Review of Heller’s Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded

Review of Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded by Jason Heller

Nathaniel Williams

Jason Heller. Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. Melville House, 2018. Hardcover. 254 pp. $26.99. ISBN 9781612196978.

Jason Heller’s Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded covers the synergy between science fiction and popular music during the 1970s, and it comes at an important point in SF history. More on that last bit later. First, let me cover a few representative factoids the book presents:

  • David Jones—before changing his last name to Bowie and penning the song “Starman”—read Robert Heinlein voraciously, including the author’s 1953 juvenile novel coincidentally(?) titled Starman Jones
  • Pre-teen Jimi Hendrix was such an SF-media fan he insisted on being called “Buster,” after Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serial star, Buster Crabbe.
  • The Byrds loved Arthur C. Clarke and composed their song “Space Odyssey” when they learned that would be the title of a film adaptation of Clarke’s “The Sentinel.” 
  • A 1968 song mocking American astronauts, Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s “I’m the Urban Spaceman,” was produced by “Apollo C. Vermouth,” a pseudonym that hid its actual producers–the Beatles’ Paul McCartney and Gus Dudgeon, who went on to produce Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” 

These insights are from just the first 14 pages of Strange Stars, and it’s a fair accounting of the rest of the book’s contents. About every third page offers some remarkable, obscure fact about science fiction touching rock history or vice versa. Readers fascinated by such moments will have a blast reading Strange Stars.

But Heller’s book is more than just a cornucopia of hipster trivia. It’s a compelling, comprehensive work that invites us rethink two of the twentieth century’s most influential pop cultural creations. Heller skillfully uses David Bowie’s career as a through line, which prevents the book from simply becoming a list of neat coincidences. Moreover, he focuses exclusively on the 1970s, which may disappoint readers interested in more recent SF/pop artists, but nevertheless provides the book a much-needed focus. The 1970s gave us both Devo’s Island of Dr. Moreau (1896)-inspired album Are We Not Men? and Meco’s Star Wars-inspired disco music; Heller joins these dissimilar stories into an intelligent whole.

The highlights you’d expect are here: Michael Moorcock collaborates with the band Hawkwind; Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) inspires David Crosby’s ode to threesomes, “Triad”; Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship get a 1971 Hugo nomination for their concept album Blows Against the Empire; etc. Heller, however, also covers many lesser-known acts, such as the synth band Lem (named for Solaris author Stanislaw) and French group Heldon, who composed an entire album inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965). Heller also recognizes heroines like Nona Hendryx, who used her interest in SF to influence the song content and fashion design of funk band Labelle. 

Bowie—who inspired many SF-related bands, praised them in the press, and hired their members as backing musicians—ties to the book’s chronological structure and its thesis. He enters the 1970s known primarily for “Space Oddity,” the quintessential SF subject-matter song. He quickly assumes his Ziggy Stardust persona, embodying the science-fiction character on his eponymous album. He ends the 1970s having left behind Ziggy’s overtly sf narrative lyrics (“I’m a space invader”!) in favor of synthesizer-driven, atmospheric albums like Low (1977), a whole different kind of otherworldliness. Heller states, “Like his new friends in Kraftwerk, [Bowie] had come to eschew singing about science fiction. Instead he was science fiction” (148). This figures into Heller’s argument that there are really several strains of science fiction music. One is primarily narrative (think Rush’s 1976 album 2112). Another appropriates SF’s imagery (think guitar/starships on Boston’s album covers). Artists who encompass all those strains—like Bowie, Gary Numan, and P-Funk’s George Clinton, who built from Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist template—deservedly get the most coverage from Heller. 

It’s not perfect. Direct artistic influences can be notoriously hard to prove. Heller relies on “likely inspired,” “plausibly,” and similar phrases a little too often, although he’s admirably honest when a perceived influence isn’t 100% verifiable. His consistent use of “sci-fi” rather than SF may frustrate grumpier scholars. My only other quibble is the book’s index; a work that drops this many names needs a more complete one. 

Strange Stars offers a canon of SF music and also beckons readers to seek out older SF that influenced musicians. Heller includes a discography of major SF-related songs at the book’s end that will satisfy audiophiles. Just as interesting, however, are moments when specific works pop up more than once. Heller reveals that Moorcook’s novel The Fireclown (1965) inspired musical tributes by both Pink Floyd and Blue Öyster Cult. Maybe it’s time to (re)read The Fireclown? Similarly, Heller recounts how Philp José Farmer’s 1957 novel Night of Light brought the term “purplish haze” to Jimi Hendrix’s attention, and how Kantner used Eric Frank Russell’s The Wasp (1957) for inspiration. There’s a whole, neglected sub-canon of 50s and 60s SF that inspired musicians. Instructors who regularly teach New Wave-era SF could conceivably look to Strange Stars for new syllabus material. 

Finally, the SF community needed a book like Strange Stars. In 2013, we lost Paul Williams, the Philip K. Dick scholar and founder/editor of Crawdaddy!, one of rock journalism’s earliest major periodicals. David Hartwell (to whom the book is dedicated) began his career writing for Crawdaddy! and became one of SF’s leading editors before his death in 2016. The individuals who were at Ground Zero for the SF/rock ‘n’ roll explosion—who loved both phenomena and understood their interconnectedness at a cellular level—are leaving us. Spurred on by those deaths, as well as Bowie’s in 2016, Heller understands that these stories needed to be documented while their sources still live. Some of the book’s more rushed moments seem attributable to this sense of urgency. Strange Stars probably isn’t for every science fiction scholar or fan, but for anyone who cares about SF’s conversation with twentieth-century pop culture, it’s indispensable.

Review of Ford and Mitchell’s Apocalyptic Visions in 21st Century Films

Review of Apocalyptic Visions in 21st Century Films by Elizabeth A. Ford and Deborah C. Mitchell

Michele Braun

Elizabeth A. Ford and Deborah C. Mitchell. Apocalyptic Visions in 21st Century Films. McFarland, 2018. Paperback. 237 pp. $49.95. ISBN 9781476672731.

Introducing Apocalyptic Visions in 21st Century Film, Elizabeth Ford and Deborah Mitchell contextualize their study by hypothesizing that the “American bedrock shifted” (2) after September 11, 2001 and that human beings process reality, fear and angst through art. The central premise is that 9/11 introduced new apocalyptic themes into filmmaking. This cultural contextualization offers potential as a unifying theme within the volume, but, disappointingly, its application is uneven across the chapters that follow. 

The first chapter, “Envisioning the Apocalypse,” states it will address some of the texts that do not fit in the remainder of the volume. It describes apocalyptic film as grounded in a climate change-induced fear of tsunamis, zombie-infected cities, and the contrast between the loveliness of ordinary life and the desolation of post-apocalyptic landscapes. It reads as an attempt to use filmic features, like special effects, setting, and light and color, to lay the book’s groundwork, though it never explicitly says so. 

Another organizing chapter, “Hollywood’s Doomsday-Prepper Backpacks” suggests that apocalyptic film produces character types such as the Apocalyptic Denier, the Unselfish Pragmatist, the Romantic Moralist, the Lotus Eater, and the Fetishist, by drawing from Neville Shute’s 1953 On the Beach and its 1959 film adaptation. The reader expects these to serve as models for 21st century apocalyptic film, but is instead offered additional types, which leaves one wondering the purpose of establishing the On the Beach reference.

The bulk of the book’s remaining chapters chronicle the post 9/11 effect on subgenres of apocalyptic narrative. Young adult film is rife with apocalyptic imagery, and the analysis of WALL-E‘s (2008) social commentary and warning is insightful as it focuses on narrative, in the chapter “Coming of Age in Post-Apocalyptic Worlds.” The post-apocalyptic landscape of WALL-E contrasts with the optimism and joy that WALL-E extracts from his work and encounter with Eve, producing a film that suggests it’s not too late to reconnect with each other and prevent apocalypse by environmental disaster. 

“Speaking to Them, Speaking to Us” traces the changing social context for two iconic apocalyptic films: War of the Worlds (2003) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008). The authors argue that the isolationist, survivalist approach of Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is an analog for the fearful response post 9/11 to arm oneself and only worry about oneself and one’s family. This contrasts with the final chapter of the volume, “The New Superhero Dynamic,” which suggests that the upsurge of superhero movies in the last two decades reflects a turn to community and cooperation as a means of saving us from irresponsible leadership, fragmented communities, and social problems like poverty, racism, and crime in a post-911 landscape. It’s difficult to reconcile these two approaches to apocalypse, and the fantastical nature of the superhero genre would suggest it is idealistic while the isolationist approach is the more realistically viable one. 

The answer to why “Why Super 8 Can’t be E.T.” lies firmly in the thesis of the book: that 9/11 changed the collective American imagination of apocalypse and our attitudes towards aliens (and alien encounters). A friendly and harmless E.T. is replaced in Super 8 (2011) by an alien treated by the military like a high-value terrorist. The introduction of “terrorist” into the American lexicon after 9/11 transforms the alien from curious lost traveller to threat. This chapter does lead nicely into the next, “The Difficulty of Framing a Real Apocalypse,” though the exploration of film that directly references 9/11 oddly pairs Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), using trauma to link the fatherless children at the center of each narrative. The parallels between the texts are numerous (as critics have already noted), though the traumatic connection is about parental loss rather than experience of apocalypse per se and thus is limited in its contribution. 

The brief discussion of Warm Bodies (2013) at the end of “The Apocalyptic Landscape of Love” explores the hope inherent in R’s gradually reawakening heart, suggesting that a zombie apocalypse does not need to be the end. The hopeful ending of the other texts analyzed in the chapter, the Twilight films and Beautiful Creatures (2013), however, is a result of individual triumph over evil, which creates an apocalypse of two, which is more limited than the usual conception of apocalypse as an event that destroys whole civilizations.

This liberal reimagination of apocalypse continues in the next chapter. While the authors admit that the films discussed in “Emmerich’s Apocalyptic Visions of Shakespeare” may not be obviously apocalyptic, they explain that Emmerich’s Anonymous (2011), which suggests that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays and poems credited to him, reflects the dystopian ethos of the 21st century, an age of questioning everything. They draw parallels between the contested identity of Shakespeare as presented in Anonymous and the birther movement in the U.S. that sought to discredit Barack Obama’s presidency by contesting his nationality, though how either fictional or real contested identity is apocalyptic is not made clear. 

There are some excellent insights into 21st century American films in this volume that make it worth reading. However, the connection of these texts to each other and to apocalypse is often tenuous. The challenge with linking 9/11 and apocalypse is that together they inscribe only a small slice of an overlapping Venn diagram whose totality is much larger. Additionally, the repeated references to the home state of the authors (Ohio) and their country provide local examples for a global thesis about 21st century apocalypse. The nature of this relationship between the local and the global is never clear, and one gets the sense that many of the chapters may have stood better on their own than forced into a book with a theme of apocalyptic film.

Review of Timberlake’s Landscape and the Science Fiction Imaginary

Review of Landscape and the Science Fiction Imaginary by John Timberlake

Patrick Whitmarsh

Timberlake, John. Landscape and the Science Fiction Imaginary. Intellect, 2018. Paperback, 250 pages, $28.50. ISBN 9781783208609.

If readers were to judge John Timberlake’s Landscape and the Science Fiction Imaginary by its title before cracking the book open, they would be in for a pleasant surprise. One may anticipate accounts of environments and settings in various works of science fiction, and although Timberlake does take such elements into consideration, his primary argument concerns neither environment, setting, nor landscape per se, but vision. More specifically, he examines the ways that both sf and non-sf works construct visual relationships with their diegetic environments, or landscapes. Timberlake refers to this relationship as “ocularity,” which connotes a historical dimension as much as a physical, or spatial, one: “it is shaped by a futurism based on the extrapolation of emergent technological tropes, grounded in historically extant forms” (4-5). This ocular relationship emerges, according to Timberlake, by way of what W. J. T. Mitchell calls “landscaping,” or the assimilation of anachronistic or futuristic images into one’s historical perspective, and Timberlake effectively connects Mitchell’s term to William Gibson’s famous, quasi-apocryphal suggestion that the “future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed” (qtd. in Timberlake 4). One almost wishes Timberlake’s book was titled Landscaping the Science Fiction Imaginary, if such phrasing didn’t give the impression of a how-to book about maintaining lawns on alien planets.

Indeed, Timberlake’s chapters focus less on the particulars of landscape aesthetics than on perceptual discrepancies of scale, as in the first chapter, “Land of the Giants.” Moving easily from ancient mythology to postmodern cinema, Timberlake examines how fluctuations in physical size influence social relations, yielding a tragic framework in which physical environments exhibit an “elemental indifference” to human presence (47). He performs a similar temporal leap in chapter two, building a conceptual bridge between Francisco Goya’s The Game of Pelota (1779) and contemporary digital gaming. Timberlake makes the compelling claim that Goya’s decision to place modern players within ancient ruins “can be read as a form of virtual projection,” effectively anticipating the contained temporalities of late-twentieth-century gaming media (58). Such moves reveal the nuanced, and occasionally understated, methodology of Landscape and the Science Fiction Imaginary. Less a study of sf per se, it rather illuminates in sf a visual imperative that Timberlake argues is at work “across the centuries,” connecting works as diverse as Goya’s painting and video games such as Metal Gear Solid (73).

The remaining chapters examine ocularity in post-1945 visual media: specifically, the drawings of Chris Foss, photographs by Yosuke Yamahata, and Pavel Klushantzev’s and Chesley Bonestell’s “fictions of science” (123). It’s in these chapters that the book’s methodology shines, as Timberlake explores the science-fictional dynamics of artistic impressions, photography, and film sets. Of the figures listed above, the one closest to science fiction is Foss, whose drawings and book jacket designs draw explicitly on sf iconography. Timberlake argues that Foss’s work exhibits an accelerationist vision of the technological present, depicting vaguely familiar objects as though they occupy a decrepit, decaying future. In his treatment of Foss’s drawings and Yamahata’s horrific photographs of post-detonation Nagasaki, Timberlake uncovers a key strategy of uncanny futurity: “all the commonplaces of science fiction,” he writes, “but rendered with a curious familiarity” (80). The estranging experience of the Japanese survivors photographed by Yamahata derives from “the destruction and horror visited upon them in their regular haunts and domiciles” (104). For Timberlake, the import of such ocular extrapolation lies in its capacity for unfolding present material conditions into potential realities.

In this respect, images act as a way for these artists to schematize cultural attitudes about history and the world, and the recurring attitude that Timberlake returns to is the one we experience toward our place in the cosmos, culminating in his final chapter’s discussion of spatial expanse in works ranging from Frederick Sommer’s Arizona Landscape, 1943 to Sebastian Cordero’s film Europa Report (2013). According to Timberlake, the ocularity of such works allows spectators to experience the scale variance that occurs between, for example, human political conflicts and the awareness of our insignificance in the cosmos, embodied in the juxtaposition of human subjects against desert vistas and interstellar gulfs. He elucidates this science-fictional dimension through discussions of numerous examples, from the fiction of Philip K. Dick to works of contemporary sf cinema. The structure of Timberlake’s approach may be a caveat for readers seeking an in-depth and focused study of sf as a genre, whether in literature or film. It certainly attends to numerous sf texts, yet Landscape and the Science Fiction Imaginary is more interested in what might be called the science-fictional dynamic of visual media, and although its approach can be (and often is) directed toward works of sf, they aren’t the author’s central focus.

Perhaps understandably, given Timberlake’s frequent pinballing between various works, it can sometimes feel as though certain examples are treated too briefly, or abandoned too hastily. Yet the connections between sf and non-sf texts feel justified and often prove illuminating when considering the author’s emphasis on landscaping and ocularity. They would be even more effective, however, with a bit more attention to the critical discourse surrounding visuality and its relationship to science and observational media. One noticeable omission is Martin Willis’s Vision, Science, and Literature, 1870-1920: Ocular Horizons (2011). Although focused on literature, Willis’s discussions of ocular media and their impressions of scale are certainly relevant for Timberlake’s ambitious study. Also noticeable are the book’s many unfortunate typographical errors, some of which interfere with sentence-level meaning. These errors range from missing or incorrect words (of in place of as, for example) to long sentence fragments that inevitably draw the reader’s pace to a halt. Admittedly, these can’t be blamed entirely on the author, but one wishes that a bit more time had been spent proofreading the manuscript.

These small quibbles notwithstanding, the conceptual gravity of Timberlake’s study is undeniable, and his compelling readings make Landscape and the Science Fiction Imaginary a valuable contribution to the field of sf criticism and visual media theory.

Review of Benford, et al.’s Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy

Review of Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy: Outstanding Essays from the J. Lloyd Eaton Conferences edited by Gregory Benford, Gary Westfahl, Howard V. Hendrix, and Joseph D. Miller

David N. Samuelson

Gregory Benford, Gary Westfahl, Howard V. Hendrix, and Joseph D. Miller, editors. Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy: Outstanding Essays from the J. Lloyd Eaton Conferences. McFarland, 2018. Paperback, 263 pp, $49.95. ISBN 9781476669281.

In 1979, scholars and authors of science fiction and fantasy literature first met in Riverside, California, for a conference sponsored by the University library’s enormous collection of speculative literature. Hosted by George Slusser and others, each three-day affair typically focussed on one broad aspect of the field and led to a volume of papers. Annual at first, it later became more sporadic and peripatetic, ending in 2017.

Scholarship in this area is hampered by a vast creative landscape and the largely imitative nature of its creations, which many social and literary scholars dismiss. Exceptions always plague generalizations about science fiction (“sf”) and fantasy, a problem exacerbated by their spread beyond the U.S. and growing popularity on film and streaming tv. The core of all literature, fantasy was not recognized as a distinct literary genre until the rise of realism, and did not produce much commentary before the 1960s. A subset of fantasy, sf is Eaton’s usual focus, excluding future studies, technological forecasting, urban planning, and a variety of “topias,” let alone sword-and-sorcery, ghost stories, and other recyclings of the supernatural. Often renovated by new scientific discoveries and dismissals of old ones, sf sometimes revives its own lost dreams, and the spectre of deconstruction hovers over the entire enterprise of the humanities, reminding us that the ultimate value of literature and criticism may lie more in questions raised than arguments settled. Omitting essay titles and chronological order, what follows on a thematic spectrum summarizes principle arguments, adding some personal reactions, comparisons, and evaluations.


Patrick Parrinder locates sf’s parentage in the literary epic vs. the “costume dramas” of romance typical of fantasy. Noting the anti-humanism of Wells’ “scientific romances,” he sees both speculation and prophecy in The Time Machine (1895), his prime example. Broadening the scope, Eric S. Rabkin sources fantasy in the human need to use words and tell stories to understand virtually anything (including science). Given the fallibility of our senses, language, and cultures, fantasy is an inevitable admixture of everything we think we know. Probing even more deeply, Stephen Potts shows Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961) positing that nothing can be known for certain about that alien planet’s global life form, implying the same limits apply to us and our world. Even empirical evidence is interpreted variably across cultures and over time.

Science and Aliens 

David Brin’s wandering essay recognizes that mastering new science is difficult but privileges science (searching for what may be) over engineering (how to deal with it). Asking if we are running out of subject matter for “hard” (science-based) sf,. he claims that “what if” stories may prepare us for future reality, which I think it is minimally adumbrated in, and seldom invented for the fiction itself. 

For Gregory Benford the alien or strangeness is sf’s primary theme. Reliance on comparisons and metaphors assimilates it to the familiar, or uses Modernist “trapdoors” like those of Philip K. Dick, and Star Trek reduces it to engineering problems. The truly alien in Solaris, however, challenges humanistic conceptions of reality. Depending on conventional scales relying on sense impressions, science may never be certain, but sound extrapolation placed in context relies also on data, i.e. objects, causes, qualities, and especially math.. Benford’s afterword says new forms of beacons help us seek aliens, and recognizes the effects of economic limits, ours and theirs. 

Poul Anderson shows how he builds an alien world and how setting impacts the nature and actions of characters. Fantasy worlds also need cohesion, but they are less inventive than historical, ahistorical, even playful, with exceptions for mental worlds like those of Phillip K. Dick and private myths exemplified by Ursula K. Le Guin and Lewis Carroll. John Huntington sees sympathizing with aliens as all but impossible; our inherent hostility to the other makes a benign alien a contradiction in terms. Aliens may be too different to conceptualize, like Tweel in Stanley Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey (1934).” My sense is that Tweels’s apparent trouble expressing emotions may reflect our social and psychological perception.

Human Limitations 

“Nonsense” terms (as in Lewis Carroll) illustrate for Joseph D. Miller fun for its own sake but also the necessary ambiguity of description. In another slight piece, Gary Westfahl finds food distasteful in many sf futures, which approximate a “hospital” environment. Taking a different angle on food, Paul Alkon finds cannibalism in sf and fantasy distinctly estranging and grotesque. Class-determined, it suggests tribal or even alien behavior, from Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (1729) to vampires and Wells’s Morlocks, and several works by Robert A. Heinlein. Extremely rare, tales of self-consumption usually involve deprivation, but in Komatsu’s”The Savage Mouth” (1968) future science shows it as deliberate and almost complete.

Befor the contemporary rise of sf and modern medicine, H. Bruce Franklin shows how women had been largely superior healers, their herbal skills leading incompetent male medics and Church officials to brand them as witches. The deaths of Mary Shelley’s mother and children may have led to her killing off both “mothers” of Elizabeth Frankenstein, and the whole human race in The Last Man (1826). Real science effects medical cures today, but sf mostly blames technology for apocalyptic plagues, with the exception of AIDS. Franklin’s afterword recognizes that post-mortal characters today as in Ghost in the Shell (2017; manga 1989), recall Frankenstein, and names only warfare and climate change as today’s manmade plagues, not acknowledging the rise of Ebola and germs’ increasing resistance to antibiotics. 

Mediating between human lifespans and the scope of the universe, Robert Crossley finds a minimal attempt to overcome mortality in museums, libraries, cathedrals and even the city of Rome (in The Last Man). Like the Palace of Green Porcelain in The Time Machine, reliquaries in Last and First Men (1930), Earth Abides (1949) and Riddley Walker (1980) (1980) both reveal and deprecate human vanity. Childhood’s End (1953) nd The Drowned World (1962) enlarge and deepen the perspective beyond Earth as we know it. His afterword cites more recent books portraying sf’s museum function, and points out that even sf itself now has a place in museums. 

N. Kathleen Hayles finds immortality narratives embody their opposite, but cyber immortality opens new vistas and questions. “Embodied virtuality” provides continuity with an on/off switch and variable memory (comparable to time travel alterations). William Gibson’s cyberspace is crowded, and its point of view literally creates characters. Cyber immortality even inverts biological gender: immersion is treated as female, male as escape. Her afterword sees today’s cyber reality as more implausible and interesting than even sophisticated fiction depicts. 

As in Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah (1922) Frederic Jameson’s turgid and verbose essay inevitably finds in longevity a metaphor for class struggle. Extended life recasts morality and forecasts ultimate boredom, for which death is a solution. Frank McConnell sees little interest in the failures of technological and theological immortality. Remembered speech, story promises a kind of immortality, but even stories require closure. Dave Bowman becomes Starchild, but 2001 (1968), Dune (1965), and Blade Runner (1982) all face mortality. Sf stories present a gnostic and pastoral phase before the “homecoming” of death.

Visual SF

Vivian Sobchack says American sf films typically address, displace or condense male fear and desire in action and dreams, despite some counter examples. In a technological world the U.S. treats as masculine, biological sex is rare, distracting, or displaced racially or mechanically. Ships penetrate space and alien takeover is rape; even Ripley in Alien (1979) is masculine in ship routine and battle scenes, though she is stripped at the end.. Her lengthy afterword argues that after 9/11 (America’s castration) abnegation replaced repression, while perpetual danger, ambiguity, weakness, time travel do-overs, and selfies increase as in The Edge of Tomorrow (2014). Reaction to disaster is muted, males more nurturing, and women more prominent although “othered.” Teenage disaster flicks feature female protagonists, albeit with repressive older females, while abjection is clearly denied in The Martian (2015) with its helpful female administrator.

In their discussion of comic books and “bandes dessinees,” Danielle Chatelain and George Slusser compare French and American treatments of space travel. French illustrations once treated rockets as trains, and their juvenile comics follow Verne’s emphasis on nuts-and-bolts. American comic books retain flying man characters, while spaceships in French cover art are often metaphors for regressive and inward-looking adult stories using space as a mental image.

Kirk Hampton and Carol MacKay praise the late Richard Powers’s paperback cover art, typically fusing flesh and technology, progressing toward abstraction and surrealism comparable to that of Yves Tanguy . Much of it treats sf as reaching toward the unknowable or the end of time. His portfolio Spacetimewarp (1983) also sparkles with witty commentary. Afterword: The internet and numerous blogs have increaaed wider sharing of his work which includes larger canvasses and has had wide-ranging influences. [Why cut this?]

Howard Hendrix shows Omni magazine gentrifying sf fiction publications in the 1960s. Slick in size and material, it was more general, sexy, and expensive, aimed at an older, wealthier and more cosmopolitan audience. Reflecting late capitalism and the global economy, its postmodern posturing merged fiction with other elements, but its proportion of content focusing on science and the future gradually shrank. Cyberpunks were its stepchildren, apolitical, amoral, valorizing the status quo, while digest magazines preserved traditional sf and its warnings and social criticism. His aftereword reaffirms that conclusion without mentioning other slicks that have surfaced, mostly emphasizing fantasy and cinema.

Canonical Issues

Rebuked for teaching and writing about sf, and even for departing from the sf canon, Marlene Barr argues that reading sf, especially women authors, challenges the feminist dystopia of the patriarchal world. Pointing to Donald Trump, her afterword reaffirms her feminist argument, but has little to do with sf.. The perpetual hostility to sf of the academic canon is ironic for Thomas Shippey. Its inherent novelty challenges conservatism, yet Modernist academia loves other kinds of novelty. Darwinism in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) inverts Odysseus’ encounter with Circe, discounting significant differences between man and beast. The Time Machine also forecasts a blasphemous upending like that of Gulliver’s Travels (1726), dismissing predecessors, challenging authority (i.e., imperialism), and promoting the authority of science. While Postmodern theory rejects all authority, engineer elevated sf is intertextual, building on other sf and on science.

I agree with Carl Freedman that the “Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (1959) pales next to the 19th century debate between Thomas Henry Huxley and Matthew Arnold. He shows that F.R. Leavis and C. P. Snow understood little of each other’s positions, although both showed a preference for Tolstoy and 19th century realism. Both physics and Modernism were already inaccessible to lay audiences, and sf’s attempt to mediate between the “two cultures” was itself estranging, His afterword: finds Leavis’s reputation higher and Snow’s lower, while mutual incomprehension remains. He does not acknowledge that sf and fantasy may have become more popular and understood since midcentury.

This collection is not a “best of,” but it documents the spectrum of scholarship and analysis of sf and fantasy as it became a cottage industry. Few of these articles were groundbreaking even when first presented, but this volume collects in one place the growth of scholarship and criticism in the field, which should be of interest to libraries, scholars, teachers and even some fans whose curiosity runs in that direction.

Review of Rabitch, et al.’s Set Phasers to Teach!

Review of Set Phasers to Teach! Star Trek in Research and Teaching edited by Stefan Rabitsch, Martin Gabriel, Wilfried Elmenreich, and John N.A. Brown

Bruce Lindsley Rockwood

Stefan Rabitsch, Martin Gabriel, Wilfried Elmenreich, and John N.A. Brown, editors. Set Phasers to Teach! Star Trek in Research and Teaching. Springer, 2018. Paperback, 236 pages, $39.99. ISBN 9783319737751.

The four co-editors of Set Phasers to Teach include three Austrian academics specializing in American Studies, History, and Computer Science, respectively, and one independent scholar and consultant (John N. A. Brown) specializing in UX (User) Research. All appear to be enthusiastic supporters of the feedback between Star Trek in all its iterations and the scientific and academic communities. This enthusiasm is reflected in the heading of their Preface: “‘Engage!’ Science Fiction and Science Inspire Each Other and Move Society Forward” (ix). Their fifteen contributors lay out in fifteen distinct and concise essays the variety of ways in which specific episodes, events and characters, and the overall themes and trajectory of the franchise facilitate this positive feedback loop.

The format and layout for each essay in the book includes original illustrative cartoons highlighting the theme of each essay, an abstract with keywords, a brief “Editors Log” summarizing the thesis of the essay, and illustrative quotations from specific episodes of one or more Star Trek episodes. Essays are broken down with informative subtitles, and contain Works Cited (Endnotes) and sometimes additional Recommended Readings and in-text footnotes. 

The appendices are comprehensive lists of every Star Trek episode (through Discovery, Season 1) and film, listing them by Season, Episode, Title, Stardate, Director, Credited Writers, and Original air date, all derived from Wikipedia and the Memory Alpha Wiki. This information will enable a reader interested in following up specific themes and episodes mentioned in the essays to track them down and facilitate streaming them (or excerpts) for use in teaching and research.

The editors and authors make good use of available primary sources (the episodes and films) as well as commentary by contributors to their creation, and scientists, astronauts, and others who have commented upon the influence of Star Trek on their own lives and work. The emphasis is on the power of narrative to, as they quote Gene Rodenberry remarking in the Introduction to Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, “show humans as we really are. We are capable of extraordinary things” (xi).

The essays cover a wide range of topics, including using Star Trek to teach literature by highlighting its frequent uses of and references to classical literature, and the ways episodes can be used to bring out themes such as self-sacrifice, revenge, and pride (Elizabeth B. Hardy, at 9). Erin K. Horáková provides an illuminating essay and critique of how the series engages “with Post-war American Jewish Identity” (13-27). Stefan Rabitsch explores the role of the original series in translating American culture to tell “modern morality plays” in the historical period of the Cold War when America was replacing Britain in a “benevolent” role as “protector and defender of the western world” (29-43). He notes, “Even though the original run ended in 1969, the Star Trek formula was such that it could easily be adapted to changing contexts by virtue of the frontier’s inherent metaphorical characteristics while supported by a stable utopian world of scientific progress and discovery” (39).

“How to Name a Starship: Starfleet between Anglo-American Bias and the Ideals of Humanism,” by Martin Gabriel (43-50), argues that the dominance of Anglophone names of Starships “shows us that the ethnocentric traditions of the twentieth century, maybe even an imperialist approach to cultural history, were vivid throughout the production of the franchise” (49). 

“The Computer of the Twenty-Third Century: Real-World HCI Based on Star Trek,” by Gerhard Leitner and John N. A. Brown (51- 61), explores how the Human-Computer Interface (HCI) was portrayed in the original series, how it inspired further developments, and what remains to be done to address reliability, security and privacy concerns, and ease of use, concluding “despite the many examples of advanced HCI that already exist in the home, we are still very far from the twenty-third century. . . That said, one of the next steps has already been taken. It is now possible to have reliable and secure voice-based interaction that seems natural and intuitive to the user, provided designers and developers are willing to take the time needed to build it” (60). In the context of the challenge to aircraft safety posed by the recent crashes of the Boeing 737 Max attributed at least in part to software updates, loss of pilot control over aircraft computer systems, and training failures, this essay is a particularly interesting contribution to the collection.

Other essays explore the energy system that propels the Enterprise and other Starships, comparing the required power to the available power on Earth itself (63-70); the relationship of Starfleet to pre-modern societies and the role of the prime directive (71-81); and the way Star Trek has inspired innovations in science and technology, citing the 2017 Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize and the close relationship of the franchise to NASA (83-93). Carey Millsap-Spears presents an exploration of the use of Star Trek in teaching rhetoric and process writing while addressing the concerns and issues facing the LGBTQ+ Community in the context of a college composition course, developing research and critical thinking skills (95-105).

Additional essays address “Using the Borg to Teach Collective Computing Systems” (107-115); “Telepathic Pathology in Star Trek” (117-124); and an intriguing proposal for a better designed Video Game based on Star Trek after an assessment and critique of the games previously released since 2000 (125-135). Vivian Fumiko Chin presents a thorough review of the critical literature and interesting discussion of “Cognitive Science and Ways of Thinking About Narrative, Theory of Mind, and Difference” that explores the use of examples from Star Trek to introduce students to these concepts and ways of thinking about empathy and respect for difference, using Spock’s mind meld with the Horta in the original series (TOS) episode “The Devil in the Dark” as one example (1371-47).

In “La Forge’s VISOR and the Pictures in Our Heads,” Nathaniel Bassett gives a review of the critical literature and an explanation of the role of media studies and how socio-technical systems help mediate our experiences (149-160). In a concluding essay, John N. A. Brown discusses anthropology-based computing (ABC), cognitive bias, and the use of Star Trek to teach about scientific thinking (161-172). He observes, “A scientific thinker separates their personal perception of their own self-worth from their faith in what they think they know. They do this by assuming they are wrong and asking others to check their work. . . And that is the purpose of teamwork in Star Trek: using many minds to improve ideas. In this way they show us how to seek new facts and new information; to boldly disprove ideas that everyone has believed before” (171).

Together these essays make an entertaining and rewarding overview of the many ways one can employ Star Trek in teaching and research. They can be deployed at all levels of education, regardless of discipline or areas of expertise. The book is printed on acid free paper, is well designed, and presents its materials in a manner accessible to a general reader while giving guidance for further research to faculty and students alike. It deserves to be widely read.

One omission from my perspective is any discussion of the use of Star Trek in teaching about legal issues, which has been explored on a number of occasions, e.g., Paul Joseph and Sharon Carton, “The Law of the Federation: Images of Law, Lawyers and the Legal System in Star Trek: The Next Generation,” 24 U. Tol. L. Rev, 43 (1992); Michael P. Schartf and Lawrence D. Roberts, “The Interstellar Relations of the Federation: International Law and ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,'” 25 U. Tol. L. Rev. 577 (1994); “Law, Literature and Science Fiction: A Symposium,” Bruce L. Rockwood, editor, 13 Legal Studies Forum 267 (1999). Perhaps the editors will bear this in mind if they pursue a follow-up collection, since the subject will continue to attract fans and scholars alike.

Review of Lothian’s Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility

Review of Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility by Alexis Lothian

Kristen Koopman

Alexis Lothian. Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility. New York UP, 2018. Paperback, 352 pages, $30.00. ISBN 9781479825851.

It would be easy for Old Futures to feel scattered, covering as it does a century’s worth of source material, three different forms of media, and theory ranging from traditional SF criticism to fan studies. Yet somehow Lothian not only pulls it off, but makes it seem effortless.

Lothian’s framing argument is that futures in science fiction have historically written out queerness in favor of timelines depending on implicit heterosexual reproduction, and that queer counterfuturisms instead nurture visions of new possibilities for science, technology, gender, and race. This argument is broken down into a series of roughly chronological case studies, following an introduction that covers the theoretical basis of the book: a chapter on eugenics and reproduction in feminist utopias, a chapter on gender’s relationship with violence and fascism in dystopias written between the two World Wars, a chapter on Afrofuturistic writings in response to eugenics, a chapter linking speculative pleasures to modes of estrangement, a chapter on the (sadly few) queer SF films that create new ways of engaging with the world, and a chapter on fanvidding and remix culture as responses to visions of the future. These chapters are interspersed with three shorter digressions that show how the theories and insights of the previous chapters may be applied to other works.

While Old Futures of course draws upon traditional SF criticism (including the obligatory explanation of why the author chose to use “speculative fiction,” its associated critiques, an expression of hope that the work won’t get pigeonholed into genre-studies, and so on), the breadth of its engagements is truly impressive, as is its depth. Each chapter provides precisely the background needed to understand the particular case studies without becoming repetitive, and so each chapter could easily stand alone. Nevertheless, the chronological organization and consistent throughline of queer futurity keeps the book as a whole from feeling disjointed.

The standout chapters are the first, “Utopian Interventions to the Reproduction of Empire,” and the last, “How to Remix the Future.” The first chapter deftly unpacks the implicit reliance of most futurisms on heterosexual reproduction, noting that visions of futures are frequently visions of worlds for future children. Although the utopias studied in the chapter are feminist, Lothian points out that feminism at the time was deeply tied to other political projects: definitions of scientific and technological progress with undercurrents of eugenics, colonial visions of European futures, and the relationship between the rhetoric of futurity and contemplation of the present. These themes set up a status quo that is then critiqued in the third chapter, although both chapters stand alone well. “Utopian Interventions to the Reproduction of Empire” may be of particular interest to scholars in the medical humanities or science studies, due to its careful illustration of the eugenic values embedded in its cases.

The sixth chapter, “How to Remix the Future,” discusses the role of remix culture in refashioning narratives in mass media to present alternative visions of queer futures and to critique implicitly regressive creative decisions by makers of media. Lothian suggests that fan remix practices (such as the case study of fanvidding) may constitute (or at least contribute to) critical fandom, which counters the view of fandom as unquestioning consumption of media in favor of resistive readings and refiguring narratives. Lothian’s case study of the Firefly fanvid “How Much Is that Geisha in the Window?” is a particularly well-done analysis that is a welcome addition to fan studies. 

Yet Lothian takes this engagement with fan studies a step further and describes her own process taking up the practice of fanvidding in order to make critical contributions to fandom (in this case, Battlestar Galactica). This not only shows that Lothian takes fandom seriously as a means of critically engaging with media, but hopefully marks a path for other scholars to follow in her footsteps. As Lothian notes, fan remix practices such as vidding may provide avenues for scholars to better articulate theories and criticism of media, particularly for marginalized people; this can be seen both in the critiques of gender and heteronormative desire that Lothian describes in her own work and the racial critique of Firefly that she analyzes.

Old Futures is not without its weaknesses. The introduction, by doing much of the theoretical work of the entire text, is dense and abstract compared to seeing the theory in practice in the following chapters. The good news is that in sequestering it all in one place, it frees the other chapters to read much more easily; however, when reading the whole book through, it may be disproportionately slow going. Many of the concepts highlighted in the introduction also simply make more sense when utilized in more concrete analysis later on, which may be an artifact of the book seemingly being the author’s dissertation adapted into a monograph.

Additionally, the chapter on SF film lacks the thematic cohesion of previous chapters. This may be because the films, in Lothian’s analysis, are more focused on futurity, speculation, and politics than the traditional tropes of science fiction. While I have no objection to an expansive definition of SF, it is telling that Lothian’s analysis largely hinges on the depictions of the future in its two case studies (Jubilee and Born in Flames). The analysis is insightful in unpacking the futures depicted on-screen, but the tools of SF criticism that have been used in previous chapters are absent here, and I remain unconvinced that this analysis looks at these films as SF. Lothian does note that there is not exactly an abundance of queer SF film, but nevertheless, this is likely to be the chapter that is least useful to those looking for SF criticism.

Overall, Lothian has constructed an admirable volume that I have already begun recommending to colleagues. This is her first book, and it bodes well; I look forward to seeing what Lothian does next.

Review of Palumbo’s A Dune Companion

Review of A Dune Companion: Characters, Places and Terms in Frank Herbert’s Original Six Novels by Donald E. Palumbo

Kara Kennedy

Donald E. Palumbo. A Dune Companion: Characters, Places and Terms in Frank Herbert’s Original Six Novels. McFarland, 2018. Paperback, 189 pages, $35.00. ISBN 9781476669601.

Donald E. Palumbo’s A Dune Companion: Characters, Places and Terms in Frank Herbert’s Original Six Novels is number 62 in the Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy series, of which Palumbo is a co-editor. The book offers less of a new critical commentary on the Dune series and more of an updated version of Palumbo’s arguments from two previous articles published in 1997 and 1998 and a book published in 2002, followed by a compilation of information from the series in an encyclopedic format.

The book is divided into two sections: a long introduction on ecology, chaos-theory concepts and structures, and the monomyth and their presence in the series, and a companion of characters, places, and terms. Both sections achieve their aim: the former to prove the existence of aesthetic integrity through consideration of chaos-theory concepts and structures present in the novels, and the latter to remind readers of characters and events. However, the two parts lack cohesion, which perhaps is unavoidable when including a type of glossary that is not intended to offer commentary or analysis.

For the reader wondering about the mention in the title of the original six novels, the introduction immediately addresses the reason for this focus: they have an “extremely-high level of aesthetic integrity” and an “unusually deep interrelationship between form and content” derived from the relationship between the ecological theme and fractal structure that other texts based in the same universe do not (1). The introduction proceeds to present a persuasive argument with ample evidence, examples, and direct quotations to show how these novels contain myriad elements of chaos theory and the monomyth. It is divided into two sections, the first on the ecological theme and chaos theory, and the second on the monomyth as fractal pattern, with a short conclusion that brings all of the arguments together. 

Although the introduction explains key terminology and theories before showing how the series aligns with them, some of the concepts could have been made more accessible to readers. Chaos theory is presented as the idea that, despite real-world systems being irregular and complex, there are laws that govern phenomena like populations, weather, and biological systems, and that complex dynamical—or nonlinear—systems are made up of interlocking feedback loops. Feedback loops are explained as a process in which the behavior of one element affects the behavior of others, such that when part of the system’s output returns as input, this then affects the output, and the process keeps continuing. Palumbo offers fractal geometry as the best-known manifestation of chaos theory, wherein a geometric procedure can be used to generate images that replicate similar structures but are not necessarily identical. The use of examples such as snowflakes—which may look identical but have tiny differences—and the branching that occurs in nature—which can be found in circulatory and bronchial systems as well as in plants—helps make the ideas more understandable, but it would have been helpful to have further explanation of them. Having introduced these concepts, Palumbo then states that the Dune series contains a fractal architecture and a fractal reiteration of plot structure, themes, and motifs, which ultimately serves to represent its universe as a dynamical system. Through this, Palumbo argues, the series’ key theme of ecology and its core concept of chaos theory are then reinforced. Palumbo makes an important note that Herbert published his first Dune novels before chaos theory was identified in the 1970s and 1980s. This shows not only that Herbert was ahead of his time, but also that science fiction authors can extrapolate scientific concepts before they are formally articulated by scientists. 

The introduction then proceeds to analyze the many variations of the fractal structure or images in the series, which readers can see signaled by the repetition of the fractal metaphor in phrases like “plans within plans,” “tricks within tricks,” “wheels within wheels,” and others (8). It examines the occurrence of this structure in the series as a whole, in each of the novels individually, and in characters, and how this structure reiterates Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth. It also discusses how the repetition of themes such as metamorphosis into the Other, secrecy and disguise, and death and rebirth are subsumed into the monomyth structure and further reinforce the fractal structure. Each aspect of the argument contains numerous examples from the series and interweaves concepts from chaos theory and ecology for additional support. There is also attention and detail provided for lesser-studied characters like the Tleilaxu, which makes for a balanced discussion. 

The section on the monomyth examines the recurring elements of the monomythic hero as evidence of the existence of a clear fractal structure. It provides a brief overview of Campbell’s monomyth and the stages of the archetypal hero’s adventure, and then traces their appearance in the series. It notes some of Herbert’s unusual choices, including at times having the monomythic hero be a secondary character rather than the protagonist, and enabling female characters to share in the hero’s role. Palumbo’s attention to female characters again shows an ability to create a balanced discussion inclusive of a variety of characters and groups. Overall, although an analysis of fractal structures may be a dry topic, readers interested in the series can expect to find a new appreciation for Herbert’s writing craft based on Palumbo’s insights and extensive use of detail.

The companion / encyclopedia section of the book provides a useful reference guide to the series. It does the at-times challenging work of compiling the few details or clues Herbert gives, which offers a helpful consolidation of information as well as a reminder of characters and terms the reader may have forgotten about. Particularly valuable is the note about which book the information is derived from for each entry. An unfortunate issue is the presence of dozens of typos and other errors in spelling and tense consistencies in the entries. In addition, some entries seem overly brief in relation to their importance; for example, the entry for Voice consists of only 22 words, while the entry for krimshell fiber consists of 38 words. Reading it straight through shows the repetitive nature of some entries, but it is unlikely to be read this way when consulted as a reference work. It would be good as a reference source for researchers, especially those without access to digital copies of the texts.

Review of Campbell’s Arabic Science Fiction

Review of Arabic Science Fiction by Ian Campbell

Steven Holmes

Ian Campbell. Arabic Science Fiction. Palgrave, 2018. Studies in Global Science Fiction. Hardcover, 322 pages, $89.99. ISBN 9783319914329.

Editor’s note: Ian Campbell is an editor of SFRA Review. I confirm as editor that he has had no involvement in the preparation of this review for publication.

SF scholars who are interested in how SF in Arabic may differ from or critique Anglophone SF may at first wonder why Ian Campbell has such a sustained emphasis on Darko Suvin throughout Arabic Science Fiction. Suvin certainly is a formative figure in genre theory discussions about science fiction, although he is not quite as in vogue in contemporary science fiction studies as he once was. Nonetheless, Campbell sees Suvin’s conception of cognitive estrangement as significant for understanding Arabic SF and for Arabic-language SF scholars. As a result, Campbell’s project is an examination of the manifestations of cognitive estrangement in Arabic Science Fiction (ASF), and one of his central arguments builds off of Suvin directly.

Campbell presents his conception of ASF as working off “double estrangement,” which reflects the “total lack of legal protections for freedom of expression in the modern Arabic world” (6-7) and that consequently “Arab writers in all genres, especially the canonical literary fiction to which ASF aspires, have learned to conceal their critique under layers of story in order to provide plausible deniability in the face of scrutiny by the regime” (7). ASF aims toward social criticism in order to be taken seriously as art. The “double” in “double estrangement” deals with the perception of science and technology; that is, ASF “draws attention to the drop-off in scientific and technological innovation in the Arab world since the glory days of Arab/Muslim dominance” (10). ASF stories may critique the state from a post-colonial perspective, but they critique the culture for reliance on mysticism. Campbell presents this concept as a way of signaling that readers may struggle to understand the intended critique of ASF works due to the works’ critiquing multiple vectors of society simultaneously, so that there may not be one central point but several. Likewise, ASF will not tend to have analogues to Golden Age SF works, given the differences in production and audience.

The book is divided into eleven chapters. The introduction sets up the considerations of Suvin and “Double Estrangement” that shape the rest of the volume. Chapter 2, “Postcolonial Literature and Arabic SF,” outlines why ASF may be understood as “manifestly a postcolonial literature: it is produced in formerly colonized states, for readers in and from these states” (21) and thus is distinct from many works of postcolonial literature written in English by authors living in diaspora. In chapter 3, “Arabic SF: Definitions and Origins,” Campbell draws from Ada Barbaro’s work to discuss four genres of classical Arabic literature that serve as proto-SF: philosophical works that use voyages to pose arguments, adventure voyages, the utopian tradition, and mirabilia, which is a genre that focuses on real or imaginary places or events that challenge human understanding. Chapter 4, “Criticism and Theory of Arabic SF,” tries to establish a coherent framework for the relatively minimal amount of Arabic SF criticism. Partly this involves dealing with the issue of diglossia, the consequence of which is that most ASF, since it is written in the Modern Standard Arabic used for literature, is rendered “the nearly exclusive province of a small class of highly educated people” (79). That is, instead of being built on a pulp background, Arabic SF has as its audience primarily an educated and elite audience. These first four chapters do a great job of setting up the myriad ways in which ASF operates in an entirely different rhetorical and literary situation from commercial western SF.

The remaining chapters each focus on case studies. As has been the case throughout Campbell’s study, for several of these works, there is no English translation. This makes Campbell’s study essential for the scholar but somewhat less accessible for a teacher who might be thinking about texts to include in a syllabus. Chapter 5 returns to the central concept of “double estrangement” regarding Egyptian author Nihād Sharīf’s The Conqueror of Time (1972). It is a political allegory that also estranges “Egyptian society as stagnant, figuratively frozen in its obsession with the past” (119) through the novum of cryogenics. Chapter 6 focuses on two novels by Egyptian scholar Mustafā Mahmūd and the exploitation of the peasantry by urban elites. Unfortunately, even Mahmūd’s The Spider (1965), which is regarded as the first ASF novel, is hard to get access to in Western markets. Chapter 7 presents Ṣabrī Mūsā’s The Gentleman from the Spinach Field (1987) as comparable to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), in depicting a character trying to escape a dystopian reality and failing to find a sustainable alternative. Chapter 8 discusses Aḥmad ‘Abd al-Salām al-Baqqāli’s The Blue Flood (1976). Campbell argues that al-Baqqāli uses some of the same themes as Mahmūd, but places Western culture as an additional point of view, allowing him to critique reformers “for their inability or refusal to question their patriarchal assumptions” (219). Chapter 9 focuses on Ṭālib ‘Umrān’s Beyond the Veil of Time (1985), which, unlike many of the aforementioned works of science fiction, takes place on a foreign planet. Here Campbell argues that although the novel is superficially trite, it works as particularly effective estrangement for the educated elite readership of ASF, especially their belief that an alternative to despotism can emerge without violence. Chapter 10 focuses on a three-novel series by Kuwaiti author Tība ‘Ahmad Ibrāhīm, characterized by Campbell as the only notable female writer of ASF before the 2000s. Campbell argues that Ibrāhīm’s novels serve to show a transition in ASF, where narratives about the effect of technology, modernity, and colonialism do not need to be “cordoned off from everyday life” (278); that is, ASF is starting to become slightly more direct. 

For the scholar, Campbell’s study does an excellent job of exploring how works of ASF from a range of different countries (Kuwait, Egypt, Syria) have approached the literary demands and political risks of writing speculative fiction meant to critique the existing regimes and cultural programs. The primary frustration for the reader is likely not to be with Campbell’s analysis, but with the reality that many of these novels will remain largely inaccessible to the west. Nonetheless, scholars who want to understand the specific challenges of the emergence of science fiction in postcolonial settings would do well to explore Campbell’s volume.

Review of Banerjee and Fritzsche’s Science Fiction Circuits of the South and East

Review of Science Fiction Circuits of the South and East edited by Anindita Banerjee and Sonja Fritzsche

Virginia L. Conn

Anindita Banerjee and Sonja Fritzsche, editors. Science Fiction Circuits of the South and East. Peter Lang, 2018. World Science Fiction Studies 2. Paperback, 258 pages, $67.95. ISBN 9781787075931.

Situating this project in the trajectories and “dizzying arcs of migration” (2) that have co-constituted the vast constellation of science fiction produced across the world—as numerous as stars in the sky and much of it equally unexplored—Science Fiction Circuits of the South and East opens with a beautiful personal account of the trajectories that brought the editors to their respective orientations to and within science fiction. As Banerjee points out, within her real lived experience, much of science fiction was more familiar to her, more comprehensible and close, than stories from the English canon. Using the daffodil as an image of alienation, for example, ties this collection to many other notable authors—Chinua Achebe, Jamaica Kincaid, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—who have similarly staked their work in a recognition of the inapplicability of writing imposed from outside their lived experiences. Despite its radical recontextualizing of translation and transmission, however, this collection does not strike an essentialist argument; rather, it recognizes that the intertextuality of much “semi-peripher[al] and peripher[al]” (6) SF has been shaped by and often in response to stories already received as deeply alien. At the same time, it recognizes that the dual impulses at work in much contemporary SF theorizing—to historicize traditions outside of the historical centers of Western power while simultaneously seeking to deconstruct the center/periphery binary—tend to not be in dialogue with each other. This anthology, then, offers a unique contribution to contemporary SF studies by focusing on circulation, through which literature transforms and is transformed.

The collection traces the circulations of socialist and postsocialist SF in Europe and Asia alongside examinations of the materio-cultural productions of the global South in Asia and the Americas, a shift in contextual perspective that is mirrored in the collection’s layout. Shifting the impetus from space and location to movement and adaptation allows for fascinating juxtapositions, such as the association in the first section, “An Other Transatlantic,” of Transatlantic writings and their receptions and adaptations across socialist Russia, 1919 Mexico, and through the Soviet-Cuban imaginary of the Cold War period. Race and socialist revolution are the hallmarks of these essays, which uniformly offer unorthodox and exciting new ways of reading. The very first chapter, for example, analyzes Zemyatin’s seminal We (1924) as a radical Afrofuturist text—an unconventional reading that is meticulously researched, elegantly argued, and works specifically because of its unique perspective.

Part two, “Transnationalism behind the Iron Curtain,” focuses on East-East circulations between the Soviet Union and associated satellite states. The focus here is on the shared ethos of communist science pedagogy and humanistic grappling with what it means to confront the Other and, in doing so, how we establish our place in the universe. These essays, too, tackle who “we” are, primarily in the context of displaced contemporary anxieties mapped onto a future that has become largely homogeneous under socialism. While all the essays contained herein are geographically situated in Eastern Europe, the content they address is very different—from the dialectical materialism of Carl Gelderloos’ approach to Eastern European science fiction texts to Sonja Fritzsche’s East German cinema to Sibelan Forrester’s “elite literary science fiction” (165) and its translations. 

The final section, “Asymptotic Easts and Subterranean Souths,” deals with East-South and East-East circulations. Unlike the first two sections, which each contained three essays, this segment includes only two—a real pity, given the potential richness of the umbrella topic. As it stands, it’s perhaps not surprising that for a collection so focused on the workings of comparative literary studies outside of the imperialist center, a member of the Warwick Research Collective, Pablo Mukherjee, would be included here with an essay on race, science, and the spirit of Bandung. A wonderful distinction about this essay in particular is that it privileges the role of science in science fiction and what that means when “science” is removed from its Western epistemological dialectics and considered in a specific and localized spatio-temporal register for assessing lived, material conditions, rather than as a “mere” narrative device. This discussion of “non-aligned science” (193) and local adaptation leads seamlessly to the next essay, which focuses on the reception of a Russian writer in China and the impact his work had on reassessing the memory of revolution through non-state-sanctioned mediations. 

This collection offers a meticulously-researched, compelling approach to an aspect of global science fiction that is at once constantly mutable and yet tied to specific sites of production. Both Fritzsche and Banerjee are renowned scholars in their own areas of expertise, and together they make a formidable pair of editors. The essays collected here are significantly more polished and subtle than many similar attempts at anthologies, in no small part—as many of the authors explicitly acknowledge—thanks to the incisive eye for detail Banerjee and Fritzsche have brought as editors. 

Not only are the essays excellent taken individually—each one deserves its own response essay—but the collection as a whole works beautifully to illustrate its overall theme of transmission and adaptation. The rhizomatic scaling of topics contained in this collection illustrates the complexity of working with multiples sites of production as located in specific geographic milieus while simultaneously connecting and branching to numerous other material productions; there is no one canon of “world SF” in much the same way that we cannot speak of one internet. This rhizomatic internet analogy is made explicitly at the conclusion of the introduction and finds a fascinating mirror complement in the final essay by Jinyi Chu, which touches on unofficial internet translations and their role in shaping and disseminating information. So, then, even in layout and flow the collection serves to illustrate its own theme. Ultimately, while this groundbreaking anthology might be most warmly received by those working outside the Western Anglophone canon, its unique approach to the assessment of literature in circulation makes it a critical addition to any SF scholar’s library.

Review of Michaud and Watkins’s Iron Man vs. Captain America and Philosophy

Review of Iron Man vs. Captain America and Philosophy: Give Me Liberty or Keep Me Safe edited by Nicolas Michaud and Jessica Watkins

Michael J. Hancock

Nicholas Michaud and Jessica Watkins, editors. Iron Man vs. Captain America and Philosophy: Give Me Liberty or Keep Me Safe. Open Court, 2018. Paperback. 288 pages, $13.56. ISBN 9780812699760.

In May 2019, the release of Avengers: Endgame served as the culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, a franchise of twenty-two films released over eleven years. This essay collection, Iron Man vs. Captain America and Philosophy: Give Me Liberty or Keep Me Safe, edited by Nicholas Michaud and Jessica Watkins, focuses on a key installment in that franchise, Captain America: Civil War (2016). In the film, Avengers Iron Man (aka Tony Stark) and Captain America (aka Steve Rogers) have a falling out over ceding the Avengers’ authority to a governing body and the fate of Bucky Barnes, Cap’s brainwashed former best friend. Each of the twenty-four chapters in the collection considers the characters’ respective cases, resulting in a book that uses philosophy to evaluate the superhero genre, and vice versa.

The first section of the book features six essays that favor Iron Man’s perspective, that superheroes need to be regulated for the greater good, and more generally, Iron Man is the better hero. Three particularly stand out. Daniel Malloy argues that Tony is ultimately a better hero because he is more flawed but struggles against those flaws. This argument reflects a popular framing of the difference between Marvel and DC superheroes, that DC’s are more iconic, but Marvel’s, through their flaws and insecurities, are more relatable. Heidi Samuelson maintains that despite Captain America’s overt patriotism, it is billionaire entrepreneur Tony Stark who better represents the values of the United States. The argument is perhaps pessimistic, but it does very well in tracing the ideas of Locke and Smith into contemporary neoliberalism. Finally, Cole Bowman closes the section with an examination of friendship from Aristotle to Derrida, arguing that while Cap shows great loyalty to a single friend, Bucky Barnes, he endangers his other friends, whereas Iron Man acts for the greatest benefit of all.

The second section takes the opposite approach, with nine essays in favor of Captain America and his insistence on remaining free from regulatory power. Many of these arguments focus on Captain America’s relation to universality: for example, Rob Luzecky and Charlene Elsby argue that Cap recognizes Camus’ paradox of humanity, striving for a universal good while remaining rooted in the particular: he neither surrenders to circumstances nor, as Tony does, maintains an idealized principle over the people around him. Nathan Bosma and Adam Barkman use Kant to argue that Cap’s ideals make for a better universal principle than Iron Man’s, explaining Kant’s categorical imperatives in an accessible manner. Last, Maxwell Henderson argues in a dialogue with an imaginary idealized comics fan that, via analogy to Bertrand Russell’s set theory paradox, Iron Man’s entire premise is flawed—choosing regulation endangers those close to them, but defying it, according to Iron Man, places people in danger. Thus, even framing the question places superheroes in an unsolvable paradox.

The third and fourth sections are framed around the notion of a tie between the two and a focus on the war itself, respectively; in practice, that means illustrating that Tony’s and Cap’s arguments are equal or equally flawed, and questioning the entire premise of superheroes. For example, Christophe Porot argues that both heroes concentrate on extending their capacities: Tony extends himself through technology and Steve through people, convincing others to join his cause. However, Cap then takes responsibility for the actions performed by people acting as his extension, which sounds noble, but Porot makes the case that in doing so, he dismisses their emotional response to those actions, thus moving against the personal autonomy he seems to champion. In one of the most interesting essays of the collection, Jeffrey A. Ewing argues that the Civil War event, in both its comic book and film forms, draws out the challenge superheroes pose to nation-states. As forces that operate within a nation-state’s border but outside of its monopoly of force within those borders, superheroes, through their existence as independent agents, challenge the nation-state’s claim to sovereignty; like Henderson, Ewing draws out how Civil War speaks to the tensions at the core of the genre.

This collection seems intended primarily for an audience of interested lay people already interested in superheroes and curious about philosophy. But with some guidance from the instructor, it is also well-suited for use in the classroom, as I can attest; while I was reading it, I somewhat serendipitously had a student who chose to write their final paper on Captain America: Civil War, and reference to the ideas in this book made it much easier for the student and myself to clarify what ideas from the film they wanted to address. This instance demonstrates the book’s value: that its topic is one students are already willing to engage. However, as the 115th book in the Popular Culture and Philosophy series, Iron Man vs. Captain America faces a challenge its compatriots do not: by centering itself on this particular conflict between heroes, the collection limits its potential scope. It does so more gracefully than a similar, earlier book in the series (Batman, Superman, and Philosophy) but there is still a sense of repetition, as the reader is told yet again the events of Civil War. I greatly appreciate that many authors do go a bit beyond the film’s boundaries to incorporate the comics, though it’s a shame the comics are omitted from the references list.

In the aftermath of End Game, it is tempting to read that film as erasing the consequences of Civil War, that Tony and Steve set aside their differences figuratively and literally, each explicitly adopting advice given by the other. However, to do so would also be to erase the questions the film raises about the superhero genre, questions of having authority to act and responsibilities toward others. The most common superhero question always seems to be who would win in a fight; by transitioning that question into a fight of ideas, Iron Man vs. Captain America illustrates how the questions of fans and the questions of philosophers are already in conversation.