Back in the early 1990s--back when I believed such things were even possible--I would assuage my anxieties about failing, daily, to write a PhD, by fantasising about afterwards writing a sweeping and magisterial critical history of sf. Then along came two excellent books to ruin my funny little dream: Clute and Nicholls's second edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993) and James's Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (1994). Between them, they seemed to say it all, to make any further such volumes (encyclopaedias, critical-historical overviews, genre introductions, etc.) redundant. And everyone else seemed to agree.
In the next decade, and apart from the heavily illustrated coffee table encyclopaedias edited by Clute (1995) and Pringle (1996), I know of only three books to take on this task with any success: Alkon's Science Fiction Before 1900 (1994) and Landon's Science Fiction After 1900 (1997), a sadly neglected pair, and Roberts's too hastily-executed Science Fiction (2000).
But suddenly everything has changed.
James and Mendlesohn's Hugo award-winning The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003) was joined in 2004 by Stableford's Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Literature and in 2005 by Ashley's Transformations (the middle volume of his three-volume history of sf magazines), the fifth and apparently final edition of Barron's Anatomy of Wonder, Gunn and Candelaria's Speculations on Speculation, Harris-Fain's Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction (a belated sequel to Clareson ), Seed's A Companion to Science Fiction, Westfahl's The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, as well as Luckhurst's volume under review. I know of at least one single-authored critical history and two edited introductory overviews currently in preparation, as well as an encyclopedia of women in sf. Fourteen such volumes is a significant phenomenon. It could be explained by the stabilisation of sf as something taught in universities (with a popular crossover readership) and by the restructuring of academic publishing (with its increased emphasis on sales and thus on introductory texts suitable for "required course reading"). However, one cannot reduce the willingness--desire, even--of so many figures in the field to contribute to, edit or write such volumes to mere opportunism. Maybe something else is afoot.
Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. recently said of the Clute/Nicholls Encyclopedia that "Although it is periodically updated on the internet, [it] is very much a monument to book culture; in it film and television are judged by literary standards, and icons of SF folk-beliefs like UFOs are disdained. It may be that [it] prefigures the closure of the literary/academic experiment with the genre" (2005: 58). All of the above volumes similarly treat sf as primarily--or even exclusively--a literature. (1) This signals two important things. First, that for historically contingent reasons, sf criticism has been mainly literary in its focus; sf film and TV criticism did not exist in any meaningful way until the 1990s; sf comics, games and music criticism still do not really exist. This is arguably not a consequence of the relative merit of either media or texts but of which battles over curricula were fought in post-war academia, and the particular ways in which they were "won" (and "lost"). Getting to study and teach sf literature was an important breakthrough, but surely not an end in itself. With particular kinds and versions of (predominantly literary) sf achieving the legitimacy--canonicity even--indicated by the Cambridge and Blackwell volumes, petrification threatens; and from now on, it will be difficult to pretend that there is still something radical or marginal in taking sf literature seriously. Second, this literary-critical hegemony might be coming to an end. With Redmond's Liquid Metal (2004), there is now a third landmark volume in the study of sf film. Unlike its predecessors--Sobchack's Screening Space (1980; revised 1987) and Kuhn's Alien Zone (1990), or other major texts (e.g., Penley et.al , Landon , Bukatman , Telotte [1995, 1999, 2001])--Redmond's reprint volume is a retrospective, establishing the unquestionable existence of sf film studies in a way Kuhn's reprint volume could not fifteen years earlier. Moreover, each passing year sees the number of books on sf TV apparently outnumbering the books on sf film. And while the study of New Media rarely stops to consider actual texts in detail, much New Media product is sf. From this perspective, the literary-critical overview volumes can be understood as simultaneously monuments to an sf that has gone and a powerful argument for its ongoing vitality. They are like a rearguard taking point. (2)
Consequently, this current flurry of volumes introducing not sf but sf literature can be seen as a massive first-strike in a battle over what constitutes the genre--or, less tactfully, as lumbering dinosaurs sweetly confused by the mammals scurrying around their feet.
But that is only part of the story. Despite some shared tendencies and significant overlaps, these volumes are not monolithic, neither internally nor collectively. Of the three of them to which I have contributed, editors have provided the overall structure but have not attempted to enforce a consensus as to what constitutes the genre beyond that implied by the choices involved in the structure and list of contributors. Thus, the image of the genre which emerges from each volume is, despite discernible affinities between contributors and their understandings of the genre, prismatic. The single-authored volumes, despite typically arguing for a particular view of sf, inevitably display similar internal tensions between restorative nostalgia, which commemorates, and reflective nostalgia, which "opens up a multitude of potentialities, nonteleological possibilities of historical development" (Boym 2001: 50); or, more crudely, between telling a story about sf that is sufficiently familiar to be accepted by the critical community as a classroom resource and saying something new. All these volumes have a constant air of being forced to tell us the same damn story one more time even as they try to tell us a different one. (3) One of the several strengths of Luckhurst's volume is the way in which he utilises this tension so that his telling is instructive not merely about sf but also about the nature of a telling.
Luckhurst situates his history of sf within debates as to how to conduct cultural history, placing himself firmly within the "New Cultural History." Informed by the critical theory of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and others, this stance favours an engagement with low cultural forms without prejudging literary or other merit; demands that sf be located within "a broad network of contexts and disciplinary knowledges" (2), ranging in this instance "from the history of science and technology, via the softer social sciences, to the rarefied world of aesthetic and critical theory" (3); (4) and encourages a construction of the genre which sees it in relation to "the constitution of the modern subject" (3). Luckhurst conceptualises the place of this "literature of technologically saturated societies" (3) in modernity in terms of its complex relations to Mechanism. In the 19th century, "High Culture" largely turned "away from treatments of Mechanism," making sf "a valuable historical resource for investigating the cultural impact of this central aspect of modernity" (4). In tracing through sf the historical modulations of the shifting constellated knowledges subsumed under "Mechanism," Luckhurst restricts his treatment to English and American literature, excludes reference to fandom, and leaves other fantastic genres alone. The book's three parts--"Emergence, 1880-1945," "Elaboration, 1945-1959" and "Decade Studies"--each have three or four chapters.
Part one begins by outlining four conditions for the emergence of sf: "the extension of literacy and primary education to the majority of the population of England and America" (16); the formal innovations and generic division of markets which came with the "displacement of the older forms of mass literature," like the three-decker novel and the dime novel, by "new cheap magazine formats" (16); the challenges to "traditional loci of cultural authority" posed by a generation of institutionally-trained "lower-middle-class ... scientific workers, teachers and engineers" (16); (5) and the rapid and visible transformations of culture by scientific and technological innovations as, "for the first time ... the everyday life experience of nearly all [was saturated] with Mechanism" (16-7). In the following chapters, Luckhurst traces the different developments produced by these shared conditions in the US and UK. While literary history has focused Modernism's emergence within this milieu, it also saw the re-emergence of the romance form (in Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, etc), which Andrew Lang linked to a virile (and Aryan) masculinity capable of countering the depravity of urban life and the decadent excesses of the modern novel. A similar concern for a revitalising (white) masculinity can be found in the US, although it took different forms. In the UK a class distinction was asserted between the theoretical scientist and "the artisanal or proletarian business of the mechanic," while the US tended to elevate "the mechanical engineer and practical inventor" (24). The self-mythologizing of Thomas Edison belied the massive expansion of numbers of "trained engineers, and their professionalization through university degrees in engineering and foundation of the American Society of Civil Engineers" (24). Indeed, Luckhurst contends, it was the reality of Edison's practice--the industrialisation, commodification and scientific management of innovation--that so effectively conflated modernisation with Americanisation.
In sketching in the technologies and impact of this modernisation, Luckhurst turns to a range of theorist-commentators on these transformations, including Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Georges Simmel, Walter Benjamin, Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tom Gunning and Friedrich Kittler. One is immediately struck by quite how little sf studies has actually engaged with this period in such terms. Although Luckhurst's own engagement is, of necessity, brief, this is the first of several times in Science Fiction that he identifies an area in which future sf scholars might productively toil.
Chapter Two focuses on the "evolutionary paradigm" of British scientific romance, discussing primarily HG Wells, but with at least passing treatments of Grant Allen, EM Forster, Aldous Huxley, Kipling, JD Beresford and Olaf Stapledon. This contextualisation is important because although there "is no better embodiment of the conditions of emergence ... than the young" Wells, he "was the product of a historical conjuncture, and did not appear sui generis" (30). Wells's early writings--scientific romances, Gothic tales, social comedies, whimsical fantasies, light essays, journalism--demonstrate both the vitality of the new magazine markets of the 1890s and "the permeability between these different kinds of writing, the hybrid and 'impure' spaces from which the scientific romances appeared" (31). This sense of phenomena emerging from overdetermined matrices of causation is a self-conscious acknowledgement of the fact that history is written and that writing is an act of selection, emplotment and narration. By writing this history anew, the historian activates the potential of a telling to change our understanding of a genre we thought we all knew.
Chapter three turns to the US pulps' "engineer paradigm." In the American imagination, Mechanism confronted Nature as an empty space to be surveyed, traversed and subjected to human will and engineering feats. Courtesy of a peculiar anti-intellectualism, this was to be done with hands rather than heads, leading to the engineer myth exemplified not only by Edison but also by other uneducated working class boys made good (Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford), by the political uses made of the image of efficiency and technological innovation (by Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt), and by such fictional boy adventurers as Frank Reade, Frank Reade, Jr., Jack Wright, Tom Swift and, of course, Tom Edison, Jr. (The contrast with the British privileging of scientists and theorists is evident in Garrett P Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898), in which Edison's "mechanical genius ... elevates" (57) him over Kelvin and Roentgen.) Against this backdrop, Luckhurst maps the national identity emerging from the United States' aggressive imperial expansion in the late 19th century combined with the popular defence of republican rights and individual liberty in the face of robber barons and their lawyers. He also traces through this fiction, and Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter novels, the racial anxieties which accompanied imperialist ventures in the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific, the closure of the frontier and the aftermath of emancipation and civil war. (6)
Turning to the pulp tradition, Luckhurst notes that the incoherence of Gernsback's Ralph 124C41+ derives from a "shift from artisan-inventor to a much more messianic role imagined for the engineer" (61), a sure signifier of the real-world displacement of the artisan-inventor by mass-produced commodity-innovations. His account of the pulps up to and through the war, which discusses EE "Doc" Smith, Jack Williamson, CL Moore, Robert E Howard, John W Campbell, Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, culminates with the somewhat unexpected examples of AE Van Vogt and Dianetics. Van Vogt "merg[ed] the engineer paradigm with the evolutionary paradigm, beginning the synthesis of American and British traditions. For Van Vogt, the Engineer was the next step on the evolutionary ladder" (73), while Dianetics "promised that its training would elevate the subject into a new category of science-fictional being" (75). This synthesis, hardly conscious, was also far from complete; but sf had emerged, (7) even if its cultural significance was to change with World War II.
Part Two, examines the postwar "technocultural conjuncture," before devoting a chapter each to US and UK sf. Luckhurst starts with the Manhattan project, treating it not just as a bomb-building programme but as exemplary of Mechanism's domination of postwar life through the bureaucratic interweaving of government, military and big business which massively restructured the American economy and social life--from the threat of nuclear war to domestic appliances in the suburban tract home. Eschewing technological determinism, Luckhurst argues for far more complex and overdetermined processes of reshaping, while discussing rocketry, cybernetics and UFOs. After critical engagements with Martin Heidegger, Jacques Ellul, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, he poses two questions: "Was SF a genre uniquely placed to address the technological saturations of the post-war world? Or was it merely a primitive reflex, a passive reflection or even degraded celebration of l'homme machine?" (91).
Chapter five begins with an examination of Heinlein's "Blowups Happen" (1940) and Lester Del Rey's "Nerves" (1942), both of which propose engineering solutions to nuclear pressures on human subjectivity, and which are situated within Campbell's and Astounding's wider engagement with the dawning atomic age. Luckhurst then examines fictions about this new era by Theodore Sturgeon, Judith Merril, Philip Wylie, Pat Frank, Ray Bradbury, Nevil Shute, Walter M Miller, Jr., Mordecai Roshwald, Philip K Dick and others, as well as the Nuclear Criticism inaugurated by Derrida (1984). Evoking the sheer difference between Campbellian SF, which "had emphasized proximity to (and even identity with) the virility of the Atomic Engineer," and Dick, who was "distanced from militarized science" (109), Luckhurst argues that this drift away from the engineering paradigm was enabled by the new magazine and paperback markets of the 1950s. He refuses to reduce this shift to differences of personality or changes in personnel, presenting it instead as being immersed in wider debates about bureaucratised and militarized nuclear and cybernetic sciences. The chapter concludes with a turn from the nuclear imaginary and cybernetic "assaults on human integrity" (109) to sf as social criticism. Fiction by Frederik Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, Robert Sheckley and Kurt Vonnegut is described in terms of a "move away from commitments to scientific naturalism and the engineer ethos, envisioning transformation instead through the lens of sociology, psychology and political economy" (110), drawing out connections with the cultural critiques of Daniel Bell, Adorno and Horkheimer, Lewis Mumford, Vance Packard and Dwight Macdonald. Despite the tendency of cultural critics of the period to treat mass culture as homogenous, Luckhurst uses these twin poles to elaborate some of the complexities of US sf in the 1940s and 1950s.
Chapter six turns to postwar British sf. It begins with CP Snow's The New Men (1954), in which rather ramshackle British atomic research is unfavourably compared to the massive and integrated Manhattan Project: a dying nuclear physicist outlines the options--get in on the ground floor through a concerted effort at US-style militarised and bureaucratised science, or fail to do so and end up as either "a slightly superior Spain" or "wiped out like a mob of Zulus" (120). Indeed, from 1942, when the US restricted UK access to their nuclear research, the shifting balance of power, the succession of Empires, was apparent. FR Leavis's "virulent reaction" to Snow's subsequent polemic on "The Two Cultures" showed that high-cultural anti-modernism was still strong. Luckhurst characterises the fiction of this period as melancholic about the loss of Empire but also driven by the post-war Labour government's commitment to certain kinds of modernisation (social welfare, health care, public housing, education), which included a rhetoric about ending the social class system of hierarchy and privilege and, in William Beveridge's words, "declar[ing] war on Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness" (122). British intellectuals of all political stripes greeted Americanised mass culture with ambivalence, if not disdain, although "outsiders" like Eduardo Paolozzi, Lawrence Alloway and Kingsley Amis embraced sf. Luckhurst argues that it is not surprising that the most immediate British response was to turn to the more indigenous forms of fantasy found in the fiction of JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Mervyn Peake. While the former pair mourn the passing of tradition, Peake's ironic self-reflexive fantasies offered a more complex response to this conjuncture, rejecting Manichean consolation. Luckhurst then turns to John Wyndham and John Christopher, demonstrating that their catastrophes were not exactly cosy, and to the tension in Arthur C Clarke's fiction between the engineers' no-nonsense prose and the evolutionists' long perspectives and cosmic sublime.
The chapter, and Part Two, end with the provocative juxtaposition of two novels representing the "extremes to which written SF might travel by 1959" and giving "early warning of the profound schisms that were about to take place in both British and American SF in the 1960s" (137): Heinlein's Starship Troopers and William Burroughs's Naked Lunch.
Part Three is divided into four "decade studies." Chapter seven attempts "to articulate New Wave SF within the wider cultural history of the 1960s without forcing too many crude homologies" (142). This is the decade of the white heat of technology, the Apollo moon-landing, Marshall McLuhan, futurity-evoking urban architecture, and the celebration of automation as the solution to the "problem" of production. And that in which Brian Aldiss, JG Ballard, Barry Malzberg and John Sladek turned against bureaucratised military-industrial science and capital's cybernetic language of efficiency; in which sf turned towards inner space, and outwards to the worlds of anti-colonial struggles, youth rebellions, other literatures and cultural trends. Central to this was Michael Moorcock's editorship of New Worlds; and even though "Moorcock's revolution was not realized, [it] changed the course of genre history" (143). While editor-critics Edmund Crispin, Amis and Robert Conquest, and sf lines at Faber & Faber and Penguin, had already provided sf with a certain degree of respectability in the UK, Moorcock wanted more, and with an Arts Council grant was able to "realize the escape from the standard pulp-digest format, moving to an A4 size glossy magazine, rich with photographs, collages and Mal Dean's distinctive illustrations" (145). Its countercultural credentials were confirmed by briefly sharing editorial offices with OZ and International Times and a near contravention of the Obscene Publications Act. After locating the British New Wave within various other literary and cultural currents fermenting and fomenting in the period, Luckhurst considers Ballard's and Pamela Zoline's fiction, as well as Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius stories, in greater detail. The chapter ends by posing the question, "Was There an American New Wave?," and discussing Dick, Samuel Delany, Thomas Pynchon, and Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions. Luckhurst's treatment of Herbert's Dune traces its continuities with the Campbellian sf it also sought to subvert, demonstrating that while history can be emplotted in terms of ruptures and breaks such devices are narrative ones rather than adequate descriptions of overdetermined processes.
The 1970s are either a decade in which sf gained both literary and academic legitimacy, or one in which sf retreated from everything the New Wave stood for: "either the dying fall of a failed avant-garde or an era of marking time" (169). Drawing on Ernest Mandel, Alvin Toffler, Foucault, Shulamith Firestone and Raymond Williams, Luckhurst sketches in the decade's structure of feeling, before returning to the British New Wave and considering the emergence of feminist sf. Luckhurst relates fiction by Christoper Priest, Keith Roberts and M John Harrison to the notion of post-imperial melancholy as developed by Paul Gilroy and Ian Baucom, and then he teases out some of the complexities of fiction by Joanna Russ, Doris Lessing, Emma Tennant, Zoe Fairbairns, Angela Carter, Ursula Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas, Marge Piercy and James Tiptree, Jr "in order to convey some of the diversity of women's writing in the 1970s rather than see it as a monolithic mode, as some impatient post-feminist critics do" (182). The latter is an intervention to be applauded. Fire-with-fire, consumerist "do me" post-feminisms have been complicit in erasing the praxis of collectively-oriented second-wave feminisms, while their emphasis on shopping, shoes and sex have also obliterated the vital third-wave feminist critique of the second wave's straight white middle-class presumptions. Similarly, many accounts of 1970s sf treat it as a non-decade, or at least as an uninteresting one (see, for example, Sterling 1988). Restoring a complex feminist sf to the decade provides not only an enriched telling but also a countertelling, a disruption and a challenge that shows us the politics of all tellings.
Periodising the 1980s, chapter nine suggests, is rather easier than the preceding decade, thanks to the elections of Thatcher and Reagan in 1979 and the ascendancy of the New Right, with its commitment to the marketisation of cultural and social life. Some of the ideological rifts in sf can be seen in the contrast between the involvement of sf writers (Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, Gregory Benford, Robert A Heinlein, Greg Bear) in Reagan's Citizens' Advisory Panel on National Space Policy, which advocated the militarization of space, and powerful anti-nuclear fictions, like Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (1980), Maggie Gee's The Burning Book (1983) and the British TV series Edge of Darkness (1985)--fictions "matched every step of the way by [others] that embraced the 'hygienic' advantages of limited nuclear war" (202), like Jerry Ahern's The Survivalist series. The chapter then focuses, unsurprisingly, on cyberpunk, in which Luckhurst detects an often overlooked "mournful nuance" (213), before turning to the body, first in splatterpunk and Julia Kristeva, and then in Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-9), which for Luckhurst conveys with rare skill the lived contradictions of embodiment.
While each of the preceding decade studies is insightful, there is little about them that seems controversial, at least in terms of the texts they discuss (one could of course produce a long litany of omissions ...). In these chapters, the tension between providing an introduction and saying something new becomes most apparent as Luckhurst weaves together a familiar narrative with one that pays far greater attention to the world outside sf (and draws upon a far broader critical-theoretical repertoire than other accounts) in order to generate "a matrix in which SF writings can come historically alive" (244). In this chiasmic intertwining of narratives, overt references to Mechanism become fewer as technological modernity becomes a more total environment. The final decade study further reveals another tension in writing a history.
There is as yet no consensus about the history of sf in the 1990s and into the 21st century, and it is only with this chapter that one really becomes aware of the diverse and confusing array of authors and texts out of which histories emplot their selections. In order to structure his telling, Luckhurst suggests that "what is striking about SF in the 1990s is that it responds to the intensification and global extension of technological modernity not with new forms, but rather with ones lifted from the genre's venerable past" (221). He focuses on the new space opera of Iain Banks, Stephen Baxter, Peter F Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds and M John Harrison, with more detailed discussion of Dan Simmons and Ken MacLeod. A wider-ranging section considers fin de millennium apocalyptic sensibilities in stories of the Singularity and alien abduction. And finally he turns to the supposed dissolution of genre in the New Wave Fabulists, New Weird writers and others who pose problems of categorisation. (8) "Hybridity is the defining element of the 'post-fantastic' genre, just as pre-fantastic writing existed outside rigid definitional boundaries" (243), Luckhurst writes, and in this homology he discerns an uncanny return "to the conditions of writing that dominated the emergence of SF in the late nineteenth century," while noting that the genre has "always been a mixed, hybrid, bastard form, in a process of constant change" (243).
This account of the 1990s is very much one seen from British shores. While space opera does indeed seem central to the 1990s, the predominance of UK (and indeed male) authors in Luckhurst's account reveals that any telling of a history will produce distortions and exclusions, conscious or not. Leaving aside the vast tracts of sf in the 1990s Luckhurst must of necessity himself leave aside, where are the space operas of Gregory Benford, David Brin, Vernor Vinge and David Zindell? Or perhaps more pointedly of Catherine Asaro, Lois McMaster Bujold, CJ Cherryh, Julian May and Melissa Scott? Similarly, why choose the New Weird as exemplary of generic dissolution and reconstitution? Why not consider the way in which the fantastic is being reworked by Nalo Hopkinson, Kij Johnson or Larisa Lai, or the calls by Delia Sherman and Terri Windling for interstitial fiction?
However, rather than listing overlooked authors or omitted subgenres, (9) it is more fitting to regret Luckhurst's decision not to return to Mechanism. In this final decade study, Mechanism has become the room rather than the elephant in the room, invisible because ubiquitous. Yet so much of its history is also that of the globalisation of capitalism, the laying waste of the "third world" for the sake of the "first." And so maybe at the start of the 21st century it is time to consider the role sf continues to play in both supporting and resisting, enabling and disabling it. Maybe it is time to bring to centre stage those voices whose relationships to technology and capital and Mechanism and progress is very different to those which have shaped Anglo-American sf. Some might object that doing so would not represent the genre accurately. But as all tellings must fail in this respect, why not let a thousand histories bloom ...
Luckhurst's Science Fiction is without question a major contribution, both as an introduction to the genre and in reconceptualising a very familiar story. As a single-authored overview, it deserves a position alongside James's Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, which it complements by concentrating less on the history of sf and more on sf in history, less on fixing down a particular story and more on seeing that story anew. Sadly, though, Luckhurst's book has also rekindled a dream I really thought I'd grown out of. And that prompts me to wonder: if we are to get more volumes of this sort, what should we look for?
At the conclusion of his Science Fiction Studies review of the Cambridge Companion, Neal Easterbrook urges his reader to</p> <pre> Imagine, if you will, another book constructed around different, perhaps less orthodox organizing categories--alterity, slipstream, uncanny, tropes, megatextuality, aporia, gadgets, Geisteswissenschaften, teleology, interrogation, progress, near future, far future, 800 words, steampunk, fort/da, ambiguity, time, sensawunna, anachronism, cognition, Little Tailor, invention, bodies, authority, Nachtraglichkeit, topos, subjunctivity, reading, commodity aesthetics, glop, opening, change, apotheosis, or ethos/logos/pathos. (2004: 443) </pre> <p>I can think of no-one more suited to write such a book, and one can only hope that he will. Because for a while at least, sf studies does not really need any more books that recount the history of Americo-British pulp and paperback sf as if it were the indisputably true and only story of sf. (Although I would like to see that story retold by an economic historian; and by someone capable of adapting the model of history-writing developed in Bruno Latour's Aramis; and there are reception histories to be mined from the fanzine collections being archived in various specialist libraries.) Just as sf authors rarely any longer become novelists after an apprenticeship in fandom and short fiction, so many readers and scholars no longer read Asimov and Heinlein around puberty, imagine themselves smarter than everyone else, destined to govern a technocratic future in which they would get all the babes (if they were actually interested in that sort of thing). My generation (or was it just me?) is likely to be the very last for which coming to sf in this way is even possible. And so there is not only a compelling need for that history to be subjected to the kinds of sophisticated and heterodox reconsiderations Easterbrook's proposal points toward, but also a range of new voices to do it. They might embed the genre in the history of empire, for example, or in human relationships with animals. They might come from other disciplines, like cultural geography or science studies. They might put concerns with race and class and gender centre stage. Or they might be interested in sf and, say, architecture or fashion or advertising. They might produce detailed cultural histories of particular conjunctures without worrying overly much about where genre boundaries (if there are such things) lie.
Second, I would like to see the securities of the normative and naturalised account of the Americo-British tradition challenged by a widening of the scope, both by internationalising it and by taking seriously Mieville's argument that sf should be seen 'as only one way of doing the fantastic' (2002: 44).
Third, there is a need for a critical history of sf which significantly downplays and, at least polemically, marginalises sf literature. Even in the US, since at least the 1930s (with Orson Welles's War of Worlds broadcast and the national syndication of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Superman comic strips, followed by radio shows, movie serials and merchandising), sf has really been happening elsewhere. Anyone concerned with the genre as it happened historically can no longer ignore or marginalise other media, but must acknowledge the centrality of non-literary sf to the genre. Hitherto, the pulp and paperback tradition has provided the context for the genre in other media; now sf is secure in the academy we can stop pretending that that is the truth.
Fourth, and perhaps most radically, the contention that the world has become science-fictional (as suggested by Disch, Haraway, Baudrillard and others) needs to be examined and explored, and we need accounts not only of what that might mean but also how it has come about.
These are all challenges sf studies is fairly well-equipped to meet, by and large. Whether such an agenda might ever coincide with that of academic publishers is another matter entirely.
1. An exception to this pattern is Lofficier and Lofficier 2000.
2. This tension is evident, for example, in Seed's Companion. In his introduction, Seed quotes Disch's claim that "science fiction has come to permeate our culture in ways both trivial and/or profound, obvious and/or insidious" (2005b: 1); not much further into this massive volume, Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., quotes Haraway's claim that "the boundary between SF and social reality is an optical illusion" (2005: 55); a bit later, Wolmark cites Baudrillard's "view [that] it is no longer possible to write science fiction because we are already living in it" (2005: 158-9). And yet beyond the inclusion of 3 chapters (out of 41) on film and TV, such claims are ignored by the volume as a whole--both by its structure and, generally, its contributors (myself included). Indeed, with the exception of Bukatman's Terminal Identity it is difficult to recall a volume on sf that moves with both confidence and competence between different media. Thanks to the need for lots of glossy illustrations, it is the coffee table volumes which do better at moving beyond the traditional literary emphasis, even though that is clearly where their hearts lie.
3. This dilemma recalls Luckhurst 2000, an essay in which he begins to delineate an argument, outlined more strongly in Science Fiction, against theorisations of the genre which attempt to define it in terms of an excluding "pure" voice, and in favour of thick, dialogical descriptions, "subject to a mobile set of distortions, silencing and complex depredations" (79).
4. For an example of this kind of cultural history unencumbered by the constraints of a genre introduction, see Luckhurst 2002; although it rarely mentions sf, it deserves to be much better known for its insights into conditions surrounding the emergence of the British Scientific Romance.
5. See Luckhurst 2002, especially chapter one, for more detail on this class and cultural struggle.
6. As Bleiler (1990, 1998) amply demonstrates, throughout its formation and coalescence, up until at least WWII, sf, even in the pulps, was not uniformly technophilic but rather characterized by a conservative terror not only of change but also of women, the working class and people of colour--three groups the industrialisation attendant on and consequent to civil war and imperial expansion had thrust into the white/male/bourgeois public sphere.
7. In a significant aside, Luckhurst notes that every bit as important as the consolidation of sf as a marketable category in the pulp magazines was its simultaneous development outside of this "relatively narrow cultural base" (66) in comic strips, radio shows, films, Art Deco design and architecture and world fairs. Unfortunately, his literary emphasis leaves unexplored this neglected but fruitful conjuncture.
8. He cites Jonathan Carroll, John Crowley, Neil Gaiman, Gwyneth Jones, Jonathan Lethem, China Mieville, David Mitchell, Walter Mosley, Jeff Noon, Iain Sinclair, David Foster Wallace and Conrad Williams as examples.
9. But who can resist? The hard sf renaissance, alternative history, libertarian sf, postfeminist sf, postcolonial sf, post-cyberpunk near-future thrillers, technothrillers, biotechnological fiction, Christian sf, tie-in/spin-off franchise novels ...
Alkon, Paul K. Science Fiction Before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology. New York: Twayne, 1994.
Ashley, Mike. The Time Machines: The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000.
Ashley, Mike. Transformations: The History of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005.
Barron, Neil, ed. Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction, 5th edition. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2004.
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Reviewed by Mark Bould
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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