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  • Androids, Humanoids, and Other Science Fiction Monsters: Science and Soul in Science Fiction Films
  • J. P. Telotte (bio)
Per Schelde, Androids, Humanoids, and Other Science Fiction Monsters: Science and Soul in Science Fiction Films. New York: New York University Press, 1993. ix + 279 pp. illus., bibl., filmography, index. Hardcover.

Per Schelde’s Androids, Humanoids, and Other Science Fiction Monsters is both more and less than one might expect. It is by no means the sort of lurid or sensational survey of film monsters that its title might suggest. In fact, it is not even a specific study of those artificial beings—androids, robots, cyborgs, etc.—that have become the dominant image of contemporary science fiction film and a focal point of much contemporary discussion about technology and its impact on our sense of self. Rather, it is a serious effort at what the author terms “anthropology through film,” as Schelde turns his background in folklore to account in exploring how the whole range of science fiction films helps us cope with what he sees as a pervasive “fear of science” (p. 9).

At the same time, Schelde does not quite deliver what he claims—that is, a redressing of what he views as a generally superficial treatment of this film genre, a treatment that, he says, has too often resulted in “a picture book or a picture-book history” approach to the films (p. 1). While that view has some justification, it also seems to spring from a lack of familiarity with much of the literature on the science fiction film. For this volume overlooks the key history of the genre: Vivian Sobchack’s Screening Space, several historically focused anthologies (such as Slusser and Rabkin’s Shadows of the Magic Lamp), as well as a wealth of scholarly articles that have accompanied the genre’s resurgence in the last decade. And if it does not quite rely on the “picture books” it scorns, Androids does often settle into the sort of light and popular attitude associated with such works. Perhaps I am a bit oversensitive to films being termed “flicks,” as is the case here—but the almost patronizing attitude implicit in such terminology echoes throughout this book, as it describes the plot of Creation of the Humanoids as “corny, but the film is interesting” (p. 230), justifies the inclusion of one film because it “is a favorite of mine,” dismisses the work of a noted critic for being “full of psychobabble” (p. 117), or at one point conflates science fiction [End Page 100] and “schlock movies” (p. 7). The tone that results seems to suggest that the author is aiming for a popular and certainly nonacademic audience, even while that positioning jars a bit with his announced aim of viewing our science fiction films as “a kind of modern folklore,” a cultural formula that explores “the ongoing battle between human beings and the environment, the battle between nature and culture” (p. 3).

This last assertion, with its echoes of Levi-Strauss and recent ecological criticism, reminds us that this book, despite its problematic tone, does have a most significant purpose. It is concerned with the contemporary image of science—or, more precisely, science as it is embodied in the various sorts of technology that have always provided the central trappings of the science fiction film. Schelde begins his investigation of that image by asserting an important and often overlooked distinction between science fiction literature and its cinematic kin: while the former tends to be more speculative, the latter most often presents science, technology, and the force of reason behind them as threats with which human nature must cope. Why they focus on this threatening aspect is his key concern, as he suggests that we think of our coping with the “fear” implicit in the power of science in folkloric terms: viewing the science fiction protagonist as a fairy-tale hero, the ubiquitous scientist—mad or otherwise—as a type of shaman, and the monstrous creation as a troll, ogre, or similar symbolization of “the dangers inherent in trying to dominate nature” (p. 58). By taking such a perspective on this triad central to the genre, he suggests...