Visions and Re-Visions: [Re]constructing Science Fiction
Liverpool University Press, 2005.
Reviewed by David Waterman
This detailed text by Robert M. Philmus will interest all serious readers of science fiction as it recalls the genre’s major works, casting them in a revisionary light. The book takes as its principal argument the idea that science fiction is especially predisposed to re-vision, owing to the notion of pre-text [very often a scientific text] which then doubles as a pretext for a different world, a world which in turn can be developed in ways not foreseen or allowed for in the pre-text. Science fiction, often futuristic and hence temporal in its focus, becomes, according to Philmus, generically self-conscious [xiv].
Science fiction has, from its inception, been a genre motivated more by social, political and ideological questions than by scientific prowess, real or imagined. Chapter One of Visions and Re-Visions jumps straight into such sociological questions with a discussion of utopia (as well as dystopia and anti-utopia); if the utopian model is normative and prescriptive, its anti-utopian counterpart, according to Philmus, is often prognostic and descriptive . Foundational texts by Swift, Zamyatin and Orwell serve as examples, as do More and Butler, illustrating that any utopia is, after all, a social model which requires a maximum of order and a minimum of dissent, which ultimately means coercive solutions, as in Skinner’s Walden Two or Plato’s Politeia (Plato, Philmus reminds us, conceives of only two possibilities for controlling behavior, indoctrination and ostracism ). Language, in the works of Swift, Zamyatin and Orwell, is the key which leads to such universal assent, by limiting the possibilities for critical thinking—contradiction, Philmus asserts, becomes so perverted that it is no longer a source of conflict but a means of “self-deceptive rationalization” .
Chapter Two examines the generic configurations of H. G. Wells’ A Story of the Days to Come, primarily as a result of intertextuality, not forgetting the pertinent social question of that work, namely the influence of capital. Philmus concludes that the intertextuality of Story can in fact be reconstituted as three different stories .
Chapter Three looks at re-visions of Wells’ The Time Machine, which, from its printing in 1895, was already part of a revisionary project, for example when the Time Traveller voyages to the future, a future described as a “psychopathological fantasy” which, in spite of its unreality, becomes more real than our everyday world in the present [52, 65].
Chapter Four is a commentary on Stanislaw Lem’s Futurological Congress, and the assertion that it is a metageneric text, in other words, Lem’s fictions “implicitly comment on the genre[s] in relation to which they define themselves” ; in this case, Lem’s text is literally a congressional report. Fictive self-referentiality, Philmus contends, bridges the gap between imaginary and real, largely by insisting that “reality,” too, is a mental construction influenced by a certain sociohistoric moment . “Reality,” then, finds its limit.
“Reality” continues as the theme in Chapter Five with Karel Capek’s works, and such notions as plural identities, the Absolute unbound and heterogynous reality. Chapter Six deals with Olaf Stapledon’s tragic-cosmic vision, what Philmus calls Stapledon’s use of science fiction “as a vehicle for propagating […] cognitive [self]estrangement” [115; original italics]. Like the Sufi teaching story in the space fiction of Doris Lessing, such distancing devices are meant to disorient the reader through the loss of stable reference points, thus promoting greater self-awareness.
C. S. Lewis is discussed in Chapter Seven, and the Faustian / Foucauldian link between knowledge and power, especially in what Philmus calls Lewis’ “scientism” [137-8]. The logical consequences of such power are characterized in That Hideous Strength through totalitarian human manipulation , and suggest as well that social evolution cannot be defined as going from error to truth since, as we have seen, reality itself is largely a fiction [see 149].
Chapter Eight treats Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist work The Sirens of Titan and its questions regarding the meaning of life, questions which must be properly formulated if one expects a correct answer; the ongoing joke in Sirens is that “human life as the question conceives it is meaningless” [153; original italics]. If human existence is defined by its “higher purpose,” a “Universal Will to Become” is required , although the worship of an indifferent God also confuses the formula , the end result being a rigid, deterministic universe. Sirens’ message is largely a satire of higher-purpose philosophy and the “nightmare which is history” .
Chapter Nine is devoted to Jorge Luis Borges and questions of space and time, and the possibility of an extratextual reality, surpassing the limits of the text or the canvas; like the river that “carries me away, but I am the river” . We see again in Borges the insistence that the future is already configured in the present, as well as the idealist philosophy that nothing can exist outside perception, meaning ultimately that the perceptions of the awake mind and the dreaming mind become indistinguishable . Borges too links fiction with collective questions, connecting readers’ traits to a map of the world , and Philmus goes even further, suggesting that Borges, more than most science fiction writers, deals with “science-fictional space,” in other words, with “the topography and geometry of space as objectively correlative to its psychology” .
Although Chapter Ten is dedicated to Italo Calvino, this chapter is really about two writers: Calvino the critic and theorist, especially regarding the relation of literature to the world, and Calvino the fiction writer. Once again, language comes to the fore as that which limits literature and the expression of ideas, and Calvino’s attempts to escape its confines . Philmus remarks that Calvino’s “elsewhere elsewhen” formula “becomes something like a ‘performative utterance,’ not merely reproducing on the level of language what all of the cosmicomics finally come down to or what they are ultimately about; it is what they are ultimately about” .
Ursula K. Le Guin is featured in Chapter Eleven, especially The Dispossessed and the human meaning of time. The suffering of the dispossessed and the ongoing struggle for bureaucratic power would normally qualify Anarres as a dystopia—not so, according to Philmus, who argues that readers enter from “the Elsewhere that is the historical or legendary past of Anarres itself, and they do so in significant part through an Anarres which in its denial of them brings those utopian possibilities into definition” . Once again, time is seen as a continuum, wherein humans are forbidden from simply having / occupying the present. Interestingly, human responsibility is also seen in temporal terms; time, like history, is alterable, hence subject to responsibility.
The final chapter is devoted to Philip K. Dick and the definition of reality as colliding value systems, and the question which arises, whether all alternatives aren’t really the same . Dick’s science fiction, according to Philmus, is “the discovery that what/anything we think of as reality is in fact an ideological construct” , which can indeed allow for multiple realities as East and West come together in High Castle, a work which he defines as “pluralistically metageneric, and hence in [significant] part meta-science fictional” [283; original italics].
An extended Afterword ties the twelve chapters together, beginning with a citation from the eminent theoretical physicist Niels Bohr, allowing that the opposite of a truth may also be a truth. Philmus uses this insight to navigate between New Criticism and sociohistorical models of literary analysis, which he does in a convincing manner, under the rubric of “governing conception.” Likewise, Philmus’ treatment of genericity, especially as a variable which, in itself, does not convey a work’s meaning; Kafka’s Metamorphosis is given as a work with origins in two different genres [288, 290]. Philmus goes even further in an engaging discussion of the interplay between the three genres already discussed: utopia, dystopia and anti-utopia . If genre is primarily intertextual, Philmus argues, then a text cannot be fully understood with reference to a single generic construction. If all writers understand revision, Philmus asks us to consider its hyphenated cousin, re-vision, defined as: “rewriting as a process of reconceiving the already-written so as to elicit meaningful possibilities that the original was either not fully conscious of or not, strictly speaking, conscious of at all”—the difference is one of critical self awareness and certain texts’ inherent “possibility of subsequent reconstruction” [295, 300]. Outside of the domain of science fiction, for example, epic poems lend themselves to this sort of re-vision, as does much of Shakespeare [Philmus often cites Hamlet in this regard].
Coming back to the question of social utility, Philmus ends his excellent book by suggesting that science fiction is not only the genre best suited for revision, it is also the “best suited for negotiating—and putting in critical perspective—the virtual realities of a ‘globalized’ world” . Science fiction is not the same as fantasy, after all.
The scope of Visions and Re-visions is very large, and assumes a solid background in the foundational texts of science fiction as a serious object of study; this book is not for the casual reader of sci-fi or the Star Trek movie buff. Even so, given its foundation in sociohistorical questions and debates, it should find a wide readership not only among science fiction scholars, but among those interested in Cultural Studies, women’s writing, or post-colonial theory, for example. Although complex, the detailed notes, bibliography and index help to make Visions and Re-visions even more user-friendly.