Moylan, Tom. Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination.
The Ralahine Classics edition of Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination contains a re-print of Tom Moylan's original version of the book along with new supplementary materials. The book, which initially emerged from Moylan's doctoral thesis, made a major impact when it first appeared in 1986. The supplementary material nearly doubles the length of the book, providing Moylan with an opportunity to reconsider the legacy of Demand the Impossible while addressing points that have been contested or misinterpreted over time. In addition to the original text of Demand the Impossible, this edition contains a new introduction, an analysis of Aldous Huxley's Island, and a series of reflection essays from various scholars who have been influenced by Moylan's work. The original text is divided into two parts. In the first part, "Theory," Moylan outlines his conceptual approach while addressing the legacy of Utopian writing. In part two, "Texts," Moylan dedicates each of the four chapters to the analysis of a specific novel: The Female Man by Joanna Russ, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, and Triton by Samuel R. Delany. The reflection essays presented at the end of the book help to contextualize the legacy of this groundbreaking work while also emphasizing the significance of Moylan's contributions. Reflections include honorific tributes, comments on the book's influence, and respectful responses by some of Moylan's most robust critics, including Lyman Tower Sargent and Ruth Levinas. This new edition has all the earmarks of early career scholarship along with the benefits of hindsight. The core of Moylan's argument resides in the understanding that Utopian writing is not just about envisioning a better future. Rather, it is a practice that can function as a critical tool, exposing social and political inequalities and shortcomings of the present.
Throughout the book, Moylan situates utopia as a site for progressive change. He posits that the potential of Utopian writing resides in challenging dominant ideologies, a concept he fleshes out and defines in the original introduction as the "critical utopia" (9-10). He distinguishes this type of literature from other kinds of Utopian fiction as follows: "[a] central concern in the critical utopia is the awareness of the limitations of the Utopian tradition, so that these texts reject utopia as blueprint while preserving it as dream" (10). One important aspect of Moylan's definition of the critical utopia is that he restricts its application to a particular group of science fiction texts that emerged during the 1970s. These books provided traction in the post-World War II "affirmative culture" that "has served to lull and deaden people and make them into obedient automatons and not autonomous human beings" (16). In contrast to earlier forms of Utopian writing, such as Thomas More's canonical Utopia and William Morris's News from Nowhere, which posit universal proposals for betterment, Moylan argues that it can function as a process for social transformation that challenges dominant, ideological structures while addressing the nuances of repression. In Moylan's thorough textual analyses, he carefully unravels the four novels' form and content in relation to his conception of the critical utopia. These close readings are informed by Marxist and feminist methodologies that make evident how creative fiction can function as a source of hope without offering prescriptions for better living. The portrayal of utopia in these books not only makes evident the shortcomings of the contemporary state of affairs, but function as "oppositional cultural practice" that challenges the hegemonic, patriarchal structures that underwrite material and power relations (50).
While in the original text Moylan emphasizes how the works he analyzes fulfill the criteria for critical utopia, his reading of Aldous Huxley's The Island articulates the limits of this concept, as he argues this text does not meet his definition. This inclusion is notable since it also addresses an issue raised in the reflective essays: that is, has the idea of critical utopia been applied so liberally that it has become diluted? Over time, the critical utopia has been adapted by scholars, at times being used and abused as different thinkers apply Moylan's ideas to the analyses of texts. Such use and misuse has resulted in the dilution of the original meaning of the concept, which is something that Lyman Tower Sargent addresses in his reflection of the book's impact.
The book's strengths reside in its critical methodology and the supplementary materials that refine these arguments. In this new edition, Moylan takes the opportunity to address how the Demand the Impossible has been received over the years, both in ways that are consistent with and divert from his original intentions. As such, Moylan is able to reiterate the book's significant themes, present his perceived shortcomings, and respond to critics.
Throughout the text, Moylan posits a productive feminist approach to gender, challenging patriarchal assumptions of social structure. However, his method replicates some ideological blindspots of radical feminism in his discussion of pregnancy and the maternal, which can be found in his reading of Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time and Delany's Triton. When discussing The Woman on the Edge of Time, Moylan draws from the feminist philosophy of Shulamith Firestone as a Utopian vision that was important for the 1970s, particularly the "freeing of women from the tyranny of their biology by any means available" (as quoted in 190). His unqualified promotion of Firestone's stance provides a wholesale response to the nuanced topic of the maternal, which remains a complex and, at times, taboo subject of feminist philosophy and politics. While Moylan acknowledges in the conclusion that Firestone's utopia "may seem dated" by the 1980s (191), his support of this essentializing feminist gesture without further consideration in the supplementary materials should be further investigated.
Demand the Impossible is recommended for students and scholars in visual studies, literature, film studies, and the arts. Even though Moylan emphasizes how the model of the critical utopia can be applied to selected sfworks produced during a particular era in US history, his insights regarding the use of art as a means for instigating social change have a far-reaching impact. Perhaps the greatest contribution of this book for audiences of different disciplines is a point that Moylan posits as being under appreciated in its initial reception: "But while many have seized on this formal analysis of the critical Utopian strategy. I have often found myself wishing that more would have gone on to tease out the way in which that process figured in a new level of engaged activism in the service of a socio-political transformation (i.e., revolution)" (xv). While this particular call remains unheeded, Moylan's proposal for new visions of hope provide a critically engaged methodology for seekers of betterment throughout the arts, humanities, and other disciplines.
As Moylan indicates, the book is a product of its era: the 1970s. Engaging with this text in the twenty-first century, couched in a wide offering of supplementary materials, makes it a fascinating exercise in considering what has and has not changed since Demand the Impossible first appeared. Moylan's own Utopian impulse is undeniable: his method offers hope in a manner that replicates the sf texts he analyzes. This is not a blind hope, but a Marxist practice of hope. In particular, by engaging with the contradictions of history in a critical manner, society can be improved. However, reading through this book produced in the midst of the Cold War, originally published when the brand of neoliberalism promoted by Thatcher and Reagan was initially gaining a foothold, it is impossible not to wonder: have things just gotten worse? This consideration is what makes the book as significant as ever.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 19, 2019|
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