What Does Not Exist

By Paul KincaidNovember 7, 2014

What Does Not Exist

The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction by Rob Latham

AROUND THE MIDDLE of the second century of the Christian Era, Lucian, a satirist from Samosata in what is now Turkey, wrote A True History, which included an extravagant tale of voyagers swept up to the moon. This was, perhaps, a response to a contemporary work by the Greek Antonius Diogenes, The Incredible Wonders Beyond Thule that also, apparently, included a voyage to the moon. But The Incredible Wonders Beyond Thule has been lost, so it is Lucian’s text that is now variously hailed (depending on who you consult) as the first work of science fiction, or proto-science fiction, or an ancestor of science fiction, or, to be fair, nothing to do with science fiction at all.

If it was the first work of science fiction, it is in good company, because that title has also been claimed for a strange variety of other books. So Utopia (1516), Thomas More’s philosophical account of the benefits of living in a totally ordered society, has been identified by some as the first work of science fiction. As has Johannes Kepler’s posthumous Somnium (1634), in which he uses his astronomical knowledge to imagine a journey to the moon; or another posthumous work, First Man in the Moone by Francis Godwin (1638), in which his antihero employs a mechanical device powered by geese to fly to the moon. Among other progenitors or paradigms there’s Margaret Cavendish’s story of another world joined to this one at the North Pole (The Blazing World, 1666), or Jonathan Swift’s account of a flying island inhabited by mad scientists (Gulliver’s Travels, 1726), or Ludvig Holberg’s revelation of another world inside this one (The Journey of Niels Klim, 1741), or Voltaire’s encounter with a vast alien philosopher (Micromegas, 1752). Perhaps the most widely accepted nomination for the first work of science fiction is Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley, which tied the new science of galvanism to Gothic horror. But then, there are advocates for Edgar Allan Poe (“The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” 1838) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (“Rappaccini’s Daughter,” 1844); the French make a claim for Jules Verne as the father of science fiction for his voyages extraordinaire such as From the Earth to the Moon (1965), while the British make the same claim for H. G. Wells and The Time Machine (1895). Critic Gary Westfahl even argues that science fiction did not come into existence until it became self-conscious with the launch of Amazing Stories in 1926.

All of these may have played their part in the development of what we know today as science fiction, but this gestation of nearly 2,000 years could not have led to the birth of one coherent, uniform genre. And indeed, when we look at how different people have tried to define science fiction, we realize that the history of the criticism of science fiction is the history of failing to identify what it is we are criticizing. As Lisa Yaszek says, in the book under review, “there are as many definitions of science fiction as there are people within the SF community.” When he launched Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback was content to identify what he then called “scientifiction” as simply the sort of stuff that Wells and Verne and Poe wrote. Thirty years later, author and critic Damon Knight gave up on the idea of definition and said it was just what we point to when we say science fiction. In the 1970s, Brian Aldiss decreed that science fiction was inextricably bound to the Gothic, which narrowed the field for his preferred origin story, Frankenstein; while Darko Suvin declared that it was the literature of cognitive estrangement, a definition so broad that it applies equally to many supposedly realist works but that is still the default definition used by most academics. More recently, Roger Luckhurst has started to talk about science fiction as “the literature of technologically saturated societies,” which has abandoned the notion of there being anything definable within the literature itself and links it instead to the circumstances of its composition. It is also a formulation that excludes much of the world that isn’t technocultural Europe or America; Zamiatin’s We came out of what was still a predominantly agrarian society, it is hard to see technological saturation as responsible for much of the long history of Chinese science fiction, and what are we to make of the science fiction that is now emerging from South America, Africa, or the Middle East. But this geographical limitation of science fiction is something we will come back to. For myself, I see science fiction as a web of overlapping and interweaving strands of story that split apart and reconvene in ever new combinations without ever quite becoming one recognizable whole. None of these definitions of science fiction is entirely satisfactory, just as none of these accounts of its origins and history is entirely satisfactory.

One conclusion that can be drawn from this is that science fiction as a unity — a genre, a mode, a field — does not exist. There are many science fictions, they offer different ways of imaginatively approaching our world, or rather, of approaching those things that seem implicit within our world but that are not actual. Therefore, they are not all the same, and science fiction is not singular but plural. This has not stopped a host of commentators discussing science fiction (in the singular) as if they were all using the same words in the same way, usually as if science fiction is a genre. Indeed, the identification of “science fiction” and “genre” has become so firmly embedded in the culture that it is virtually impossible not to use the two terms interchangeably. By now our shelves groan under the weight of dense tomes dedicated to the study of science fiction as a genre, as a unity, as something we can point to and recognize.

What is refreshing about The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction is that it approaches its subject in the full awareness that it is fluid, protean, ever-changing. As the editor, Rob Latham, says in his introduction: “If the problem for SF studies in the 1970s was to establish what counts as science fiction, the problem today is to determine what does not count as science fiction,” or to put it another way, science fiction can be all things to all people, which means there can be no clearly delineated subject for discussion. The best that Latham can offer is “to convey a strong sense of the heterogeneous discourses and debates, histories and cultures, that have gone to make science fiction, broadly conceived, what it is today.”

One consequence of this recognition of the diversity of science fiction, the fact that it cannot be pinned down, is that the 44 essays that make up the book contradict each other, start from radically different positions, pursue different agendas, work within different academic or definitional constraints. Do not read this book expecting to discover a coherent account of what science fiction is; on the contrary, we end up with an impression that science fiction may affect every aspect of our lives, but has precious little to do with science or even with fiction. This is both a strength and a weakness of the book. A strength in that it makes us reassess science fiction, and see it in forms and in places that we might never have expected; a weakness because we can never be entirely sure what it is that we are seeing, we might discover science fiction in one place, but by the next chapter we will have been told that what we just saw could not possibly be science fiction at all.

The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction is divided, perhaps too neatly, into four sections of 11 chapters each. The first section, “Science Fiction as Genre,” looks at the characteristics of what we most readily recognize as science fiction; section two, “Science Fiction as Medium,” considers the different ways, other than as literature, that science fiction presents itself to us; section three, “Science Fiction as Culture,” examines the cultural phenomenon of science fiction and the various ways it affects our everyday lives; and finally section four, “Science Fiction as Worldview,” assesses the ideological impact of science fiction. Three quarters of the book, therefore, take us outside the familiar territory of science fiction as literature, and half the book takes us outside the notion of science fiction as fiction. However, these divisions are appropriately loose. Several chapters would work as well or better in other sections (Farah Mendlesohn’s chapter on “Fandom,” for example, would seem a much more appropriate fit in “Science Fiction as Culture” than where it does appear in “Science Fiction as Genre”), while many of the chapters resonate with (or, more likely, argue against) chapters found elsewhere in the book.

Take, as an instance, the history of science fiction, a topic that does not receive specific attention anywhere in the book. In Part I, Arthur B. Evans, writing about “Histories,” tells us: “There are many histories of science fiction. But all of them are partial and partisan — that is, each has its own interpretive purpose, its own limitations of scope, and its own ideological biases.” Examining those varied purposes, limitations, and biases, Evans takes us from the first tentative histories of the genre that began to appear just after the Second World War right up to the present, revealing how each deliberately shapes the literature to suit the author’s particular stance. In light of this, it is no surprise that he makes no pronouncement of his own as to where science fiction began or which route it took to get to today. For that, we might turn to Part IV, where Adam Roberts’s chapter on “The Enlightenment” does an excellent job of illustrating how SF emerged from the tension between enlightenment beliefs in secularism, science and liberalism, and the surviving religious beliefs of the age. Though Roberts’s own book, The History of Science Fiction, argues a somewhat different case, that science fiction began with Giordano Bruno and Kepler’s Somnium, which highlights the absence of the Renaissance and Reformation from this study.

However, the idea that science fiction emerged from the Enlightenment is immediately contradicted in the next chapter, “The Gothic” by William Hughes, which begins: “Gothic is the unnatural, uncaring, and irresponsible parent of science fiction.” Such a position will be completely uncontentious for those who accept Brian Aldiss’s argument, first voiced in Billion Year Spree and long accepted as gospel by many commentators on SF as a genre, that Frankenstein is the only begetter of science fiction. Indeed, in Hughes’s chapter, Frankenstein receives more sustained attention than any single work anywhere else in this book. But does that argument hold water? The next chapter, “Darwinism” by Patrick B. Sharp, offers another counter-argument, that “Darwin’s work was one of the many ‘conditions of emergence’ for SF as a genre.” Our origin story is constantly and consistently being pushed closer to the present. Regardless of whether we accept the notion of “SF as a genre,” we have to conclude that a science fiction that emerged from the secularism of the Enlightenment is necessarily very different from one that emerged from the arcane notions of the Gothic, or again from the radical scientific reimagining of the world that was the Theory of Evolution.

If we then turn back to Part I, we find yet another story in Gary Westfahl’s chapter on “The Marketplace.” Amidst a startlingly unsurprising argument that early SF writers wrote for money, he makes his by-now familiar case that science fiction could only be said to begin with Hugo Gernsback and the launch of Amazing in 1926. To this he adds a polemical argument that science fiction should today return to the standards and vision of John W. Campbell. There are odd inconsistencies in Westfahl’s case: he would seem to suggest that the first SF novel was Hugo Gernsback’s own Ralph 124C41+, though this appeared over a decade before his starting point for the genre with the launch of Amazing. Furthermore, his case rests on the idea of self-awareness, on the genre having a name for what it was doing; but the name for what appeared in Amazing was “scientifiction,” “science fiction” only came three years later when Gernsback had lost control of Amazing and launched a rival magazine. But a more telling counterargument comes in the very next chapter, “Pulp Science Fiction” by Jess Nevins, who point by point undermines each of Westfahl’s assertions. Compared to Westfahl's comments about SF writers writing for money, for instance, Nevins notes that before Campbell took over Astounding in the late 1930s, the SF pulps paid less than the general pulps, and more SF appeared in the general pulps. Which suggests that something other than merely writing for money was going on in the SF pulps. Nevins also goes against the Westfahl narrative when he declares that “When science fiction began appearing in the pulps, it was neither new nor surprising.” Rather than suggesting that before Gernsback gave a place and a name to “scientifiction” the authors were not conscious of writing within a tradition, therefore, Nevins makes it clear that there is plenty of evidence to show that they were well aware that they were working within a common language of tropes and ideas. Though in Westfahl’s favor we might point out that what Gernsback did was make this type of fiction visible, just as H.G. Wells before him had made visible the form of scientific romance that existed long before he began writing. But, of course, making visible is not the same as originating. Finally, where Westfahl presents Gernsback and Campbell as vital and liberating influences on the development of science fiction, Nevins is convinced that they were liabilities, sources of limitation: “Had Gernsback and Campbell never appeared on the scene, science fiction might well have matured a decade earlier.”

There is an argument, never explicit in this book but implicit in a number of the chapters, that SF is intimately American in nature, and just as the 20th century is often termed the American Century, so science fiction is the literature of the 20th century. If that is the case (and it is not a position that I subscribe to), then the formative years between 1920 and 1950, the heyday of the pulp magazines, were instrumental in making science fiction what it has become. Yet the clash between Westfahl and Nevins indicates that there can be no agreement even about so recent and so vital a period. Clearly the science fiction that Nevins saw maturing outside the SF pulps is not the same as the science fiction that Westfahl saw coming into being within the SF pulps. So what can this book tell us about the nature of science fiction?

The very first chapter in the book, “Extrapolation and Speculation” by Brooks Landon, considers two of the terms that have become central in just about any critical discussion of science fiction. The two words have very different dynamics: extrapolation takes what exists and draws ideas from it, while speculation imagines what may become; but as Landon shows, the two words have become, over time, more or less interchangeable. He then argues that “Just as surely as the understanding of extrapolation and speculation has shifted over time, so the understanding of the science in science fiction, whether imaginary or ‘real,’ has also shifted and must be approached diachronically.” In other words, whatever we mean by science in science fiction is not stable. Adam Roberts amplifies this when he notes that the Latin root of science, scientia, means knowledge, then adds: “but science fiction is only a knowledge fiction in a strictly mythological sense.” Though most commentators agree that science must have something to do with science fiction, no one can agree what.  Science fiction might operate strictly within the terms of contemporary scientific knowledge, or it might not; it might predict technological advances that, in time, become actual (a happenstance that Darko Suvin seems to suggest would mean that the story is no longer science fiction); it might play with developments (time travel, faster than light travel) that are currently considered impossible. As Sherryl Vint shows, in “The Culture of Science,” the relationship between science fiction and science is far more complex, more open to question, than might be thought. Gernsback took a pre-existing form of fiction and called it science fiction to emphasize the supposed didactic character of the work he published, but in fact most of that work came nowhere close to that purpose. Nevertheless, readers clung to the name and even distorted our understanding of science in order to defend the rightness of the name. Anthony Enns expands on this idea in his chapter on “Pseudoscience”; he quotes Robert Crossley: “The old nineteenth-century ideal of using narratives about Mars to stimulate interest in astronomical research and to teach readers the state of the scientific question ceased to have much bearing on the literary imagination” after around 1912 when Lowell's theories about Martian canals ceased to have any scientific respectability. The change in scientific knowledge didn’t bring an end to stories about life on Mars, but the stories transmuted into the romantic tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But what this says about the relationship between science fiction and science is much broader. Even John W. Campbell, the doyen of scientifically rigorous “hard SF,” declared himself unwilling “to be properly cowed by those Authoritative Scientific Statements” if they happened to contradict his own dearly held belief in ESP.

Science and science fiction really have no consistent connection. When Brian Attebery on “The Fantastic” says “A number of fictional frameworks have evolved within SF to allow for the inclusion of blatant fantasy,” he is effectively saying that there is no difference between SF and fantasy, that the two have always intermingled inextricably. In the end he argues that the science fictionality of many stories is accepted as a sort of “legal fiction,” we know this stuff is pushing way beyond the boundaries of what we would strictly consider science fiction, but if the story is compelling enough we make allowances.

As Peter Stockwell says about this unstable, ever changing relationship between science and science fiction in his chapter on “Aesthetics”: “All of this diversity makes it very difficult to delineate a single unifying aesthetic that can be said to identify science fiction as a cultural phenomenon,” though he considers this a problem with aesthetics rather than with science fiction. Since “It is not psychologically plausible to imagine a separate type of reading and appreciative process evolved solely for SF, and it is not socially plausible to separate SF out from the continuity of human experience”  I am more inclined to think that science fiction itself is the problem. Or rather, that science fiction is no more and no less varied in its structure, its aesthetic, our responses than that branch of literature we term the mainstream; to put it another way, there is no aesthetic distinction between science fiction and the mainstream.

Indeed, both Gary K. Wolfe on “Literary Movements” and Joan Gordon on “Literary Science Fiction” tend to see SF as a marketing category more than anything else. But marketing categories are also inherently unstable; new categories are constantly being introduced and old categories reinvented simply as a new way to attract the ever-fickle consumer. One such new category, one of many in fact, was “Slipstream,” which gets a chapter of its own by Victoria de Zwaan. Bruce Sterling’s notion of slipstream is interesting as the first significant attempt to identify a fiction that falls between SF and the mainstream, though this has become something of an industry in the twenty-odd years since Sterling coined the term, with new variations such as interstitial arts or mundane science fiction. What these do is highlight the uncertainty, the unease about genre SF. As Sterling admits, slipstream is a grab-bag of mainstream literature that happens to interest SF readers, though since the tastes and interests of readers are infinitely varied, this could be just about anything. But note that the movement is from SF to the mainstream; mainstream readers and critics seem to feel no corresponding urge to reach into genre. All slipstream, interstitial, and the rest do is say there are works we self-identify as SF that do not strictly fit within our notions of genre.

All of this gathering uncertainty, this growing sense of imprecision whenever we try to talk about science fiction, builds up to what may be the best and is certainly the most important chapter in the book, “Mode vs Genre” by Veronica Hollinger. Referencing John Clute, she suggests that science fiction “for the new century” (a formulation that deliberately takes us away from the notion, mentioned above, that links science fiction to the 20th or American century) is “a way of producing meanings about the contemporary world of global capital, information overload, technoscientific imperialism, and geopolitical upheaval.” I’d argue that this is not limited to the new century, that SF has always had such a task: we imagined futures and other worlds and aliens only as a way of externalising what we see around us. The alien thus stands for what is too close for comfort. Conversely, producing meanings about the contemporary world is, and always has been, the job of all fiction. But then, I probably take a more radical position on this even than Hollinger. She goes on to argue from this quest for contemporary meaning that SF is both genre and mode, both “a particular kind of narrative complex” and “a way of thinking and speaking about contemporary reality.”

We may accept that SF is “a more or less recognizable cultural product,” but does product equal genre (pace the marketing category of Wolfe and Gordon), or warrant the various academic attempts to identify and frame SF? “The very breadth and variety of critical and theoretical studies published to date, however, demonstrate that science fiction as a particular kind has never been as coherent as (some commentators) might suggest.”  Working from the idea articulated by genre theorist Alastair Fowler that “genre tends to mode,” Hollinger then examines the way SF critics have increasingly since the 1980s been reading SF as “a privileged discourse of technoscientific postmodernity,” that is, as a mode. As long ago as 1981, Mark Rose was talking about the wearing out of genre materials, a case also made by Joanna Russ; Gary K. Wolfe has written of “evaporating genres” and I’ve talked about the exhaustion of SF, so we might take this argument further, citing Jonathan Benison, and say that “SF in some sense does not exist any more as such [...] as mode it is everywhere and nowhere.”

This idea that science fiction is everywhere is a theme that runs throughout this book. Some of this is familiar territory: there are chapters on “Film” by Mark Bould, on “Radio and Television” by J.P. Telotte, on “Animation” by Paul Wells, on “Art and Illustration” by Jerome Winter and on “Comics” by Corey K. Creekmur. All of these have been a consistent part of serious science fiction criticism and study for some years now, though there is still a sense of inferiority about them. Creekmur, for instance, complains that “It’s especially unclear why SF comics don’t share the status now typically accorded to SF film and television” though when we turn to Telotte’s chapter we get a sense that radio and TV feel like the poor relative compared to film, and Bould in turn discusses the marginalization of SF film as typified by a quotation from James Gunn: “there are virtually no good films that are also good science fiction.” (The real poor relative here would appear to be SF theatre, which gets no mention at all, despite the importance of works ranging from Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (1920) to J.B. Priestley’s time plays, notably An Inspector Calls (1945).)

There are interesting discussions in all of these chapters (though Telotte’s raises one of the more troublesome aspects of this book which I will return to later in this review), but it becomes ever more interesting as we move into less familiar areas. Jerome Winter sets the tone when he points out that SF art is “a significant shaper of the image culture of 20th century technological modernity.” We begin to discover how full of science fiction our world is. It is there in video games where, as Pawel Frelik shows, SF has no negative connotations, because the generic differences are between first person shooter, role playing or puzzle solving games, not between SF, crime, war or so on. It is there in our architecture (discussed by Nic Clear), in theme parks (Leonie Cooper), and body modification, where Ross Farnell tells us “The culture of body modification is simply one arena in which science fiction is materialized as a form of social practice.” But as we move away from the familiar territories of literature and film, so the sense of dis-ease about what constitutes science fiction increases. In his chapter on “Music,” John Cline says: “In practical terms, ‘SF music’ does not exist,” then goes on to discuss music that is identified as science fictional because of its means of production (the theremin) or by association (theme music for science fiction films). Writing about “Performance Art,” Steve Dixon explains the science fictionality of his subject thus: “by dint of its historical roots in tribal rituals, its allegiances with shamanism, and its egalitarian philosophies granting it interdisciplinary permission to embrace fiction as metaphor and to employ any media [...] it inhabits an interesting, tension-filled liminal space that is precisely science fiction.” This is an understanding of SF that does not cohere with anything we encounter elsewhere in the book. Moreover, it seems to me that the performances detailed here (which overlap with Farnell’s chapter on “Body Modification”), inserting microchips, transforming the body surgically, employing cyborg prosthetics, are attempts to actualize some of the imagery of science fiction, or indeed to make concrete some of the pronouncements of SF theorists, but that does not make them science fiction. They are necessarily tied to the here and now, use contemporary technologies; the contradiction is that while this might imply that we are living in a science fiction universe, at the same time it removes it from science fiction. If everything about it is current, existing, understandable, where is the science fiction?

More and more the book focuses on science fiction materialized as social practice, in Farnell’s phrase, an insistence on science fiction not as an exercise of the imagination, an aspect of the fantastic, a form of art, but as a real world development, something unexceptional that we encounter in our daily lives. Science fiction informs the advertising that we see around us (Jonathan M. Woodham), countercultural movements from the Beats to Occupy (Rob Latham), the very technology that has become an indispensable part of functioning in the modern world (Thomas Foster). Of course, the reaction to all this is found in “Retrofuturism and Steampunk” (Elizabeth Guffey and Kate C. Lemay): “However construed, retrofuturism represents a loss of faith, but it is not a meaningless exercise.” Retrofuturism is nostalgia for lost hope, a sense that we have given up on the idea of progress, which contributes to the exhaustion I have identified in much current SF. Optimism for the future, seen in theme parks, advertising and design, countercultures and so forth, has been replaced with disillusionment. This disillusion, therefore, finds expression in the most persistent of 21st century SF forms: “Steampunk is a malleable cultural manifestation, but one that, like retrofuturism, negotiates a present longing for a historical past.” But the difficulty in defining Steampunk, whether “the literature, the fashion, the bricolage artworks, or the politics,” is emblematic of the difficulty in defining science fiction itself. Both have escaped the page to become lifestyle choices or real world events.

More insidious is the way that science fiction as real world phenomenon affects our understanding of the political industrial underpinning of our world. In their chapters on, respectively, “Automation” and “Military Culture,” Roger Luckhurst and Steffen Hantke together serve to amplify Vint’s essay on “The Culture of Science.” For Luckhurst, the relationship between humans and machines exemplified by automation is one of the central concerns of SF. He makes a well-argued case, but the fact that it applies to only a subset of what we call science fiction is at least partly why his account is so lively when discussing the emergence of SF in the industrialized world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but rather fizzles out in the aftermath of the Second World War. This is when Hantke picks up the story with the emergence of what we now call the military industrial complex. But in so doing he coins yet another new history of the genre when he says: “the moment when World War II ended and the Cold War began, […] also marked the transition of SF as a fully self-aware genre from the cultural margins to the cultural mainstream.” Along the way he makes a good case for associating the persistence of military imagery in American SF with the US’s more or less permanent war footing. In turn we may wonder if the recent rise of non-Anglophone SF might therefore be associated with American military decline. So diverse has the concept of SF become, extending so far beyond familiar genre boundaries, that David Seed’s chapter on “Atomic Culture and the Space Race” references civil defence literature, comic satires, public information films and more. Science fiction by this point is everything that includes themes or concepts also associated with SF. Thus Andrew M. Butler, in “Futurology,” sets out to “detail the uses futurology makes of science fiction,” not, you notice, the other way round; throughout the book we spend at least as long looking at the discourses inspired by SF as we do looking at the discourses of SF. We are leaving fiction behind.

While Butler suggests that, from a futurological point of view, reading SF can leave one better prepared to cope with the future, in the next chapter, “Posthumanism” by Colin Milburn, this Van Vogtian “fans are slans” attitude — he quotes Heinlein: “I think that science fiction fans are better prepared to face the future than the ordinary run of people around them, because they believe in change” — is presented as a sort of self-congratulatory special pleading. Nevertheless, Milburn offers an interesting case study of the interface between SF and the real world: Robert Ettinger, the founder of cryonics, first encountered the idea in a pulp SF story by Neil R. Jones, “The Jameson Satellite,” first articulated his idea in a 1948 short story, “The Penultimate Trump,” and only started turning it into an actual possibility in a treatise of 1962.

In another of the best chapters in the book, “Colonialism and Postcolonialism,” John Rieder takes on something that is intrinsic to SF, as he says: “At no point in the history of SF is colonialism not yet or no longer relevant.” This relationship between the powerful and the powerless, between those who have a say in their government and those who do not, between those with natural resources and those with economic resources, has in recent years become one of the most powerful lenses through which to view science fiction. It has produced challenging analysis that affects the way we understand what science fiction has to say about the world, so it is clearly central to the way this book discusses science fiction as real world cultural phenomenon, and Rieder does the subject full justice. Though, since he also goes on to say, “colonialism and capitalism have to be thought in tandem with one another” one does begin to wonder why there isn’t also a companion chapter on capitalism. By this, I do not mean Marxism, a long standing critical approach to science fiction that also has no chapter in this book for the simple reason that it underlies just about everything here, but rather, an examination of the role of capital within SF as an object in its own right. As a criticism of the book this is, of course, unfair: no work, no matter how comprehensive, can hope to include everything. But it is a measure of how far the book reaches that we begin to notice how much else (Renaissance and Reformation, Theatre) might belong here.

One thing that ideas of colonialism and postcolonialism do is put science fiction in a global context; and science fiction is indeed a global artefact. Its origins, however we may argue about them, lie variously in Turkey and Greece, in England and France, in America and Russia; its practice today is to be found in Africa and South America, in Australia and Canada, in India and China and the Middle East. There are, indeed, some chapters in this book that are exemplary in their global reach. For instance, Creekmur on comics offers serious discussion of comics in Britain (Dan Dare, Judge Dredd), France (Möbius), Belgium (Tintin), Argentina (El Eternauta), Japan (Voyage to Mars, Astro Boy), and more. Too often, however, the viewpoint of the book seems restricted to the USA. Thus although anglophone literature and film could spread relatively easily around the anglophone world, radio and, to a lesser extent television, remain local. So in Telotte’s chapter a four-page discussion of SF on American radio is rounded off with one brief paragraph listing some of the SF broadcast in Britain, South Africa, Australia, and Canada. Missing, it should be noted, such important shows as Britain’s Journey into Space (1953-56). British TV fares somewhat better, if only because there has to be discussion of Dr Who, but in the main this chapter is about US media, with passing reference to other anglophone countries but nothing in any other language.

In the case of radio, this may be understandable, but other examples are not so easy to excuse. In David Seed’s discussion of the space race, the Soviet Union appears as the threat to world peace portrayed in Heinlein’s novels and films, and as a source of panic induced by the launch of Sputnik, but not as a source of science fiction in its own right. This is an entirely US-centric chapter, the only non-Americans named are Wernher von Braun and Arthur C. Clarke. When Lisa Yaszek on “Feminism” says: “Feminist political thinkers often employ speculative techniques that should feel very familiar to SF readers” we are once again looking at SF as a set of influences upon the real world. But it is a small world, so focused on the USA that there is no acknowledgement of feminist movements or thinkers outside the US (such as the suffragist movement and writers in Britain before the First World War, or similar movements throughout Europe, Australia and Canada), and the only non-American SF writers mentioned are Lisa Tuttle (American living in Britain) and Geoff Ryman (Canadian living in Britain). 

Even the chapter on “Afrofuturism” by DeWitt Douglas Kilgore, which specifically addresses a non-white future, concerns itself with the complexities of American racial identity and African-American culture. When, quoting Mark Dery, Kilgore asks why African-Americans mostly don’t write SF even though encounters with the Other “would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists,” we long for a comparison with the curious treatment of, for instance, first contact by people who have themselves been colonized. But it doesn’t come. Non-white SF, it would seem, at least until a brief acknowledgement of a broader postcolonial SF late in the essay, is not African, or Latin American, or Asian, or even Native American, but almost exclusively black American.

Actually the question of why more African-American authors don’t engage with the Other is raised but not addressed. One wonders if it is easy to engage with the Other when you yourself are cast as that Other, but we may never know. The authors who might have been Other get little voice in this collection, which is the most serious criticism I have to make about the book.

Finally, after all the uncertainties and hesitations we have encountered, there is something pleasing in the straightforward certainties expressed in the final chapter, “Utopianism” by Phillip E. Wegner. Utopianism, we are told, is “fundamental to this vital modern genre;” it is a “fundamental desire for the future” that is “manifest in every expression of culture and human creativity.” As so often in this book, the idea of Utopia takes us out of the purely literary and into the actual. Indeed, it did so from the very start: More’s work of philosophy was quickly recognized as an ideal vehicle for satire (Mundus Alter et Idem by Joseph Hall), for scientific advocacy (New Atlantis by Francis Bacon), and for direct political engagement (“The Law of Freedom in a Platform” by Gerrard Winstanley); and it was as a driver of political thought (e.g., Marx) that it has mostly been known until the revival of utopian literature with Morris and Wells. As the last chapter, this essay ends the book with a slingshot, taking us back not just to More’s text that, in some reckonings, started the whole thing, but also to the notion of science fiction as genre, and a straight analysis in Suvin’s terms, a view of SF not followed wholeheartedly by any of the other contributors but one that in effect gave SF studies the solid base it needed for academic respectability. It is interesting enough in its own right, but it serves as a reminder of how far from such an approach to SF criticism this book has taken us. As Neil Easterbrook (“Libertarianism and Anarchism”) reminds us, throughout the book, the central issue is the real world effect of the fiction, which provides “a way to dramatize political ideas in a concrete fashion that can stimulate debate as much as philosophical or economic theory can — perhaps more so.” This is not science fiction as what Brian Aldiss called “wide-screen baroque”; this is not boy’s own adventures; this is not the slightly grubby, tawdry, pulpy fiction that the literati were wont to look down upon. This is science fiction as thought experiment, science fiction as political ideology, science fiction as a radical oppositional stance, science fiction as the way we change our bodies and engage in sexual relations and listen to music. Science fiction, as presented here, has become everything in the world. Which means, of course, that it is no longer science, and no longer fiction.

LARB Contributor

Paul Kincaid is a recipient of both the Thomas D. Clareson Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, and the British Science Fiction Association Award for nonfiction. He is the author of What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (2008) and Call And Response (2014). His forthcoming book Iain M. Banks will be published by Illinois University Press in 2017.


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