Science Fiction Studies

#117 = Volume 39, Part 2 = July 2012


Patrick A. McCarthy

Two Briefs on Science Fiction

Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint. The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2011. xi + 247 pp. $29.95 pbk.

David Seed. Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 147 pp. £7.99 pbk.

In Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), Robert Childan, having been invited to dinner by a young Japanese couple, Paul and Betty Kasoura, searches for a topic of conversation. Noticing their copy of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a book he has heard about but not read, Robert asks if it is a mystery. It is not, but the Kasouras disagree about its true genre:

   “Not a mystery,” Paul said. “On contrary, interesting form of fiction possibly within genre of science fiction.”
   “Oh no,” Betty disagreed. “No science in it. Nor set in future. Science fiction deals with future, in particular future where science has advanced over now. Book fits neither premise.”
   “But,” Paul said, “it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science fiction novels of that sort.” (108)

The definition of sf, raised here in a reflexive discussion of Dick’s book-within-a-book, is addressed from the outset in both of these volumes.

Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint begin their first chapter, entitled “Problems of Definition,” by stating that “Genres are best thought of as ongoing processes of negotiation rather than fixed entities that pre-exist their naming. Science fiction (SF) is no exception.” Thus, “this book is based on the premise that there is no such thing as SF, but instead multiple and constantly shifting ways of producing, marketing, distributing, consuming and understanding texts as SF” (1). David Seed has similar doubts about generic labels: not only is sf “notoriously hard to define,” but even calling it a genre “causes problems because it does not recognize the hybrid nature of many SF works. It is more helpful to think of it as a mode or field where different genres and subgenres intersect” (1). Seed returns to the vexed issue of genre in a section of his last chapter entitled “Genre Fluidity and Generic Reinvention” and a final section, “Science Fiction Criticism.” In a similar move, Bould and Vint end their study by comparing the sf reader to the occupants of Beszél and Ul Qoma, cities in China Miéville’s The City & the City (2009) that are located in different countries even though they occupy the same geographical area. Only by focusing on their own city and not seeing the other, even though both are there, can citizens maintain the distinction between the two countries; if they blink, they glimpse the other city, and the boundaries are blurred. For Bould and Vint, the city that is always there, even though citizens of the other city refuse to see it in order to maintain the illusion of their own city’s integrity, resembles other genres with which sf is intertwined.

As their titles indicate—one is a “concise history,” the other a “very short introduction”—these are relatively brief books for such a large topic, but the authors cover a remarkable range of material. The titles do reveal one distinction: Bould and Vint’s book is precisely what Seed says his book is not, “a history of SF” (Seed 2). As we might expect, the concise history is organized along roughly chronological lines: after the first of the history chapters, “Science Fictions before Gernsback,” most chapters focus on a decade or two, with special attention to topics that became particularly important during a given period; and all are further divided into brief discussions of those topics. The large number of titles covered in this volume precludes analyses that take up very much space. Sometimes this means that important sf novels are mentioned only in passing, as when a discussion of modernist literary techniques in New Wave writing of the 1960s concludes with the acknowledgment that “Experimental prose was not entirely new to SF in this period. Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1953) utilises typography to represent conversations among telepathic characters, and The Stars My Destination (1957) is at its most innovative when it depicts the protagonist’s experience of synaesthesia” (109). There is so much to cover, and so little room, that two of the finest sf books of the 1950s, one of which received the first Hugo Award while the other has often been called the greatest sf novel ever, must share a single sentence. There are other such examples. Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End is mentioned only twice in the book, once (without comment) in a list of “evolutionary fantasies” (32) and later in passing, when Bould and Vint say of Greg Bear’s Blood Music (1985), “Echoing Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953), [Bear’s] novel ends on the cusp of a final, dramatic shift whose precise nature remains unknown” (163). That does not tell us much about Childhood’s End. Similarly, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924) is mentioned only twice, in a list of “dystopian fictions” and in a sentence that is mainly concerned with another writer—in this case, Isaac Asimov (23, 68).

I could easily add to the list of stories and novels I would have liked to see Bould and Vint discuss at length, or points that I wish they could follow up more thoroughly, had they room to do so. A small example: since they comment intelligently on J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911) and later on Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1935) (32, 55-56), they might have mentioned that Stapledon acknowledged Beresford’s novel as an influence on his own by having the narrator of Odd John compare John with Victor Stott—the Wonder—on three occasions. Yet the fact that my main complaint is that this book is too short indicates how good it really is. For one thing, there are superb analyses of the works, often leading to a summation like the following, which comes at the end of a discussion of Ignatius Donnelly’s dystopian novel Caesar’s Column (1890):

Texts such as Caesar’s Column give to SF a sense of the tension between technological and social progress and temper a tendency towards technophilia with a concern about the power such technology promises. They also reveal the darker side of the struggle with alterity that drives much of the genre. Whereas [Edward] Bellamy and [Mary E. Bradley] Lane erase difference in order to produce eutopia, Donnelly demonises difference through negative portrayals of Jews, peoples of colour and unchaste women so as to suggest—problematically —the eutopian potential of “true” humanity within the dystopian context of contemporary life. In later SF, questions of alterity will more commonly be displaced onto figures such as the alien and the robot. (24)

With its useful generalization about technology in sf, its clear distinctions between two ways in which difference is manipulated in texts they have discussed, and its gesture towards later discussions of aliens and robots, this passage and the many others like it are models of clarity and scholarly precision. Also useful are the discussions of historical, cultural, political, and technological backgrounds to sf, the lists of books within an sf subgenre that appear in shaded boxes within the text, the Guide to Further Reading, and the Glossary of Terms; the last of these will be particularly helpful to students.

The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction is also quite up to date, a point that was brought home to me when I received the March 2012 issue of SFS, whose opening articles are devoted to the Singularity, a subject on which I had just read a fine commentary by Bould and Vint (190-92). Their references to very recent novels (Miéville’s The City & the City, Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America [2009], Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House [2010]) provide further evidence that this history is not only concise but as au courant as it can possibly be.

Not to be outdone, David Seed has written an even shorter but equally valuable book. In fact, of all the books I have read in the field, I believe this one provides the best introduction to sf for undergraduate students. Seed organizes his first five chapters around basic types or themes of sf (“voyages into space,” “alien encounters,” “science fiction and technology,” “utopias and dystopias,” “fictions of time”) before concluding with a chapter that takes a broader view of the field. Like Bould and Vint, Seed has an admirable ability to compress ideas into few words, as in the following typical passage:

The construction of robots and cyborgs in the human image suggests that technology frequently operates in science fiction to dissect or disassemble the body for purposes of reconstruction and modification. Critics like J.P. Telotte argue that this is the technological theme in SF, dating back of course to Frankenstein, which Brian Aldiss and others have taken as the proto-text of science fiction. The ambivalence of this text towards experimentation is suggested in the way Frankenstein violates taboos of respect to construct a person out of dead parts and in the fact that the “monster” (or “daemon” as he is called) has no name and therefore cannot be perceived in separation from Frankenstein. The switches of perspective between creator and created only reinforce this effect. (64)

Note how one idea leads to another, and how two crucial points about Frankenstein, each of which could be expanded through passage citations and theoretical complication, work even better when readers are left to tease out their implications. Only someone with a vast knowledge of a field can distill what he or she knows into such simple, elegant, yet suggestive sentences. Students and their professors who read this book will learn a great deal about sf, and perhaps also about effective prose style.

Inevitably there are, in both of these books, things I would have done differently, other texts I would have discussed, points I would have followed up. Few of these are worth mentioning given the brevity of each book, which must have led to painful decisions on inclusion, but it is remarkable that neither ever cites a specific work by Stanislaw Lem. Bould and Vint say that Lem and the Strugatskys are examples of “European and Soviet writers” whose works began to appear in translation in the 1960s and 1970s (104); Seed names Lem’s character Ijon Tichy but not the works in which he appears, although he says they are “similar in spirit” (7) to Harry Harrison’s parody of space opera in Bill, the Galactic Hero (1965), and later he says that Lem and Thomas M. Disch were sf writers who attacked the “parochialism” of the field during the 1970s (127). I have no quarrel with the focus on Anglophone texts, but Lem deserves attention anyway, given that much of his work critiques not only space opera but other staples of American sf. There are also other places where a few more words would have helped. The attention paid in both books to Katharine Burdekin’s writings (Bould and Vint 56-57, 135; Seed 81) is certainly well deserved, but her pseudonym, Murray Constantine, might have been mentioned along with a description of the political environment that led her to disguise her identity. Finally, Seed’s discussion (118-19) of works inspired by Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) is excellent, but how could he have omitted The War of the Wenuses (1898), in which most readers of SFS will spot parodies of passages from War of the Worlds, starting with the opening paragraph? “No one would have believed in the first years of the twentieth century that men and modistes on this planet were being watched by intelligences greater than woman’s and yet as ambitious as her own. With infinite complacency maids and matrons went to and fro over London, serene in the assurance of their empire over man.” Etc.

There are few statements in either book that I would challenge, and none of them are crucial—although I wonder why Bould and Vint classify Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903) as a future war story (27) since there is no war in it: the German invasion of England is called off after the invasion plans are intercepted. Likewise only a few typos or other errors seem to have slipped through. Among the rare ones I noticed is Bould and Vint’s statement that the sf preferred by Campbell “typically avers the sublime, focusing on humans triumphing over their environment rather than being overwhelmed by it” (78; emphasis added). Either “avers” is an error for “averts” or I just don’t understand the sentence. Later, in a discussion of Gwyneth Jones’s White Queen (1991), they write, “The Aleutian Clavel believes she is in love with the human Johnny. Because of misunderstandings about Common Tongue, Clavel misreads Johnny’s desire for the aliens to cure him of a virus as a reciprocation of his own desire for Johnny and responds to Johnny’s apparent request for sexual fulfillment” (176; emphases added). I haven’t read White Queen, but my guess is that Clavel is a male and that “she is in love” is a typo which should read “he is in love.” Seed’s book also has a handful of errors, all in connection with names: Poe’s middle name is misspelled as “Allen” (7, 59); the lovely replicant in Blade Runner is not Rachel but Rachael (63); Burdekin’s first name is normally spelled Katharine, not Katherine (81); and the term “heterotopia” was coined by Michel (not Henri) Foucault (96).

The authors of these volumes do so many things so well that it is oddly reassuring to find that they are capable of erring once in a galactic year. I will just close by saying that I wish I knew as much about sf as they do and that if I could write such compressed prose this review would have been only half as long as it is.

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle. 1962. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Graves, C.L., and E.V. Lucas. The War of the Wenuses. “Translated from the Artesian of H.G. Pozzuoli.” 1898. New York: Arno, 1975.


Back to Home