Grad school is just a really mean book club

Rather than seek out the sf Stans that normally provide the material for this assignment, I’ve elected to think about “mass” consumption/reception for Never Let Me Go. A 2015 Publisher’s Weekly article lists the sales of the text as having “sold 74.5K in hardcover and 427K in trade paper to date.”[1] While that’s not workers of the world, I assume that of the texts we’ve read this year, only maybe The Time Machine and Heir to the Empire top it in print volume. So, I’m trying to think about “popular” readings of this novel through book club guides and “the internet” in its most broadly accessible spaces, Google and Wikipedia.

There’s interesting sociological research on book clubs, but these studies seem to focus on the types of reading that happen in small, self-selecting groups who guide their own interrogations of texts.[2] Easier are the “book clubs” or “book club guides” that are published either in the books themselves, on the publisher’s website, or in some other mass media form. There’s plenty for this novel, but I chose Penguin’s and The Guardian’s as representative of “official” end of the book club spectrum. The Penguin is a series of questions that, presumably, some extant club could simply deploy. The Guardian seems to have run an actual book club in London for some years, attendable by the public for £7. The first is interesting for the ways it guides the audience toward certain thematics (but also seems to be testing readers to see if they read all the way to the end?) and away from others (genre, for example), the second for its reports on readers’ frustrations with the text (“Among the many readers writing in to the Guardian Book Club weblog, the issue of this failure to rebel has provoked the most animated questions and disputes,” writes the Book Club host John Mullan). Particularly interesting is Mullen’s report on the discussion around “sci-fi” narrative techniques.

Unlike the Penguin guide, Wikipedia is interested in genre. The 19 authors of the “Never Let Me Go (novel)” page have given us a very genre-focused “Reception” section, citing five high-to-middlebrow publications’ reviews (The New Yorker, The NYT, The Atlantic, The Telegraph, The Guardian) and one horror writer (Ramsey Campbell). The page offers “quasi-science-fiction,” “pop genre—sci-fi thriller,” “horror,” a “coming-of-age” story, and tells us that the book ranked “4th on The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of the 21st century.”

Finally, Google. When I search “never let me go book,” I get the following “People also ask” queries: “What is the purpose of Never Let Me Go?” “Why is Never Let Me Go a good book?” and “Is Never Let Me Go based on a true story?” —is google the book club of the “masses”? (and with discussion questions not so far from our classroom discourse!).



[2] Childress, C. Clayton, and Noah E. Friedkin. “Cultural Reception and Production: The Social Construction of Meaning in Book Clubs.” American Sociological Review, vol. 77, no. 1, 2012, pp. 45–68. JSTOR, Accessed 17 Nov. 2020.

“I don’t know how it was where you were, but. . .”

Working my way through the novel, I’ve been intrigued by the way Kathy’s direct address of us—the readers—functions in what Darling has described as “reticent world-building.” The “hints [which] appear in Kathy’s vocabulary” (Darling) are strengthened by this direct address. For instance, early on Kathy says, “If you’re one of them (i.e., an able carer who doesn’t get the credit they deserve), I can understand how you might get resentful” (4). Perhaps more than her opening explanation regarding the trajectory and imminent conclusion of her career as a carer, this use of the “you” presumes the reader understands the world she is describing. Kathy even goes so far as to assume that we’ve heard the standard privileged-Hailshamian-carer-with-the-great-record tale more than she has (4).

One of the more subtle uses of direct address happens at the beginning of chapter 2: “I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham we had to. . .” (13). This subtle combination of direct address and the memory does two things quite effectively. First, it interpellates the reader as someone who likely has a slightly different experience, but nevertheless has a shared understanding/memory of the way things were. Second, it increases our trust in Kathy’s—often fuzzy—narration of her memories.

By making these assumptions, strengthened through the use of direct address, Kathy draws us into her world, as Ishiguro quietly builds the novel’s world. These assumptions clear the way for us to focus on the specific memories and, more specifically, the objects of memory(i.e., Tommy’s favorite polo shirt, Ruth’s pencil case, and Kathy’s cassette) that drive the plot. I’m wondering how the use of direct address affects our trustworthiness of Kathy as the narrator? Does the more conversational tone make us more lenient towards the gaps in her memory? (Side note: Do Kathy’s numerous attempts to ensure us that Ruth and Tommy have recently corroborated and/or contested her memory enhance the conversational nature of the tone?)

Teaching habits

I’m still learning from Never Let Me Go, and I think I’m learning very different things than the novel is teaching its characters. This seems like an education novel more than anything else. It is significant how many different levels of education (i.e. the acquisition of cultural capital) are taking place throughout. We eventually learn that the creation of a pleasant childhood was the original mission of Hailsham. As Miss Emily puts it to Kathy and Tommy, “we sheltered you during those years, and we gave you your childhoods” (268). Yes Hailsham was meant to grant the future-donors “happiness,” but what did it actually teach them?

Hailsham succeeds: it allows, and therefore teaches, the future-donors how to be children. However, it also teaches them how to navigate Hailsham in their isolation: how to withhold information that seems off-limits, and how to share quite effectively with one another. There comes a point at Hailsham when “the rule about not discussing the donations openly was still there [. . .] but now it was okay, almost required, every now and then, to make some jokey allusion to this things that lay in front of us” (84).

As a result, the Hailsham crew are, well, really well-adjusted with one another: we “didn’t leave [Hailsham] behind nearly as much as we might have once thought [. . .] unable quite to let each other go” (120). Even when Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are in conflict, it is shocking how well much they get each other, whether used is to comfort or to needle.

We can compare the habits of/produced by Hailsham to the habits of the “veterans” at the farmhouse—they have taken “all kinds of other things [. . .] from TV programmes: the way they gestured to each other, sat together on sofas, even the way they argued and stormed out of rooms” (121). And at the same time, they always seem to be sitting around “arguing about poetry or philosophy” or holding “meandering discussions [. . .] about Kafka or Picasso” (120). Where did they learn this stuff, and what does this knowledge do?

Ishiguro’s reticent world-building

I’m interested in Ishiguro’s reticent world-building in Never Let Me Go. With “omnivorousness” in mind, this withholding of information (about the specifics of systematically cloning humans for organ donation) seems to negotiate not just the degree to which the reader understands Kathy’s circumstances, but also the degree to which the reader can identify the text’s “SF”-ness. Reticence might then be a formal, structural, and thematic way in which Never Let Me Go negotiates (satisfies?) readerly tastes for/expectations of both “literary fiction” and SF. 

From the start, Ishiguro hints at something else going on that marks Kathy(‘s world) as different. These mostly stop at hints, without illuminating what they signify or how they might radically change our apprehension of the textual world. The moment “when we know this is an SF novel” is thus deferred or strangely diluted, so that we suspect (with the help of paratext), but don’t know. Hints appear in Kathy’s vocabulary: she uses terms like “carer,” “donor,” “completing,” “recovery centre,” and “collections,” (3, 5, 16). The reader starts to collect and make some hazy sense of these terms, but explicit explanations aren’t given (yet). (“England, late 1990s” is another cryptic scene-setting gesture.)

The novel’s world-building does hinge on a few instances of explicit description of the cloning system. These eruptions (ex: Miss Lucy’s speech, page 81) produce rents in the fabric of the text’s reticence, allowing the reader to retroactively piece things together. The process of gleaning subtextual, tonal clues and finally recognizing the contours of the dystopia parallels Kathy’s own experience of learning (or always already partially knowing). She reflects that: “certainly it feels like I always knew about donations in some vague way, even as early as six or seven. And it’s curious, when we were older and the guardians were giving us those talks, nothing came as a complete surprise. It was like we’d heard everything somewhere before” (82-3). How are we to read the novel’s tight-lipped tone/plot before, amidst, and after scenes of rare explicitness? And how does the novel resist such clear temporal distinctions between stages of understanding? Finally, how do generic codes/expectations play into this? 

“(we fans knew it!!!)”: Fan Participation in the Star Wars Canon

Sean Guynes’ article outlines the expansive canon of Star Wars (SW) in service of an argument that highlights the importance of print literature to franchise production. “Canon” and “franchise,” though different, are both at the mercy of the whims of producers and consumers. In considering the 1991 circulation of Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, I’d like to examine the voices of these so-called consumers: How might fan reactions to a specific installation impact or become reincorporated into an SF franchise or canon?

Hibernation Sickness (HS) was a quarterly SW fanzine (1987-1992) that featured fan-fiction and art—which is another “addition” to the SW canon we may consider. Issue 15 (July/Aug 1991) offers two pages of reader responses to Zahn’s Heir. The responses are largely ambivalent: “The plot is not much,” writes Z.P. Floriam, and the “half-baked girl thing” disappoints, “… but the book treats [Luke] wonderfully” (50). Regardless, Floriam claims—in terms that trouble fan impact in the creation of canon—that Heir is a “dose of SW, and some of our addicts needed it badly” (50). In more outraged language, Melanie Guttierez writes that she “hungered for SO long [to] receive so LITTLE” (51). Contradicting the fan complicity in Floriam’s addiction comparison, Guttierez claims that “WE deserved better than this—hell, most of us have WRITTEN better than this” (51). Here, Guttierez signals the productivity of fans and implies their own skills have been eclipsed in favor of an SF authorial icon. She undermines Zahn’s inherent authority over the canon, though, when she writes: “Hugos must be going cheap!” (51).

What I read here is an awareness of a divide between the producers of a canon and its fans: Zahn’s capital in the industry means little to these fans, who claim their “love” of the SW canon allow a certain authority in legitimizing its narratives (51). This divide is emphasized further when the editor of HS includes a review of Heir from The Associated Press, citing that they wanted to provide a “professional” (i.e. not fannish) review of the book (52). It is notable that, though the review is similarly ambivalent about the book, the language is less florid, less emotional and offended, maybe even less invested.

In light of this implied division, I would like to ask how the audience of a franchise (or fans of a canon) may participate in its formation. Guynes’ cites that Heir was “popular”—and perhaps it was on a scale of profitability—yet fan reactions seem largely disappointed in the installment (143). Does this disappointment matter? Are these readers contributing to a larger formation of a canon informed by multiple actors, which ostensibly includes an audience (Guynes 148)? Or are these fans speaking within the vacuum of HS, exchanging lamentations not considered by content creators? And if it is a vacuum, is that a problem? Can we consider the fictions and forums that inhabit the SW fanzines as a sort of alternate canon—one protected from those only in it “for money, instead of love” (HS 51)?


Mrs. Potato Head, a prolific contributor to Fanlore who graciously sent me their full scan of Hibernation Sickness #15.

Fanlore’s Heir to the Empire Page (which includes excerpts from all the above Hibernation Sickness reviews)

Fanlore’s Hibernation Sickness Page

Star Wars fandom and corporate citizen science

Eyewire is a “game” produced by Princeton in which players map actual neurons. Researchers select actual 3D visualizations of neurons which the “players” are to trace through a visual interface. The same neuron is sent out to multiple players and as each player completes the “puzzle” of mapping the neuron a composite image of their assessments is made, which is then double checked by more established players. The wikipedia page says “These players have the power to extend branches, remove erroneous segments (nicknamed ‘mergers’), and flag cubes for further review. This end result is volumetric reconstructions of complete neurons.”

I raise the example of Eyewire because it serves as an interesting metaphor to think through the project of Wookieepedia itself. In the history of the Star Wars EU the various competing efforts to map the continuity of the universe have all been on shaky footing. Paradigms emerge, like the canon hierarchy of Leland Chee’s Holocron continuity database, but these paradigms are themselves shakily established and short lived. Wookieepedia catalogues how Chee waffled on whether there was one Star Wars continuity, and after the sequels started Chee’s hierarchy for the canon was discarded altogether.
Because the franchise is in the end at the mercy of capital, at whatever the wealthy overlords decide to do with the IP, the cottage industry of Star Wars exegesis must settle for observing rather than casting judgement. Wookieepedia is like the connective white matter of the Star Wars universe, which allows the contradictory strains of the mythos to sit next to one another. But it is in fact this white matter which becomes the object of study for the owners of the IP. The producers of the media dip into the network of reception when creating new works (with profit of course being a selecting factor) and the dialectic continues.

In class I’d like us to consider both the formal features of this body of work and the material circumstances of its production to think through the differences between this kind of inward facing fandom, where the consumption of the work is itself a kind of alienated production, and the more outward facing fandom we’ve seen from sci-fi zines.

fidelity to the Star Wars empire–I mean, canon

I have to eat my words from last class because I’m genuinely enjoying Heir to the Empire. Although my knowledge of Star Wars canon falls within the poor to fair range, the narrative is surprisingly easy to follow thanks, largely, to the notes (in 20th anniversary edition). The author annotations are striking because their function seriously puts pressure on the “para” of this paratext because they so significantly inform the tone, diegesis, provenance, authorship, and interpretation of the narrative. (With a ecopy of Heirtoggling between the text and the annotations is easy, which perhaps contributes to how central they are to my reading—a factor not unworthy of discussion.)

Most striking about the annotations is their chatty and even jocular tone. Many of the annotations exhibit an almost tangential talkiness: Zahn’s surprise that the name “Thrawn” is difficult to pronounce for German readers (ch. 13 n. 3); his recurrent adulation of Han: “Han Solo: master of tact. You gotta love him” (ch. 8 n. 5); his philosophizing about human behavior or attributes of good leadership; his editor’s  hokey jokes about Zahn’s incomplete Physics PhD (ch. 12 n. 5) and praise for the “high-art” of his cliffhangers like: “They’ve got him, too” (ch. 12 n. 6). The effect of these annotations aren’t tangential at all: they make the narrative more fun by engaging the reader conversationally, which is arguably  necessary for the project’s success since the novel must live up to the more sensory-engaging medium of the Star Wars films.

Even the more diegetically-oriented annotations are geared toward maintaining fidelity to the films and the canon more broadly. Zahn repeatedly justifies or explains his authorial choices, addresses cross-canon inconsistencies, and even describes his numerous failed pitches to Lucasfilm. Although the extent to which Zahn takes his justifications is, in my view, extreme,  I get the vague sense that Zahn is only doing what’s expected per Star Wars canon dictums. At once, the notes demonstrate the authorial heterogeneity of Star Wars texts—everyone from the movie makers to fans at conventions—as well as the disciplining influences of Lucasfilm and the fanbase.

Butler’s Gravity

Octavia E. Butler’s novels and short stories demonstrate a robust capacity to animate the world beyond a literary context. Her work has been used as a resource for political praxis in the anthology Octavia’s Brood, and even passages of her novel, Parable of the Sower, serve as the founding doctrine of a religious movement called Earthseed. While it is the case that Butler’s Blackness and womanness has contributed to her writing’s extension into political, religious, and other “real-world” fields, it is the materiality of her lived experience that informs her writing’s animating force. Like Butler, Lauren Oya Olamina, the protagonist of the Parable duology, incorporates her own lived embodied experience into her creative labor by emphasizing the signficance of materiality in reckoning and living the world. I argue that carefully attending to materiality–understood  “as the tense and ongoing work of living within the thickened experiences and sensory orders of daily life”–is essential to the exceptionally animating force behind Butler’s and Lauren’s creative labor (Tompkins 61). In turn, this suggests that it’s more useful to consider the question of Butler’s identity as one of the specificity of a Black woman’s embodied experience rather than resemblance or proximity to a larger group.

Work Cited

Tompkins, Kyla Wazana. “’You Make Me Feel Right Quare’: Promiscuous Reading, Minoritarian Critique, and White Sovereign Entrepreneurial Terror.” Social Text, vol. 35, no. 4, 2017, pp. 53-86.


The Negro and the Big City

In this paper, I examine the conception of “the Negro” (or “the ignorant African”) and “the Negro’s” relationship to the Big City in early SF. Specifically, I consider Wells’s The Time Machine, Wertenbaker’s “The Man from the Atom” and Du Bois’s “The Comet.” At pivotal moments in The Time Machine and “The Man from the Atom,” the narrator-protagonists imagine themselves as “Negroes” in London. In both cases, “the Negro” is conceptualized as non-knower and London is figuratively represented as “the Negro’s” unknown future. In “The Comet,” however, “the Negro” knows the operations of the Big City—New York—all too well. Moreover, “The Comet” temporarily suspends the color line, offering “the Negro” a brief opportunity to un-know these operations. In the end, I argue that these conceptions of “the Negro” provide valuable insight about the role of SF for “voices from within the veil” and voices outside of it.

Messianism and SF

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed are both works which self-consciously conceptualize writing as a form of messianism. Le Guin’s ansible, a technology which allows people separated by space-time to become contemporaries, operates as an ambiguously utopian theorization of the ends of literature. In a non-trivial way the ansible allows for the resurrection of the dead. Likewise, the Earthseed book in Parable of the Sower is a holy text which is aimed at offering its adherents a place “among the stars;” it is a text which seeks to inaugurate a teleology towards an astral eden through the molding of entropy, the single phenomenon which lends the forward motion of time to our theories of physics. In this paper I take up the messianic conceptions of the temporal modalities of literature offered in these two works and place their respective political contexts in conversation. I inform this comparison of political contexts with the reception of these works in fan-zines.

Writing the World Otherwise in Butler’s Parable

This paper examines the utility of writing and reading in Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. In the novel, writing and reading take two related forms: as actual literacy and as a more general means of processing the surrounding world. This second representation informs the format of Parable, a journal in which Lauren Olamina records her impressions and  details of events down to exchanged dialogue. This meticulousness persists, even as Lauren begins the dangerous move north, suggesting that writing serves a survivalist purpose. Regarding Lauren’s journaling alongside her composition of her Earthseed verses, this paper argues that writing and reading serve a utilitarian purpose of imagining the world otherwise. This extends beyond Lauren’s own imaginings and into those of her extra-textual author and readership: in a near-future landscape ravaged by climate change and capitalism, writing and reading at the level of both narrative and the circulation beyond it permit escape and necessary reconstruction.

Can a prophecy heal?

Reading the reception history of Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants and Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, I suggest that these novels, although commonly marked as representative of distinct moments in the American SF tradition, are in fact closely linked by their near-future explorations of the indefinite formation of “ambiguous utopias” in opposition to an aggressive corporatization of everyday life in the United States after 1950. Tracking the association of The Space Merchants with satire from the 50-80s alongside Butler’s critical designation as prophetic from the 90s to now, I argue that within the post-war mass cultural genre system, Butler could only write her way out of the walls of the present after she was first written out of the walls of SF. I conclude by thinking through Butler’s reception history since her death in 2006—as we approach the actual near-future years of The Parable— in order to sketch the ambiguous position of SF as the central literary genre within the cultural imagination that is able to imagine world-healing as much as world-building.

Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction

Science Fiction addresses the limits and possibilities of both embodiment and genre itself; as such it invites discourse around access and accessibility. But “accessible” names a mode of relating that is—at best—amorphous and ill-defined. In this essay, I argue for a working definition of access as a mode of relating that calls forth the channels or vectors something has built into itself that provide opportunities for intimacy. SF’s multivalent use of the term offers ample space to do this work, particularly when looking at embodiment and genre not as discrete subjects, but as part of a connected exchange. Using the intratexual dialogue within the covers of the September/October 2018 SF fan magazine, Uncanny—an edition titled Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction— and its intertextual dialogue with race, disability, and genre theories, this essay deploys SF to work toward a portable definition of accessibility.

Generic Reticence and Mediation in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

This project takes up Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, focusing on reticence as a stylistic, structural, and narrative practice which mediates readerly access to or awareness of the novel’s non-realist, dystopian, “genre” elements. I argue that the novel’s effectiveness depends on its careful withholding (and revealing) of precisely how its world-building differs from what might be expected (and is uncannily performed prior to and around moments of revelation) of a realist, non-SF novel. Considering the novel’s reception by various reading communities (reviews and profiles in publications like NPR and the New Yorker, SF fan responses to Ishiguro’s “genre” novel(s), and academic articles that situate the novel within fields such as “Global Anglophone” and “World Literature”), and responses to Ishiguro’s 2017 Nobel Prize, I identify the novel’s suppression of SF/dystopian/generic explicitness as a key characteristic which allows for its uptake by and mobility between different cultural fields.

Butler, interstitial

There are just a couple of things left over from our first session on Butler that I wanted to note here before our second session.

I underlined that Butler’s career as a writer of SF was partly enabled by a new set of institutional forms for producing SF writers: the Clarion Workshop, together with formal SF instruction available at colleges and universities.1 These forms are a slightly belated version of the much wider transformation of U.S. literature by the writing workshop from the end of World War II onwards. Mark McGurl’s celebrated book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009) argues that the MFA program shapes the whole of post-1945 literature, not by imposing any particular style but by disseminating a specific range of norms and concerns to specific populations. McGurl’s focus is on literary writing, with genre fiction as the “outside” of the system, but SF is (marginally) present within the higher-education creative writing system from 1970 on. One index of the difference is that Butler, of course, received no credential for her studies, no MFA in SF; her highest earned degree was an associate’s.

What I now want to emphasize, because it is less obvious, is that the state was therefore central to Butler’s trajectory, to her acquisition of the cultural capital necessary to become an SF author—that is, to produce and publish her work, to become known, etc. Butler’s remarkable autodidacticism depended on and flourished in the framework of public schools, public libraries, and Pasadena City College, CSU-LA, and UCLA: which is to say she had some access to every tier of the California public higher education system in its golden age. And before all this comes the public library system: I mentioned in seminar her essay, written shortly after Parable of the Sower, on public libraries: it can viewed in this scan of Omni 15, no. 10 (August 1993) on the Internet Archive. Butler understood very well what the existence of robust public cultural institutions meant for someone of her race and class position:

Public libraries in particular are the open universities of America. They’re free; they’re accessible to everyone; they may offer special services to shut-ins, to children, even to nonreaders….

I’m a writer at least partly because I had access to public libraries. (3)

And she also understood what the Reaganite and post-Reagan dismantling of these institutions meant for society. To interpret the social vision of Parable, I think we need to consider what it means that Butler imagined these functions of the state being completely subtracted, and what Lauren and Earthseed propose in their place.

On the matter of Butler’s identities, I think we will have much more to say in seminar. By way of footnote from last time, here is a recording of the Freedom Singers singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” at the 1963 March on Washington, to help give some more sense of what Butler is touching on in the scene of Lauren’s preaching. Butler would have been 16 in August 1963. By the time of Parable’s publication the high point of the Civil Rights movement was thirty years in the past.

I do want to register some hesitation, however, about any gesture of “placing” Butler in African-American cultural history in this way, if it ends up constricting our reading, or worse, making us misinterpret Butler by assuming that there is a singular and self-contained African-American culture into whose history all black writers can be inserted in the same way. Consider that Butler’s publishing career is roughly contemporary with Toni Morrison’s, who in 1993 won a Nobel Prize. Butler’s comment to Charles Rowell about her early career is notable:

I was asked by the Washington Post to review two books: one was Claudia Tate’s Black Women Writers at Work, a book of interviews, and the other one was Confirmation, a huge anthology of black women writers edited by Amina and Amiri Baraka. After I went through the two books, I wondered why I was not in them….I guess the more exposure I got, the more people realized, “Oh, yeah, she’s black.” (Rowell, 65–66)

This comment slyly and self-consciously indicates Butler’s social distance from the core of African-American literature and the actors who made it, in the very decades of her early career, a significant university subject, a significant aspect of American literature, and, in fact, a form of cultural capital. Butler’s work only comes to function as this kind of cultural capital belatedly, and, she hints, on the basis of an identification she regarded ambivalently (“I’ve never allowed a picture on the back of any of my books”).2 As I hope we will discuss, this discomfort seems hardly to register with many of her most enthusiastic readers.

  1. Equally important to Butler were the emergent institutions of feminist SF: she was a guest of honor at WisCon 4 (1980), and her early interpersonal SF network from Clarion in 1970 included a number of feminist SF pioneers.↩︎

  2. The social distance is also a literal, geographical distance from the Eastern seaboard and Chicago, the two home bases of black cultural activism.↩︎

The New Parable of the Sower Covers are 🔥🔥

What do we make of the creative decision to limit the cover art for the latest printing of Parable of the Sower and its graphic novel adaptation to a fiery color scheme? Perhaps this shared, yet narrow color palette might help us to think about two elements of Parable‘s reception: its “unreadability” and, relatedly, the increasing urgency of its nearly (if not already) realized vision.

Debbie Notkin’s review in Habakkuk, she concludes with what she sees as a guiding proverb among dystopian science fiction writers: “It’s not depressing; it’s cautionary.” She describes Parable as “the Pandora’s box myth come true, with the tiny Hope carefully stowed at the bottom of the chest of troubles” (8). But despite this final assessment of the novel, Notkin also says the “detailed realism” of Parable creates “an atmosphere so real it’s sometimes almost unreadable” (8).

Notkin is certainly not the only one who feels this way. Damian Duffy, one of the co-authors of Parable‘s graphic novel adaptation, explained that as he was making his way through Butler’s writings, he came to Parable but could not finish it because he was “frightened horribly” (19:14). In the same interview, Duffy explains that he read Kindred—a novel he classifies as “horror” due to its addressing of chattel slavery—in one sitting (41:00,19:00). In this context, as well as Notkin’s, what do we make of Parable of the Sower‘s perceived “unreadability”?

At one point in the interview Duffy and John Jennings (the other co-author of the graphic novel adaptation) talk about the prescience of the novel and the “added level of tension” of writing about wildfires in California and presidential infringement upon civil liberties while watching the news and certain Twitter feeds (56:11). Jennings even says that many of the color palettes for the graphic novel were drawn from simply driving around his Southern California residence and taking pictures (56:45). Does our temporal and circumstantial proximity to the world Butler constructs make the novel more or less readable?

This immediacy of the world Butler constructs in Parable led John Warner to this conclusion in his 2018 review of Parable of the Sower: “I would like to still be able to read Parable of the Sower as a cautionary tale, but that time has passed. Now it’s a requiem.” And while it’s tempting to focus on the prescience of Butler’s vision in Parable, Warner argues, “Butler wasn’t clairvoyant. She merely saw the present more acutely than most.”

Given the various accounts of science fiction’s relationship to the future (e.g., Gernsback, Bova) and whether such a relationship is an essential part of (the) science fiction (author’s work), what do we make of Warner’s comments about Butler and the present?

Finally, since it’s not nice to talk about race, religion or the end of the world at parties, does Butler’s “Genius” way of scientifictioning provide a potential example of how one might snag and snub cultural capital?

Habakkuk 3:3:

Interview with Damian Duffy and John Jennings:

Warner’s review:

An accidental, oblique response to AG’s comments on “outsides”

I’m thinking about the different uses of maps in The Dispossessed and Parable of the Sower. In TD, the small round maps at the start of the novel do very little to help a reader conceive of the world Le Guin crafts. They tell us so little about Urras, Anarres, or their populations. In seminar, we talked about how those maps signal genre, the overlap of fantasy. In Parable, mapping offers the opposite. The route markers serve as literal and figurative shelter, the roads give us access to a navigable story. I am biased, of course, as someone who has traveled the length of the California coast by unconventional conveyances, but I think for any reader with a digital or analogue map of the coast, Butler’s cartographic references make concrete the fabulated narrative. Her maps make the world real, navigable.

Last week, Diana talked about how Gibson’s dystopian futures offer no outsides, no hopeful kernel of possible alternative worlds. Butler, like Le Guin, looks star-ward for optimistic alternatives. Butler gives us lots of hope, but much more than Le Guin’s moonscape, “Earthseed deals with ongoing reality, not with supernatural authority figures. Worship,” Butler declares through Lauren, “is no good without action. With action, it’s only useful if it steadies you, focuses your efforts, eases your mind” (219). Is Le Guin’s Anarres a kind of worship? Is Parable a more useful text?

This is my first-time reading Parable. I read Kindred this summer and I’m struck by a continuity between the two texts: the grab-pack. “We should make emergency packs,” Lauren tells Joanne. “Money, food, clothing, matches, a blanket,” the things that make Lauren’s survival plausible also serve as convenient plot devices—for both the text and the character, they make all sorts of things possible that might be a real slog otherwise (58). I wonder if these grab-packs might be doing something else, too: from the early pages of the book, they generate a kind of anxious hopefulness for the reader: leery, threatened, but tangible—accessible. Which, it seems to me, is representative of a central affective project of the book.

Beyond (but not outside) “Burning Chrome”

At the very start of our discussion of Gibson’s stories, we touched on the difficulty of the stories (perhaps especially “Burning Chrome”). This opacity is, among other things, a mark of Gibson’s affinity both for science fiction’s “New Wave.” Stylistic difficulty or technical sophistication of any kind signals an affinity for the more self-consciously literary, “advanced” currents in SF, the elements that seek to place the best SF alongside experiments in consecrated Literary genres; in the 1980s, these experimental currents, visible across the arts, could plausibly be called “postmodernism.” Mark McGurl’s The Program Era renames the body of writing that includes Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and latterly David Foster Wallace and Richard Powers “technomodernism,” a label which already hints at a potential affinity with science fiction, which however is always limited by the forces that maintain the boundary getween “genre fiction” and the Literary.

Compare Sterling’s preface:

Gibson’s extrapolative techniques are those of classic hard SF, but his demonstration of them is pure New Wave. (xiii)

This comment attempts to split the difference, crediting Gibson with affinities for both “classic” and advanced SF. Actually, Gibson’s writing (unlike Sterling’s) bears very little resemblance to “hard” SF, which is rather his complement or rival on the field of 1980s SF. Gibson’s own view of the “extrapolation” idea of SF is plain in “Time Machine Cuba”—or, for that matter, in “The Gernsback Continuum.”

But to return to style: Gibson’s distinctive texture at the level of the sentence as well as his flamboyantly tangled plots mark him out in the field of SF. These are just as much his signature as the “cyberpunk” thematics of computer hackers, machine-human fusion, the grimy but not post-apocalyptic near-future setting, etc. And in fact, as his career goes on, Gibson gradually abandons many of these thematics, writing novels set nearer and nearer to our present, while keeping his stylistic signature. (After nine novels Gibson reboots and goes for a more emphatically SF setting in the time-travel novel The Peripheral [2014]). On the style, I think we caught many of the important effects but didn’t say enough about the significance of the proper name: Ono-Sendai, Zeiss Ikon, Cyberspace Seven…or the first sentence of “Johnny Mnemonic”:

I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for. (1)

The appearance of “Adidas” here is a Gibson trademark (ha ha): brands, actual and imaginary, are absolutely central to the way he conjures a world. Branding, too, can create forms of cultural capital, and no one is more self-conscious than Gibson about the way a literary style can also be a brand. Or a genre. Remember that on the first handout I gave you, I included this line of Gibson’s:

I am, by trade, a science-fiction writer. That is, the fiction I’ve written so far has arrived at the point of consumption via a marketing mechanism called “science fiction.” (“Rocket Radio,” Rolling Stone, June 15, 1989: 87.)

Gibson is highly self-conscious about marketing labels and his own imbrication in the system of production and consumption of cultural goods, and he endows his coolest protagonists with the same self-consciousness. This self-consciousness is among other things a mode of consumption: “not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for.” Indeed, coolness in Gibson is never separable from an ironic self-awareness of the limitations of irony as a way of freeing oneself from a cultural and economic system. (This argument is a riff on Lee Konstantinou’s reading of later Gibson in Cool Characters: Irony and America Fiction [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017]).

I think many of you were responding to these attitudes in our discussion of Gibson’s way of representing the capitalist system—that is, as a system which appears to have no “outside,” since it is capable of absorbing and repurposing any form of subversion, whether individual resistance or global-scale organized crime, as just another variety of production, trade, and (especially) consumption. I sensed that our seminar was making an individious comparison to Le Guin’s explicit representation of a whole non-capitalist world.

It’s certainly true that Gibson begins publishing in an era where capitalist global dominance seems much more assured than it had fifteen years before, and where the radical hopes of the counterculture seemed of the have come to nothing. Gibson’s biography is relevant, inasmuch as he literally did go to California after leaving high school in Virginia in 1968, joining in the mind-alteration phase of the counterculture, before ending up in Canada and out of the reach of the Vietnam draft. Biographically, if you are looking for what lies outside of Reaganite capitalist imperialism in William Gibson, it is: Vancouver. (That’s only a joke, of course; cf. Gibson’s Spook Country [2007]. But I think Gibson’s novels, starting with Neuromancer, would surprise many of you with their tendency to imagine world-altering change as already in progress.)

It seems to me our discussions all semester have been bedeviled by questions about the outsides of institutions and systems. Science fiction as an “outside” to consecrated literature. Fandom as an “outside” to credentialed literary evaluation. A New Wave as an “outside” to conventional, putatively repressive SF. And then, in imagination: an “outside” to capitalism itself: the Venus of The Space Merchants, the Anarres of The Dispossessed. This metaphor has the tendency to cement a belief that resistance, change, or even just difference can only be found in the outside. It underestimates the degree to which any complex social system is constituted by opposing forces and elaborate internal differentiations. It also overestimates the significance of “outsides” with respect to what goes on “inside.” Le Guin’s Dispossessed, in a remarkably cold and pessimistic way, affirms the radical limitations of the capacity of even a fully constituted non-capitalist “outside” to act on a capitalist inside, and postpones to an unnarrateable future any process of systemic change.

All that suggests to me we will need to think harder about alternatives to mental maps that only have an inside and outside. Pierre Bourdieu’s theory provides one possibility, by allowing us to think about overlapping and nesting social fields, each constituted by struggles over specific forms of capital. But I’ll just leave you with a pointer to Erik Olin Wright’s typology of four “strategic logics of anticapitalism,” summarized in How to Be an Anticapitalist Today, Jacobin, December 2015. Onwards to Butler, who will not provide an escape from a single one of these problems.

in good company: collections, curations, (sub)categorizations

“Johnny Mnemonic” was first published in the May 1981 issue of Omni Magazine, 5 years before Burning Chrome’s publication. Ben Bova’s “First Word” at the beginning of the issue sketches a picture of SF’s role in relation to other disciplinary/generic ways of thinking futuristically: 

Here at Omni magazine, science fiction has been an integral part of our editorial ‘mix’ from the very beginning. Because Omni is ‘the magazine of tomorrow,’ our aim is to examine the future in every way that we can with feature articles, columns of subjects as diverse as television and astronomy, interviews of the world’s thinkers – and with science fiction. In fact, science fiction allows us to present dimensions of the future that cannot be seen in any other way. (6)

Bova privileges SF as particularly apt for playing out scientific/technological futures: “Writers use [SF] as a computer simulation laboratory.” He ends by emphasizing how “useful” SF can be. Thinking back to Galaxy and the ways its editorial materials identified a “mature” SF field/readership (and its paucity of ads + the overwhelming majority of its pages devoted to SF stories/serial chapters), what are the effects of situating SF as one “legitimate” experimental mode of thinking futuristically amongst others? How does encountering SF amidst articles on astronomy, the environment, space, etc. change the reader’s engagement or disposition towards the fiction? 

A few pages later, Gibson’s story is specifically introduced alongside (following!) the issue’s other fiction piece by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is given a comparatively extensive introduction, mentioning his “four decades” of prolific publishing “in magazines as disparate as The New Yorker and Weird Tales,” his “remarkable novel Fahrenheit 451” and other works that “won him international acclaim,” and the recently published “volume of his 100 best [stories], published by Knopf” (8). Clearly the more established writer, Bradbury provides the coattails for Gibson to ride — or it’s at least presented that way: “Accompanying Bradbury’s story this month is William Gibson’s [JM]” (8). Of course, this makes sense since Gibson had not published nearly as much as Bradbury, but the editorial uses (and “usefulness,” for Bova perhaps) of writers with more cultural capital seems worth consideration. We might also look to the (fan-made) “SF table of elements,” where each element is an SF writer (126, page 78 of the pdf). 

Brief additional considerations! :

How does a short story collection signal another kind of curated set? How does it position a single author within the field? One Publishers Weekly review calls Gibson’s writing in Burning Chrome “old, worn and tired….This weak collection of 10 short stories seems to have been rushed out to cash in on Gibson’s current popularity” (103-4). 

Publishers Weekly (1993) includes “A User’s Guide to SF Subgenres.” Gibson is listed under “cyberpunk,” with other subgenres including “epic fantasy, military science fiction, Elves-in-the-real-world (aka Elf-punk), Hard Science Fiction, Space Opera” (55). How do we think of subgenres as cultural fields, and how does this kind of organization/categorization negotiate “walls” around SF(s)? 


guide to sf subgenres

publishers weekly gibson 1

publishers weekly gibson 2

Walls, participation, change

Are there still novelist-fans like the Voxers? But maybe it’s a better question to ask what exactly it is that the Voxers are fans _of_. But they aren’t fans—they are “participants.” In what? At least, in 1993, in the _New Yorker_it doesn’t seem to matter: the Voxers are more of a spectacle than anything else. They are something to be seen and wondered at—they are so different. Is Gibson also different? I was really surprised by the way he was described at the end of the piece. Gibson “lives in Vancouver [. . .] but he grew up in southwestern Virginia, and still drags his vowels when he talks. And according to the Voxers, he is ‘ “so sweaty’” and “’spent’”—it seems to me that Gibson’s effort, at least as represented in this short piece, is to hold worlds—MindVox, West Virginia, “off East Seventy-second Street”—together.

Is this an extension of Le Guin’s wish for smashed/fallen walls around SF?

Maybe not extension, but definitely evolution. In his piece on “New Wave Science Fiction,” Dana Jennings cites Bruce Sterling on the new new wave: “the real Cyberpunks will get sick of the idea of Cyberpunk, and they’ll move on and leave it to the hacks. And they’ll subvert the field in their own way.” This seems really different from AussieCon, where the walls come down but the community stays…I guess the same? Sterling seems to both expect and value change (we can think about this in conversation with the letters in _Aurora_).

For seminar, I’d like to think about the different kinds of cultural capital that show up in these sources—from the implied reader of the _New Yorker_ in ’93, to the knowledge of MindVox in ’93, to the status of professional writer.

I’d also like to think about scales of community in SF. We saw this all the way back in the Rieder, but this week after Le Guin really pushes us to be more specific about community and genre.