the skilled reader to decode the setting and the kind of society inhabiting it through clues such as proper names for mechanical devices (indicating a site of permanent rather than temporary habitat, and a poetical rather than technical ethos). Further, once the setting is recognized as a generational starship, practiced readers will also supply a series of narrative associations with the themes explored by this parabola: What home-world event has prompted the exodus? Do inhabits know that their world is artificial and not natural? By what criteria were people included on this voyage? The importance of this megatextual recognition goes beyond merely the pleasurable game of familiarity to remind genre readers of axioms explored on this narrative trail, where “the oldest meanings do not go away, but they are complicated, obscured, and rendered ironic by subsequent reimaginings” (15). Parabolas are not formulaic: they may structure the openings of sf stories, but they do not predict or constrain the endings. Writers engage with and alter the meanings conventionally attached to specific parabolas in response to a variety of factors: changing social and political contexts (the post-Civil Rights era Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, for example, compels a different conversation about free labor, race, and exploitation than Asimov’s work in the 1940s); conversations within the field about perceived limitations of certain parabolas (Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To . . .  undermines the adventure parabola of stranded survivors restarting civilization, critiquing the way women are reduced to breeders); and changing aesthetic conventions (J. G. Ballard’s avant-garde, condensed novels, collected in The Atrocity Exhibition , are in dialogue with the contemporary modernist literary experiment). Understanding sf through its evolving parabolas, then, is one way to conceptualize the genre’s multiple and historically mutable history. Although other genres may similarly expand or revise their foundational formulas, sf is distinct, Attebery contends, because “no degree of mode stretching is enough to throw a work out of the category” given that “innovation is part of the game” (23). Alfred Bester’s story “Fondly Fahrenheit” (1954) not only rewards a reader who comes to it with megatextual knowledge, but
it further uses the power of the parabola to comment on what sf has overlooked in its attachment to rational explanation. The story is about James Vandaleur, a privileged member of the leisure class whose inheritance is being squandered as he is continually forced to flee and adopt new identities due to murders committed by his android. This model is one of the “rare multiple aptitude androids, worth $57,000 on the current exchange” (286) and, despite the risk it presents, Vandaleur is reluctant to turn it in since he is dependent upon the wages he earns selling its labor. He could not take the chance of repair, he rationalizes, because “if they started fooling around with lobotomies and body chemistry and endocrine surgery, they might have destroyed its aptitudes” (289). The android is “a chemical creation of synthetic tissue” (287), rather than a machine, but within the story it is clear that it was manufactured according to Asimov’s Three Laws. The story playfully inverts our usual understanding of the master/slave relationship as enshrined by these Three Laws by creating a situation in which Vandaleur’s exploitation of the android’s labor traps him into serving it by covering up its crimes. Indeed, when his frustration reaches the point where he announces that he will either sell the android for a fraction of its worth or turn it in to the police, the android confidently replies, “I am valuable property. . . . It is forbidden to endanger valuable property. You won’t have me destroyed” (294), turning the Laws inside out. Huntington notes that the publication of this story marks an important moment in sf’s history because it “is meaningful only in relation to the genre’s past” (173). In proper megatext mode, Bester simply mentions that the android is presumed unable to harm or kill, relying on his readers to supply the rest of the information about the implied relationship between human and android this structure requires. Knowledge of the megatext means that “Fondly Fahrenheit” becomes a story not about who committed the murders but rather how it was possible. The story achieves its innovative effect largely through style: its intriguing voice—which shifts confusingly from first to third person, often conflating “he,” “it,” and “I” in a single sentence—engages the reader in a puzzle to be solved. Unlike the rational logic puzzles of Asimov’s robot stories, Bester’s play with language creates a sense of ontological instability in the fictional world (another motif of the sf megatext, explored extensively in Dick’s work). The opening line “he doesn’t know which of us I am these days, but they know one truth” (284)
catapults the reader into a strange world in which we cannot even be sure if one or several people are described. The description of Vandaleur’s flight with the android contains enough narrative exposition that readers follow the basic plot—the murders happen, Vandaleur is angry, he beats the android and moves on, and this happens again—but the agent of any action is never quite clear: when the android kills its next employer, a jewelry designer, with a cup of molten gold, the pair rush off and we are confusingly told “he wept and counted his money and I beat the android again” (290). The one constant is that the temperature after each incident is always over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The section of most conventional narration involves a desperate Vandaleur ordering the android to attack and rob a man. It refuses, primly telling him, “I cannot endanger life or property. The order cannot be obeyed” (294), frustrating Vandeleur, who knows of its many murders. The man they confront, Blenheim, proves to be “a wizard of the Theory of Number” (295) and the mugging is transmuted into an exchange: they will be given shelter in return for giving Blenheim new purpose, finding the number that solves the mystery of the android’s murder among all the data Vandaleur has accumulated. Blenheim’s murder, once he has realized the significance of temperature, is committed in a temperate setting; the mystery deepens with this murder. Vandaleur begins to sing the nonsense rhyme that plagued the android just before the other crimes, and although the android at first refuses to participate in the violence against Blenheim, the blurring pronouns leave the final event ambiguous. The pronoun “we” is used to describe all the actions of covering up this murder before they burn down the house and flee, but the last sentence in the paragraph qualifies, “No, I did all that. The android refused. I am forbidden to endanger life or property” (297). Further research diagnoses synesthesia, a confusion of sense in which stimulation of one cognitive pathway leads involuntarily to a reaction in another, as the source of the android’s malfunction. The tactile sensation of heat provokes an endocrine response of aggression. This confusion of the senses is also used to describe the poetic technique of cross-sensory metaphor to prompt novel perceptions, and in “Fondly Fahrenheit” the literary and scientific meanings of the term collide. The final key to the puzzle is projection, the psychological attribution of one’s own ideas or impulses onto another, but by the time the story ends we are unclear if Vandaleur has projected his
murderous impulses onto the android, thus producing its specific behavior when stimulated, or whether the android, made psychotic by malfunction, has projected its affect on to Vandaleur. Whatever the original source, by the end of the story both are psychotic, and although the original android is killed in a fire while pursued by police, the Vandaleur who narrates this story survives, but tells us “I don’t know which of us he is these days” (302). Vandaleur has a new companion, “a cheap labor robot,” merely a “servo-mechanism,” but it, too, has begun to abduct young girls—and the temperature is only “10° fondly Fahrenheit” (302). The danger of projection is “believing what is implied” (298) and becoming the thing that is cast upon you. Huntington suggests that this is “very consciously a story not only about projection as it works in other stories, but about the very process of fantasizing itself”; he argues that the story “exposes how projection and identification allow one to participate deeply in atrocity and yet maintain one’s innocence” (176). Examining this theme within the megatext, we might see in the story a resistance to some of the more violent and exploitative motifs in the genre, a critique of sf’s own posture of innocence while indulging narratives of atrocity. Just as Vandaleur wants to benefit from easy android labor without facing the consequences of the android’s deeds, some of sf’s more popular fantasies enable us imaginatively to participate in things like colonial occupation while ignoring their dark side. “Fondly Fahrenheit” thus reworks not only Asimov’s Three Laws, but also the entire notion of servitude without consequences.
Alien invasion in the megatext Along with the motifs of the generational starship or the artificial being, one of the most frequent parabolas of sf is contact with a superior alien species, which branches into the more sinister permutation of alien invasion, but has a more benevolent version in which superior beings presage human transcendence into a higher life form, or save us from our destructive trajectory through some technological or spiritual intervention. Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953) is one of the most influential visions of the benign alien invasion parabola. It recounts the coming of the alien Overlords, whose superior technology makes them seem like gods to humans (religious allusions are central to the novel); they establish a Golden Age on Earth of peace, prosperity, and equitable
world government. Some humans express frustration that human culture is infantilized by the Overlords, but for the most part people embrace the improvements they bring. Through the relative time experience of FTL travel, a single human is able to live beyond the normal human lifespan. In the final section of the book, he witnesses human children who have evolved into a new, telepathic, and collective species. The Overlords, it transpires, saw and nurtured the potential of humanity to become this transcendent being, carefully shepherding us through a violent period to safeguard the birth of this new species, one whose capacities transcend those of both humans and Overlords. Despite the misperception of a few people with limited perspective, then, the interventionist colonial policies of the Overlords were all for the best, and Childhood’s End absolves rather than examines the imperial ideology so central to the first contact parabola. William Tenn’s contemporary “The Liberation of Earth” (1953) directs the same opening story arc to quite different thematic ends, satirizing the way colonial discourse promotes—in the fashion of the Overlords—the belief that serving the colonizer’s ends produces the best possible future for those they colonize. The story seems to be another tale of benevolent alien invasion, looking back on first contact, explicitly praising “the breathless and majestic simplicity of the present” compared to the “frightful mass of cumulative detail” of the world of the unenlightened ancestors. Like Clarke’s Overlords, these aliens might appear frightening to humans (Tenn’s aliens are insect-like; Clarke’s resemble Satan), but only irrational prejudice would indulge this superficial conclusion. This benign invasion “placed us in a sort of benevolent ostracism” (270), pending our intellectual development such that we might warrant inclusion in their intergalactic federation, and in the meantime they protect us from “a race of horrible, worm-like organisms” (271) seeking territorial conquest. The entire galaxy is a battlefield for the struggle between these Troxxt, “almost as advanced technologically as they were retarded in moral development,” and our liberators, the Dendi, “one of the oldest, most selfless, and yet most powerful races in civilized space” (271). Unless the Dendi establish a base on earth, it risks falling to the Troxxt; hence by enlisting human land and personnel in their battle, they have liberated us. Without ever breaking its tone of bombastic praise for the Dendi mission, “The Liberation of Earth” undermines the thematic associations with transcendence (and the concomitant absolution
of colonialism) in Childhood’s End by narrating the suffering of humans caught in this struggle between superpowers (the analogy with contemporary US and USSR exploitation of Latin American, South Asian, and African countries as each superpower sought to secure the world for its own ideology is abundantly clear). Earth leaders wait for direction from their Dendi masters, as economies are thrown into chaos by the disruption inadvertently caused by the Dendi carelessly discarding fragments of their transformative technologies, and humans die “in the thousands in the boiling backwash of war” (276). The irony underlying the voice that carefully mimics imperialist propaganda becomes obvious when the Troxxt defeat the Dendi and the story’s tone does not shift as it goes on to extol the wonders of “the Holy Day of the second Liberation” (277). Humans are taught a new version of galactic history in which the Dendi are no longer an altruistic police force, but rather an army of occupation ensuring “against any contingency of revolt that might arise in the future” (277) in their vassal states. The expected purges of those associated with the old regime follow, and humans gratefully sacrifice their economies and health in dangerous mining operations as the entire planet is oriented toward the production of “other-worldly armaments”: “it is very exhilarating to realize,” this narrative insists, “that we had taken our lawful place in the future government of the galaxy and were even now helping to make the Universe Safe for Democracy” (279). Whereas Childhood’s End narrated a series of human suspicions against the Overlords only to then demonstrate that such fears emerge from the limited perspective of unevolved humanity, Tenn’s story sardonically establishes that this fantasy of benevolent alien intervention is complicit with the ideologies of imperial manipulation that it satirizes. Its last pages accelerate the pace of reversals between Dendi and Troxxt occupation, struggling not to fall into camp as it recounts “the Second Reliberation” and other events “possible . . . at this time—possibly a liberation or so later” (281) as human life is relentlessly ground under to serve alien ends. As Attebery’s theory of the parabola anticipates, sf continues to return to and elaborate elements of these benevolent invasion tales. Octavia Butler’s powerful Xenogenesis series, for example, explores issues of prejudice and the struggle to build homogeneous communities in its tale of the interactions between humanity and the Oankali, a race who save (and interbreed with) a few human survivors after nuclear holocaust. Butler uses the image
of the ugly (by human standards) yet benevolent alien to explore human tendencies to fear difference and our histories of racial discrimination, thus transforming a minor detail of earlier narratives into a new thematic trajectory for this parabola. The motif of idealized aliens saving humanity from its own most destructive impulses is also used in the celebrated sf film The Day the Earth Stood Still (Wise 1951) to warn against a nuclear arms race, and revised in Scott Derrickson’s 2008 version to expose the risk humans continue to pose to the planet through environmental destruction. Gwyneth Jones’s important Aleutian trilogy, White Queen (1991), North Wind (1994), and Phoenix Café (1997), is among the most critically incisive of such reworkings, a complex exploration of cultural difference and the misunderstandings that occur due to projection and paranoia. Accurate information about the aliens’ culture and intentions is revealed only gradually in the series, after a number of incidents based on misconceptions have already shaped human and alien interaction. Even the name Aleutian refers to the aliens’ arrival on the Aleutian Islands, yet humans never learn another name for them. Humans read Aleutians through an assumption of difference while Aleutians read humans with the expectation of similarity. Humans understand this contact through fantasies of sf, observing, for example, that “it was a truism that the aliens who landed, whoever they were, had to be superior. Or else we’d be visiting them” (71), and coming to the erroneous conclusions that the Aleutians are immortal (since humans do not understand Aleutian belief in individualized reincarnation) and telepathic (because they cannot read the Aleutians’ nuanced and biochemical body language). Much of the drama in White Queen centers on the human quest to determine which sf parabola they are in: Are the aliens benevolent or hostile? Will this be the start of a new golden age, or the end of human civilization? The novel demonstrates a reality more nuanced than either of these extremes allow, showing how first contact between Aleutians and humans is a dialectic of both. Jones’s trilogy explores the consequences of two cultures colliding, a nuanced evaluation of the colonial underpinnings of this sf parabola that understands that the result is never entirely beneficial or catastrophic. Human culture is irrevocably changed by the coming of the Aleutians, modifications that extend from the new economics of alien technologies, which “made an immense difference to the poor; far more difference, more quickly than we
could have made with political solutions” (North Wind 107), to the new identities embraced by half-castes, humans who modify their bodies to better imitate Aleutian hermaphroditic morphology. Those who fear the Aleutians are correct that their arrival means the end of human culture as we know it, yet this change is figured as neither apocalypse nor transcendence. The aliens came seeking trade with “the locals,” as they call humans, and they are quick to seize what advantage they can when they realize the humans have mistaken them for “some other, important people” (White Queen 93) they were expecting. Over the course of 300 years of contact, the key revelation humanity gains is that the aliens are not as different from us as we first imagined, and this insight that similarity is more probable than alterity may help the humans to avoid the potentially catastrophic use of Aleutian bioweapon technology. When the Aleutians leave earth at the end of the series, their legacy has provided both solutions and new problems. They are not the superior aliens of the transcendent sf parabola, nor the destructive conquerors of the alien invasion parabola, but merely agents of cultural difference. The aliens will not save us, and the trilogy exhorts us to recognize this and save ourselves.
Megatext as dialectic Robert Silverberg’s “When We Went to See the End of the World” (1972) similarly engages both playfully and seriously with the sf megatext to encourage readers to connect the genre’s themes with opportunities for action in the material world. Set in a decadent and superficial near future, the story is about a new time-travel vacation package, going to see the end of the world, only recently accessible to the middle class and hence a valued expression of conspicuous consumption. Jane and Nick, the first to take the trip, tell of a crab-like being they watch limp across a beach until it finally collapses and “the loudspeaker told us we had just seen the death of Earth’s last living thing” (563). Readers familiar with sf’s megatext will recognize the allusion to the Time Traveller’s trip to the year 802,701 in Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), where he witnesses the displacement of humanity by similar beings, their monstrous alterity a warning against human hubris in thinking ourselves the pinnacle of evolution. The cocktail party audience within the story, however, is unaware of this sinister note and
responds to this death only with pragmatic questions about the cost of the trip, the hassles of arranging a babysitter, and the like. As others in their social set take the vacation, apocalyptic ends proliferate: some see a vast flood, others an ice age, others the sun going supernova. Myopically obsessed with social climbing, they worry over who received the most exciting and authentic vacation package, but show no affective concern with the concept of the end of the world as such. Nick assures them, “I’m convinced that each of us had a genuine experience in the far future. . . . That is to say, the world suffers a variety of natural calamities, it doesn’t just have one end of the world, and they keep mixing things up and sending people to different catastrophes” (566); but his intervention is concerned with recapturing how good he felt when his story was the center of attention. Silverberg, however, clearly mixes details from their vacation disasters with those from the apocalypse unfolding around them: one couple’s 12-year-old son interrupts a party to tell them “mutated amoebas escaped from a government research station and got into Lake Michigan. They’re carrying a tissue-dissolving virus” (563); one man tries to remember the day of their trip, linking it to “the day of the big riot, anyway, when they burned St. Louis” (564); another women leaves the conversation to take a phone call from her sister checking in after an earthquake that “wiped out most of Los Angeles and ran right up the coast practically to Monterey” and seems to be linked to “underground bomb tests in the Mohave [sic] Desert” (565); and a couple describe their vision of the far future as “like Detroit after the union nuked Ford” (566). Conceiving of the end of the world only as a far-future possibility, they fail to acknowledge the ways their choices in the present are actively producing an apocalyptic future, one likely growing nearer all the time. The story ends on a note of bitter satire: an executive of the time-travel company enthuses that “business is phenomenal” in a television interview, and that their end-of-theworld trip is immensely popular in “times like these”; the reporter asks him to elaborate, but further discussion of “times like these” is “interrupted by the commercial” (567). Although the characters within Silverberg’s story fail to change their perceptions or actions, readers’ awareness of the meanings attached to the sf motif of timetravel will not fail to see the causal connection they miss. Conceiving of sf as a megatext requires thinking of the genre always in terms of a set of multiple texts working together continually
to revise and renew images, ideas, and themes. Meaning can never be fully decoded from a single text, and both author and reader are expected to be familiar with certain reading protocols and previously established constraints or paradigm-changing innovations that accrue around specific sf motifs and scenarios. The sf megatext suggests that each work in the genre is both an independent fiction and also a new addition to the large, comprehensive text of sf itself.
Discussion questions 1 The idea of living life through an avatar figure is a
megatext idea frequently revisited in sf. Read and compare “Baby, You Were Great” by Kate Wilhelm, “Burning Chrome” by William Gibson, “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” by James T. Tiptree, and “Pretty Boy Crossover” by Pat Cadigan. How does each use this megatext idea to different purposes? What are the advantages of sharing this image across these different texts? Can you think of other examples that also use this megatextual motif? 2 In their book Screen Adaptations: Impure Cinema
(Palgrave Macmillan 2010), Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan argue that adaptation studies needs to move beyond the idea of a pure “original” text as the final determinant of meaning in a text, measuring films according to novels they adapt or television series according to films they are based on. Instead, they propose adaptation produces something new that should be studied in its own right. Discuss the way this idea might be used for thinking about sf megatexts and parabolas. 3 James Tiptree’s story “And I Awoke and Found Me Here
on a Cold Hill’s Side” (1972) is part of the sf parabola of cultural contact that explores what happens when two different cultures, human and alien, meet. Discuss the story as an example of an sf parabola, thinking in particular about how the story encourages the reader to fill in certain background knowledge or have certain expectations based on the established parabola. To what new ends does Tiptree adapt this story?
Speculative fiction The conditions of production for sf changed significantly in the 1950s. The publishing industry shifted away from the monopoly on popular forms held by the magazines, with new companies publishing original as well as reprint work in paperback, and many established specialized genre series. Editors for these early sf paperbacks, such as Frederik Pohl and Donald Wollheim, had ties to the fan community. Some of the early sf novels had originally been serialized in pulp magazines, or were extended treatments of ideas first published in story form in the pulps; increasingly, opportunities to publish original work opened up in the paperback market, loosening the tight hold of magazine editors such as Astounding’s Campbell. Many of the pulps’ most successful writers, such as Heinlein and Asimov, shifted their attention toward the new paperback venue, and emerging writers who would be among the most important in the field, such as Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin, began in the pulps but would establish their reputations in paperback. The genre changed as it entered this new venue. New competitor magazines such as Galaxy Science Fiction (1950–80) focused on social rather than technological issues, challenging the hegemony of long-lived Amazing Stories and Astounding (renamed Analog in 1960 to reflect its hard sf orientation). At the same time, changing conditions of production in Hollywood led to new marketability for sf films, such as Forbidden Planet (Wilcox 1956), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel 1956), and Them! (Douglas 1954). Although earlier movie serials such as Buck Rogers (1939) and Flash Gordon (1936) had already established sf as a multimedia genre, many in the fan community insisted that
visual sf was an inherently lesser product than print. Whatever one concludes about their relative merits, different media require different strategies, and the popular sf films of the 1950s (the most significant period for sf film before Star Wars gave rise to the new phenomenon of the sf-Hollywood blockbuster) created a different set of associations with the genre label. New sites of engagement emerged around spectatorship, and sf was quick to move onto the small screen as well, replacing television series aimed at children, such as Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (1950–5) and Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (1954), with ones oriented toward adult viewers,1 such as The Twilight Zone (1959–64) and Star Trek: The Original Series (1966–9). The latter is an instructive example of the continued move toward media sf in the late twentieth century; the original series was not widely popular and was almost cancelled, but its reincarnation as a feature film by Robert Wise in 1979 was followed by four spinoff television series, ten more films (some with the original series cast, some with spin-off cast), and the reboot by J. J. Abrams of the entire Star Trek universe in 2009 with a new series of films featuring alternative universe versions of the original characters.
The new wave Ideas associated with sf proliferated, and many examples of the genre exceed the definitions and reading protocols established by the smaller fan community of the early pulps, a shift that began with changes in the 1950s that radically transformed the field by the 1960s. In print, such shifts emerged from overt resistance to standards avowed by editors such as Campbell: the genre, many felt, could be more. Barry Malzberg’s metafictional Galaxies (1975), not “a novel so much as a series of notes toward one” (7), conveys the dilemma of being compelled to write technophilic hard sf when he is convinced that the “expansion of technology will only delimit consciousness, create greater feelings of alienation, impotence, hopelessness and so on” (22). He admits to abandoning Analog in the 1960s due to the limited horizons of its themes and style. “We need writers who can show us what the machines are doing to us in terms more systematized than those of random paranoia,” he laments. “A writer who could combine the techniques of modern fiction with a genuine command of science could be at the top of this field in no more than a few years. He would also stand alone” (13).
The narrator attacks sf’s shallow characterization—“the neutron star comes as close to a protagonist as this novel will ever have” (116)—and declares that he will not deny the captain’s sexuality, although he knows this will contravene generic norms. Similarly frustrated by generic conventions that limited the imaginative possibilities of this nonrealist genre, and given expanded venues for publication, writers in the 1960s began to write a new kind of sf. Since many of the limitations seemed tied to Campbell specifically, and his technocratic, hard sf preferences more generally, the term “speculative fiction” attained currency as a replacement for “science fiction,” which now seemed too narrow to describe the field of imaginative literature. Judith Merril, who edited a Year’s Best anthology series from 1956–68 and introduced American audiences to the avant-garde sf of British writers in England Swings SF (1968), was key to establishing sf as a site of literary and aesthetic innovation, as well as philosophical speculation. Harlan Ellison’s anthology Dangerous Visions (1967) was central to American innovations in the genre. Discussing speculative fiction, Ellison castigates sf in the style of Gernsback and Campbell as out of touch with 1960s social realities; he outlines the field’s need for an anthology of stories “too controversial” (xlii) for magazines. The result is a collection that challenges bourgeois—and Christian—moral sensibilities, creating a space for sf to address themes such as nonnormative sexuality. The most important influence on broadening sf to something that is perhaps better defined as speculative fiction is Michael Moorcock’s work as editor of the British New Worlds magazine from 1964 to 1971, which he transformed into the centre of a new mode of experimental, aesthetically complex, and socially engaged sf that came to be called the New Wave. Moorcock changed not only the stories but also the format of the magazine (making it larger and glossier, including more illustrations) and its range of topics (publishing reviews of contemporary art, engaging with surrealism). In his first editorial, “A New Literature for the Space Age” (1964), Moorcock calls for sf to develop writing techniques capable of mediating and addressing the realities of the space age. He argues that the work of William Burroughs exemplifies needed innovation, providing the answer not only to the stagnation of sf but also to that of the novel itself. Yet it was an earlier editorial by J. G. Ballard, “Which Way to Inner Space?” (1962), published in New Worlds just before Moorcock became the editor, that came to serve, like Ballard’s own writing, as ideal for the new fiction. The
difficulty for contemporary sf, as Ballard saw it, was that reality had both caught up with and surpassed the visions that once generated wonder: the space program had become an internecine site of ideological struggle between equally debased versions of communism (read totalitarianism) and democracy (read capitalism), draining space fiction of any capacity for critical alienation while simultaneously cementing a popular conflation of sf with childish adventure fantasy. Meanwhile, other media (sculpture, painting, film) and mainstream writers (William Burroughs, Anthony Burgess) became “more and more concerned with the creation of new states of mind, new levels of awareness, constructing fresh symbols and languages where the old cease to be valid” (117). The genre must change to remain relevant, Ballard insists, turning away from outer space, galactic wars, and aliens and toward exploration of the “inner space” (117) of contemporary cultural dislocations and absurdities: “I’d like to see s-f becoming abstract and ‘cool,’ inventing completely fresh situations and contexts. I’d like to see more psycho-literary ideas, more metabiological and meta-chemical concepts, private time-systems, synthetic psychologies and space-times, more of the remote, sombre half-worlds one glimpses in the paintings of schizophrenics, all in all a complete speculative poetry and fantasy of science” (118). Although Ballard would later distance himself from the genre label, here he affirms, “I firmly believe that only science fiction is fully equipped to become the literature of tomorrow, and that it is the only medium with an adequate vocabulary of ideas and situations” (118) to grasp the alienation of a modern industrialized world constituted by rapid technological change, increased social isolation, and the dehumanizing effects of late capitalism. The New Wave took up this challenge, exploring homologies between the estrangements of fiction and those of chemically altered mind states, providing dystopian views of technologically saturated societies turned into environmental wastelands, and exploring the inner states of paranoia generated by a ubiquitous media culture of advertising and celebrity-created, illusory images of intimacy.
Dangerous technoculture Ballard’s own work exemplifies this new sf of inner space, exploring in increasingly experimental prose a contemporary culture infused
by the estranging atmosphere of sf. His work brings to light otherworldly patterns of meaning that migrate across the world of public events (he returns to Elizabeth Taylor, JFK’s assassination, Ronald Reagan, Nixon), his characters’ immediate surroundings (the strange and sinister environments of technoculture), and the inner world of the psyche (revealing the limits of cognition and rationalism). In “The Cage of Sand” (1962), one of several ironic stories of the space age, Ballard creates an atmosphere that is haunting and nostalgic, eschewing contemporary heroic celebration of the space race and depicting instead long-abandoned ruins of Cape Canaveral populated by damaged individuals: Bridgman, an architect for a “big space development company” (344) who resigned when a contract for the first Martian city was awarded elsewhere, knows that his dreams of designing the future will never come to pass but is unable to leave for a more ordinary life; Travis, a test pilot whose nerve failed him at the last second so that he never went into space, occupies the site like “some long-delayed tourist arriving at a ghost resort years after its extinction” (339); and Louise Woodward, the widow of an astronaut who died in his capsule due to a timing error, watches this macabre satellite in the sky, “ostensibly . . . to keep alive his memory,” but the story suggests that “the memories she unconsciously wished to perpetuate were those of herself twenty years earlier, when her husband had been a celebrity and she herself courted by magazine columnists and TV reporters” (342–3). “The Cage of Sand” has a plot of sorts—authorities are trying to move them out of the quarantine zone, and the decaying orbit of one of the capsules creates tension about whether Louise’s husband will finally return to earth—but its meaning comes from the vision it creates of long-dead technophilic dreams, from its ability simultaneously to evoke the beauty of such fantasies and the harsh reality that putting humans in space is exceedingly dangerous, a fantasy fuelled by desire for celebrity and ultimately little more than a carnival sideshow. Bridgman’s walls are decorated by architectural drawings of the city he might have built, “a vast piece of jewelry,” with “glass spires and curtain walls rising like heliotropic jewels from the vermilion desert” but, like the crown it resembles, it is “lifeless” (341). Beauty and horror collide in the “wide fan of silver spray” that opens out “in a phantom wake” (354) behind the now coffin-capsules. The orbiting dead astronauts are a persistent reminder of humanity’s hubristic overreach, creating “a second system of constellations with a more complex but far more
tangible periodicity and precession” (346) than the stars, while the local environment has become a theme-park “corner of Earth that is forever Mars” (349), ironically reversing Wells’s rescue of humanity through the contingencies of microbial evolution. In Ballard’s story, a Martian microbe brought back with sand used as ballast has turned the Florida peninsula into a lifeless desert, “the swampy jungles of the Everglades . . . bleached and dry, the rivers’ cracked husks strewn with the gleaming skeletons of crocodiles and birds, the forest petrified” (351). Far from a celebration of the space age, which was in full swing at the time of the story’s publication, the overall impact of “The Cage of Sand” is to “quietly sea[l] off the past” (349), just as fences seal off this contaminated zone.
Expanding genre boundaries Ballard’s even more elusive and experimental “The Terminal Beach” (1964) explores a nuclear post-apocalyptic wasteland through a series of short vignettes recounting the experiences and memories of Traven, a lone survivor trapped on Eniwetok 2 Atoll after World War III. Arranged in nonchronological order, these fragments move between memory and projection, returning obsessively to “the blocks,” the remnants of an underground bunker used for observing the effects of a nuclear blast, their flat concrete surface linking the bunker to other images of modernity’s sadism that populate Ballard’s work: anonymous high-rise apartment blocks, frantic and fatal highways. Another dead and “synthetic” landscape, the abandoned island is marked by patches of sand fused into glass by atomic heat, a manifestation in the outward world of the psychic contents of “twentieth century man” (923). Even the corpses are synthetic: what Traven first takes for bodies are the “half-melted faces, contorted into bleary grimaces” (925) of the plastic manikins used in weapon testing. These mangled synthetic people persist, but all that remains of the human lives on the island are “the faint outlines of human forms in stylized postures, the flash-shadows of the target community burned into the cement” (927) of testsite recording towers. The immensity of the destruction caused by powerful technoscience in the hands of an irrational species unable to acknowledge its irrational subconscious is conveyed by the scale of the bunkers: numbering some 2,000, they tower over the landscape, maintaining their orderly rows, “each a perfect cube
fifteen feet in height, regularly spaced at ten-yard intervals” (927). Weathered only slightly, they are the only evidence of permanence in a shattered world. A trick of perspective makes only some of their doors visible from any vantage, trapping Traven in a landscape of “closed exists concealed behind endless corners” (928). As malnutrition, hallucinations, and nostalgia overtake Traven and the story, it becomes less clear if events happen in external reality or feverish fantasy, and more importantly whether such a distinction has any meaning in a world where the paranoid fantasies of a single nation can eternally change the world. An excerpt from the diary of Dr Osborne, one of those who find Traven in the ruins, observes that “in some ways [the island’s] landscape seems to be involved with certain unconscious notions of time, and in particular with those that may be a repressed premonition of our own deaths” (929). These new arrivals do not behave as if in a post-apocalyptic narrative: Has a third world war really occurred? Or has Traven mingled his own private fantasy with the imposing bunker landscape to call into being that which he most fears, externalizing his “private mythology” (931)? He calls the period of 1945–65 the Pre-Third, a time defined by “its moral and psychological inversions” (923), in which the entire past and all possible futures are encompassed by the singular threat of impending nuclear war. He is found on August 5, no year specified, opening the story to the nontemporal, noncognitive possibility that Traven’s experiences exist between the beginning of the nuclear age (before Hiroshima was bombed on August 6, 1945) and its end (the island has been abandoned as a test site and evacuated, just like Cape Canaveral). This is both the hallucinatory vision of a malnourished and guilt-stricken Traven, and a vision of a truth that goes beyond realism, of this island as a location outside of space and time, “an ontological Garden of Eden” (936), from which a new fallen world of atomic destruction will be born. One of the story’s fragments, titled “Traven: In Parenthesis,” epitomizes Ballard’s oblique and poetic style: Elements in a quantal world: The terminal beach. The terminal bunker. The blocks. The landscape is coded. Entry points into the future=levels in a spinal landscape=zones of significant time. (929)
What, precisely, is coded in this landscape? It is the externalization of the inner life of a new species that Traven calls “Homo Hydrogenesis, Eniwetok Man” (923). It is a new quantal world, the quantum being a small, indivisible particle, such as a single atomic particle that initiates a nuclear chain reaction. It is also the world of quantum mechanics, of branching possible worlds and relative time: the world of Traven trapped in an always-to-come, always-alreadyhappening, and always-already-over nuclear war. The terminal bunker and the terminal beach take on double meanings, “terminal” referring both to their function as transit sites for the submarine pen and research station, and to their symbolic dimensions as the last bunker and last beach. The landscape encodes multiple entry points into possible futures, encouraging us to give up what Traven calls “these ingrained habits” of killing, which are “not easy to shrug off” (935). Unlike earlier science fiction, Ballard’s speculative story draws on the language and images of science not to extrapolate its future development but to comment ethically on its current ends.
Expanding genre boundaries Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” (1967) also uses an image of science prevalent in sf, entropy, to articulate connections between this technoscientific concept and larger social worlds, and thereby to stretch the boundaries of what we call sf. Zoline’s story is structured as a series of fragments whose complex web of connections exceed the capacities of linear narrative. Scenes of the life of housewife Sarah Boyle as she struggles with the chaos of small children and daily chores are intercut with philosophical speculations on the nature of art and culture, and technical “inserts” on topics such as ontology, entropy, and the scientific nature of light. Like Ballard, Zoline writes a kind of fiction that can only emerge from a culture saturated by technology and its impact on daily life, yet also one that examines this context from odd angles, interested more in what exceeds rationality than what reinforces it. The story opens with a definition of ontology, “that branch of metaphysics which concerns itself with the problems of the nature of existence or being” (416), and considers the ontology of a “vivacious and intelligent young wife” (418), Sarah Boyle, whose considerable intellect is reduced to the futile attempt to achieve “HOMEOSTASIS: Maintenance of the constancy of internal
environment” (419) against the encroaching chaos of never-finished housework and child-care. Inserts on entropy tell us that it is a measure of the “degree of disorder” in a system, and that the total entropy—that is, disorder—of a closed system like the universe must inevitably increase, “tending towards a maximum” (419). As this maximum is approached, the system’s “available ENERGY tends toward a minimum” (420), leading to the theorized heat-death of the universe (if indeed it is a thermodynamically closed system). The story plays with the parallels between the universe, conceived as a closed system tending toward heat-death, and Sarah Boyle’s suburban life, represented as another kind of closed system, tending toward another kind of maximum disorder/minimum energy and her breakdown into psychosis. Sarah is interested in the arts, particularly music, but her daily routine directs her attention toward housework that is described with great detail and precision, reproducing for the reader the wearying effect of giving mental energy to such trivia. The descriptions drift toward the language of art criticism, Sarah’s inclinations in evident tension with her opportunities, as when she muses, “if one can imagine it considered as an abstract object by members of a totally separate culture, one can see that the cereal box might seem a beautiful thing” (417), or describes “the floor sweepings” as a composition that includes “a triangular half of toast spread with grape jelly, bobby pins, a green Band-Aid, flakes, a doll’s eye, dust, dog’s hair and a button” (418). Sarah fights against entropy and her own boredom with games of categorization both diverting and dire: she leaves notes for herself around the house, annotating the diaper bin with the observation that “the nitrogen cycle is the vital round of organic and inorganic exchange on earth,” adding Yin and Yang signs to the wall over the washing machine, and scrawling over the stove “Help, Help, Help, Help, Help” (419). She numbers some items, such as the total of “moveable objects in the living-room,” and labels others, such as a hairbrush marked “HAIR BRUSH” and a jar of hand cream branded “CAT” (419). The idiocies of commercial culture are another target of Zoline’s satire, from the appearance of high culture only in masks of Shakespeare and Mozart on the back of the children’s cereal box, to a generalized synthetic frivolity epitomized in an environment she calls “the metastasies of Western Culture”: a whole world which has become like California, all topographical imperfections sanded away with the sweet-smelling burr of the
plastic surgeon’s cosmetic polishers; a world populace dieting, leisured, similar in pink and mauve hair and rhinestone shades. A land Cunt Pink and Avocado Green, brassiered and girdled by monstrous complexities of Super Highways, a California endless and unceasing, embracing and transforming the entire globe, California, California! (418) Zoline uses sf techniques to defamiliarize our perspective on a housewife’s daily routines. Midway through, the story reminds us again that Sarah is “a vivacious and witty young wife,” who is “only occasionally given to obsessions concerning Time/Entropy/ Chaos and Death” (423). The demands of her day create a gap between her body, caught endlessly in banal routine, and her mind’s interest in the power of art to transform perception, “a new symphony using laboratories of machinery and all invented instruments, at once giant in scope and intelligible to all, to heal the bloody breach; a series of paintings which would transfigure and astonish and calm the frenzied art world in its panting race; a new novel that would refurbish language” (426). Art might temporarily escape entropy, might create “local enclaves whose direction seems opposed to that of the Universe at large and in which there is a limited and temporary tendency for organization to increase” (427). Although Sarah never escapes her closed system, Zoline’s innovative play with the language of science extends sf beyond “mere reproductions, mirror reproduction of one’s kind” (423); instead of creating a strange new world she enables us to see what is strange in our familiar one. Such engagement with social settings and themes will shape the genre that follows. Writers such as Malzberg, Merril, Ballard, and Zoline engage with sf’s history beyond the reworking of themes and scenarios in the megatext, creating an imaginative literature that is self-conscious of its status as part of literature’s larger project. The aesthetic changes associated with the emergence of the New Wave parallel emerging techniques in mainstream literature such as metafiction, pastiche, and fragmentation, part of a general sense that old narrative forms and themes were not capable of dealing with present experience. In an influential essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion” (1967), John Barth argues that the project of literature conceived before World War II was over, and that a new synthesis of literature and life was required. The “used-upness of certain forms or the felt exhaustion
of certain possibilities,” however, was “by no means necessarily a cause for despair” (64) since new modes and themes would be found. This style, later named postmodernism by critic Ihab Hassan, frequently draws on images of technoculture to depict a social world of humans merged with machines. In The Nova Trilogy (1961–4), William Burroughs creates a mythology for the space age in paranoid texts of chemical addiction, repressive social control, and an ideal of social revolution using his cut-up method of nonlinear narrative. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) concerns a typical sf scenario, the design of V2 rockets, but its style sets it apart from novels that had come before: it is digressive, involves over 400 characters, and shifts in tone from passages that channel the experience of psychedelic drugs, to sober philosophical dialogues, to terse recitations of technical detail. The contemporary struggle over the future of sf is revealed by the fact that this novel was nominated for a Nebula Award, but lost to Clarke’s more conventional Rendezvous with Rama (1972). The experimental prose style of some contemporary sf writers, combined with this turn to technoscientific themes in writers outside the genre, blurred what had been considered distinct lines between sf and other literature, and the new label “speculative fiction” attempted to encompass a variety of reality-dislocating modes. Genre and other literature never fully collapsed into one another, as later coinages such as Bruce Sterling’s term “slipstream” (to describe fiction somewhere between genre and mainstream) attests, but as the emphasis in sf was placed more firmly on the fiction—the science often mutating into speculative—the traffic between it and other literatures increased. New Wave sensibilities did not replace earlier modes of sf writing, but this greater selfconsciousness about prose did have a lasting influence, apparent in later, less overtly experimental work. The new literary zeitgeist, as well as a greater range of publication venues, is reflected in Pohl’s “Day Million” (1966), first published in Rogue men’s magazine. A study of the development of sf, it combines aspects of the once-dominant technological adventure tale with a metafictional playfulness that strains against the “used-upness” of this form, and seeks to find the new possibilities through which sf would continue to flourish. “Day Million” promises “a boy, a girl and a love story” (380), but by its close the story has thoroughly estranged each, prompting the
reader to question taken-for-granted norms of gender and sexuality. At the same time, its failure to meet the conventions of either a love story or an adventure questions the generic norms of both kinds of narrative, refusing a facile sf futurism in which the distant future is filled with wondrous new gadgets but social relations remain static. Similarly, it refuses the disavowals of the conventional love story, warning that this will “not entail that sublimation of the urge to rape and concurrent postponement of the instinct to submit which we at present understand in such matters” (380). “Day Million” takes an aggressive tone with its reader, warning that this boy, Don, is “not what you and I would normally think of as a boy . . . nor was the girl a girl” (380), and warning off those unable to accept that all norms are open to revision. Anticipating the homophobic panic of its readership when it explains that the girl, Dora, is not a girl because she is a boy, the story reassures that “here are no hot-breathing secrets of perversion,” and that the girl would be recognized as “female at once, although it is true that you might wonder just what species she was a female of, being confused by the tail, the silky pelt or the gill slits behind each ear” (380). By oscillating between statements shocking to conventional morality and contextual explanations that erase the foundations for conventional morality (a tail, presumably, being less upsetting than a same-sex partner), the story makes customary sexual mores appear as arbitrary of those of the future on this millionth day of evolution. The story’s true subversion emerges not from encouraging readers to accept the novel sexualities of cybernetic Don, whose “ruder parts had been long since replaced with mechanisms of vastly more permanence and use” (382) and bioengineered Dora, but rather from the knowledge that this future is not so distant from our own experience as its surface details imply. People like Dora, “genetically male but somatically female are far from unknown even in our own time” (381), the story ironically soothes; it is just that for us this is “an accident of environment in the womb” while for “the people of Day Million” it is intentional. Similarly, Dora’s dance, “something like the performance of a contortionist and something like classical ballet,” is, we are assured, “also pretty damned sexy,” albeit in a symbolic way, but after all “most of the things we call ‘sexy’ are symbolic” (381). Their sexual practice of exchanging “mathematical analogues” of one another may seem strange to readers, but no more imaginary than much of the sexual excitement
readers enjoy: “I really do assure you that Dora’s ecstasies are as creamy and passionate as any of James Bond’s lady spies, and one hell of a lot more so than anything you are going to find in ‘real life’” (383). By the story’s end, Dora and Don’s posthuman, virtual sexuality seems no stranger than the courtship conventions of the reader “with your after-shave lotion and your little red car, pushing papers across a desk all day and chasing tail all night” (384). James Tiptree’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973) also uses direct address to the reader, a style that encourages recognition of the often-naïve fantasies made concrete in conventional narrative, and that strengthens parallels between the strangeness of the fictional world and the even stranger practices accepted as reality by the reader. Similarly aggressive in tone, the story begins “listen, zombie” and mocks the implied reader for concern over stock portfolios and blindness to the “city of the future” (343) and its worship of beauty and celebrity, of people transformed into commodities. Such direct addresses to the reader assume great interest in the “FUTURE” but direct our attention toward human stories, not the city, admitting “there’s plenty to swing with here— and it’s not all that far in the future, dad,” but also advising us to “pass up the sci-fi stuff for now, like for instance the holovision technology that’s put TV and radio in museums” (344) since more interesting things concern the simple story of a girl, Philadelphia Burke or P. Burke, as she prefers: ugly in a world of easy beauty, a victim of a pituitary disorder infatuated by a media world of artificially enhanced, wealthy elite. A botched suicide attempt leads her to accept GTX media corporation’s offer of the chance to be legally dead and become the cybernetic operator for a beautiful media avatar, “the darlingest girl child you’ve EVER seen . . . porno for angels” (347), made from “modified embryos” implanted with cerebral control implants. In this future, advertising is prohibited, but the technology behind Delphi, as the avatar is named, gets around this: designed to attract celebrity media attention, she lives “a wonderful, exciting life” watched by fans as she uses “fine products people will be glad to know about and help[s] the good people who made them” (350). This is another ironic tale of love. The narrative voice warns us against expecting a happy ending for P. Burke, who is mockingly dubbed “Cinderella transistorized” (346); the narrator’s ironic distance lampoons equally P. Burke’s sincere belief that Delphi is
making a “genuine social contribution” (350) by recommending worthwhile products to her followers, and the reader’s desire for a conventional happy ending for this emotionally starved being who “is about as far as you can get from the concept girl. She’s a female, yes—but for her, sex is a four-letter word spelled P-AI-N” (352). Corporations like GTX need not worry about the vagaries of consumer desire they can now safely channel through Delphi’s product-placement-sponsored life. P. Burke, similarly, can “waken out of the nightmare” of her previous life and embrace the ersatz reality of Delphi’s storylines, believing herself to illustrate the tagline she promotes: “DREAMS CAN COME TRUE” (355). The entertainment made from her scripted life proves a jackpot for GTX, providing feedback “meaning that Delphi not only has it for anybody with a Y-chromosome, but also for women and everything in between.” People “IDENTIFY” (357) with Delphi just as much as does P. Burke, blurring the lines between reality and media narrative; both she and the larger public come to see the world as suits GTX’s ends. Advertising may be banned, but “fifteen billion consumers are glued to their holocam shows” (353). The ultimate target of Tiptree’s satire, however, lies elsewhere: this is a story about the power of stories to seduce their readers; the story’s critiques of GTX’s overt manipulations also, implicitly, critique formulaic fiction, like some earlier sf, that can similarly dull critical sensibilities and encourage readers to take selfindulgent fantasies for realistic possibilities. The frequent narrative interjections that snidely describe characters as types refuse to let readers become caught up in sentimental hopes for a happy ending, as they continually remind us that such fantasies are predictable and ubiquitous. Delphi meets Paul Isham, the idealistic and privileged son of the CEO, who is “bright and articulate and tender-souled and incessantly active and he and his friends are choking with appallment at the world their fathers made” (359). He is using a GTX grant, “something like, Sponsoring Marginal Creativity” (360), to work on a video project “built on bizarre techniques and unsettling distortions pregnant with social protest. An underground expression to you” (360). Paul conflates Delphi with Rima, a martyred character from sentimental fiction, and acts out what the narrative reminds us is a rather shallow and naïve Oedipal drama of rescuing innocence from corruption. “Really you can skip all this,” the narrator demurs, “when the loving
little girl on the yellow-brick road meets a Man. A real human male burning with angry compassion and grandly concerned with human justice” (360). The fantasy entices P. Burke and collides with Paul’s inner angst about “the dissonance Rima-hustlingfor-GTX-My-Father” (360). The incompatibility of Paul’s and P. Burke’s romanticized fantasies—he cannot love her true self, and this grand, romantic gesture does not transform the thoroughly commercialized world—unwinds with predictable results. The young Paul believes that he can see through the ideology of a scripted world and refuses to participate any longer in this fiction, passionately explaining to Delphi, “they’ve got everybody’s minds wired in to think what they show them and want what they give them and they give them what they’re programmed to want” (362). He is correct, of course, but cognitively recognizing the power of illusions is not the same as emotionally escaping their pull. His own rebellion is itself a media-inspired fantasy of heroic individual resistance that does nothing to transform the corporate world he reviles, and indeed in the case of P. Burke increases rather than alleviates her exploitation. The cutting narrative voice reinforces how little has changed: “Delphi lives again,” although no new operator can achieve P. Burke’s virtuosity, which proves a good thing for GTX. Paul “was young, see. Fighting abstract wrongs” but as he ages life’s vicissitudes give him “human wisdom and resolve” and so this rebel can now be found “where? In the GTX boardroom, dummy” (370). Readers are not allowed even the consolation of Paul and P. Burke as a tragedy, as this banal unfolding of his life transforms it all into farce. The real winner the story, we learn in its final paragraphs, is an unnamed character—called ferret-like, sharp-faced, weasel boy (possibly the narrator)—who works in the background to perfect the profitability of the Delphi project. He next works on a “temporal anomalizer project” and finds himself waking up next to a headline that reads “NIXON UNVEILS PHASE TWO.”3 Yet all is well, the final lines assure us, as this “sharp-faced lad” is “a fast learner” and “when I say growth I mean growth. Capital appreciation. . . . there’s a great future there” (370). Embracing contemporary pessimism as the counterculture’s dreams of a more utopian future fade away, “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” also metafictionally comments on the limitations of adventure-narrative-as-escapism, while serving as an example of how the techniques of sf can be deployed toward
more politically engaged ends. Finally, as an early vision of the networked age of cyborg bodies soon to follow in fact and fiction, it savagely dissects the naïveté of cyber-utopianism before the industry can even emerge. In its blurring of reality and simulation, Tiptree’s story also anticipates (as does much of the contemporary work of Philip K. Dick) what postmodern culture theorist Jean Baudrillard would diagnose as the hyperreal,4 a way of experiencing reality in which we can no longer meaningfully distinguish between the real and the simulated. Delphi is an ideal exemplar of such simulation, both material (real) and a vegetative automaton (imaginary), living her life in a script holoshow (imaginary) yet having experiences that generate true affect for P. Burke (real).
Remaking human potentialities Postmodern theory and fiction’s interest in world-building, rewriting cultural myths, and narrating experiences from multiple, often unexpected perspectives are qualities (with sf’s new interest in literary aesthetics) that lessen the difference between sf and other-fiction literatures. John Varley’s “The Persistence of Vision” (1978) builds bridges as well to the visual arts, its name reminding us of Salvador Dali’s famous surrealist painting The Persistence of Memory (1931), which blurs waking perceptions and unconscious dreams to create a reality far more complex than our quotidian apprehensions. The title also describes the phenomenon where an image of a bright light will persist in the retina for a brief time after the stimulus is removed. Although more properly described as the phi phenomenon, the term “persistence of vision” is popularly understood to explain why, if projected at 24 frames per second, a series of still images creates the illusion of movement in film. The story pushes the boundaries of sf in its frank depiction of sexuality, and thus exemplifies another mode of the genre conceived more broadly as speculative fiction. Its themes concern the persistence of certain kinds of judgments, and challenge us to break out of habitual habits of perception and the limited possibilities they reproduce. Varley’s story begins with an unemployed drifter searching for meaning in an economically devastated and radiation-contaminated near-future America. He is attracted to various experimental
communities and joins a deaf-blind utopian community, produced equally by science (an epidemic of Rubella in pregnant women) and society (a prohibition against abortion). Cut off from the habitual channels of human communication, the community relies on touch—including sexual activity—as language. Varley leads the reader slowly to this realization, however, first encouraging us to see other differences (ecological farming, architecture and design of living space, social systems of laws, the economic goal of sustainability rather than growth) that shape the community, one designed not to be “a sightless, soundless imitation of their unafflicted peers” but instead “a whole new start, a way of living that was by and for the blind-deaf” (783). Their embodied language is no mere translation of “mouthtalk” (786) but enables another kind of being altogether, anticipating recent work in disability studies that challenges the model of able versus disabled bodies and offers instead concepts such as differently abled or temporarily abled. Like classical sf of the Golden Age, Varley works with rigorous logic through the ways the community solves the problems of managing a farm without sight or hearing; but the story also engages with the new territory of speculative fiction in his vision of their alternative lifestyle. As the narrator becomes more fluent in bodytalk he loses his initial conventional response of embarrassment at the messiness of “eating with your fingers and talking with your hands” (788) and his unease with times when “conversation evolved to the point where you needed to talk to another with your genitals” (790). “The Persistence of Vision” challenges our habitual perceptions on two axes. First is a sexual relationship between the 47-year-old narrator and Pink, his main tutor at the camp, who is a 13-yearold born to community members; Pink can see and hear but is also fluent in their bodytalk. The community, we are told, begins with a “blank slate” and is deeply committed to the importance of context as it develops moral codes: “nothing is moral always, and anything is moral under the right circumstances” (792). As the narrator becomes more fluent in bodytalk, he begins to think of “making love” and talking as equivalent words; transformed into another kind of subjectivity by this new language, he now sees it as perfectly natural that in his interactions with Pink she is both “innocent” and “a sexual being,” that “the result of her talking to my penis with her hands might be another sort of conversation” and
that within her community she was an adult and “it was cultural conditioning that had blinded [him] to what she was saying” (799). Varley thus creates a speculative fiction in which we, with the narrator, become estranged from habitual understandings of sexuality. Near the end of the story he is beyond all the prejudices of human sexuality, and talks (in his meaning of the term) “to men and women equally, on the same terms” (802). The second axis moves beyond rethinking conventional morality, pointing to a group experience of “***ing” (801), something for which there is no equivalent in human language. The narrator cannot fully participate in ***ing, held back because “the visual orientation of the mind persists” (806). The community transcends into a group identity he cannot join, and he decides to return to the outside world but is now “unable to live as I had before” (808). Like Tiptree, Varley saves his most meaningful provocation to the end. Communication via shared group sex is how the colony “solved most ‘human nature’ problems” (807), but back in the world, the narrator returns to economic crisis, homelessness, violent crime, and the years rolling on “like a caterpillar tractor at Dachau” (809) up to the year 2000. He returns to the colony to find that those born deaf and blind have achieved some kind of apotheosis and are gone. Pink welcomes him back and he sees “she was blind. She was deaf” (810). Living by other values has enabled her to escape the persistence of vision; her transformation suggests the hopeful possibility that humanity might throw off other kinds of habitual reactions and perceptions, and thereby approach a different millennium from that confronting the narrator’s world. The category “speculative fiction” emphasizes social and cultural change as much as—if not mores than—technological change. Speculative fiction is interested in the aesthetics of imaginative story-telling, and its themes are about the cultural power of myths of science and technology. Speculative fiction is a way of conceiving of sf that encourages examination of the irrational and affective dimensions of experience as well as logical extrapolation. Like the postmodern culture with which it emerged, speculative fiction critiques and rethinks the discourses by which we understand commonplace reality. It is thus not merely a fiction about the difference between the fictional world and our own, but one in which the ontology of “reality” itself is unstable.
Discussion questions 1 We now live in a Web 2.0 world of ubiquitous personal
computing, social media, interactive reality television shows, and Facebook “friends” whom we might never have met face-to-face. Are we living in a dystopia of superficial commercial culture in which we no longer understand real human connection, as Tiptree’s satire suggests? Is this an example of the hyperreal as Baudrillard theorized? Or is there something valuable about these exchanges neither Tiptree or Baudrillard anticipated? 2 Listen to J. G. Ballard’s short story “The Assassination of
John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” being read at www.miettecast.com/2007/12/04/ the-assassination-of-john-fitzgerald-kennedy-consideredas-a-downhill-motor-race/. How does this story exemplify New Wave themes of inner space? What is the connection between racing and Kennedy’s assassination? How does the story reflect Ballard’s concerns with contemporary technoculture? 3 John Varley’s “The Persistence of Vision” challenges our
conventional understandings of sexual morality. This technique of estrangement has been used successfully by sf writers to challenge prejudices such as homophobia or against miscegenation, that is, sexual partnerships across racial and ethnic identities. In “The Persistence of Vision” Varley suggests that certain age taboos may also be irrational prejudice, that cultural context is important for determining morality and that in the deafblind community Pink is an adult and hence capable of consensually engaging in sex. In her essay “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” (www.feminish.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/ Rubin1984.pdf) cultural theorist Gayle Rubin argues a similar point and further argues that we need a politics of sexuality—not just a politics of gender—to eliminate discrimination and social injustice. Read Rubin’s essay and discuss the politics of sexual preference.
Communities of practice There are many different ways to describe and understand sf because there are multiple communities of practice whose desires for the genre are distinct. We have seen in previous chapters the powerful roles played by editors such as Campbell, academics such as Suvin, or writers straining against a weight of tradition such as Ballard. This chapter focuses on the role of sf consumers, particularly but not exclusively formal organizations of fandom, in making this genre distinct from other popular culture. Although other genres have fandoms, the history of sf is distinct in the prominent role played by fans and the ease of movement between fan and other roles. Some of the key events in the sf industry today, such as the Hugo Awards (named for Gernsback), the huge annual WorldCon and many other smaller conventions, and the ongoing (now largely webbased) culture of self-published fanzines, all emerged from fandom. Only within sf could one attain celebrity as a Big Name Fan, and some of the most prolific of these Big Name Fans, such as Forrest Ackerman, who coined the label “sci-fi” and founded Famous Monsters of Filmland, shaped practices that are widely recognized today (such as dressing up at conventions called cosplay). Organized fandom emerged early in the genre’s history and has a blurred grassroots and commercial heritage. Gernsback encouraged interaction among his readers through letters columns (which published full addresses, prompting correspondence) and through interactive promotions such as writing contests and polls. Seeking to cultivate a loyal audience for his particular brand of sf as competitor magazines emerged (and he lost financial control of Amazing Stories, founding the rival Science Wonder Stories),
Gernsback launched the first official fan organization, the Science Fiction League, in 1934. Key fans such as Sam Moskowitz enthusiastically promoted the club, seeing it as a positive step to promote fiction, not just scientific hobbyism (early rocketry clubs also had their origins in sf magazine letters). Others, among them Donald Wollheim, were critical of the hijacking of fan selforganization for magazine profits. Almost immediately, schisms emerged between those, such as William Sykora, who saw sf primarily as a way to promote scientific literacy, and others who saw it as a unique literary form and wanted to promote more sophisticated writing. In 1937, one of the first sf conventions was held in Philadelphia, and these tensions led to overt division; a breakaway group invested in the literary qualities of the genre and its capacity for social critique eventually became the Futurian Science Literary Society or Futurians, whose original members included Asimov, Cyril Kornbluth, Pohl, and Wollheim (Merril and Damon Knight joined later). Pohl would go on to edit Galaxy magazine, a key venue for the more expansive speculative fiction of the 1960s. The tensions apparent in the SFL/Futurians rivalry of this period are evident in the letters pages and especially in fanzines. The sf fan community had decided at the 1937 Philadelphia meeting that the first World Convention of SF should be held in New York in 1939 in conjunction with the World’s Fair, whose theme was The World of Tomorrow. The Futurians were an overtly leftist group, and their version of sf was alarming to more conservative fans such as Moskowitz, who promptly organized New Fandom to promote a different kind of sf. Similar splits are evident in publication venues. During the 1940s, Astounding, under Campbell’s control, dominated the market, and his views of the field were significant in shaping this Golden Age version of sf. At the same time, however, the Futurians and their cultural descendents organized a counterculture sf that appeared in the rival magazine Galaxy; they created crucial institutions such as the Milford Conference and the Clarion Workshop, which continues to train sf writers. The changing conditions of publication and the rise of the New Wave, a more aesthetically adventurous and politically engaged sf, meant that this kind of sf flourished. Knight went on to found the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1965, which established the Nebula Awards; like the Hugos, they remain significant markers of sf excellence to this day. These early fan and editor battles point to the fact that from the moment it was
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named, sf has been a site of active struggle regarding the kind of cultural intervention the genre should engage in.
Material cultures of science fiction In choosing the 1939 World’s Fair as the site of the first WorldCon, sf fandom recognized that the sense-of-wonder affect and optimistic visions of a technologized future that many sought in the genre also circulated in other cultural venues. Thus, equally important to the fandom communities organized around print sf was the larger culture around World’s Exhibitions and Fairs that had long served to promote dreams of technological progress through industry and innovation, using the same imagery as sf. Luna Park on Coney Island, for example, got its name from a ride called A Trip to the Moon, originally installed at the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo. Bruce Franklin has argued that the “principal form of science fiction in 1939” (108) was the World’s Fair of that year, expressed, for example, in Democracity, a diorama in the fair’s iconic Perisphere that depicted a utopian city of the future; Democracity shared a number of features with the city imagined in Things to Come (1936), William Menzies’s film adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come (1933). More lasting was the influence of General Motors’s legendary exhibit Futurama, an aerial view of the world of tomorrow united by the wonders of integrated highway transportation. It inspired the Futurama II of the 1964 World’s Fair, the parodic futurisms of the eponymous television series (1999–2003, 2008–13), and most importantly public support for the actual system of National Interstate highways in the United States that was being planned at this time. GM’s 1939 publicity film To New Horizons ably demonstrates how sf narration and plotting might be put to corporate service, precisely the manipulative conflation of progress with profit satirized in Tiptree’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.” The wonders of a better future produced by technology, expressed in the sf imagination, and the wonders of a better world produced by specific technological commodities, articulated in corporate advertising, both disseminate sf motifs into wider culture. General Electric, a company whose origins include the Edison Electric Company, introduced the science-fictional slogan “We Bring Good Things to Life” in 1979 to associate GE’s household technologies
with progress and futurism. GE’s use of sf imaginary had its origin in the Carousel of Progress pavilion installed at the 1964 World’s Fair, which treats audiences to visions of transformed daily life for a typical animatronic American family, whose household changes from an early twentieth-century display featuring gas lamps and a gramophone, through mid-century technologies such as the television and dishwasher, and finally to the culminating technologies newly on the market in 1964. In 1967 this feature reopened as part of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, moving to Disney World in 1975 and continuing to update its technologies (now featuring high-definition television and virtual reality games). Advertising continues to use sf imagery and affect to associate products with the future, including recent US Air Force recruitment videos featuring scenarios that seem to be taken from sf blockbuster films, along with the slogan, “It’s not science fiction. It’s what we do every day.”
Cyberspace and cyberpunk The close links between advertising for technological products and sf emerge in part from the fact that such visions of the future have always played a role in conceiving new products. One of the key sites of this exchange, the world of personal computing and online cultures, has a particularly close relationship with sf and produces another kind of community of practice related to the genre. William Gibson popularized the term “cyberspace” in his story “Burning Chrome” (1982), and the cyberpunk subgenre of sf that followed has been influential in shaping both the genre and this cyberculture community since. Cyberpunk sf of the 1980s was enthusiastically embraced by contemporary academics, who explored its intersections with contemporary postmodern culture and theory, overshadowing other modes of sf as the genre appeared to academic readers of the time. Gibson’s work was also influential on contemporary computer scientists working on virtual reality technologies and online social spaces, catalyzing what Allucquére Rosanne Stone calls a “conceptual revolution” (98) among researchers in these fields and articulating “the technological and social imaginary” (99) of this new project. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), whose author worked as a programmer and could engage more specifically with the challenges faced in materializing these fantasies, is widely credited as providing the vision Second Life architects sought to achieve.
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As Fredric Jameson’s sf criticism demonstrates, cyberpunk provided more than a technological imaginary for IT researchers; it also articulated a contemporary anxiety about the harsh economic realities of neo-liberalism’s deregulation and the precariousness of human life in a future that turned out to be affectively different from the marvels promised by techno-advertising. Cyberpunk futures are dystopian: corporations and economic priorities replace government, family life is nonexistent, the desire to transcend mere human embodiment is ubiquitous, and the heroes are ironic outsiders, reflective of a noir ethos that permeates the genre. Gibson’s “Burning Chrome,” for example, is a heist story about cyberspace hackers Bobby Quine and Automatic Jack, both losers looking for one last big score. Bobby is the flamboyant leading man, desperately trying to live up to his own legend but well aware that 28 is “old for a console cowboy” (550); he seeks solace in a series of superficial relationships with women he treats as “his private tarot” (550), turning them into “emblems, sigils on the map of his hustler’s life, navigation beacons he could follow through a sea of bars and neon” (554). Jack earned his nickname by losing his arm, replaced by various tools, in combat near Kiev, an incident only obliquely alluded to that seems to stand in for a tragic past of idealistic self-sacrifice that proved to be a sucker’s game. Both Bobby and Jack idolize Bobby’s latest conquest Rikki, a girl obsessed with obtaining Zeiss Ikon eyes and becoming a simstim star, “simulated stimuli: the world—all the interesting parts, anyway—as perceived by Tally Isham” (559), Rikki’s idol. Acknowledging that the promised gleaming cities of the future have become grim sites of social and economic alienation in the present, Gibson’s story—and the noir films it channels—also romanticizes its doomed protagonists, giving these grim realities a macabre kind of beauty. Bobby and Jack perform one last run, raiding a prostitution house run by drug-dealer-turned-madam Chrome, using a Russian program they have acquired to counter the intrusion countermeasures electronics (ICE) and hack her accounts. They have to burn her, giving away the money they cannot appropriate, to ensure that she will not have the power to retaliate. The story creates an entirely new realm of experience in its narration of their virtual experience of attacking the data core, “sheets of ice shadow flickering and fading, eaten, by the glitch systems that spin out from the Russian program, turning away from our central logic thrust and infecting the fabric of the ice itself” (553). The
sexualized language as they “drive the Russian program into its slot” and later the data “begin to emerge, exposed, vulnerable” (555) maps gender binaries onto the cyberspace imaginary that both reflect and reinforce the masculine, aggressive ethos of related gaming culture (the arcade games evoked by Gibson have transformed into video games and later immersive digital ones). As the extensive critical tradition of cyberpunk has explored, this gendered language also continues a Western cultural tendency to associate masculinity with disembodied intellect and femininity with affect and embodiment, a binary relevant to sf’s overall tendency to privilege logic over emotion. The villainous Chrome reinforces this fear of embodiment. She is “hyped out of anything like a normal metabolism on some massive program of serums and hormones” (557), her fortune made from exploiting weaknesses of the flesh, starting out as a dealer in pituitary hormones and now running the House of Blue Lights brothel. A monstrous woman, she seems to deserve destruction. Gibson both interrogates and reproduces these fears of embodiment and of female agency in the space the story devotes to Jack’s reflections on the world outside of the cyberspace run. Jack is able to see how Rikki functions as a symbol rather than a person for Bobby, who uses “women as counters in a game, Bobby Quine versus fortune, versus time and the night of the cities,” yet he fails to see how she is also—if differently—for him “a symbol for everything he wanted and couldn’t have” (554). Unlike Bobby, Jack shows genuine concern for Rikki’s humanity: she disappears into abstraction for Bobby, while Jack “felt like screaming at him—she was right there, alive, totally real, human, hungry, resilient, bored, beautiful, excited, all the things she was . . .” (554; ellipses in original). Jack’s infatuation with Rikki has to do with her ability to accept equally his flesh and “carbon-fiber laminate” parts. Their different ways of conceptualizing Rikki point to a tension between the virtual and the material: Rikki is a symbol for Bobby of his continued mastery of cyberspace, but a symbol for Jack of embodied human connection in the real world. The story presents Jack’s nostalgia for the material world with more sympathy, yet also suggests that such romanticism is as unsuitable as the ideals of public service that seem to have lost him his arm. Rikki does not remain this human, idealized opposite of Chrome, he discovers at the end, but has sold her body as an automated prostitute in the House of Blue Light, “working three-hour shifts
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in an approximation of REM sleep, while her body and a bundle of conditioned reflexes took care of business” (565), in order to pay for the Zeiss Ikon eyes she hopes will make her the next Tally Isham. Further, although he tries to rationalize burning Chrome as a righteous act, Jack “just couldn’t buy it” (561). Gibson’s ironic vision reduces the promise of technological transcendence to the perfection of prostitution, finally achieving the ideal of “needing someone and wanting to be alone at the same time” (565) to which the customers aspire. The pessimism of cyberpunk, however, is simultaneously colored by romanticism about the heroic suffering of men like Jack who endure and keep to some private moral code in this fallen world. In a contemporary essay, “Progress versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?” (1982), Jameson finds in sf what he calls the “political unconscious” (878) of the contemporary moment of capitalism in which alternatives to it are no longer conceivable and “a different experience of temporality” (881) has been established. Cyberpunk dystopias finally make visible a truth about the temporality of sf: its function is not to prepare us for the future but rather “to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present” (883). The futurism of sf, in this formulation, becomes less an image of possible futures and more an estranged way of experiencing the present as if it were the history of this fictional future-to-come. The function of sf, Jameson contends, is “to demonstrate and to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future” which is a symptom of “the atrophy in our time of . . . the utopian imagination, the imagination of otherness and radical difference” (885). Instead, we can only imagine a future that is more of the same, the logical outcome of a present we cannot see past, a present now transformed into history-to-come. Gibson’s cyberpunk does not offer a way out of this closed-down future, but Jameson concludes his essay by praising texts he thinks can, utopian visions that are about their “own process of production, which is recognized as impossible” (890) and yet somehow, inexplicably, might emerge out of its internal contradictions. Pat Cadigan’s cyberpunk story “Pretty Boy Crossover” demonstrates some of this ambivalence, set in the same ethos of corporate and media intensity, but refusing to glamorize a doomed capitulation to these forces, focusing instead on choice and the future as unexpectedly open. The Pretty Boy of the title is fascinated by the club culture where he is a star and at 16 already worried about “how much longer it will be for him” (589) as he inevitably ages
and loses the access he gains by his looks. His best friend, Bobby, has already transcended the limitations of mortality, uploading himself to become part of the club’s systems, now living “on the screen, sixteen feet high, even Prettier than he’d been when he was loose among the mortals” (590). The Pretty Boy is offered this same immortality, but he worries that this techno-transcendence cannot be real, that the version of Bobby who beckons to him and smiles is not really his friend. “This can be you. Never get old, never get tired, it’s never last call, nothing happens unless you want it to,” he lip reads from Bobby’s image, while wondering, “can you really see me?” (591). The aging corporate executive who tries to convince the Pretty Boy to sign over his life to virtuality refers to human embodiment as “a less efficient form” but resists making the transition herself, demurring, “there are certain things that need to be done on this side” (593), as she encourages him to make the transition soon, “before you’re twenty-five, before the brain stops growing” (595). In the end, the Pretty Boy cannot transcend his desire to be desired—a life he hopes could be perfected on the screen—but he redirects that desire and leaves his future open. He makes a difference, he reasons, through his refusal to become digital, maintains their desire for him by refusing to let them have him fully. This tiny moment of resistance is not much, but it keeps open the possibility that changing and growing might entail more than the risk that “they might be off Pretty Boys and looking for some other type” (595). Instead of his present being mere history to his inevitable future as “S-A-D . . . Self-Aware Data” (595), he instead feels alive in his embodiment, “feeling the skin rubbing skin, really feeling it for the first time in a long time” as he “thinks about sixteen million things all at once, maybe one thing for every brain cell he’s using, or maybe one thing for every brain cell yet to come” (597). Like Gibson’s work, Cadigan’s story negotiates an emerging culture of digital media that offers escape from embodied reality, at least temporarily, such as the spaces of MOOs and MUDs, founded in the early 1990s, multiuser online programming environments that serve as sites for adventure-based narratives (the ancestors of today’s massively popular interactive gaming environments such as World of Warcraft); or in new virtual world spaces of socialization such as Second Life. During the 1990s as cybercultures developed and cybercommunities emerged, issues about the relationship between embodiment and identity such as
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those explored in this fiction were central to conversations about real-world users of such technologies, a topic explored in detail in Sherry Turkle’s contemporary Life on the Screen (1995). Although from a twenty-first-century perspective then-controversial incidents such as a cyber-rape on LambdaMOO might seem quaint, during this period the social protocols for materializing a virtual life were in development. The Web 2.0 culture we take for granted today is a kind of sf culture, if now evolved far from its roots in cyberpunk fiction.
Posthuman life and singularity fiction Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003) links the material sf culture of World’s Fairs and theme parks with the transcendence of morality fantasies in cyber sf cultures in its tale of posthumans who have achieved immortality by creating backup copies of their memories and personality that can be downloaded into new clone bodies, living in Disney World. This utopian postscarcity future is beyond money and material need, but still has an economy of prestige, called Whuffie, based on ratings for personal charismatic and communal affirmation. The plot is a murder mystery investigated by the victim himself, Jules, restored to life from a backup copy of his personality and memories, and Jules’s battles over competing visions of how rides at the theme park should be run. No longer a for-profit enterprise, Disney World has become an avocation for many who give meaning to their infinite lives through their identity as cast members. One group, associated with the murderer, Debra, wants to revise the rides, substituting implanted experiences for the old techniques that provoke embodied responses (such as wonder at the animatronic Hall of Presidents, or fear in the Haunted Mansion). They argue that their revisioning of the Hall of Presidents, providing a simulated experience of being Lincoln rather than a simulation of a statement from Lincoln, keeps the experience “human . . . empathy-driven” rather than “flash-baking a bunch of dry facts on someone’s brain” (58). Jules’s competing group argues the Debra’s technology of implanting facts is “hive-mind shit” that will destroy the human, and that the oldstyle “rides are human. We each mediate them through our own experience. We’re physically inside of them, and they talk to us through our senses” (63–4).
The real concern of the novel, then, is what it means to be human: Is technology changing us such that we will become something other than human? Or, conversely, if we wish to remain human despite the changes to our experience that technology makes possible, what are the essential aspects of humanity that must be preserved? The polarized attitudes toward the rides within the text function doubly as a symbol of how technologies are transforming human life and perhaps the meaning of humanity, and of how narratives of futurism are doing the same. Turning the future into a formulaic narrative of utopia achieved by better products unduly narrows our sense of human possibility, making it impossible to imagine a future, as Jameson suggests, and Doctorow’s satire of this future-as-Disneyride “winning formula” epitomizes this closing down of possibilities. The post-Epcot-Center credo runs something like this: first, we were cavemen, then there was ancient Greece, then Rome burned (cue sulfur-odor FX), then there was the great Depression, and finally, we reached the modern age. Who knows what the future holds? We do! We’ll all have videophones and be living on the ocean floor. Once was cute—compelling and inspirational, even—but six times was embarrassing. Like everyone, once Imagineering got themselves a good hammer, everything started to resemble a nail. (168) The novel ends with Jules finally growing out of his three-lifetimesextended adolescence, giving up on the dream of living in Disney World and going out into the wider universe to explore futures whose details cannot be imagined or anticipated. The commercial culture of sf as product laboratory is as empty as Jules’s DisneyWorld life. Doctorow’s novel is an early example of the subgenre Singularity fiction, a term taken from sf author and computer scientist Vernor Vinge’s essay “The Coming Technological Singularity” (1993).1 In this address, Vinge theorizes that the pace of technological change, particularly in the realms of artificial intelligence, brain–computer interface, and biological enhancement of the human, is accelerating such that it will soon reach some turning point (the singularity), after which human affairs cannot continue as before. After the singularity, we will be posthuman (or replaced by some other, superior-to-human entities), and the world will be so different that we pre-singularity people cannot comprehend what this future
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might be. Like the cyberpunk that preceded it, singularity fiction envisions and interrogates a world of technologies to come and serves as some hybrid of inspiration and guidebook for those actively seeking to make manifest its vision. The singularity’s most famous proselytizer is Ray Kurzweil, whose works The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990), The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), and The Singularity Is Near (2005) envision a future of human–computer integration in which intelligent machines and technologically enhanced, near-immortal humans fuse into a new society of ever-expanding intelligence that will radiate throughout the universe. Those committed to a posthuman future have created a number of cultural and research institutions dedicated to achieving this aim, such as the Extropy Institute, based on a philosophy of transhumanism that celebrates self-directed, technologically enhanced evolution, or the Singularity Institute (now the Machine Intelligence Research Institute), dedicated to developing the machine superintelligence they believe is needed to solve the political, economic, and material crises facing humanity. Once a rather small culture of mainly computer scientists, posthumanism has expanded through biomedical and genomic research into areas such as personalized medicine. The University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute brings philosophy into this conversation as well. The mission statement for this multidisciplinary research center could also serve as another kind of definition for the intellectual and cultural work done by sf: The Future of Humanity Institute is the leading research centre looking at big-picture questions for human civilization. The last few centuries have seen tremendous change, and this century might transform the human condition in even more fundamental ways. Using the tools of mathematics, philosophy, and science, we explore the risks and opportunities that will arise from technological change, weigh ethical dilemmas, and evaluate global priorities. Our goal is to clarify the choices that will shape humanity’s long-term future. 2 These various sites of posthuman thinking are yet another kind of sf culture externalized into a contemporary reality. These organizations would likely not relish being considered an sf culture—wishing to segregate their “serious” speculations
about the future of humanity from a triviality they project onto the genre, just like mainstream literary writers who refuse the label sf and thus imply that they see their use of sf techniques as more important than work done by genre writers. Despite such disavowals, sf has a long history of sober reflection on “the choices that will shape humanity’s long-term future” even though it has an equally long history of doing other things as well.
Science fiction as “fact” In posthumanism’s shift from being “purely” science fictional to being “pragmatically” possible, the fluctuating status of what counts as scientific knowledge is at stake. This anxiety emerges in part because sf has generally engaged with pseudoscience as much as with legitimated science, but as Roger Luckhurst points out, the history of science itself is a story of struggle among competing groups as they strive to sort the rational from the supernatural. Luckhurst prefers the term “marginal science” (“Pseudoscience” 405) to describe the status of concepts such as ESP, UFOlogy, and the like, approaches once considered valid scientific paradigms and investigated as such, but since debunked and dismissed. The pseudoscience of parapsychology, for example, was the basis of scientific research by J. B. Rhine at Duke University from the 1930s to 1960s, work that was funded in part by the US military. 3 A theme in sf since the late nineteenth century, parapsychology seemingly became more scientific as Campbell enthusiastically embraced Rhine’s research and encouraged psi-based speculations in the 1940s and 1950s. A number of the genre’s most beloved texts, such as A. E. van Vogt’s Slan (1940) and Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (1953), are premised on the idea that psychical powers will develop in the next stage of human evolution. As parapsychology was segregated from legitimated science, however, sf continued to produce speculative extrapolations based on psi powers, a powerful metaphor if not a realistic possibility, while others outside the scientific community continued to credit phenomena such as ESP, telepathy, or precognition. The hegemonic culture that regards this as a lunatic failure to distinguish fiction from reality often sees sf as similarly confused, thereby tainting the genre label in the eyes of those who want their speculations taken seriously as science.
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Similar histories can be traced in other marginal cultural groups whose mythology has its origin in a fusion of scientific and imaginative notions. The culture of UFO sightings, for example, displays a stubborn persistence despite the absence of scientific corroboration, but there were serious scientific investigations of the phenomena in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Indeed, the efforts of agencies such as the US Air Force to close down such projects and distance themselves from the emerging culture of UFOlogy gave rise to conspiracy theories about government cover-ups of the existence of aliens and more, an addition to the mythology that proved as persistent as the initial idea that UFOs exist. UFOlogy has generated a huge body of codified knowledge that presents itself as a kind of science, including classifications of the various kinds of encounters and the standards of evidence required to document a sighting. It is another fringe activity, often conflated with sf, whose cultural links to the genre have produced a pejorative image of sf in the minds of those unfamiliar with the genre’s fictional forms. The existence of beings from other worlds and the possibility that they might travel to earth has been part of the sf megatext’s repertoire from the genre’s earliest days, and for the most part sf and UFOlogy proceed on separate paths, the former using such ideas metaphorically, as in Wells’s critique of colonialism in The War of the Worlds, and the other striving to make contact. More recently, however, the existence of UFOlogy beliefs has recursively been woven back into the genre as a symbol that facilitates themes exploring government corruption. The most famous example of alien beings as sites of resistance against overly authoritarian government forces is Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982), while the television series The X-Files (1993–2002) and its film adaptations (1998, 2008) epitomize the use of UFOlogy to express a generalized suspicion that government forces work for shadowy corporate interests—and against people—a suspicion shared by cyberpunk sf. Although The X-Files begins as an investigation of the presence of aliens, as the series develops to incorporate government conspiracy, it gradually becomes more about finding the truth about government corruption than the truth about UFOs. Several episodes in seasons 2 and 3, for example, add to an overall history of radiation from an alien vehicle covered up in World War II, the mysterious black oil from a meteor crash that seems to carry alien infection into humans, and ongoing government experiments on
civilians related to both bioweapons and a human-alien breeding program. The episode “Apocrypha” (February 16, 1996) connects these ideas to a mercenary also implicated in the Iran-Contra Affair4 and the failure to comply with treaty terms to decommission missile silos in North Dakota, using them instead to hide an alien vessel. Thus ongoing government conspiracies become bound up in the alien conspiracy framework, enabling the series to use UFOlogy to express legitimate anxiety about government transparency and intentions. This sense that the paranoia is rational even if belief in UFOs is not, develops further in the powerful season 4 episode “Musing of a Cigarette Smoking Man” (November 17, 1996). We learn the back story of this central agent of shadowy government interference (William B. Davies) in an overview of his career that associates him with everything from the JFK and Martin Luther King assassinations, to the then-recent scandals surrounding Anita Hill and the trial of LAPD officers who beat Rodney King, and finally the series’ ongoing alien cover-up. As a young captain tasked with killing the president, the cigarette-smoking man, or cancer man as he is also called in the series, asks about plausible deniability; one humorously offered suggestion is “tell them it was done by men from outer space.” This suggestion is not acted upon, of course, but the idea that governments may be the origin of alien conspiracy theories to manipulate public attention and deflect it from real conspiracies is disturbingly plausible. Further, scenes about cancer man’s failed career as the author of Jack Colquitt adventure tales based on his own activities, which are rejected by most editors as widely implausible, reinforces this vision: when he is finally able to publish a story, the magazine is dryly titled Roman a Clef. The series’ most effective episodes stress the affective truth that the government seems to be working against its citizens rather than the less plausible vision of any particular UFOlogy theory or content, thus turning this conspiracy subculture back into genre material. The next two season 4 episodes, “Tunguska” (November 24, 1996) and “Terma” (December 1, 1996), return to the government and alien conspiracy/cover-up arc, where Scully (Gillian Anderson) testifies before a Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism that seeks to inhibit their investigation, while Mulder (David Duchovny) is warned “the laws of the country protect these men under the name of national security” by Krycek (Nicholas Lea), a recurring character who seems to work for the secret cabal
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within the US government and the KGB and the aliens. In the credits for “Terma,” the series tagline—usually “The Truth is Out There,” but occasionally different for thematic effect—is “E Pur Si Muove” (which should more properly be eppur si muove, Latin for “and yet it moves”), a phrase apocryphally said to have been muttered by Galileo at his inquisition hearing just before he was forced to recant his (accurate) theory of planetary motion since it conflicted with church doctrine. Another episode set in the pre-series-timeline, “Unusual Suspects” (November 16, 1997), employs its metaphorical use of UFOlogy to critique ongoing government malfeasance with the suggestion that real-world UFO conspiracies emerge from government misdirection. It recounts the first meeting of Mulder and the Lone Gunmen, recurring characters John Fitzgerald Byers (Bruce Harwood), Richard Langly (Dean Haglund), and Melvin Frohike (Tom Braidwood), who are conspiracy theorists within the diegesis. This episode serves as a conversion narrative as they are all caught up with a former weapons research scientist, now hunted by the shadowy cabal, who is trying to expose a plan to test a paranoia-inducing bioweapon on civilians. At one point, a drugged Mulder sees distorted images of agents working to cover up their bioweapon, and through the blurry haze the figures appear to be the little gray men of popular alien abduction iconography. The X-Files thus helps us to see how metaphors from sf take on a life of their own in the UFOlogy culture that took them as fact, while simultaneously transforming a contemporary culture of UFOlogy back into a speculative reflection on contemporary governance. Religion is another site of intersection between sf visions and contemporary practice. The most infamous example of this, of course, is L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics (1950) and the establishment of Scientology and similar practices. Scientology is now anxious to conceal its origins in sf, but Hubbard first explored many of his ideas about the cultivation of particular states of mind in pulp stories, and the theory of General Semantics, one influence on Dianetics, was also explored in contemporary sf by A. E. van Vogt. Hubbard quickly turned to writing theology and guidebooks rather than fiction, but his work emerges from investigation into contemporary scientific paradigms and extrapolation into new applications and utopian futures for an improved humanity, techniques also central to producing sf. Dianetics and Scientology are generally not considered part of sf, but they are cultures that
emerged from the genre and that disseminate a kind of sf sensibility. Similar ideas continue to be taken up in sf, such as grokking articulated in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) or the combined powers of Bene Gesserit and Mentat disciplines/ institutions in Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), two novels widely read by countercultures beyond sf fandom. Both were also highly praised within sf communities of practice, the former winning a Hugo and the latter both a Hugo and a Nebula.
Fan culture as critic The fan practices with which we began this chapter remain the central public culture of sf, although these other cultures have been shaped by sf and shape some popular understandings of it. Fan cultures today are even more diverse than the early magazine fandoms: early fan conflicts had to do with defining the best direction for a literary genre that was shared among competing groups; today, many fan communities emerge from sf media fandom, a phenomenon that has been widely credited with bringing more women to the genre, but is simultaneously still regarded as somehow inferior to print sf by some parts of fandom. Although there are fandoms for other genres, the academic study of fan cultures has been pioneered by those looking at sf fandoms, such as Henry Jenkins’s groundbreaking work Textual Poachers (1992). Arguing against a stereotype of fans as deranged fanatics, Jenkins sees them as active readers, taking the materials of popular culture and constructing their own meanings—and their own new texts in fanzines, fan-fic, and similar practices—rather than passively and mindlessly consuming what is offered by mass industry. Fan studies has developed significantly along the path blazed by Jenkins, and there is now a sophisticated body of work investigating with nuance the complex exchanges between the industry’s hegemonic and intellectual property concerns and fan culture’s creativity and critical rewriting of texts. The best fan fiction is not simply about emotional fulfillment that, for example, changes the official text when a narrative point such as a love triangle is resolved in an unsatisfying way. Fan fiction can also be a kind of remedial effort that creates space in a beloved text for those whose race or sexual orientation has been excluded from the vision offered by mass culture.
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Equally influential was Constance Penley’s work on slash fiction, that is, fan fiction that takes two straight characters from media texts and writes about explicit sexual activities between them, most famous in one of the pairings analyzed by Penley, K/S or Kirk/Spock slash. Penley uses psychoanalytic theory to understand such fan fictions as a way of critiquing the limiting gender roles of patriarchal, heteronormative relationships, and the lack of emotional gratification many women find in them. Fan fiction, including slash fan fiction, adds to and revises industry sf texts, creating new meanings and often serving as another mode of cultural critique. With changes in the technologies through which many people consume media texts, no longer reliant on fixed television schedules or theatrical viewing of films, and as technologies for making one’s own media texts have become more accessible, the exchanges between fan and industry productions have become more fluid. Genre writers such as J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5 (1994–8), pioneered the tactic of engaging fans in conversation on web boards and actively sought fan support in negotiating with producers, a collaborative mode famous within sf fandom due to the letter-writing campaign, orchestrated in part by Gene Roddenberry but popularly remembered as an effect of fan agency, that saved Star Trek: The Original Series from cancellation after its second season. Industry is beginning to turn to fan productions to find new ideas for development, the most famous being the fantasy-based fan fiction Fifty Shades of Grey, published as a commercial novel in 2011 and now in production as a film. As well, industry has expanded its own activities to include the kinds of ancillary texts that were once the province of fan activity, such as webisodes that fill in stories of minor characters or history before a series timeline, or spin-off products such as comic books and digital games based on textual or televisual worlds. Although not typically considered part of sf, the hugely lucrative culture of digital games—another huge fan community— frequently uses sf settings, although the activity of playing these games, generally first-person shooter, is not that different from the activity in games with other settings. Nonetheless, hugely popular game franchises such as Halo are set in sf worlds and have produced ancillary products such as novelizations that we might more conventionally think of as sf. Recently Steven Spielberg has announced plans to develop a live-action television series based on this game. Another recent market innovation is the SyFy network’s
series Defiance (2013–), which was released in conjunction with a related digital game under the tagline “One World: Two Ways to Immerse Yourself,”5 although the distinct visual imagery associated with each mode of exploration—a future city suggesting narrative for the series; weapons and antagonists suggesting firstperson shooter for the game—demonstrates that these two ways are related but divergent. We are thus left to question whether all of these communities of practice are properly regarded as part of sf. Should activities such as buying a trip to the International Space Station, participating in the tourist industry of UFOlogy in Roswell, New Mexico, joining the online cultures of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) or of Second Life be considered part of the genre? Or are they merely adjuncts to it, communities of practice growing out but no longer a part of sf? Thinking of sf through its communities of practice demonstrates that we can no longer speak of a single thing called sf, and that perhaps we need now to theorize multiple sfs in many media, encompassing varying levels of commitment. What remains certain is that fan communities have contributed to the formation of this genre more significantly than in any other popular genre. What this means for sf’s future in a world of transmedia production remains to be seen.
Discussion questions 1 Watch the General Motors short film To New Horizons
promoting their 1939 Futurama exhibit (available at http:// youtu.be/tAz4R6F0aaY). Consider the film as a kind of material culture sf. What similarities do you see between its rhetoric and techniques in sf? What specific kind of future does the film envision and endorse? 2 Visit the online fan fiction archive at www.fanfiction.net
and read some fan fiction about an sf text you know (in any medium). How does the fan fiction comment on or change the industry text? What kind of revision or critique does it enact, to what ends? Does fan fiction seem an effective way to assert agency in the consumption of popular texts? Does it enable perspectives the political economy of mass media fails to include?
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3 Is it fair to link the work of organizations such as The
Future of Humanity Institute to sf? Are they engaged in intellectual projects similar to sf, or is something significantly different involved such that we need a new word for their work? Can things such as building a better human (a vision included in sf genre from its origins) stop being sf when research begins to materialize these technologies? Is space travel then no longer sf since we have been to the moon? You might also want to do some research on biohacking and consider whether it can be understood as a bioscience equivalent of the cultural work done by fan fiction.
The literature of ideas Within fan and academic communities, sf is often referred to as the literature of ideas. This formulation signals many widely held truisms about the genre: that it works through problems logically; that it is distinct from mainstream fiction of inner life and explores questions of the wider world; that it is a thought experiment that asks what if? and works through the possible outcomes. Through a critical reading of sf that focuses on identifying which aspects of the fictional world bear explanation, and which go without saying, we understand the particular intervention a text makes in the social construction of reality, the ways it encourages us to rethink a reality we take as inevitable and natural. As the literature of ideas, sf is less an aesthetic mode than an interpretative framework for working through difficult issues of social power and cultural meaning. Teresa de Lauretis argues that sf uses signs in a way that is “potentially creative of new forms of social imagination, creative in the sense of mapping out areas where cultural change could take place” (161). Feminists were quick to recognize sf as a tool to critique the current social formation and offer alternatives. In What Are We Fighting For? Joanna Russ cites sf as one of the sources that inspired her to think, “things can be really different” (xv). Fellow author Suzy McKee Charnas similarly contends, “instead of having to twist ‘reality’ in order to create ‘realistic’ free female characters in today’s unfree society,” sf provides a context to envision such characters “not as exceptions of limited meaning and impact, but as the healthy, solid norm” (qtd in Lefanu 158). The genre’s aesthetic of world-building is ideal for rethinking social norms.
Donna Haraway contends in “The Promises of Monsters” (1992) that sf is concerned “with the interpenetration of boundaries between problematic selves and unexpected others and with the exploration of possible worlds” (300). Her three critical terms (selves, others, worlds) are sites where the status quo is contested. Haraway’s own creative works of theory are themselves a kind of sf as cultural critique. For example, her “Cyborg Manifesto” (1991) uses this image from the sf megatext to ground a nonbinary politics that embraces both/and rather than either/or, an image that allows her to reconceptualize subjectivity beyond oppositions of culture/nature, male/female, white/black, or human/machine. In Haraway’s design, sf becomes a mode of critical thought that can map otherwise incomprehensible “social and bodily reality” (457) in a world where the boundaries between human/machine, human/ animal, and material/virtual are dissolving due to technological development, scientific discovery, and changing social relations of labor in the information age. Haraway’s cyborg overtly challenges patriarchal hierarchies, opening up space to rethink what counts as “women’s experience” (456) and “nature” (460), and to imagine “a world without gender” (457). Extrapolating as sf does, Haraway writes this socialist feminist manifesto addressed to a world in which “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion” (457). She calls for feminists to engage with rather than fear technoscience and to practice cyborg writing that embraces hybridity and transcends the dualisms of Western tradition that “have all been systemic to the logics and practices of domination of women, people of color, nature, workers, animals—in short, domination of all constituted as others” (471).
Feminist science fiction Feminist sf is both inspiration for Haraway’s vision of cyborg writing and answer to her call to explore hybrid subjects. The genre includes work that challenges the domination of these various others since its earliest days. Leslie F. Stone’s “The Conquest of Gola” (1931), for example, is one of the earliest gender-reversals. In its vision of a humanoid species covered with fur or feathers, rather than the “raw, pinkish-brown skin looking as if it had been recently plucked” (100) that distinguishes humans, the story’s critique of patriarchal domination obliquely maligns binaries that
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privilege humans over animals and culture over nature as well. “The Conquest of Gola” is written from the point of view of a female inhabitant of the matriarchal society on Gola, recounting a failed invasion from Detaxal, a planet we understand is earth. The story begins with typical sf estrangements to prompt questions about this strange world, the use of “tas” as a unit of measurement, for example, then quickly moves from extrapolations of a different physical world to extrapolations that constitute a different social world when the narrator rhetorically asks, “we, too, might have gone on exploring expeditions to other worlds, other universe, but for what? Are we not happy here?” (98). The society of Gola is a communal utopia compared with the competitive struggle for acquisition that characterizes life on Detaxal. Stone continues to challenge our normative perception of both physical and social norms, reminding us that the different embodiment and conditions for life on Gola result in different values and social structures as well. For example, the strange males from Detaxal have a fixed biology rather than the ability “to call forth any organ at will, and dispense with it when its usefulness is over” (100); they have an equally strange mission, “exploration and exploitation” (103), that is culturally indecipherable to the Golans. The men’s proposal to establish Gola as a luxury resort for humans is received as “so much gibberish to us, with his prate of business arrangements, commerce and trade, tourist, profits, cloud dispensers and what not” (104), while the men, unable to take women seriously, respond to the lack of immediate submission with the threat of force. Gola has a vastly superior technology, quickly subduing the Detaxalan ships; Detaxalans retaliate and our narrator awakens to find herself in his arms of her consort/slave, Jon, and “for a moment an new emotion swept me, for the first time I knew the pleasure to be had in the arms of a strong man” (107). Unlike a number of rolereversal stories written by men, however, that use such reversals to enable women to discover that, in Russ’s acerbic phrasing, “heterosexuality is so much physically pleasanter than lesbianism, that it binds a woman not only to sexual pleasure but to one man in particular and to a whole ideology of male dominance” (“Amor” 9), our narrator is quick to see through Jon’s tender embrace to realize his pleasure in her fear and helplessness. The Detaxalans succeed briefly in co-opting the Golan males, but eventually the women exert their superior mental powers, compelling their males back to servitude and the Detaxalan males back to earth.
“The Conquest of Gola” ends on a rather pessimistic note of eternal vigilance against the encroachment of Detaxalan men and their commercial exploitation, and a belief that social equality between men and women is impossible: the Golan matriarchy can either repress the Detaxal patriarchy or be oppressed by it. While it might be easy to condemn Stone for such a bleak vision, it is important to keep in mind the context in which she published, a time when women had only recently gained the right to vote and were denied most of the educational and career opportunities open to men. Although some women such as Stone, Clare Winger Harris, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and Lilith Lorraine did gain publication in the early sf pulps, many disguised their gender (Moore’s use of initials; Brackett’s gender-neutral first name), and others, such as Harris, Lorraine, and Stone herself, published little into the 1940s as a technocratic view of sf was promoted by Campbell. Indeed, the editors of the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction write that Stone directly blamed such editorial bias for the end of her career, revealing that Campbell returned one of her submissions with a note announcing, “I do not believe that women are capable of writing science fiction—nor do I approve of it!” (96). The role of many of these early women writers was all but forgotten in the field by selective histories that privileged a male canon of the Golden Age, until feminist scholarship and a generation of writers and critics actively engaged with second-wave feminism recovered their work. An important way to understand “The Conquest of Gola,” then, is as an active rewriting of stereotypical ways of representing women in—or erasing women from—patriarchal sf. Russ has done more than any other writer or critic to make visible and rewrite the patriarchal assumptions embedded in much of the sf megatext, both in her subversive transformation of genre tropes and in her critical indictments of sf’s failure sufficiently to envision social as well as technological transformation. Her essay “The Image of Women in Science Fiction” (1971) polemically insists that this is precisely what too much of the genre is: images of women rather than fully realized female characters. Dismissing these tales as “present-day, white, middle-class suburbia” (81) migrated to space, Russ desired instead a more ambitious use of the genre’s capacity to reinvent society from the ground up, an sf that would not only reveal the gender bias in formulaic plots but might also begin to imagine those spaces where cultural change could take place. Key to both projects
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was the need to expose and dissect the damage done to women by patriarchal ideals of femininity and pervasive heteronormativity. Russ aspired to sf that expanded the possibilities for women’s agency and happiness, ideas explored most fully in her celebrated postmodern, parallel-worlds masterpiece The Female Man (1975). It tells the story of four versions of the same women made different by radically different cultural conditioning: Jeannine, a librarian, lives in a world without World War II or second-wave feminism, struggling against cultural pressure to define her success via marriage; Jael, a warrior, lives in a near-future of total war between absolutely polarized and gender-segregated Manland and Womanland; Janet, a diplomat of sorts who travels to the other worlds, lives in a far-future utopia, Whileaway, in which all the men have died of a gender-specific plague; finally Joanna, an English professor like the author herself, lives in contemporary New York, struggling with the demands of the women’s movement. All the Js are the same woman, differentiated by distinct regimes of gender conditioning, and thus the novel interrogates gender ideology as a technology that damages women’s lives. Joanna describes herself as a female man as she concludes that the only way to be a full person in the current ideological order is to be a man. Jael and Janet offer separate solutions to this problem of female identity within patriarchy. Jael has brought the women together, proposing a cross-worlds revolution against all men. She represses affect, sees a rapprochement between men and women as futile, and gratifies her sexual needs with Davey, an artificially created man generated from chimpanzee DNA and lobotomized. Janet is appalled by Davey, and believes that women, too, lose their humanity if militant gender discrimination is their only path to full personhood. Only Janet is a full person, self-confident, at home expressing her emotions as much as expressing her physical strength, and able to embrace both marriage and career because she comes from a world without gender difference. Never having had to be an other to man, Janet never thinks of herself as inferior or different, problems that plague the other Js whether they react with rage like Jael or despair like Jeannine. Janet’s rejection of militancy, Jael insists, comes from a place of privilege that disavows the extreme steps her ancestors may have taken to free her from the burden of being, in Simone de Beauvoir’s phrase, the second sex. Hopeful for the possibility of a less extreme solution through feminist cultural change in Joanna’s world, the final paragraphs are
addressed directly to the book itself, encouraging it to go out into the world and not to “scream when you are ignored” or “complain when at last you become quaint and old-fashioned” (213), for the day when this book can no longer be understood by its audience is the day “we will be free” (214). Russ began to explore the ideal of an all-female society in her earlier short story “When It Changed” (1972), which presents a version of Whileaway not as an alternative world but as a colony isolated from Earth by accident and populated by only women after a virus kills the men. The story succinctly captures both the possibilities for full personhood in a society without gender and the barriers patriarchal culture erects against women’s development. The Whileaway colony is a model of cyborg society in Haraway’s use of the term, a world beyond gender that is disrupted by the “Real Earth men!” (509), who arrive at this colony after a long period of cultural isolation. Like Stone, Russ effectively uses the techniques of sf to disrupt perceptions we take for granted, narrating the story from the point of view of what is normal to Whileway rather than what is normal to readers. No gender is identified for the first-person narrator in the opening paragraphs, and textual cues are confusing if we rely on the gender stereotypes of patriarchal culture. Our narrator speaks of a wife, Katy, who drives too fast, can “take the whole car apart and put it together again in a day” (508), but is afraid of guns. The narrator, in contrast, lacks mechanical ability but has fought three duels. Even the description of their children, “one of hers and two of mine” (508) does not necessarily reveal that the couple is not heterosexual, but the description of the eldest, Yuriko, prompts the attentive reader to ponder the implications of this child being one the narrator calls “mine” although she has “Katy’s eyes, Katy’s face” (509). Thus readers are positioned to experience gender difference as the odd—rather than the natural— state of affairs. The story hinges on the gap between what is normal and natural for Whileaway and what is normal and natural for the earth men, who have a great deal of difficulty accepting a female-only culture. Our narrator, Janet, sees masculinity as strange, the men “obviously of our species but off, indescribably off” (509), indulging weird and archaic customs such as shaking hands and appearing almost animal-like, “heavy as draft horses” with “blurred, deep voices” (509). Such descriptions alienate the otherwise natural assumption that men are the neutral embodiment of humanity and that women
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are defined by the ways in which they deviate from this norm. Russ’s story was published at a time when it was common to use masculine words as universals—mankind instead of humanity, for example—and these men create confusion by operating within that paradigm. Despite meeting many of the citizens and learning of Whileaway’s social order and history, one man keeps asking “where are all the people?” prompting Janet finally to realize “he did not mean people, he meant men, and he was giving the word the meaning it had not had on Whileaway for six centuries” (511). The lack of gender difference produces more significant changes on Whileaway than individuals such as Janet, capable of fighting duels and giving birth without perceiving any contradiction between the two activities. Whileaway society, like Stone’s Gola, has a different economic and social structure than earth. Their government is organized into two houses, “the one by professions and the geographical one,” they rely on steam power rather than polluting sources of energy, and they guard against “sacrific[ing] the quality of life for an insane rush into industrialization” (511). Janet fears the changes contact with a gender-differentiated society will bring to Whileaway, both for these ways of life and for her daughters’ development. The men see themselves as saviors of a damaged culture that has managed to survive but is populated by “only half a species” (513), labeling it “unnatural,” which prompts Katy to retort “humanity is unnatural” (512). They also see in Whileaway their own salvation, providing new breeding stock for a world in which “there’s been too much genetic damage in the last few centuries. Radiation. Drugs” (512); one confidently asks Janet, “Did you know sexual equality has been reestablished on Earth?” (512). Whatever sexual equality might mean to these men—and whenever it first existed to now return—it is clear that their version is meager by Whileawayean standards. This man sees Janet and Katy’s marriage as “a good economic arrangement” and adequate for “randomizing heredity” but assumes that heteronormativity can offer “something better” for their daughters, something that they “must miss” (513). Russ thus not only critiques the limitations of patriarchal constructions of female identity, but also caricatures an earlier generation of male-authored dystopias of allfemale societies, such as Philip Wylie’s The Disappearance (1951), in which the return of heteronormativity is a welcome relief, or John Wyndham’s Consider Her Ways (1956), in which a female protagonist experiences the absence of men as a catastrophe.
Men can return to Whileaway only as oppressive colonizers, Janet concludes, “when one culture has the big guns and the other has none, there is a certain predictability about the outcome” (514). This predictability extends to the inevitability that a return to genderdifferentiated society will damage Whileawayeans, transforming them from full people into second-class women. Janet comments that confronting these men’s attitudes “made me—if only for a moment—feel small” (514), and worries about a future “of myself mocked, of Katy deferred to as if she were weak, of Yuri made to feel unimportant or silly, of my other children cheated of their full humanity or turned into strangers” (514). Russ’s story was among the first1 of a number of gender-segregated or all-female societies in sf, mainly written by women, which transformed this trope in the megatext from its originally dystopian portrait of the tyranny of female rule to an incisive critique of patriarchy and a celebration of women’s culture. Haraway argues that “Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other” (469). Russ and other feminist sf writers did precisely this in rewriting the all-female society from misogynistic roots that are now all but forgotten. This intervention significantly changed sf from a genre in which women’s contributions and feminist perspectives were marginal, as in technocratic Golden Age sf, to a genre understood as a significant tool of feminist critique. Contemporary with the aesthetic transformations of the New Wave, the feminist embrace of sf’s potential brought a new constituency of creators and fans to the field. Among the most influential was Alice Sheldon, who published under the pseudonyms Raccoona Sheldon and— more importantly—James Tiptree. The Tiptree stories attained significant standing in the field, and although it was known that the name was a pseudonym, the gender reversal was not revealed until 1976 (Sheldon continued to publish under this name until her death). Tiptree’s work often explores themes of gender difference, including “The Women Men Don’t See” (1973), a tale of plane crash survivors who stumble upon alien anthropologists visiting earth. Told from the point of view of the sexist narrator, Don, the story uses his unreliable narration to enable the reader to understand, even if Don cannot, why the female survivors would rather go to an alien planet than remained alienated by patriarchy on earth.
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Tiptree’s successful passing as a male author, as well as her genderthemed fiction, were extremely important for revolutionizing the discussion of sf, gender, and women’s place in the field. A crucial moment in this history was Robert Silverberg’s introduction to Tiptree’s collection Warm Worlds and Otherwise (1975) that opined: It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing. I don’t think the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man nor the stories of Ernest Hemingway by a woman, and in the same way I believe the author of the James Tiptree stories is male. (xii) Gender was already a hot topic in sf communities. The two major scholarly journals, Science Fiction Studies and Extrapolation, were publishing articles on feminism and sf, and fanzines were debating these issues as well. Two feminist fanzines, WatCh and Janus, were founded in the mid-1970s to promote feminist sf and feminist topics at fan conventions, and in 1975 the fanzine Khatru published a symposium on gender, feminism, and sf, whose participants included Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Tiptree, whose female identity would be revealed only the following year. With Silverberg’s gender-essential appraisal in print, and Tiptree’s identity as Alice Sheldon revealed, statements that categorically segregated men’s and women’s interests and fictional modes could no longer stand.
Queer science fiction Science fiction has come a long way from Campbell’s dismissal of Stone: WisCon, an explicitly feminist sf convention that remains one of the most significant annual events, was founded in 1977, and in 1991 sf writers Karen Joy Fowler and Pat Murphy launched a new award in the field, the Tiptree Award, to recognize works of sf and fantasy that explore and expand understandings of gender. These two institutions, now central to the field, are evidence of the genre’s capacity not only to imagine where cultural change might take place but also to produce such change within itself. Questions of gender identity and the limitations of patriarchal, gender ideology are critiqued by both feminist and queer sf traditions, which are
equally a part of today’s Wiscon and Tiptree Award communities. The Tiptree Award is given annually to new work, but it has also been given retroactively to acknowledge important texts that prepared the way for challenging gender and sexuality norms to define a facet of sf. Both “When It Changed” and The Female Man received retrospective Tiptree Awards, as did a significant novel by another Khatru symposium participant: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Le Guin. Part of her Hainish cycle of novels set in a universe of loosely federated planets held together by the Ekumen, an interplanetary League of Nations, it recounts the experiences of ambassador Genly Ai, sent to the remote planet Gethen, who undergoes a cultural transformation as he learns to accept as normal the Gethen gender-neutral biology and to relinquish his expectations of distinct masculine and feminine capacities. Gethens spend most of their lives in a gender-neutral state, taking on distinct masculine or feminine secondary sexual characteristics only during a mating period called kemmer. During kemmer, each Gethen may become masculine or feminine, never knowing in advance which gender might be expressed each time. In her preface, Le Guin calls her work a “thought experiment” (n.p.) of “describing” the world that might emerge if gender were not so foundational to culture. This what if shares many of the same concerns explored by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949; trans. 1953), where she argues that woman—as understood within patriarchal culture—is not an entity or identity onto herself, but rather “she is determined and differentiated in relation to man, while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other” (6). De Beauvoir’s work is a comprehensive survey of women’s lives as they appear in discourses of knowledge from biology to myth and psychoanalysis, an overview of the ubiquity of patriarchy historically and across geographical locations, and an interrogation of the roles played by religion and literature in producing “woman” as a category of otherness and inferiority. A constitutive text of second-wave feminism, de Beauvoir’s work established that there was no part of human life and culture untouched by ideologies of gender difference. Starting from this premise, Le Guin uses sf extrapolation to work through how different civilization might be if gender difference did not exist. The Left Hand of Darkness, like Russ’s work, encourages us to see gender difference as constructed and hence open to change. As
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Genly experiences Gethen, he reminds himself—and hence readers— not to read people and situations according to the expectations of gender difference. Genly makes a number of political mistakes in his negotiations with the planet, many attributable to his tendency to project gendered traits onto Gethens. By the novel’s end, he has become educated in Gethen history and culture, and he no longer sees the world through gender difference. This shift allows him to realize how much the bifurcation of gender has shaped his own culture according to a self/other distinction that is often antagonistic. Genly’s mission of first contact connects the gender experiment in the novel to a wider discussion of the relationship between self and other played out in the colonial ideologies so central to this motif in sf. Coming together across difference on both a personal and cultural level is the novel’s central theme, embodied in the relationship between Genly and a Gethen, Estraven, whom he first sees as his political antagonist and only later recognizes as his ally and friend. Although Estraven, more experienced and educated, has accepted Genly from the start, Genly distrusts Estraven and his nation, Karhide, in general because he associates them with femininity and thus duplicity. By the novel’s end, when other humans from Hain join Genly on the planet, he has become so transformed by his experiences on Gethen that he now sees such gendered bodies as strangely inhuman, just as Russ’s Janet found male bodies alien. Le Guin uses Genly’s experience to demonstrate the richer life that is possible if we can engage with the other as an equal. As de Beauvoir analyzes, patriarchal cultures are based on differentiation between masculine subjects and feminine objects, a necessarily hierarchical relationship. The Gethens are not troubled by this problem since they have no permanent gender, but their solution is one that avoids hierarchy by eliminating difference. Genly achieves the more difficult insight that equality does not require sameness, becoming able to respect Estraven’s personhood even though his culture and embodiment are different from Genly’s own. The novel thus suggests that gender ideology unduly limits the lives of both men and women, cutting off parts of the self by allowing only certain affects to be expressed by each. The Gethens’ lack of permanent gender becomes an ideal to which humans can aspire, cultivating both male and female aspects of oneself and recognizing that there is no universal ratio. This opens the door not only to richer personal lives but also to more harmonious cultures, no
longer invested in hierarchies of self and other. Le Guin insisted in her essay “Is Gender Necessary?” (1976) that The Left Hand of Darkness was not a specifically feminist novel but one that was about these interpersonal connections. Feminists embraced the novel, nonetheless, although it also generated accusations that it had not gone far enough, that it continued to perpetuate aspects of patriarchy. A key concern is language. Le Guin uses the pronoun “he” to refer to Gethens in their non-kemmer state, reflecting the contemporary use of masculine pronouns to describe humanity collectively. Further, some commentators thought that her characterization of Gethens made them default masculine characters, reinforcing the patriarchal idea that masculinity is neutral, the undifferentiated, while femininity is the marked distinction, the other that appears only in kemmer. Although initially dismissive of these critiques, in a revised version of the essay, “Is Gender Necessary? Redux” (1987), Le Guin acknowledges some merit to these critiques. Her novel remains a crucial intervention in the field, opening up explorations of gender and sexuality, many of them using the sf technique of neologism to invent new pronouns able to convey the estranging experience of a world without gender or with multiple genders: Marge Piercy’s feminist Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) uses per as a universal pronoun in its utopian future; Raphael Carter’s cyberpunk novel The Fortunate Fall (1996), concerned with resisting heteronormativity, uses zie/zir. Drawing on the work of biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling in Sexing the Body (2000), which outlines a theory of five naturally occurring genders, both Greg Egan’s posthuman novel Distress (1995) and Melissa Scott’s space opera Shadow Man (1996) portray multigendered worlds with new pronouns and new names for the various sexual partnerships beyond the binary of heterosexual/ homosexual. Shadow Man won a Lambda Literary Award, given to works (not exclusively in the sf genre) that explore LGBT themes. The novel carefully delineates the five genders that make up its multiworld Concord society, giving each their own embodied specificity via possible combinations of reproductive sexual organs (ovaries/testes), second sexual characteristics (breasts, facial hair, musculature), and chromosomes, and providing each with their own pronouns that textually remind us that each is a distinct gender and that people of all these genders are regularly found in the world: fem (ðe, ðer, ðerself), herm (ʒe, ʒer, ʒimself), man
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(he, him, himself), mem (þe, þim, þimself), and woman (she, her, herself). These five gender identities create nine recognized sexual preferences—bi, demi, di, gay, hemi, omni, straight, tri, and uni—defined by whether on prefers specific combinations of the “same” or “opposite” genders, the quotation marks used in the glossary to emphasize the sameness and opposition are only ever approximations. Even within this world certain sexual identities are marginalized, and being omni carries connotations of being, at worst, promiscuous or, at best, indecisive. The inclusion of familiar words such as man and woman, gay and straight, within these many permutations remind us that such identities are products of culture and convention, not necessary facts of nature. The Concord worlds have so many intersexed citizens because of a side effect of a drug, Hyperlumin-A, needed to tolerate FTL travel that was widely ingested in their period of colonial expansion. The novel is careful to remind readers, however, that the drug merely increased the incidence of intersexed births, and that the reality of five genders is always the case for the human species. The action is set on the long-isolated world of Hara, cut off from the wider Concord during a ban on FTL travel while Hyperlumin-B, designed to avoid the miscarriages caused by Hyperlumin-A, was developed. Concord worlds have accepted the reality of five genders and nine sexual preferences, but Hara insists on a legal fiction of only two genders (man and woman), which creates tensions in its interactions with other Concord worlds. People of all five gender-embodiments exist on Hara, but they must choose a status of either man or woman, although the possibility of legally switching one’s gender serves as evidence that these identities are legal fictions. Fems, herms, and mems are collectively called odd-bodied on Hara, although legally each is either a man or a woman. Hara is the site of a significant sex market, called trade, that allows Concord citizens “who couldn’t quite accept the new roles that came with the five sexes, the ones who looked back to the good old days when there were only two genders, two roles, two complementary parts to play” (24) to indulge their fantasies with Haran prostitutes. Trade and the demand on the part of some Haran citizens to have their embodied gender (fem, herm, mem) legally recognized are a site of political conflict, which breaks into crisis and overt violence. Tendlethe, a man who is son and successor to the current leader, Temelathe, hates trade, resents and denies the existence of five sexes,
and is extremely defensive about his own gender identity because his childhood best friend, Warreven, is known to be a herm, although legally classified as a man. The two were close in childhood, so similar they were regarded as brothers, and so Warreven’s openness about his gender identity and queer sexuality threatens Tendlethe’s sense of his masculinity. This is particularly the case because at one point it was politically proposed that Warreven and Tendlethe should marry, Warreven legally changing his gender to female. An attraction clearly exists between them, but Tendlethe violently disavows it. He wants to expel Concorders from Hara and “seems to think that if they could just get rid of trade, all the herms, mems, and fems would just—disappear” (173). He fosters a political base of ultra conservatives whose militant arm begins openly to harass those involved in trade or indulging their own sexual preferences beyond straight sexuality, and eventually kills his own father in a violent confrontation that traps Temelathe between these forces and the odd-bodied rebels rallying under Warreven, who has long used his legal practice to challenge the restrictions of the Haran gender system. The odd-bodied demand “we need names of our own” (203) and refuse the invisibility that comes with the legal fiction of the two-sexed system, and invisibility that is highlighted in the text by the use of all five gendered pronouns so that the reader is continually reminded that more than two genders exist in this world. The title, Shadow Man, reminds genre readers of Russ’s The Female Man and this novel enacts a similar critique of the erasures and distortions of a patriarchal, heteronormative gender system. Two narrative voices, chapters alternating between Warreven’s perspective and that of a Concord citizen, Tatian, who becomes his ally, skilfully remind us of the vast gap between the world as it appears to Warreven given his immersion in a system in which only two genders “exists” and the world as it appears to Tatian. For him, recognizing five genders is normal, but he is confused by the cues of the two-gendered world where clothing is central to signifying one’s legal gender and care is taken to discuss oddbodied morphology. After Warreven is severely beaten by militia forces and Tatian helps him to bathe, however, the description of his unclothed bodied firmly demonstrates to both Tatian and readers that Warreven is not an effeminate man or a masculine woman, but is something else entirely: a herm, possessing and defined
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equally by both his conventionally masculine and conventionally feminine attributes: Not that ʒe was particularly feminine, anymore than ʒe was masculine—ʒer body beneath the water drew his eyes, long legs, long, clearly defined muscles, cock and the swell of the cleft scrotum behind in. ʒe had forgotten to hunch ʒer shoulder, and ʒer breasts, herm’s breasts, small and definite against the bony ribs, were fully exposed. (253) The political crisis is unresolved at the novel’s end. Tendlethe is momentarily successful and Warreven is forced to flee off world for his own safety, blamed for Temelathe’s death. He takes this as an opportunity, however, to learn how truly to be a herm in a society able to see him as such, and how to enact revolutionary change, another tradition absent—thus far—from Hara. Shadow Man compellingly examines the damage done by restrictive concepts of gender identity and sexuality, and reminds us how far our own world has to go before we recognize the complex variety of human sexuality.
Race and ethnicity in science fiction More recently, discussions have begun to address that way that sf can denaturalize our understanding of racialized and ethnic difference. Prominent writers-of-color such as Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler have long addressed race in their fiction, but they were frequently regarded as the “first” or “first female” black writers. In an article published in The New York Review of Science Fiction (NYRSF), “Racism and Science Fiction” (1998), 2 Delany challenged this perception, drawing attention to a number of nonwhite writers using sf techniques, although he acknowledges that they are a minority in the field. His essay further recounts anecdotes to demonstrate how sf as an institution remains shaped by a culture of systemic racism despite the good intentions of many individuals. The editorial clout exercised by Campbell emerges in one incident as Delany recalls how Campbell declined to serialize Nova (1968)—a novel that went on to become one of the most celebrated in the field—because “he didn’t feel his readership
would be able to relate to a black main character.” The novel’s success establishes that Campbell was wrong in his prediction, but Campbell’s bias significantly hampered the field beyond merely the failure of Analog to publish Delany’s work. As Delany explains, although the paperback market was important and Nova did appear to great acclaim, the absence of the additional revenue he might have received through serialization meant the difference between supporting himself with his writing and requiring other sources of income. By thus presuming that the sf community would not embrace nonwhite protagonists, Campbell perpetuated systemic barriers against the entry of nonwhite writers into the field. In another reminiscence, Delany recalls a speech given at the 1968 Nebula Awards denouncing the recent, more literary turn in the field, a condemnation in part attacking Delany’s The Einstein Intersection (1967), a book filled with references to classical and canonical literature, which had just received the award for best novel. Most of those present did not share the views offered in this rant, but in seeking to reassure Delany his supporters mentioned his race, reinforcing a sense that while he might be welcome, he was nonetheless marked in comparison to their presumed neutrality. In the conclusion to his NYRSF essay, Delany asserts: Because we still live in a racist society, the only way to combat it in any systematic way is to establish—and repeatedly revamp— anti-racist institutions and traditions. That means actively encouraging the attendance of nonwhite readers and writers at conventions. It means actively presenting nonwhite writers with a forum to discuss precisely these problems in the con programming. (It seems absurd to have to point out that racism is by no means exhausted simply by black/white differences: indeed, one might argue that it is only touched on here.) And it means encouraging dialogue among, and encouraging intermixing with, the many sorts of writers who make up the sf community. The following year a group of sf fans at WisCon responded to this call, establishing the Carl Brandon Society, named for a fictional black sf fan created by writers Terry Carr and Peter Graham in the 1950s to provoke discussions of race. The Carl Brandon Society seeks to promote racial and ethnic diversity in sf writer and fan communities. It works to include topics of race and racism on
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convention programs, and it gives out two awards each year: the Parallax Award to a work of speculative fiction created by a selfidentified person of color, and the Kindred Award given to any speculative work that addresses issues of race and ethnicity. It also offers an Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Fund to support writers of color to attend the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, an important institution for training new writers in the field. The Carl Brandon Society and the increasing visibility of people of color in sf is positioned to refashion sf as radically as did earlier interventions around issues of gender and sexuality. Recently a number of anthologies have contributed to this trend. Sheree D. Thomas’s anthology Dark Matter (2000) makes visible “the contributions of black writers to the sf genre [that] have not been directly observed or fully explored” (xi). In So Long Been Dreaming (2004), Nalo Hopkinson argues that postcolonial sf stories “take the meme of colonizing the natives and, from the experience of the colonizée, critique it, pervert it, fuck with it, with irony, with anger, with humor, and also, with love and respect for the genre of science fiction that makes it possible to think about new ways of doing things” (9). Grace Dillon’s anthology of Indigenous futurism, Walking the Clouds (2012), explores such postcolonial perspectives and stories of indigenous science and sustainability, and describes Indigenous futurism as “narratives of biskaabiiyang, an Anishinaabemowin word connoting the process of ‘returning to ourselves,’ which involves discovering how personally one is affected by colonization, discarding the emotional and psychological bagged carried from its impact, and recovering ancestral traditions in order to adapt in our post-Native Apocalypse world” (10). Latino futurism is evident in works such as Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex (2005), a slipstream narrative whose protagonist shifts between an alternate reality where Aztecs rule the earth and have colonized Europe, and a contemporary LA in which he is a disenfranchised laborer in a slaughterhouse; Alex Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer (2009), premised on a fantasy of telecommuting labor that enables the United States to have all the Mexican labor-power without any of the Mexican people; and Sabrina Vourvoulias’s Ink, a novel that explores discrimination in a near-future in which immigration visas become permanently tattooed and traceable technologies. Encompassing these new voices and perspectives has changed sf, not only its themes and ideological orientations, but also the media in which we see the genre, opening up a space for sf music in the
work of Afrofuturists such as Sun Ra or sf performance art in the work of Chicano futurists such as Guillermo Gómez-Peña. The project to achieve a more ethnically and racially diverse sf is far from over. In “A Reluctant Ambassador from the Planet of Midnight,” a keynote address that was a hybrid of performance art and academic lecture, delivered in 2009 and published the following year, Hopkinson both praised the promise of sf “to use mythmaking to examine and explore socioeconomically configured ethnoracial power imbalances” (347) and rebuked ongoing expressions of systemic racism that thwarted this potential. Embodying the critical potential of sf, Hopkinson takes on the persona of an alien possessing her body for the first part of her address. Wearing a t-shirt that identifies her as Speaker to White Folks, this entity explains that her planet has been receiving broadcasts from Earth that confuse them: are these “gestures of friendship, or, of aggression” (339), she wonders, before taking the audience through examples of sf culture that persistently display the myopia of white privilege, even while they overtly strive to be more inclusive. The first example is the original cover of Hopkinson’s novel Midnight Robber (2000), which accurately depicts its Afro-Caribbean protagonist, compared with the Italian edition in which she is rendered as a blue-skinned figure with European features: the original title, drawing on Caribbean folklore, has been replaced by Italian for “the planet of midnight,” thus erasing the cultural specificity of the novel’s imagery. This speaker goes on to review several examples of her culture’s struggle to translate human speech to more forcefully make the point that erasing the particularity of racialized experience is an example of—not the solution to—systemic racism. For example, they have interpreted the statement “this story is a universal one” to mean “this story is very specifically about us, and after all, we’re the only ones who matter,” or possibly “the thing that you made doesn’t belong to you. It’s universal” (343). In this way, Hopkinson’s alien persona confronts the white sf community with an estranging vision of how some of their actions and statements are heard and experienced by people of color within the community. A racismfree, but by default white, sf future is not an inclusive utopia and only the arrogance of white privilege can produce this illusion: the speaker admonishes her audience, “You must understand that on our planet, everyone has an ethnicity” (344). The visitor leaves, and Hopkinson continues her lecture on what she finds valuable about sf, but also points out that the genre frequently fails to have
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the frank and open discussions about systemic racism, cultural appropriation, and heterogeneous community that are required to fulfill its potential.3 She ends on a positive note: although blindness and ignorance on the part of some members of the community have obstructed change, the community is having this conversation, however vexed. The transformation of the field achieved by feminist interventions similarly was not instantaneous or universally embraced, and there is no question that more writers of color, such as Nnedi Okorafor, N. K. Jemison, S. P. Somtow, and Daniel H. Wilson, are achieving prominence in the field. Like the feminist tradition of sf, work by writers of color often rewrites or provides an awry perspective on well-known genre motifs and narratives. For example, Larissa Lai’s “Rachel” (2004) exposes the techno-orientalism of Blade Runner (1982),4 rewriting the narrative from the point of view of the eponymous android. The film, one of the most popular in sf cinema, centers on bounty hunter Deckard (Harrison Ford), charged with “retiring” escapee replicants, manufactured workers denied human rights and prohibited from returning to earth. Replicants can pass as human except for their absence of empathy, and so Deckard’s main tool is the Voight-Kampff machine that measures emotional response to stimuli. Rachael (Sean Young) believes herself to be the niece of the founder of the Tyrell Corporation, which manufactures the replicants, but Deckard’s test reveals she is a replicant with implanted memories of a human childhood, identical in fact to one of the escapees whom Deckard will kill. She is taxed to help him with his investigation, work that inevitably raises conflicts for her as she had believed herself to be human; they become sexually involved, and at the end of the film Deckard refuses to continue his work and they run off together. 5 Lai’s story restages certain scenes in the film, adding the interiority of Rachel’s experience of discovering she is not really human and having sex with a man charged with killing her kind. Her parents met through a “catalogue of women in China who wanted to marry Western men,” “fell in love,” and “were married a week after they first met” (55). This romanticized version of their marriage obscures a context of economic and ethnic power imbalance, making perhaps painful and pragmatic choices appear human and natural, prompting us to read Rachel’s own vulnerability and her relationship with this man in a new light. Struggling to reconcile her inner feelings of loss and her memories of a now-dead
family, Rachel is emotionally overwhelmed when asked simply to accept her nonhuman status and assist the policeman, who is never named in the story; she begins to hate him, but her feelings are complicated by her desire for connection with another human being that would validate her sense of her humanity. She longs for her father, “the only one who could see that I’m not cold, only sad” (58) and does not fully understand her own impulses when she later kills an android6 to save the policeman, just before they have sex. “When the policeman tells me what he wants,” she ponders, “I can only reflect his desire back to him. Is that because I am eighteen and inexperienced or because I am nothing more than a wind-up doll? He treats me like a wind-up doll” (59). The story ends not with romantic escape but with Rachel struggling with her shattered sense of self. Lying in bed with him, “contemplating what it means to be a machine” (59), she thinks of the day her mother died. She recalls a person in her parents’ wedding photos that looks like her, and on this day her parents argued about it in the car: “My father insisted it was his niece. . . . My mother said that it was obvious the girl was Chinese, and that she was, in fact, the daughter of her friend who had left the village to marry a Shanghainese businessman” (59). The ferocity of the fight confused the young Rachel, leading her at the time to suspect “a subtext to the argument I didn’t understand” (59). The family arrives at Rachel’s skating competition, ending the argument, but after her performance she learns that her mother and brother left early and were killed in a car crash; she never sees them again and lacks any confirmation of event. The story ends at a midpoint in the film, with the policeman leaving Rachel’s bed to kill the last two androids, one of whom looks like her. She says, “you don’t have to do this,” but he responds, “you don’t have to remember” (60). This anecdote draws our attention to differences between the film’s Rachael (Tyrell’s niece) and the story’s Rachel (his daughter). They challenge stereotypes that see marginalized others as interchangeable and lacking subjectivity: the androids may look alike but they have distinct identities and desires just as one wife from a catalog of Chinese women is not interchangeable with another, despite their appearance to Western eyes. Lai’s rewriting challenges stereotypes of Asians as machine-like, and the conflation of images of Asians with IT technology and overpopulation evident in popular culture, including the noir version of LA depicted in Blade Runner.
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“Rachel” brings into visibility cultural assumptions and projections prevalent in white culture’s depiction of people of color by enabling Rachel to speak her own experience. The story leaves the question of her identity open—will she choose to be what her implanted memories have made her, or will she rewrite them as well?—and it is by no means certain that she will accept the new script the policeman desires. By overtly racializing Rachel, Lai also foregrounds a long history of class exploitation conflated with and mapped onto racism that informs sf’s depictions of disposable entities such as robots and androids. Like Lai, Hopkinson recognizes the centrality of labor exploitation to the construction of racialized categories of disenfranchised subjects, and the very term robot entered the field via Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (1920), whose title refers to Rossum’s Universal Robots, manufacturers of organic but artificial workers that will fulfill capitalism’s dream of workers who are “the cheapest . . . whose requirements are the smallest,” beings simplified so that they lacked “everything that did not contribute directly to the progress of work” (237). These dehumanized and expendable entities he calls robots, the Czech word for worker. Thinking of sf as the literature of ideas makes the genre an important site of social critique and an important tool for expanding our social imaginary and envisioning more equitable worlds. The genre has proven a powerful tool for making visible patriarchal oppression and systemic racism, and has become a more inclusive community as it embraces voices that articulate futures imagined by those previously marginalized. This capacity of the genre to imagine new and better realities continues to expand sf’s constituencies, such as the environmentally informed work of writers John Brunner and Kim Stanley Robinson, or the bioethical sf work of artists Natalie Jeremijenko, Ionat Zurr, and Oron Catts.
Discussion questions 1 Read Delany’s article for NYRSF (see footnote). Think about the conflation between anxiety about stylistic changes in the genre and anxiety about race and racism that emerge in his anecdote about the 1967 Nebula Awards banquet. Is it surprising to find this resistance to change in a community
that is supposedly producing a literature of change? Why or why not? 2 Consider these two passages:
From “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ—Janet describing her male interlocutor: “He went on, low and urbane, not mocking me, I think, but with the selfconfidence of someone who has always had money and strength to spare, who doesn’t know what it is to be second-class or provincial. Which is very odd, because the day before, I would have said that was an exact description of me” (512).
From “A Reluctant Ambassador from the Planet of Midnight”—the Speaker to White Folks explaining her people’s struggle with translation:
“YOU SAY: Ethnic
PRIMARY TRANSLATION: Those quaint and somewhat primitive people over there.
SECONDARY TRANSLATION: Unnatural, abnormal, or, disgusting, as in your term ‘ethnic food’” (344).
What similarities can you see in these two passages? What connections do you perceive between Russ’s interventions about gender difference and Hopkinson’s interventions about racial and ethnic differences?
3 In an article published in Wired magazine in 2008, journalist Clive Thompson argues that mainstream literary fiction no longer meaningfully explores large, philosophical ideas, and that sf is “the last bastion” of such writing (www.wired.com/ techbiz/people/magazine/16–02/st_thompson). He argues that sf writers are not taken seriously, however, because of their terrible prose style. Do you agree with his assessments of either mainstream literature or sf? Is there any merit to the argument that thinking of sf as the literature of ideas becomes an excuse for readers to ignore questions of literary merit and style?
The literature of change Science fiction is difficult to define in part because the genre shifts not only in relation to the preferences and investments of those defining it—an emphasis on science versus one on social change, for example—but also over time as new writers respond to published work, and as new perspectives such as feminism and antiracism are brought to the field. Brooks Landon argues that “science fiction is the kind of literature that most explicitly and self-consciously takes change as its subject and its teleology” (xi), an ingenious definition that signifies in multiple ways: it is a genre that responds to changes science and technology enact in daily life; it enables thought experiments about changing conditions of human existence; it is a site of meditation on changing philosophical concepts; and the genre itself is always changing as it embraces new media of expression and new aesthetic ideals. This definition captures the eclectic nature of sf as the genre is remade for different audiences and themes: “the dime novel, boy-engineer appeal of pulp magazine ‘scientifiction’” is part of the same genre that becomes “a useful and compelling vehicle for feminist expression, ecotopian protest, and wide-ranging explorations of difference and marginality of every imaginable kind” (Landon xiv). Never one thing, sf is what all things have in common: an interest in processes and consequences of change. When considering the competing candidates for first sf, it is clear that, whichever one chooses, sf emerges in response to significant cultural change: Enlightenment privileging of reason over faith and the scientific revolution that followed created space for understanding the material world as open to manipulation by
human agency; the industrial revolution radically transformed social relations, prompted the growth of urban centers, and linked technology firmly to exploitative labor practices; the literary culture of Gothic Romanticism produced an ideal of the individual genius whose transformative imagination could change the world, an archetype that informed the scientist-hero in sf; and Darwin’s theory of evolution shattered contemporary understandings of the nature of human existence and the relationship between science and religion. Each of these moments of massive social, philosophical, and technological change produced texts that have been proffered as the origin of sf: Swift’s satiric Gulliver’s Travels in the Enlightenment era; Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’An 2440 (1771) during the industrial revolution, the first of many visions of industrialized futures; Shelley’s Frankenstein, foundational to both Gothic literature and sf; and Wells’s many scientific romances that explore the implications of Darwin’s theories for human futures. These competing origins and aesthetic modes converge on investigations of change as key to the imaginative mode of sf.
Philosophical change Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (1998) brilliantly captures the centrality of change in both its theme and style, elegantly merging hard-sf extrapolation rooted in physics with the soft science of linguistics, to explore the way perception shapes reality. The story is simultaneously a tale of first contact, rigorously working through the challenges of communicating across difference, and a personal reflection of a mother’s relationship with her daughter. The story is addressed to the second-person “you” of the title as the linguist, Louise, tells her daughter the story of her life, which means both the daughter’s and her own. It opens with the night of the daughter’s conception, but within a few paragraphs reveals, “I remember the morgue, all tile and stainless steel, the hum of refrigeration and smell of antiseptic. An orderly will put the sheet back to reveal your face” (617). Almost immediately, then, we know the outcome of the story, the daughter’s death at age 25, establishing the understanding that suspense about what might happen is not a part of this narrative world. Further, the story is told in nonsequential fragments that jump temporally across the
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narrator’s life and, more importantly, in a shifting tense that makes it impossible to tell what is retrospective and what is happening in the narrative now. The first paragraph begins “your father is about to ask me the question,” anticipating rather than immersed in events, but immediately shifts to “this is the most important moment in our lives” (emphasis added), and then to we “have just come” (614), signifying the immediate past. This carefully controlled use of verb tense conveys an experience that is future, present, and past, and simultaneously happening all at once, all in the story’s first three sentences. This estranged experience of temporality is both technique and theme, capturing the way that the aliens, heptapods, experience time. Although the story captures their synchronous rather than sequential worldview from its opening pages, the reader only gradually learns the link between this style, the heptapods’ perceptions, and temporality, tracing the path of Louise, who is being changed by her experience of learning their language. Chiang adeptly uses this thematic of change exactingly to explore the contextual nature of language and communication, linking physical embodiment, the universal truths of physics, and culturally variable semiotics. A heptapod looks like “a barrel suspended at the intersection of seven limbs,” any of which might serve as arm or leg; it has “seven lidless eyes” (618) around the top of its body, and moves by simply shifting the direction of its movement rather than changing the orientation of its body because no particular orientation is either forward or backward in this morphology. As efforts to understand the heptapod language proceed, Louise discerns they have two separate systems of communication, the oral Heptapod A and the written Heptapod B. Unlike many human languages, where the written form is a transcription of speech, Hepapod B is “a semasiographic writing system” (625) which means that “there’s no correspondence between its components and any particular sounds” (626). As Louise uncovers more of the mysterious workings of Heptapod B, she further learns that orientation conveys grammatical meaning in its structures, thus linking the symmetrical embodiment of heptapods, for whom any direction is the same as any other vis-à-vis their perceptual apparatus, to their language. Heptapod B requires a complex sense of the relation among its parts although word order is not important, as it is for meaning
in human languages. Heptapod B conveys grammar by a complex interrelation among strokes used to write each unit of meaning or semagram. Meaning is created by “varying a certain stroke’s curvature, or its thickness, or its manner of undulation; or by varying the relative size of two radicals, or their relative distance to another radical, or their orientations; or various other means” (629). Despite the variables impinging upon how a line should be drawn within a larger unit of meaning—distinctions of sentence, paragraph, and page likewise being irrelevant—heptapods can write quickly enough to convey speech as it happens. Thus, Louise realizes, “the heptapod had to know how the entire sentence would be laid out before it could write the very first stroke” (635). The heptapod relationship to physics is what unlocks the context for understanding their language. As Louise learns from her work with Gary—whom we know to be both the father of the daughter, and also her ex-husband—“almost every physical law can be restated as a variation principle” (633). He explains this using the refraction of light as an example: we might understand the path light travels as a causal relation, the entry into water causing its angle of refraction to change, but mathematically this relationship might equally be described in terms of Fermat’s variational principle. Light “always follows an extreme path, either one that minimizes the time taken or one that maximizes it”; both minimum and maximum “can be described with one equation” (633). This example of the refraction of light holds true for other laws of physics as well, the difference being that in optics time is the variable while in examples drawn from mechanics or electromagnetism another property varies to extreme. Thus, although the underlying physical event is the same, the human-specific way of perceiving and describing it (cause and effect) is different from the heptapod one (maximum/minimum). Heptapods think differently than humans, in ways that denaturalize experience for humans. To Louise, “Fermat’s Principle sounds weird because it describes light’s behavior in goal-oriented terms” (636), but the underlying symmetry of the mathematics opens up the possibility that a teleological understanding of reality is as valid as a causal one. Louise begins to have this type of experience through the changes enacted in her by writing Heptapod B. Heptapod B presents challenges for the conception of free will: from a human point of view, “volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness,” but Louise comes to question whether we
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have “direct experience” (641) or simply a way of construing our experience based on this presumption. As she begins to experience reality via her changed temporal orientation, she comes to understand that heptapods construe their experience differently, as “a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would” (641). If we think of the physical universe as analogous to a language, then “every physical event was an utterance that could be parsed in two entirely different ways, one causal and the other teleological”(643). Although these two kinds of temporal experience create different interpretations of reality, neither is invalid. From the human point of view “of sequential consciousness” as context, free will is meaningful; the heptapod point of view “of simultaneous consciousness” (645) is a different context in which the concept of free will is not an illusion but simply has no meaning. Similarly, the heptapods experience an obligation “to create the future, to enact chronology” (645) by performing their lives precisely as they already know they will, an orientation that is meaningless from a human point of view. It misrepresents heptapod experience, the story insists, to understand their fidelity to a narrative known in advance as mechanical, mindless existence. Instead, they embrace another ethic, a gap hinted at as well in the difference between the heptapod desire for a cultural exchange of gifts, in which they necessarily know in advance what the humans will offer, and the pressure the US State Department puts on the research teams to try to make such exchanges an opportunity to acquire profitable new technologies. Chiang skillfully weaves this new experience of temporality into the personal story of Louise and her daughter. The sections explaining how Louise learns the heptapod languages are intermixed with moments in her daughter’s life, not in chronological order, that all begin with some variation of mixed past and present tenses: I remember when we will. After recounting one anecdote of a teenage daughter embarrassed to be seen shopping with her mother, she comments, “it will forever astonish me how quickly you grow out of one phase and enter another. Living with you will be like aiming for a moving target” (630). Thus, the story implies, humans too experience time as a blurred amalgam of past, present, and future, in which change is the only constant, and so we must savor the fleeting present. The story both begins and ends with the moment of the daughter’s conception: although she knows the
script, Louise reminds herself “to pay attention, note every detail” (614), and poignantly repeats the same phrase to mark the moment of first seeing her newborn daughter and that of identifying her corpse: “Yes, that’s her. She’s mine” (617, 650). Louise ends the story telling her daughter, “Eventually, many years from now, I’ll be without your father, and without you. All I will have left is the heptapod language” (650); yet, even knowing this destination, she follows the route, uncertain if she is “working toward an extreme of joy, or of pain” (650).
Social change While Chiang uses change to question the nature of reality through varying conceptions of temporality and volition, Nalo Hopkinson focuses on changing social perceptions and prejudices in her story “Something to Hitch Meat To” (2001). The story’s imagery converges to remind us of the difference between surface perception and underlying reality: the black protagonist Artho is mistaken for a Latino; he is hassled by a store clerk who carefully examines his 50-dollar bill to ensure it is not counterfeit even though Artho shops there “at least twice a week” and large bills used by “old women or guys in suits” (840) do not receive such scrutiny; his brother Aziman tells him about yet another white kid who assumes that Aziman is a drug dealer, this one a “smart-ass yuppie cornfed kit with naturally blond hair and a polo shirt” who tries to speak to Aziman in what he further assumes is “the lingo” of black people, while simultaneously Aziman slots this kid into stereotypical categories by assuming that he is “probably an MBA” who has “never been any further than Buffalo” (841) . The title comes from a child’s explanation of the skeleton’s function as “something to hitch meat to” (839), simultaneously reminding us of the centrality of underlying structures, easily forgotten because not visible, yet also, by reducing the skeleton to supporting rather than principle role, noting the tendency to privilege surface appearance. The story conveys the need to transform our perceptions of customary reality to actualize new possibilities within it, and to acknowledge the invisible yet essential role of structures that lie beneath the surface. The story links these examples of the gap between surface appearance—and meanings projected onto that appearance by
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stereotypes—and underlying reality, offering alienating gaps between perception and reality as Artho begins to have odd hallucinatory moments in which his quotidian observations are suddenly transformed into bizarre configurations or else, emphasizing the contingency of what we deem normal, perceptions of ordinary objects suddenly strike him as foreign and frightening. He sees a Great Pyrenees on his streetcar ride home, for example, and his musing runs from appreciating how its fluffy coat hides its legs, to the efficiency of its morphology for covering snowy terrain, to imagining a modified version of the dog that could “move even faster, smoother, if you changed them to have six legs or eight”; simultaneously, the human walking this dog transforms, like a skipped film frame, from a “woman walking on ordinary woman legs” to “a being whose natural four-legged stance had been twisted and warped so that all it could manage was this ungainly two-legged jerking from foot to foot” (840). Presenting reality as if it were sf, Hopkinson estranges the reader’s experience so that we too feel the contingency and mutability of things we normally take as fixed. The point is precisely this tendency to twist and warp that incidents of ethnic stereotyping epitomize. Artho’s job adds a technocultural dimension to this dichotomy of surface and depth: Artho works as a web-design editor for Tri-Ex Media, a porn company whose name cleverly conceals and reveals at the same time. The job creates yet another site of misreading due to the assumptions others make about the lifestyles and morals of those who work in the industry. Artho’s brief flirtation for the candidate for a marketing job at the advertising media company Joint Productions immediately cools when she discovers where he works, it being self-evident that porn is “the very source and center of evil in the universe” (844) while the ethics of advertising are invisible and unquestioned. Similarly, Artho notes the ironic gap between the lesbian fantasy staged between models Tania and Raven, promoted as “When Daddy’s not home, see these blond sisters work each other up!” and the women’s real lives: clearly not sisters, only one is a lesbian, whose “girlfriends would never let her near them with knives [false nails] on the tips of her fingers,” while the other is “a CGA student, blissfully married to a quiet, balding guy with a paunch” (846). That porn is not reality should not come as a surprise to most readers, but the story goes further, suggesting that reality is not reality either.
Beyond the distortions of systemic discrimination, there is also the difficulty that ubiquitous images from advertising and pornography create a digitally manipulated and virtual world that we confuse with reality. Thus, staring at flesh all day, as Artho does in his job to airbrush and otherwise add intensity to porn images, makes all flesh seem both strange and malleable to him, linking the moment in which he thinks “people just look really weird” (844) as he adds an erection and extension to a model’s penis, producing the marketable “autofellatio man” (845), to a moment in the food court when he experiences a sense of “weird unfamiliarity” (842) when he looks at any human body. Spending his life producing images of huge-breasted or impossibly slim bodies in sexually enticing poses, at times exceeding the human form’s range of motion, makes nonsexualized body parts suddenly seem grotesque and unnatural, prompting a “queasy feeling” when he looks at normal ears that appear to him as “twisted carbuncles of flesh sprouting from the sides of their heads, odd excrescences” (842). His immersion in virtually manipulated bodies denaturalizes his experience of his own embodiment as well, and he suddenly forgets how to walk, the movement no longer fluid when he begins to be aware of its various components: “push off with left leg, bending toes for leverage; contract right knee to extend right leg, heel first; shift weight; step onto right foot; bend right knee; repeat on the other side” (843). Yet another out-of-body experience is captured in the time Artho spends “masquerading as the impossibly firmbreasted Lara Croft” (846) while waiting for his digitally enhanced image to finish rendering. The blurring of material and virtual worlds, then, is not simply an illusion but part of the experience of living in twenty-first-century technoculture. Time spent online or in virtual worlds contributes to our habitual perception as much as does time spent in material reality, and this reality is, in any case, saturated with digitally enhanced versions of itself. Sorting reality from its representations is not a simple matter, yet the consequences of confusing surface appearance and underlying reality can be substantial, as is painfully demonstrated to Artho when his supervisor, Charlie, insists that autofellatio man’s skin should be dark, despite his “aquiline nose . . . [and] thin lips”; worse, Charlie jokes with Artho that “his dick’s no match for yours, though. Eh?” (845). Hopkinson thus links porn and racial stereotyping as similarly unreal discourses, each
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generating false impressions of those they represent by distorting and intensifying surface features. Both porn and systemic racism make other people unreal, reading into them biases and narratives— such as immorality for porn stars, or criminality for dark-skinned men—based on how such images are manipulated and distributed, lacking any connection to real people’s lives. The transformative power of the story comes from Artho’s encounter with a strange, dark-complexioned girl with a Spiderman backpack. Merging superhero lore with trickster mythology, one of whose forms is a spider deity, she confronts Artho about his dissatisfaction with both his job and his experience of systemic discrimination, suggesting that he can enact change rather than just accept this world as given. She strikes him with her backpack, cutting his head, and, like Peter Parker, he gains supernatural abilities from this bite. Returning to his work after the incident, Artho decides to remove “‘nkyin kyin,’ the West African Adinkra symbol for ‘always changing oneself’” (845) which he had satirically applied to his autofellatio man image. As he drags the symbol with his mouse, however, it comes “all the way off the screen,” moving from the virtual world into the material one, and comes “to rest on his thigh” (849). Previously when Artho felt distressed observing the unruly flesh of ears, “his fingers twitched, the ones that he would use . . . to point, click, and drag his mouse as he smoothed out the cellulite and firmed up the pecs of the perfect naked models on the screen” (842). After the Adinkra symbol moves from the screen to his flesh, Artho’s hand gains this transformative power of the digital-editing mouse click. As he reaches for the doorknob one click makes it into “ornate worked brass” while a double click returns it to “a plain aluminum strip” (849). Far from fearing this strange development, Artho feels a curious sense of hope, which only grows as other building features prove similarly malleable. Artho has attained the power of rendering reality anew, just as he used to render digital images. The girl reassures him that “changing things isn’t your job” since change will happen in any case, but he has the power to “peel off the fake skin” and reveal what is hidden beneath. He can transform those on whom he plants the symbol, opening up their lives to the new futures possible if they are not weighed down by the false perceptions others project onto them. In another image drawn from comic book culture, Artho imagines his brother as The Human Torch, filled with a repressed rage from
his experiences of discrimination that turns into self-destructive drinking, and finds himself wishing that “one day the fire inside Aziman would come busting out, fry away the polite surface he always presented” (845). He imagines using his new power on Aziman, on his Aunt Dee, hidden beneath layers of unhappiness, on himself to enable the white woman who “clutch[s] her purse tighter when she sees him” (850) to see something else. The story thus ends not with any particular image of what “reality” beneath the surface might be, but with a conviction about the astonishing power of changing perceptions, the power of sf. In an important critical work, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, John Rieder persuasively argues that this power to reveal ideologies beneath public discourses is crucial to both the formation of the genre and to its relationship to colonialism. The experience of colonialism was for Western cultures a displacement like those of sf, Rieder proposes, a “disturbance of ethnocentrism” that produced “a perspective from which one’s own culture is only one of a number of possible cultures” (2). Achieving this perspective does not necessarily prompt cultural inclusivity, and indeed is central to a colonialist discourse by which white European cultures are always marked as superior. Nonetheless, this problematic colonialist discourse is troubled by “a vacillation between fantastic desires and critical estrangement” (6) that we also see in sf. The colonial gaze, which “distributes knowledge and power to the subject who looks, while denying or minimizing access to power for its object, the one looked at” (7), is key to Rieder’s theory. Although not all sf explicitly writes back to the imperial center as does postcolonial sf, the genre’s changed context for colonial narratives nonetheless opens a space for critique. Rieder notes, for example, that although Wells’s reversal narrative in The War of the Worlds “stays entirely within the framework of the colonial gaze”—the Martians are an evolutionary step beyond the humans, just as the British are technologically beyond the Tazmanians—by making the colonized human native both “the dominated, dehumanized colonial subject” and the “scientific observer” of Martian occupation, the novel estranges colonialist assumptions. It “exaggerates and exploits” (10) the lacunae and contradictions of colonialist discourse, using its own fictional and fantastic structures to provide “a metafictive commentary” (14) on such discourse.
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Rieder thus sees colonialism and its ideologies as constitutive of sf, another necessary condition for its emergence. He is not arguing that sf is always and necessarily critical of colonialism, but rather that “narratives of colonial history and ideology” (15) persist in the genre as one of its structuring fictions, whether such narratives be reproduced or resisted. In Rieder’s word, “it is as if science fiction itself were a kind of palimpsest, bearing the persistent traces of a stubbornly visible colonial scenario beneath its fantastic script. . . . science fiction exposes something that colonialism imposes” (15). Rieder is careful to insist that he is not arguing that colonialism is a “hidden truth” beneath the surface of sf, but rather that the heritage of colonialism—and the changed, estranging perspective it brings to cultural difference—continually shapes the genre’s “construction of the possible and the imaginable” (15). The genre is thus a kind of myth for grasping the ideological changes brought about by the historical experience of colonialism, myths that run the political spectrum from rationalizing European conquest and appropriation of wealth, through to the post-apocalypse survivance1 narratives of Indigenous futurism. The genre is an imaginative tool for explaining the profound changes in human cultures wrought by colonialism.
Technological change Entwined cultural and technological change is also the focus of Warren Elllis’s comic book series Planetary (1999–2009), drawn by John Cassaday, about a group of “archaeologists of the impossible,” as they are described on the first issue cover. These explorers, Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner, The Drummer and—in some issues—Ambrose Chase, investigate eruptions of the strange in quotidian reality for the Planetary organization. It is quickly apparent that these cases, recorded in Snow’s Planetary Guides published annually from 1925, are an archaeology of the reciprocal relations between twentieth-century public and popular cultures: in their world these events are a “secret history” of that century and, in the reader’s, an analysis of how popular cultures have shaped our imaginations and material worlds. Ellis’s engagement with sf is evident in many of the examples he chooses (and the first collected volume is dedicated to Michael Moorcock). The
adventures include encounters with giant monsters created by radiation (issue 2 “Island”) travel between parallel universes (issue 4 “Strange Harbours), a working version of Jules Verne’s space cannon (issue 18 “The Gun Club”), a mysterious alien ship clearly echoing Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1972) (issue 20 “Rendezvous”), and nanotechnological construction of new worlds (issue 21 “Death Machine Telemetry”). The series explores ethical issues surrounding technocultures of the twentieth century, and is organized around the conflict between Planetary’s benevolent use of technology and more sinister examples. Allusions are made to a variety of characters drawn from sf and other popular fictions, including Doc Brass, a version of Doc Savage who describes the twenty-first century as living in “science fiction” (issue 5 “The Good Doctor”); Robur from Jules Verne’s fiction; Sherlock Holmes, who trains Snow just before Holmes’s death; Victor Frankenstein; The Lone Ranger, who uses the mercury by-product of his family’s mining operation to poison his silver bullets, one among many of the series’ investigations of technoculture’s darker side (issue 22 “The Torture of William Leather”); the titular Steam Man of the Prairies of dime novel fame; Dracula; Lord Blackstock, a version of Tarzan whose assumptions of racial superiority are pointedly rejected by his African lover (issue 17 “Opak-Re”); ninja warriors; and a JamesBond-like superspy named Jack Carter. Planetary’s most central intertext, however, is superhero comic books, particularly as they are concerned with science and technology (human and alien) as a source of superpower, embodied in The Four, a menacing version of Marvel’s Fantastic Four, who are the main antagonists. This version of the Four was created on a space mission that was part of Project Artemis, a secret mission parallel to Apollo. The astronauts are originally Nazis, brought to America after World War II just as was Werner von Braun, the German scientist central to NASA’s rocket program. Ellis thus makes clear the dark history that lays beneath the most celebrated achievements of twentieth-century technoculture, in this case the expendable concentration camp labor so central to von Braun’s work on V2 rockets in Germany, a past conveniently forgotten when Americans wanted his expertise for their own military and space programs in the postwar period. Snow is one of several people with superhuman abilities, many of them born on January 1, 1900. He and those like him are born
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with superpowers, and by the series’ end it is revealed that they are all part of a vast, evolved planetary system of defence. Such people, who also include the vengeful ghost of a betrayed Hong Kong cop, and The Drummer who has the ability to perceive all information, are selected because they understand “justice” and are committed to “the best possible chance at fixing the living world” (issue 24 “Systems”). In contrast, the Four gain their powers from a parallel universe on whose earth superhuman abilities are regularly produced by technology. Exploiting a portal between universes on their space mission, the Four strike a deal with this paranoid and militarized earth to hinder scientific development on our earth, giving information instead to the parallel one. They plan eventually to hand over the planet entirely in 50 years—all in exchange for gaining the superhuman abilities. The Four use their powers, and the powers of science overall, for despotic political ends in stories that critique the history of Western science deployed to imperialist ends2 and simultaneously reveal the role that sf and other popular cultures have long played in enacting this critique. Issue 8, for example, “The Day the Earth Turned Slower” (February 2000) critiques the cold war paranoia about communist and other dissidents that found expression in sf films of the 1950s such as The Thing from Another World (Nygy/Hawkes 1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel 1956). The title evokes another 1950s sf film The Day the Earth Stood Still (Wise 1951) in which an alien ship arrives to warn earth that we must abandon nuclear war and live peacefully, or we will be destroyed as a threat to the galaxy. The issue links these two aspects of 1950s sf culture in its setting of City Zero, a secret US military research base used to develop new weapons and other technologies via performing experiments on prisoners reminiscent of those done by Josef Mengele in Nazi concentration camps. City Zero incarcerates “American dissidents” targeted under contemporary McCarthyist paranoia, targets that included labor organizers, screenplay and other writers suspected of communist sympathies, and homosexuals. As issue protagonist Allison explains, the government both “wanted rid of all us supposed reds under the bed” and also needed “warm bodies for what they had planned” as they pursued scientific research. Ellis’s title shows that the physical capacity to destroy all life on earth with nuclear weapons was not the only horrifying aspect of 1950s technoculture. Not
only did the House Committee on Un-American Activities destroy lives through its hearings, blacklisting, and imprisonments, but America also conducted experiments on civilian populations, such as the infamous Tuskegee Institute’s data collection regarding the consequences of untreated syphilis infection, conducted on African American men between 1932–72 without their knowledge or consent.3 Allison recalls many of the horrors she witnessed in City Zero, experiments that evoke other sf films such as The Invisible Man (Whale 1933) and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (Juran 1958). She herself was shot and then resurrected into a radioactive half-life that expires by the end of the issue. The Planetary narrative arc returns frequently to the promise of technoculture envisioned in sf and other popular cultures, as compared to the often-dystopian material consequences of how science and technology are used. Issue 10, “Magic and Loss” (June 2000), examines the promises offered by alternative versions of DC’s Superman (who contains all the scientific knowledge of his culture), Wonder Woman (who comes from an island where technology is not militarized), and Green Lantern (part of an interplanetary police force committed to justice). In Planetary’s universe, the Four destroy individuals who might have become each of these familiar superheroes before they have any contact with human cultures. All that remains are the artefacts found by Planetary’s archaeologists: a red blanket, a lantern, and golden bracelets. Issue 16, “Hark” (October 2003), interrogates the rationalizations of Snow’s onetime rival, eventual partner, Anna Hark, who begins working with the Four because she believes it the only way to gain access to the technologies they suppress. “The . . . questionable activities of the Four must be weighed against the technological exchange we have participated in since the 1950s” (ellipses in original), she tells Snow: “I have managed to give the world things despite the Four.” By the issue’s end, he convinces her that technological achievement absent ethical precepts is only pernicious and they combine their forces to defeat the Four by the series end. Planetary is specifically archaeology of twentieth-century science cultures, presenting Snow as a distinct break with nineteenthcentury traditions and hoping for better uses of science in the twentyfirst century. Snow is 100 years old as the series opens in “All Over the World” (April 1999), and Jakita describes him as someone who has “haunted the 20th century.” In issue 13, “Century” (February
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2001) Snow meets Sherlock Holmes, who has been involved in a nineteenth-century organization called The Conspiracy, whose members include Victor Frankenstein, John Griffin (from Wells’s The Invisible Man), Thomas Carnacki (William Hope Hodgson’s supernatural detective), Verne’s Robur, and Dracula. Like Planetary, the Conspiracy was a forward-looking society who saw themselves as “extraordinary” and who “were conspiring to make the world better.” They hoped, Holmes explains, “to bring our minds to bear upon the problems of human society and construct a brave new world from the remnants of the old.” Unfortunately, the nineteenth-century world was not ready, and “It soon became clear that certain of our notions were safe for discussion in the newspapers but far too radical for reality. Eugenics, re-education, a controlled economy: a sane world is built on these concepts.” The dark side of such nineteenth-century projects once deemed utopian is readily apparent. Snow tells Holmes that the “new century” requires “different rules” and the end of this “conspiracy stuff,” but by the end of reading Planetary readers are well aware of similarly failed twentieth-century technoscientific initiatives. The series ends on a cautiously optimistic note of hoping that the twenty-first century will better realize the positive potential of science, showing a world made better by anti-cancer treatments, electrical levitation systems that save construction costs, and “life stations” that provide water, protein, food, and light freely to the poor, all technologies taken from the Four’s database once Snow defeats them. In the final panel sequence, the team uses a time machine to recover Ambrose from stasis in a bubble universe, and look forward to “a long, long future head of us.” Planetary’s final images of technology are thus positive, but overall the series encourages continued vigilance regarding the ends to which technology is deployed, the rapidity by which utopian dreams might become nightmare realities. Cassaday’s artwork often captures the palette and other stylistic features of earlier visual cultures, such as the black-and-white, noir-ish tones of Allison’s memories of City Zero; the green and sinister hues, reminiscent of the Alien franchise (1979–97), of scenes of Project Artemis in space; or the sepia tones of images evoking Jules Verne or Doc Savage. The covers beautifully capture the different genres and periods investigated by each issue, from the nineteenth-century periodical style of issue 13 (“Century”) and the pulp magazine aesthetics
of issue 17 (“Opek-Re”), to the Omni magazine style of issue 19 (“Mystery in Space”), or the psychedelic distortions of issue 21 (“Death Machine Telemetry”). Issue 13 contains a full-page image that so effectively captures the style of James Whale’s Frankenstein films that it is no surprise that monstrous, manufactured creatures attack Snow just a couple of pages later. This intense interaction with ghosts of popular cultures past is both aesthetically and thematically central to Planetary and explicitly made part of the fictional world in issue 9 “Planet Fiction” (April 2000). Using multiverse and nanotechnology, the Four have constructed an entirely fictional world, and attempt to return someone from it. This “fictionaut” asks why he was invented and is told “we’re in a strange relationship with our fiction, you see. Sometimes we fear it’s taking us over, sometimes we beg to be taken over by it . . . sometimes we want to see what’s inside it” (ellipses in original). Planetary takes us inside the popular fictions of the twentieth century, showing the complex and dialectical relationship between technological innovation and popular fiction that has helped us negotiate the many changes—both good and ill—that define this century of technological saturation.
Changing aesthetic tradition Landon’s formulation of sf as the literature of change includes works beyond those that explicitly take change as their theme. The genre is about changes in technoscience, in conditions of human existence, and in our philosophical concepts, as well as continually changing itself. Misha Nogha’s story “Chippoke Na Gomi” (1989) manages to capture each of these dimensions in just a few brief pages. In elliptical prose it tells the experiences of a konologist, that is, an expert in the study of dust, as he waits for a train in an unspecified station on Pacific Time. He feels disoriented and “can’t ever remember being this tired. Or this thirty” (632) as he struggles to make conversation with a mysterious woman who seems at times materially to be there and at others disappears into shadow. She “has the dusky complexion and features of an Aino but he decides she is American Indian” (632). The story is suffused with images of dust: the konologist has just returned from Japan with dust samples, and although his samples remain in their vacuum-
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sealed jars, his coat is covered with “raindust” (631), a “tattered derelict” (631) stumbles in and his unraveling clothing joins other “debris of the station” (631), the woman’s coverall is stained with “thick white ash” (632), and “whitish matter” (632) clings to the corners of her eyes. Even the train delay is explained by a “bad dust storm about thirty miles out” (633), and when he calls his wife to explain the delay the phone dial is covered with “caked dirt” (633). The woman seems unimpressed by his profession, but he insists, “dust is a fascinating thing” (634). As the konologist explains his work, the story’s engagement with technoscientific change becomes apparent. From a scientific point of view, dust is not mere garbage but an entire microscopic world of life invisible to the human eye. The tiger mite, a “monstrous creature with a vicious set of mandibles and repulsive grape-like clusters on its hairy legs” can be seen only with a microscope, and yet it too “has its own parasites even smaller” (635). Dust captures our history, and both embodies the events of its point of origin— the remains of items destroyed at the scale of human perception, but hauntingly present in this microscopic world—and distributes their trace across wider geographical terrains as dust is carried from place to place. Massive changes are preserved in the carefully sealed jar of dust from Nagasaki; it is still radioactive, composed of “pulverized buildings, books, dinnerware, bamboo stalks and grains of rice—remnants of a great city” (635). The invention and use of nuclear weapons during World War II marked a significant change in the human condition; these bombings not only enacted destruction on a scale never seen before but they also condemned survivors to ongoing suffering from radiation for generations to come. Moreover, they created a new era in human culture and politics in which humanity had the power not only to commit such massive atrocities, but also to destroy all of human life and perhaps even all life. The project of much of late 1940s and early 1950s sf was to come to terms with the massive change in the human cultural condition produced by nuclear weapons. “Chippoke Na Gomi” reminds us that the cultural consequences of that moment persist in the present, just as does the radioactive dust from the blast. The dust hides monstrosities beyond the tiger mite, as the woman is quick to point out. The man has brought back more than the science-sample dust, she insists, staring at his shoes and
announcing, “they’re covered with the victims of Nagasaki” (635). Before he can reply, their conversation is interrupted by the train’s arrival, and as he reaches for her hand “the skin peels off just like a glove” and she becomes a pillar of fire, burning before his eyes. All that is left is another kind of dust; her pile of “crematory ash” joins the other detritus on the station floor, and he finds it “still warm” (636) as he kneels and tries in vain to grasp it. This strange woman has become once more only a shadow “permanently scorched into the station wall” (636), an image now clearly linked to the fate of victims of atomic blasts.4 By reminding us that the dust from Nagasaki contains the remnants of full human lives as well as the material culture of the city, the story once again changes our understanding of dust. The story’s title is relevant to this dimension of changing philosophical conceptions: chippoke na means tiny, small, or petty in Japanese, and gomi means garbage, refuse, or dust. Multiple meanings reside in this complex title; it reminds us that smallness need not convey lack of importance by revealing the entire world is contained in dust; the equation of dust with garbage is challenged by the content of this dust, the entire culture of a city and its people; and finally the fact that Japanese people’s lives are so easily reduced to dust questions an ideology of war that accepts such massive destruction as acceptable to achieve victory. Those we are willing to reduce to dust, the story implies, are those whom we have marginalized, racialized others such as the Japanese, Native Americans (also targets of genocidal warfare practices) such as the shadow woman, or the Ainu5 whom she also seems to resemble (a marginalized ethnicity within Japan). This story also exemplifies sf as the literature of change in its innovative structure, combining poetry and prose. Lines from an internal poem are distributed throughout the story, interspersed among passages of stilted conversation and descriptions of the dust-covered station. Put together, these fragments tell the story of the bombing from the point of view of a victim: A huge column of purple and orange flame is rising. Carbonized timbers and beams twist and burn hundreds of feet above the ground. An inch thick of gray ash covers everything. As he tries to write her a letter, the brush drags into the ash falling on the rice paper.
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He has no energy to hunt her ashes in the ruins. A terrible thirst. Boats of lantern fire. A miasma of heat and dust. Lightning, roar, rice white calx, black soil. He draws the kanji for man in the powder. A mass of dead insects. A field of carbonated bone. From the west a terrible arimitama wind. Read together as a single poem, these fragments convey the horrors of sensory overload and physical collapse, the loss of loved ones and meaning as humanity is reduced to the kanji for man, written in the ephemeral medium of dust. As well as adding an affective dimension missing from the konologist’s account, the poem may suggest the potential destruction of the species encoded in this bombing as symbol for nuclear warfare in general. It also contains a culturally specific meaning, in the “arimitama6 wind” of its final line: another Japanese word, arimitama is a version of the mitama or spirit/soul, the ari signifying the violent side that manifests in times of disaster or warfare. The wind literally and figuratively carries the dust of unquiet spirits, the legacy of nuclear warfare haunting the United States. The story juxtaposes each of these lines with other events to create a level of meaning that links the interactions of the woman and the konologist with the experience of being bombed. Just before the line “Lightning, roar, rice white calx, black soil,” for example, the woman “shimmers in a sudden bright shaft of light” in the station, and just after it she tells him, “I think some of that dust has escaped” (634). Prose and poetry, present perceptions and past events, realist and speculative techniques commingle to meditate on the change the bomb inaugurated and new futures we might produce if we change our context for understanding this event. Nogha effectively utilizes change in its various meanings to make us see something as ubiquitous and overlooked as dust in a new way. Like other examples of change, the apocalyptic narrative tradition that the poem expresses is also a mode of making visible what was previously unseen: the Greek roots of the word “apocalypse” mean
“uncovering,” and its primary end-of-the-world meaning today comes from the term’s use in the biblical chapter Revelations, in which John is made privy to knowledge previously hidden from humanity about the final days of earth. The term thus has a double meaning, the end of something often serving as the grounds for emergence of the new, and many of sf’s examples of intensive change are apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic narratives. The end of a problematic world is not only a time of destruction, although the emergence of the new is both painful and promising, as Octavia Butler’s story “Speech Sounds” (1983) brilliantly conveys. Set in a near-future LA in which a virus has destroyed people’s abilities to read, write, and speak, the story questions whether civilization is possible in a world without these communicative tools. Like much of Butler’s work, “Speech Sounds” explores how difficult it is for humans to accept rather than fear difference and how necessary it is to learn to do so. Those who survive the virus but are left with language impairment struggle to retain anything of the previous world, their inability to communicate making community impossible. The protagonist, Rye, suffers from “loneliness and hopelessness” (567) in her isolated state, motivating her to go to Pasadena in hopes of finding her brother even though travel is extremely dangerous and he is likely dead. Misunderstandings quickly flare into violent altercations when “someone came to the end of his limited ability to communicate” (567) and such conflicts cannot be easily resolved, or often even understood, given that interaction is limited to hand gestures and grunts. Moreover, those with greater capacities are at a disadvantage, unable to intervene because their greater skills prompt resentment rather than gratitude. The “only likely common language [is] body language” (570) and the least ambiguous expression in it is to go armed. Although she might help resolve a conflict between two men on a bus, for example, Rye simply stands back and waits to see how things will be resolved. She is aware that others perceive the attempt to communicate rather than react with irrational anger as an “attitude of superiority” and that “such ‘superiority’ was frequently punished by beatings, even by death” (570). Left without the medium of words, humanity is reduced to its most negative emotions—fear, resentment, aggression—impulses that have at least as much to do with the fragmentation of civilization as does the absence of language.
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Rye meets a man she comes to call Obsidian after the conflict on the bus. Dressed in an LAPD uniform, he adopts a mission to maintain law and order and gets others safely off the bus, but is rewarded only with anger from the bus driver because he uses a gas grenade, rendering the bus unusable for a period. Rye leaves with Obsidian, and their exchanges demonstrate not only the difficulty of communicating and forming community across difference, but also the possibility of doing so. The virus affects individuals in different ways. Rye can speak and understand spoken language, but she cannot read or write; Obsidian’s impairment is precisely the opposite. Together they represent a full set of communication capacities and thus as a team they might be read as powerful. Butler, however, is more subtle and recognizes the degree to which affect as well as reason shapes human behavior. When Rye, a former UCLA history professor who deeply values reading and writing, learns that Obsidian retains this ability, her first response is violent: “abruptly, she hated him—deep, bitter hatred. What did literacy mean to him—a grown man who played cops and robbers? But he was literate and she was not. She never would be. She felt sick to her stomach with hatred, frustration, and jealousy. And only a few inches from her hand was a loaded gun” (573). Obsidian has a similar moment of jealousy when he learns Rye can speak, but both are able to control their instinctive reactions. Butler shows how difficult it is for humans to accept difference and cope with change, yet she simultaneously maintains that this is our only hope. Rye and Obsidian learn each other’s names via a convention of name symbols; she wears a pin shaped like a stalk of wheat, an approximation of the name Valerie Rye, and he a pendant of “smooth, glass, black rock” which she reads as Obsidian, recognizing that his name might equally be “Rock or Peter or Black” (572). This semiotic system works despite its ambiguity, another image of an ideal of community achieved despite difference rather than through the erasure of difference. As well, it prompts us to recognize the ambiguities in any language system, how communication is always an approximation rather than a perfect transfer of information. Rye is initially unconvinced that a future is possible in a world without language. When Obsidian wants to have sex, she is resistant despite her deep loneliness, fearing the risk of pregnancy and wondering “what kind of world was this to chance bringing a child into even if the father were willing to
stay and help raise it?” (574). The change brought by the absence of language is so significant that Rye does not think children born into such a world are fully human; they lack history, treating books as firewood, and hence “they had no future. They were now all they would ever be” (574). When Obsidian is killed shortly after they meet, futilely trying to save a woman from attack (the woman is killed, Obsidian and the man kill one another), Rye is initially tempted to abandon the woman’s two young children, orphaned by the violence. “She did not need any more grief,” she insists, “she did not need a stranger’s children who would grow up to be hairless chimps” (577). Without language there can be no change, and without change there can be no future. Just as she resists indulging her violent jealousy, however, Rye similarly chooses to live by values of community rather than individualism, and she cannot bring herself to leave two toddlers to die. She goes to look for the children, and is amazed to discover that they can speak although they have been trained not to do so in front of strangers. Rye wonders if “the woman died because she could talk and had taught her children to talk” (578), killed by a jealous and resentful partner, a familiar pattern that continues to reproduce a hopeless present and impossible future. The children’s ability to speak gives Rye hope that “the disease [had] run its course” or “these children [were] simply immune” (578), and thus able to learn language and open the future up to new possibilities. Such children need teachers and protectors, an insight that gives Rye hope of returning to a valued aspect of her previous life even though she can no longer read as she did when a history professor. She vows also to be a proctor to the children, emphasizing community instead of the individualism she expressed when protecting only herself. It is important that she decides to care for the children even before she learns they could speak, stressing her mental discipline in choosing community over individualism, connection over resentment, before these children offer her new purpose and hope. Butler’s story thus shows both the power of change to make a better world but also the challenges presented by a human fear of difference. This characterization of sf as the literature of change captures the genre’s orientation toward a variable surrounding world and explains its vast range of styles, settings, plots, and themes. More a way of thinking about reality than a set of formulaic conventions,
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the conceptualization of sf as the literature of change allows us to see the genre’s response to changes in contemporary culture and anticipation of places where change might take place. In all its many manifestations, sf is interested in something different from commonplace reality, in what can be changed.
Discussion questions 1 What is the most important quality of being a human being? Do you agree that without language humanity is not possible, as Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” at times seems to suggest? In her world, left-handed people are less impaired than others. Why do you think she included this detail? 2 Look at the Wikipedia page for Definitions of Science Fiction and notice how frequently those trying to describe the genre mention the idea of change. Despite this continued discussion of change, however, sf has at times been reluctant to change itself. Why do you think this is the case? Why is it so important to some communities of practice to defend a kind of sf that is the same as that during the Golden Age of Campbell’s editorship? You may want to read Roger Luckhurst’s article “The Many Deaths of Science Fiction” (www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/62/luckhurst62art.htm) as you think about the genre’s history. 3 In her essay “Stories about the Future: From Patterns of Expectation to Pattern Recognition” (SFS 33.3 (November 2006): 452–72), Veronica Hollinger reads William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003) as both realist novel and sf because it is set contemporary to its publication, a kind of future-present or present-as-science-fiction. Such work fundamentally changes sf, she argues, since it can no longer be premised on the difference between the present and the future: instead “the present is different from the present” (465). Can sf still play a critical role in the context where the rapid pace of change is a daily experience rather than a future projection? Can the genre still estrange our experience of such a present? How does it do so, or why does it not?
Science fictionality Science fiction is many things. The genre has changed over the history of its publication; it has moved into media beyond print; and different communities of writers, fans, editors, and scholars value diverse qualities within it. The critical tradition has written pages upon pages arguing for the boundaries of the genre, seeking to foreground differences among a plethora of criteria. The various frameworks presented in this book share some points of overlap but do not harmoniously cohere, and certain communities of practice will not easily accept some of the examples explored as sf. Many critical communities still regard print sf as inevitably superior to the genre’s expression in other media, for example, although others dismiss this as ludicrous. Similarly, the considerable sway of Suvinian distinctions between the critical potential of sf and the escapist capitulation of fantasy no longer hold sway, but one might still find proselytizers of the view that hard sf is somehow more science-fictional than all other modes of the genre, even if statistically it does not represent the genre’s dominant mode. The scope of contemporary sf is suggested by a comparison with Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (1954), a story longcelebrated1 as the epitome of sf sensibilities, and James Patrick Kelly’s playful return to its premises in “Think Like a Dinosaur” (1995). In Godwin’s story, a girl, Marilyn, stows away on a Emergency Dispatch Ship (EDS) carrying serum needed to combat a fever on the remote Woden, an outpost of the space frontier. Marilyn wants to visit her brother, Gerry, a member of the government survey crew whom she has not seen for ten years, and being female (hence unable, in the story’s logic, to comprehend physics or the harsh
realities of frontier life) she does not realize the consequences of her action. She expects to pay some sort of fine, but is confronted with “Paragraph L, Section 8, of Interstellar Regulations” (447) that require the immediate jettison of any stowaway. “It was not a law of man’s choosing” (447), the story contends, but merely an expression of the cold equations of physics: EDS protocols require limiting mass to only as much fuel as is required to reach the destination, and the girl’s added mass means that they will fail to complete their mission and the men will die. Most of the story is a bathetic depiction of the final hours of Marilyn’s life: she accepts her fate although she “didn’t do anything to die for” (453); the pilot, Barton, is distraught since he must kill a girl (a man would be less problematic), but he must; and she has a final tearful goodbye with her brother over the radio. Organizing all this sentimentality is the insistence that her death cannot be avoided because “EDS’s obeyed only physical laws and no amount of human sympathy for her could alter” (458) the “cold equation” (469) of fuel, mass, and distance. The equation must be balanced, and so the girl exits the airlock with rational calm; the pilot executes her with manly regret. This story was initially celebrated as an example of what distinguished sf from other literature. The genre addressed a more fundamental reality, “the laws of nature, irrevocable and immutable” (460), than the human realities explored in conventional fiction. Critical responses to this story quickly, however, pointed to ways it rigged the game. Surely there must have been some other mass that might have been sacrificed, or central dispatch might have sent another ship that could arrive on Woden a bit later with serum. Blaming it all on physics ignores the role of human-made protocols regarding how much fuel an EDS carries or how frequently ships visit remote colonies, such protocols of scarcity balancing a quite different equation about maximum profit. As John Huntington aptly puts it, the story epitomizes not only the cold equations of the universe but also a “sleight of hand by which an explicit political agenda can be hidden, can also conceal more aggressive and less clearly enunciated political fantasies” (79). Such critical responses challenged a single protocol regarding how to read sf (the insistence that this story’s outcome is scientifically necessary), recognizing the ideologies as well as the mathematics that shape the genre. Kelly’s story cleverly shows how another similar zero-sum game scenario can be used to write sf that conveys themes precisely opposite
those of Godwin’s story. The necessary death is that of Kamala, an anthropology student migrating to Gend using a transporterlike technology given to humans by the lizard-like Hanen. We are told that Kamala “understood what it meant to balance the equation” (700): when her body is scanned and reconstituted at its destination, the original version is destroyed at the origin. The Hanen, nicknamed Dinos by Michael the human migration technician, insist that “preserving harmony” by ensuring that no multiple copies of individuals exist to change “pristine reality” (708) is necessarily part of using this technology. Migrating Hanen initiate their own deaths once they have migrated, but humans, sentimental about organic life and called Weeps by the Hanen, lack the fortitude to do this. Thus Michael’s role is, from the Hanen perspective, “to balance the equation” (708) after each transition, but it quickly becomes clear that from a human perspective his role is also to keep the subjects calm and distracted by conversation before they undergo the process. Knowing that you are going to be remade and die in your original body is quite different from experiencing it. Kelly’s story focuses on the psychological consequences of repeatedly killing people whom Michael has just come to know. The procedure is painless: pressing a button sends “a pulse of ionizing radiation through the cerebral cortex” (708), and the individual survives in the duplicate, and yet Michael finds his work traumatic, at least initially. An anomaly occurs during Kamala’s transfer, and it seems the copy was not successfully received; Kamala exits the apparatus and Michael is compelled to spend more time with her, only to be informed that the transfer was successful after all and now he must balance the equation. Michael recoils from killing her without the abstracting distance of the migrator, but the Hanen are clear that his failure to fulfill the obligations of harmony will preclude humans from further use of this technology—and they will kill Kamala in any case. Like Barton, Michael is thus faced with a constructed necessity to kill in order to serve a higher purpose. Like Barton, Michael fulfills this role and regards himself as “a hero” who “preserved harmony, kept our link to the stars open” (715). The crucial difference is in the attitude the story encourages us to take toward these actions. Barton serves the supposedly neutral laws of physics, the story carefully concealing all the choices of human ideology that construct his actions as inevitable; Michael serves an ethical code maintained by the Hanen, the story refusing
us the comforting illusion that cultural values have no role in the murder. Kelly also resists sanitizing the death. Michael tells us, “I had always thought that exposures in space meant instantaneous death” (714) but he is quickly disabused of this fantasy. Kamala clings to the space station, thumps on the door and survives, struggling, “for at least a minute, maybe two” (715). Most importantly, while everyone in “The Cold Equations” treats the matter of Marilyn’s death with restraint and a lack of affect, a mere mathematical balancing of an, albeit regrettable, equation, “Think Like a Dinosaur” reveals the aggressive fantasies of purifying space frontiers and punishing disobedient women that are disavowed in Godwin’s story. Far from rational, Michael laughs maniacally as Kamala pounds on the door, thinking, “Die, already, you weepy bitch!” (715). Humanity has made it into space in both stories, a recurring dream of sf, but in Kelly’s clever intertext “the price of a ticket to the stars” (708) is not merely accepting the requirement to balance the equations, but also our ability to value human life as before. Barton is a hero because he thinks like a scientist; Michael is alien because he thinks like a dinosaur.
Living in a science fiction world Science fiction is a broad enough church to contain both these stories, multiple interpretations of each, and more—in dialogue with one another and other contemporary culture, continually responding to the new in technoculture and remaking itself anew. The genre appears as a very different thing, depending upon whether one is a fan writing in 1940 trying to distinguish one’s serious literary genre from comparisons to Buck Rogers toys, or a publicist for the recently rebranded SyFy network promoting the inclusion of Ghost Hunters in the schedule, or a writer seeking feedback at a Clarion workshop. All these communities do not mean precisely the same thing when they use the label, and in this book I have also discussed communities that do not use the label and yet embrace many of the same techniques and interests. There nonetheless remains something compelling to explore in sf, even if we can only approximate its shape. These different sites of the production of sf are in dialogue and productive tension with one another.
Despite struggles to define the genre, something we call sf has become a huge category in the marketing and the academic study of popular genres. The centrality of sf to current popular culture, its influence prevalent in everything from the magazine and WorldCon traditions, through Hollywood and gaming culture, to advertising images, would on the one hand perhaps be a surprise to Gernsback and his early readers, who understood themselves to be part of a specialized and elite community; on the other hand, Gernbacks’s ambition to launch the new literature of the present age and future seems to have been realized, given that sf is no longer a genre known only to a small community of forward-thinkers. At the same time, Gernsback-era readers might also struggle to recognize the genre they knew in today’s sf, shaped by the New Wave, the feminist movement, and antiracist politics, as well as by technoscientific society and futurism. The new position of sf vis-à-vis other popular genres has had its influence, too. Although distinctions between sf and fantasy, or between sf and the mainstream, were never as natural or clear-cut as was often claimed, there was a significant period during which it was more or less easy to label a work as sf, fantasy, or just simply literature. This is no longer the case. Writers stubbornly refuse to use speculative and estranging techniques according to the rules of abstract and purified genre categories, and explanations scientific and supernatural blur in the work of many writers, such as Angela Carter, Karen Joy Fowler, Elizabeth Hand, Nalo Hopkinson, Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, China Miéville, Christopher Priest, and more. Writing in a mode that could be described as fantasy, sf, horror, or mainstream, such writers’ work suggests that a common interest in a mode of representation beyond realism is more important than particular generic proclivities. At the same time, the prevalent use of sf techniques in writers considered to be outside the genre, such as Michael Chabon, Michel Faber, Rebecca Goldstein, Colson Whitehead, and Karen Tei Yamashita, reflects the centrality of science and technology in daily life and the absurdities of living in a media-saturated environment: realism can no longer capture daily life in Western industrialized cultures, and the representational interests and modes of sf are converging with those of the larger category of fiction. Gary K. Wolfe has referred to this as genre evaporation, a term intended to convey the way sf is “growing more diffuse, leaching out into the air around it, imparting a strange smell to the literary atmosphere” (viii). Far from disappearing as
contemporary life becomes more like sf, the genre now exerts an influence over much of cultural production, resulting in a mode Wolfe calls “recombinant genre fiction” (13). Ken Liu’s “The Algorithms for Love” (2004) exemplifies this new fiction that moves seamlessly between genre and mainstream modes. It traces significant steps in the career of a computer programmer, Elena, who designs life-like dolls for Not Your Average Toy Corporation. The story questions the difference between simulated humanity and authenticity as Elena’s designs become more effective at passing for human. Yet nothing in the opening pages suggests this is sf. The story begins not with Elena’s career but with a shattered Elena in a care home, needing constant supervision and doses of Oxetine so that she does not hurt herself. On a weekend outing with partner Brad, Elena describes her stilted and artificial performance of being “the same woman he had known all these years” (416) using scientific language—“it’s an algorithm for love” (417)—that initially seems metaphorical. Elena’s problem seems to be a mental health issue of depression, not a philosophical response to a new scientific understanding of the human. The story shifts into sf mode as it temporally shifts to the first doll she designed, Clever Laura™. Using motorized articulated joints, a speech synthesizer, video cameras, temperature sensors, and a microphone, Laura is able to simulate understanding and respond to conversations and contextual conditions. She is encoded with English words and rules of grammar and sentence construction, and uses a “speech algorithm” (418) and other coding to seem to engage humans in conversation, uncannily turning to face those to whom she speaks. To consumers Laura can be disquieting, but the mechanics underlying her performance remain visible to Elena. Simulating conversation proves to be a slippery slope, however; the next model, Witty Kimberly™ simulates intelligence, and proves marketable as more than a child’s toy. Not Your Average Toy sells many to computer science students, and soon is marketing a “developer’s kit for the geeks” (420), as well as the doll itself. Most of the story, however, focuses not on these design details, but on Elena’s personal life as she meets, then marries Brad, and as they have and then lose a baby. Juxtaposing the sections of an emotionally hollow present-Elena with this past tale of family life and with descriptions of her robotics work makes the family drama uncanny, like Laura turning and speaking. The repetitiveness of
the publicity junket for Laura, for example, prompts Elena into “coast[ing] through entire interviews on autopilot” (419), as mechanical as Laura’s conversations or the assembly line craftwork present-Elena describes as “mass-produced cheap exports from an ancient sweatshop” made by “a simple algorithm. It’s so human” (421). Hints regarding how the three sections combine to create meaning are suggested in the language used to describe even her happiest moments. On their return from their honeymoon, for example, Elena says living in their own home feels at first like “playing house” (419). She recalls, “I loved the fact that I knew him so well I could tell what he was going to say before he said it,” and remembers the night they conceived their daughter: “Let’s make a baby, I imagined him saying. Those would have been the only words right for that moment. And so he did” (420). Yet this loving and tender moment in another kind of fiction is made frightening in this sf story of personality algorithms. The transitional moment comes when Elena invents a controversial doll, Aimée™ as a therapeutic aid for mothers like herself who have lost infants. Aimée has algorithms for “involuntary muscle spasms” (421) and for learning so that she will feel like a real human infant and give Elena and other grieving mothers “something to fill my arms, something to learn to speak, to walk, to grow a little, long enough for me to say goodbye” (422). Elena turns to technology rather than her husband to process her grief, and the doll is yet another marketing success. This transitional moment in their relationship and Elena’s career also marks the moment where genre and nongenre modes converge: Elena’s next doll, the four-year-old-like Tara, is so successful that she fools Brad entirely, Elena waiting a full week to break the news that this “daughter of a friend” (423) is not real. Tara cannot surprise Elena because she “coded everything in her” (424), and Elena’s experience with Tara turns the familiarity of daily routines with Brad from comfortable to frightening. Her work is not the triumph of AI but rather a reduction of the human to mechanical status, human brains seen merely as neuron-based cascades that “ran their determined courses, and our thoughts followed one after another, as mechanical and predictable as the planets in their orbits” (425). This realization, not the death of her daughter, isolates Elena in “the pain, the terror that opened up an abyss around [her]” (425), and on their weekend away she tries yet
again to commit suicide, her own death wish as predictable as everything else. There is little difference between reading this story as sf or reading it simply as fiction; the technologies it extrapolates are near-future and reflect ongoing product development, if extended into as-yet inconceivable markets; its posthuman themes are equally about changing philosophical and neurological conceptions of what it means to be human (the implications about human cognition from Tara’s success are scientifically valid) and about the alienation of human social relationships in a culture saturated by technological substitutes for human interaction (the dolls are a metaphor for our withdrawal into technology). So why might it be useful to call this story sf in the recombinant genre sense Wolfe proposes? If we read this story as sf, its connections to a long tradition of extrapolating about what it means to be human are emphasized. Connecting to this imaginative and scholarly tradition makes prominent the way the story has implications not only for our understanding of Elena’s interiority and personal suffering, but also for how we assess the consequences of developments in robotics and interactive media technologies. The story is thus an example of sf as a way of thinking. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay argues that sf is a way of experiencing the world. He begins from the frequent contemporary observation that reality has become more like sf. Images drawn from the genre are everywhere in popular media culture and in our experience of daily life, from smart phones to military drones to genetically modified food: This widespread normalization of what is essentially a style of estrangement and dislocation has stimulated the development of science-fictional habits of mind, so that we no longer treat sf as purely a genre-engine producing formulaic effects, but rather as a kind of awareness we might call science fictionality, a mode of response that frames and tests experiences as if they were aspects of a work of science fiction. (2) Science fictionality is not our sole mode for experiencing contemporary culture. Yet the dialectical exchanges between sf, which gives us a vocabulary to describe and respond to contemporary reality, and our experiences of technological saturation that inform new genre texts, is now central to both quotidian life in Western
industrialized nations and the genre as it continues to mature. Conceiving of sf as a mode of experiencing and thinking about reality captures the ubiquity of technology in twenty-first-century life, the hegemony of science in contemporary understandings of knowledge and value, a greater acceptance of a diversity we might once have thought alien before globalized communication gave us access to a wider range of cultural norms, and the blurring of virtual and material worlds in the Web 2.0 world. If sf came to prominence as a new literature in a late nineteenth century struggling to cope with the pace of change, it has perhaps become commonplace in an early twenty-first century for which change is the only constant. Far from this marking the end of sf, it begins a new chapter for this fluid genre.
The persistence of science fiction John Kessel’s story “Invaders” (1990) elucidates the genre’s possibilities and pitfalls, demonstrating why many continue to love it and find in it a constructive tool for challenging quotidian reality, while simultaneously being aware of the possibility that it might serve merely as an escape from this reality. “Invaders” is part of the sf subgenre of time travel, stories that—like alternate histories— enable us to see that the world might have turned out otherwise, and to explore the consequences of certain choices and contingencies making the world as it is. The story also playfully participates in the sf megatext, naming its alien species Krel after those from the film Forbidden Planet (Wilcox 1956). In the film, a monster seems to attack the earth landing party, but it is eventually revealed that this monster is only the projected subconscious thoughts of human scientist Dr Morbius (Walter Pigeon), who has been isolated on the planet with his daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis) for 20 years. The Krel have long since sublimated to a higher state of being, leaving behind their technology, which Morbius believes enhances his IQ and projects only conscious, rational thought. This intertextual allusion prompts readers to consider irrational and emotional explanations for behavior, not simply logical ones, just as Kelly’s story reminds of this dimension in Godwin’s tale. Kessel’s story juxtaposes scenes set in Peru in 1532, where the invaders are the Spanish, with those in a 2001 Washington where the Krel invade a Redskins game demanding cocaine, thereby reminding us of the
continued legacy of colonialism in the ongoing cocaine trade, not to mention the football team’s racist name. The story also has a metafictional dimension in its third narrative strand, set in “today” (657) where an sf writer reflects on his craft of writing both the Inca and the Krel narratives. “Invaders” is thus sf about sf, an example of the genre’s power to estrange our experience of a colonialism that is one of the genre’s conditions of emergence, a reflection on both its critical potentialities and limitations. The idea of god is evoked in both Incan and future narratives: Pizzaro’s defeat of Atahualpa, the Spanish believe, is based on god’s command to “subdue the peoples of the world and convert them to the true faith” (658), while a Krel who gives the name Flash, and whose costume evokes DC Comics’s superhero The Flash, makes a similar claim about god ceding them “an empire extending over sixteen solar systems in the Orion arm of the galaxy” (659). What’s more, Flash explains that they have extended the physics of Heisenberg’s observer effect such that “our ships move through interstellar space by the power of prayer” (660), the same force credited with Spanish victory against numerical odds. Kessel playfully uses these rationalizations to comment on the materialism obscured by colonialist ideology; the Spaniards claim a mission of conversion, but the narrative focuses on their ransom of Atahualpa for gold; and the Krel seek cocaine, but for “aesthetic reasons” (660), not as a mere commodity. This conceit draws attention to the ransom gold, “valued . . . only as ornament” by the Inca, whose use as currency in Europe created “an economic catastrophe” (661) when a huge flux of Incan gold destabilized prices. Similarly, the Krel hire Jason Prescott, “the most ruthless currencies trader in the city” (661), to buy 50 billion franc a week, a plan he accepts for the commission although he recognizes “not only was it criminally irresponsible, it was stupid” (662). The entwined historical and sf narratives thus critique colonial wealth appropriation and more recent market exploitation, showing the power of sf to make visible parallels that might otherwise pass unnoticed. Yet Kessel’s metafictional narrative complicates our easy pleasure in the power of sf to make us see anew. “I’ve been addicted to SF for years,” the writer tells us, admitting that part of its appeal is that “things in SF stories work out more neatly than in reality. Nothing is impossible. Spaceships move faster than light. Atomic weapons are neutralized. Disease is abolished” (664). In his Inca
story, a clerk, Pedro Sancho, admires Atahualpa’s intelligence and dignity in captivity, while in reality Atahualpa’s descendents live “in grinding poverty” (664) with only the cocaine trade with North America supporting their economy. Things also work out more neatly in the fictional future as well, with the Krel market trades visiting crises upon Europe, now reduced to selling off its art, a rather too-neat image of poetic justice. Americans, still solvent due to Krel technologies, fight against this “cultural imperialism” but the Krel deftly undercut their moral high ground by assuring attendees, “[the artworks] will be displayed where all humans— not just those who can afford to visit the great museums—can see them” (665). The writer worries that sf is an addiction, and his Krel do not read at all because it is a gateway to escapism: “You tell yourself you’re just going to stick to nonfiction—but pretty soon you graduate to fiction” (668). Fiction is addictive because “human beings cannot stand too much reality” (672). Avoiding reality is also the real reason the Krel seek drugs, as one finally admits ten years after first contact. Can science fiction be more than a temporary escape from such harsh realities? As we have explored throughout this book, sf expresses itself in many ways. It has been a powerful tool in the hands of feminist and postcolonial writers, but it has also fueled elitist fantasies of technocratic rule. Yet even the most formulaic and banal of sf fantasies, Kessel’s story suggests, expresses dissatisfaction with the present and thus contain the seeds of resistance to the status quo, even if this is just the small contribution of keeping a vision of the world-made-otherwise alive. In the final “today” segment, the writer comments on the way sf provides a sense of comfort and euphoria that reduces the pain of realistic perceptions of a difficult world. He concludes, Like any drug addict, the SF reader finds desperate justifications for his habit. SF teaches him science. SF helps him avoid “future shock.” SF changes the world for the better. Right. So does cocaine. Having been an SF user myself, however, I have to say that, living in a world of cruelty, immersed in a culture that grinds people into fish meal like some brutal machine, with histories of destruction stretching behind us back to the Pleistocene, I find it hard to sneer at the desire to escape. Even if escape is delusion. (673)
Among the technologies the Krel sell to humans is a mode of time travel that works according to principles of poststructuralist literary analysis. In writing, “the past is another arbitrary construct. Language creates reality” (668); Krel time-travel technology takes the user to “the past they believe in” (672). In the story’s final segment, a strange figure who resembles the writer arrives in 1527 Peru, five years before the events between Pizzaro and Atahualpa narrated in the Peru segments. He alerts the Inca to the coming invasion and they are able to kill the first Spaniards to arrive, enabling this man and everyone else to live “happily ever after” (674). Is science fiction a counterfactual tool of ideological critique, or just cocaine? It is both, and neither, and more. Kessel’s story knows it is an impossible fantasy to escape to the past and undo the destruction of the Incan empire, but there is still time to do something for the Incan descendants living under a new economic empire of neo-liberalism. If the counterfactual vision of sf such as that in Kessel’s story can motivate us to see our present reality in a new light, and to intervene critically in the futures we make, then the desire to escape is more than delusional. It is potentially an impulse toward making a better world—but only if we move from sf to transformed actions in the material world. Science fiction is a genre of distinctive tropes and motifs; a way of thinking about technology, subjectivity, history, and social power; a worldview enabling an estranged perspective on takenfor granted values and structures; an aesthetic tradition always in dialogue with its own history and adjacent forms; and a politically enabling mode of myth-making that helps us to explore and reflect upon the unfolding dialectical exchange between imaginative vision and material reality. Science fiction cannot be comprehended by only one of these facets alone, and no single work of sf fully meets the criteria of any description. Yet by keeping each of these angles in productive tension, we begin to grasp something approaching— but never arriving at—a complete understanding of sf through their exchanges. This book does not discuss every important creator and critic in the genre’s history, nor does it anticipate all the new directions the genre may take as new technologies of production and new material circumstances reinvent popular cultures. It provides a broad set of concepts and tools to begin to explore this diverse and fascinating genre. New writers, new scholarly paradigms, new media of expression, and new developments in technoculture all
continue to enrich and change sf. Its past might be graspable only unevenly, and its future may move in as-yet unseen directions, but science fiction’s importance as an imaginative resource is beyond question.
Discussion questions 1 One of the critiques of sf that Kessel offers in “Invaders”
is that it enables things to turn out too “neatly.” Read Geoff Ryman’s Guest of Honor speech “Take the Third Star on the Left and on til Morning” from an sf convention in 2007 (http://mundane-sf.blogspot.com/2007/09/takethird-star-on-left-and-on-til.html) about his project for “mundane sf.” Do you agree with his ideas? Would such sf avoid the problems of escapism Kessel satirizes? Is escapism necessarily a problem? 2 Paul Kincaid ends his review of M. John Harrison’s novel
Empty Space (2013) stating, “M. John Harrison has produced work that makes us excited about the limitless possibilities of science fiction, and at the same time makes us stop and wonder what science fiction is” (http:// lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?type&id=1687&fulltext=1& media#article-text-cutpoint.). Discuss this statement. Can a genre of endless possibility have a definition? How would you define sf? 3 Look at the list of films that have opened in the past
three months and/or the list of television series that have premiered. How many of them are sf? What is the place of sf in contemporary popular culture?
This chronology lists some of the most important works of print, film, and television sf by date of publication. Texts discussed in detail in the book are given in bold. This list is selective, not comprehensive, and is intended to help readers contextualize the texts discussed within sf’s larger history. Some of the texts are the first in a series; I have listed only the first volume of such series, unless I have discussed later texts in this book. I have also included some key events in contemporary technoculture to further contextualize the fiction. 1516 1590 1609 1634 1719 1726 1769 1771 1804 1818 1833 1859 1861 1864 1870 1871 1872
Thomas More, Utopia Zacharias Janssen invents compound microscope Galileo uses his first telescope Johannes Kepler, Somnium Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels James Watt invents steam engine Louise-Sébastien Mercier, L’An 2440 First steam locomotive Mary Shelley, Frankenstein Edgar Allan Poe, “MS. Found in a Bottle” Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species Transcontinental telegraph is established Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea George T. Chesney, The Battle of Dorking Samuel Butler, Erewhon
1876 Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone 1877 Thomas Edison invests the phonograph 1879 Thomas Edison invents the electric light bulb 1883 Albert Robida, The Twentieth Century 1888 Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward 1890 William Morris, News from Nowhere 1895 H. G. Wells, The Time Machine 1898 H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds 1902 Le voyage dans la lune (film; George Méliès) 1903 The Wright brothers make the first airplane flight 1908 Hugo Gernsback founds Modern Electronics 1908 Ford Motel T car goes into production 1911 Hugo Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+ 1915 Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland 1916 First refrigerator for domestic use marketed 1917 Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars 1921 Karel Čapek, R.U.R. 1926 Hugo Gernsback founds Amazing Stories 1927 Metropolis (film; Fritz Lang) 1928 E. E. “Doc” Smith, “The Skylark of Space” 1930 Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men 1931 Frankenstein (film; James Whale) 1931 Leslie F. Stone, “The Conquest of Gola” 1932 Aldous Huxley, Brave New World 1933 King Kong (film; no director credited) 1934 Stanley Weinbaum, “A Martian Odyssey” 1936 Things to Come (film; William Menzies) 1936 Flash Gordon (movie serial) 1937 John W. Campbell begins editing Astounding Science Fiction 1938 John W. Campbell (as Don A. Stuart), “Who Goes There?” 1939 Buck Rogers (movie serial) 1940 Robert Heinlein, “The Roads Must Roll”
1941 Isaac Asimov, “Liar!” 1941 Isaac Asimov, “Reason” 1944 C. L. Moore, “No Woman Born” 1945 Atomic weapons used against Japan 1946 Existence of ENIAC, first general purpose computer, announced 1946 C. L. Moore, “Vintage Season” 1948 Judith Merril, “That Only a Mother” 1949 George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four 1949 Leigh Brackett, “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” 1950 Destination Moon (film; Irving Pichel) 1950 Space Cadet (tv) 1950 Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles 1951 A. E. van Vogt, Slan 1951 John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still (film; Robert Wise) 1951 The Thing from Another World (film; Christian Nyby) and Howard Hawkes 1951 Arthur C. Clarke, “The Sentinel” 1953 Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End 1953 Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants 1953 William Tenn, “The Liberation of Earth” 1953 Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human 1954 Tom Godwin, “The Cold Equations” 1954 Space Patrol (tv) 1954 Alfred Bester, “Fondly Fahrenheit” 1954 Them! (film; Gordon Douglas) 1954 Gojira (film; Ishirô Honda) 1956 Forbidden Planet (film; Fred M. Wilcox) 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (film; Don Siegel) 1957 Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination 1957 USSR puts first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in earth orbit
1959 The Twilight Zone (tv) 1959 Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Lebowitz 1959 The World, the Flesh and the Devil (film; Ranald MacDougall) 1961 Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land 1961 Stanislaw Lem, Solaris 1961 Yuri Gargarin becomes first man in space 1962 Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange 1962 La Jetée (film; Chris Marker) 1962 J. G. Ballard, “The Cage of Sand” 1963 The Outer Limits (tv) 1963 Doctor Who (tv) 1964 Michael Moorcock begins editing New Worlds 1964 J. G. Ballard, “The Terminal Beach” 1965 Frank Herbert, Dune 1965 Alphaville (film; Jean-Luc Goddard) 1965 William Burroughs, Nova Express 1965 Lost in Space (tv) 1966 Fredrik Pohl, “Day Million” 1966 Star Trek: The Original Series (tv) 1966 Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress 1967 Apollo 1 planned launch; a fire killed the astronauts during a launch pad test 1967 Harlen Ellison (ed.), Dangerous Visions 1967 Pamela Zoline, “The Heat Death of the Universe” 1967 Samuel R. Delany, The Einstein Intersection 1968 Apollo 7 put first US astronauts in space; broadcast live on tv 1968 Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968 Michael Moorcock, The Final Programme 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey (film; Stanley Kubrick) 1968 Judith Merril (ed.), England Swings SF 1968 Planet of the Apes (film; Franklin J. Schnaffner)
1969 Apollo 11 lands first man, Neil Armstrong, on the moon 1969 Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness 1969 Norman Spinrad, Bug Jack Barron 1969 Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five 1970 J. G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition 1970 Robert Silverberg (ed.), The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1 1971 A Clockwork Orange (film; Stanley Kubrick) 1971 The Andromeda Strain (film; Robert Wise) 1972 Joanna Russ, “When It Changed” 1972 John Brunner, The Sheep Look Up 1972 Robert Silverberg, Dying Inside 1972 Silent Running (film; Douglas Trumbull) 1972 Robert Silverberg, “When We Went to See the End of the World” 1973 Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow 1973 James T. Tiptree, “The Women Men Don’t See” 1973 James T. Tiptree, “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” 1973 Soylent Green (film; Richard Fleischer) 1974 Thomas Disch, 334 1975 Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren 1975 Death Race 2000 (film; Paul Bartel) 1975 Joanna Russ, The Female Man 1975 The Stepford Wives (film; Bryan Forbes) 1976 Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time 1976 Samuel R. Delany, Triton 1976 Logan’s Run (film; Michael Anderson) 1976 The Man Who Fell to Earth (film; Nicolas Roeg) 1976 Apple 1 personal computer released 1977 James T. Tiptree, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (film; Steven Spielberg) 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope (film; George Lucas)
1978 1978 1979 1979 1979 1979 1979 1980 1980 1981 1981 1982 1982 1982 1982 1982 1983 1983 1984 1984 1984 1984 1984 1984 1985 1985 1985 1986 1986 1986 1986 1987
Battlestar Galactica (tv) John Varley, “The Persistence of Vision” Octavia Butler, Kindred Alien (film; Ridley Scott) Star Trek: The Motion Picture (film; Robert Wise) Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (tv) First mass marketing of VCRs Gene Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker William Gibson, “The Gernsback Continuum” Suzy McKee Charnas, The Vampire Tapestry E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (film; Steven Spielberg) Blade Runner (film; Riddley Scott) TRON (film; Steven Lisberger) The Thing (film; John Carpenter) William Gibson, “Burning Chrome” Videodrome (film; David Cronenberg) Octavia Butler, “Speech Sounds” William Gibson, Neuromancer Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild” Kim Stanley Robinson, The Wild Shore The Terminator (film; James Cameron) The Brother from Another Planet (film; John Sayles) First Macintosh released, an Orwell-influenced tv spot Greg Bear, Blood Music Orson Scott Card, Enders Game Bruce Sterling, Schismatrix Joan Slonczewski, A Door into Ocean Bruce Sterling (ed.), Mirrorshades Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns (comic) Pat Cadigan, “Pretty Boy Crossover” Octavia Butler, Dawn
1987 1987 1987 1987 1988 1988 1989 1989 1990 1990 1990 1990 1991 1991 1991 1991 1991 1992 1992 1992 1992 1992 1993 1993 1993 1993 1994 1994 1994 1995 1995 1995
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen (comic) Jack Womack, Ambient Star Trek: The Next Generation (tv) Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebus C. J. Cherryh, Cyteen Alien Nation (film; Graham Baker) Alien Nation (tv) Misha Nogha, “Chippoke Na Gomi” John Kessel, “Invaders” Twin Peaks (tv) John Kessel, “Invaders” Hardware (film; Richard Stanley) Marge Piercy, He, She and It Gwyneth Jones, White Queen Pat Cadigan, Synners Misha Nogha, Red Spider, White Web First commercial cellular phone Maureen McHugh, China Mountain Zhang Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash John Varley, Steel Beach Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary First www browers and wide use of Internet Nancy Kress, Beggars in Spain Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars The X-Files (tv) Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (tv) Gwyneth Jones, North Wind Babylon 5 (tv) Geoff Ryman, “Dead Space for the Unexpected” Greg Egan, Axiomatic Jonathan Lethem, Amnesia Moon Ken MacLeod, The Star Fraction
1995 1995 1995 1996 1997 1997 1998 1998 1999 2000 2000 2001 2001 2001 2001 2002 2002 2002 2003 2003 2003 2003 2003 2004 2004 2004 2004 2006 2006 2007 2007 2008
Star Trek: Voyager (tv) Strange Days (film; Kathryn Bigelow) James Patrick Kelly, “Think Like a Dinosaur” Melissa Scott, Shadow Man Gwyneth Jones, Phoenix Café Gattaca (film; Andrew Niccol) Dark City (film; Alex Proyas) Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life” The Matrix (film; the Wachowskis) China Miéville, Perdido Street Station Human Genome Project maps human gene Nalo Hopkinson, Midnight Robber Star Trek: Enterprise (tv) Donnie Darko (film; Richard Kelly) Nalo Hopkinson, “Something to Hitch Meat To” Greg Egan, Schild’s Ladder M. John Harrison, Light 28 Days Later (film; Danny Boyle) Battlestar Galactica (tv; rebooted series) Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude Cory Doctorow, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom William Gibson, Pattern Recognition Geoff Ryman, Air Larissa Lai, “Rachel” Ken Liu, “The Algorithm for Love” Primer (film; Shane Carruth) Charles Stross, Accelerando Cormac McCarthy, The Road Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union First smart phone (iPhone) marketed Sleep Dealer (film; Alex Rivera)
2009 2009 2009 2009 2010 2011 2011 2011 2011
Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl Avatar (film; James Cameron) District 9 (film; Neill Blomkamp) Moon (film; Duncan Jones) Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death Love (film; William Eubank) China Miéville, Embassytown Lauren Beukes, Zoo City Contagion (film; Steven Soderbergh)
Notes Chapter 1 1 This is printed on the cover of the volume. 2 A convention has emerged in such circles of abbreviating “real” science fiction “sf,” while using “sci-fi,” derisively pronounced “skiffy,” to refer to such debased commercial products. 3 The term was first used by William Wilson in 1851 and thus cannot properly be said to have been invented by Gernsback, but he is nonetheless to be credited with defining and promoting its twentiethcentury meaning. 4 Brian Attebery defines genre as fuzzy sets in Strategies of Fantasy. As John Rieder succinctly explains, “A fuzzy set, in mathematics, is one that, rather than being determined by a single binary principle of inclusion or exclusion, is constituted by a plurality of such operations. The fuzzy set therefore includes elements with any of a range of characteristics, and membership in the set can bear very different levels of intensity, since some elements will have most or all of the required characteristics while others may have only one. In addition, one member of a set may be included by virtue of properties a, b, and c, another by properties d, e, and f, so that any two sufficiently peripheral members of the set need not have any properties in common” (194). 5 This is the title of Gernsback’s editorial in the inaugural issue of Amazing Stories, April 1926. The full editorial can be viewed at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:Amazing_Stories_Volume_01_ Number_01.djvu/5. 6 Of course, these are only one aspect of Verne’s work and discussing them does not sum up his contributions to literature any more than discussing Wells’s best-known works of sf encapsulates his intellectual career. Especially in later work, Verne demonstrated a more pessimistic attitude toward technology and the social changes it wrought. Further, Anglophone reception of Verne is complicated by inadequate early translations, marketed to children, which simplified his themes. In the limited space of this volume, I seek to offer in broad strokes a sense of their historical influence on the genre as it
unfolded into the twentieth century, and not a definitive statement of their essence. 7 There are a number of histories of the genre that will provide this comprehensive view. My co-authored (with Mark Bould) Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction (2009) seeks to balance an inclusive survey with the acknowledgment that sf is multiple and that its definition and core texts are sites of ongoing struggle, not given facts. 8 As much as possible, I have used examples from two recent and useful teaching anthologies: The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010) and Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts (2009).
Chapter 2 1 Although Edison owned many patents and died a millionaire, he also experienced significant financial struggle due to poor business management skills and a tendency to announce inventions and products before he had fully succeeded in their manufacture. The myth of Edison is celebratory, despite these facts. 2 See Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. 3 World Policy Institute. www.worldpolicy.org/journal/fall2011/ innovation-starvation. 4 Project Hieroglyph. Arizona State University. http://hieroglyph.asu. edu/about/. 5 The writers were Robert Heinlein, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, Dean Ing, Steven Barnes, Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle. 6 The Lewis Padgett story “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” is included as well. Lewis Padgett is one of a number of pseudonyms used by the husband-and-wife writing team of C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner.
Chapter 3 1 Production methods are also important here. Some of this footage— and that used in Blomkamp’s short Alive in Joberg (2006)—was obtained by asking people about immigrants and then simply using these responses as if they commented on aliens. 2 For a good overview of the issues, see “District 9: A Roundtable” published in Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies, 11(1–2), (2010).
3 See Rieder, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (34–60) for a discussion of this pattern in colonial adventure fiction and sf. Avatar is distinct in that it does not posit a past by which white/human civilization was the true origin of Na’vi culture, but nonetheless it celebrates the converted Jake as heroic beyond the capacities of those born to the culture. Cameron has noted the influence of this colonialist adventure fiction on his imagination, specifically citing Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series (Chapman and Cull 206). 4 See the CNN report and following comments, many of them debunking this response, at www.cnn.com/2010/SHOWBIZ/ Movies/01/11/avatar.movie.blues/index.html.
Chapter 5 1 The British series Doctor Who (1963–89, 2005–) is a curious and anomalous case, transitioning from a series oriented toward children to a degree to one predominantly oriented toward adult viewers. Of course, it also changed somewhat with each new incarnation of the Doctor. 2 This pacific island was a major site of US nuclear testing between 1948 and 1958, when it was under US control as part of a post-World War II settlement. It gained independence in 1986 but remains a site of controversy due to the testing’s legacy of environmental damage. In 2000, the island’s citizens were awarded compensatory damages by the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims tribunal, but little money has been paid due to the 2008 stock market crash. In 2010, the US Supreme Court refused to hear a lawsuit related to these unpaid damages. 3 The story was published in 1973. Nixon was president from 1969 to 1974, when he resigned due to scandals related to illegal activities such as bugging the offices of his political rivals and covering up a break-in of Democratic Party headquarters. The headline may refer to a number of unpopular policies of his regime, but most likely refers to the price controls he imposed to combat inflation. He also detached the value of the American dollar from the gold reserve, a change in economic policy whose repercussions we continue to see in financial crises of the twenty-first century. His election in 1969 was seen as a triumph of conservative and corporate forces, and a failure of the dream of social justice and hope offered by candidates such as Bobby Kennedy (assassinated in 1968).
4 This term originates with Umberto Eco, but is popularized and redefined in Baudrillard’s work.
Chapter 6 1 See Vinge’s website at www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/ singularity.html. 2 See the Future of Humanity Institute’s website at www.fhi.ox.ac.uk/ about. 3 See Stacy Horn, Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory (2009), for an overview of this history. See also Roger Luckhurst, The Invention of Telepathy (2002), for the origin of psychical research in Britain in the nineteenth century and the struggles to classify it as scientific or supernatural phenomenon. 4 This was a political scandal during Reagan’s presidency that became public in 1986. It involved the prohibited sale of US weapons to Iran by senior administration officials, and a plan to use the proceeds to fund Nicaraguan Contras (groups of rebels working with US support to overthrow Nicaragua’s government), to whom further financial aid had been banned by Congress. 5 See the series website at www.defiance.com/en/.
Chapter 7 1 Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s important utopian novel Herland (1915) is earlier, but it was largely forgotten until feminist transformations of the literary canon in the 1980s. 2 The article can be read at www.nyrsf.com/racism-and-sciencefiction-.html. NYRSF is a semiprozine, a publication whose status is somewhere between that of a professional magazine and a fanzine. Semiprozines are an established part of the field, and annually one receives a Hugo Award. 3 Some of her remarks address a recent and heated discussion on a number of online venues that came to be called RaceFail. Some of the history of these exchanges, which began with a discussion of how to represent otherness in one’s writing, can be reviewed at http://fanlore.
org/wiki/RaceFail_’09. Many people displayed extreme ignorance and insensitivity in some of their comments, angry “at the anger displayed by people of color in the community” (347) as Hopkinson notes. 4 This film adapts Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1969), making significant changes to plot and theme. 5 It is impossible to say precisely how the film ends, as it circulates in a number of different cuts. In some versions we are explicitly told that Rachael has no expiration date like the other replicants; in others the film seems to hint that Deckard too is a replicant but does not know it. 6 The term “replicant” is coined for Scott’s film. Dick’s novel uses the term android or andy; Lai uses the term android.
Chapter 8 1 This term comes from Gerald Vizenor’s Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence. Survivance is “more than survival, more than endurance” but rather is “an active repudiation of dominance, tragedy, and victimry” (15). 2 Ellis explores this topic further in both his cyberpunk Transmetropolitan series (1997–2002), about a future journalist, Spider Jerusalem, obsessed with the absence of truth in political, journalist, and entertainment cultures, who fights a corrupt political order; and in Global Frequency (2002–4), about a private, intelligence agency whose volunteer operatives solve crises of technoculture that governments cannot. Transmetropolitan includes stories about human-alien hybrids, downloading consciousness into nanotech data clouds, oncogene farms (that use children from the Global South to grow their cultures), reawakened cryogenic people, and a “reservation” community based on developing technologiesto-come called Farsight. A bleak vision of the future, science and technology mainly cause problems in Spider’s world. Similarly, Global Frequency defines its mission in issue 1 as dealing with “the litter of the way we live. The unexploded bombs,” which include an insane bionic man, an Internet cult, a terrorist Ebola bomb, and the products of illegal stem cell research. Its culminating story is about preventing the destruction of Chicago by US military technology deployed as part of the SDI Program, now out of its creators’ control. 3 These experiments are an influence on other comic books, such as Luke Cage, who gains his superpowers while experimented on as a
prisoner, and Robert Morales’s Truth: Red, White & Black (2003), drawn by Kyle Baker, that restages Captain America’s origin story by focusing on the black men who were subjects of the earlier, unsuccessful trials to develop a serum that would create a super soldier. 4 As discussed in Chapter Four, for readers familiar with sf this image will evoke other examples of such shadow imagery in the sf megatext, one of the most famous being Ray Bradbury’s story “There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950), about an automated house that survives an atomic war while its occupants do not. 5 This word has different Westernized spellings but Ainu is the most common. 6 This is another Japanese term, sometimes Westernized as aramitama. See the Encyclopedia of Shinto at http://eos.kokugakuin. ac.jp/modules/xwords/entry.php?entryID=1180.
Chapter 9 1 The story has been adapted many times: in video as episodes of the television anthology series Out of This World in 1962 and the relaunched The Twilight Zone in 1989, and as a feature film in 1996 directed by Peter Geiger; in audio on X Minus One in 1955, on John W. Campbell’s Exploring Tomorrow in 1958, and as an episode of Sci-Fi Radio on NPR in 1989 (http://youtu.be/swZ_jeZ5DCA).
Histories Alkon, Paul. Science Fiction Before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology. New York: Routledge, 2002. Bould, Mark. Science Fiction: Film Guidebook. London: Routledge, 2012. Bould, Mark and Sherryl Vint. The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction. London: Routledge, 2011. Cheng, John. Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2012. Clute, John and Peter Nicholls (eds). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Online at www.sf-encyclopedia.com. Disch, Thomas. The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Off: How Science Fiction Conquered the World. New York: Free Press, 1998. Haywood Ferreira, Rachel. The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2011. Hunter, I. Q. British Science Fiction Cinema. London: Routledge, 1999. Landon, Brooks. Science Fiction after 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997. Luckhurst, Roger. Science Fiction. London: Polity Press, 2005. Pruscher, Jeff (ed.). Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. Oxford: OUP, 2007. Telotte, J. P. Replications: A Robot History of the Science Fiction Film. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. Telotte, J. P. (ed.). The Esssential Science Fiction Television Reader. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 2008.
References Bould, Mark, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint. The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. London: Routledge, 2009a.
—. Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction. London: Routledge, 2009b. Clute, John and Peter Nichols. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Online at http://sf-encyclopedia.com. Hubble, Nick and Aris Mousoutzanis. The Science Fiction Handbook. London: Continuum, 2013. Latham, Rob. The Oxford Handbook to Science Fiction. Oxford: OUP, 2014.
Theoretical studies Attebery, Brian and Veronica Hollinger (eds). Parabolas of Science Fiction. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2013. Csicsery-Ronay Jr, Istvan. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2008. Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2000. Gomel, Elana. Postmodern Science Fiction and Temporal Imagination. London: Continuum, 2010. Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, 2005. Landon, Brooks. The Aesthetics of Ambivalence: Rethinking Science Fiction Film in the Age of Electronic (Re)Production. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1992. Moylan, Tom. Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000. Nama, Adilifu. Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film. Austin: U of Texas P, 2008.
Thematic studies Attebery, Brian. Decoding Gender in Science Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2002. Butler, Andrew M. Solar Flares: Science Fiction in the 1970s. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2012. Clarke, I. F. Voices Prophesying War: 1763–1984. London: OUP, 1966, 2nd edn, 1992. Dery, Mark. Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. New York: Grove, 1996. Donawerth, Jane. Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction. Syracue: Syracuse UP, 1997. Foster, Thomas. The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005.
Greenland, Colin. The Entropy Exhibition: Michael Moorcock and the British “New Wave” in Science Fiction. London: Routledge, 1983. Hayles, Katherine N. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. Huntington, John. Rationalizing Genius: Ideological Strategies in the Class American Science Fiction Short Story. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989. DeWitt Kilgore, Douglas. Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003. Merrick, Helen. The Secret Feminist Cabal. Seattle: Aqueduct Press, 2011. McCaffery, Larry (ed.). Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. Miéville, China and Mark Bould (eds). Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. London: Pluto Press, 2009. Otto, Eric C. Green Speculations: Science Fiction and Transformative Environmentalism. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2012. Pearson, Wendy, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon (eds). Queer Universe: Sexualities in Science Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2008. Rieder, John. Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2008. Ross, Andrew. Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits. New York: Verso, 1991. Sharp, Patrick B. Savage Perils: Racial Frontiers and Nuclear Apocalypse in American Culture. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2007. Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1987. Vint, Sherryl. Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2010. Wolfe, Gary K. The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction. Kent: Kent State UP, 1979. Yaszek, Lisa. Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction. Columbus: Ohio UP, 2008.
Alkon, Paul. Science Fiction Before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology. New York: Routledge, 2002. Angenot, Marc. “The Absent Paradigm: An Introduction to the Semiotics of Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 6.1 (March 1979): 9–19. Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. London: BFI, 1999. Asimov, Isaac. “Runaround.” I Robot. New York: Bantam, 1991. 25–45. —. “Liar.” Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts. Ed. Heather Masri. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009. 282–95. —. “Reason.” The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Ed. Arthur B. Evans, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham, and Carol McGuirk. Middleton: Wesleyan UP, 2010. 160–76. Attebery, Brian. Strategies of Fantasy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. —. “Science Fictional Parabolas: Jazz, Geometry, and Generation Starships.” Parabolas of Science Fiction. Ed. Brian Attebery and Veronica Hollinger. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2013. 3–23. Ballard, J. G. “Which Way to Inner Space?” New Worlds 118 (May 1962): 2–3, 116–18. —. “Terminal Beach.” Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts. Ed. Heather Masri. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009. 921–37. —. “The Cage of Sand.” The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Ed. Arthur B. Evans, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr, Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham, and Carol McGuirk. Middleton: Wesleyan UP, 2010. 337–58. Barth, John. “The Literature of Exhaustion.” The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1984. 62–76. Bester, Alfred. “Fondly Fahrenheit” The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Ed. Arthur B. Evans, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr, Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham, and Carol McGuirk. Middleton: Wesleyan UP, 2010. 283–302. Broderick, Damien. Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1995.
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—. “When We Went to See the End of the World.” Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts. Ed. Heather Masri. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009. 561–8. Stone, Leslie F. “The Conquest of Gola.” The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Ed. Arthur B. Evans, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr, Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham, and Carol McGuirk. Middleton: Wesleyan UP, 2010. 96–109. Stone, Roseanne Allucquére. “Will the Real Body Please Stand up? Boundary Stories about Virtual Change.” Cyberspace: First Steps. Ed. Michael Benedikt. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991. 81–118. Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979. Tenn, William. “The Liberation of Earth.” The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Ed. Arthur B. Evans, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr, Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham, and Carol McGuirk. Middleton: Wesleyan UP, 2010. 266–82. Thomas, Sheree. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. New York: Warner Aspect, 2000. Tiptree, James Jr. “The Girl Who Was Plugged in.” Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts. Ed. Heather Masri. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009. 342–70. Varley, John. “The Persistence of Vision.” Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts. Ed. Heather Masri. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009. 774–811. Vizenor, Gerald. Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1998. Weinbaum, Stanley. “A Martian Odyssey.” The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Ed. Arthur B. Evans, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr, Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham, and Carol McGuirk. Middleton: Wesleyan UP, 2010. 136–59. Wells, H. G. The Time Machine. Ed. Nicholas Ruddick. Peterborough: Broadview, 2001. —. The War of the Worlds. Modern Library Classics. New York: Random House, 2002. Wolfe, Gary K. Evaporating Genres: Essays on the Fantastic. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2011. Yaszek, Lisa. Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2008. Zoline, Pamela. “The Heat Death of the Universe.” The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Ed. Arthur B. Evans, Istvan CsicseryRonay Jr, Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham, and Carol McGuirk. Middleton: Wesleyan UP, 2010. 415–29.
2001: A Space Odyssey 12 Abrams, J. J., Star Trek 74 Ackerman, Forrest 93 adventure fiction 18, 24, 39, 76, 83, 87, 100, 106, 185n. 3 colonial 9–10, 11, 63 gender in 63 aestheticism 50–1, 168 aesthetics 4, 7, 13, 19, 20, 34–5, 63, 120, 136, 168 literary 2, 56, 75, 82, 88, 90, 94, 113 agency 10, 22, 54, 136 fan 109, 110 female 98, 117 Ainu 152, 188n. 5 Aldiss, Brian, “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” 60 alien abduction 107 alien conspiracy 105–8 alien encounter 5, 20–2, 29, 39–42, 50, 66, 72, 120–1 Alien franchise 149 alien invasion 20, 22, 30–1, 57, 66, 70, 115 benevolent 67 alienation 38, 40, 74, 76, 97, 130, 166 gendered 120–1 of late capitalism 76, 97 aliens 12, 13, 25–6, 39–47, 105–7, 162–3
benevolent 66–70 as collective species 67 communication with 25–6, 41, 42, 137–9 conflict with 39 see also alien invasion insect-like 40, 67 interbreeding with 68–9, 105–6 microscopic 30, 78 as other 39–43, 45, 46, 130–1 as refugees 40, 44, 46 superiority of 66–9, 70, 120–1 Alive in Joberg 184n. 1 Alkon, Paul 3, 9 alterity 48, 49 alternate history 40, 129, 167 alternate universe 74 Altman, Rick 6 Amazing Stories 3, 9, 15, 73, 93, 94, 183n. 5 Amis, Kingsley 47 Analog 73, 74, 128 androids 61–2, 64–6, 131–3, 187n. 6 see also artificial lifeforms exploitation of 64–6, 133 Angenot, Marc 55 Antarctica 30 anthropocentrism 20 apocalypse 5, 50, 70–1, 153 nuclear 68–9, 78–80, 88–9, 153–5 Argosy 18
artificial intelligence 5, 60, 102–3 artificial lifeforms 3, 66, 187n. 6 see also androids; artificial intelligence; cyborgs; robots bioengineered 84 children 164–6 exploitation of 62–3, 131–3 labour and 133 sex with 61, 117, 131–2 superiority of 60 Asimov, Isaac 2, 27, 58, 61, 63, 73, 94 “Liar” 58–9 “Little Lost Robot” 62 “Reason” 59–60 “Runaround” 58 Three Laws of Robotics 58, 64, 66 Astounding Science Fiction 18, 29, 32, 34, 73, 94 Astounding Stories 29 Attach of the 50 Foot Woman 155 Attebery, Brian 62–3, 68, 183n. 4 avatar 39, 42–8, 72, 85 Avatar 39, 43–8, 185nn. 3–4 Babylon 5, 109 Bacon, Francis, The New Atlantis 20 Ballard, J. G. 75–80, 82, 93 “Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race, The” 91 Atrocity Exhibition, The 63 “Cage of Sand, The” 77–8 “Terminal Beach, The” 78–80 Banks, Iain M., Culture novels 61 Barthes, John 82–3 Baudrillard, Jean 88, 91, 186n. 4 de Beauvoir, Simone 117, 122, 123
Bester, Alfred, “Fondly Fahrenheit” 63–6 bioethics 133 biotechnology 11, 48, 84, 111 alien 41, 70 bioweapons 70, 105, 107 Blade Runner 131, 133, 187n. 5 Blomkamp, Neill, Alive in Joberg 184n. 1 District 9 39–48, 54, 183n. 2 Bould, Mark 184n. 7 Brackett, Leigh 116 Bradbury, Ray 2 “There Will Come Soft Rains” 188n. 4 Brecht, Berthold 38 Broderick, Damien 57–8 Brunner, John 133 Buck Rogers 2, 73–4, 162 Burgess, Anthony 76 Burke, Edmund 4 Burroughs, Edgar Rice, John Carter of Mars series 185n. 3 Burroughs, William 75, 76 Nova Trilogy, The 83 Butler, Octavia 127, 129 “Speech Sounds” 154–7 Xenogenesis series 68–9 Cadigan, Pat, “Pretty Boy Crossover” 72, 99–100 Cameron, James, Avatar 39, 43–8, 185nn. 3–4 Campbell, John W. 7, 18, 29–33, 58, 73, 74, 75, 93, 94, 104, 157 Exploring Tomorrow 151 misogyny of 116, 121 racism of 128 “Who Goes There” 29–32 Čapek, Karel 14 R.U.R. 133
Index capitalism 45, 76, 95–6, 99–100, 115–16, 133 colonialism and 43, 51, 145 critique of 51–3, 81–2, 86–8, 133 global 5, 32, 43, 51, 167 Carl Brandon Society 128 Carpenter, John, The Thing 29, 41 Carr, Terry 128 Carter, Angela 163 Carter, Raphael, The Fortunate Fall 124 Cartmell, Deborah 72 Catts, Oron 133 Chabon, Michael 163 Chapman, James 47 Charnas, Suzy McKee 113 Chiang, Ted, “Story of Your Life” 136–40 children 33–4, 80, 118, 120, 156–7 as audience 67, 80, 183n. 6, 185n. 1 evolution of 67 mutant 34 nonhuman 156, 157–8 Chu, Seo-Young 56 Citizen’s Advisory Council on National Space Policy 29 Clareson, Thomas 37 Clarion Writers’ Workshop 94, 129, 162 Clarke, Arthur C. 2, 27 Childhood’s End 66–8 Rendezvous with Rama 83 “Sentinel, The” 11–12 class 10, 17–18, 27, 51, 54, 70, 116, 133 race and 10, 133 cognitive estrangement see estrangement, cognitive colonialism 57, 69–70, 144–5, 185n. 3 capitalism and 43, 51, 145
critique of 12, 20–1, 43–4, 66, 67–8, 167–9 see also postcolonial sf gendered 120 materialism and 168 reversal of 129 see also alien invasion communication, with aliens 25–6, 69, 136 humanity and 162–5 community 89–90, 131, 155 creation of 49, 89, 154 fan see science fiction, consumers of computers personal 5, 91, 96 conventions 93, 171 feminist 121 World Convention of SF 94, 95 Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan, Jr. 56, 166 Cull, Nicholas 47 cyberpunk 96–9, 101, 102, 105, 124 cyberspace 96–8 cyborgs 57, 60, 84, 85, 102–3, 114, 118–19 see also artificial lifeforms Haraway, Donna Dali, Salvador, The Persistence of Vision 88 Darwin, Charles 19–20 Day the Earth Stood Still, The, dir. Robert Wise 69, 154 dir. Scott Derrickson 69 Defiance 109–10, 186n. 5 see also games Delany, Samuel R. 55–6, 127–8, 133 Einstein Intersection, The 128 Nova 127–8 Derrickson, Scott, The Day the Earth Stood Still 69 detective fiction 11, 18
Dianetics 107–8 Dick, Philip K. 38, 64, 73, 88 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 61, 187n. 4 difference 42, 70 cultural 69 fear of 69, 143, 154–6 gender 34 Dillon, Grace, Walking the Clouds 129 Disney World 96, 101–2 Disneyland 96 District 9, 39–48, 54, 183n. 2 Doctor Who 185n. 1 Doctorow, Cory, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom 101–2 domestic space 32–4 technoscience and 5, 32 Douglas, Gordon, Them! 73 dystopia 39, 76, 91, 97, 99, 119–20 Easterbrook, Neil 14–15 Eco, Umberto 186n. 4 ecofeminism 28 Edison, Thomas 19, 184n. 1 Edison Electric Company 95–6 Egan, Greg, Distress 124 Ellis, Warren, Planetary 150–5 Ellison, Harlan, Dangerous Visions 75 embodiment 100, 101, 114 fear of 97 gender and 118–19 identity and 101 emotion 31–2, 52, 62, 167 gender and 34, 59 humanity and 42, 62, 86, 117, 131–2, 154 repression of 29, 52 Eniwetok Atoll 78–80, 185n. 2 environment 133, 133 destruction of 69, 76
exploitation of 45–6 justice and 46 escapism 38, 45–7, 87, 169–70 denial of 45–6, 82, 132, 168 estrangement 15, 39, 42, 47–8, 49–51, 51, 76, 90, 91, 115, 144, 166, 167, 168, 170 cognitive 37–54, 56, 91, 123, 138, 141 temporal 50–1, 54 E. T. 40, 105 ethics 10–11, 33, 43, 80, 103, 133, 139, 141, 146, 161 see also bioethics evolution 10, 12, 19–20, 23, 70, 78, 84, 103, 104, 144 Darwinian 10, 19, 135 of humans 34 Extrapolation 37, 121 Extropy Institute 103 Faber, Michel 163 Famous Monsters of Filmland 94 fan culture 23, 37, 93–5, 108–9 fan writing 8, 37, 93–4, 108–9, 110, 111, 121 fantasy 37, 86, 101, 159, 162 science fiction and 7, 29, 37–8, 48, 56, 76, 121, 129, 159 fanzines see fan writing Fausto-Sterling, Anne 124 femininity 34, 122–3 domesticity and 31 portrayal of 30, 32 feminism 1, 114, 117, 121, 163 feminist science fiction 1, 2, 28, 113–21, 124, 131, 135 Fermat’s principle 138 film 2, 6, 18–19, 76, 88, 171 blockbuster 2, 74, 96 noir 97, 132 science fiction 2, 39–48, 73–4, 131
Index first contact 46, 67, 69, 123, 136, 169 see also Wells, H. G., War of the Worlds, The Flash Gordon 2, 73–4 Forbidden Planet 60, 73, 167 Foster, Sesshu, Atomik Aztex 129 Fowler, Karen Joy 121, 163 Frankenstein’s Creature 57 Franklin, Bruce 95 Freedman, Carl 47, 48–9, 51 Futurama see General Motors future history 56 Future of Humanity Institute 103, 111, 186n. 2 Futurian Science Literary Society 94 futurism 84, 95–6, 99, 102, 163 Indigenous 129, 145 Latino 129 Galaxy Science Fiction 73, 94 Galileo 107 games 110, 160 Defiance 109–10 Halo 109 online 100–1 Second Life 96, 100 World of Warcraft 100 Geiger, Peter, The Twilight Zone 188n. 1 gender 84, 109, 113–21, 124 blurring 50, 70, 121, 122 conflict 1, 113–21 difference 34, 97, 118–21, 122–3 equality 90, 116, 119, 123 hierarchy 114, 123 segregation 117, 118–20 General Electric 95–6 General Motors, Futurama 95, 110 To New Horizons 95, 110 genre 6, 7, 57, 183n. 4
Gernsback, Hugo 3, 5, 6–9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 18, 23, 29, 75, 183nn. 3 see also Amazing Stories fans and 7, 93–4, 159 Ralph 124C41+ 24, 28 Ghost Hunters 162 Gibson, William 100 “Burning Chrome” 72, 96–8 Pattern Recognition 157 Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, Herland 186n. 1 Gloss, Molly, The Dazzle of the Day 63 Godwin, Tom, “The Cold Equations” 159–62, 167 Golden Age 66–7, 69 of science fiction 2, 23, 27, 28–9, 34–5, 58, 89, 94, 116, 120, 157 Goldstein, Rebecca 163 Gómez-Peña, Guillermo 130 gothic 4, 11, 136 Graham, Peter 129 Gunn, James 37 Halo see games Hand, Elizabeth 163 Haraway, Donna 113, 114, 120 hard sf 23, 29, 38, 74, 136 Harris, Clare Winger 116 Harrison, M. John, Empty Space 171 Hassan, Ihab 83 Heinlein, Robert 27, 73 Stranger in a Strange Land 108 “Roads Must Roll, The” 1–2, 24 Herbert, Frank, Dune 108 hero 10 male 2, 29 scientist as 30–1, 136, 162 heteronormativity 109, 117, 119, 124 see also sexuality
Hieroglyph Theory 27 Hill, Anita 106 Hiroshima see World War II Hollinger, Veronica 157 Hopkinson, Nalo 129, 130–1, 133, 134, 163, 186n. 3 Midnight Robber 130 “Something to Hitch Meat To” 140–4 Horn, Stacy 186n. 3 Hubbard, L. Ron, Dianetics 107 Hugo Awards 93, 94, 108, 186n. 2 human, meaning of 101–2, 136, 166 humanity 23 displacement of 60, 70 hubris of 10, 20, 70–1, 77–8 privileging of 22 technoscience and 26 as threat 42–5 transcendence of 66, 98–9, 100, 101 transformed into alien 30–2, 41–6 Huntington, John 28–9, 31, 34, 64, 66, 160 Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World 8 hyperspace 57 identity 91, 101, 133 embodiment and 101 gender 114, 117–19, 121–2 group 90 ideology 48–9, 76, 130, 152, 161, 170 colonial 67, 68, 123, 144–5, 168 concealed 87, 160 patriarchal 115, 117, 122–3 immortality 69, 100, 101–3 individualism 10 vs. community 155–6
intelligence 164 communication and 25–6, 41 mathematics and 25–6 simulation of 164 technoscience and 26 International Space Station 109 intertextuality 3, 14 see also megatext Invasion of the Body Snatchers 73, 154 Invisible Man 148 James, E. L., Fifty Shades of Grey 109 Jameson, Fredric 97, 102 Janus 121 Jemison, N. K. 131 Jenkins, Henry 108 Jereminjenko, Natalie 133 Jones, Gwyneth 12, 69–70 North Wind 69 Phoenix Café 69 White Queen 69 justice, artificial lifeforms and 62 environmental 46 Kant, Immanuel 4 Karkanias, Jim 27 Kelly, James Patrick, “Think Like a Dinosaur” 159, 161–3, 167 Kennedy, John Fitzgerald 77, 91, 106, 185n. 3 Kepler, Johannes, Somnium 3 Kessel, John, “Invaders” 167–70, 171 Khatru 121, 122 Kincaid, Paul 171 King, Martin Luther 106 King, Rodney 106 Knight, Damon 7, 94 Kornbluth, Cyril 94 Kubrick, Stanley, 2001: A Space Odyssey 12 Kurzweil, Ray 103
Index labour 129 artificial lifeforms and 59, 62, 64–6, 133 Lai, Larissa, “Rachel” 131–3 Landon, Brooks 135, 150 language 5, 55–7, 154–7, 170 alien 25–6, 41, 69, 137–9 embodied 52, 69, 89–90, 137–9, 151 failure of 11, 81, 161–4 intelligence and 26, 41 play with 64–5, 82, 83 scientific 23, 31, 47, 79, 82 de Lauretis, Teresa 113 Le Guin, Ursula K. 38, 73, 121 Left Hand of Darkness, The 122–4 Le Zombie 8 Lem, Stanislaw 14, 38 Lethem, Jonatham 163 linguistics 55, 136 Link, Kelly 163 literacy 17–18, 23, 155 scientific 94 Liu, Ken, “The Algorithms for Love” 164–6 logic 89, 113 see also scientific method critique of 33–4, 168–70 vs. emotion 31–2, 59, 60, 61, 98, 167 gender and 30–1, 34 narrative 26, 39, 48 pleasure of 58–60, 64 space opera and 29 Lone Gunmen 107 Lorraine, Lilith 116 Lucas, George, Star Wars 1, 2, 74 Luckhurst, Roger 17–18, 104, 157, 186n. 3 Luna Park 95 McDonald, Ian 12 Machine Intelligence Research Institute 103
magazines, pulp 3, 7, 13, 18, 23, 37, 73, 93–4, 116, 135, 163 see also individual titles Malzberg, Barry 82 Galaxies 74 Mars 9, 24–7, 77, 78 life on 22, 24–7 Martians 20–2, 24–7, 144 masculinity 30, 34, 118, 124 aggression and 2, 97 heroism and 2, 29 logic and 34, 98 mathematics 138, 160, 162, 164 intelligence and 25–6 matriarchy 116 media 6, 8, 42, 74, 99, 108–9, 110, 130, 135, 141–2, 163, 166 advertising 76, 85–7, 141, 163 interactive 166 news 33–4, 41, 44 nonprint 8, 14, 158 social 5, 91 megatext 55–72, 144, 167, 188n. 4 Menzies, William, Things to Come 95 Merier, Louis-ébastien, L’An 2440 136 meritocracy 2, 18, 28, 29 technoscientific 2 Merril, Judith 33–4, 82, 94 as editor 33, 75 England Swings SF 75 “That Only a Mother” 33–4 Year’s Best anthology series 75 metafiction 74, 82, 144, 168 metatextuality 7 Miéville, China 48–9, 163 Bas-Lag trilogy 47 Embassytown 14 Milford Conference 94 military 1, 13, 22, 29, 40, 52 economy and 1, 40–1
misogyny 30–1, 97–8, 116, 119–20, 159–60, 162 Mittel, Jason 6 Modern Electronics 24 modernity 63 critique of 81–2 science fiction and 12, 17 Moorcock, Michael 75–6 see also New Worlds Moore, C. L. 116 “No Woman Born” 60–1 “Vintage Season” 49–51, 54 More, Thomas, Utopia 3 Moskowitz, Sam 94 motherhood 33–4, 63, 80, 118, 136, 155, 165–6 Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus 81–2 Mullen, R. D. 37 Murphy, Pat 121 mutation 33–4 Nagasaki see World War II narrative 2, 3, 26, 54, 62–3, 82, 85, 139 logic of 26, 39, 48 non-sequential 78, 80, 83, 136 nature 4, 21, 114 mastery of 11, 20, 114 technoscience and 11, 30, 150 Nebula Awards 83, 94–5, 108, 128, 133 neo-liberalism 43, 97, 170 New Fandom 94 New Wave 7, 75–6, 82–3, 91, 120, 163 New Worlds 75–6 Niven, Larry, Ringworld 12 Nogha, Misha, “Chippoke Na Gomi” 150–3 novum 37–40, 52, 56 nuclear weapons 33, 69, 147–50, 185n. 2
Nyby, Christian, Thing from Another World 29 Nye, David 4 Okorafor, Nnedi 131 Out of This World 188n. 1 parapsychology 104, 186n. 3 see also telepathy patriarchy 115, 116–17, 119–20, 122, 124 critique of 3, 109, 114–21, 133 Penley, Constance 109 Piercy, Marge, Woman on the Edge of Time 124 Poe, Edgar Allan 8, 11, 13, 30 “M.S. Found in a Bottle” 11 Pohl, Frederick 2, 73, 94 “Day Million” 83–5 pornography 85, 142–3 postcolonial sf 129, 144–5 see also colonialism, critique of posthuman 5, 101–2, 102–4, 124, 166 biological 66 technological 66, 98–9, 100 postmodernism 7, 57, 96 pregnancy 33, 88, 155 Priest, Christopher 163 progress 9 failure of 97 scientific 23, 95 Project Hieroglyph 27, 35 Pynchon, Thomas, Gravity’s Rainbow 83 race 43, 114, 127–9, 131–2, 131, 140 class and 10, 133 racism 43, 54, 62, 63, 108, 134, 140–2, 144, 152, 186n. 2
Index critique of 129–30 systemic 114, 128–9, 130–1 Reagan, Ronald 29 realist fiction 22, 38, 56, 157 religion 66, 107, 153 challenge to 21–2, 75, 122 figures from 143 science and 4, 17, 21–2, 24, 107, 136 revolution 1, 48, 83, 117 industrial 4, 136 Rhine, J. B. 104 Rieder, John 7–8, 12, 26, 144–5, 183n. 4, 185n. 3 Rivera, Alex, Sleep Dealer 129 Robinson, Kim Stanley 133 robots 5, 39, 58–60, 164–6 see also artificial lifeforms exploitation of 62, 133 superiority of 59, 60 Rocky Jones, Space Ranger 74 Roddenberry, Gene 109 Rogue 83 Rubin, Gayle 91 Russ, Joanna 113, 115, 116, 121 Female Man, The 1–3, 61, 117–18, 122 We Who Are About To . . . 63 “When It All Changed” 118–19, 120, 122, 134 Ryman, Geoff 171 “Dead Space for the Unexpected” 51–3 science see technoscience language of see language, scientific religion and 4, 17, 21–2, 24, 107, 136 science fiction 55, 170 see also hard sf
in academia 6, 14, 37, 48–9, 93, 96, 108, 113, 116, 130, 163 conditions of production 3, 7–8, 42, 73, 93–4, 128, 164 consumers of 6–7, 52, 63, 73–4, 93–110, 185n. 1 see also fan culture definitions of 2–8, 17–18, 38, 39, 48–9, 55–6, 58, 121–2, 157 emergence of 2–8, 17–19, 35, 74, 82 as escapism 45–7, 169–71 fantasy and 7, 29, 37–8, 48, 56, 76, 121, 129, 159 feminist see feminist science fiction motifs of 55; see apocalypse; artificial intelligence; posthuman; robots; space travel; time travel pleasure of 46, 58, 63, 64–5, 109 postcolonial see postcolonial sf science and 4, 9–10, 25, 116 Science Fiction Hall of Fame 2, 33 Science Fiction League 94 Science Fiction Research Association 37 Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts 184n. 8 Science Fiction Studies 37, 121 Science Fiction Writers of America 2, 94 Science Wonder Stories 93 scientific romance 3, 10, 135 scientific worldview 3, 21, 24–8, 29–32, 38, 48, 159–63 critique of 33–4 dominance of 5, 135–6, 169
emotion and 29, 31–2, 59, 98, 167 religion and 4, 17, 21–2, 24, 107, 136 scientifiction 3 Scientology 107–8 Scott, Melissa, Shadow Man 127–30 Scott, Ridley, Blade Runner 131, 133, 187n. 6 Second Life see games sexuality 75, 84, 89, 91, 108, 109 see also heteronormativity alien 115 as language 89–90 queer 31, 115, 118–19, 126, 142 slash fiction and 108–9 Shakespeare, William 81–2 Sheldon, Alice see Tiptree, James T. Sheldon, Raccoona see Tiptree, James T. Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein 3, 4, 136 Siegel, Don, Invasion of the Body Snatchers 73 Silverberg, Robert 121 “When We Went to See the End of the World” 70–1 singularity 102–3, 186n. 1 Singularity Institute see Machine Intelligence Research Institute slash fiction 108–9 slavery, artificial lifeforms and 61–2, 64–6 Sleep Dealer, dir. Alex Rivera 129 Slonczewski, Joan, A Door into Ocean 28 Somtow, S. P. 131 South Africa 40, 42–3 space opera 2, 8, 12, 124 military 29 New Space Opera 12 space program 5, 76, 77, 79
space station 63, 109–10, 162 space travel 5, 24, 57, 111, 159–60, 162, 168 FTL 57, 67 generational 62–3, 66 spectacle 2, 44, 46–7 speculative fiction 73–91, 94 Spielberg, Steven, E.T. 40, 105 Star Trek, dir. J.J. Abrams 74 Star Trek, The Motion Picture 74 Star Trek, The Next Generation 63 “Brothers” 62 “Datalore” 61–2 “Measure of a Man, The” 62 “Quality of Life, The” 62 Star Trek: The Original Series 74, 109 “Changeling, The” 60–1 Star Wars 1, 2, 74 Stephenson, Neal 27 Snow Crash 96 Sterling, Bruce 83 Stone, Leslie F. 119 “Conquest of Gola, The” 114, 119 Stone, Roseanne Allucquére 96 Straczynski, J. Michael 109 Strand, The 18 Sturgeon, Theodore 2 More Thank Human 104 subjectivity 49, 114 masculine 123 sublime 4, 11, 30, 56 technoscientific 4, 11 Sun Ra 130 supernatural 3, 47, 104, 143, 163, 186n. 3 survivance 187n. 1 Suvin, Darko 37–40, 47, 48–9, 93, 159 Swift, Jonathan, Gulliver’s Travels 3, 136 Sykora, William 94
Index technoscience 3, 10, 80, 163, 166 alien 39, 41, 66, 115, 167 celebration of 2, 4, 18, 27–9, 34–5, 95 critique of 34, 77–9 domestic space and 5, 32 dominance of 5, 17, 21, 29, 30, 48, 167, 169 gender and 97, 114, 115 humanity and 26 intelligence and 26 military 43 transcendance and 98–9 telepathy 67, 69, 104, 186n. 3 television 6, 24, 71–2, 74, 91, 95, 96, 105, 109, 171 Tenn, William, “The Liberation of Earth” 67–8 theatre 38 Them! 73 Thing, The, dir. John Carpenter 29, 41 dir. Matthijs van Heijningen 29 Thing from Another World, The 29, 152 Things to Come 95 Thomas, Sheree D., Dark Matter 129 Thompson, Clive 134–5 Three Laws of Robotics see Asimov, Isaac time travel 5, 167–70 as tourism 49–51, 70–1 Tiptree Award 121–2 Tiptree, James, Jr. 90, 91, 120–2 “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on a Cold Hill’s Side” 72 “Girl Who Was Plugged In, The” 72, 85–8, 95 Warm Worlds and Otherwise 121 “Women Men Don’t See, The” 120
To New Horizons, prod. General Motors 95, 110 Toffler, Alvin 6 Tom Corbett, Space Cadet 74 tourism 49–51 transcendence 98–9 alien 167 of humans 66, 70, 98–9, 100, 101 trickster 143 Tucker, Bob 8 Turkle, Sherry 101 Twilight Zone, The dir. Peter Geiger 188n. 1 Twilight Zone, The (TV) 74, 188n. 1 UFOs 104–7, 110 Unknown 29 utopia 3, 20, 39, 87, 88, 117, 130 communal 88, 90, 115 feminist 124, 186n. 1 limits of 102 technoscientific 24, 88, 99, 101 van Heijningen, Matthijs, The Thing 29 van Vogt, A. E. 107 Slan 34, 104 Varley, John, “The Persistence of Vision” 88–90, 91 Verne, Jules 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 183n. 6 Voyage au centre de la Terre 9 Voyages Extraordinaires 10 Vinge, Vernor 102, 186n. 1 violence 64–6, 152, 156 alien 41 capitalist 43, 52–3 filicide 34, 149 gendered 31–2, 101, 159–60 human 31–2, 65, 160–2 patriarchal 34 Vizenor, Gerald 187n. 1 Vourvoulias, Sabrina, Ink 129
war 21, 68, 76, 78–80 see also alien invasion between genders 1, 113–21 mechanization of 5 nuclear 33 WatCh 121 Weinbaum, Stanley G., “A Martian Odyssey” 24–7, 28, 54 Wells, H. G. 8, 9–11, 13, 19–24, 136, 183n. 6 Invisible Man 149 Shape of Things to Come, The 95 Time Machine, The 10, 70 War of the Worlds, The 20–4, 28, 54, 57, 78, 105, 144 Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction 116, 184n. 8 Westerns 18 Westinghouse, George 19 Whale James Invisible Man 148–9 Frankenstein 150 Whelehan, Imelda 72 Whitehead, Colson 163 Wilcox, Fred M., Forbidden Planet 60, 73, 167 Wilhelm, Kate, “Baby, You Were Great” 72 Wilson, Daniel H. 131 Wilson, William 183n. 3 Wired 134 Wise, Robert, Day the Earth Stood Still, The 69, 147 Star Trek: The Motion Picture 74
Wolfe, Gary K. 4–5, 163 Wollheim, Donald 73, 94 women 97–8 see also femininity feminist science fiction gender agency and 98 emotion and 33–4, 59 as mothers 33–4, 63, 118, 136, 165–6 wonder 4, 10–12, 19, 24, 35, 44, 76, 95 World of Warcraft see games World War II 82, 105, 117, 146, 151 Hiroshima 33, 79 Nagasaki 33, 151 world’s fairs 94, 95, 101–2 Wylie, Philip, The Disappearance 119 Wyndham, John, Consider Her Ways 119 X-Files, The 105–7 “Apocrypha” 106 “Musing of a Cigarette Smoking Man” 106 “Terma” 107 “Tunguska” 106–7 “Unusual Suspects” 107 X Minus One 188n. 1 Yamashita, Karen Tei 163 Yaszek, Lisa 32 Zoline, Pamela 82 “Heat Death of the Universe, The” 80–2 Zurr, Ionat 133