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Today a piece of criticism about criticism. This review of Histories of the Future: Studies in Fact, Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by Alan Sandison and Robert Dingley was first published in Foundation 83, Autumn 2001.

histories of the futureSometimes I think academics should not be allowed anywhere near science fiction. I felt like that while I was reading Beatrice Battaglia’s essay linking E.M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ with Frederic Jameson’s concept of the ‘third machine age’. I hasten to say I have no problem with the idea behind this essay, a look at two aspects of the mechanised society that have been mainstay images of both science fiction and postmodernism. Nor am I really objecting to the jargon or the execrable prose, (though, as in too many academic essays, there are plenty of sentences here that cannot be parsed to give anything like a recognisable meaning in plain English). My problem is that in the name of depth, the breadth that might provide a necessary context has been sacrificed. Apart than passing references to books that might well have been found mentioned in other essays for all the sense of them that she provides, Battaglia considers only one other work of science fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four. This does not give us a context for understanding how Forster’s story both reacts against and builds upon other notions of mechanism and of society within science fiction. Worse, she quotes absolutely no work of postmodern fiction so that we cannot see how Jameson’s concept might be developed as literature and hence stand in contrast to Forster’s work. In place of any obvious reading within the literature, however, Battaglia has clearly read widely around it (109 notes for an essay of 16 pages is surely excessive by any standard), so we get thoughts not upon primary sources but upon the comments of other people on those sources. The result of such a narrow focus (besides presumably adding to the academic reputation of the author) might provide fresh insights into an individual work – I shall certainly look differently upon Forster’s story after this, though I’m not so sure I’ve learned anything fresh about Jameson – but I’m not sure that any work benefits from being seen in such isolation. Science fiction is a discussion involving many voices, and that is true whether you consider science fiction alone or science fiction in relationship to postmodernism, the mainstream, historical fiction or any other pigeonhole within our multifarious culture. To separate out one voice alone from such a chorus, therefore, is to ignore the greater entity which gives it shape and identity.

Battaglia is not alone in this. Indeed, she is not even an extreme example of the type; ever since science fiction achieved a measure of academic respectability more than 20 years ago now, such blinkered approaches to individual representatives of the genre have been the rule rather than the exception. There are others in this collection who share some of the symptoms. What is galling about it is that this collection is what, in another time, we would have called a festschrift in honour of I.F. Clarke, and Clarke’s whole career has been based upon the admirable principle of providing a context for science fiction. From critical studies such as The Pattern of Expectation 1644-2001 (1979) to invaluable collections such as The Tale of the Next Great War, 1871-1914 (1995) and most recently the immense British Future Fiction (eight volumes, 2000), Clarke has explored not so much science fiction as the way we have imaginatively delineated our future. His work has been an invaluable contribution to the study of our genre.

Practically all the contributors to this volume make reference to Clarke’s work, though on occasion this seems like no more than lip service (usually an attribution in a footnote to The Pattern of Expectation when the rest of the article heads off in directions Clarke would not have been interested in following), or sometimes just plain wrong. Harry Harrison, in a curiously inaccurate introductory essay (Hugo Gernsback was not Belgian), somehow seems to imagine that Clarke’s historical perspective means that his work was about alternate histories, and piggy-backs on this error a categorisation of types of alternate history for which all the exemplars just happen to be his own work.

Only one contributor, Charles E. Gannon in ‘American Dreams and Edwardian Aspirations: Technological Innovation and Temporal Uncertainty in Narratives of Expectation’, picks up on something directly from Clarke’s own work. The first part of this extremely interesting piece follows the surprisingly convoluted story of ‘The Trenches’ by Captain C.E. Vickers, which was collected in The Tale of the Next Great War, and examines whether this 1908 story, far more than H.G. Wells’s better known ‘The Land Ironclads’, does not deserve to be applauded as the true original inspiration for the tank. Gannon follows up this fascinating piece of detective work by considering cases in which science fiction did not so much predict military hardware as lag behind what was actually being produced in secret.

If Gannon’s essay is the only one to pick up directly on Clarke’s work, others, and perhaps not surprisingly the best pieces in the book, at least follow in Clarke’s direction. Bruce Brasington, David Seed, Brian Baker and Tom Shippey, for instance, all take as their starting point Clarke’s interest in military fiction. Brasington’s ‘Boys, Battleships, Books: the Cult of the Navy in US Juvenile Fiction, 1898-1919’ does more or less exactly what it says on the tin: examining the way the simplistic heroics of series like ‘Battleship Boys’ and ‘Dreadnought Boys’ changed as the nature of marine warfare changed between the Spanish-American War and the First World War. It is the result of solid research if it tells us little that is surprising, but it doesn’t have the impact of David Seed’s ‘Filing the Future: Reporting on World War Three’ which considers the way nuclear war has been portrayed in semi-journalistic accounts throughout the Cold War and shows quite clearly the way they were mostly about defeat. Forming a useful parallel with Seed’s article is Brian Baker’s ‘The Map of the Apocalypse: Nuclear War and the Space of Dystopia in American Science Fiction’, which balances Seed’s faux reportage with the fictional dystopias of the same era that were clearly outgrowths of the same mood. Baker’s essay covers a lot of ground, from Skinner’s Walden Two to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, from Vonnegut’s Player Piano to Roshwald’s Level 7 by way of numerous works by Philip K. Dick (it is heartening to read an academic essay on science fiction which does cover such extensive ground). In fact it is almost too much; this is the only article in the collection that feels as if it should be longer, quite a bit longer, in order to establish and develop the thesis more thoroughly; at the moment there is a tendency to skim across fascinating territory rather than to plunge into it. Finally this militaristic vein is completed by Tom Shippey’s analysis of Starship Troopers. Shippey argues against Clarke’s judgement on the book – ‘the sentiments and the battle equipment of the Korean War enlarged to the cosmic dimensions of fantastic planetary worlds’ – proposing instead that it is exactly the sort of dramatisation of the future possibilities of warfare that Clarke has devoted so much of his career to studying. This careful and fair-minded analysis of a work that is too often and too easily dismissed by other critics is by far the most interesting piece in this book.

Of course, it is not necessary to study war to follow Clarke’s example. Alasdair Spark does not even study science fiction, but rather the futurologists who flourished alongside the dystopian writers of the fifties and sixties and who produced similarly doom-laden works such as Future Shock and The Population Bomb. One can’t help but wonder at what an interesting portrait of an era might have resulted if Seed, Baker and Spark had collaborated rather than keeping their little bits of the period in separate compartments.

There are other interesting pieces here – a good if not especially critical account of the revival of interest in Mars in recent science fiction from Robert Crossley; a further episode in his obsession with the singularity from Damien Broderick; an account of the role history plays in his fiction from Ken MacLeod – but the only article that really comes close to Shippey’s is ‘The Ruins of the Future: Macaulay’s New Zealander and the Spirit of the Age’ by the volume’s co-editor Robert Dingley. In this essay he examines the curiously morbid fascination that nineteenth century writers had with portraying the great monuments of their age as ruins of the future.

All told, though, this is a bitty collection in which a couple of real, informative gems (Shippey and Dingley in particular) are counterbalanced by other pieces which are so slick and superficial (Harrison) or so clogged with academese (Battaglia) that they end up telling us nothing of use or of interest about their chosen subject. Clarke, I think, should feel at best partly honoured.