Shared Destiny: Fifty Years of Soviet-American Relations, edited by Mark Garrison and Abbott Gleason (Beacon Press: $8.95). These are not idle reflections. The contributors--all leading U.S. scholars on Russia--look at the last 50 years of U.S.-Soviet relations with a sense of responsibility for the political present. Their reflections, though empathic toward both sides, are forwarded with diplomatic reserve, advocating a pragmatic negotiating philosophy rather than echoing anxiety or optimism. The philosophy is based on "staying the course": Neither disarmament nor silence about Soviet human rights violations is viewed as a viable alternative. But, while the authors might seem overly cautious, their arguments are based on bold concepts, namely, as John Lewis Gaddis writes, the recognition that diplomacy cannot bring about "fundamental changes in the way great nations conduct their own internal affairs."
Soviet expansionism is a problem, Gaddis recognizes, but superpower stability since World War II indicates "that we ought not to get as excited as we do about domino theories suggesting that if we 'lose' Vietnam, Iran, El Salvador or Grenada, the entire foundation of our power in the world will erode." We have had our setbacks, these authors acknowledge, but so too have the Russians. As Gaddis writes, "We did lose Vietnam, but (the Russians) lost China . . . . We lost Ethiopia, but they lost Egypt." Not all of the contributors share Gaddis' belief in the importance of non-intervention, but all agree that the ultimate dangers are not two superpowers, but two sentiments--nationalism and imperialism. As George Kennan writes in an essay perceptive for its realization that Americans are both concerned and ignorant about the fate of faraway peoples, "one should beware of all the collective hysterias of modern nationalism--the artificially-fanned hatreds, the chauvinistic self-idealization, the professions of noble principle."
Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film, Vivian Sobchack (Ungar: $14.95). Creature movies of the 1950s might seem the ultimate in escapism, but as Vivian Sobchack sees it, futuristic fights between monsters and regular military guys do more than entertain, they underscore the importance of preserving the social order. For most of us, this type of film criticism--based on "hidden images" that are often inside the author's head rather than on the screen--is immediately suspect. Sobchack, however, convincingly makes her case by projecting film plots, themes and characters against the era in which they first appeared. The importance of order and community in the 1950s can be seen, for instance, in such horror films as "The Thing," in which teamwork, cooperation and organization ultimately triumph over the unfamiliar.
By the late 1960s and early '70s, space became not so much a haven for monsters as a frontier that dwarfs man ("2001: A Space Odyssey") or offers a way out ("Silent Running"). Despite a new chapter covering recent films, Sobchack doesn't explain why space became wondrous again in the late '70s. Nevertheless, while the Western and the gangster film have inspired numerous books, Sobchack's is the first serious work to study the surprisingly close connection between science fiction films and social preconceptions, from "The Teaching Story," which popularizes science and technology, to "The Preaching Story," which warns and prophesies, and "Speculative Fiction," which tries to learn something about the nature of things.
Love Around the World, Lailan Young (David & Charles Inc., North Pomfret, Vt.: $19.95, hardcover reprint). Love may be universal, but the rituals surrounding it vary dramatically between cultures. In this entertaining collection of anecdotes, Lailan Young makes the most of these differences, milking humor out of instances in which culture in the First World meets culture in the Third. One story, for example, recounts how a bishop from England and a young clergyman visited a Maori village chief in New Zealand. At bedtime, the chief called for "a woman for the bishop." The young clergyman, however, said this was unacceptable. Momentarily baffled, the chief then shouted more loudly, "Two women for the bishop!"
Lailan doesn't explain why approaches to romance, sex and love differ dramatically around the globe, but she tells us how, reporting on courting rituals (from lying down on fire ants to high-diving into lakes), aphrodisiacs (raw octopus in Japan, crocodile kidneys in Madagascar) and concepts of beauty (black teeth for the Trobriand Islanders, flat heads for the Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia). The book is organized haphazardly, but the mix of odd news items from the West and old proverbs from the East is provocative and entertaining.