- Cultural Uncertainty
As a genre, science fiction has an unusually nebulous form of cultural capital in the United States. It has been marginalized and excoriated as unserious and escapist, the province of socially inept nerds, while at the same time generating hugely successful films that have appealed to many different sorts of people; in the academy, scholars take it seriously enough that many volumes on the genre are added to university bookshelves every year. The ambiguous response to science fiction suggests a cultural uncertainty over what to make of the form. Heather Urbanski’s Plagues, Apocalypses, and Bug-Eyed Monsters responds to that uncertainty with an argument that places science fiction/ fantasy (using the more inclusive term “speculative fiction” to cover both) firmly in the mainstream of popular culture and public discourse.
Urbanski narrows down the genre to a particular type of speculative fiction, the “cautionary tale,” which is used to “scrutinize our [cultural] nightmares and warn about the future” (8). She contends that these cautionary tales reflect and then extrapolate anxieties in the cultural landscape to inform us of the possibly dire consequences of our actions. The key interest of the book is how those warnings are actually incorporated into general public discourse, rather than just remaining in the conversations of a small cadre of fans and experts. Using Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, Urbanski argues that speculative fiction has a special social function to provide the “metaphors” used in considering the direction in which society might be headed.
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To make her case, Urbanski presents the “Nightmares Model,” a schema of cultural fears in which speculative-fiction texts can be situated. Her three broad [End Page 89] categories are Science and Technology, Power, and the Unknown, each of which carries with it a few specific subcategories. Each subcategory has its own chapter, which first presents debates around the issue within the speculative fiction community, provides literary examples of the theme, and finally offers filmic and tele-visual examples. These last two sections are the highlights of each chapter, where Urbanski truly illustrates how her book is “a product of the collision of scholarship and science fiction/fantasy fandom” (2).
Urbanski has a fan’s mania for consuming and compiling an archive of the genre, especially for unearthing previously overlooked texts. She discusses novels, short fiction, films, television episodes, music, and briefly even advertisements, comic books, and role-playing games, building a good case for the ubiquity of speculative fiction themes and imagery throughout the realms of popular culture. The book’s major strength lies here, in the breadth of texts it covers, especially in the attention given to individual episodes of television series and short fiction that has recently appeared in science fiction magazines like Analog. Urbanski should be commended for recognizing not only that both are important sites of fan consumption and conversation (often overlooked in their specificity by scholars) but also how both television and short fiction are perhaps the best measure of the genre’s immediate discursive concerns at particular historical moments.
In the last chapter of each section, Urbanski reverses the equation of the other chapters, which reveal how cultural anxieties are narrated and thematized in speculative fiction, by demonstrating how ubiquitous references to works of speculative fiction are in public discourse. This is especially true in cases where a text has become a sociolinguistic shorthand for debates surrounding certain issues; Urbanski rightly points out that it is almost impossible to discuss issues like genetic design or State power without reference to Frankenstein and 1984, respectively. However, she doesn’t make a fully convincing case for the primacy of speculative fiction in this regard; most of the references tracked in these chapters are taken from massively popular and canonical works that are part of the general cultural lexicon (in addition to those above, some examples are Star Wars, Star Trek, and Godzilla), and seem no different from the way, for example, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is invoked in debates on racial politics...