Science Fiction Studies

#143 = Volume 48, Part 1 = February 2021


Carol McGuirk

A Long View of Genre History

Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link, eds. The Cambridge History of Science Fiction. Cambridge UP, 2019. 801 pp. $175.00 hc.

“The only people who have the long view are some scientists and some science-fiction writers.”—Sheri S. Tepper, “Speaking for the Universe”

The 46 chapters of The Cambridge History of Science Fiction track the genre’s historical evolution on a global scale—from Europe, the UK, and North America to Eastern Europe (Larisa Mikhaylova), twenty-first century China (Hua Li), South America (Rachael Haywood Ferreira), and the Global South (Hugh Charles O’Connell). As described here, the genre long predates such often proposed precursors as Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Hugo Gernsback, although each receives the coverage due to such pivotal figures. The editors’ genially wide lens, in conjunction with the conscientious research of almost four dozen contributors, encourages sympathetic inclusion rather than canon construction or generic border policing—though Robert A. Heinlein seems occasionally to be regarded as a safe target. (Such dismissals are in any case balanced by Michael R. Page’s thorough coverage of the first twelve years of John W. Campbell’s editorship at Astounding, the years when Heinlein established his position in the field).1 The work’s guiding assumption is that speculation about other worlds and possible futures has marked the DNA of human cultures in every era.

While covering groundbreaking authors and editors, contributors also map the genre’s interaction with social and literary movements, including Gothicism, the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, modernism, postmodernism, cyberpunk, feminism, the environmental movement, and Afrofuturism—with none of those date-stamped as the beginning, either. Science fiction’s periodic reboots are approached as renovations beginning another phase, whether as a response to a cultural shift away from some superseded technological craze (steam-power, for instance, covered by Nathaniel Williams in his terrific chapter on the “Edisonades” marketed to boys during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) or reactions to paradigm-shattering cataclysms such as climate change (the two chapters on this topic are by Rebecca Evans and Eric Otto). As the editors say in their introduction, “Science fiction, in one form or another, is something which authors have seemingly always participated in, [even though it was] ... named less than a century ago” (1). Television and film, which were still being developed a century ago, receive attention as well. The early to mid-twentieth century is covered by Sean Redmond, the 1960s-1980s by Jeffrey Hicks, and the 1980s-1990s by Nicole De Fee. Sherryl Vint charts the anxieties of film and television from the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to the present. Paweł Frelik offers an overview of thirty years of games and gaming culture—our “digital heritage” (633), as he puts it—making a strong case for gaming as unique among the sf forms.

Feminism, gender, and sexuality are considered in three chapters, beginning with Jane Donawerth’s meticulous account of women writers during the Golden Age. Lauren J. Lacey’s chapter, on gender and sexuality in the New Wave period (it is mostly about North American, not British or London-based writers), covers the thematic ground but perhaps relies too heavily on lists, secondary sources, and paraphrase. Veronica Hollinger’s “Strangers to Ourselves” (a phrase from Julia Kristeva) considers recent sf representations of gender and sexuality in such writers as Greg Egan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Pat Califia, Shariann Lewitt, James Tiptree, Jr. (whose pseudonym in itself enacts “a transtextual performance” [559]), and many more. If I recall rightly, Hollinger is the only contributor who mentions “the Singularity,” first described by Vernor Vinge in 1993, or discusses its fascination for sf writers of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Another highlight is the thorough coverage of Afrofuturism. W. Andrew Shephard surveys the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, beginning with Martin Delany’s Blake: or The Huts of America (1859) and going on to cover Frances E. Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892), Sutton E. Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio (1899), and “conjure tales” by Charles W. Chestnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, as well as George Schuyler’s Black No More (1932). Of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man (1952), Shephard quotes Ellison disowning “science fiction” as “the last thing I set out to write” (113), yet points out that his extrapolation from an idea of cultural “invisibility” enters into powerful speculative territory. Mark Bould surveys Afrofuturism during the New Wave era, opening discussion with a warning: “For the most part ... the New Wave—on both sides of the Atlantic—avoided thinking about race” (397). Music of the 1960s, beginning with Sun Ra, along with film and comics, provide more plentiful examples, yet quite a few stories are also discussed. Finally, Isiah Lavender III considers the writers now enriching the traditions of Afrofuturism, conceding an abundance of examples in film and music yet noting that “the printed word” in this case “remains ... important” (565). Among his contemporary writers are Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, Tananarive Due, Colson Whitehead, Nnedi Okorafor, and N.K. Jemison, each of whom, as he says of Jemison, “constructs, critiques, and rethinks oppressive systems,” activities that he calls the hallmarks of “a keen Afrofuturist sensibility” (579).

Putting so many varieties of sf in their place(s) is a high-risk activity, since resignification often sparks controversy. Yet most in the various sf communities are ready for this volume’s updated and expansive view. Few scholars and teachers today still hold to a former consensus that the curtain on science fiction did not rise until April 1926, with the first issue of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories—a “New Kind of Magazine,” as Gernsback rightly called it in his first editorial.2 In an excellent chapter, Brooks Landon traces Gernsback’s importance to his prescient marketing instinct in developing a separate “publishing niche” for sf (142). Amazing Stories lured and addicted its readers by reprinting, along with new stories, classics by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe; Gernsback also invited readers to bond more deeply with the genre by promoting a lively letters column and printing instructions for organizing local groups. First Fandom grew strong in this Gernsbackian milieu of intense reader interaction, and American sf was never the same. Wide-ranging and perceptive discussions of fandom are continued in Karen Hellekson’s chapter (“Fan Culture in the Golden Age and Beyond”) and Paul Booth’s chapter (“Convergence Culture: Science Fiction Fandom Today”).

The prefatory chronology goes back half a millennium to 1516 (Thomas More’s Utopia), but Ryan Vu’s exhaustive chapter 1 begins still earlier with ancient myth, proceeding to classical and medieval speculative fictions and early-modern writings. The twelfth-century tale of “The Green Children of Woolpit” has been variously seen as a fairy story, a First Contact report, and a parable relating to local events and issues: “green sickness” existed in that era, though it was thought to affect only virgins. The children speak an unknown language but eventually are understood to be saying that they come from a “world”—in one version, a cave—“where the Sun never rises” (20). Rhys Williams’s thoughtful chapter returns to early eras with a different focus: “Inventing New Worlds.” He explores the rich vein of Islamic speculative fiction in the medieval period as well as the later emergence of European utopias and “manifestos.” (Other early chapters skip ahead to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; coverage is not always in chronological order). There is an outstanding chapter by Roger Luckhurst on science fiction and the Gothic, seen as “interrelated responses to ... scientific modernity” and “different refractions of the same light” (36). Both also are inherently time-disrupting or “proleptic,” and “anachronistic,” as in Gothicism or steampunk, but also “anticipatory,” as in future-facing narratives.

If the volume’s main impulse is centrifugal in its broad coverage, a more restrictive centripetal force guides the volume participants to a “center” that is sometimes problematic. The table of contents separates the chapters into three groups: “Before the New Wave” (1-19), “The New Wave” (20-29), and “After The New Wave” (30-46). Setting Wells and Verne so far before the perceived center of the genre is too much like calling their work “proto-science-fiction.” In his lively discussion, Terry Harpold uses “nascent sf” to describe his group of nineteenth-century European writers, arguing that they (no less than John Campbell’s authors at Astounding) were inspired by specific recent and emerging technologies, including the “geological and paleontological revolutions” of the Victorians as well as the era’s “innovations in transportation” (52).

The shorter forms of sf during the 1950s also are in some ways squeezed or pushed to the margin by this rhetorical tractor beam of the New Wave. By the time we get to Malisa Kurtz’s chapter on the 1950s and Brent Ryan Bellamy’s on the Bomb, many post-World War II sf careers are split in two (including that of Judith Merril, whose first sf story appeared in Astounding in 1948, and J.G. Ballard, whose first two sf stories were published simultaneously in 1956, in E.J. Carnell’s New Worlds [1949-1960] and Science Fantasy [1950-1966]). There is no doubt that Ballard’s and Merril’s work moved into new territory during Michael Moorcock’s brilliant stewardship of New Worlds; but for both, Carnell was an all-important early mentor. Lee Konstantinou’s fine chapter on the 1950s lays down solid groundwork despite a restricted focus on satires of consumerism such as The Space Merchants (Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, 1953), first published in installments as Gravy Planet in Galaxy in 1952. Beyond satire, digests such as Galaxy also popularized psychodramatic noir fiction—so much so that in 1957 an unsympathetic Heinlein complained that far too many postwar writers were “introverted neurotics” (43). Soft sf of the 1950s also undertook a sustained critique of technophilia. Yet even Heinlein admired Fritz Leiber’s dysphoric “Coming Attraction” (published in Galaxy’s second issue [November 1950]) as a “great short story ... [that] must be classed as science fiction as the term is commonly used” (16). He had even warmer praise for the short fiction of his friend Theodore Sturgeon, who was fascinated by the quirky human psyche and horrified by the likelihood that new technologies would only make war more lethal. Sturgeon’s response to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, published in the letters column of Astounding with the title “August Sixth, 1945,” was in print by December 1945, preceding even the controversial pamphlet published by the National Committee for Atomic Information, One World or None (1946). Soft sf showcased flawed characters in existential crisis rather than Heinleinian Competent Persons. Philip K. Dick, with interests in both camps, on occasion had it both ways, sardonically transforming “hard” sf’s can-do emphasis into a hallucinatory drug, Can-D, in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965).

Rob Latham’s incisive chapter explains the links (rather than assuming a fissure) between the early 1950s and mid-1960s. Throughout the postwar period, he argues, the influential sf critics were also working sf authors: Judith Merril, Damon Knight, James Blish. In the next generation of writers, a new group engaged the genre critically: Ursula K. Le Guin, John Sladek, Joanna Russ, and others. Latham shows how closely the two were connected: “There is a clear line from the mid-1950s Milford [Writers’] Conferences to the late-1960s New Wave wars. As editor-critics, Knight and Merril helped to build and sustain a market for ambitious experimental work” (314). He cites John Clute on the reciprocal sympathies of the writers between the late 1940s and late 1960s: “Clute perceived the New Wave less as an epochal rupture with the genre’s storytelling traditions than an offshoot that remained ‘deeply bound to the genre that gives it sustenance’” (319). Andrew Butler’s comprehensive chapter, centered on the New Wave critics, likewise observes that “there had certainly been literary and pessimistic SF published in genre magazines before the 1950s, most notably by Alfred Bester, Robert Sheckley, and Theodore Sturgeon. The assertion of the New Wave as a break ... is as much a matter of its own publicity as anything else; it is a time-tested tactic of revolutionaries, after all, to rubbish the values of the previous age” (323-24).

There is not enough space to mention all the meritorious chapters and notable topics in The Cambridge History of Science Fiction, though in closing I will sketch two more. The strong cyberpunk discussion by Graham Murphy makes good use of Bruce Sterling’s widely circulated free broadsheet, Cheap Truth (1983-1986), although it does not mention SF Eye (1987-1997), another major resource for criticism and performance-art of the era. Bruce Sterling contributed a regular column for SF Eye, which attracted a slew of other notables from Misha Nogha to Charles Platt, and from Joan Gordon to Terry Bisson, John Shirley, and many others. Philip E. Wegner’s excellent discussion of Postmodernism also covers late- and post-cyberpunk phases of the 1980s and 1990s; going by the Index, which can be a little spotty, it seems that he is the only contributor to so much as mention Sheri S. Tepper or include her among that era’s notable writers.

There are a few uneven chapters and more than a few duplicated discussions involving authors covered in several chapters in similar terms. Yet the work is valuable precisely in providing generous space for all contributors and viewpoints. The Cambridge History makes room for older speculative fictions as well as a healthy representation of non-Anglophone traditions. Even at 801 pages, coverage is not complete, but on the whole these discussions are conscientious and well-marshaled. Collected together they provide a portfolio of different approaches rather than a manifesto. This is in line with, and should tend to reaffirm, today’s emerging consensus about sf as a genre of global proportions, closely bound to eras and culture(s) but not the privileged domain of any one writer, era, group, or ideology. This work explores the myriad contexts in which science fiction has been imagined, published, and received with delight.
1. Many writers admired by academe do praise Heinlein’s work. Joanna Russ, asked by Samuel R. Delany what “authors you find yourself returning to,” named Chaucer, Heinlein, and Clarke (Timmel 157). Russ fondly remembered Heinlein’s The Star Beast (1954), in which a teenager sues for divorce from her uncongenial parents. The late Michael Levy’s discussion in his excellent chapter on children’s and YA sf also does justice to Heinlein’s importance as a writer for young people (275).

2. Samuel R. Delany, probably the first sf writer to apply the ideas of Foucault and Derrida in his fiction, nonetheless remains loyal to Team Gernsback:

It’s just pedagogic snobbery (or insecurity), constructing these preposterous and historically insensitive genealogies, with Mary Shelley for our grandmother or Lucian of Samosata as our great great grandfather. There’s no reason to run SF too much back before 1926, when Hugo Gernsback coined the ugly and ponderous term, “scientifiction,” which, in the letter columns written by the readers of his magazines, became over the next year or so “science fiction” and finally “SF.” Ten years before or 30 years before is all right, I suppose, if you need an Ur period. It depends on what aspect of it you’re studying, of course. But 50 years is the absolute outside, and that’s only to guess at the faintest rhetorical traces of the vaguest discursive practices. And in practical terms, most people who extend SF too much before 1910 are waffling.

Delany, Samuel R.“The Semiology of Silence.” SFS 14.2 (1987). Online.

Duchamp, L. Timmel, ed. The Wiscon Chronicles, Vol. 1. Aquaduct,  2006.

Heinlein, Robert A. “Science Fiction: Its Nature, Faults, and Virtues.” The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism. Advent, 1959. 14-48.

Tepper, Sheri S. “Speaking for the Universe.” Locus Magazine (31 Aug. 1998). Online.

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