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Liquid Metal

Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    Liquid Metal
    Book Description:

    Liquid Metalbrings together 'seminal' essays that have opened up the study of science fiction to serious critical interrogation. Eight distinct sections cover such topics as the cyborg in science fiction; the science fiction city; time travel and the primal scene; science fiction fandom; and the 1950s invasion narratives. Important writings by Susan Sontag, Vivian Sobchack, Steve Neale, J.P. Telotte, Peter Biskind and Constance Penley are included.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50184-2
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Sean Redmond

    • [ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 1-3)

      Science fiction can be set in the past, present and future. It can involve futuristic gadgets, weaponry, clothing, housing and transportation, including silver suits, intergalactic space crafts, flying cars and light sabres. But science fiction can also involve the mere ‘copying’ of existing social and cultural relations so that what the audience sees and hears in part resembles closely the world as it is experienced on a daily basis. Science fiction can be special effects-laden with marvellous and miraculous worlds conjured up in instantaneous, seamless and seemingly effortless strokes of realism, but it can just as easily be technology free...

    • 1 Images of Wonder: The Look of Science Fiction
      (pp. 4-10)
      Vivian Sobchack

      Although a great deal has been written about the images in science fiction (SF) films, most often that writing has been more descriptive than analytic. There has been only minor consideration of the nature of SF images and their function in the creation of a film genre which in photographic content is unlike any other. Instead, discussions of the visual surface of the films have usually seemed to degenerate into a delightful but critically unproductive game film enthusiasts play: ‘Swap that Shot’ or ‘The Robot You Love to Remember’. Although there is absolutely no reason to feel guilty about swapping...

    • 2 ‘You’ve Got To Be Fucking Kidding!’: Knowledge, Belief and Judgement in Science Fiction
      (pp. 11-16)
      Steve Neale

      In John Carpenter’s version ofThe Thing(1982), there is, as Philip Brophy has pointed out, one particularly telling line uttered during the course of one particularly telling and spectacular scene.¹The Thingconcerns an alien that first invades and then imitates both human and animal forms. It has infiltrated the base camp – and the crew – of a scientific observation post in Antarctica. At one point, in the guise of the body of an ailing crew member, it tears off the hands of the doctor who attempts to revive him; then, awakened, sprouts all manner of tentacles and...

    • 3 Sensuous Elaboration: Reason and the Visible in the Science Fiction Film
      (pp. 17-23)
      Barry Keith Grant

      In this essay I want to explore the relation of science fiction to the cinema – that is to say, the relation between the genre of science fiction and the medium of film.¹ As I shall argue, the inherent nature of cinema as a visual medium has tended to work against the distinctive dynamics of science fiction as a genre. However, my intention is not to claim, as indeed some critics have, that ‘science fiction film … is an intellectual impossibility’.² Clearly such a sweeping claim would be absurd, yet fans of science-fiction literature have lodged this complaint against science-fiction...

    • 4 Between Science Fact and Science Fiction: Spielberg’s Digital Dinosaurs, Possible Worlds, and the New Aesthetic Realism
      (pp. 24-36)
      Warren Buckland

      Why do Spielberg’s dinosaurs hold our attention and fascination? One potential answer is that they are not simply fictional, but exist in what philosophers of modal logic call a ‘possible world’. A possible world is a modal extension of the ‘actual world’. Fiction, on the other hand, we can think of as a purely imaginary world that runs parallel to, but is autonomous from, the actual world. Due to the scientific research underlying bothJurassic Park(Steven Spielberg, 1993) andThe Lost World(Steven Spielberg, 1997) – extraction of prehistoric DNA from insects fossilised in amber – I will argue...


    • [TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 37-39)

      While a great deal of science fiction is marked by its sense of wonder and, at least by its narrative closure, utopian idealism, there is much science fiction that is haunted by dystopian sentiments and apocalyptic scenarios. Above any comparable genre, science fiction seems to be able to represent and reproduce the individual and collective fears, paranoias and cultural and political transformations that exist in society. Science fiction can do this because by its definition it is delineated by the word ‘fiction’, and because its landscapes, narratives and ideological centres are seemingly so far removed from the ‘realism’ of the...

    • 5 The Imagination of Disaster
      (pp. 40-47)
      Susan Sontag

      The typical science fiction film has a form as predictable as a western, and is made up of elements which, to a practiced eye, are as classic as the saloon brawl, the blonde school-teacher from the East, and the gun duel on the deserted main street.

      One model scenario proceeds through five phases:

      (i) The arrival of the thing. (Emergence of the monsters, landing of the alien spaceship, etc.) This is usually witnessed or suspected by just one person, a young scientist on a field trip. Nobody, neither his neighbours nor his colleagues, will believe him for some time. The...

    • 6 Technophobia/Dystopia
      (pp. 48-56)
      Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner

      The triumph of conservatism made itself particularly felt in the fantasy genre, in large part because the sorts of representational dynamics afforded by fantasy were peculiarly well suited to the psychological principles of the new conservatism. Nevertheless, fantasy was not an entirely uncontested terrain at this time. In such major fantasy genres of the period as technophobic films and dystopias, a struggle between right-wing and left-wing uses of the fantasy mode is evident. And the major fantasist of the period – Steven Spielberg – consistently promotes liberal ideals through his films. If conservative filmmakers used the motifs of technology and...

    • 7 Human Artifice and the Science Fiction Film
      (pp. 57-63)
      J. P. Telotte

      ‘I know I’m human’, the protagonist of John Carpenter’s filmThe Thingasserts, as he frantically searches for a threatening alien presence among his comrades. Taken out of context in this way, such a declaration sounds almost pointless, like an assurance of something that should be evident to the gaze of those around, as indeed it seems to the movie viewers. The very need for such an assertion, consequently, hints at an unexpected uncertainty here, even an uneasiness about one’s identity and, more importantly, about what it is that makes one human. It is an uneasiness, moreover, which cannot be...

    • 8 Dream Girls and Mechanic Panic: Dystopia and its Others in Brazil and Nineteen Eighty-Four
      (pp. 64-74)
      Linda Ruth Williams

      In 1983 a short Terry Gilliam film was released as a B-feature to Monty Python’sThe Meaning of Life, butThe Crimson Permanent Assurancecould also be seen as the companion text toBrazil(1985), Gilliam’s next full-scale project. A group of slavishly downtrodden office lackeys (old guard refugees from a world when commerce was more gentlemanly) rise up and mutiny, overthrowing their free-market corporate oppressors, an act so miraculous that it transforms their building into a galleon, which sets sail on the Gilliamesque ‘wide accountant-sea’. The complete defeat of the parent company, The Very Big Corporation of America, is...


    • [THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 75-77)

      Science fiction is often at its most poetic and political when it uses and organises physical or real space and symbolic or psychological space to structure its utopian or dystopian stories. The science fiction city, the embodiment of such spatial organisation, is often a spectacular and/or horrifying environment, built out of special effects that render it omnipresent, fluid, foreboding and/or simultaneously awe-inspiring. Sitting in the modern cinema, one really knows that one is witnessing a possible world emerge when great edifices rise out of the dark skies and endless walkways, skywalks, hi-rises, low-rises, tunnels and bridges – made of shimmering...

    • 9 Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science Fiction Film
      (pp. 78-87)
      Vivian Sobchack

      In 1952, science fiction writer Clifford Simak publishedCity, a loosely-related collection of short stories unified by their location in a metropolis that – over thousands of narrative years – radically changes its shape, its functions and its citizenry. This episodic and millennial history of urban transformation is framed by its narration as a ‘bedtime story’ – told by a golden robot to a pack of articulate young dogs gathered around a blazing hearth, wondering if it is really true that once, and very long ago, the nearby city (and the world) was populated by animate, two-legged beings called ‘humans’.¹...

    • 10 Dark City: White Flight and the Urban Science Fiction Film in Postwar America
      (pp. 88-97)
      Eric Avila

      At the outset ofInvisible Man, Ralph Ellison seeks to dispel white perceptions of black people. Such perceptions, he realised, often drew upon the vast array of images that saturated the cultural life of mid-twentieth-century white America. Writing in the early 1950s, a time when American movie audiences reveled in the spectacular images of alien invasions, Ellison took strides to deny his similarity to ‘Hollywood movie ectoplasms’. Although he painfully recognised his invisibility as a black man in cold war America, he also protested his visibility in cultural productions like the urban science fiction film of the 1950s. Ellison, like...

    • 11 On the Edge of Spaces: Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell and Hong Kong’s Cityscape
      (pp. 98-112)
      Wong Kin Yuen

      It is now widely acknowledged that Ridley Scott’sBlade Runner(1982/1992) initiated a whole tradition of cult movies later grouped under the label ‘cyberpunk’.Blade Runner’s style draws its images from urban spaces all over the world, including such Asian cities as Tokyo and Hong Kong. Science fiction film critics are less aware, however, that whenanimefilm director Mamoru Oshii was looking for a model of the city of the future in a computerised world, he turned for his primary inspiration to the cityscape of Hong Kong. Through his art designers, actual spots in the city of Hong Kong...


    • [FOUR Introduction]
      (pp. 113-115)

      Science fiction is in essence a time travel genre. Events either open in the altered past, the transformed present or the possible future, transporting the reader or viewer to another age, place, dimension or world. Or: events involve time travel devices and technologies that take people backwards and forwards across time, and through time and space, often at near unimaginable speeds, as the narrative progresses. When science fiction film time travels one truly knows that one is in a science fiction movie because time travel provides not only the futuristic narrative dynamic needed for the genre but the diegetic space...

    • 12 Back to the Future: Oedipus as Time Traveller
      (pp. 116-125)
      Andrew Gordon

      Back to the Futureis a significant phenomenon of recent American popular culture. The movie, written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, directed by Zemeckis, and produced by Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, was the biggest Hollywood moneymaker of 1985, surpassing evenRambo. Its first run at many theatres was an unprecedented six or seven months straight.

      What is the secret of its appeal? On the surface it has all the necessary ingredients – comedy, action, suspense, romance, sentiment, fantasy, special effects and catchy music – integral to other recent blockbuster SF films such asStar Warsand...

    • 13 Time Travel, Primal Scene and the Critical Dystopia
      (pp. 126-135)
      Constance Penley

      If the sure sign of postmodern success is the ability to inspire spin-offs,The Terminatorwas a prodigy. The film was quickly replicated byExterminator, Re-animator, Eliminators, The Annihilatorsand the hardcoreThe Sperminator, all sound-alikes if not look-alikes. It then went on to garner one of popular culture’s highest accolades when a West Coast band named itselfTerminators of Endearment. And just to show that postmodernity knows no boundaries, national or otherwise, an oppressively large (2×3ft) and trendy new Canadian journal has appeared, calling itselfThe Manipulator.

      For some science fiction critics, Fredric Jameson among them,The Terminator’s popular...

    • 14 Another Time, Another Space: Modernity, Subjectivity and The Time Machine
      (pp. 136-144)
      Jonathan Bignell

      H. G. Wells’ science fiction novels have long been attractive to filmmakers. Film versions includeThe Island of Dr Moreau(Erle C. Kenton, 1932 [titledThe Island of Lost Souls], Don Taylor, 1977, John Frankenheimer, 1996),The Invisible Man(James Whale, 1933, sequels Joe May, 1940, Ford Beebe, 1944),Things to Come(William Cameron Menzies, 1936), andWar of the Worlds(Byron Haskin, 1953). I want to focus here on Wells’s short novelThe Time Machine, first published in 1895, and the film adaptation directed by George Pal (1960).¹The Time Machinedoes feature strange creatures, but not aliens in...

    • 15 With Eyes Uplifted: Space Aliens as Sky Gods
      (pp. 145-154)
      Carol Schwartz Ellis

      From the alarming ‘carnivorous carrot’ inThe Thing(Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks, 1951) to Steve McQueen’s getting ‘slimed’ byThe Blob(Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr., 1958) to Richard Dreyfuss’sClose Encounters of the Third Kind(Steven Spielberg, 1977) to the downright cuddlyE.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial(Steven Spielberg, 1982), science fiction films have been bringing alien life into American movie theatres, driveins, televisions and VCRs for nearly forty years.¹ This fascination with aliens reveals much about Americans’ deepest fears. During the 1950s, cinematic aliens clearly reflected Cold War fear² of ‘penetration, invasion and colonisation by an alien Other’.³ One thinks of films...


    • [FIVE Introduction]
      (pp. 155-157)

      In contemporary science fiction the cyborg is often one of the key signifiers of futuristic transformations driven by the melding of the machine with the human. The cyborg so often made of soft (human) tissue on the outside is at same time all hi-tech circuitry and computer chips on the inside. However, two distinct types of cyborg emerge in science fiction. Thehumanistcyborg is driven by the logic of the machine aesthetic and longs for the human emotion and human attachment that will add existential meaning to its fragile outer shell. He/she works with and for other humans, in...

    • 16 A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s
      (pp. 158-181)
      Donna J. Haraway

      This essay is an effort to build an ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism and materialism. Perhaps more faithful as blasphemy is faithful, than as reverent worship and identification. Blasphemy has always seemed to require taking things very seriously. I know no better stance to adopt from within the secular-religious, evangelical traditions of United States politics, including the politics of socialist feminism. Blasphemy protects one from the moral majority within, while still insisting on the need for community. Blasphemy is not apostasy. Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of...

    • 17 Technophilia: Technology, Representation and the Feminine
      (pp. 182-190)
      Mary Ann Doane

      The concept of the ‘body’ has traditionally denoted the finite, a material limit that is absolute – so much so that the juxtaposition of the terms ‘concept’ and ‘body’ seems oxymoronic. For the body is that which is situated as the precise opposite of the conceptual, the abstract. It represents the ultimate constraint on speculation or theo-risation, the place where the empirical finally and always makes itself felt. This notion of the body as a set of finite limitations is, perhaps, most fully in evidence in the face of technological developments associated with the Industrial Revolution. In 1858, the author...

    • 18 Machine as Messiah: Cyborgs, Morphs and the American Body Politic
      (pp. 191-204)
      Doran Larson

      On 22 September 1676, a Dr. Brakenbury conducted the first human dissection by Europeans in North America. Samuel Sewell’s diary records that a Mr. Hooper, ‘taking the [heart] in his hand, affirmed it to be the stomack’.¹ As James Schramer and Timothy Sweet have remarked, this misrepresentation of the internal organs of a geo-political enemy was necessary to that ideological apparatus whereby the Puritan community gained its sense of social cohesion. The community of saints had inherited from monarchical England a single image, the body politic, to legitimate coherence as a political organisation. But this image was deeply problematic in...

    • 19 Ghosts and Machines: The Technological Body
      (pp. 205-216)
      Susan J. Napier

      The bodies discusses in the previous chapters have all been strongly linked with notions of identity, from the frighteningly unstable to the rigidly fixed. The fixed masculine body types displayed in pornography suggest a negative response to the transgressive potential that the female and adolescent body is shown to be capable of. This yearning for a contained or armoured body is not limited to pornography, however. The world of hard science fiction anime known asmecharevolves around a quest to contain the body, this time quite literally in the form of some kind of technological fusion. As with the...


    • [SIX Introduction]
      (pp. 217-219)

      Contemporary science fiction is immersed in the symbols, signs and polymorphous impressions of postmodernity and postmodernism. The contemporary science fiction city often speaks to notions of spatial fluidity and anomie, and to a dehistoricised sense of the past, present and future. This is because its architecture often combines a mixing of old and new styles – such as the Mayan inspired pyramids adjacent to the neon billboards inBlade Runnerand because social interaction and communication is increasingly mediated through the flat and instantaneous surfaces of the computer or television screen that mediates its landscape. Time, space and living memory,...

    • 20 Postfuturism
      (pp. 220-227)
      Vivian Sobchack

      This chapter was written nearly a decade after the previous ones. It seems quite appropriate, however, that there be such a gap, such a rupture, between previous chapters and this last one – for in the time and space between, both our lived experience and our cultural representations of time and space have visibly changed. Ten years ago the digital watch, the personal computer, the video game, and the video recorder were elite objects rather than popular commodities. Now they are an integral part of our everyday lives – consuming us as much as we consume them. In the most...

    • 21 Who Programs You? The Science Fiction of the Spectacle
      (pp. 228-238)
      Scott Bukatman

      We are living in the era of the blip, what Alvin Toffler has labelledblip culture.¹ Toffler has written of our bombardment by these ‘short, modular blips of information’,² but for others the blip is more pervasive and more crucial in its implications. Into the 1990s, the human subject has become a blip: ephemeral, electronically processed, unreal.³ Numerous writers have noted this implosion, the passage of experiential reality into the grids, matrices and pulses of the electronic information age. Exploration outward has been superseded by the inward spiral of orbital circulation – in cybernetic terms, the feedback loop. The world...

    • 22 Prosthetic Memory: Total Recall and Blade Runner
      (pp. 239-248)
      Alison Landsberg

      In the 1908 Edison filmThe Thieving Hand, a wealthy passer-by takes pity on an armless beggar and buys him a prosthetic arm. As the beggar soon discovers, however, the arm has memories of its own. Because the arm remembers its own thieving, it snatches people’s possessions as they walk by. Dismayed, the beggar sells his arm at a pawnshop. But the arm sidles out of the shop, finds the beggar out on the street, and reattaches itself to him. The beggar’s victims, meanwhile, have contacted a police officer who finds the beggar and carts him off to jail. In...

    • 23 Akira, Postermodernism and Resistance
      (pp. 249-260)
      Isolde Standish

      This essay is concerned with a textual analysis ofAkira(1988),¹ the highly successful cyberpunk film created by Otomo Katsuhiro. This analysis is an exploration of the complex systems of codes and practices employed by the film and the spectator² in the creation of meaning; however its main emphasis will be on the perspective of the spectator. As with most commercial films produced by the Japanese studio system,Akira(Tôhô Studios) is aimed at a specific audience: adolescent males who are fully conversant with the codes and cultural systems employed in the film.³ Therefore, to reach an understanding of how...


    • [SEVEN Introduction]
      (pp. 261-263)

      Science fiction is a genre that produces and promotes some of the most serious and long-term fan devotion to come out of the ‘entertainment’ media. Corporate and global merchandising, conventions and conferences, official and unofficial websites and chatrooms, memorabilia, collectibles, and personal shrines and temples of devotion, bare witness to the fact that the media machines sell fandom to world audiences. Audiences – people of all classes, races and sexual preferences across the globe – find something deeply meaningful and necessary (to the maintenance of their everyday lives) in the sci-fi text. Sci-fi fans pay homage to individual films, books...

    • 24 Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching
      (pp. 264-280)
      Henry Jenkins III

      This essay rejects media-fostered stereotypes ofStar Trekfans as cultural dupes, social misfits or mindless consumers, perceiving them, in Michel de Certeau’s term, as ‘poachers’ of textual meanings who appropriate popular texts and reread them in a fashion that serves different interests. Specifically, the essay considers women who write fiction based in theStar Trekuniverse. First, it outlines how these fans force the primary text to accommodate alternate interests. Second, it considers the issue of literary property in light of the moral economy of the fan community that shapes the range of permissible retellings of the program materials....

    • 25 ‘We’re Only a Speck in the Ocean’: The Fan as Powerless Elite
      (pp. 281-297)
      John Tulloch

      What, then, constitutes a ‘good’ episode that would keep the ‘floating voter’ (and the fan) switched on? This question plays a central role in the fans’ reading of individual texts.

      Doctor Whofans’ sense of a good episode is constructed in terms of quite a precise aesthetic: it should not ‘leave things unexplained’ (in order not to lose the wider audience); and it should adhere to the history and continuity of the series (in order not to lose the fans). ‘Society’ fans are, in effect, situated as a privileged group with few powers – a powerless elite with little control...

    • 26 New Hope: The Postmodern Project of Star Wars
      (pp. 298-307)
      Will Brooker

      I wrote this chapter when I was twenty-five. For me, of course, the piece almost counts as juvenilia – I read it as I would a diary entry from that period, half-impressed and halfembarrassed. It is striking how long ago it all feels, and how we can already feel nostalgic for the mid-1990s; how a period that thought it was knowingly ironic can already feel like a time of naïve innocence.

      A great deal has changed, and I wanted to note a few of those changes, just to suggest the ways in which this essay is, to some extent, a...

    • 27 Web of Bablylon
      (pp. 308-314)
      Kurt Lancaster

      In the episode ‘Endgame’, Straczynski wrote a classical romantic death scene for his character Marcus Cole. This Ranger was a virgin who sacrificed his life in order to save Susan Ivanova, the woman he was in love with; he had been too proud to admit this to her. The unconsummated love is a part of Straczynski’s canon. However, in ‘unsanctioned’ fan fiction found online, this love becomes requited. The ‘Unicorn’s I&M Storybook’ Web page contains a list of dozens of stories fans have written based on these two characters; the page was designed by Sarah Zelechoski when she was fifteen...


    • [EIGHT Introduction]
      (pp. 315-317)

      Taken as a whole, 1950s US and British science fiction films are often argued to represent a collective paranoia that existed in American and British society during this time. These seemingly flimsy, low-budget B-movie texts, with hysterical titles such asI Married A Monster From Outer Space, are meant to be both a product of a post-war crisis in confidence and the amplifying agent for such cultural psychosis as it manifested itself in wider discourses and discursive practices of the time. One is able to read these films, then, through the filter of myth, metaphor and allegory, and by so...

    • 28 The Russians Are Coming, Aren’t They? Them! and The Thing
      (pp. 318-324)
      Peter Biskind

      When Ben Peterson (James Whitmore), a New Mexico state trooper, comes across a little girl wandering around in the desert, clutching a doll to her chest in Gordon Douglas’sThem!(1954), he knows there’s something amiss. ‘Look, she’s in shock’, he says, and sure enough, she is. Her dad has just been killed and their trailer squashed like a beer can. The sides are caved in, the interior is a mess, and curiouser and curiouser, there are sugar cubes strewn about the ground, not to mention strange tracks in the sand. Pretty soon the scene of the crime is crawling...

    • 29 Re-examining the 1950s Invasion Narratives
      (pp. 325-336)
      Mark Jancovich

      Rather than legitimating Fordism and its application of scientific-technical rationality to the management of American life, 1950s invasion narratives often criticised this system by directly associating the alien with it. It has often been pointed out that the qualities which identify the aliens with the Soviet Union is their lack of feelings and the absence of individual characteristics. It was certainly the case that during the 1950s, many American critics claimed that in the Soviet Union people were all the same; that they were forced to deny personal feeling and characteristics, and to become mere functionaries of the social whole....

    • 30 ‘We’re the Martians Now’: British SF Invasion Fantasies of the 1950s and 1960s
      (pp. 337-346)
      Peter Hutchings

      An astronaut infected with an alien organism stumbles across London (The Quatermass Experiment[1955]); alien-controlled humans construct a sinister refinery in the English countryside (Quatermass II[1957]); a Martian space-craft is unearthed at a tube station (Quatermass and the Pit[1967]); an extraterrestrial masquerades as a housewife (Unearthly Stranger[1963]); aliens take over a country hospital (Invasion[1966]); a visitor from one of Jupiter’s moons kidnaps young women and returns them to his planet for breeding purposes (The Night Caller[1965]).

      In reality Britain has rarely been invaded. In its fantasies the opposite is true. It is perhaps fitting that...

  13. Index
    (pp. 347-356)