M. Keith Booker and Ann-Marie Thomas. The Science Fiction Handbook.
Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 360 pp. Cloth, $104.95, ISBN: 978?6205-0. Paperback, s27.42, ISBN: 978?6206-7.
One of the most interesting developments associated with the explosion of literary and cultural theory in departments of English literature is the critique that has become a factor of those very departments. The whole notion of "English literature" has been exploded and has been disseminated into a host of other genres that, until the 1970s, would have been seen as outside of the canon. One thinks of texts of popular culture, queer theory, the whole gothic revolution, and, of course, science fiction. There was a time when academics may have read science fiction but would not have admitted it.
However, science fiction has always been one of the most interesting and politically relevant of genres, suggesting alternative worlds and social structures in print long before such structures could be enacted in reality. Thus Star Trek can posit a utopian future presided over by the "United Federation of Planets" whose mission is to reach out to new worlds with its message of "tolerance, peace and interplanetary cooperation" (44). The current book is an excellent overview of the genre, its academic and cultural relevance, and it also offers detailed discussion of individual authors and texts.
As a handbook, the aim is to give an overview of the topic and to provide signposts to the most important aspects of the topic, and Booker and Thomas achieve this through a strong structural spine. There is a general introduction that locates the genre, which is followed by a historical overview of subgenres (time travel narrative, utopian and dystopian fiction, gender and multiracial fiction, alien invasion, and, a term I most enjoyed, space opera). The handbook then goes on to discuss individual authors and then some representative texts of these authors in a separate section. This is especially valuable as one can read about the overall sweep of an author's work and also how that author developed the genre and then look at a more detailed reading of one of his or her texts. The overviews of the authors run to three to four pages each, while the texts are given eight to ten pages, which allows for a meaningful discussion of each. A niggling point would be that the authors are arranged alphabetically whereas the texts are arranged chronologically, and it might have been better had the same approach been taken to both.
The book begins with a historical overview that points out the difficulty of defining the genre, looking at James Gunn and Darko Suvin and focusing on the notion of "cognitive estrangement" (4), which places the reader in a different world and thereby causes the reader to view his or her own world in a new light. One could see this as an example of Zizek's parallax view: "For our purposes science fiction might be defined as fiction set in an imagined world that is different from our own in ways that are rationally explicable (often because of scientific advances) and that tend to produce cognitive estrangement in the reader" (4). The authors cite the work of Mikhail Bakhtin in making the connection between science fiction and the novel as genre in terms of the value of change and of the relevance of fiction to the social and public spheres.
The analyses of the subgenres and authors are excellent, with some thought-provoking suggestions and interpretations, and the connections among filmic, televisual, and written texts in each subgenre are made so that an overview is provided across the different media. Indeed, connectivity is an important trope in this book and one that makes it cohere very much as a study.
Plato's Republic is seen as the first book of utopian fiction. Then a line is traced from here to More's Utopia, to Campanella's The City of the Sun and Bacon's New Atlantis, and then on to three early twentieth-century texts: Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, William Morris's News from Nowhere, and Wells's A Modern Utopia. Next the section looks at a little-known work of a well-known author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, a feminist utopian text, before moving on to discuss other utopian texts and their contexts. The reading of Austen Tappin White's Islandia and the focus on its treatment of women and colonialism are especially interesting (77), and part of the strength of the analyses in this book as text is always related to context.
The same is true of the analyses of the individual authors and the individual texts. Each author is outlined both biographically and bibliographically and also located contextually. For example, Samuel R. Delaney is described as an "openly gay African American ... [who] also shows a strong concern with social and political issues in his work; his novels from Dhalgren on are especially strong in their exploration of issues related to race and gender" (145). This is borne out by the analysis of his I976 novel Trouble on Triton, where the ethos of the planet Tethys is to make "the subjective reality of each of its citizens as inviolable as possible" (250). Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (1974), a text that details a future interstellar war between humans and a race called Taurans, is seen as a book of political satire aimed at the Vietnam War, which was ongoing at the time of its writing (236). The confusion of war, graphically represented in news footage of the Vietnam War and by numerous films of that conflict, is captured in this text through a "time-dilation motif," which ensures that a ship from the twenty-first century might find itself fighting against a ship from the twenty-fifth century (237). The contextual location of this novel makes the techniques thematically relevant and adds to our appreciation of the techniques used. Similarly, China Mieville's Perdido Street Station (2000) is seen very much in a postmodernist context and as related to the world of fantasy fiction, in which hybridity is a crucial aspect of the architectural and social makeup of the culture. The struggle of the people is against the "slake-moths," which devour the minds of their victims but leave them alive but lacking in consciousness (307). These mental vampires are then read in terms of the Marxian view of how capitalism and bourgeois ideology can mesmerize individuals into voluntary obedience in a system that can actually prove to be inimical to their own well-being (308). This is typical of the nuanced readings of texts offered in the book.
There are lists of suggested readings at the ends of the subgenre sections, and a very useful glossary is provided at the end of the book, along with a helpful general bibliography and an accurate index, a necessity in a book of this kind. The book is well set out and well structured, and overall, as someone who had a general but largely uninformed knowledge of science fiction, I found this book to be an informative and an enjoyable read. It provides an overview of the genre, as well as offering more detailed critiques of selected texts. It locates the genre within the overview of literature in general, and it also places texts within their specific contexts. Covering a genre that attempts to address injustices in contemporary society by the creation and representation of imagined worlds, be they utopian or dystopian, the handbook sets out its stall very well. And more importantly, it leaves the reader looking to read some of the texts mentioned, and this must be the ultimate test of such a book.
Reviewed by Eugene O'Brien, Mary Immaculae College, Limerick
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2010|
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