William Gibson

Aliens, Robots, and VR Idols

Full disclosure: I tried reading some of HP Lovecraft’s fiction when I was in grammar school — a collection of short stories that included “The Call of Cthulhu,” if I remember correctly — but I found it fairly alienating and also kind of depressing. Similarly, I never really got into Isaac Asimov (despite Will Smith’s best efforts), and though I vaguely recall reading and mostly enjoying William Gibson’s Neuromancer as a graduate student in the late 1990s, I failed to finish reading a subsequent Gibson novel, All Tomorrow’s Parties, because I didn’t know what was going on and didn’t especially care to find out.

None of this is to disparage any of the above writers. I’m told by several friends and colleagues — and now by John L. Steadman, author of Aliens, Robots, and Virtual Reality Idols in the Science Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov and William Gibson — that their works are classics not only within their genre but of literature in English more broadly. Likewise, the profusion of Cthulhu-themed bumper stickers and tee shirts among steampunk hipsters alone has, over the past decade or so, made me wonder whether I am, in fact, missing out on something. Fortunately for me and others of my ilk, Steadman’s book does an excellent job of summarizing much if not all of each author’s oeuvre in loving detail. Think of it as the Rough Guide to Lovecraft, Asimov and Gibson Countries.

While much of the volume is given over to valuable summary, Steadman’s larger purpose is to explore, in his words, “the interrelationship between alien and humankind.” This examination reveals the limits and limitations of what Steadman describes as “the belief that humankind is at the center of the cosmos — the most important element in the cosmos, in fact.” This critique of what might broadly be described as Humanism resonates with the Inhumanism or Antihumanism of figures like Robinson Jeffers, whose poetry does much to undermine the notion that humans are the center of existence, and it also calls to mind the Tralfamadorians of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, who look upon humanity with a mix of curiosity and bemusement.

One question that Steadman returns to repeatedly is that of motive: What do the aliens in the authors’ works want? Curiously, the question itself reveals the limits of humanity’s ability to conceive of and understand the fully alien insofar as asking what aliens want assumes that they do, in fact, want as humans do. Perhaps this explains Steadman’s conclusion that “our understanding of the alien is, at best, imperfect and minimal” and that “when the alien withdraws from the stage, as it does in the works of all three writers,” we are left with the disturbing vision of “humankind, short-lived and insignificant, alone in a vast, indifferent cosmos.”

The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door

A shark attack, a starlet in hiding, a mysterious black box. The opening pages of Stephen Stark’s The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door have all the makings of a Hollywood page turner, but the novel’s style places the author in a far more literary league.

The novel is a hefty one in terms of content as well as form. Weighing in at well over 600 pages (in 12 pt. Garamond, no less!), The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door touches on a wide range of topics — show business, fame, predestination, love, reality, lucid dreaming, and standup comedy, to name just a few. To tackle these subjects, Stark offers the reader Ellen Gregory, a thirty-something standup comic turned TV superstar whose recent run-in with a murderous stalker leaves her questioning everything about the world she’s grown used to. That her world consists largely of hype and rumors only complicates matters for the increasingly cagey celebrity.

Ellen’s Hollywood narrative alone would certainly provide enough material for a provocative examination of fame and its trappings, but Stark sweetens the deal by adding virtual reality to the mix. Shortly after escaping from the confines of her successful sitcom, Ellen falls for a computer programmer whose experiments have opened a doorway into a mysterious dimension that isn’t quite real but is, in some ways, more real than real. When Michael falls prey to a vicious attack, Ellen’s world turns upside down, and her entire world — not to mention her sense of self — goes up for grabs.

Stylistically, Stark’s writing evokes a diverse range of contemporary authors. From the more “literary” camp, there’s Jennifer Egan and Don DeLillo, while the elements of science-fiction present in the novel call to mind William Gibson’s interest in virtual reality and Jamil Nasir’s examination of lucid dreaming in The Houses of Time. Complex, ambitious, and genre-bending, The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door is a philosophical page turner that dares to ask what it means to really know someone.

Review by Marc Schuster