Fluid exchanges in Lagoon

How much simpler would’ve Lauren’s problems been had Ayodele and her people landed in California instead of Nigeria? In light of Ayodele’s self-proclamation of “’I am change” (218), it’s hard to miss the family resemblances between Parable of the Sower and Lagoon in terms of theme and ethos: are not the aliens of Lagoon the very embodiment of the god Lauren describes in Earthseed? Okorafor says if she were teaching Lagoon, she would pair it with Things Falls Apart because “both are First Contact/Alien Invasion narratives. And both are directly connected to our world” (which, I think, are connections to the “real-world” like a missing president or witch-slapping).

I draw attention to Lagoon’s intimacies with these two texts because of another comparison mentioned in all but one of the nine reviews and interviews I read: Lagoon is Okorafor’s rebuttal to District 9. While own Okorafor’s own characterization [her tweet] of the novel as such certainly explains this ubiquity, it still gives me pause: why is Lagoon so often introduced in juxtaposition to District 9? Or, approaching it from another angle, how does this presentation affect the way we read Lagoon, or District 9? What form of cultural capital does Lagoon earn from this juxtaposition? What form of cultural capital does District 9 lose (or gain?)? Echoing Catie, I’m interested in the exchanges in cultural capital in terms of medium (novel/film), but also in terms of nation (Nigeria/South Africa), authorship, genre, and postcolonial/decolonial aesthetics and politics?

Somewhat unrelatedly, I’m also thinking about the messiness of the science fiction/fantasy distinction in this novel. To what extent is this science fiction? I’m not personally invested in distinguishing the two, but I’m curious about the motivations of those who are. For our discussion, Kinitra D. Brooks’s coinage “fluid fiction” might be helpful in thinking about genre in this novel. “Fluid fiction” is a genre of literature, mostly produced by Black women writers, “that purposely blurs the boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and horror in a manner that mirrors how black women confound the delineations between race, gender, and sexuality.”

In his review, John Clute writes that the novel establishes its science fiction-ness early in the narrative with “some jump-the-shark escalations of old Disaster technothriller formulas,” which are later abandoned. If, as Okorafor claims, genre is “a WAY of telling a story,” (the how of the story rather than the what, I assume), then is the function of these science fiction “cliches” (Clute’s word) to somehow prime the fantasy of the latter half of the novel? What I’m asking is if the science fiction elements of this narrative somehow extend a form of cultural capital to the supposedly more fantasy-based elements, the more African elements? What are the politics of this fluidity?

Please excuse the 472-word length, but this is the last blog post of my coursework career! Thanks for reading, folks.

some downsides of the imagination

In “A Response, by Ansible, from Tau Ceti,” Le Guin writes about her distaste of critical approaches to The Dispossessed that reduce “fiction to ideas,” ideas that the reader is guided to understand as the “methodical,” “didactic intention” of fiction.  Le Guin defies the critical tendency to treat her novel as programmatic, as her  “treatise” and not fiction, an exaggeration of the political and philosophical bend to her writing that, she admits, causes her to overcorrect and “speak[] of composition as a pure trance state.” Although Le Guin rejects the binary of aesthetics vs. political/social theory, I’m curious how she exactly views the relationship between her work and the political. Her writing is like an “imaginary house” that is “fundamentally aesthetic and which, in being so, fulfills an intellectual or rational design,” suggesting that any political or social program her writing depicts is secondary to the architecture of the aesthetic house. In other words, her novels are didactic, though she’s not the one doing the teaching; that role is left to aesthetic form, which is significant insofar as it eschews the solidity of dictates and leaves open the doors of the “imaginary house.” 

These emergent lessons of aesthetic form help us make sense of the freedom Le Guin finds in “nameless things” and “writ[ing] of the imagination”: they represent change without the directedness of “the idea of progress,” pointing to “other ways of being…of a larger reality.” Reality itself, then–the reality of social and political worlds, and the reality of realism and literary prestige–is not sufficient for freedom. Freedom is found outside of (cultural) capital and market commodity, i.e., the world as it exists. While this perspective is one that animates my own love for and belief in SF, I wonder if the rules of the game have changed.

To illustrate this, I compare what Le Guin writes in “A Response” to what she says in her 2017 interview. In 2014, Le Guin states, “I still read everything as novels, including history, memoir, and the newspaper”; in 2017, she modifies her view of nonfiction when she writes, “there’s an indifference toward factuality that is encouraged in a lot of nonfiction. It worries me…” (“Writing Nameless”).  In the former example, Le Guin suggests that she reads nonfiction with an awareness of a “novelistic ‘thickness of description’ that prevents simplistic, single-theme interpretation,” however, three years later, she appears to critique just such an “indifference toward factuality.” Now, I acknowledge the fundamental difference between writing with this “indifference” as opposed to reading with it, but if freedom is an aesthetic act of distantiation that engages the “symbolic elements that are not fully accessible to rational thought,” then freedom, on either end, is a subversion of factuality (“A Response”).  What would lead Le Guin to such a revision? What does it mean when politics begin from a location “not fully accessible to rational thought”?

Reception research: starting points

Reception and circulation in their broadest senses leave traces all over the historical record, but the richest medium for reception history is the periodical. Magazines and newspapers that take note of fiction are a good place to look for responses to particular stories or books as well broader discussion of writers or trends.

Big nineteenth-century periodicals databases have some coverage into the early twentieth century:

After that, things get trickier. Some major newspapers’ twentieth-century runs are available digitally in ProQuest Historical Newspapers, for example:

All of these, of course, regularly review books and cover literature from their distinctive positions. With some fiddling you can do a search across all of these at once from the ProQuest Database Select page. Many other magazines and periodicals are included there or in other big databases. As you get closer to the present, current-news databases start to capture some periodicals of interest. Start from the Libraries’ master database list or search the catalogue for particular titles.

One magazine is a particularly useful resource for US reception history: Publisher’s Weekly. We have access to a digitization of (almost) the whole run. Issues are served page-by-page (there’s no index to individual articles).

Gale’s Book Review Index is much less useful than one would hope but it is worth a try. Also from Gale is the Literature Resource Center, which is a grab-bag of digitized reference works and usually not very useful except as a basic biographical reference, but occasionally something interesting turns up.

JSTOR is focused on scholarly journals but of course scholarly reception is reception too, and often scholarship supplies information or references about circulation and reception.

Digitized versions of individual bound volumes of periodicals can be searched in HathiTrust if you can locate them. There is no simple way to search across the whole run of a periodical or across multiple texts.

But you can take the problem from the other end and do a full-text search of the whole HathiTrust database. That is the richest search of books as well as a way to catch the kinds of periodicals that ended up getting scanned as bound volumes. A full-text search of HathiTrust for a book title or author name is likely to yield many many false hits, but if you can find ways to narrow down (by publication date, etc.) you can often find likely possibilities. Then if you are lucky you will be able to see some or all of the book in question. HathiTrust and the increasingly tumbleweed-strewn Google Books overlap largely but not entirely, and Google will offer you previews of many copyright books that HathiTrust hides. For that matter, an ordinary Google web search often turns up things that no other technique will.

More specialized SF resources

(This list is largely the work of Suzanne Boswell.)

  • Pulp Magazines Project: We will make considerable use of this database of digitized early-twentieth-century pulps early on in the semester. When it comes to reception, try looking a few issues after the publication of a story to see whether reader letters or editorial comment registers a response.

  • The Internet Speculative Fiction Database: Remarkable bibliographic database of science fiction (aimed at fans and collectors). Particularly useful for tracing reprinting histories. Often links to cover images as well.

  • fanac.org: This site is devoted to the preservation and distribution of information about science fiction and science fiction fandom. It hosts a large archive of digitized fanzines, as well as reports on conventions. Authors’ appearances in the archive are indexed in the name cross-reference.

  • Locus magazine reviews: a major review outlet for SF, starting in 1968, with reviews available online from 1997. Scans of earlier reviews ought to be requestable by interlibrary loan.

  • Fanlore: a wiki about fandom, written by fans; not exclusively about SF. Significant coverage of SF awards (Hugos, Nebulas), fandom controversies old and new, etc.

  • File 770: a long-running fanzine which Suzanne suggests as a particular rich resource for contemporary fandom.

Caution

As in all digitized searching, it is very important not to overinterpret the presence or absence of search results in itself. You need some kind of comparative baseline in order to assert that something was popular or was ignored in some segment of the field.

Wells’s early circulation

As a first foray into reception and circulation, spend some time on the following documents related to The Time Machine. Do not read exhaustively here; skim strategically. At the same time, try to look around the periodical contexts for some of the items below.

Publication

Consider the periodical contexts of initial publication by browsing around some of the parts of the two serial publications leading to The Time Machine:

Edinburgh National Observer version

The British Periodicals database has scans of this earliest version of the novel:

  1. Time Traveling: Possibility or Paradox?” (March 17, 1894)
  2. The Time Machine” (March 24)
  3. A.D. 12,203: A Glimpse of the Future” (March 31)
  4. The Refinement of Humanity: A.D. 12,203” (April 21)
  5. The Sunset of Mankind” (April 28)
  6. In the Underworld” (May 19)
  7. The Time Traveler Returns” (June 23)

New Review version

This revised serialization is bizarrely inaccessible in the British Periodicals database, but the HathiTrust database of book scans gives us images:

First book versions

The first book edition was Heinemann’s, published in 1895; HathiTrust has a scan. The first American edition was issued by Henry Holt; again a scan is on HathiTrust. Most other book versions in HathiTrust are barred by copyright restrictions.

Further note, 9/17/20. An important catalogue-searching lesson: sometimes texts are published under other titles. Also available in HathiTrust is the 1924 republication of The Time Machine in The Works of H.G. Wells: Atlantic Edition, vol. 1 (London: Fisher Unwin, 1924); this is the version with reorganized chapters that is found in many reprints. Wells supplied a preface with some interesting remarks.

Publicity

Two publishers’ ads for the book:

  1. A Heinemann announcement, London Publishers’ Circular, April 27, 1895: 1. Look for Wells twice.

  2. A Holt ad in the New York Bookman 1, no. 6 (July 1895): advertising supplement.

Reviews

National Observer, July 27, 1895: 327.

Publishers’ Circular, June 22, 1895: 685.

Israel Zangwill, “Without Prejudice,” Pall Mall Magazine 7, no. 29 (September 1895): 153–55. Skim.

New Writers,” Bookman 8, no. 47 (August 1895): 134–35. Not a review but a profile.