Reviews for Aliens, Robots & Virtual Reality Idols in the Science Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov and William Gibson:
Alienation or Alien Love? John L. Steadman. Aliens, Robots & Virtual Reality Idols in the Science Fiction of H.P Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov and William Gibson. Zero Books/John Hunt, 2020. x+256 pp. $25.95 pbk, $20.99 ebk.
“What is an alien? What does the alien want? These are the key questions asked in John L. Steadman’s masterful account of sf authors H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov, and William Gibson. In asking these questions, Steadman attempts to address the even more perplexing problem of what it means to be human. Presenting the human and the alien as a conceptual pair that, according to quantum theory’s idea of complementarity, “cannot be understood at precisely the same time” (2), Aliens, Robots & Virtual Reality Idols offers a lucid survey of how each author juxtaposes the human and non-human. Its impressive range of coverage, detailed knowledge of each writer’s corpus, and development of a shared language to describe the disparate nature of various non-human entities single this book out as a significant contribution to the field of sf studies. Additionally, its confident handling of terrestrial, extraterrestrial, and inter-dimensional aliens; humaniform and humanoid robots; and holographic, biomechanoid, AI, and loa idols as parallel forms of alterity or otherness gestures (a bit hollowly, as will be shown) toward sf’s broader function as cultural or critical commentary.
The book itself follows a tripartite structure, beginning with a clear, erudite, and at times poetic introduction to what Steadman terms respectively as Lovecraft, Asimov, and Gibson country. In these descriptions Steadman’s true passion as a Lovecraft scholar reveals itself. For instance, his hypothetical visitor to Lovecraft country “stands alone in a desolate, cathedral-like forest on an autumn day ... as the short day draws to a close and the shadows gather.” Awed by Lovecraft’s cosmic sublime, “she becomes conscious of the great immensities of space and time” (4). Perhaps in stylistic alignment with a shift from horror and fantasy to hard sf and cyberpunk, Steadman’s handling of Asimov and Gibson country is much more practical: “She can marvel at the glittering, immense, underground cities on Earth” (7), while “Gibson’s postmodernistic cities are the same cities that we are all familiar with” (10). After introducing the type of storyworlds each author creates, Steadman allots roughly a third of the remaining book to a thorough examination of each writer. These three sections each follow a consistent structure, beginning with a valuable biography that places the writer in his historical context and, importantly, includes a genealogy of influence. Steadman then dedicates a chapter to each type of non-human entity that exists for that particular author before outlining what humankind looks like in his broader corpus. These detailed examinations conclude with individual chapters examining how human and non-human entities interact and relate to one another; this ranges from alien indifferentism in Lovecraft to robot and VR inclusionism in Asimov and Gibson.
Steadman’s skill at summarizing and describing the numerous texts and characters explored here demonstrates his deep knowledge of the subject matter, as well as his own masterful storytelling ability. Additionally, his careful and astute selection of quotations from the various texts described not only supports his own claims regarding the human/non-human dichotomy but is also likely to draw new readers to the stories and authors that he chronicles. His strength resides in providing clear and precise outlines of each author’s major texts and the characters to be analyzed, so that it is quite easy to follow his discourse even when it touches on a particular text that the reader has not experienced. This is especially evident in his self-constructed hierarchy of being, through which Steadman offers an overview of both the non-human entities and the homo sapiens and homo sapiens+ created by each author. According to this hierarchy, each author presents a series of normal humans and the supernaturally inclined, genetically modified, and/or naturally gifted humans plus. These humans interact with, and/or are affected by, non-human entities in different ways. For example, in Lovecraft country the humans+ tend to be witches and wizards who seek the aid of aliens to gain knowledge, power, or apocalypse. In Asimov country, the augmented humans are those who have evolved or been modified so that they have no need to seek alliances with alien forces. As Steadman notes, “They are the higher powers” (130; emphasis in original). In a further descent from the supernatural to the scientific, Gibson’s humans+ “have highly developed intuitive powers” (216) that enable them to become net-runners and pattern readers. Their naturally acquired skills, however, come at a cost, as they are frequently accompanied by addiction, deformity, or disease.
An additional strength of this book is its careful consideration of aliens, robots, and VR idols as parallel forms of alterity. For those interested in how sf authors have presented otherness, Steadman’s carefully organized survey of Lovecraft’s unique creation of aliens, Asimov’s foundational exploration of robots, and Gibson’s visionary approach to cyberspace and AI will provide an enormous amount of material and structure for further study. Each section of this book effectively functions as its own separate examination of an author’s created cosmos and of the roles humans play in it. For Lovecraft, the human is small and the cosmos infinite. Aliens are nearly all malevolent and interaction with these creatures results in death, destruction, or madness. For Asimov, humans reign within the more manageable context of the Milky Way galaxy. There are no aliens, save the robots that humans create and include within their societies. Any potential malevolence is addressed (imperfectly, as Steadman shows) by the Three Laws of Robotics. For Gibson, humans are of central importance within an even smaller context of earth and, in the case of Freeside in Neuromancer (1984), of nearby space. His VR and AI constructs frequently work with humans to their benefit, although humankind remains largely “indifferent towards the aliens” (237) that surround them.
The compelling descriptive and narrative strength of Aliens, Robots & Virtual Reality Idols also reveals itself as a potential weakness. At times, it is difficult to identify what Steadman is arguing, or even if there is an argument at all. This is partially intended, as Steadman suggests, when he introduces the book through the lens of quantum theory’s concept of complementarity. In this way, he positions the human and the alien as opposing concepts that can only be understood by knowing what the other is not. Steadman further underscores the alien/human resistance to analysis in his conclusion, in which he admits that “our understanding of the alien is, at best, imperfect and minimal.” He then suggests, “But our understanding of ourselves is enhanced because of this; when the alien withdraws from the stage, as it does in the works of all three writers, we are left with only ourselves to look at” (246). In this way, the book attempts to shift the interpretive burden onto the reader, ultimately avoiding the responsibility of defining humanity and its relationship to the Other. This would be less unsatisfactory if Steadman had not primed the reader for a more critical examination of alterity, which he does, in part, by referencing philosophical and psychoanalytical theories of identity. For example, he quotes Dani Cavallaro’s use of Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage in her Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson (2000) in order to explain the selfactualization process undertaken by Gibson’s VR entities. Because, as Steadman notes, “there is nothing existential that can be actualized” (175) in a being that only exists within cyberspace, the process of understanding the self is entirely imaginary. This type of complex theoretical framework is indeed warranted, as Gibson himself suggests in Mona Lisa Overdrive (1989). In a gesture reminiscent of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s master-slave dialectic from The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Gibson explains that “when the matrix attained sentience, it simultaneously became aware of another matrix, another sentience” (Gibson qtd. in Steadman 213). In other words, self knowledge is necessarily attended by knowledge of the Other. This moves beyond the concept of complementarity and instead suggests a deeper psychological interconnection that is never quite expressed in Aliens, Robots & Virtual Reality Idols.
Concomitant with its tendency toward the descriptive over the argumentative, a further difficulty with this book is the problem of intended audience. As noted above, Steadman’s lucid and obviously well researched biography and introduction to each author recommends this book for use in teaching. There are several complicating factors, however, that ought to make the attentive instructor pause before using this book in the classroom. For instance, while the book purports to explore identity through alterity, there is little mention of the primary markers of otherness present today: ethnicity, disability, and age. This becomes even more problematic when dealing with an author as openly and demonstrably racist as Lovecraft. While Steadman twice acknowledges Lovecraft’s racism (48, 62-63), at no point does he interrogate or problematize it. Instead, he subsumes what Lucas Kwong describes as “the author's intent to install race as the foundation of being” (“H.P. Lovecraft's ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ as Radicalizing Assemblage: An Anglo Materialist Nightmare” [Journal of Narrative Theory 49.3 (Fall 2019): 382]) into the much broader category of “anti-humanism” (81). In this way, Lovecraft is recast as a misanthrope whose work is marked by “profound depths of despair, madness, and emptiness” (83), rather than a white supremacist whose work explores the fear and hatred he felt toward nonwhites. Choosing to gloss over Lovecraft’s racism as revealed in his construction of aliens is a missed opportunity, since Lovecraft himself makes this connection explicit. See, for example, his description of the inhabitants of New York’s Lower East Side in a “Letter to Frank Belknap Long,” dated 21 March 1924 (Selected Letters, I. 333-34). In it, Lovecraft makes clear for his readers who and/or what he sees as non-human. The decision not to contextualize critically this feature of Lovecraft’s work is especially notable due to the contemporaneous release of HBO’s Lovecraft Country (2020), a television show premised on a similarly titled novel by Matt Ruff that explores the profound interconnectedness of Lovecraft’s horror and the racism of the Jim Crow-era United States.
In addition to the problematic glossing of Lovecraft’s racism, there are instances in Aliens, Robots & Virtual Reality Idols when word choice and subject matter become unnecessarily alienating for a broader audience. In most of the cases identified below, Steadman reproduces the language used within the texts themselves, but he does not say so, nor does he acknowledge that the language is outdated or offensive. For instance, Steadman refers to Nyarlothotep, an alien featured in Lovecraft’s Fungi from Yuggoth (a series of sonnets originally published in Weird Tales beginning in 1930) and The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath (1927), as “vaguely oriental” (53), while describing Lovecraft’s racism as “unfortunate” because, in the case of the entity called Shub-Niggurath, it tarnishes “an otherwise interesting enough trans-dimensional alien” (63). Moving beyond the work of Lovecraft, Steadman persists in using problematic language when describing “mentally-challenged person[s]” (124, 209) in Asimov’s “… That Thou Art Mindful of Him” (1974) and Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive respectively. He goes on to describe Asimov’s Late Solarians as hermaphrodites and “alien monstrosities” who have taken “their obsessive fears of human contact and sexuality to extreme levels” (153). And finally, in a most perplexing instance, Steadman dedicates an entire paragraph to what he frames as a prescient parallel between the Solarian civilization and “the situation of our millenials in the twenty-first century” (153). Connecting the extreme isolation and technological dependency of these advanced Spacers to the modern-day use of smart phones and other electronic devices, he writes, “Although the millennials have not yet reached the levels of isolation and solipsistic self-absorption that the Solarians have obtained, nevertheless, they seem to be well on their way towards achieving this end” (153). While warning, as Steadman does, against a future with “no room in it for alien love” (245), the lack of critical and self-reflective analysis in this book ultimately falls short of what our current moment most requires. These recurring instances of alienation diminish the value of a text otherwise worthy of praise.” -E. Mariah Spencer, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 48, No. 3, November, 2021, pp. 600-604.
"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." - Marc Schuster, Small Press Reviews on Word Press, March 14, 2021.
"Nonfiction books of this variety are few and far between. High concept and academic, yet accessible. Specific, yet covering all required bases and sticking a solid landing. This book expanded my thinking on the subjects of aliens, robots, and VR – all quite common sf topics and, if I’m being honest, got me excited again to think of these things as much more than tropes, but as deliberate conversation pieces within our fiction.
My one criticism of the title is that many of the references here are old. While the arguments still stand, folks already familiar with these discussions may want to look elsewhere for more nuanced and updated takes on these older analyses. This title simply isn’t as hooked into the current academic discourse around these subjects one might find in places like the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction or MFA programs who specialize in genre topics." - SirReadsalot, Amazon Book Review-February 28, 2021.
"John L. Steadman (H.P. Lovecraft and the Black Magickal Tradition), a scholar of science fiction literature, provides an intriguing look at three giants of the genre in terms of how each treated the concept of the alien. As he acknowledges, his three subjects are known for tackling disparate themes. Lovecraft’s supernatural horror stories featured powerful beings from other dimensions, while Asimov imagined super intelligent robots, and Gibson has conjured virtual reality creations who ascend to a godlike status. Steadman demonstrates surprising parallels between these visions, such as how Asimov’s robots, though ostensibly benign and governed by an in-built code of ethics, end up posing a threat to humankind—as Lovecraft’s “Great Old Ones” do—“by eliminating all of the things that make humans human.” Steadman also connects Gibson’s powerful VRs with Asimov’s robots, noting that both manipulate humanity for their own agendas. There are some minor flaws, as when Steadman stretches to claim that Asimov’s human sleuth, Elijah Baley, was based on Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, or oddly muses that “humans in their infant stage evolve into aliens in their adult years.” Nonetheless, he makes a strong case for the connections he sees between authors not previously viewed as having much in common." - Publishers Weekly Book Review-September 15, 2020.
"Steadman’s comprehensive guide wrestles with the concept of the ‘alien’, applying cutting edge theoretical and philosophical ideas to the work of some of the greats of Science Fiction to arrive at a set of exciting new discoveries about what the genre says it means to be ‘human’. Reading Aliens, Robots and Virtual Reality Idols guarantees that you will never look at the writing of Lovecraft, Asimov or Gibson in the same way again." - David Simmons, University of Northampton, Northamptonshire, UK.
"John L. Steadman’s ambitious book offers a welcome commentary on what it means to encounter the Other under the most extreme possibilities. It also provides an insightful—and sometimes even chilling—analysis of several works by H. P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov, and William Gibson to suggest how each author imagines the human, the alien, and the universe. The result is an insightful and interesting read that offers a new perspective on each author while also focusing on what it means to be human in an increasingly strange world." - Carl H. Sederholm, Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities; Chair, Comparative Arts and Letters; Editor, Journal of American Culture, Brigham Young University.
"As Lovecraft divulged, any “hero” in his modern folklore “is never a person but always a phenomenon or condition.” Nowhere is this more evident—Steadman tells his readers— than in Lovecraft’s “development of trans-dimensional aliens.” Steadman finds in Lovecraft’s greatest fiction a metaphor for “the limitations of the human mind and human technology,” and a warning that humanity must “circumvent, solve, or prevent the things that threaten our humanity” to one day “take our place in the greater cosmos. "- John D. Haefele, author of A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos and Lovecraft: The Great Tales.
Reviews for H. P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition:
"In H. P. Lovecraft and the Black Magickal Tradition, John Steadman has written a compelling and unusual study of the Cthulhu Mythos. By locating Lovecraft's work in the narrative of black magic systems and interrogating the various intersections between the Mythos and real magical practices, this fantastic book casts new light onto both. A must read for anybody interested in either Lovecraft or black magic, and fascinating for newcomers and scholars alike." --Tom Fletcher, author of Impossible Dreams (Hugo Award winner, Best Short Story category, 2006)
"At the time of his death in 1937 H. P. Lovecraft was little more than a minor pulp author. He regarded himself as a failure. Three-quarters of a century later he is accepted as a serious figure in American (and World) literature, one whose standing and influence grow almost daily. But was he 'merely' a writer of horror stories, or was there something more to his works? Were his many weird beings and alien gods purely the products of his imagination, or did Lovecraft tap into some greater and more esoteric truth than the average reader of Weird Tales or Astounding Stories realized?
In H. P. Lovecraft and the Black Magickal Tradition, John L. Steadman addresses this question head-on. Whether Lovecraft was himself a practicing, if covert, occultist, as some devotees believe, or solely a practitioner of the tale-spinner's art, his works fall clearly within the occult traditions of cultural and even supernatural beliefs stretching back to classical Greece, Egypt, and Mesopotamia.
Steadman's scholarship is impressive and the revelations in his book may well be as shocking to skeptics (including me!) as they are reassuring to believers. I recommend this book unreservedly to any admirer of Lovecraft, whichever camp the reader may belong to." --Richard A. Lupoff, author of Marblehead: A Novel of H.P. Lovecraft and Lovecraft's Book
"H.P. Lovecraft's influence on modern horror fiction is indisputable. John L. Steadman explores a more obscure aspect of his legacy, dissecting and analyzing the research into the occult that underpins the Cthulhu mythos, and describing how the rites and metaphysics in Lovecraft's fiction have influenced the practice of contemporary magic. A fascinating and valuable contribution to Lovecraftian scholarship." --Paul McAuley, author of Four Hundred Billion Stars (Philip K. Dick Award Winner, 1988) and Fairyland (Arthur C. Clarke Award Winner, 1996)
"John L. Steadman has opened the door to the study of neomythology in H. P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition. Funny and dark, cynical and powerful, Mr. Steadman takes on the many faced monster that is rising out of the R'lyeh of the collective unconsciousness." --Don Webb, Emeritus High Priest of the Temple of Set & author of Do the Weird Crime, Serve the Weird Time and Casting Call.
"John Steadman offers an admirably clear, concise, and comprehensive account of the instances of black magic featured in H. P. Lovecraft's works, the sources from which he drew his information and--most usefully and most interestingly--the various uses made of Lovecraft's literary inventions by the numerous modern lifestyle fantasists who have taken inspiration from his fiction." --Brian Stableford, author of The Devil's Party: A Brief History of Satanic Abuse, Werewolves of London, and The Cthulhu Encryption.
"John L. Steadman's fascinating look at the intersection of Lovecraft and the occult is both comprehensive and comprehensible--even to the non-occultist--and provides a wealth of information and inspiration for the aficionado or the practitioner of the weird tale." --Orrin Grey, author of Never Bet the Devil, Painted Monsters, The Mysterious Flame and Black Hill.
"Author John L. Steadman's intriguing book, H. P Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition, is a fascinating and well-researched treatise on the influence of magickal thought with respect to the output of one of the recent giants of Weird Literature. With concision and insight into the historical underpinnings of Black Magick and its adherents, Steadman's volume is indispensable reading for neophyte Lovecraft readers, longtime fans, or simply individuals with a casual interest in the Old Gentleman from Providence, as well as those curious about the history of magick in literature and in popular culture. A stimulating and informative reading experience." --Jason V. Brock, author of Disorders of Magnitude, The AckerMonster Chronicles, and Simulacrum and Other Possible Realities.
"Not just for students of the occult! Lovecraftian horror fans and writers will find this well-researched volume a brisk and fascinating read." --Lon Prater, author of Head Music and Midnight in New Promise.
"I am enthralled by this outstanding study. As one who has practiced as a solitary witch, and one who now practices as a weaver of Lovecraftian fiction, I can appreciate this book on many levels. In its approach to biographical matters, it paints an honest portrait of H. P. Lovecraft. A magnificent work!" --W. H. Pugmire, author of Some Unknown Gulf of Night, The Tangled Muse and Uncommon Places.
"John L. Steadman's treatise H. P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition provides a fresh angle of context for the man, the myth, and the legend. A fine addition to the library of any Lovecraft enthusiast, whether or not you believe in magic." --Cherie Priest, author of Boneshaker (Pacific Northwest Bookseller’s Association Award Winner, 2009 & Locus Award Winner, 2010) and Bad Sushi.
"John L. Steadman's book is a welcome contribution to an important and neglected subject. Much nonsense has been written about Lovecraft's involvement with occultism, and Steadman brings a refreshing dose of reason and sanity to the discussion. His thorough understanding of Lovecraft's life, work, and thought, and his impressive grounding in all aspects of the occult tradition, make him the ideal scholar to address this controversial topic." --S. T. Joshi, foremost world Lovecraft scholar and author of the award winning biography, H. P. Lovecraft: A Life and The Modern Weird Tale.
"They say truth is stranger than fiction, but is truth stranger than Lovecraftian fiction? John L. Steadman's in-depth look on Lovecraft and the occult proves that it is! A fascinating mix of literary criticism, subaltern history, and occult minutiae, even for non-occultists like myself." --Nick Mamatas, author of Move Under Ground and Love is the Law.
"John L. Steadman may well have created the most thorough and accessible study of the occasionally perilous, often credulous, but always fascinating realm where the fictional mythos of H.P. Lovecraft dovetails with occult praxis. H.P. Lovecraft and the Black Magickal Tradition exhibits a blend of scholarly insight and literary panache that is sure to please and enlighten both the Initiate and the weird fiction connoisseur." --Richard Gavin, author of At Fear's Altar, Omens, The Darkly Splendid Realm & Charnel Wine.
"Steadman has written a perceptive, comprehensive, and admirably balanced study of Lovecraft's connection with occultism. H.P. Lovecraft and the Black Magickal Tradition provides an important and valuable contribution to this highly contentious aspect of his life and work." --Paul Roland, author of The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft.
"In 'H P Lovecraft and the Black Magickal Tradition' we are presented with an enigma that could, ultimately determine the fate of humanity. The threads that underpin this mystery are long and the pathways run deep but throughout John L Steadman holds the story together and presents an authoritative, but also entertaining, take on a genuine occult enigma." - SPIRITUALITY TODAY