Adam Roberts, Algis Budrys, Brian Aldiss, Donald Sassoon, Gary Westfahl, John W. Campbell, L. Ron Hubbard, Lester Del Rey, Mark Bould, Nicholas Ruddick, Robert Heinlein, Samuel R. Delany, Sherryl Vint
I seem to have been immersed in various histories of science fiction lately. Or rather, since I still have my mind on the project I started but sort-of abandoned many years ago but can never quite bring myself to forget, I’ve found myself hyper-aware of historical perspectives on sf.
For a start, I have been working my way through Donald Sassoon’s monumental work, The Culture of the Europeans, a book that is so heavy it is almost impossible to carry, but that is unfailingly fascinating to read. And as I read through it, I keep being startled by ideas or bits of information that would belong in my own history of British science fiction. So I start to jot down notes. Unfortunately, my notes for the project are not actually in good order, there are three or four notebooks, scraps of paper, odd cuttings, and god knows how many pages of One Note, and I need to wrestle it all into some sort of shape.
So I decided to resurrect something else I’d abandoned. Back when I was trying to make my way through my history of British science fiction, I put together a timeline as a simple way of keeping track of the chronology. When I stopped writing, the timeline fell into abeyance, but I reckoned that if I revived it, it would be a good place to keep a note of new titles I came across. So I’ve spent the last few very frustrating days putting that together, reworking what had been there and trying to make it simpler and more useable. The current effort can now be seen here.
To provide a backbone for my own timeline, I plundered Nicholas Ruddick’s British Science Fiction: A Chronology, 1478-1990. It is a good, solid starting point, but alongside a number of gaps I’ve already started to plug, I also noticed that it represents a view of the history of science fiction that does not quite coincide with my own.
But that is not the only divergent view of the history of sf that I’ve been aware of lately. I have, for example, been reading for review the three-volume set of Algis Budrys’s Benchmarks columns from F&SF. Now you might imagine that a collection of book reviews would be fairly neutral in terms of its historical perspective. Supposedly, reviews provide an of-the-moment response to whatever happened to be coming out at that time. But that is not what Budrys was doing. Or rather, if that is what he was doing, then the publishers of the 1970s and 80s were devoting an inordinate amount of their output to books from the 30s, 40s and, at a push, 50s. What we actually get is a series of columns that turn again and again to John W. Campbell, Lester Del Rey, L. Ron Hubbard, Robert A. Heinlein and a host of writers of the same era. They define science fiction for Budrys, they are the measure for all that comes after (it is notable, for instance, that he really cannot get his head around any of the work of Samuel R. Delany). In other words, this historical perspective changes the nature of the beast and colours the way that all that comes after is viewed.
At the same time, I am reading (also for review) another set of three books which go under the title Political Future Fiction. This set brings together six little-known science fiction novels from the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras. Or let me put that another way: I would call them science fiction. I am not sure that Budrys would, nor would any of the defining characters of the period he calls ‘modern science fiction’ (a term that has a most unfortunate and confusing side-effect: it leads him to call any sf from the 1950s, ‘post-modern science fiction’).
What I am saying is that Nick Ruddick and I, Budrys and the various editors of Political Future Fiction are all offering different histories of science fiction. There are overlaps between them, inevitably so, but there are major differences as well.
Anyone presenting a history has to make a series of choices. What do I include, and what do I exclude? What course do I chart between the various messy, inchoate events that I have chosen to include? I remember reading The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction by Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint and recognising every staging post that they pick out along the way, and yet feeling at the end that I did not recognise this science fiction. I remember reading The History of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts and finding myself disagreeing with many of the staging posts he picked, and yet feeling that at the end I recognised the science fiction he presented. When I put together my Timeline of British Science Fiction I was consciously working towards a history of the genre; when Algis Budrys put together his review columns, I’m pretty sure he was not. But we were both engaged in the same enterprise, which is shaping events to fit our view, rather than the other way around.
Of course, Budrys believed that science fiction had a particular shape and form, one that emerged in its ideal aspect between the 1930s and the 1950s. If that is the history of the genre that you have constructed, then it shapes the way that we can view anything before or after those dates. I, on the other hand, believe that there is no such thing as science fiction, or rather that there is no one set of characteristics that we can reliably identify as science fiction. This allows for constant change, revolutionary as well as evolutionary, it allows for wide variations in how we approach and consider different works at different times, yet it still picks and chooses as much as Budrys’s much narrower view is doing. Meanwhile, Ruddick’s view of the history of British Science Fiction is every bit as loose and as wide-ranging as mine, yet it still feels like it is presenting a different view. Ruddick’s Chronology, by the way, was published to accompany his critical study of British sf, Ultimate Island, and probably served the same purpose for him in the writing of that book as my Timeline was intended to do in the writing of my history. I thought Ultimate Island was an intelligent survey of the literature, I found a lot to admire in the book but an equal amount to disagree with. In the main, I think his notion that British science fiction is defined by coming from an island doesn’t quite make sense. This perspective shapes not only Ultimate Island but also the accompanying Chronology, which is why a simple list of books published, people being born and people dying still somehow creates an overall vista that is slightly askew from my own.
Of course, as I’ve said before, how we define something controls the history we make of it (thus, for instance, Brian Aldiss’s definition of science fiction that specifically references the Gothic virtually dictates that his history of the genre is going to start with Frankenstein). Similarly, the history we choose to write of something will affect how we define that thing (thus, when Gary Westfahl writes a history of science fiction that begins with the pulps, then he is automatically defining the term to exclude whatever came before the pulps). History and definition are two sides of the same coin: when you read a history of X then you are reading what the author believes defines X; if you read a definition of Y then you are reading what the author believes mark the beginning and end points of the history of Y.
Thus Budrys clearly sees science fiction as being primarily an American post-pulp literature, which presents a consequent history of the genre that is marked by a peak in the 1940s and a steady decline thereafter. Both Ruddick and I see science fiction as being a product of the Renaissance (the first date in Ruddick’s Chronology is 1478, the birth of Thomas More; the first point in my Timeline is 1455, Guttenberg’s first book set in moveable type); but when you start so far back the subsequent course is going to be more diffuse, harder to follow. His track through British science fiction includes more of what I would tend to regard as fantasy; my track features more of the political and social satire that isn’t as prominent in his list. We trace the same thing from the same point and end up in different places.
Which simply confirms my opinion that there is no history of science fiction just as there is no definition. There are science fictions, works which partake of some of the characteristics we might associate with science fiction, and there are histories which find different ways of making some sort of coherent pattern out of all the different science fictions. None of these histories are the same, all of them are right.
Jonathan McCalmont said:
I was disappointed by Bould and Vint’s Concise History as while I really like their impression of the genre, I felt their history was rather unadventurous. Received wisdom plus.
Conversely, I think that the Fifty Key Figures book they worked on is significantly more interesting as while it does make some critical judgements about who and who is not important, the lack of narrative tying them together turns the book into a sort of toolkit for building your own history of science fiction (which is something I touched on in my last but one IZ column).
The more critical studies of science fiction I read, the less interested I am in whether or not they are true. Histories are acts of political myth-making and I think it’s a good deal more fun to judge them by those terms.
Paul Kincaid said:
Histories and definitions are the same thing, and they are both myth-making. The problem is that, as long as we keep talking about science fiction then we need to have some idea what it is we are talking about. Trying to square that circle is one of the things I find I keep coming back to. There’s no answer, of course, but I’ll probably keep banging my head against the problem until I peg out.
Jonathan McCalmont said:
You can’t provide necessary and sufficient conditions for a term that has been used in an almost completely unsystematic fashion since its creation. I don’t think SF can be objectively defined because I don’t think the concept means anything in particular.
As a result, I think it’s more fruitful to talk about what you think SF should be and base that talk in what has come before.
“But it’s not SF” tends to end fruitful conversations. “But it’s not what SF should be doing” starts them 🙂
Paul Kincaid said:
‘But it’s not what sf SHOULD be doing’??!? That sounds horribly prescriptive.
I prefer a much more descriptive approach: these are some of the things that sf has done.
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