Shockwaves of Possibility

Essays on Science Fiction, Globalization, and Utopia

by Phillip E. Wegner (Author)
©2014 Monographs XX, 312 Pages
Series: Ralahine Utopian Studies, Volume 15


Shockwaves of Possibility explores the deep utopianism of one of the most significant modern cultural practices: science fiction. The author contends that utopianism is not simply a motif in SF, but rather is fundamental to its narrative dynamics. Drawing upon a rich array of theory and criticism in SF and utopian studies, the book opens with a global periodizing history that shows the inseparability of SF from developments in other cultural fields. It goes on to examine literature, film, television, comics, and animation in order to demonstrate SF’s unique effectiveness for grappling with the upheavals brought about by globalization. Shockwaves of Possibility proves SF’s vitality in the brave new world of the twenty-first century, as it illuminates the contours of the present and educates our desire for a radically other future.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface
  • Notes
  • Chapter One: The Modernisms of Science Fiction: Toward a Periodizing History
  • I.
  • II.
  • III.
  • IV.
  • Notes
  • Part One: Evental Genres
  • Chapter Two: If Everything Means Something Else: Technology, Allegory, and Events in Roadside Picnic and Stalker
  • Notes
  • Chapter Three: After the End of the World: Pseudo-Apocalypse and Universal History in Paradise and The Windup Girl
  • Notes
  • Chapter Four: Recognizing the Patterns
  • I.
  • II.
  • III.
  • IV.
  • V.
  • Notes
  • Part Two: Possible Worlds
  • Chapter Five: The Beat Cops of History: Or, The Paranoid Style in American Intellectual Politics
  • Notes
  • Chapter Six: Popular Dystopias in an Era of Global War
  • I. WALL-E’s world
  • II. Into the heart of an immense darkness
  • III. Adapting Watchmen
  • IV. Time loops and other political paradoxes in Terminator Salvation
  • Notes
  • Chapter Seven: Alan Moore, “Secondary Literacy,” and the Modernism of the Graphic Novel
  • Notes
  • Chapter Eight: Ken MacLeod’s Permanent Revolution: Utopian Possible Worlds, History, and the Augenblick in the “Fall Revolution”
  • Notes
  • Part Three: Alternate Histories
  • Chapter Nine: Alternate Histories, Periodization, and the Geopolitical Aesthetics of Ken MacLeod and Iain M. Banks
  • I.
  • II.
  • III.
  • Notes
  • Chapter Ten: Learning to Live in History: Alternate Historicities and the 1990s in The Years of Rice and Salt
  • I.
  • II.
  • III.
  • Notes
  • Chapter Eleven: “An Unfinished Project that was Also a Missed Opportunity”: Utopia and Alternate History in Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Works Cited
  • Videography
  • Index
  • Series Index

| ix →


One of the greatest sources of pleasure in all humanistic scholarship is that, at its best, it is a deeply collective endeavor, a form of what Leo Lowenthal calls an “anticipated utopia” (“we were different and we knew the world better”). Hence, a project like this entails a vast host of debts, including all those acknowledged in my previous books, and more than I shall ever be able to recognize here. However, there are some people to whom I would like to express special gratitude. First and foremost to Tom Moylan, whose vision, dedication to utopian studies and science fiction scholarship, fierce commitments, and unwavering support, mentoring, and friendship made not only this work, but all I have written not only possible, but much better. I would also like to thank Michael J. Griffin as part of the editorial board of the Ralahine Utopian Studies series, Christabel Scaife at Peter Lang, and my student Derrick King for the index, for all their help in bringing this project to its completion. Other comrades in utopian and science fiction studies whose wisdom, support, and friendship has been so invaluable over the last few decades include Raffaella Baccolini, Antonis Balasopoulos, Jill Belli, M. Keith Booker, Mark Bould, the late William Burling, Gerry Canavan, Claire Curtis, Peter Fitting, Carl Freedman, Vincent Geoghegan, Brian Greenspan, Alex Hall, Carrie Hintz, Terry Harpold, Naomi Jacobs, Fredric Jameson, the late Nicole Larose, Rob Latham, Alex MacDonald, Robin Nuzum, Hugh O’Connell, Peter Paik, Nicole Pohl, Gib Prettyman, John Rieder, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ken Roemer, Peter Sands, Lyman Tower Sargent, David Seed, Steven Shaviro, Dina Smith, Eric D. Smith, Peter Stillman, Matt Stoddard, Darko Suvin, Mark Tabone, Rob Tally, Rebecca Totaro, Csaba Toth, Sheryl Vint, Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, Toby Widdicombe, Kathi Weeks, Susan Willis, Peter Wright, and Hoda Zaki. (I am sure I overlooked someone, and if so I apologize, and promise to give you a special call-out the next time around!) In all of my books thus far I have had the opportunity to thank the extraordinary group of friends ← ix | x → and scholars in the Summer Institute (Susan, Caren, Carolyn, Chris, Rob, Michael, and Yasemin), the Society of Utopian Studies, the Marxist Literary Group, and UF’s graduate Marxist Reading Group, and I very much want to continue that tradition here.

The primary site of my labors remains the University of Florida, and with all the developments that have made our, as well as many other, universities less and less hospitable to humanistic scholarship, I am still fortunate to have the opportunity to work with some truly extraordinary colleagues and students. I especially want to thank the graduate students in my fall 2010 seminar, who helped me further refine some of these ideas. A colleague for nearly two decades at UF, Scott Nygren, passed away while this manuscript was in production. Scott was an enthusiastic supporter of scholarship that challenged academic boundaries of all sorts, and someone who was always ready to lend a sympathetic ear and a kind word; we all miss him deeply. Scott’s partner, the film scholar and theorist Marueen Turim, remains a great friend and mentor, and an invaluable part of our program’s success.

An outstanding group of editors not only oversaw the original publications of these essays, but offered astute critical readings that made them only better: thanks to Don Ault, Mark Bould, Bill Burling, Jonathan Culler, Edgar Dryden, China Miéville, and Hugh C. O’Connell. I first presented material in this book at talks at Duke University, University of California, Santa Cruz, George Mason University, University of Arkansas, University of Alabama, Huntsville, and Uppsala Universitet; at the conferences of the Modern Language Association, Society for Utopian Studies, Utopian Studies Society, Society for Narrative, and Historical Materialism; and at the annual MRG, Comics, EGO, and Americanist conferences at the University of Florida. The Marston-Milbauer professorship provided invaluable support in helping this book come into being, and for that I remain grateful.

No acknowledgement would be complete without my deepest expression of thanks for all the support offered by my extended families, Hegeman and Wegner, John Leavey, my children, Nadia and Owen, and my favorite colleague, and the world’s most profound expert on all things cultural, Susan Hegeman. This book is dedicated to two of my oldest friends, whose long talks have helped flame my love of science fiction, utopia, and much else besides. I feel lucky to have had you all along for the ride. ← x | xi →

Earlier versions appeared in the following:

Chapter Four in New Literary History 38, no. 1 (2007).

Chapter Five in Arizona Quarterly, 66, no. 2 (2010).

The first section of Chapter Six in Satellite 7, no. 11 (December, 2008).

Chapter Seven in ImageTexT 5, no. 3 (2010).

Chapter Eight in Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. Eds Mark Bould and China Miéville. London: Pluto Press/Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009.

Chapter Nine in “The British SF Boom.” Ed. Hugh C. O’Connell. CR: The New Centennial Review 13, no. 2 (2013).

Chapter Ten in Kim Stanley Robinson Maps the Unimaginable: Critical Essays. Ed. William J. Burling. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2009.

Chapter Eleven in “Animé and Utopia.” Ed. Phillip E. Wegner. ImageTexT 5, no. 2 (2010).

| xiii →


I was sorely tempted to begin this book with what has become one of the most over-used figures in contemporary literary and cultural studies scholarship, a figure drawn from the extraordinary opening of Marx and Engels’ 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party and in which interest was renewed after the publication of Jacques Derrida’s Spectres de Marx: l’état de la dette, le travail du deuil et la nouvelle Internationale (1993): A specter is haunting contemporary science fiction studies—the specter of Utopia. It will be a central contention of this book that Utopianism is not simply one among a range of possible themes or motifs in modern science fiction—as, say, technology, time travel, telepathy, teleportation, alien encounters, alternate histories, post-apocalypse, the far future, utopia, or dystopia, all of which Mark Rose in his anatomy assembles under the more abstract and inclusive categories of space, time, machine, and monster (Alien Encounters 32), and which Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. describes as various incarnations of the “seven beauties of science fiction” (fictive neology, fictive novums, future history, imaginary science, science fictional sublime, science-fictional grotesque, the technologiade) (Seven Beauties 5–7). Rather, Utopianism is fundamental to very narrative dynamic of this vital modern practice.

Such an assertion may strike some as behind the times, for there seems to be something decidedly old-fashioned about the question of science fiction’s Utopianism, redolent as it is of the unruly counter-cultural days of the field’s youth, and out-of-place in a maturing discipline, or at least a disciplinary sub-specialization, seeking proper academic respectability. Science fiction studies often undertakes the quest for legitimacy under the aegis of a sociological or popular culture studies inclusiveness that flies in the face of conservative disciplinary retrenchments such as those of the new formalists or surface readers—who seek, in Marjorie Levinson’s words, “to bring back a sharp demarcation between history and art, discourse and literature, with form … the prerogative of art” (“What is” 559); and, as Crystal Bartolovich ← xiii | xiv → maintains, “not only mark a pointed withdrawal from politics and theory but also—while humanities departments are contracting—internalize the economic imperative to scale back” (“Humanities” 116). In the latter regard, such humanities scholarship embraces what Steven Shaviro describes as the more general logic of contemporary global neo-liberalism: “at every turn, the demand for an exclusive either/or replaces the coziness and ease of both/and. In short, even as it produces greater material wealth than ever before in human history, capitalism also continually manufactures scarcity and want” (Connected 221). I discuss these historical and institutional issues in more detail in Chapter Five.

However, despite these very different starting points, the end result can be the same: the transformation of cultural criticism, and indeed culture itself (read here as science fiction), into an antiquarianism or specialist’s narrow provenance, becoming what Bertolt Brecht refers to as folgenlos, an intervention that “had no particular material consequences, and fostered no particular change,” and which Brecht thereby identifies as the very form of “being ideological” (Jameson, Brecht 25). Furthermore, in disciplining, reifying, and isolating science fiction studies in this way we risk, as other once vibrant interdisciplinary projects such as film and American studies seem at times to have done, reinforcing the walls of our ghetto in the larger academic field. One of my aims in this book is to show that not only does science fiction studies have a tremendous amount to learn from a range of other projects (critical theory, as Carl Freedman taught us, but also cultural studies, American studies, modernist studies, film studies, to name only a few sites of convergence), it has tremendously important lessons to teach them as well.

Moreover, as Theodor Adorno argues for the more general critical “notion of culture as ideology,” to distance science fiction studies from the question of Utopianism is to throw out the baby with the bathwater, to get rid along “with the false, all that was true also” (Minima Moralia 44). For it is precisely its Utopianism that distinguishes modern science fiction, the technically complex or so called “high” cultural as well as the most popular or commercial expressions, both from precursors such as the fable, travel narrative, gothic, and voyages extraordinaires, and contemporary practices of prognostication or futurology. In short, what Fredric Jameson ← xiv | xv → describes as the “desire called Utopia” at work in all science fiction is also a matter of the desire for narrative (and which, for Jameson, is at one with the “desire for Marx,” and for Antonio Negri, “the passion for totality”), and not, as often assumed, of representation (Jameson, Ideologies of Theory Vol. 1 xxviii; Negri, Marx Beyond Marx 13). It is here where the practice of science fiction’s constitutive force and continued significance reside.

I am also interested in the following pages in the ways in which contemporary science fiction in a rich variety of its manifestations helps us come to grips with and respond to the various social, cultural, political and economic transformations bundled together under the imprecise but nevertheless inescapable concept-term globalization. That is, another crucial desire of contemporary science fiction is to think the global (but then again, perhaps this is the goal, whatever other significant ones may be at work, of all contemporary cultural production). “Always historicize!” Jameson famously implores us (and implicitly, always totalize!), and the chapters in this book unfold by way of a fidelity to the truth of this “one absolute and we may even say ‘transhistorical’ imperative of all dialectical thought” (Political Unconscious 9). Shaviro makes a similar point in the opening pages of his diagnosis of our contemporary global “network society:” following the lead of Freedman, Shaviro maintains that “science fiction is the privileged genre (literary, cinematic, televisual, and digital) for contemporary critical theory … science fiction and critical theory alike are engaged in the task of what Jameson calls the ‘cognitive mapping’ of postmodern space” (Connected x).

Because of its potential effectiveness in confronting our emerging global situation, and despite occasional warnings by some camps of its imminent demise, science fiction, in a variety of different media and forms, has in the last two decades experienced a resurgence (the British Boom and Hollywood big budget blockbusters being only two of its most explicit manifestations), while also becoming an increasingly central aspect of mainstream “literary” fiction (Margaret Atwood, Junot Díaz, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Mitchell, Mikael Niemi, Colson Whitehead, Charles Yu); and even, if Eric D. Smith is correct, displacing in postcolonial fiction more generally the centrality of the older narrative practice of magical realism. ← xv | xvi →

In my efforts to understand how these forms and individual works think our emerging situation, the work of the chapters collected together here is intimately related to that of my earlier book, Life Between Two Deaths, 1989–2001: U.S. Culture in the Long Nineties (2009). Shockwaves of Possibility does, of course, appear after Life Between Two Deaths, and many of its chapters were conceived and executed after the crystallization of that book’s central conceit, and thus very much expand upon, develop, and rethink some of the arguments first presented in that earlier study (while also maintaining a fidelity to its primary claims). At the same time, however, there are ways in which Shockwaves of Possibility precedes the earlier book, as this was the project I was first working on in the early years of this millennium. Indeed, a number of the chapters that ended up in Life Between Two Deaths—those on the film Independence Day, Joe Haldeman’s brilliant Forever trilogy, the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Octavia Butler’s Parable novels—were at one time scheduled to be included in an earlier version of the volume you are reading. Just as the singular world historical event known as 9/11 transformed in sometimes unexpected ways our understanding of both the nature and processes of globalization (the significant shifts that occur between Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire [2000] and Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire [2004] might serve as a good indicator of this fact), so too these developments forced me to reconsider some of the claims that, in an alternate history, would have been advanced in this later book. Thus, as in Robert Heinlein’s classic tale of the paradoxes of time travel, “‘All You Zombies—’” (1959), each of these two studies should be understood as at once the predecessor and successor to the other, both parent and offspring. In my own mind at least, I find it increasingly difficult to disentangle one from the other: “I know where I came from ...” (36).


XX, 312
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (September)
literature theory criticism animation television
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. XX, 312 pp.

Biographical notes

Phillip E. Wegner (Author)

Phillip E. Wegner is the Marston-Milbauer Eminent Scholar at the University of Florida. He is the author of Imaginary Communities: Utopia, the Nation, and the Spatial Histories of Modernity; Life Between Two Deaths, 1989–2001: U.S. Culture in the Long Nineties; and Periodizing Jameson: Dialectics, the University, and the Desire for Narrative.


Title: Shockwaves of Possibility
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
333 pages