Science Fiction Studies


#98 = Volume 33, Part 1 = March 2006

Brooks Landon

A Cultural History of a Hybrid Genre

Roger Luckhurst. Science Fiction. Cultural History of Literature. Cambridge: Polity, 2005. vii + 305 pp. $24.95 pbk.

Hybridity is a concept that has steadily gained purchase in a wide range of critical discourses over the past twenty-five years, adding cultural and aesthetic dimensions to its initially largely biological meanings. In postcolonial studies, sociology, political science, art, and numerous other areas of critical inquiry, hybridity has been accorded more and more positive connotations as a transgressive or resistant phenomenon; the term itself has become one of those ubiquitous buzzwords whose time has come. “Hybrids” now also refers to mixed-technology automobiles and the term has even become prominent in car advertising—both sure signs of its near-meme status and its appropriation by some of the hegemonic sources to which it previously signaled resistance. So it should come as no surprise that a new study of sf should be organized around this concept, as is Roger Luckhurst’s Science Fiction. Indeed, Luckhurst’s quiet but insistent argument is not only that science fiction is an inherently hybrid enterprise, but also that this has been the case since the meaningful codification of sf in the 1880s. And, while hybridity sightings have become something of a critical commonplace, Luckhurst’s discussion of the importance of the concept to our understanding of sf as a cultural force is as welcome as it seems overdue. Science Fiction offers sf readers and scholars a valuable culturally oriented context in which to test and rethink our numerous narratives of the genre. This book is not—nor was it intended to be—the definitive cultural history sf, but it is a fine cornerstone on which much future scholarship should and will be built.

Science Fiction continues the move toward a cultural history of sf suggested by a large number of critical works published in the past fifteen or twenty years, each of which explored reciprocal relationships between the body of texts that comprises sf and the cultural concerns shaping and frequently shaped by those texts. Luckhurst centers his focus on the cultural debates attending technological modernity—as differently articulated in Great Britain and the US—using the antique but capacious umbrella term “Mechanism” to subsume the impact of technology on cultural life. Casting sf as “a literature of technologically saturated societies,” he offers his study as a cultural history rather than the cultural history of sf, specifying:

A cultural history of science fiction will situate texts, therefore, as part of a constantly shifting network that ties together science, technology, social history and cultural expression with different emphases at different times. SF will not conform to a particular literary typology or formalist definition: rather, it will be marked by a sensitivity to the ways in which Mechanism is connected into different historical contexts. (6)

Accordingly, Luckhurst sets himself the task of charting sf’s “own kind of surrogate public history” (2) from 1880 through the 1990s. As he tracks the unfolding of this surrogate public history, he attempts to investigate the factors that have repeatedly relegated sf to low culture and marginal status. He unpacks and refutes the notion of some aesthetic given that inexorably judged sf so harshly. Instead, he offers an analysis of the misturns and missed opportunities by sf’s advocates, including the adoption of legitimizing strategies, from Wells through Suvin and beyond, that actually worked to the genre’s disadvantage. Luckhurst offers no brief for overlooked or misjudged aesthetic quality in sf—and even reminds us that the New Wave, frequently claimed as an aesthetic high point, contains some really bad writing. However, one of the many important arguments Luckhurst makes is that sf’s early and long-continuing relegation to low status has little to do with actual aesthetic quality and much to do with the genre’s positions in cultural debates over the implications of Mechanism.

At each period in his cultural history of the genre, Luckhurst situates sf texts that “speak to the concerns of their specific moment in history” in “a broad network of contexts and disciplinary knowledges” (2) ranging from evolutionary/devolutionary theory and British literary debates through the American engineer paradigm and the technological sublime. He surveys the various exhaustions of British imperial melancholy, nuclear malaise, the dead ends tied to genre forms rejected by the New Wave in England, and the patriarchal assumptions rejected by women and feminist sf writers in America. The larger concern of this tracking is always on ways in which sf might be seen as contributing “in a new and significant way to the history of the constitution of the modern subject” (3) with specific reference to responses to and implications of Mechanism—the central aspect of modernity—as it is shunned by high culture and engaged in complicated and ambivalent ways by sf. If there is a persistent sub-theme or thesis in Luckhurst’s efforts to chart the impact of sf’s metaphors and allegories on larger cultural formations, it is that sf is more a voice of the melancholy and trauma of technological modernity than a celebration of technological liberation or transcendence. In the significant strand of sf texts “in which the human subject is pierced or wounded by invasive technologies that subvert, enslave, or ultimately destroy,” Luckhurst shows sf persistently shading “into horror or Gothic writing” (5). This is one of the signs of sf’s hybridity and an important sign of its ambivalence toward Mechanism.

Acknowledging the limitations of his analysis (little attention to media, no global perspective, no engagement with the discourses of fandom, and no real attention to Gothic or fantasy), Luckhurst offers his study not as a new normative attempt to carve out a respectable canon but as a descriptive effort to record some of the complications and contractions of the relationship between sf and culture:

Historians of SF need, in my view, to be less judgmental and prescriptive. We need to be just as interested in how fantasies about Mechanism can, for instance, prompt eugenic and proto-fascist scenarios in the 1910s and 1920s (fantasies that periodically return), or idolize a fundamentally anti-democratic Technocratic elite as a solution to the crisis of liberal democracies in the 1930s and 1940s. Cultural history needs to understand the appeal of breathlessly paced interstellar pulp fictions as much as the self-consciously Modernist prose adopted by counter-cultural SF in the 1960s. (9)

Of course Luckhurst must single out some texts as he goes about this ambitious task while ignoring most others, but his general approach is not to “lift” an sf text or a writer out of received or ignored historical accounts of the genre as it is to “resubmerge” a text or writer in richly textured cultural and literary discourses, characteristically complicating our understanding of the relations between text and culture. In this rhetorical strategy, frequently (but not always) dialectical, Luckhurst would seem to be following the originary guide he attributes to H.G. Wells in his writing before 1900 in which, as John Huntington has observed and Luckhurst underscores, “a carefully constructed architecture of ambivalence ensures that every force has a counter-force, every assertion a negation, with Wells delighting in ‘the irony of contradiction itself’” (39). Luckhurst consistently complicates received associations and oppositions alike, as when he points to affinities in the work of C.S. Lewis and Arthur C. Clarke or suggests a counter to cyberpunk erasure of embodiment in the body horror fictions of Clive Barker and Octavia Butler. I found this one of the book’s primary delights and an important source of its value—although it is precisely what makes the book difficult to describe and almost impossible to summarize.

While the book loosely presents a chronological overview of sf from 1880 through 2000, this chronology is complicated by Luckhurst’s need to switch focus between English and American sf, and his double focus is further complicated by his insistent refusal of both ruptural histories and narratives of genre “progress” or “maturation.” His own apparent delight in “the irony of contradiction itself” (or at least of complication) leads every chapter through twists, turns, and reversals that inexorably undercut the notion of strict chronology: the Luckhurst time machine is always on the move. At each turn in this cultural history that feels more like a hypertext, it seems to me that Luckhurst is interested in constructing a cultural history that can map five broad concerns, although this is my identification and not his.

1. He wants to compare the codification and characteristic concerns of English and American sf as variously shaped by evolutionary, engineering, and what might be called nuclear/cybernetic paradigms.
2. He wants to locate efforts to valorize or to attack the genre within larger cultural discussions and debates, usually recasting aesthetic or literary judgments as consequent to broader philosophical or ideological concerns.
3. He wants to chart the genre’s responses—usually ambivalent, if not contradictory—to the ever-expanding and deepening implications of Mechanism.
4. He wants to resituate the genre’s critical/theoretical standing as the nature of cultural critique/theory changes, so that the cultural value of sf is never monolithic or intrinsic, but contingent on extra-literary factors.
5. He wants to complicate rigid definitions of genre and normative/prescriptive judgments based on well-rehearsed binaries such as English/American, sf/fantasy, Left/Right, Modern/Postmodern, etc.

This makes Science Fiction a very busy, very ambitious book that deserves and rewards very careful reading. In the context of the above concerns, Luckhurst’s selection of authors and works for extended analysis is not meant to valorize, much less canonize, as much as it is to identify useful touchstones for exploring the reciprocal relations between sf literature and cultural discussions. There is little effort on Luckhurst’s part to posit a literary history or to make qualitative assessments of sf writers and texts. Not surprisingly, however, many of the writers and texts he selects as touchstones for cultural connections turn out to be the same writers and texts frequently singled out for literary histories of sf, yet his principle of selection does not necessarily imply that a writer or text represents the genre or should be used to establish or extend genre boundaries. His selections do favor formal and ideational hybridity, and the complications Luckhurst invariably introduces in his analyses of writers and texts argue for a new understanding of sf that embraces rather than attempts to erase its essential hybridity; his cultural history may be the main point of his scholarship, but it also makes points.

Part I of Science Fiction consists of three chapters devoted to the origins of sf, focusing respectively on the social and technological conditions necessary for its emergence, the importance of the evolutionary paradigm to the nineteenth-century British codification of the scientific romance, and the importance of the engineer paradigm to the development of pulp fiction in America. The purpose of this section is to suggest the paradigms that both guided the development of sf in England and in America and positioned that literature in larger cultural debates occasioned by Mechanism, or technological modernity. The conditions making possible late nineteenth-century scientific fiction are “mass literacy; new print vectors; a coherent ideology and emergent profession of science” and, most important for this study, “everyday experience transformed by machines and mechanical processes” (29). For Luckhurst, Wells is the “embodiment” of these conditions rather than the inventor of British sf. Somewhat paradoxically, he is at once a source of the emerging genre’s messianic commitment to its ideational content (starting with the evolutionary paradigm), and a source of what will emerge again and again as the genre’s self-loathing over its poor artistry. Luckhurst focuses on Wells’s disastrous misreading of and relation to an emerging literary establishment, on the separatist consequences of his commitment to evolutionism, and on the ambiguity, contradictions, and formal hybridity of his writing. Luckhurst suggests how these aspects of Wells’s writing led to his setting many of the agendas for British sf and for its critical reception before 1945; he even played a role in structuring the claims of a “fall from grace” that insist on a qualitative rupture between British and American sf. Rather than concentrate on Wells’s “use of science” in his fiction, Luckhurst details ways in which Wells was as influential in setting the cultural context for the devaluing of sf as he was for its growth—by initiating its impure or hybrid nature. In his third chapter, Luckhurst traces the rise of the boy inventor and engineer paradigms that were as crucial in the formation of American sf as the evolutionary paradigm was in England.

Once again, the success and influence of an embodying writer and editor—this time Hugo Gernsback—are shown to create the conditions for the aesthetic devaluation of sf as well as for its codification. Wells and Gernsback, Luckhurst suggests, are as much responsible for the critical ghettoization of sf as they are for the codification of the genre. And, once again, that codification is represented in terms of hybridity rather than “purity,” as “Gernsbackian technocratic advocacy is in intimate dialectical relation with Lovecraftian ‘cosmic horror,’” with both deriving from “the same engineer paradigm in America in the 1910s and 1920s” (64-65). Gernsback’s advocacy of technocracy came at the expense of aesthetic validation, but Luckhurst shows how Campbellian sf strove to “elide technocratic elitism with SF as an elite mode of writing,” a more self-flattering attempt to validate sf as a means to technocratic rather than aesthetic ideals (72). Thus, Luckhurst argues, the American engineer paradigm actually can be seen to merge with the British evolutionary paradigm, and the engineer (or the sf readership that closely identified with the engineer) is reconstructed in some American sf—particularly by A.E. Van Vogt—as an evolutionary advance, the next stage in human development. This evolution of the engineer paradigm transcends issues of literary merit by aligning itself with the extra-literary assumptions and beliefs in Korzybski’s General Semantics and Hubbard’s Dianetics, establishing ties between sf and culture that had little or nothing to do with literary value.1

Part II follows the elaboration of the initially artifactual concerns of Mechanism into the cybernetic control systems developed in conjunction with the nuclear age and its attendant technocratic networking. This section, again in three chapters, follows the coterminous rise of technoculture and decline of the British Empire as American and British sf took quite different postwar turns. Roughly covering the years from 1939 through 1959, this second section shows sf as it is reorganized around technologies related to atomic power, whether emblemized by the Bomb or by networks of associations famously identified by President Eisenhower as the Military Industrial Complex. One significant offshoot of this network of military, academic, bureaucratic, and economic associations—a significant stage in the extension of Mechanism into every aspect of modern life—is cybernetics, and as Mechanism enters what might be called its nuclear/cybernetic stage, it becomes fertile ground for the writing of technologically inflected paranoid fiction and for philosophical critique. Luckhurst sees this period as one of “complex conjuncture” that “attests to the radical redefinition of the relation between the human and the technological that stretches from vast military-industrial projects to the intricacies of German philosophy and culture critique” (90). Both the military-industrial and philosophical developments of the period afford opportunities to sf for important cultural commentary and implicate it in new formations of mechanic mass culture—opening the genre to new condemnation from critiques of mass culture.

In responding to this nuclear/cybernetic paradigm, American sf breaks into competing schools, some celebrating the new technology and new technocrats it requires, some criticizing and satirizing the new technoculture and its economic implications. Against the technocratic boosterism of John Campbell and “his” writers such as Heinlein and Asimov stands the criticism of Vonnegut, Dick, Merril, Pohl, and Kornbluth, and in these cultural divides—rather than in subject matter—Luckhurst locates the beginning of the distinction between “hard” and “soft” sf. In England, response to the nuclear/cybernetic paradigm was much more melancholic, as American atomic ascendancy seemed paralleled by British decline, occasioning a kind of double-hit on the valuation of sf: “For British intellectuals across the spectrum it was not just that SF embodied mass culture and crude investment in technological modernity, it was also that the genre was American” (123). At least partly as a result of this guilt by association of sf with American technologized modernity, Luckhurst suggests, fantasy became the most notable form of writing in postwar England. But Luckhurst immediately complicates this binary, suggesting ways in which the fantasy of Lewis and Tolkien and particularly of Mervyn Peake should not be understood in rigid opposition to the concerns and protocols of sf, arguing that the writing of Arthur C. Clarke is in fact “not so distant” from that of C.S. Lewis. Once again, the key to understanding British writing of this period is hybridity, as it “fused fantasy, Gothic and SF elements, offering refracted meditations on their historical moment” (124), with both fantasists such as Lewis and sf writers such as John Wyndham echoing Wells. He concludes of British and American sf: “The period between 1945 and 1960 is the most complex and multi-stranded period in science fiction history, the epoch in which the Golden Age was both consolidated and contested, when SF claimed scientific, political and social-critical relevance yet was also condemned as an examplar of detestable mass culture” (136). And the contradictory thematics of this period, Luckhurst claims, are important because they will “recur and modulate” during the next four decades.

Part III somewhat drops the alternating focus on British and American sf to organize cultural concerns around “Decade Studies,” with chapters devoted to the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s. This schema predictably organizes the 1960s around the New Wave and the 1970s around the playing out of the British New Wave and the diverse paths taken by the development of feminist sf. Luckhurst’s analysis of the 1980s, again predictably, looks at postmodernism and cyberpunk, much less predictably calls attention to the cultural impact of New Right sf during the decade, and closes with the unexpected pairing of the body horror of splatterpunk with the body horror of Octavia Butler. Luckhurst then closes his study with a construction of the 1990s “as a consolidation and rejuvenation of the unique focus of SF: speculation on the diverse results of the conjuncture of technology with subjectivity” (222). He locates this consolidation and rejuvenation in the reappearance of space opera, in the rearticulation of apocalyptic concerns in abduction narratives, and in the genre-morphing hybridity of the New Weird and “post-fantastic” writers such as M. John Harrison, China Miéville, and Jonathan Lethem. Possibly because the decade chapters are more clearly organized around delimited literary “movements” such as cyberpunk and feminist sf, these chapters do not feel as richly or as deeply textured in their cultural connections as do those in the first two parts of the book, although they continue Luckhurst’s valuable insistence on complicating received binaries, whether of agreement or opposition.

As would be expected, the chapter on the 1960s centers on the New Wave, although Luckhurst strongly challenges the idea that the American New Wave shared the ambitions or the cohesion of the British. In fact, Luckhurst’s approach to the 1960s focuses more on what the New Wave was not than on it was, as he details ways how the New Worlds project was not an attempt to raise the status of sf to that of “serious” literature, but “was one manifestation of a wider move to question the very categories and values of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture” (146). Nor, according to Luckhurst, was either the British or the American New Wave the ruptural moment claimed in so many accounts of sf.

While the New Wave did change the course of genre history, it did not mark a clear break with genre concerns. “This is an explicit juvenilization of SF by the blanket abjection of the genre before it reached ‘maturity’ about 1960. It sanctions ignorance and produces a skewed, largely ahistorical conception of the New Wave, because it is only able to read for discontinuity, not the substantial continuities within the genre” (160).

Luckhurst readily acknowledges that “decade studies” can’t be rigidly calendric, as is suggested by period studies that actually see the 1960s as stretching from 1959 to 1973, and, as he moves on to the 1970s, his initial focus remains on the New Wave. Depending on how we view it, he suggests, the New Wave by the early 1970s could be seen as having occasioned either a powerful rebirth of sf or as having signaled its imminent disappearance. “It feels impossible to make an assertion about 1970s SF,” he notes, “without thinking of an immediate counter-example,” and he sees this contradictory situation as “symptomatic of a wider set of confusions over precisely what took place in the decade” (169). In cultural terms, the issue was not whether or not sf had reached some kind of an end, but that it became imbricated in a much broader societal experience of limits. “Science fiction did not simply reflect on this,” Luckhurst explains, but “often provided the very means by which the consequences of this moment could be envisaged, in forms of utopian or dystopian projection into the future” (171). The British New Wave read the end of British power with degrees of “post-imperial melancholy,” and feminist sf read the end of “a certain (social, economic, political and technological) formation of the ‘patriarchal’ West at the end of the 1960s” (181).

Luckhurst does not consistently track race through his cultural history of sf, but he does discuss the importance of race in his overview of American Pulp Fictions in Chapter 3, and his analysis of the New Wave in the 1970s returns to a consideration of this issue as part of the post-imperial refiguring of Englishness in terms of race rather than of place. Luckhurst uses Christopher Priest and M. John Harrison to situate the British New Wave of the 1970s in the larger melancholic “structure of feeling” attending the end of British power. The appropriation in the 1970s of sf tropes used to articulate feminist concerns by British women writers more associated with the literary mainstream—Doris Lessing, Emma Tennant, Zoe Fairbairns, and Angela Carter—affords Luckhurst a cultural transition from the New Wave’s preoccupation with national limits to feminist sf’s preoccupation with genre limits:

Questions of sex and gender did not suddenly appear within the genre with the New Wave or by feminist intervention. What the feminist intervention in the 1970s did effect, though, was a new reflexivity about the conventions of SF, exposing how a genre that praised itself for its limitless imagination and its power to refuse norms had largely reproduced ‘patriarchal attitudes’ without question for much of its existence. The New Wave had reached the exhausted end of the form, but the rubble of that tradition could be recombined in new structures. (182)

And the consequences of this “dying into new being” were not confined to feminist issues:

Mega-textual SF elements that had consciously or not reproduced patriarchal or heterosexist norms could be recomposed and redirected for new political ends—even if those ends were explicitly anti-scientific or anti-technological, striking at the heart of historic definitions of SF. Out of the seeming ‘end’ of technological modernity and the ruins of genre, feminist writers recomposed generic narratives. (182)

Within this larger framework of agendas, Luckhurst is careful to delineate the diversity of ‘types’ of feminist sf in the 1970s, organizing them along the waves suggested by Julia Kristeva in her 1979 essay “Women’s Time”—with the understanding that these “waves” can be understood as simultaneous, rather than only linear. These coterminous feminisms address equality, difference, and the deconstruction of the man/woman binary. Accordingly, Luckhurst locates Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) as a first-wave text focused on questions of equality (later reread by Le Guin to emphasize gender difference, thus moving it toward the second wave). Sally Miller Gearhart’s Wanderground (1979) offers an example of a second-wave text placing technology at the center of male/female difference, as do Suzy McKee Charnas’s Walk to the End of the World (1974) and Motherlines (1978), and as does Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). Luckhurst’s readings of these texts remind us that, apart from their sharing gender concerns, these writers construct and critique technology differently, with very different visions of its social uses. Joanna Russ is then identified as an exemplar of Kristeva’s third wave, and also as a writer whose work explores all three feminisms, with The Female Man (1975) incorporating “all of these strands of feminism into a collage of competing voices from parallel worlds” (193). Similarly Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve (1977) represents third-wave critique, particularly in the ways it “lampoons myths of gender fixity” (194). In Carter’s brilliantly unsettling fiction Luckhurst finds not only an instructive bridge between the New Wave and feminist sf but also another exemplar of the generic hybridity of sf in her “finding leverage for critique by disarticulating and reorienting the matrix of the genre—whether SF, Gothic, fairy tale or fantasy” (184-85).

I began Luckhurst’s chapter on the 1980s with something approaching dread—or at least anticipatory fatigue, since this decade has already lent its most celebrated movement, cyberpunk, to endless cultural studies of postmodernism. If there’s one thing sf criticism probably does not need, I thought, it’s yet another cultural history of the 1980s. After the inevitable but mercifully concise overview of postmodernism, however, Luckhurst goes delightfully offroad from the high-traffic critical highway to discuss 1980s sf and the New Right. Somewhat impishly, he suggests that—instead of the cyberpunks—the sf writers associated with the Right in general and with the Star Wars (SDI)-friendly Citizen’s Advisory Panel on National Space Policy in particular might have provided the most representative sf of the 1980s. Against the well-known roster of cyberpunks, Luckhurst wants us to remember the quite different agendas of Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, Gregory Benford, Robert Heinlein, and Ben Bova. Reminding us that “SF was as ideologically riven as any other field of cultural production in the 1980s” (202), Luckhurst not only uses this chapter to relocate cyberpunk in “the shadow of the New Right,” but also complicates cyberpunk’s emblematic association with virtual disembodiment by reading it dialectically with “body horror” fiction, as represented by the splatterpunk of Clive Barker and by the more oblique body horror writing of Octavia Butler. And, in a by-now-familiar and increasingly persuasive refrain for this study, Luckhurst observes that this “hybrid of sf and horror was not at all new, but part of a long tradition that stretches back to Verne and Wells of what has been called ‘the science-fiction grotesque’” (214).

For obvious reasons, the chapter on the 1990s seems to be the most provisional of Luckhurst’s decade studies. Homi Bhabha and Manuel Castells provide theoretical overviews of this period, focusing respectively on accelerated globalization and the technological production of “Informational Capitalism.” In Luckhurst’s view, what characterizes 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 then organizes his discussion of 1990s sf around the New Space Opera, the revival of apocalyptic visions under the prospect of the Vingean Singularity, and the New Weird, which Luckhurst sees as a kind of apotheosis of the hybridity that has always characterized sf—“a final instance of uncanny return: to the conditions of writing that dominated the emergence of SF in the late nineteenth century” (243). Dan Simmons’s Hyperion (1989) and Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution quartet (The Star Fraction [1995], The Stone Canal [1996], The Cassini Division [1998], and The Sky Road [1999]) limn the ironizing and subverting reflections of globalization that make the New Space Opera new, but Luckhurst also suggests an experiential agenda for the form, as its characteristic heft of pages “carves out a large chunk of narrative time that acts as a bulwark against the depredations of identity in the late modern world” (230). While frequently positing in its semblances erosions of the idea of progressive developmentalism and of monolithic empire, New Space Opera occupies such a complexly structured chunk of its reader’s time that it actually serves as a kind of “narrative salve,” offering the reader a stand against the erosion of literary subjectivity.

A bit jarringly, Luckhurst then switches from sf literature to sf on tv, specifically The X-Files (1993-2002), to make his case for a 1990s revival of apocalypticism. Luckhurst does not smoothly negotiate the movement of the discussion of this new apocalypticism from the threat of runaway “singularity” breakthroughs in genetic research, nanotechnology, and robotics (as strikingly suggested in Greg Bear’s Blood Music [1985], a book Luckhurst mentions only in passing) to the paranoid narratives of The X-Files. While few would disagree with Luckhurst’s construction of this series as an apocalyptic narrative informed by the alien abduction phenomenon or his observation that it “leaked outside mere televisual form into a strangely blurred cultural space between science fiction, political conspiracy theory and apocalyptic counter-history,” the claim that abduction accounts “are perfect examples of science-fictional narratives that negotiate the traumatic encounter of subjectivity and technology” (233) strikes me as less compelling. Luckhurst’s analysis of this phenomenon has previously appeared at greater length in one of the several noteworthy and influential essays he has published over the years in Science Fiction Studies. But, for all the incisiveness and cultural insight of his analysis of the technological trauma on which abduction narratives feed, The X-Files seems to me more like Apocalypse-lite than like the New Apocalypse. I don’t question the cultural importance of this phenomenon or its importance for our understanding of sf, but I’m not convinced it is the best representative of 1990s apocalyptic thinking. Luckhurst closes his book with a brief consideration of the New Weird, represented by China Miéville’s “genre-morphing” Perdido Street Station (2000), and best understood in terms of Gary Wolfe’s description of “the postgenre fantastic” or “recombinant genre fiction.” The appearance of a kind of literature that can only be described in terms of its “evaporation,” “liquefaction,” decomposing, fuzzying, recombining, blending, or morphing of genre forms and boundaries is exactly the point at which Luckhurst should end a study that has persuasively insisted at every turn that sf “has always been a mixed, hybrid, bastard form, in a process of constant change” (243).

It must be abundantly clear by now that I do not share Farah Mendlesohn’s dismissive opinion of Luckhurst’s Science Fiction, expressed in her peevish review in the September 2005 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction. And I mention this because the reviews in the NYRSF generally command our attention and respect, serving sf scholars, writers, and readers equally well. But not this one. Indeed, I find myself wondering whether Mendlesohn and I read the same book. Certainly, Mendlesohn was not much interested in what Luckhurst argues in Science Fiction, as she never even mentions his construction of sf in terms of its hybridity. Nor does she engage any of Luckhurst’s significant propositions about the cultural place and value of sf. Depending on which part of Mendlesohn’s scattershot criticisms we read, this book is either not enough of a cultural study, a cultural study that chooses the wrong cultural issues to study, too much of a cultural study that values cultural critics over sf writers, too much of a literary history, not enough of a literary history since it doesn’t mention enough sf texts—particularly not enough by writers of interest to Mendlesohn, and so on. Mendlesohn seems more interested in labeling, as she charges that Luckhurst’s study is not a “real” cultural history (or at least not the one she wanted) and that it is a “sexist book” (16). I think she’s quite wrong on both counts, but hope that readers will decide for themselves, on the basis of reading Science Fiction itself rather than accepting either Mendlesohn’s low or my high opinion of the book.

To Mendlesohn’s credit she acknowledges that hers is an “angry” review, and even goes so far as to admit that her reading made her “too angry to be fair,” immediately offering the justification: “but then this isn’t a fair book” (18). I’m not sure where such a convenient scruple takes us, but I’m pretty sure it’s not someplace sf scholarship should go. Nor should rigorous scholarship make the kinds of factual mistakes that pepper Mendlesohn’s review. Most are small, but telling. For instance, one superficial example of hasty reading is her claim in her discussion of Chapter 6 that “Tolkien is referred to as sword and sorcery, a tradition of which he is not a part and that he overwhelms” (18). What Luckhurst actually writes is that Suvinian sf scholarship has charged Tolkien “not only with abandoning critical cognition for conservative myth-creation, but with doing so to such annoyingly influential effect. The true path of SF has been perverted since The Lord of the Rings became a mass-market success in the mid-1960s, resulting in a stream of imitative sword-and-sorcery sub-creations drained of critical effect” (128) (emphasis mine). If anyone is guilty of imprecision here, it is not Luckhurst.

A much more significant misreading or misrepresentation underlies Mendlesohn’s claimed anger at Luckhurst’s failure to live up to his own stated aims, “particularly his desire to ‘think harder about the way certain agents of history (for example the masses, women, colonized, marginal or subaltern peoples) had been erased or rendered anonymous in history-writing’” (16). The problem here is that this quotation is not one of Luckhurst’s “stated aims.” It is instead Mark Poster’s detailing of some of the characteristics of cultural history, and this is presented by Luckhurst as part of a broad summary of suggestions, offered by several different critics, of the things cultural history can do:

Mark Poster agreed that cultural history challenged the older social history by questioning narrative in History, but also by forcing it to deal with “low” as well as “high” cultural sources and, in a related way, to think harder about the way certain agents of history (for example the masses, women, colonized, marginal or subaltern peoples) had been erased or rendered anonymous in history-writing. (1-2)

While I agree with Mendlesohn’s apparent belief that these are indeed worthy goals of cultural history, I must note that this was Poster’s list of desiderata and not advanced by Luckhurst as his stated aims, and certainly not as a kind of contract by which he intended his book to be judged. Nor is it reasonable, much less fair, to expect that Luckhurst’s book—or any other cultural history—could do all of the admirable things suggested by these critics.
As it happens, however, I share a number of Mendlesohn’s local reactions to this book, just not her global conclusions. Luckhurst could have used more sociological evidence to strengthen his cultural analysis and he could have used different sf writers to support his cultural analysis. The more culturally focused Cecilia Tichi strikes me as a better guide to constructions of American technology than does the more literary oriented Leo Marx, and consideration of technocultural phenomena such as Worlds Fairs and Coney Island—even advertising—would strengthen Luckhurst’s discussion of the American Engineer paradigm. Like Mendlesohn, I found the absence of sustained discussion of Gwyneth Jones curious, and I think Joanna Russ should figure much more prominently in a cultural history of sf, but, unlike Mendlesohn, I don’t see the choice of discussing Le Guin over Russ as a sure sign of sexism. In fact, I think what Luckhurst does say about Russ argues much more persuasively against Mendlesohn’s charge that the book is sexist than her page-counting and author-counting calculus argues for it. Consider what Mendlesohn terms pushing Russ’s Female Man to one side or abandoning its discussion in the following passage from Science Fiction:

The Female Man has proved so difficult to read because it incorporates all of these strands of feminism into a collage of competing voices from parallel worlds. Russ’s four women protagonists, Janet, Jeanine, Joanna and Jael, are elements of the same personality, constituted according to the social reality in which they are imagined, whether this is two versions of America in 1969, the feminist utopia Whileaway or a future of perpetual gender war. The inter-cutting is brutal and refuses the reader any comfort in identification, as Russ insists on the simultaneity of these temporal and generational signifying spaces. The Female Man resembles the French feminist statements being written contemporaneously. Hélène Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa,” for instance, embraces both a thoroughgoing essentialism (“Woman must write woman. And man, man”), and yet advocates an écriture feminine. This can never be reduced to “women’s writing,” but aims to subvert the mythical category of Woman. Cixous’s tactic of contradictory assertions is deliberate, the text enacting the subversive potential of the “feminine,” which becomes a deconstructive lever that worms its way inside all systems of binary thought. In a similar way, when Russ writes “You cannot unite woman and human any more than you can unite matter and anti-matter; they are designed not to be stable together,” it can be read simultaneously as both a despairing cry of exclusion and a recognition of the chance, as Amanda Boulter puts it, to “transcend the category of Woman altogether.” Because The Female Man overdetermines meanings like this and is a compendium of feminist strategy in the mid-1970s, it is still one of the central texts of feminist SF. (193-94)

That’s the way things go in this “sexist” book.

Speaking as one who has hazarded a literary history of twentieth-century sf, I see Luckhurst’s Science Fiction as an incredibly valuable complementary—and not competitive—effort. His cultural history makes me realize how much I got wrong on my own or some of the errors of others I blithely passed along. It also makes me realize how much more effective any parts I may have gotten right might have been had they been written with the benefit of the many insights and specifications of this fine book. There will be other and undoubtedly more thorough cultural histories of sf in general and of its specific cultural moments in particular, but many of those works may be inspired by this pioneering book and all will be informed by it.

1. Were it not for S.I. Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action (1941), sf might be seen as the most effective advertising arm for Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics, a totalizing system of belief and theory of human behavior that based its assumptions and program on interrogating and understanding the distinction between map and territory. By understanding and rigorously maintaining map/territory distinctions in language and in action, Korzybski believed that most human problems could be avoided. Korzybski’s best-known book, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (1933), was the obvious source for A.E. van Vogt’s concept of “null-A thinking,” and Korzybski was championed by Heinlein and Campbell. While L. Ron Hubbard claimed that his Dianetics was inspired by General Semantics, proponents of Korzybski’s program argued that Dianetics was pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo. In recent years, Korzybski’s thinking has been invoked by proponents of the whole systems approach championed by Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly and explicitly or implicitly drawn from by numerous sf writers. The Institute of General Semantics, founded by Korzybski in 1938, remains active (<>) [the original link cited in this article has since been changed to]and describes the General Semantics language-based epistemology “as the study of how we perceive, construct, evaluate, and communicate our life experiences.”

Kristeva, Julia. “Women’s Time.” The Kristeva Reader. Trans. Seán Hand and Léon S. Roudiez. Ed. Toril Moi. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. 187-213.
Mendlesohn, Farah. “Science Fiction by Roger Luckhurst.” New York Review of Science Fiction 18.1 (Sept. 2005): 16-19.
Wolfe, Gary K. “Malebolge, or the Ordnance of Genre.” Conjunctions 39 (2002): 405-19.

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