JFA 27.1 (2016)

Editor’s Introduction

“Introduction: Fantastic Science/Scientific Fantasy”
Brian Attebery

Hidden within the genre term science fiction is a powerful oxymoron. Science isn’t fictional; fiction isn’t science. But of course, science and fiction are indissolubly linked, as are science and fiction’s more extreme extension: fantasy. In 2015 the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts was organized around the theme of “The Scientific Imagination.” Imagination is a little less provocative than fiction; a lot less than fantasy, and yet if you look carefully at conference title and conference theme, the apparent paradox is still there, though buffered by capital letters and quotation marks and extra descriptors like “in the Arts.” Guests and participants were implicitly invited to find common ground between observation and deliberate impossibility, between the truths of the physical world and those we seek in stories of the unreal.

Guest of honor James Morrow has always relished contradictions. His fiction is cynical and generous, bleak and optimistic, tragic and wildly funny. He has never been known as a hard science fiction writer: his characters rarely make their way into space, never solve their personal problems by making technological breakthroughs in the manner of a space opera hero. Yet few writers are more dedicated to exploring the scientific imagination: the ways we use science to construct models of reality and the self. In novels such as Towing Jehovah (1994), The Last Witchfinder (2006), and Galápagos Regained (2015), Morrow steers a perilous path between the Scylla of religious belief and the Charybdis of nihilism. He takes on the biggest themes and challenges the master narratives of religion, history, and even science, inviting us to see how each of these is a human construct. I strongly recommend any of his novels as well as his new collection, Reality by Other Means, published by Wesleyan University Press. We are pleased to be able to publish Morrow’s Guest of Honor address, which looks at imaginative literature as a form of philosophical thought experiment, a game of world views. Rather than dividing off the science of Newton and Darwin from the magical worlds of Tolkien or Le Guin, he groups them together as fellow explorers of the world of what Samuel Delany would call subjunctivity: the great “what if.”

Joan Slonczewski is likewise not the typical hard sf writer, not only because her name is Joan rather than John, but also because her science explores the slippery, messy stuff of life rather than the cold equations of celestial mechanics. When I say “her science,” I am speaking literally: Slonczewski is a professor of biology at Kenyon College and co-author of one of the standard microbiology textbooks as well as over half a dozen major sf novels. Her breakthrough book, A Door into Ocean (1986), incorporates not only her professional expertise on genetics but also a feminist challenge to the essentialism of sociobiology and a deep pacificism that grows from Slonczewski’s Quaker background. Slonczewski’s participation at the Conference included an evening reading, hosted by Sherryl Vint, and an interview with Derek J. Thiess. She and Thiess continue their conversation in a follow-up email interview included here.

The third Guest of Honor at the Conference was Colin Milburn, who holds the Gary Snyder Chair in Science and the Humanities at the University of California at Davis, with a joint appointment in the English Department and the Science and Technology Studies Program. Starting with a double PhD at Harvard, in both History of Science and English and American Literature and Language, Milburn is particularly interested in places where C. P. Snow’s famous Two Cultures become one. He has done major work on nanotechnology and its cultural influence and is currently studying computer gaming. His address at the Conference considers games as another sort of Gedankenexperiment and, as he says, as “an exercise in applied science fiction,” a phrase that could also be argued to describe the contemporary world.

The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts and its affiliated Association have always made efforts to encourage and recognize the achievements of younger scholars in our field. The 2015 winner of the student award, which as of 2016 is named the David G. Hartwell Emerging Scholar Award, is Taylor Evans, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Riverside. His paper on race, technology, and early science fiction—or, in Hugo Gernsback’s singularly tone-deaf coinage, “scientifiction”—is published here in an expanded and peer-reviewed version. It traces a connection between the pseudo-science of race and the emerging genre, which bought into a broader cultural model of epistemology that, as Evans says, was always “centered on a subject that is implicitly white and male.” Evans’s essay reminds us that the imagination, even the scientific imagination, is never unconstrained. It reproduces the assumptions and blind spots of the society in which it arises.

Finally, Benjamin Robertson’s essay on China Miéville’s genre-challenging novel The Scar looks at standard ways of distinguishing between science fiction and fantasy. The former carries the cognitive stamp of approval and looks to the future; the latter is seen as escapist and retrograde. Yet in much of Miéville’s work and that of other contemporary writers of Fantastika (to use John Clute’s umbrella term), rationality and knowledge are introduced in fantastic, paradigm-breaking ways that challenge us to read the fiction multiply, as participating in two or more genres simultaneously. Furthermore, that double- or manifoldness is a better way of representing reality than the single thread of traditional science fictional narrative—or conventional realism, for that matter. When truly unleashed, the scientific imagination is powerful enough to challenge its own modes of thought. I was sorry not to be at the 2015 Conference in person—professional duties (or, to be honest, a chance to play in a concert with Bela Fleck) kept me away. So it is a double pleasure to put this issue together and experience the gathering virtually.


Introduction: Fantastic Science/Scientific Fantasy
Brian Attebery

James Morrow: An Introduction, by Kathryn Hume

Playing the Gedanken Game: Some Observations on Scientific and Literary Thought-Experiments
James Morrow

Joan Slonczewski: An Introduction, by Sherryl Vint

Guests in Conversation: An Interview with Joan Slonczewski
Derek J. Thiess

Colin Milburn: An Introduction, by Stina Attebery

Hacking the Scientific Imagination
Colin Milburn

The Technology of Race: White Supremacy and Scientifiction
Taylor Evans

“A place I have never seen”: Possibility, Genre, Politics, and China Miéville’s The Scar
Benjamin J. Robertson

Review Essay

Handling the Handbook
Amy J. Ransom


Harlan Wilson’s They Live
Rev. by Tim Bryant

Susan A. George and Regina M. Hansen’s Supernatural, Humanity, and the Soul: On the Highway to Hell and Back
Rev. by D. Felton

Molly Clark Hillard’s Spellbound: The Fairy Tale and the Victorians
Rev. by Regina M. Hansen

Murali Balaji’s Thinking Dead: What the Zombie Apocalypse Means
Rev. by Anya Heise von der Lippe

Karen Burnham’s Greg Egan
Rev. by Chad A. Hines

Lisa A. Nevárez’s The Vampire Goes to College: Essays on Teaching with the Undead
Rev. by Trevor Holmes

Joseph Crawford’s The Twilight of the Gothic?: Vampire Fiction and the Rise of the Paranormal Romance 1991–2012
Rev. by Jeaneen K. Kish

Anne Hiebert Alton and William C. Spruiell’s Discworld and the Disciplines: Critical Approaches to the Terry Pratchett Works
Rev. by Lauren J. Lacey

Rick McGrath’s Deep Ends: The J. G. Ballard Anthology 2014
Rev. by Megan Mandell

Marcus Harmes and Victoria Bladen’s Supernatural and Secular Power in Early Modern England
Rev. by Kristen McDermott

Tara Prescott’s Neil Gaiman in the 21st Century: Essays on the Novels, Children’s Stories, Online Writings, Comics, and Other Works
Rev. by Jennifer L. Miller

Alexandra Urakova’s Deciphering Poe: Subtexts, Context, Subversive Meanings
Rev. by Cristina Pérez Arranz

Judith B. Kerman and John Edgar Browning’s The Fantastic in Holocaust Literature and Film: Critical Perspectives
Rev. by Vibeke Rützou Petersen

David Roas and Teresa López Pellisa’s Visiones de lo fantástico en la cultura española (1970–2012) [Visions of the fantastic in Spanish culture, 1970–2012]
Rev. by Dale J. Pratt

Roger Bozzetto’s Mondes fantastiques et réalités de l’imaginaire [Fantastic Worlds and Realities of the Imaginary]
Rev. by Amy J. Ransom

Xavier Aldana Reyes’s Body Gothic: Corporeal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film
Rev. by Brittany Roberts

Michelle Ann Abate’s Bloody Murder: The Homicide Tradition in Children’s Literature
Rev. by M. Tyler Sasser

Nadine Farghaly’s Unraveling Resident Evil: Essays on the Complex Universe of the Games and Films & Dawn Keetley’s “We’re all Infected”: Essays on AMC’s The Walking Dead and the Fate of the Human
Rev. by Lars Schmeink

Tomislav Longinovic’s Vampires Over the Ages: A Cultural Analysis of Scientific, Literary, and Cinematic Representations
Rev. by Carol Senf

Suparna Banerjee’s Science, Gender and History: The Fantastic in Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood
Rev. by Catherine Siemann