Hassler, Donald M., and Clyde Wilcox, eds. New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2008. 362 pp. Cloth. ISBN 978-1-57003-736-8. $44.95.
New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction is a follow-up companion to 1997's Political Science Fiction, also edited by Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox. Longer than its predecessor, New Boundaries offers twenty-two essays on sf and politics in a volume that "covers the full ten years of politics and of science fiction" since the last book (ix). This may make it sound as if the essays solely address those ten years, yet the coverage of the book is far greater, with contributors covering recent topics--for example, terrorism and the much-maligned politics of the now-defunct Bush administration--and analyzing writers from a variety of eras such as William Blake, Greg Egan, Robert J. Sawyer, Iain M. Banks, and China Mieville. The staples of many sf essay collections are discussed here, including cyberpunk, feminism, and race, as well as specific writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson, but it is very refreshing also to see a place found for newer sf texts such as Firefly and Battlestar Galactica, in addition to less-studied areas such as Latin American works.
Hassler and Wilcox have divided New Boundaries into three sections: "On the Personal 'New Man,'" "On Power and the 'Nation,'" and "On Individual Writers and Situations." The first section aims to discuss the potential of the "new mankind" (viii). The essays in the second part include pieces "that evoke the old power centers of competitive empires and nation-states" (ix). The final section considers the division "between the personal and the efficient organization of a systems approach to human affairs" (ix). These categories have considerable crossover, of course, and the relationship between the essays and their categories is not always immediately clear. Ranging from nine to thirty pages, the essays vary in length and approach to their main topics. The depth of these essays also varies, with most pieces offering valuable insights into texts, authors, and theories; a handful of contributions are more general introductions to their topics and therefore will be of greater benefit to newcomers to the genre than to scholars.
There are some terrific essays in the collection that address a range of political areas. Highlights include Lisa Yaszek's contribution, a well-written and well-structured standout piece that offers an excellent assessment of post-WWII intersections between technologies and gender. Yaszek follows her discussion of the historical context with an analysis of Judith Merril's sf, arguing that sf offers a good medium for Merril's "progressive [feminist] political ideas" (90). The activities of women at the time in organizations such as Women Strike for Peace, as well as their growing importance in scientific endeavors (Yaszek notes that their participation was credited for the Soviets' early lead in the space race), meant that female protagonists in sf narratives had more credibility: "it seemed the future was wide open and that women might be at home anywhere from the laundry room to the launchpad" (81).
Another essay that focuses on a particular time in sf history is Mark Decker's piece on dystopia, which surveys the early twentieth-century political dystopias of E. M. Forster's short story "The Machine Stops" and Max Nordau's non-fiction study, Degeneration. Decker links these works to the "biomedical imaginary," a concept drawn from other theorists that describes the flawed science arising from the relationship between medical science and fiction, where "the ideas of medical investigators infuse popular discourse just as popular discourse infuses the ideas of medical investigators, and this infusion can have political consequences as medical discourse is popularized and amateur diagnoses of social ills are made" (54). …