A Conversation Larger Than the Universe: Science Fiction and the Literature of the Fantastic from the Collection of Henry Wessells
Exhibit at The Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street, New York, 25 Jan. 2018-10 Mar. 2018
Reviewed by Jason W. Ellis
Henry Wessells, a writer, critic, bookseller, and collector, curated and exhibited a selection of science fiction and fantasy books and artifacts from his personal library at The Grolier Club, a group devoted to book culture with its own library of 100,000 volumes. This review is a brief sketch of the impressive exhibit based on my 5 March 2017 visit there.
Leaving the construction-laden street, entering the club’s old, large doors, and walking up the grand stairs to the second floor, a plain wooden door partially covered with a poster for the exhibition opens to a brightly lit hallway flanked with wall-mounted, glass exhibit cases. There is a typewritten, signed letter dated 24 November 1972 from Philip K. Dick to David G. Hartwell and Paul Williams, asking them to include his dedication for Tessa Dick, ‘the dark-haired girl’, in Confessions of a Crap Artist (1975). Nearby is a photocopy of a fax dated 31 March 1996, later signed by William Gibson, detailing his first experience browsing the web, which began with a visit to the Paul Smith website and later a perusal of ‘life-size high-rez close-up color photos of every possible kind of female genital piercing, having searched “Bondage & Submission” and chosen a site in Tokyo’. Gibson’s first steps online seem like a different world than what appears in the signed copy of the first American hardcover edition of Neuromancer (West Bloomfield, MI: Phantasia Press, 1986), also on display.
The next case contains several personal letters from Joanna Russ. The first is a handwritten letter to Thomas M. Disch dated 28 September 1980 lauding Disch’s On Wings of Song (1979): ‘I also approached your work feeling that I couldn’t do it justice in the space limits of F&SF. It’s a marvelous book’. In a typewritten letter dated 1 December 2008 addressed to Wessells, she writes: ‘What I read: little. I watch (and love) RED DWARF, Buffy, Are You Being Served . . .’. Then, in a letter dated 13 April 2010—about a year before her death, Russ comments on Wessells’s review of her non-fiction collection The Country You Have Never Seen (2007) in The New York Review of Science Fiction (October 2008). Wessells asserts in his review that, ‘Her criticism, like her fiction, defines the period when science fiction became a Klein bottle that has swallowed “mainstream” literature and the entire universe’. Russ approvingly writes in reply, ‘A Klein bottle indeed! What a fascinatint [sic] object a Klein bottle is and how apposite to s.f. and your argument’.
Nearby, there is a signed copy of Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 (New York: Ace, 1966) and an inscribed copy of Delany’s “Racism and Science Fiction” cover essay in The New York Review of Science Fiction (August 1998). On the opposite wall, Foundation no. 3 (1973) is open to James Tiptree, Jr.’s ‘A Day Like Any Other’. It is incorrectly identified as Tiptree’s first British publication, which I believe is ‘Happiness is a Warm Spaceship’ in the UK edition of If (December 1969).
There are also music-related artifacts that strike sf at a tangent. Brian Eno’s Another Green World LP adorns a significant place near the exhibit’s entrance. Wessells explains: ‘Science fiction, like rock ’n’ roll, is a form capable of integrating all influences while still remaining unmistakably itself. Rock ’n’ roll, like science fiction, is open to newcomers, the vocabulary can be learned and is an endlessly resilient process of discovery. Both forms are very slippery of definition but are instantly recognizable’. Opposite, there is a copy of the multimedia album adaptation of Robert Sheckley’s ‘In a Land of Clear Colors’ (Santa Eulalio del Rio, Ibiza, 1979). Brian Eno crafted the album’s music, and Peter Sinfield, an early member of King Crimson, narrated. Further on in the exhibit is an autographed and hand-numbered 55 of 500 printing of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies (London, January, 1975).
The hallway leads through double doors into a subdued, large sitting room with couches and chairs encircled by lit glass display cases arranged against the walls. There is a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (New York: Harmony Books, 1980) by Douglas Adams, inscribed to David G. Hartwell; a signed copy of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980); an copy of The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (New York: Harper & Row, 1974) by Ursula K. Le Guin, inscribed to Wessells; a signed copy of Peter Dickinson’s The Green Gene (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973); a signed, mock-up dust jacket of Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration (New York, 1969); a signed copy of James Blish’s Doctor Mirabilis (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1971); an inscribed copy to Wessells of Peter Straub’s Shadowland (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1980); and an inscribed copy to David Hartwell of James Tiptree, Jr./Alice B. Sheldon’s Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home (Boston: Gregg Press, 1976).
Mary Shelley’s work is also represented by copies of the first American edition of Frankenstein (2 vol., Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1833), and The Last Man (London: Henry Colburn, 1826). Nearby is a copy of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (London: William Heinemann, 1896) with Larry McMurtry’s bookplate (author of Lonesome Dove who notably sold off 300,000 books from his inventory at Booked Up in Archer City, TX).
A display counter highlights John Crowley’s Little, Big (New York: Bantam, 1981), which Wessells characterizes as ‘my favorite work of fiction, a book I have read and reread many times’. In addition to a proof copy inscribed to Thomas M. Disch in fine calligraphic handwriting by Crowley, there’s a typescript review of the novel by Disch with another example of Crowley’s excellent penmanship in a reply note.
A very special item in the collection is Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter (London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1924). This book is one of 250 signed by the author and artist Sidney H. Sime, who illustrated its dust jacket and frontispiece. The exhibition’s posters use Sime’s illustration of Orion’s hounds bringing down a unicorn beneath a sky of gleaming stars. Other artifacts related to Lord Dunsany include a handwritten letter from India dated 13 January 1930, and a copy of Selections from the Writing of Lord Dunsany (Churchtown: Cuala Press, 1912) that belonged to Lily Yeats, sister of William Butler Yeats.
Finally, Wessells reveals his name scrawled in an awkward, perhaps childish hand on the first page of Lester Dent’s The Man of Bronze: A Doc Savage Adventure (New York: Bantam Books, October 1964). He notes, ‘One of the books read in childhood that led me to science fiction and the fantastic’. A large print of the cover signed by its artist James Bama and model Steve Holland hangs above the main exhibit room’s marble fireplace, and other Doc Savage books appear throughout the exhibit, strengthening its demonstrated importance to the collector.
Personal collections tend to say more about their collectors than anything else. While the totality of the items in the collection (with the exhibit being a curated selection from the larger collection) provides one kind of map and history of the fantastic, it ultimately expresses the logic and lived experience of its collector. Wessells explains: ‘I collect by synecdoche, meiosis, and metonymy, as well as by inclination, and by ties of friendship’, and ‘My interests as a reader have often led me away from the canonical to the uncertain edges of the fantastic. Along the boundaries is often where distinctions are sharpest, where science fiction is not so much a place you get to as it is the way you went’. Wessells’s exhibited collection is as admirable as it is interesting to experience, a path off the busy Manhattan streets and into other, imagined worlds.
Accompanying photos from the exhibition can also be found at: https://photos.app.goo.gl/WukvtPcbLNE8XABa8
James Morrow, Reality by Other Means: The Best Short Fiction of James Morrow (Wesleyan University Press, 2015, 318 pp, $30.00)
Reviewed by Molly Cobb
A myriad of thought-provoking, ingenious tales awaits the reader in this collection. Indicative throughout of Morrow’s wide-ranging interests, each story features his sharp wit and penchant for satire. Often coupled with theology, Morrow holds up for examination the self, society, and human thought or action to invite changes in perspective without ever devolving into simplistic attacks which serve no purpose. As such, Morrow’s satire is always intelligent and adds a dose of seriousness into stories that often delight through absurdity.
By reimagining genre clichés and conventions, Morrow reshapes sf tropes to suit his own imaginings. In ‘Fixing the Abyss’, he both literalizes the metaphor and then subsequently destroys it while simultaneously satirising academic groupthink and dualism. That he does all this concurrently, and does so successfully, demonstrates just how adept Morrow is at producing satire which works both with and within the sf genre, and within his own reinterpretations of what that genre is capable of.
Morrow’s most recognizable feature is his utilization of the satiric-theological mode. He demonstrates how science fiction is capable of examining the future of religion and conversely what religion would be in the future, if it exists at all. The short stories share the desire to invite the reader to re-examine what it means to be human and how religion does or does not play a role in individual expectations of humanity. Stories like ‘Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva’ or ‘Bible Stories for Adults, No. 31: The Covenant’ question whether enlightenment and knowledge require an external source or whether the individual is capable of understanding and fulfilling these concepts themselves. By questioning the place of religion in terms of humanity, ethics and logic, Morrow does not pin blame on religion itself but rather examines the idea that prescribed ethics can allow for ‘re-interpretation’ that alters original intention. The role of humans in this is also held up for examination. In stories such as ‘Spinoza’s Golem’, Morrow portrays individuals providing for themselves what others cannot, and specifically what he feels religion cannot. Through this, Morrow presents individuals holding their own against war, natural disasters, manmade disasters, the folly of others, politics, and society as a whole. Stories such as ‘Known But to God and Wilbur Hines’ and ‘The War of the Worldviews’ specifically utilize war to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of perceived differences between individuals as externally prescribed and that humans separated by thought and practice are not actually distinctly different except in belief.
By employing tropes often found in early sf, such as framed/found narratives, Morrow is able to rework these concepts into contemporary science fiction and demonstrate that, though we may have moved past these approaches narratively, they can still be used to examine contemporary issues in new and relevant ways. Stories such as ‘Arms and the Woman’, ‘Lady Witherspoon’s Solution’ and ‘Spinoza’s Golem’ all utilize the story-within-a-story approach for various reasons. The first employs the trope to present a feminist retelling of the Trojan War, resulting in a female-empowered alternate history. The second centres around the discovery of a journal which tells how Neanderthal-like individuals have come to populate an island in the Indian Ocean, and the use of eugenics to both progress and regress the human species. The third utilizes a found journal to explore the human need for compassion and emotion, even if coming from a machine.
If robots, eugenics and alternate history are not enough for the reader, Morrow also has on offer environmentalism (‘Daughter Earth’), philosophical absurdities (‘The Vampires of Paradox’) and cloning (‘The Wisdom of the Skin’), among others. Nevertheless, the reader may find themselves questioning what exactly makes some of these stories science fiction. It is clear that Morrow does not cater to genre lines and, though all his stories are sfnal, as a result of his penchant for satire and desire to play with convention, these stories are not clearly labelled as belonging to sf. This weaving across genre lines is often what makes some of Morrow’s short stories so important to the field of sf and their significance in examining exactly what sf is. By playing with genre in such a way, Morrow is expanding, reworking and reimagining the boundaries of sf, and how genre lines are defined. Morrow’s work is therefore useful for exploring definitions of sf and what constitutes the genre. With his ability to combine early and contemporary sf, Morrow’s work not only feeds into this discussion but also re-evaluates how sf has or has not changed throughout its history by actively reworking the genre through his stories.
The stories collected in Reality by Other Means offer a range of narratives across genre lines, themes, tropes and concepts, all well-crafted by Morrow to lend both a satirical edge and a humorous tone to both recognizable and inventive reimagining of sf. Key to any discussion of religion in sf, whether it be the use of religion by the genre or how the genre perceives the role of religion, this collection offers a multitude of examples of the connections and interactions between progress, technology, humanity, the future, dystopia/utopia and religion. Underpinned by satire as these stories are, Morrow’s works perhaps fit more closely with sf that aims to eschew religion or demonstrate its lack of usefulness in the future. However, the range of sf tropes and themes with which religion is intertwined throughout this collection serves to demonstrate just how versatile sf can be when it comes to imagining the place of religion within society. What it also shows is how versatile Morrow himself is, not just when it comes to writing religious satire, but with all aspects of sf, and his ability to tackle serious concerns with just the right amount of humour and wit.
Elizabeth M. Sanders Genres of Doubt: Science Fiction, Fantasy and the Crisis of Victorian Faith (McFarland, 2017, 177pp, $65.00)
Reviewed by Carrie Lynn Evans (Université Laval, Québec)
Much has been written about the particular qualities of the nineteenth century that fostered new directions in fiction, such as the Industrial Revolution’s influence on the scientific romance. Much has also been written about the state of religious doubt during the Victorian period, which saw something of a paradigm shift as revelations from the nascent biological sciences, the ground-breaking publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), and exposure to the breadth and variety of religious belief from around the British Empire began to filter down to wider public awareness. Surprisingly, not much has been written about the intersection between Victorian doubt and the genesis of speculative fiction in particular – a vacuum which Elizabeth Sanders’ Genres of Doubt persuasively fills.
Sanders revisits familiar, representative works from the period, organizing her analysis around how they exemplify particular responses to or strategies for dealing with the problems raised by the new questioning of the supernatural. In this way, then, she manages to find a new approach to well-worn texts and lays out a useful methodology for interpreting the theme of religious doubt that could be fruitfully applied beyond the scope of these particular genres. Her first chapter looks at early science fiction, examining how Frankenstein (1818) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) express disappointment with the perceived imperfections (or outright absence) of the supernatural, paternal care promised by Christianity. Many scholars read these works as cautionary tales about man’s scientific hubris, which assumes the reader’s confidence in the moral authority of the Christian worldview to mete out natural consequences for transgressions. By shifting the focus onto doubt, Sanders makes a compelling argument for understanding the titular scientists as analogous to a creator god. From this perspective, to present them as flawed and negligent father figures becomes a critique of such a god; their creations (and, by extension, the doubtful Victorians) can be understood to be expressing an appropriate sense of disillusionment and abandonment.
Sanders’ second chapter turns to some of the earliest examples of modern fantasy novels, including George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858) and The Princess and the Goblin (1872), Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863), and Edwin Abbott’s Flatland (1884). She argues that these works refuse religious allegorical readings, and demonstrate a marked presence of doubt by interrogating the role and viability of a sense of enchantment for modern Victorians. In setting those who believe in the story’s magical conceit against those who do not, the novels explore the factors influencing belief, consider alternate ‘ways of knowing’, and examine what value or hindrance credulity may present. Whether the author shows doubt to be a prideful mistake (MacDonald), the result of ambitious desire rather than reason (Kingsley), or a logical tool for shrewd believers (Abbott), Sanders makes clear how these three authors gesture toward a common desire to encourage their readers to express patience and compassion for those grappling with religious doubt. Of particular interest is Sanders’ observation that the threat of magic’s departure is a theme commonly found even within fantasy’s enchanted settings – as much true of today’s examples as it is of these early texts – which she connects to the idea taking hold during this period that associates belief with immaturity and skepticism with an intellectual coming of age.
Chapter three examines Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) as sites of urban Gothic fantasy that give expression to fears about potential consequences of the waning influence of Christianity, namely, how a society without the protection of a supernatural god might deal with the more concrete threat of evil. In these novels, enchantment invades and disrupts the familiar, rationalist setting of modern London but, according to Sanders’ reading, the supernatural is presented as merely another realm of the as-yet-unknown, whose eventual discovery by scientific method is inevitable. For example, she reads Dracula’s persecutors’ use of a plethora of religious artefacts, in which wooden stakes and garlic are equally as efficacious as crucifixes and holy water, as evidence of the novel’s instrumentalization of religion. As with her first chapter, Sanders rejects the more obvious interpretation of these novels as cautionary tales about the consequences of giving in to sinful temptations and offers compelling evidence for her approach. Where the religiously inspired authors of her second chapter portray enchantment as connected to love and a sense of awe, the respective atheistic and scientific mind-sets of Stevenson and Stoker instead portray religion as pageantry necessary for regulating the darker impulses of society, but devoid of any deeper power.
Sanders then goes on to consider Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) and a handful of works from William Morris published during the 1890s, all notable for their efforts to avoid any kind of engagement with religious themes. Building on existing scholarship which sees these texts as representing efforts both to critique and escape the rigid, rule-based society of Victorian England, she suggests that the important feature is how they frame the enchanted landscape as almost completely disconnected and irrelevant to the real world, a unique development that indicates the authors’ underlying sense that Britain’s unbelief in the supernatural was by this point both inevitable and irreversible. Sanders’ argument is strengthened by her observation that this kind of other-world setting infused with nostalgia for a distant past that never actually existed, such as we see in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954-5) and George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (1996- ), continue to be the most common and popular types of fantasy we see today.
Genres of Doubt is in good company alongside the few others that have examined the relationship between Victorian literature and reason, realism and religious doubt. Sanders evidences her analysis of a subject matter that only continues to grow in influence and relevance in today’s landscape, resulting in a book that is of value to readers interested in the relationship between science and faith or a historical view of artistic responses to growing atheism, in addition to Victorian literature scholars.
Anna Kérchy, Alice in Transmedia Wonderland: Curiouser and Curiouser New Forms of a Children’s Classic (McFarland, 2016, 257pp, £41.50)
Reviewed by James Hamby (Middle Tennessee State University)
Lewis Carroll’s Alice has been an icon of mutability for over a century and a half now. In the original Alice books, the character was marked by her ever-changing body, her constantly defamiliarized surroundings, and her meandering wanderings. Immediately after the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), a number of unofficial sequels and imitations appeared. This trend has continued into the twenty-first century as artists in several different mediums have adopted the character of Alice for their own stories. Alice is not just a character, but an archetype (‘the emblem of the perpetual wonder/wander’, as Kérchy puts it), an innocent child trying to make sense out of nonsense. In her book, Kérchy explores the ways that various media have retold the story of Alice in a postmodern context. Kérchy notes that there are several similarities between the Victorian Alice of Carroll’s vision and the transmedial, postmodern Alice. The character of Alice is also highly adaptable to a number of different media, and Kérchy’s book examines how novels, films, video games, television series, graphic novels, pop-up books, iPad apps, photographs, ballet, and others media have interpreted this character. In each medium, Alice proves to be a malleable archetype able to fulfil the necessary aesthetic and rhetorical demands of the genre. Kérchy divides her study into an introduction, four chapters and an epilogue. The introduction and each of the chapters focus on a handful of Alices in different idioms, and the epilogue reflects on the various sesquicentennial celebrations and commemorative volumes that testify to Alice’s enduring legacy.
Kérchy begins by explaining how the focus of her study is to disclose the process of ‘(re)imagining as a non-linear movement across and between different times, spaces, and media to analyze how books read, films watched and games played by/for/about children can renew the ways we think of our past, present, and future.’ The first chapter focuses on Alice as an ‘imagetextual monstrosity, a hybrid embodiment of verbal and visual nonsense’ and explores how different visual representations ‘aim to “update” a classic canonized artwork by adjusting it to the cultural conditions, social meanings, and horizon of aesthetic expectations’ of particular historical eras. The chapter focuses on a number of different media representations of Alice, including pop-up book adaptations, the Alice for the iPad app, and different film adaptations (including the 1951 Disney animated version and the 2010 Tim Burton production).
The next chapter provides ‘an analysis of what adult readers are ready or resistant to imagine about children’s imagination proves to be telling of who we are, who we (make)believe ourselves to be.’ One enduring aspect of the Alice archetype, going back to Carroll’s original, is that she challenges her audience to see things from very different points of view, and to imagine what she is imagining. Subsequent iterations of the Alice character challenge their audiences to imagine things that are uncomfortably unfamiliar or disturbing. This chapter contains an excellent discussion of Terry Gilliam’s Tideland (2007) as well as analyses on Coraline (including the 2002 novel by Neil Gaiman, the 2008 graphic novel by Russell Craig and the 2009 animated film by Henry Selick), American McGee’s Alice computer games, and the ABC television series Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.
Chapter 3 explores how Alice is often eroticized, and how the popular notion (which Kérchy argues is a myth) of Carroll having a pedophilic interest in Alice Liddell contributes to this sexualization. Kérchy uses a number of texts ranging from Dodgson’s photographs of Liddell, to Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s pornographic graphic novel Lost Girls, to Katie Roiphe’s novel Still She Haunts Me, amongst others. The final chapter looks at nonsense language, synaesthesia and the role of memory in creating narrative, all of which harkens back to Carroll’s original vision of Alice making her way through an illogical world filled with nonsense language. This chapter analyzes Jan Svankmajer and Eva Svankmajerova’s film Something from Alice, Angela Carter’s short story ‘Alice in Prague, or The Curious Room’, and Rikki Ducornet’s novel Jade Cabinet.
Despite the impressive number of texts and media that she covers in the book, Kérchy manages to find similarities running as common threads through them all. Kérchy cleverly notes that, like the Victorian Age, our own postmodern times are experiencing a crisis in epistemology. The Victorians dealt with a rapidly changing world of industrialization, scientific advancement, urbanization, social progress and religious questioning where many of the certainties of previous eras were no longer certain. Likewise, in our own times, phenomena such as the digital revolution, social change, and the aftermath of a century dominated by world war and genocide have all destabilized our society and our views of ourselves in ways similar to what the Victorians experienced. Given the polysemies, uncertainties and ambiguities that pervade the philosophy and aesthetics of our time, the figure of Alice serves as an enduringly apt symbol.
Of all the texts that Kérchy discusses, her analysis of Gilliam’s Tideland is perhaps the most astute as well as the most representative of how the figure of Alice can be adapted for a postmodern context. Kérchy notes that the protagonist of this film, Jeliza-Rose, acts as ‘an Alice figure whose natural and innocent, imaginative worldview is presumed to be radically separate from the corruption of adult life’ and that this version of Alice ‘directs our attention to the meta-imaginative essence of Carroll’s tales, where the dreamchild is always tackled in connection with the adult dreamer who calls her into being as a dreamer herself’. Thus, Gilliam’s Jeliza-Rose recreates the experiences of Carroll’s Alice for a modern audience by inviting them to consider how children view the world of adults, which to them is utter nonsense. Kérchy notes how unsettling it is for many adults to undergo this thoroughly defamiliarizing process which introduces them to ‘the uncanny space of a child’s mind that is paradoxically unable to make sense of uncanniness.’ Unlike many other versions of the Alice archetype that try to impose some sort of narrative meaning on the protagonist’s adventures (as in the Burton film where Alice must lead a rebellion against the tyrannical Red Queen), Tideland focuses on the mysteriousness of a child’s imagination. Jeliza-Rose’s make-believe world helps her through the trauma she experiences while surrounded by adults who are incompetent and abusive.
Kérchy connects this version of Alice to Carroll’s original by noting that the well-known slogan ‘we are all mad here’ implies a very modern ‘nihilistic existential crisis, a collective fury of disordered, delusionary minds prevented from living a sane and safe, “normal” life’. It is the protean nature of the Alice archetype that has allowed her to remain so popular in so many media throughout the years, and that makes her all the more relevant in a postmodern context where epistemological certainty is always in doubt, and the familiar is constantly defamiliarized.
Kérchy’s work is a valuable study on modern-day interpretations of Alice in various media. Indeed, it seems that Alice is deeply ingrained in our collective cultural consciousness, considering the way she keeps proliferating in different iterations. Carroll scholars and Alice fans will no doubt find this a fascinating study, but mass media scholars and students of postmodern thought will also find this a very valuable book. Kérchy’s work is a fascinating, well-researched look at how Alice continues to speak to us in our postmodern times: a familiar figure who is somehow never quite knowable, taking on curiouser and curiouser versions of herself with each new iteration.