Gregory Benford, Gary Westfahl,
Howard V. Hendrix, & Joseph D. Miller
(McFarland, 2018, pb, 271 pp.)
Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy is a collection of the best academic presentations over the course of 25 years from the J. Lloyd Eaton conference. As such, it will have little interest for the casual science fiction fan, but for those of us with a deep love of the genre and/or an academic interest in the material, it is a valuable collection. Included are a wide variety of essays from influential academics to A-list authors. While not all the essays have aged well, they open an interesting window into the world of SF literary criticism. Below I provide a precis of each essay with limited comments.
Reviewed by Robert L Turner III
Gregory Benford, Gary Westfahl, Howard V. Hendrix, and Joseph D. Miller
1. Science Fiction as Truncated Epic by Patrick Parrinder
Presenting a strong argument that SF should be viewed as related to epic narratives and poems, but in a truncated, more limited scope, Parrinder uses H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine as an exemplar of his thesis. It is an interesting article, contextualized in the academic world of 1979 from a British viewpoint. It is of less value now since almost 40 years of academic work has established a much more nuanced view of SF and its related genres.
2. Dialogues Concerning Human Understanding: Empirical Views of God from Locke to Lem by Stephen W. Potts
Potts uses Solaris (1961) as a springboard to discuss the concept of the limits of human knowledge. Potts explores the thinking of a number of philosophers from the 18th through 20th century, which he ties to Kafka and then back to Lem. This is a very good, well-reasoned, and compelling reading of the text and exploration of the human tendency to project themselves into their observations.
3. The Descent of Fantasy by Eric S. Rabkin
In this essay, Rabkin discusses the nature of food as a symbolic means of exchange and socialization in society as mediated by language and social narrative. This then segues into a narrative about the value of language and narrative itself with a tie in to evolutionary biology. Unfortunately, this chapter is overly self-referential and focused on rhetorical language rather than a tight argument.
4. The Virginity of Astronauts: Sex and the Science Fiction Film by Vivian Sobchack
In this article, the author argues that women and sex are generally suppressed in science fiction film, with sexuality stripped from female characters, and chooses to approach this perceived lack through dream analysis. To make her argument she uses a wide definition of SF (pulling from many B movies) and seems unable to decide if female sexuality is a positive or negative representation in film. Her discussion of Princess Leia and Ripley is a good example of this ambivalence. This article is a good example of mid-80’s feminist criticism with a heavy reliance on Freudian thought as filtered through Lacan. The extensive postscript acts to reassess the previous piece, but does so through the same lens adding multiple references to Kristeva. Despite Sobchack’s many contributions to the field, this article seems to start with a predetermined conclusion and backtrack to find supporting evidence. The weakest element in the article and its follow-up is that Sobchack universalizes her analysis to an, in my opinion, unsupportable degree.
5. Running Out of Speculative Niches: A Crisis for Hard Science Fiction? by David Brin
Brin’s title tells you what you need to know about this interesting essay on the challenges and potential limits to Hard SF. It is a short piece, and despite the 35 intervening years, remains a legitimate question.
6. Effing the Ineffable by Gregory Benford
In this essay, Benford describes the real challenge of the idea of the alien. For me, the key quote is: “The alien in SF is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question.” From there Benford explores the possibilities and limits of the truly alien. This is an excellent essay that brings to the fore some core questions of how we imagine and represent alien life.
7. Discriminating Among Friends: The Social Dynamics of the Friendly Alien by John Huntington
Here Huntington argues that the image of the benign alien is part of a social fantasy “of radical individualism that would deny the meaning and power of social groups altogether.” Exploring “A Martian Odyssey” Huntington provides a detailed analysis of individual and groups dynamics that implies an inability to meet aliens on truly level ground. This is a substantial essay with a lot of material to unpack. It has not aged at all.
8. Nature: Laws and Surprises by Poul Anderson
In this very accessible article, Anderson discusses the justifications for and mechanics of world building (literally, building worlds) and the possibilities that arise from it. It is well written and wide ranging and is sure to appeal to potential world builders. Those familiar with Brandon Sanderson’s discussions of world building will see similar themes developed here.
9. In the Palace of Green Porcelain: Artifacts from the Museums of Science Fiction by Robert Crossley
In this presentation, the author discusses the link between the function of science fiction and museums starting with a history of the formation of museums. Crossley then launches into a discussion of Shelley and Wells’ description of museums. As he develops his thesis, he makes a strong argument that the use of museums in SF often is used as a memento mori and reflection on humanity’s nature. This is an insightful and still pertinent essay.
10. Just How Frumious Is a Bandersnatch?: The Exotic and the Ambiguous in Imaginative Literature by Joseph D. Miller
Here Miller argues for the need to use ambiguous language, either in vocabulary or in description, to create a sense of wonder and to approach the idea of the ineffable. This is an interesting idea, but the article seems overly long for the point being made, namely that, by definition, we can’t explain the incomprehensible.
11. Making the Pulpmonster Safe for Demography: Omni Magazine and the Gentrification of Science Fiction by Howard V. Hendrix
Discussion of how Omni and genre SF reflect the divide in the global economy. He continues from that point to discuss the dangers of monocultural information streams. He also links cyberpunk with the upper caste values such as those displayed in Omni. He argues for an explicitly political SF writing. This is an interesting, if debate-worthy, article that has not aged particularly well, but still is pertinent.
12. For Tomorrow We Dine: The Sad Gourmet in the Scienticafé by Gary Westfahl
Westfahl creates a discussion of the presentation of food in SF and connects it to hospitals. It is an interesting observational article that I would like to see expanded.
13. Cannibalism in Science Fiction by Paul Alkon
Starting with “A Modest Proposal” and The Time Machine, Alkon argues that Swift’s essay fulfills the essential requirements of Science Fiction. He then continues to discuss the social standing of cannibals in SF. Addressing a number of stories, including two of Heinlein’s novels, the author provides a fascinating deep dive into the subject.
14. Longevity as Class Struggle by Fredric R. Jameson
Fredric R. Jameson is a world-renowned literary critic and in this essay he addresses the symbolism of the longevity motif in George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah. He points out that the first Methuselahs are not the rich and powerful, but the lower, forgotten class. From here he suggests that history moves likewise, not in an expected trajectory, but rather in a “Knight’s gambit.” He then links this idea to populist movements/revolutions and “radical mutations in society.” He continues to discuss Heinlein’s Lazarus Long and to consider the effect of longevity as a storytelling devise and as a representation of class struggle. The final section of this essay discusses the theme of immortality in more recent SF and the relationship challenges inherent with those who are not immortal. Jameson is a deep thinker and his ideas are always worth consideration. However, being Jameson, the reader also knows in advance that this will be a Marxist critique of the text. In the end, the essay is engaging as he joins multiple threads into a coherent whole. I would have loved an updated afterward similar to that provided in some of the other essays.
15. How Cyberspace Signifies: Taking Immortality Literally by N. Katherine Hayles
In her discussion of cyberspace, Hayes anticipates augmented reality as she discusses the role of cyberspace as literalization of abstractions. Taking William Gibson’s work as her text she delves into the way in which human and program come to occupy similar states of being. Her further observation of the gendered nature of how men and women interact with cyberspace is acute. To complete the article, the afterward discusses how digital developments over the past 25 years have varied from Gibson’s vision and the author speculates on how she would address the realm of the cyber today.
16. You Bet Your Life: Death and the Storyteller by Frank McConnell
In this interesting essay, McConnell discusses the nature of death, religion, and comedy as it relates to the human condition. He argues that Science Fiction is pastoral because “you can play at life rather than bet your life.” He finishes his essay by describing how meaning is gained in the return to common life, and not in the adventure itself.
17. Revamping the Rut Regarding Reading and Writing about Feminist Science Fiction: Or, I Want to Engage in “Procrustean Bedmaking” by Marleen S. Barr
This essay is both a defense of the author’s work and a call to avoid the trap of always citing and examining the same authors. She decries the tendency of scholars to slavishly imitate Derrida, Lacan and the like, instead of really looking at the texts available. While she does make some excellent points about enforcing conformity and literary boundaries, the majority of the text is self-promotion and ego-stroking. I view this as the weakest of the book’s essays.
18. Literary Gatekeepers and the Fabril Tradition by Tom Shippey
In his essay, Shippey discusses the tendency to dismiss SF as literature and addresses it in terms of “an implicit challenge to the old habitus, as to ‘the hegemonic canon’.” He continues by arguing for The Island of Doctor Moreau as a critical founding text in SF and argues forcefully that the text inverts classical Latin thought, specifically the myth of Circe. He then lists three elements that keep SF out of mainstream criticism. 1) Its contempt for tradition and previous cannon, 2) its sometimes imperialistic worldview, and 3) Sciences claim for “truth-to-fact” that is incompatible with contemporary post-modern criticism. His response is to celebrate homo faber, the maker and the innate intertextuality of SF. His statement “My own feeling is that science fiction is the field for structural, paradigmatic,
intertextual studies, based on an unyielding belief structure, and tolerant of a ‘fabril’ tradition resolutely and deliberately excluded by the literary and rhetorical interpretive community” is key to this argument. This long chapter is an astounding piece of knowledge and synthesis and one of the best pieces of academic work I’ve read in a long time.
19. Flying to the Moon in the French Bande Dessinée by Danièle Chatelain and George Slusser
In this essay the authors examine the French cultural elements in the representation of space travel in the Bande Dessinée. Starting with Jules Verne and them moving to Tintin, the authors track the development of the representation of space travel in French graphic novels. The young adult track tends towards more realistic representations, while the adult counterintuitively tends towards more symbolic or unrealistic imagery. This tendency in the adult Bande Dessinée is linked to French SF as an inward, surreal, psychological journey. The author’s point is best expressed in the following quote, “Verne travels to the center of the earth, Druillet to the center of the mind.” While interesting, this chapter is very much one for specialists and those with a background in French literature and visual arts.
20. Shapes from the Edge of Time: The Science Fiction Artwork of Richard M. Powers by Kirk Hampton and Carol MacKay
Here the presenters argue for the importance of Richard M. Powers’ work, not just as a visual artist, but as a surrealist. Hamilton and MacKay provide a number of examples, complete with analysis to further their point. The authors provide a detailed and convincing discussion on Powers’ work and the footnotes contain links for the reader to follow and see for themselves.
21. The Science Fiction of Medicine by H. Bruce Franklin
In this wandering essay H. Bruce Franklin begins with the presentation of disease in four works: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818, 1831), Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937), Greg Bear’s Blood Music (1985), and Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993). Franklin then looks at a number of texts which deal with plague, disease and death. He is at his best as he dissects meaning in the texts, but when he crosses over into social commentary the quality lags.
22. Science Fiction and the Two Cultures: Reflections after the Snow-Leavis Controversy by Carl Freedman
Reminiscent of the STEM/Liberal Arts debate of our time, Freedman examines the conflict between C. P. Snow (Novelist and Chemist) and F. R. Leavis (Literary Critic) and how the gap between the “two cultures,” science and literature, could be spanned by science fiction. Using the work of Howard V. Hendrix’s Lightpaths (1997) and Standing Wave (1998), Freedman argues that SF includes both science and humanity. This concluding essay fits neatly into place and forms a satisfying conclusion to the book.