Science Fiction Studies

#129 = Volume 43, Part 2 = July 2016


David Higgins

Coming to Terms with SF

Rob Latham, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. xvii + 620 pp. $160 hc.

There has been a flourishing of academic reference volumes devoted to sf in recent years, and The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (OHSF) stands out as a landmark accomplishment among these. Edited by Rob Latham, this book brings together an all-star cast of contributors—including many of the most notable scholars working in sf scholarship today—and offers more than forty reference entries that serve as informative and provocative launching points for deeper investigation into a multitude of sf topics. The volume is divided into four sections. The first section, “SF as Genre,” explores various ways of examining sf’s history and its formal and aesthetic characteristics. The second section, “SF as Medium,” may be one of the signature contributions of the volume: it does not consider sf as a medium per se, but rather explores science-fictional expressions outside of literature (in art, animation, architecture, theme parks, and beyond). Section three, “SF as Culture,” examines how various intersecting cultures, subcultures, and countercultures shape (and have been shaped by) science-fictional imaginings. Finally, the fourth section, “SF as Worldview,” delves into broad historiographic and philosophical paradigms and reveals how science fiction emerges from and influences hegemonic Western world-views and dominant historical trends and movements. All in all, the OHSF offers a wide-ranging and thought-provoking snapshot of the richness and diversity of contemporary science-fiction scholarship.

One of the most striking things about this volume is that, rather than simply providing encyclopedic references, most chapters in the OHSF offer original critical interventions on their subjects. Latham articulates this as the volume’s goal in his editorial “Introduction,” suggesting that entries are intended to be “more argumentative than expository, seeking to intervene in current debates and to broaden the scope of what counts as science fiction” (6). In some cases, the selection of a given topic for inclusion serves as the foundational critical intervention: the volume turns its attention to several neglected areas of scholarship, particularly in the “SF as Medium” section (where the critical approaches are sometimes less argumentative and more expository, simply because little attention has been paid to science fiction outside the familiar media of literature, film, and television). In non-literary media where sf is traditionally studied, the contributors offer a variety of thoughtful insights: Mark Bould, for example, suggests that approaches to sf film must move beyond enforcing taste hierarchies and policing adaptive fidelity in order to offer nuanced approaches to the spectacular nature of cinematic affect. Similarly, Paweł Frelik argues that a narrow focus on narrative is insufficient for understanding sf video games, and he proposes instead methodologies that explore the unique characteristics of digital play environments. In the chapters that explore less familiar media—particularly the sections on animation, art and illustration, comics, performance art, architecture, and theme parks—the intervention is frequently guided by the recognition that few scholars have paid sustained attention to science fiction’s presence in these media, and each chapter delves into this neglected history. (The same can also be said for some entries in certain other key sections, such as Ross Farnell’s chapter on body modification and Colin Milburn’s entry on posthumanism.) These entries, guided by the central project of historical recovery and inclusion, are sometimes less intensively theorized than the offerings in other sections, yet in each case, the recovered history is a rich and fascinating exploration that serves as a crucial launching point for further scholarship.

In other parts of the volume, the contributors seek to reshape conventional understandings within the field. De Witt Kilgore’s chapter on Afrofuturism, for example, offers a critical genealogy of Afrofuturist imaginings, and the chapter proposes that the rush to identify a coherent tradition has often homogenized critical understandings of Afrofuturism. Kilgore suggests that, in a larger sense, “Afrofuturism emerges from and is in conversation with the generic traditions of science fiction,” and he argues that examining science fiction more broadly reveals that radical Afrofuturist speculations were occurring within sf long before the emergence of the more commonly recognized modern Afro-diasporic writers (565). Other similar examples of critical interventions abound: Peter Stockwell’s chapter on aesthetics regards science fiction’s sense of wonder from a cognitive-science angle, arguing that the difficulty of describing science-fictional affect reveals basic limitations in our understanding of aesthetics more broadly. Jess Nevins turns early sf scholarship on its head by revealing that the majority of work appeared outside the sf pulp magazines (in general pulps), overturning a view of the origins of commercial sf that is most often dominated by discussions concerning the influence of Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell, Jr.

Perhaps one of the most striking critical interventions occurs in John Rieder’s chapter on “Colonialism and Postcolonialism.” Rieder proposes that understanding sf’s long and deep relation with colonialism requires “conceptualizing colonialism on the same scale as capitalism itself” in a manner that refuses traditional gestures to subordinate either capitalism or colonialism to one another as epiphenomenal problematics. Many entries within the volume similarly speak to cutting-edge conversations in sf studies. Recent special issues of Paradoxa (on SF Now and The Futures Industry), for example, have examined how utopian futures feel increasingly unimaginable in the face of contemporary capitalist totality, and both Veronica Hollinger’s and Sherryl Vint’s OHSF offerings theorize this problem of the vanishing future. When these chapters are put into conversation with the excellent entries on steampunk and retrofuturism, advertising and design, futurology, and military culture, an engaging dialogue on science-fictional futurism (or the contemporary lack thereof) emerges.

In one case, the gesture toward a critical intervention feels somewhat shocking: Gary Westfahl’s entry, “The Marketplace,” begins by arguing that science fiction was born as a commercial genre and traces the historical efforts of influential editors (such as Gernsback, Campbell, and Michael Moorcock) to create the space for innovation and experimentation in opposition to commercial pressures toward formulaic repetition. Westfahl concludes, however, that these efforts have ultimately failed, and that this is a good thing: avant-garde sf can always be published in irrelevant niche venues (just like poetry), and the triumph of formulaic sf is a victory for democracy and free consumer choice. Westfahl’s pro-market argument is at odds with almost every other entry in the OHSF (which tend to view capitalism through a problematic rather than celebratory lens). Yet his argument, which lands like a splash of water in the face, has a certain currency. Commercial sf (such as John Scalzi’s military novels or blockbuster films such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens [2015]) bears immense cultural power in comparison to works of science fiction that win critical acclaim among many scholars, and Westfahl offers a stark reminder that the genre’s revolutionary potential is deeply circumscribed by the dominance of market forces.

Most readers will utilize the OHSF as a reference volume, reading selected entries for directed research rather than attempting to devour all 600+ pages cover to cover. Reading the volume as a whole, however, reveals striking methodological tensions between approaches to sf that in various ways adhere to Darko Suvin’s utopian formalist paradigm (with an emphasis on the genre’s potential for revolutionary estrangement) and alternative perspectives that foreground sf’s embeddedness within history, culture, and society. Latham highlights this divergence in his “Introduction,” where he notes that “SF criticism since the 1990s” is characterized by both rupture from and continuity with the now-classic Suvinian paradigm: formalist approaches to sf and historical scholarship emerging from cultural studies both share “mutual roots in Marxist critical theory” while at the same time diverging around what Latham calls “the more problematic baggage of formalist genre studies, especially its inclination to construct narrow and exclusionary canons” (5). Formal and historical methodologies are not always in opposition, of course, yet a core tension can be experienced within the OHSF between contributors who approach sf as a form offering emancipatory potential and those who emphasize sf’s emergence from, embeddedness within, and occasional resistance to various ideological norms. Arthur B. Evans speaks directly to this methodological tension in his “Histories” chapter, arguing that different approaches to history necessitate alternative definitions of science fiction itself. Evans offers a metahistorical genealogy of sf criticism, suggesting that early “thematic/authorial” scholarship was followed by “semiotic” criticism (indebted to Suvin), which ultimately gave way to a contemporary “sociological” emphasis. The OHSF reveals that semiotic and sociological methodologies powerfully coexist within contemporary sf scholarship and that the productive tension between these creates a vibrant ground for critical dialogue.

Phillip E. Wegner’s chapter on “Utopianism” is one of the most striking examples of what Evans refers to as “semiotic” sf analysis: Wegner’s sophisticated entry, which concludes the volume, argues that utopianism is a defining formal characteristic of science fiction. This critical utopianism does not reside in science-fictional representation of utopias, but rather in the formal characteristics of the science-fictional narrative process itself. First, an sf narrative offers a critical estrangement from contemporary reality; next, it struggles against the difficulty of truly imagining radical alterity; finally, it offers “a leap into a void where language and signification themselves break down” (577). In Wegner’s view, this final leap is a gesture of utopian optimism dedicated to a continuous process of revolutionary becoming. Unlike (early) Suvin, Wegner’s formal approach to sf avoids the construction of what Latham calls “narrow and exclusionary canons” and instead invites readers to explore traces of utopian hope in a broad range of science-fictional expressions. Wegner offers a masterful synthesis of Bloch, Suvin, Badiou, and Jameson, and his argument for sf’s fundamental utopian energy is persuasive.

Both Latham and Liza Yaszek share Wegner’s optimism concerning sf’s utopian potential, yet their entries also invite contrasting speculation concerning how sf fortifies ideological hegemonies. In his chapter on “Countercultures,” Latham suggests that there is a natural (and multidirectional) affinity between science fiction and various countercultural movements because of their shared inclination to challenge cultural norms. Yaszek similarly argues that “SF is naturally compatible with the project of feminism,” since sf denaturalizes taken-for-granted social attitudes and imagines radically alternative futures (537). Both perspectives are unerringly accurate, yet at the same time, it is also true that sf has often been “naturally compatible” with colonial conquest, conservative (rather than countercultural) ideals, and the hyper-valorization of traditional masculinity. Patricia Melzer captures this tension in her chapter on “Sexuality,” in which she argues that sf has been (and continues to be) vastly heteronormative; Melzer traces a trajectory of sf texts that maximize what she sees as the genre’s defamiliarizing potential in regard to sexual norms, yet she identifies this as a minoritarian strain within the genre rather than its dominant trajectory. Reading Latham, Yaszek, and Melzer through the lens of Wegner, it becomes clear that the utopian potential often considered to be a formal characteristic of sf itself may be more accurately described as a formal element of certain methodological approaches to sf: whether or not the genre has an inherent sympathy for revolutionary upheaval in the face of entrenched hegemonic attitudes is often a product of how one approaches it.

Many of the approaches in the OHSF, particularly the ones that Evans would consider “sociological,” sidestep the Suvin paradigm altogether. The question of sf’s utopian potential is not examined, for example, in Adam Roberts’s chapter on “The Enlightenment” or Patrick B. Sharp’s chapter on “Darwinism.” Both of these entries locate sf firmly within a history of Western imperial fantasies and suggest that sf has both emerged from and powerfully contributed to colonial world-views. Paired with Rieder’s work (both in the OHSF and in his book Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction [2008]), a view of science fiction emerges that emphasizes the genre’s sociohistorical embeddedness within the imperial technoscientific norms of capitalism, and the question of sf’s utopian potential (on the level of form) feels more tentative.

On the whole, the OHSF maps a vibrant tension between formal and sociological methodologies for examining science fiction. One moment where this tension blooms is in Brian Attebery’s chapter on “The Fantastic,” which surveys fantastic elements in sf from a formal perspective (drawing upon Tzvetan Todorov, Eric Rabkin, and Kathryn Hume) in order to map four fantastic modes that occur within even the hardest sf. The most striking of these modes perhaps is what he calls the “Situated Fantastic,” which depends on the co-existence within a single narrative of “two distinct, culturally based views of the universe” (133). Attebery draws on Donna Haraway’s idea of “situated knowledges,” which foregrounds the way in which empirical facts resonate differently within alternative epistemological knowledge-systems, in order to examine fantastic elements in sf that are presented as the plausible expressions of radically alternative sciences. The Situated Fantastic is therefore cognitively estranging in a formal sense, yet its mode of cognition rejects what China Miéville refers to as “capitalist science’s bullshit about itself” (240) and offers instead what Attebery describes as “a way of validating non-Western, non-modern conceptions of the universe” (133). This is a perfect example of a formal approach to science fiction that takes into account the sociological insights offered by scholars such as Rieder, Roberts, and Sharp. Attebery’s Situated Fantastic offers a formal analysis that is sympathetic to the vital insights offered by postcolonial science and technology studies and indigenous scientific literacies.

There are a range of excellent entries in the OHSF that I have not been able to review here (see in particular the chapters by Tom Foster, Joan Gordon, Roger Luckhurst, William Hughes, and Neil Easterbrook), and the volume offers a vital resource for thinking about science fiction from multiple angles of inquiry. If the book has any weakness, it is simply that so much more could also have been included. A chapter on sf and ecology (for example) seems missing, and the view of science fiction that emerges is overwhelmingly Western, despite the wealth of current scholarship on non-Western, postcolonial, and indigenous sf. Academic inquiry, at its best, always seems to involve the process of various critical perspectives coming to terms with one another: formal methodologies come to terms with sociological insights, and various alternative views must ultimately address each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The broad range of perspectives showcased in the OHSF provokes a vast intersection of such comings-to-terms: each methodological approach is challenged and complemented by the dialogues it invites with the others in the volume, and as such, the OHSF emerges as a singular achievement within sf studies that offers a stimulating intervention within the field as a whole.

Miéville, China. “Afterword: Cognition As Ideology: A Dialectic of SF Theory.” Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. Ed. Mark Bould and China Miéville. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2009. 231-48.

Back to Home