Science Fiction Studies

#111 = Volume 37, Part 2 = July 2010


John Rieder

On Defining SF, or Not: Genre Theory, SF, and History

Abstract. -- This essay aims to clarify and strengthen the impact of an historical genre theory on sf studies. It advances and defends five propositions about sf, each of which could be recast as a thesis about genre per se: 1) sf is historical and mutable; 2) sf has no essence, no single unifying characteristic, and no point of origin; 3) sf is not a set of texts, but rather a way of using texts and of drawing relationships among them; 4) sf’s identity is a differentially articulated position in a historical and mutable field of genres; 5) attribution of the identity of sf to a text constitutes an active intervention in its distribution and reception. The essay concludes by proposing an approach to the multiple and competing agencies of sf genre formation, using the concepts of communities of practice and boundary objects.

Morgan Fritz

Miniaturization and Cosmopolitan Future History in the Fiction of H.G. Wells

Abstract. -- The prolific and pioneering H.G. Wells, in addition to establishing himself as the founder of modern science fiction, also wrote several realist and satirical novels, a pair of world history volumes, and two books about miniature, tabletop gaming. With his world histories, he sought to fulfill Immanuel Kant’s proposed project of writing a universal, cosmopolitan history. I argue that in many of his science fiction novels, from When the Sleeper Wakes to The Shape of Things to Come, Wells sought to execute a complementary project of imagining a future history leading to a cosmopolitan outcome.  The open-ended nature of this endeavor, however, often conflicted with the domineering impulse that Wells displays in his fascination with imagining miniature worlds in Floor Games and Little Wars, and in his attempt to commandeer the reins of the Fabian Society. Nevertheless, the cosmopolitan future history is one of Wells’s most lasting literary innovations, resonating in the work of modern sf writers including Olaf Stapledon, Ursula K. Le Guin, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, and Kim Stanley Robinson.

David Seed

The Course of Empire: A Survey of the Imperial Theme in Early Anglophone Science Fiction

Abstract. -- This article examines a range of early anglophone sf novels which engage with the theme of empire. Taking bearings from Wells’s The War of the Worlds, it discusses the shifting relations between the US and Britain, sometimes dominated by imperial rivalry, sometimes showing a cooperation between “Anglo‑Saxon” cultures against alien forces.  The imperial theme can show itself as optimistically expansive, as in John Jacob Astor’s A Journey in Other Worlds, or can express the fear of invasion, most famously in Wells’s novel in which alien conquest is directed against the imperial center of London. During the 1910s US anxieties over isolationism are articulated through narratives of attack by different European enemies. The racism often informing such empire fiction becomes most explicit in Yellow Peril stories in which the Chinese are shown as a malignant and anonymous mass threatening civilization itself.

William J. Fanning, Jr.

The Historical Death Ray and Science Fiction in the 1920s and 1930s

Abstract. -- The death ray became a prominent fixture in the science fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, but its popularity originated in something beyond the fertile imaginations of creative artists. Prior to the First World War and continuing up to the Second, frequent news reports publicized inventors who claimed to have developed such a device. Many of the various death rays in sf novels, short stories, plays, films, and on radio programs of the period bore striking similarities to the futuristic weapons of the “coming war” as described in the news media.

Andrew Strombeck

The Network and the Archive: The Specter of Imperial Management in William Gibson’s Neuromancer

Abstract. -- This article argues that William Gibson’s Neuromancer registers a tension between two historical moments of managerial power: while steeped in the moment of the “network society,” with its simulated authority and flattened hierarchies, the text exhibits nostalgia for the more hierarchical moment of imperialism, best manifested in its lauded treatment of Straylight. While the network society provides mobility primarily for elites, it nevertheless offers possibility for subaltern masses to be visible within its networks. The network society, then, would seem to offer less masculine domination than the earlier moment of imperialism, an idea Gibson reinforces by dissolving the globalized manager Armitage. And yet managerial power does not dissipate with Armitage; the hacker Case, seemingly an outsider to power, emerges as a kind of manager by the novel’s end. Similarly, the subaltern subjects who seemed to gain power throughout the book’s plot—most notably the Rastafarians—are ultimately subordinated to the imperial power represented by Straylight.

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