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Book Reviews

Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso Books, 2007

ISBN 1844675386. Pp. 480.

Reviewed by David Seed, School of English, Liverpool University.

Book jacket

Fredric Jameson here continues his enquiry into the nature of the literary utopia and through his title casts himself as an archaeologist of narratives, digging behind surface accounts to find covert sequences and generally scrutinizing the working of ideology through narrative practice. The present volume is really two books in one. Part One (‘The Desire Called Utopia’) presents an examination of utopias; Part Two gathers together essays on science fiction from the last thirty years or so. The overall effect is thus of several arguments ongoing from Jameson, all characterized by his usual theoretical precision and density of reference. There is a second agenda at work here two, evident in Jameson’s choice of examples. The overwhelming preponderance of literary works cited to substantiate Jameson’s arguments are science fiction, and from the USA. For instance, in discussing the tendency of utopias to isolate themselves from the surrounding world, he takes the example of B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two to demonstrate the need for de- or re-programming. More broadly, taking a theoretical lead from Ernst Bloch, Jameson draws a basic distinction between the systemic project of utopias and the forms of hope which the utopian impulse might take. Here another sense to his title emerges. Since his concern is with utopias, his material is necessarily narratives written in the past tense as if their events have already happened. Hence his role could be described as that of a historian of the future. This is only an apparent paradox since, as he stresses at one point, science fiction characteristically builds on its present, despite evocations of the future.

Throughout Part One Jameson considers different aspects of representation in utopias and science fiction, incorporating Darko Suvin’s famous notion of the ‘novum’, the new element which interacts with the context of quasi-realism surrounding it. As if to confirm his insistence that we must consider the social and political circumstances out of which science fiction emerges, he cites 1974 as a particularly important year when Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye were published. LeGuin he sees as important in her negotiations across the border between science fiction and fantasy. He describes The Mote as a ‘military utopia’ in its attention to arms technology, male bonding, and so on. Surprisingly perhaps, Jameson sees the Cold War as an age of striking utopian productivity, partly by its emphasis on the alien and partly by ‘foregrounding the ideological ambiguity of the modern state as such’ (p. 197). Ambiguity, or rather undecidability, is one of Jameson’s particular values in this study and he reserves particular respect for those works which disturb generic boundaries (LeGuin), problematise the nature of space (early A.E. Van Vogt), or depict ‘figural’ events which couldn’t be expressed through realism (Vonda McIntyre). The one writer who appears in every section of this study is Philip K. Dick, who Jameson describes fulsomely as the ‘Shakespeare of Science Fiction’ (p. 345). In his famous essay on ‘Character Systems in Dr. Bloodmoney’, reprinted here, he discusses the symbolic opposition between the all-powerful Dr. Bluthgeld [i.e. Bloodmoney] and the counterforce embodied in Hoppy Harrington, concluding that this opposition results in a replacement of a world of objects by language. At every point Jameson has new insights to offer into the narratological procedures of the works he examines. William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels demonstrate a ‘post-modern nominalism’ in their insistence on product names and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is seen as demonstrating the constructed nature of reality and a pragmatic approach to science which features for problem solving. Archaeologies of the Future continues the strength of Jameson’s earlier studies in deploying Marxist interpretive strategies to describe the poetics of social forms.

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