The Short Long History of the Short

Ann-Marie Einhaus (ed) (2016) The Cambridge Companion to the English Short Story (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press)

It’s always good when a piece of work finally appears — I’ve been through research and drafts and edits and proofs and galleys. In here I have a chapter on “The British science fiction short story” (and I mourn my title or subtitle, which was something like “Authors and Editors”).

While the identity of the first sf novel is contested, Brian W. Aldiss’s championing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) provides a useful starting point. Her nested tale of a scientist who fails to take adequate care of his creation cemented an archetype of the genre and demonstrated an ambivalence towards science and technology that characterizes much British sf. Her depiction of the landscapes – of Germany, Britain and the Arctic – also points to an interest in the pastoral and the natural world, under threat from the Industrial Revolution. Her only other sf novel, The Last Man (1826), displays a pessimism and sense of decline that was also to pervade the British form. Shelley’s career was hampered by the politics of her family life; after the death by drowning of Percy Bysshe Shelley she had to borrow money from her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley, against her son, Percy Florence’s, inheritance. Sonia Hofkosh argues that Shelley ‘recognizes an economics of the marketplace, wherein production and consumption are compelled and constrained by publishers, editors, and readers’. She published in the annuals, ornate gift books that contained vignettes, poetry, accounts of the previous year and engravings. The first annual had been Forget-Me-Not: A Christmas and New Years Present for 1823 (1822), but the Keepsake (1827–1857) was more successful. In Shelley’s ‘Mortal Immortal’ (Keepsake, 1833), protagonist Winzy becomes immortal as he accidentally drinks an alchemist’s potion and then watches his lover Bertha as she ages and dies. It is tempting to read this (like The Last Man) autobiographically, with the dead Percy forever twenty-nine and Mary subject to the ravages of time and economic struggle.

There then seems to be a fifty-year gap: ghost, horror and fantasy short stories, but no sf.

Of course, if I’m wrong, let me know the British sf short stories between 1833 and ‘The Battle of Dorking’ (May 1871) (I mention ‘The Signalman’ (1866)).

I’m hoping the fifty-year gap is 1826-1871, as ‘Mortal Immortal’ pushes the genre boundaries a tad. *koffs*

I take the story up to Nina Allan and Chris Beckett. It is a sprint.

But some good stuff in the collection, including Paul March-Russell on “Writing and publishing the short story”, period pieces on Romantic, Victoria, early twentieth-century, mid twentieth-century and … plus genres such as detective, gothic and microfiction.

I See Dead London

“Disfigured Myth: The Destruction of London in Postmillennial SF Film”, Foundation 122, pp. 122-32.

There is a moment in Rob Bowman’s Reign of Fire (2002) when the hero, Quinn Abercromby (Christian Bale), climbs a wall from a river and gazes across at a semi-destroyed Palace of Westminster and says, ‘Well, this town’s gone to Hell.’ It is not the only landmark to have survived several decades of destruction: Tower Bridge has also made it through. This article explores the symbolism and meaning of such landmarks, drawing upon the ideas of Charles Peirce, Roland Barthes and Sigmund Freud, within a number of recent British science fiction films: Reign of Fire, 28 Days Later (2002) and its 2007 sequel, and Children of Men (2006). To already indicate the instability of a British identity that these films work to prop up, only 28 Days Later is a fully British production whereas the others are co-productions. The director of Reign of Fire is American, of 28 Weeks Later Spanish, and of Children of Men Mexican, but they all feature a British-born star (although the protagonist of 28 Days Later is Irish-born).

This is a version of the paper “London Death Drives” I gave at the Worldcon in August 2014, fleshed out and theory-enriched. It strikes me that there are a couple more films that could also be included here (I watched Doomsday (2008) and Flood, but neither quite fitted in the word count) and I’m sure I’ll return to British sf film soon.

May be we are set in our ways — I note here I am still in the Freudian paradigm with the uncanny and the death instinct — but note also the importance of Tom Shippey’s chapter, “The Fall of America in Science Fiction”, in Tom Shippey, ed. Fictional Space, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell for The English Association, 1990), pp. 104–32. That Shippey collection was some of the first serious sf criticism I read and it influences me more than I usuallly realise.

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid…

“Sleeping/Waking: Politicizing the Sublime in Science Fiction Film Special Effects” in Sean Redmond and Leon Marvell, Endangering Science Fiction Film (New York and London: Routledge, 2016).

There is a moment in Andrew Ross’s account of sf when he cautions against a history of the genre that is ‘overlaid by prejudices against the North American vulgarization of the high-minded and a socially critical European SF created by respectable intellectuals’ (1991: 104). Sf as a genre is the product of an industrialized age – either a loosely defined branch of fiction produced within the niche market of magazines or the streamlined mechanism of the Hollywood system. The industrial revolution transformed Europe and parts of North America from rural to largely urban societies and workers changed from being laborers, artisans and craftspeople to an alienated workforce undertaking regulated shifts. Popular culture, itself a product and representation of mass industry, occupies an ambiguous position that serves to make industrial society bearable, whether through providing a sense of escapism and relief (albeit a catharsis that risks perpetuating the power structure) or allowing the envisaging of alternatives (that might challenge these structures). One pleasure associated with popular culture is the experience of spectacle and the sublime. These can have a transformative effect upon the individual, whether it creates contentment with the system or provokes a more dangerous, revolutionary response. In this chapter I will link various notions of the sublime as evoked by special effects to sf as ‘cognitive estrangement’ (Suvin 1979) and note some of the political implications of such effects. I will focus on films such as They Live (John Carpenter, 1988), Monsters (Gareth Edwards, 2009), Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013), Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood, 2013), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), and Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009). This discussion will not assume a North American/European binary to the genre, although it largely focuses on Hollywood films.

Routledge webpage

Publication: Chapter on District 9, Race and Racism

Ulrike Küchler, Silja Maehl, Graeme Stout (eds) (2015) Alien Imaginations Science Fiction and Tales of Transnationalism (London: Bloomsbury)

There is a moment in a review of District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) when Joshua Clover anticipates that the film will be ‘a neat allegory of apartheid, with the marooned race of repulsive and sad-sack aliens standing for the dispossessed’ (2009: 8). Similarly, Eric D. Smith suggests that the film ‘at first seem[s] an allegory for the suspension of constitutional law during the officially declared South African State of Emergency in the latter days of apartheid policy (1985-1990)’ (2012: 149). In this essay I want to map District 9’s representation of inter-species hybrids within the complex situation of apartheid-era South African interracial relations and discuss some of the issues surrounding science fiction as allegory. I will consider “race” as being an ideological category and, following Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject, a psychological construction that nevertheless has a material existence. I will be posing the question of to what extent District 9 is itself racist.

Alien Imaginations Cover

Ulrike Küchler, Silja Maehl and Graeme Stout (eds) (2015) Alien Imaginations Science Fiction and Tales of Transnationalism (London: Bloomsbury)

I got home from Eastbourne on Friday to find a package that I took to be some medium-awaited DVDs but was in fact a copy of Ulrike Küchler, Silja Maehl, Graeme Stout (eds) (2015) Alien Imaginations Science Fiction and Tales of Transnationalism (London: Bloomsbury). I have a chapter in it called “Human Subjects/Alien Objects? Abjection and the Constructions of Race and Racism in District 9“, which began from the sense that there was something racist at the heart of District 9 — the dangers of using aliens as metaphors for racial difference, made more problematic by the representation (with subtitles) of Nigerians. There’s an interesting couple of paragraphs in Adilifu Nama’s Black Space when he argues:

At its best, SF cinema is an allegorical site that invites the audience to safely examine and reflect on long-standing social issues in an unfamiliar setting, providing the possibility of viewing them in a new light.
At its worst, the process of allegorical displacement invites audiences to affirm racist ideas, confirm racial fears, and reinforce dubious generalizations about race […] without employing overt racial language or explicit imagery.

It’s a dangerous ploy. The episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Angel One” (25 January 1988)) that used gender to explore Apartheid is a case in point. Ouchy.

There was a point in writing this chapter where I hit a wall and needed something more — I confess to reading the chapter on race in Adam Roberts’s Science Fiction (2000) and the light dawned. I typed a keyword into the library catalogue and two articles on District 9 were the top results. I swear they had not been visible before. From there, thankfully, it flowed.

Oddly enough, on the train journey to and from Eastbourne I read Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014), which is, among other things, a response to District 9 from a Nigerian perspective. I shan’t blog about the novel for now, but I know I will come back to it. Another chapter in the collection, I think Bianca Westermann’s “Meeting the Other: Cyborgs, Aliens & Beyond”, also discusses District 9 and comes to different conclusions, so I will be very interested to read that.