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!).

 

[1] https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/65884-this-week-s-bestsellers-march-16-2015.html

[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, www.jstor.org/stable/23102578. Accessed 17 Nov. 2020.

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.

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.

Gender and The Dispossessed

This seems like a reasonable place to talk about gender in /The Dispossessed/. There’s lots we could talk about around gender in the book, but the thing I’ve been thinking about the most is Shevek’s sexual assault of Vea in chapter 7. Why did Le Guin include this scene? Are we meant to believe that Urras is so corrupt that having been there only a few months, Shevek becomes capable of rape? Or, does sexual assault, like fist fighting, fall into the category of individual violence rather than systemic violence, on Anarres? Le Guin goes out of her way to explain that Shevek and Bedap discuss their sexual pairing carefully (172), but leaves us in the dark about whether or not heterosexual couples engage in this kind of negotiations (in fact, her formulation implies that this kind of negotiation is exceptional).
It certainly seems like Anarres hasn’t totally overcome gender inequity—Shevek’s resentment of his mother seems to me one indicator of this—but imagining that it has, would that mean that sexual assault could be understood as an interpersonal problem only? And that Shevek, evidently fine with interpersonal violence, assaults Vea because he underestimates the systemic consequences of sexual violence on a world with much more pronounced gender inequity?

If we have to live on Urras can I at least get an otter?

“In general, American SF has assumed a permanent hierarchy of superiors and inferiors,” writes Le Guin (“American SF” 210). I continue to be interested in the programmatic elisions of science fiction, the things it keeps inaccessible by design. This week, especially, I’ve been thinking about SF utopias (though, at this time I have not done more than skim the Jameson or the Delaney, and both I think will probably influence me here). A philosopher friend asked recently if we could come up with examples of utopias on TV/in movies—not utopias later revealed to be dystopias— for a class she is teaching. Some people argued that the Star Trek Federation is utopian (although there was plenty of dissent around that), as well as The Great British Bake Off and NYC in Sex and the City, but mostly it seems like we’re always hoping the utopia is revealed to be a big lie.
What is special about the utopianism of Le Guin’s Anarres, to me, is the way it enacts corrections in front of us, in a way that makes the world much more permeable. “One of the most significant potentialities of SF as a form,” writes Jameson, “is precisely this capacity to provide something like an experimental variation on our own empirical universe” (270). But there’s implicit hierarchical thinking built in to these experimental variations (that place is better than this). A book is always already a kind of utopia, a walled in closed system, one which excludes the reader. UKL’s world is permeable not just in the way it takes as its object a non-hierarchical world-system in a state of continual adjustment, but also in the way UKL disposes us notice elisions and exclusions in our art and literature (I’m thinking particularly about Shevek’s conversations with Salas, and Bedap’s description of Tirin’s experience around pp 171 in my edition, and the many places UKL talks about universities both on Annares and Urras). This invitation to challenge the text as we read it, as well as the many places where Annares works imperfectly, frustrates the ranking impulse, and the exclusionary thinking that comes with utopian dreaming.

He rises above cleverness

“The ‘fourth dimension’ is a matter which has troubled many minds,” writes The Publishers’ Circular and Booksellers’ Record in 1895, “but the hero of this book discovers that it is found in time rather than in space […]” (685). “This account he gives [of his time travel] with all the circumstantial detail which imparts such an air of reality to the wild imaginings of M. Jules Verne.” I have a broad academic interest in discourse around access and accessibility, terms that seem often to drift around (at least non-academic) discussions of science fiction. It certainly seems like early reviewers of The Time Machine (or The Time Traveler) revel in the ways the text makes scientific theories (regardless of their accuracy) feel accessible.

“The style is rapid, unadorned, but admirably clear,” writes a reviewer in the July 27th, 1895 National Observer. “Depicting as he does a scene or series of scenes wholly imaginative, it is extraordinary what effect of realism he manages to get without, as it were, making the slightest effort to deaden our senses with the colouring of words” (327). Adjacent publications for natural histories, books about the colonial exploration of Africa, and language instruction “Handbooks for Tourists, Travelers, and Students” seem to evidence a public hunger not just for adventure narratives, but for narratives that perform a synthesis of thrills and instruction (The Publishers’ Circular Jan-June 1895).

I’m interested in the characterizations of science fiction as making science accessible to a general reading public, but I’m also interested in the way science fiction elides or makes inaccessible scientific ideas. One of the things it seems to me that Wells does, which is enforced by his reviewers, is make some science unspeakable. The two review quotes in The Bookman; a Review of Books and Life (1895-1933) from New York Commercial Advertiser: “[…] No synopsis can give an idea of the graphic and peculiar power of the story” and Boston Times “Nothing we can write can give an idea of this brilliant little book.” Maybe what’s compelling is the license this text gives us not to know.