Master Mechanics and Wicked Wizards

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Allen, Glenn Scott. Master Mechanics and Wicked Wizards: Images of the American Scientist as Hero and Villain from Colonial Times to the Present. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009.

Summarized, with a full table of contents with links to excepts, on Project Muse at link 1 below.

[...] Glen Scott Allen examines the stereotypes assigned to scientists for what they tell us about America's pride in its technological achievements as well as our prejudices about certain "suspect" kinds of scientific investigation. Working in the tradition of cultural studies, Allen offers an analysis that is historically comprehensive and critically specific. Integrating both "high" literature and "low" comedy, he delves into the assumptions about scientists [...] That have been shaped by and have in turn shaped American cultural forces. Throughout the book, his focus is on why certain kinds of scientists have been lionized as American heroes, while others have been demonized as anti-American villains. Allen demonstrates that there is a continuous thread running from the seminal mad scientists of [Nathaniel] Hawthorne's nineteenth-century fiction to modern megalomaniacs like Dr. Strangelove; that marketing was as important to the reputation of the great independent inventors as technological prowess was; and that cultural prejudices which can be traced all the way back to Puritan ideology are at work in modern scientific controversies over cloning and evolution. The periods and movements examined are remarkably far-ranging: the literature and philosophy of the Romantics; the technology fairs and utopian fiction of the nineteenth century; political movements of the 1930s and 1940s; the science fiction boom of the 1950s; the space and arms races of the 1960s and 1970s; the resurgence of pseudo-sciences in the 1980s and 1990s.[1]

Reviewed by Mark Decker in SFRA Review #293 (Summer 2010): pp. 21-23.[2]

[...] Allen makes a strong case that scientists can be portrayed either as heroic figures “with mastery over technology who utilize that skill in the service of [their] community to achieve relatively limited goals of reform” or as “villains whose arrogance is rooted in the intellect and who seek, to the detriment of [their] community, some sort of totalizing revolution” (8), [but] he does not provide enough evidence to convince readers that Americans always see scientists this way. (Decker, p. 21) [...]

Thus America’s “faith in, even reverence for technology” finds itself channeled through a preference for the an idealized engineer who was democratic and perhaps working class over the “elitist, aristocratic, and therefore vaguely foreign” theorist (18–19). This preference is the backbone of Allen’s binary: Americans like Master Mechanics and fear Wicked Wizards. [...]

[...] Allen is able to generate powerful readings of texts that range from early American literature to contemporary American films. Allen finds Wicked Wizards in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and Hawthorne’s short stories “The Birthmark,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “Ethan Brand.” Allen proves that this is not [just] a nineteenth-century phenomenon when he examines 1950s films like The Thing and Forbidden Planet and more contemporary cinema like Independence Day and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Allen is even able to mount a persuasive argument that James Bond supervillains are Wicked Wizards and to use his binary to discuss the colonial implications of the first Star Trek series.[3]

Decker concludes with a strong recommendation for Master Mechanics but between the block quotations above and that conclusion, he makes some negative observations, including a caution on Allen's reading of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and a brief bit of chiding over Decker's missing WEIRD SCIENCE, and getting Thorstein "Veblen's advocacy for Technocracy, Inc." but missing Veblen's praise for a Master Mechanic in The Engineer and the Price System. Decker also usefully notes that "Allen also argues that 'we have a deep need to differentiate the human ingenuity of the Good Astronaut from the cold logic of the Bad Alien' (190). Yet Tom Godwin’s 1954 short story “The Cold Equations” approvingly portrays an astronaut’s cold, logical decision to eject a female stowaway into space so that he can complete his mission" (Decker, p. 22).

Cf. and contrast discussions of authority in Peter Biskind's Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the '50s (New York/Toronto: Pantheon-Random House, 1983), and more specifically in SF in Biskind's "Pods, Blobs, and Ideology in American Films of the Fifties," in Shadows of the Magic Lamp, George E. Slusser and Erik S. Rabkin, eds. (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois P, 1985).

RDE, finishing, 31Mar21