Writing in orbit

Reading by Starlight - To Write like a Woman - Science Fiction Audiences - Shadows of the Future - How to Life Forever
March 1, 1996

By examining the ways in which H. G. Wells "explored the literary potential of prophecy in new ways", Patrick Parrinder in Shadows of the Future gives us a fine insight into a genre that shares much with postmodernity. Strange then that Wells's significance is seriously underrated. The theme of prophecy, Parrinder tells us, is never far from that of parody.

So it is in The Time Machine that we find a Wells who "once engaged in a spoof demonstration of a perpetual motion machine" alongside or, indeed, entwined with Wells the failed scientist, Wells the utopian visionary, Wells the scientific materialist, Wells the aficionado of dissection.

It is Parrinder's achievement to link a personal history to cultural change. While we are reminded of the time traveller's origins in 19th-century gothic and romantic melodrama we are also pointed forward to the possibilities of a "new science fiction", a science fiction which "still awaits its prophet". Prophecy might well turn to parody, but parody can similarly turn into prophecy.

In Stephen Clark's How to Live Forever: Philosophy and Science Fiction, prophecy is not the theme, it is the purpose. "Nothing that follows is meant as serious prophecy," writes Clark. "Most of what I describe may be, but probably won't be. Some of what I describe will, most certainly, not be (because it turns out to be impossible). But it would be rash to suppose that we can always tell the difference."

Clark's prophetic tone is reserved for the subject of immortality. His aim is to "examine the ways in which science fiction writers have imagined immortality", but it is also to consider the notion and nature of immortality itself, or at least our understanding of it. It is an aim he achieves resourcefully. But is this at the expense of rhetorical shape?

While Clark's argument that "science fiction, like philosophy, is a way of exploring our condition" is strong, it is not so strongly established that "we live between uncomprehended immensities, at the mercy of whatever powers stalk the night".

Ultimately, Clark's omniscience leaves the intellectual seriously in advance of the sensory. Paradoxically, How to Live Forever is a celebration of that most emotive, sensorial of human creatures: the fan.

In Science Fiction Audiences, Henry Jenkins and John Tulloch discuss the followers of the science fiction series Doctor Who and Star Trek. There are two problems here. The first is the tendency to take television as a given and therefore to align the origins and diversity of audiences to a relatively fixed, culture-specific technology. The second is the construction of the text itself.

While the authors do acknowledge that they were forced to leave out "particular conceptions of national identity", they nevertheless appear to treat the spatio-temporal discourse of television as unproblematically globalised. A "cross-cultural" study such as this would have benefited from some acknowledgement of the nonwestern.

Similarly, we are told early on that this text is the result of "the stuff of science fiction"; that the writers "never met face to face or spoke by telephone until the first draft of the manuscript was completed"; that "great distances were bridged through [sic] email, fax and overnight express". Individually Tulloch and Jenkins have strong voices. Tulloch's argument on "preferred meaning" and the "powerless elite" of Doctor Who fandom is particularly accomplished. But epistemological disparity is not bridged by intertextual reference, email or subject specificity. Neither author has been allowed the textual space to develop their considerable talents.

The same cannot be said for Damien Broderick in Reading By Starlight. Adopting a "technique based in part on montage or collage, the postmodern device par excellence", Broderick argues expansively for a "complex theorised reading" of science fiction, a learning of the code of "sf" by apprenticeship. Like Parrinder, he believes explicitly in science fiction's recreational value, its playfulness, its speculative discourse.

But there are some dubious statements. Is it true, as he says, that the 1950s was science fiction's finest hour? An omnipotent piece of postmodern pessimism. What does it mean to be "markedly weak as sf"? This is not articulated. Have we truly become accustomed to learning that "many significant theoreticians" "doted on sf in their precocious youth"? Are Edward Gibbon, Karl Marx, Oswald Spengler, H. G. Wells, Carl Jung, Claude Levi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan really "civilisation's great learned crackpots"?

Still, for all its rampant polemic, Broderick's book has managed to articulate science fiction's recent history. His is a project to support and a playful ride, even if it does teeter between nothing new to offer and too much to comprehend.

In Joanna Russ's To Write Like a Woman, there is often a similar sense of deja vu. The majority of the essays in this collection have been previously published. "What can a heroine do or why women can't write" and "Sf and technology as mystification" carry the political imprint of an earlier time. And yet, in her assessment of the difference between fantasy and science fiction, in her dealings with human subjectivity and psychoanalysis, in her discussion of feminist utopias, Russ is brilliant. Buy this book and savour it.

That Russ's essays reflect the diverse epistemologies of recent feminist discourse; that Parrinder and Broderick are of comparable age but share little theoretical territory; that Clark is an academic philosopher but also an ardent fan of such "popular" literature; that Tulloch and Jenkins did not meet face to face until their first draft was completed - is undoubtedly evidence of the multi-accented nature of late 20th-century consciousness. There is proof here that we can find, even in science fiction, recognisable critical, creative and communicative paradigms that continue to define the human condition.

Graeme Harper is a senior lecturer in media arts, Southampton Institute.

Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction

Author - Damien Broderick
ISBN - 0 415 09788 6 and 09789 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £37.50 and £12.99
Pages - 197

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