- Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions
It may come as a surprise to some readers to learn that Frederic Jameson, perhaps best known as the (arguably) most fundamental theorist of postmodernity (and an eminent literary critic and intellectual historian), has, for decades, also been one of the most important voices in science fiction criticism, as the essays in his latest work, Archaeologies of the Future, will attest. Spanning more than three decades of critical scholarship in a field that had barely been established when Archaeologies' earliest piece (the 1973 "Generic Discontinuities in SF: Brian Aldiss' Starship") was first published in the second issue of the seminal journal Science Fiction Studies, the essays collected here offer a broad survey of Jameson's critical vision of science fiction, providing an ideal framework within which to situate Jameson's new essay, "The Desire Called Utopia," which makes up the first half of the book.
Of the 12 essays collected in the second half of Archaeologies, three are focused on the novels of Philip K. Dick. In addition to the early "After Armageddon: Character Systems in Dr. Bloodmoney," and Jameson's 1982 obituary of the American science fiction giant, Archaeologies also includes the previously unpublished "History and Salvation in Philip K. Dick," which undertakes an ambitious "synoptic" reading of Dick's works considered as a whole. The collection also contains some of Jameson's more recent encounters with contemporary science fiction, presenting us with a broad sample of his engagements with such authors as William Gibson (whose science fiction novel of the postmodern present Pattern Recognition Jameson dissects in "Fear and Loathing in Globalization") and Kim Stanley Robinson, a former student of Jameson's whose epic Mars trilogy provides the occasion for the essay "'If I Can Find One Good City I Will Spare the Man': Realism and Utopia in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy."
The most important and influential essay reprinted in Archaeologies is Jameson's absolutely essential 1982 essay, "Progress versus Utopia, or Can We Imagine the Future?" Here Jameson most thoroughly outlines how science fiction (following in the wake of Darko Suvin's basic insight into the genre as "cognitive estrangement") does not "give us 'images' of the future . . . but rather defamiliarize[s] and restructure[s] our experience of our own present," (286) and how this fundamental "incapacity to imagine the future" results in the "deepest vocation" of utopian science fiction—namely, "to bring home, in local and determinate ways and with a fullness of concrete detail, our constitutional inability to imagine Utopia itself: and this, not owing to any individual failure of imagination but as the result of the systematic, cultural, and ideological closure of which we are all in way or another prisoners" (289).
Turning back to the first section of Archaeologies, one finds that Jameson's major new essay, "The Desire Called Utopia," is, among other things, an extended clarification and, in some respects, a reworking of the basic [End Page 1245] position of "Progress versus Utopia." The perspective of the earlier essay—that of the critic of science fiction—is here augmented by Jameson's engagement with the study of Utopian representation and its constitutive failures (the crucial touchstone being Louis Marin's Utopiques: Jeux d'Espaces). Jameson, in articulating a position that combines Suvin's contention that science fiction is ultimately about the present (even, and especially, when it presents the unfamiliar) and Marin's problematization of Utopian figuration, develops a powerful critical apparatus which he will use in a reassessment of the Utopian corpus.
The problem of Utopia is sharpened and specified as Jameson, with characteristic grace, glides across the length and breadth of this corpus, from the more canonical work of authors like More, Bellamy, and Morris to the more recent (science) fictions of Callenbach, Le Guin, Dick, or Robinson, bringing into view the peculiar prick of each of these Utopian visions in turn. He passes quickly, for example, by the broad outlines of the behaviorist Utopia in B. F. Skinner's Walden...