Adam Roberts, Aldous Huxley, Carolyn See, China Mieville, Darko Suvin, David Karp, Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Erskine Childers, George Orwell, George R. Stewart, Gordon R. Dickson, H.G. Wells, Hugo Gernsback, Ignatius Donnelly, Joanna Russ, Johannes Kepler, Jules Verne, Karel Capek, Kenneth Mackay, Margaret Atwood, Mark Bould, Mary E. Bradley Lane, Mary Shelley, Michael Crichton, Philip K. Dick, Pierre Benoit, Robert Heinlein, Sherryl Vint, Stanislaw Lem, Stephen Baxter, Strugatsky Brothers, Thomas M. Disch, Yevgeny Zamiatin
This review of The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction by Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint was first published in Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Volume 23, issue 2, 2012:
All of a sudden, it seems, we can hardly move for histories of science fiction. It is as if there is a sense of something coming to an end, as if there is now enough historical perspective for us to look back and assess how the genre was shaped and developed. This latest variant on the form is also one of the briefest; in comparison, the Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, which the authors co-edited, contains almost as many pages in the section on the history of the genre as this entire book. The Companion also treats the genre far more broadly, in terms of the timeframe covered, the forms of science fiction covered (though Bould in particular is a specialist in film, this book is all about literature), and the understanding of what constitutes science fiction. This last leads directly into one of the problems with this book.
It is clear that this volume is intended as a teaching aid, primarily for undergraduates with little or no previous acquaintance with the genre. In this it works well: it is brisk and breezy, throws in enough theory to seem serious without being weighty, and lets much of the argument rest on the numerous booklists that are embedded throughout the text. The booklists constantly direct the reader outside the text, and while no work that appears in a list is allowed any substantive discussion in the text, taken alone the lists do act as a reasonable if far from comprehensive guide to many of the most significant works of the genre. So, as a starting point for someone coming fresh to the study of the genre, you could do far worse. It’s not perfect, there are inevitably omissions, and the fact that any work discussed in the body of the book is excluded from any list leads to problems, one of the more egregious of which I’ll discuss later. The authors do make every effort to avoid gender or racial issues, making a point, throughout the work, of discussing books by women or non-white authors equally with those by white males. Though there are moments when this seems to prioritise a minor work by a woman over a major work by a male, in the main this can only be celebrated. Given which, it is a pity that, in a genre that is becoming increasingly international, they confine their discussion almost entirely to Anglophone authors. While some authors in translation are unavoidable (Verne, Capek), authors like Lem and the Strugatsky brothers are mentioned only in a passage about Science Fiction Studies and none of their titles are even listed; others fare even less well.
The central issue, therefore, concerns the nature of the genre whose history we are being given.
To say what the history of anything might be, it is first necessary to say what that thing is, a notoriously difficult task when it comes to science fiction. Bould and Vint propose that there are two broad types of definition of the genre, thought they confuse things by talking of “two types of history of SF” (5), even though these are not histories but rather the definitional groundwork from which a history might proceed. The first, which they term enrolment, consists of listing all that sf includes. They trace this back to Gernsback’s editorial in the first issue of Amazing, when he laid out how he saw his new invention, scientifiction: “the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story”. They examine what sort of genre might be derived from this disparate bunch by looking briefly at each in turn. Unfortunately, there is a missed opportunity here. They provide lists of the various stories by the three writers that Gernsback reprinted, but they do not then discuss those stories, other than belatedly and as an aside. Instead they look at more famous and perhaps more science fictional work (as we might recognise the term today). When they say, for example, “In Verne’s fiction, there is an even more pronounced tendency to elaborate narratives from scientific data and to derive verisimilitude from writing in a scientific register” (10) they are reading him in the light of a Gernsbackian tendency rather than as a test of Gernsback’s definition. As a result we do not get the chance to ponder the shape of the genre that Gernsback might have thought he was abstracting from their work, instead modern expectations of genre are simply assumed.
Though Gernsback attempted to enrol Poe, Verne and Wells as exemplars of what he intended scientifiction to be, “Their fiction is far more various, contradictory and excessive than histories and definitions which privilege the Gernsbackian moment might allow” (17). Which is true enough, except that what we have been allowed to see is the various, contradictory and excessive in Poe, Verne and Wells rather than the Gernsbackian, so we don’t understand that Gernsbackian moment. What has been presented, therefore, is not an examination of ‘scientifiction’ as the starting point for modern science fiction, an historical consideration one might have thought necessary in a history of the genre. Rather, it is simply assumed throughout the rest of the book that here is where the genre begins. Instead, we have been shown that (though not exactly how) Gernsback used enrolment and, by a leap of faith, enrolment becomes the taxonomical basis upon which to discuss science fiction from this point on. There are sound reasons for agreeing with both propositions (though I would argue strongly against taking Gernsback as the genre’s starting point), but because of the way the argument is presented it feels as though some sleight of hand has been practiced here.
But, of course, Gernsbackian enrolment is not the only way to view science fiction. Against this, the authors consider what we might term an academic approach, for which they take Suvin as an exemplar. While they concede that “disagreeing with him is a considerable part of SF scholarship” (17) they don’t actually say what any of these disagreements might be. Their brief summation of Suvin’s views is admirably broad, telling us that “Suvin’s insistence that SF must have a critical relationship to the social world contemporary to it’s production defines the genre in terms not of specific textual features or content but of it’s ability to promote social change” (17) before they even mention cognitive estrangement or the novum. They note, also, that like Gernsback, Suvin was in the business of creating a genre by enrolment, it is just that he calls on a broader range of forebears. However, since the entire discussion of Gernsback was focused upon the idea of enrolment, one is here left wondering what is the difference between the two? Can it simply be a factor of who they attempt to enrol? And, since we have been told that the work of Poe, Verne and Wells was too “various, contradictory and excessive” to be easily enrolled into the narrow genre that Gernsback envisaged, could there be a similar problem with Suvin’s enrolment? Of course, the fact that the only definitional approaches to science fiction that are considered in the book come down to enrolment, does rather justify the insistence on enrolment throughout the rest of the volume. If we accept that these are the only definitional approaches to science fiction. And if we accept that both come down to enrolment.
Nevertheless, we are left with an impression that between them Gernsback and Suvin offer the only two options for regarding the genre, so when, in their bullet-pointed conclusion, the authors state that “Genres are the discursive product of enrolment processes, undertaken by numerous actants with different, and at times conflicting, agendas. Consequently, there can be no single definition of SF” (19) it is not altogether clear how they got there from what went before. I agree wholeheartedly with their conclusion, I’m just not sure how they reached it.
Having laid out the groundwork, they now move on to the history proper with a chapter significantly entitled “Science fictions before Gernsback”, which, as I have noted, suggests that Gernsback is being taken as the starting point for what we might term science fiction proper. Certainly this chapter is thematic (note the plural in the heading), while subsequent chapters all have a basic chronological model. Various, but by no means all, of the strands that have gone in to the complex beast that is science fiction are considered: Utopias (which they insist on calling eutopias) and dystopias, colonial adventure fiction, future war, apocalyptic fiction, prehistoric and evolutionary fiction, and science and invention. There are many other strands that have played a part in the creation of sf, but the most obvious omissions from the list are the marvellous journey or interplanetary voyage, a very curious omission given that one prominent recent history of the genre, by Adam Roberts, specifically sees the birth of the genre in such works, notably Johannes Kepler’s Somnium, which is not mentioned at all in this volume.
But what they do discuss is treated in a problematic manner. Most of the weight of the chapter, here as in the rest of the book, is carried by booklists dotted about the text. These supposedly name key texts not otherwise discussed, yet they are a curious bunch. Despite the chapter supposedly being devoted to sf before the arrival of the magazines, at least half of the novels on each list come from after the advent of Hugo Gernsback. Nor are the lists anything like a complete selection of the most significant works in each category. The dystopian fiction they tell us about includes Zamiatin’s We, Disch’s 334 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but not Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984 or Karp’s One. (The Huxley and Orwell will both be mentioned in a later chapter, far away from this discussion of dystopias; Karp is not mentioned.) The discussion and list of utopian fiction contains no mention of H.G. Wells though he was by far the most persistent and important utopian writer of the last century. This is presumably because Wells was featured in the previous chapter, but that discussion didn’t pay attention to any of his utopian works. The list of future war stories includes The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, which does indeed fit in this tradition, though its presence here without comment rather disguises the fact that it marks a divergence in the tradition of future war stories and is generally recognised as the point where such tales gave birth to the spy story. Certainly any student who picks this novel up as a significant work in the history of science fiction is going to be terribly confused, especially as the same list is directing her to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Dickson’s Soldier, Ask Not. Some, though by no means all, of these notable omissions will be discussed, or at least mentioned, in their chronological place in later chapters, a practice that only serves to emphasise the strangeness of these booklists. And the titles they choose to build their discussion around are often wilfully eccentric. If you were to pick one work to stand for all utopian fictions before 1920 would you pick Mizora: A World of Women by Mary E Bradley Lane? Would your representative dystopia be Caesar’s Column by Ignatius Donnelly, your chosen colonial adventure be Queen of Atlantis by Pierre Benoit, your chosen future war story be The Yellow Wave by Kenneth Mackay? Part of me welcomes the fact that they have not chosen the usual suspects, but when space is so limited, when each chosen title has to carry so much historical weight, it seems at the very least perverse not to give more attention to some of the books that have more readily withstood the test of time. There may be other reasons for these choices, but one cannot help wondering whether they were selected less for their historical role in the development of science fiction and more for their convenience for whichever angle the authors wish to pursue.
I find myself also questioning some of the judgements the authors make about what is or is not enrolled within the genre. Speaking of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, out of print between 1833 and 1965, they say: “It’s relative failure to be enrolled into SF since then is perhaps indicative of the extent to which the genre developed to find the inevitable defeat of humanity less palatable than the idea of conquering death” (29). Yet both before and since 1965 sf has been quite ready to defeat humanity, in Stewart’s Earth Abides, See’s Golden Days, the tv film Threads, and much of the work of Stephen Baxter, and sf has shown no reluctance to co-opt any of these into the genre. And since The Last Man is Shelley’s second most cited work, I don’t think it has been exactly ignored either.
As they say, “it is imperative to remember that whether a specific text is considered central or peripheral to the genre is always a matter of ideological and cultural struggle” (36). But there seem to be ideological issues of their own that the authors bring to the book. Thus “enrolling A Princess of Mars [by Edgar Rice Burroughs] into SF becomes problematic because it increasingly contradicts existing scientific knowledge” (38), which must come as news to the many historians and academics of sf who still write about the book and it’s sequels. But then, that necessity for agreement with scientific knowledge is one of the unquestioned assumptions of a Gernsbackian view of the genre that does not necessarily apply in other perspectives on science fiction. So what we have here is an example of the authors’ own underlying assumptions about the nature of science fiction colouring their perceptions about does or does not fit into the history of the genre.
After this initial consideration of what they (though not I) might term ‘proto-sf’, subsequent chapters are chronologically arranged, that is, there is one chapter apiece on the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, then two chapters apiece on the 1960s and 70s and the 1980s and 90s (everything from the last decade is included in a final chapter headed ‘The Future’, though this is still the past since they consider nothing more recent than China Miéville’s The City and the City). But this overall chronology is not reflected in the internal structure of the chapters. Thus a paragraph on Philip K Dick starts with The Man in the High Castle (1962) moves on to Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), goes back to Ubik (1969) and ends with Martian Time-Slip (1964), hardly the most coherent account of a career development. But then, that doesn’t seem to be part of the historical perspective espoused by the authors. Though the amount of space given over to contemporary events in each chapter grows the closer we get to the present, as though only recent sf can be clearly seen as responding to its social, political or cultural environment, there is little sense of sf responding to itself. Older histories have perhaps overemphasised the degree to which sf is in conversation with itself, but here you get little real sense that any practitioners of sf knew or responded to other works within the genre.
Much weight is still attached to lists of titles interspersed through the text, though in places this can seem surreal. A list of “countercultural and anti-authoritarian SF films” in the middle of a discussion of Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune is odd. And without any supporting explanation I’m still not entirely sure what Michael Crichton’s Coma is doing on that list. On page 135 there is a list of “20 works of feminist SF”. Given the welcome championing of sf by women that has emerged of late in certain parts of the Internet, this list was widely acclaimed, only to be followed by immediate puzzlement: where was The Female Man by Joanna Russ? The reason is that Russ’s novel had been discussed 28 pages earlier in a section on Metafictional SF, and by an obvious but never stated practice the authors never include in these lists any work discussed elsewhere in the book. As this example, one of many, shows, however, such practice tends to obscure science fiction’s multivalent character, which means we often get neat categories rather than the curious mess that is sf. In their arguments, the authors constantly decry such neat categorisation, but the structure of such a short book makes it inevitable.
And such neatness also leads to simplistic generalisations. On the British Boom, for instance, they say: “British culture was distinguished from American culture in it’s relationship to the idea of empire” (171). Really? British sf of the post-war years has consistently been referred to in terms of loss of empire, but that was at best only a partial characterisation and at worst misleading. To use the same characterisation for sf of the 90s seems to me wrong, not only for what it says about British science fiction, but for what it says about American sf. There is, perhaps, something to be said for the way different ideas of empire are reflected in British and American space operas of the period, but that requires something more nuanced than the sweeping statement we get here.
What we have, therefore, is an outline of history rather than an actual history, but it is a partial outline at best. Partial both in the particular perspective on what science fiction is and how it has developed, and in the types of work enrolled into the genre. As a starting point for a discussion it is fine, but that subsequent discussion will need to give long and thorough consideration to how science fiction is both more and other than the genre presented here.