Science Fiction: A Literary History
Edited by Roger Luckhurst
British Library hardcover £20
***** (5 stars) review by Christopher Geary
A splendidly concise historical narrative emerges from this collection of new essays, exploring conceptual sources, miscellaneous influences, unpredictable developments, and - nowadays, especially - the vast scope of genre SF, roughly defined as speculative storytelling balancing utopian and dystopian streams, alongside many alternaties and writing styles.
With incisive commentaries on proto-SF and the effervescent pulps, the book ploughs through assorted definitions and revisions, noting the murky origins of a genre which poetically agrees with the uncertainty of quantum theories rather than the cosmology of a Big Bang. The ‘new stranger’ of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein might be a favourite, but the journeys of H.G. Wells and the voyages of Jules Verne form a foundation with greater variety that consolidates ideas from romanticism into a mono-mythic quality. Each chapter concludes with a listing of ‘what to read next’ that any genre newcomers might find an extremely useful guide to essential classics and other canonical texts.
The book’s editor Roger Luckhurst contributes much contextual evidence in chapter two: From Scientific Romance To Science Fiction, explaining how framed discussions about ‘creative destruction’ shouldered aside challenges to a marvellous authenticity from occultism and colonialism, to embrace a ‘global modernity’. Caroline Edwards’ chapter, Utopian Prospects, charts the rise of racial tensions and feminism in dreams of decadence, and the menace of increasingly apocalyptic visions, where all optimistic viewpoints fail because of human imperfections and hard truths fuel harder SF where only maths might reign supreme.
The New Wave Revolution by Rob Latham notes “R.A. Lafferty... sometimes labelled a New Waver because his fiction is weird and delirious, but a careful reading of his work makes clear that the only faction he belonged to was extraterrestrial in origin.” It’s an amusing jest that further characterises the typically off-beat nature of SF when examined in light of the genre’s formative apprehension from speculative rationalism. Chapter six also offers, among other astute comments, a corrective to wild tales of pro and fandom woe about ‘holy wars’ between pulp-inspired empires of trad SF and canny rebels of a New Wave alliance. This book notes that 1960s’ cultural aspirations changed ‘golden age’ SF, not by revolutionary upheaval against existing social mores but by enlightenment and mutation of an already stable form.
There are considerable overlaps in the informative coverage between the chapters on eras, generations, and specific genre movements, but it’s all to be expected because everything is connected - whether by common themes, technological advances of the publishing industry and systems of book distribution, or new thinking about future possibilities heralded by political and social changes at global scales. Great minds of various writers might simply imagine the same things, of course, without any actual copycat books being the result.
“We live in an era of obsolete futures and junked dreams,” suggests Gerry Canavan’s New Paradigms chapter, where dodged bullets and post-millennial anticipation runs the gamut of prediction from SF in today’s cultural dystopia and climate change when the post-normalism of the inadequate Singularity becomes our Anthropocene period. Can a space opera renaissance and escapism into virtual gaming provide sufficient SF thrust to lift human spirits beyond a one-world horizon?