Bronwen Calvert, Being Bionic: The World of TV Cyborgs (I.B. Taurus, 2016, 256pp, £14.99) and Steffen Hantke, Monsters in the Machine: Science Fiction Film and the Militarization of America after World War II (University Press of Mississippi, 2016, 234pp, £21.49)
Reviewed by Sue Smith
In the introduction to Monsters in the Machine, Hantke states: ‘This book is about American science fiction films of the 1950s. Many of these films are fondly remembered, yet critically dismissed.’ As Hantke explains, their dismissal is in part due to the fact that ‘there were too many of these films during the 1950s,’ but as he also confesses, ‘too many of them were, to be perfectly honest, eminently forgettable.’ Yet, he is also quick to highlight the significance of the genre’s conventions in terms of their historic and contextual importance as well as their on-going relevance to western culture today, stating:
And yet they endure. To be more precise, their vocabulary endures. Their tropes and metaphors, their memorable characters, their spectacular settings, their plot twists, the way they mix science fiction and horror, and, most of all, their bestiary of madmen, mutations, and monsters – all of this is still very much with us.
These enduring conventions are the focal point of Hantke’s book. He links these ‘tropes and metaphors’ to the socio-historical concerns of post-war America and, in particular, to Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell speech. Hantke notes that critics continue to debate Eisenhower’s complicity in as well as his concern over the ‘military-industrial complex’ and its far-reaching affect on American society and family life. He also points out that, under Eisenhower, the militarization of the US involved convincing a nation and its people to invest in a nuclear war that would never happen, while pressing for public support for an increased production of military weaponry in the US’s new role as a global police force, waging a very different kind of war overseas. Inevitably, it was under the US’s newly emerging ‘military definition of reality’ that a climate of secrecy, surveillance and containment infiltrated every aspect of American life, raising the unsettling question: who exactly was the enemy? the Communist outsider or the American citizen at home?
Significantly, the science fiction films that Hantke focuses on are not just simply a response to Cold War anxieties and fears about nuclear attack and Soviet invasion but, far more complexly, they are cultural texts that reveal a nation’s collective trauma after US involvement in WWII and the Korean War. Hantke convincingly argues how the genre conventions of sf film and its potentiality for hybridity, which involves the merging with and incorporation of conventions of other film genres such as horror, gave perfect expression to these national concerns, fears and uncertainties.
In chapter one, Hantke explores the crossover between Hollywood and the military in the making of films such as Alfred G. Green’s Invasion USA (1952). On first inspection, such films appear clumsy, even laughable, in their attempt to splice actual wartime military footage with low budget special effects for narratives of war and invasion. Hantke makes it clear that the American military did not necessarily sanction or support the production of films like Invasion USA. However, drawing upon social theorist Louis Althusser, and his work on ideology and interpellation, Hantke argues that, in the 1950s, sf tropes such as flying saucers and alien invasion correlated with the needs of the military-industrial complex, calling Americans into a ‘body of ideas’ that required the collective support for the development of new military technology.
In chapter two, Hankte examines the nation’s deep-seated fear of an insidious alien takeover of American citizens’ bodies and minds. At the heart of this representation is the figure of the veteran traumatised by war. In films such as Gene Fowler Jr.’s I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars (1953) and Don Siegal’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the war veteran is evoked through the recurring trope of a lone male, who disappears, endures unspeakable trauma and returns home permanently altered by some unknown and terrible alien force. In I Married a Monster from Outer Space, Hantke provides a brilliant reading of the film’s male protagonist, a newlywed who, unbeknown to his wife, has been replaced by an ‘alien imposter.’ A pale imitation of his original self, he is unable to fulfil his nuptial obligations on their wedding night. According to Hantke, the alien is sexually suspect, encoding the film with Cold War anxieties about espionage and homosexuality that were seen to threaten national security.
In chapter three, Hantke considers America’s re-imagining of its cities and vast desert landscapes as an ever-expanding militarized war zone from which mutant monsters emerge and wreak havoc on American citizens. Here, Hantke draws the reader’s attention to the classic mutant monster films of Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953) and Gordon Douglas’s Them! (1954). As Hantke explains, these films exposed America’s vulnerability, evoking ‘the vague dread of imminent attack.’ An aggressive military presence, fending off strange monstrous creatures invading American ‘space’, provided an ‘allegorical subtext’ for the justification of America’s nuclear testing programme on home soil, as well as strategic bombing (both nuclear and conventional) abroad.
In the final chapter, Hantke provides an intriguingly fresh reading of George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960). For Hantke, Pal’s post-atomic adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel is a key text for exploring the military-industrial-complex and the central idea of the ‘good American’ abroad helping others ‘build a new world.’ In Hantke’s interpretation, The Time Machine aligns a technologically advanced white America with exotic, global places in need of rescue from a cruel oppressive regime.
Lastly, Hantke sums up the ongoing relevance of 1950s sf film and how the military-industrial complex remains of cultural significance today in the wake of ‘The War on Terror’. Hantke’s overall thesis argues that the normalisation of the military-industrial complex is not primarily a perpetually deferred nuclear apocalypse but a consequence of the ‘very real and painfully remembered disruption of WWII’. As Hantke finally adds, ‘a post 9/11 America’ appears ‘eerily familiar: a perpetual state of crisis and a routine of normalized militarization reminiscent of the long 1950s’.
This uncanny feeling, and in particular the interchangeability between self and other, is handily summarised in Bronwen Calvert’s overview of the TV cyborg. Looking at series from the 1960s to the 2000s, she explores the possibilities as well as the limitations of the cyborg as a figure that confuses the boundaries between human from machine. Through her critical analysis of the cyborg and its shifting representation in television media, Calvert stimulates thought on how technology is not only rapidly altering our world, but also ourselves. Most importantly, Calvert encourages the reader to think about how the cyborg’s complex hybridity disrupts and stretches categories of the human, raising questions about what it means to be human in a world in which technology has become so pervasive that it unsettles conventional notions of human identity and Western individualism.
Calvert’s introduction offers an overview of feminist theories of female embodiment and the cyborg (Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway) as well as posthumanist theorists such as Hans Moravec. Impressively, Calvert takes what is usually very difficult and dense academic writing, and makes it accessible to both fans and scholars alike. The following chapters examine, respectively, Doctor Who, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, The Bionic Woman, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Dollhouse and Fringe.
In each chapter, Calvert diligently defines and develops the broader social and technological themes common to the cyborg and to cyborg theory, such as the analogous nature of the machine to re-affirm, disrupt and transform human identity in terms of gender, race and disability. Furthermore, Calvert finely tunes each chapter in order to focus on particular arguments and themes that illuminate the unique qualities and contributions of the cyborg figure featured in each television series. Calvert pays particular attention to notions of embodiment, for example, exploring how violent, domineering and unemotional creatures such as the Daleks and Cybermen become fused with human female characters and their feminine qualities. Equally, for the women, it is the loss of individuality and human connection that is at stake as they begin to lose touch with their own gendered humanity. As Calvert concludes, the cyborg remains a highly gendered figure with its boundary-crossing potential often explored, but all too often restrained as producers conform to the gender conventions and power relations of patriarchal culture.
However, Calvert also argues that the cyborg remains complex in it representation of gender, raising questions that continue to render problematic the human as natural, organic and male. The disruption of the human male by technology embodied and encoded as feminine is particularly borne out in Calvert’s discussion of The Borg, in which Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) finds himself ill-prepared for the powerful technology that awaits him and which finally threatens to subsume him. In broader social terms, the Borg suggests how humanity is already irrevocably compromised and altered by technology, so that it is no longer possible to simply call ourselves human in conventional patriarchal terms.
In the initial chapters, Calvert’s focus is primarily on the classic image of the cyborg as a composite figure made up of human and machine components. But, as the book progresses, the cyborg’s seemingly self-explanatory status as part-human/part-machine becomes less clear. For instance, in Dollhouse, individual experiences and abilities are altered, copied, intermingled and swapped between characters in order to create made-to-order human identities to serve and sate human desires. Similarly, in Fringe, the consciousness of individuals exist in multiple bodies across parallel universes. In both Dollhouse and Fringe, identities are exchangeable and virtual, the division between flesh and machine blurred if not completely removed. Calvert questions whether this new technology is liberating or exploitative. In one respect, the cyborg in these series clearly demonstrates how what it means to be human has always been artificially constructed according to social context and social roles. Equally, the potential of technology to disrupt gender roles, which have been naturalised in Western society, also demonstrates that identity is not immutable but open to change. Indeed, in the latter part of Calvert’s book, her main concern is to explore virtual worlds in which digitally downloaded selves have the potential to recreate and control new personalities and new forms of dis/embodiment, in order to consider the extent to which technology is exclusive and exploitative and/or democratic and empowering.
As Calvert’s book clearly demonstrates, the cyborg remains a key theoretical figure within the sf imagination; an important and pertinent symbol of Western society’s ongoing concerns about technology and its impact on humanity. Being Bionic is a great source book for the classroom, university student and for the casually interested.