Implicit Utopian Impulses
The rising popularity of science fiction as a focus of critical thought, as we move away from the implied nihilism of postmodernity and toward something more hopeful has also led to the reconsideration of Jean Baudrillard’s work regarding the notion of simulation and simulacra. Whereas Baudrillard is generally read as entirely fatalistic in nature, by marrying his thought to the implicit utopian impulse of much science fiction, some hope can be found in the cultural acceptance of the unreal reality. As such, Simulacrum America attempts to work through Baudrillard’s fatalism and toward something redeeming.
With some promise, the first essay in the collection is Rüdiger Kunow’s “Simulacrum as Sub-Text: Fiction Writing in the Face of Media Representations of American History,” which seems to have nothing to do with science fiction whatsoever and its author might very well corroborate such - but in fact has everything to do with science fiction, and its criticism in the near future. Kunow examines the recapitulation of American history through fiction (Stephen Crane, Nathaniel Hawthorne, E.L. Doctorow) and in providing a theoretical framework to consider fictional accounts of the past provides a paradigm through which to understand future histories. As history makes short work of some science fiction titles (2001 being a thing of the past, but 2001 having historical implications), considering these fictional futures as they become fictional histories through Kunow’s framework should prove very interesting.
Considering that Baudrillard cited J.G. Ballard’s work as being the most representative of the simulative properties of science fiction (1981’s Simulacra and Simulation), it’s rather surprising that none of the contributors explore Ballard’s work, or the work of similar New Wave authors (Philip K. Dick, Thomas M. Disch, Samuel Delany, et al.) but rather focus the majority of their energies on the sub-genre of cyberpunk. Of the five essays in the section entitled “Simulacra in Science Fiction: Cyberspace, Cyborgs, and Cybernetic Discourse,” one of them is Louis J. Kern’s “Terminal Notions of What We May Become: Synthflesh, Cyberreality, and the Post-Human Body”, the other indispensable essays in the collection.
Employing a wide variety of both primary and secondary texts, Kern explores the fundamental questions of humanity as posed by Donna Haraway in her earlier “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1991) The essay is imbued with a profound amount of utility and should be read by all science fiction scholars, if not all scholars, as Kern actively pursues notions of humanity and identity through a wide spectrum of popular texts (cinema, comic books, television), and usefully updates both Haraway and Baudrillard, interrogating contemporary “cyborg” identity through the lens of science fiction simulacra posited by Baudrillard.
Also included in the science fiction section is Herbert Shu-Shun Chan’s “Interrogation from Hyperspace: Visions of Culture in Neuromancer and ‘War Without End’,” a useful essay in understanding some of J. Michael Straczynski’s multi-layered Babylon 5 series. It’s the sort of meditation on mutability that really requires more space, but within its shortened form posits quite a bit of utility and remains very useful in providing a theoretical model to further explore Staczynski’s popular series. As such, scholars with abiding interests in Babylon 5 are encouraged to consult Chan’s work for a potentially powerful tool in unraveling Staczynski’s postmodern science fiction opus.
Finally, and of potential interest to most, is “Subverting the Tonto Stereotype in Popular Fiction, Or, Why Indians say ‘Ugh!’” by Diane Krumrey. While only implicitly about science fiction matters, Krumrey is writing about the Other, the alien, and makes some useful observations on the popularity of minoritarian literature for mainstream readers, eruditely commenting that work that features minority protagonists interfacing with “white” society allow us, presuming that we’re “white,” to see ourselves as the Other sees us. And this speaks to the popularity of science fiction that through the refraction of our culture through others, we are allowed a reflection of ourselves otherwise obscured.
Given that the collection is 240 pages long with seventeen essays, with another 20 pages of bibliography and index, the editors would have done well to consider cutting a few of the selections: For the reader that intends to read the collection as “a collection”, reading it from cover to cover, the sheer volume of inconsequential articles is a little overwhelming. I can’t help but think that if it had been slightly shorter that my interest in the work as a whole would be much greater. And for the scholar interested in familiarizing him or herself with Baudrillard’s work, I’m afraid that there are better venues for doing such and the interested reader is directed towards Baudrillard’s primary works, such as The System of Objects, or Symbolic Exchange and Death.
While there are two indispensable essays in this collection, overall I find myself rather indifferent to the majority of the work, although I’m very interested in Baudrillard and the implications of his work. That is not to say that the scholarship is bad, or the areas of interest unengaging, but rather that the majority of the work in this collection is trivial and does little to explore the theoretical implications of simulacra and simulation that Baudrillard has so importantly contributed to contemporary culture studies disciplines. This is not to say that the collection is not worthwhile—on the contrary, there is some very important work contained within but just that potential readers should be selective in their reading.