Back at the beginning of the month I read a book called Speaking with the Dead for review in The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, even though the book has practically nothing to do with science fiction or fantasy. It is devoted to a rather esoteric point of New Historicism (the whole book is built around one sentence in a work by Stephen Greenblatt) and I don’t want to say much more about it here since the review will be appearing in JFA. But I found myself considering one intriguing question in relation to the study of sf prompted by this book: why does so little sf criticism employ the tools of New Historicism?
If you look at theory-driven sf criticism you can find countless examples of Marxist thought (Darko Suvin, Science Fiction Studies passim) or postmodernism (Damien Broderick, Storming the Reality Studio), but practically no application of New Historicist theory. And yet casually those commentators who would probably eschew theory keep coming up with notions that gel with a New Historicist position. When, for instance, John Clute argues that every work of science fiction has three key dates: the date of composition, the date it is ostensibly set, and the date it is actually about, that is a New Historicist approach. Again, when J.G. Ballard argues that science fiction is the only way of writing about the present, he is also making a New Historicist point. I am sure that both Clute and Ballard would be appalled at being linked with Theory in this way, but there you go.
I make no pretence of being an expert on New Historicism, or indeed on any literary theory. I’ve read a fair number of things by scholars associated with the theory, just as I’ve read a fair number of things by scholars associated with Marxism or postmodernism and so forth. (I’m not even entirely clear why it is ‘New Historicism’ and not just ‘Historicism’, though I’m sure several people are now going to tell me.) I find useful bits and pieces in all of them, but I do find myself instinctively attracted to certain key elements in what I understand New Historicism to be. Chief among these, at least as far as I am concerned, is the notion that a work grows out of a complex set of social, cultural, political, etc, contexts and should be studied in the light of those contexts, and can also be a way of throwing light on those contexts. It is interesting, for example, that a leading Tudor historian of the 1950s, G.R. Elton, can more or less write off More’s Utopia as having little historical relevance; but most of the modern Tudor historians I’ve read use Utopia extensively as a way of throwing light on the Henrican court.
My own studies of early British science fiction have convinced me that it is impossible to understand even overtly fantastic texts such as Godwin’s The Man in the Moone or Cavendish’s The Burning World without understanding what was going on around them. There is, for instance, a fascinating connection between The Burning World and Hooke’s Micrographia of the year before, while Neville’s Isle of Pines relates directly to British colonial adventures in Madagascar and also to political and economic rivalry with the Dutch. But even such a half-heartedly New Historicist approach is far from common. In his otherwise valuable History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts goes out of his way to avoid making any connection between the works he examines and the contexts in which they were written. And Roberts’s approach is so far from being unusual in sf criticism that you are barely aware he is doing it: this eschewal of context is after all the norm.
I don’t say we should unfailingly use a New Historicist approach in sf criticism; I think it can be no more (but no less) valuable a tool that Marxism or postmodernism or what have you. I just wonder why we barely use it at all.
First published at LiveJournal, 27 September 2006.