Science Fiction Studies

#100 =  Volume 33, Part 3 = November, 2006



Carol McGuirk

Schooling the Monster

David Seed, ed. A Companion to Science Fiction. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. xvi+612 pp. $99.95 hc.

Science fiction is the Frankenstein’s monster of academic critique, raising questions analogous to those that pursue hooked-but-horrified Victor. Is the genre a misunderstood, self-taught prodigy, able to see, almost as clearly as Victor’s Creature, the banal and cruel limits of bourgeois family life (i.e., the xenophobia of conventional world-views)? Or is sf a thing of hideous vitality, furiously committed to the destruction of everything good and graceful in literary culture—the strangulation of Elizabeth Lavenza in all her bridal finery? The topics covered by (and in some cases excluded from) this splendid, state-of-the-art survey suggest some pressure on the volume, some strain between an intractably freakish topic and an academic target-audience in search of precisely the kind of pleasantly constructive, civilized consensus that sf itself, bless its monstrous heart, was born (and periodically is re-born) to challenge and contest.

I will not attempt a detailed comparison with the Hugo-Award winning Cambridge Companion to SF (published late in 2003 and reviewed by Neil Easterbrook in SFS 31.3 [Nov. 2004]: 434-43); but I should mention that many contributors appear in both volumes, though addressing different topics. The Cambridge Companion’s editors, Edward James and Farah Mendelsohn, for instance, each contribute excellent chapters to the Blackwell’s Companion (on Arthur C. Clarke and Iain M. Banks respectively). From the standpoint of gross anatomy, the hardcover Blackwell’s Companion weighs in at 2.8 pounds (600+ pages) and The Cambridge Companion (paperback version) at 1.14 lbs (275 pages). Aristophanes drew sardonic conclusions from similar disparities in weightiness among the tragic poets, but such distinctions aren’t pertinent in this case. Advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and teachers assigned to sf courses who are eager to ground themselves well will find both works indispensable. The cost is $99.95 in hardcover, as compared with $60.00 for the hardcover edition of the Cambridge Companion ($24.00 for the paperback).

One feature of the Blackwell volume that troubles me is its sketchy engagement with the texts of the popular tradition. A 41-chapter, expertly guided tour of sf that devotes entire chapters to Margaret Atwood, John Wyndham, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Aldous Huxley but that makes only passing references to Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, Cordwainer Smith, Alfred Bester, C.L. Moore (whose name is misspelled in the Index), and Robert A. Heinlein is, to say the least, detouring around some important authors and issues. Critics in their wisdom may attempt to banish Heinlein to the remotest Hebrides or the Brazilian jungle—they are free to repudiate him as completely as Victor does his Creature. But late one night they will look up from their monitors only to see RAH’s seriously pissed-off ghost glaring in at them through their office windows. Heinlein (with some others of his generation) is as indispensable to understanding today’s sf as (to name another author mentioned only in passing) Edgar Rice Burroughs. Perhaps delinquent contributors never sent in their commissioned Heinlein and Burroughs chapters, but the necessary extended discussion of Frank Herbert’s DUNE series and its impact on the genre is missing, too. Writers who worked between 1915-1960, either at sprawling space-opera serials (Burroughs; Edward E. ["Doc"] Smith) or at the short-story/novella lengths (C. Smith, C.L. Moore, Henry Kuttner, et al.) are very much included in this volume’s historical contextualization of sf, but (with some exceptions to be discussed below) the names and titles appear in lists and groups. Individual writings and accomplishments receive almost no analysis.

For the myriad topics that the volume does address, the Blackwell’s Companion provides unusual depth and detail. There is little potted summary: the contributors almost always push their topics in new directions. (One example is Gary Westfahl’s enlightening commentary on "hard" sf). Much-studied authors receive exemplary fresh readings: Christopher Palmer on P.K. Dick and Carl Freedman on Samuel R. Delany (whose name is misspelled in the Table of Contents) are examples. Robert Crossley is brilliant on cinematic and grand-scale effects in H.G. Wells. On almost every page, the contributors have provided not only information but insight.

The work is thoughtfully arranged to show the field from a variety of sometimes contrary perspectives. Many contributors take different views of overlapping topics, which is useful in showing the range of interpretations that sf invites. As is understandable in a volume from a British press, there is a tendency to emphasize the British and utopian/dystopian elements in sf.

In structure, the chapters move from general sf strategies and narrative preoccupations to close analysis of individual authors and novels. Part 1 ("Surveying the Field") includes sterling chapters on the reading protocols needed for sf (Tom Shippey), the genre’s origins (George Slusser), sf and criticism (Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.), and the role of sf magazines in the genre’s development (Mike Ashley). Shippey’s chapter contrasts the opening pages of George Orwell’s realistic novel Coming Up for Air (1939) with the first paragraphs of Frederik Pohl’s and C.M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953), emphasizing the "hard reading" and pursuit of inferences in which sf’s readers must engage. Ashley provides a detailed guide to a bewildering variety of short-fiction venues in the US and Britain, from Overland Monthly (June 1890), "inspired by Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward" (61), to Hugo Gernback’s Amazing Stories (which debuted in April 1926), to Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds (1964-1970). Slusser’s chapter on "origins" begins with ancient epic, Romantic gothicism, and other forms such as early satire that have all been linked to sf; but he seeks to limit the genre to writing that "is all about science. [Sf] is the sole literary form that examines the ways in which science penetrates, alters, and transforms ... the worldview of fiction" (28). Slusser therefore marks out H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), rather than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), as the foreparent of today’s genre, arguing that Wells was the first author to respond to a paradigm shift (Darwin’s evolutionary ideas) and to connect the existing genre of travel stories with "historical narratives" by invoking "the power of the machine" (40). Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. considers critical approaches to science fiction, doing ample justice to Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell (the latter said to have "created the conditions for a professional SF culture out of the fan tradition" [47]), and proceeding to the academic critiques of sf that emerged with postmodernism and posthumanism. His chapter makes particularly helpful contrasts between the New Wave and cyberpunk eras.

In Part 2 ("Topics and Debates"), Philip E. Wegner’s conscientious if slow-moving chapter on "Utopia" explores Lyman Tower Sargent’s, Darko Suvin’s, and other major critics’ positions on the sub-genre before surveying authors from Thomas More through H.G. Wells, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Karel Čapek, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Ursula K. Le Guin, Marge Piercy, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler. A strength is Wegner’s useful distinction between dystopian and utopian impulses. Stephen R.L. Clark’s uneven chapter on sf and religion initially startled me by conflating "religion" with "Christianity" ("Science fiction that either makes explicit use of the Christian mythos, or advances a theological argument, is rare" is his opening sentence [95]); but Clark goes on to note, rather fuzzily, that the genre "is often ‘religious’ in a wider sense, even at its most atheistic" (95). Clark’s selection of illustrative sf texts is haphazard, but in a fine conclusion, he remarks that "Science fiction writers, more than most, consider how we are to live in a world immensely larger, older, grander, and more forbidding that we had supposed" (109), suggesting that the genre can be as profitably engaged in ontological speculations as in epistemological ones. Part 2 also surveys gothicism (a stylish chapter by Fred Botting), sf and ecology (Brian Stableford), feminist fabulation (Marleen S. Barr), time and identity in feminist sf (Jenny Wolmark), and sf’s representations of the Cold War (M. Keith Booker, who considers a mixture of films and novels). In a reading analogous to H. Bruce Franklin’s Cold War book on Heinlein (1980), Booker offers readings of Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951) and Starship Troopers (1959) in terms of postwar hostilities and tensions, emphasizing Heinlein’s attempts to "indoctrinate" (178). As any survey of other authors and journalists of the 1950s and 1960s, including those who did not write sf, would turn up analogous concerns, this conflation of RAH’s views with those of the zeitgeist would seem to preclude any investigation of what might be new and distinctive in, specifically, his science fiction. Reading Heinlein solely as a Cold Warrior seems to me oddly unsporting—like shooting fish not in a barrel but a band-box. The approach through Cold War themes, in any case, is unlikely to send new readers Heinlein’s way.

In the volume overall, today’s sf writers are approached as having sophisticated ideas, while any similarly complex approach to earlier writers is silently foreclosed. Earlier writers tend to be invoked as exemplars of outdated thinking and discarded technologies. Yet I wonder whether sf authors ought to be read mainly as markers for current cultural concerns. Weren’t these people fiction writers first?

Part 3 ("Genres and Movements") will be especially helpful to teachers and students in its focus on recurrent problems that arise in defining the genre and its sub-genres. There are two separate—and usefully divergent—chapters on hard sf (by Gary Westfahl and Donald M. Hassler), a myth-breaking reevaluation of the New Wave by Rob Latham, a survey of cyberpunk by Mark Bould (who does a good job with a topic difficult to make new), and a nuanced perspective on sf and postmodernism by Veronica Hollinger, who offers lucid guides both to an interesting group of theorists (Lyotard, Baudrillard, Jameson, and Haraway) and to a range of sf that continues to show the impact of postmodern ways of thinking, from Carol Emschwiller’s Carmen Dog (1988) and James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah (1994) to China Mi éville’s Perdido Street Station (2000) and William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003).

Parts 4 and 5 are the shortest sections, with Part 4 offering an authoritative guide to sf film by Vivian Sobchack as well as chapters on cyborgs in sf print and film (Christine Cornea) and British sf television (Peter Wright). Cornea does not mention (as, for instance, The Cyborg Handbook does [Gray 5]) that the cyborg was a preoccupation of US sf for some years before Norbert Weiner ever coined the word "cybernetics" in 1948. The protagonists of C.L. Moore’s "No Woman Born" (1944) and Cordwainer Smith’s "Scanners Live in Vain" (published in 1950 but written several years earlier) are cyborgs, for instance. To offer another example, the prosthetic metal fingernails of Gibson’s Molly in Neuromancer (1984) were first seen in Fritz Leiber’s "Coming Attraction" (Galaxy, November 1950). Because of Cornea’s foregrounding of late-twentieth century writers, an otherwise useful chapter in effect "disappears" an earlier generation.

This would be a minor point (even the most compendious book or chapter must leave many things out), except that such omissions foster a misleading emphasis on the originality of more recent writers, at the expense of earlier and neglected figures who (in the vital sf activity of discovering new ideas and new tropes) at any rate supplied templates for some (deservedly praised) postmodern revisions. What might be read as a vital tradition in the genre is instead made the exclusive property of contemporary authors, which is not really how literary traditions work in any case. Cyberpunk writers indeed rediscovered the cyborg during the 1980s (helped along by James Tiptree, Jr. in such stories as "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" [1973], a classic text praised in Bould’s and in Hollinger’s chapters but not mentioned in Cornea’s). Yet although it is true that for many writers during the later 1980s, "the human subject [...was] losing its primacy" (Cornea 277), the process is traceable from the mid-1940s in the popular sf tradition.

Part 5 covers the international scene in Canada (Douglas Barbour), Japan (Takayuki Tatsumi), and Australia (Van Ikin and Sean McMullen). Tatsumi’s chapter is especially interesting in its emphasis on how (from a general contrast between "east" and "west" during its earliest development), the Japanese tradition has gone on to consider issues specific to Asia. His concluding section is focused on how Chinese culture reappears as "other" in Keizo Hino’s slipstream novel Hikari (1995).

The "Key Writers" surveyed in Part 6 are H.G. Wells (Crossley), Isaac Asimov (a dazzling if ultimately negative assessment by John Clute), John Wyndham (David Ketterer), Philip K. Dick (Christopher Palmer, who does a fine job with a much discussed author), Samuel R. Delany (a complex writer brought into sharp focus by Carl Freedman), Ursula K. LeGuin (Warren G. Rochelle), Gwyneth Jones (Andy Sawyer), Arthur C. Clarke (Edward James), and Greg Egan (Russell Blackford). A final section that should inspire teachers working up syllabi for sf courses offers extended readings of Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818; by Susan E. Lederer and Richard M. Ratzan), Gilman’s Herland (1914; Jill Rudd), Huxley’s Brave New World (1932; David Seed), Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1951-53; Brian Baker), Russ’s The Female Man (1975; Jeanne Corteil), Ballard’s Crash (1973; Roger Luckhurst), Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985; Faye Hammill), Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984; Andrew M. Butler), Robinson’s MARS trilogy (1993, 1994, 1997; Carol Franko), and Banks’s Excession (1996; Farah Mendlesohn).

Although the volume is lengthy as it stands, a further section offering readings of sf’s short stories and (conversely) its sprawling, multi-episode space sagas would have balanced an apparent tilt toward canonical and contemporary novelists. As readers of SFS are well aware, free-standing novels were rather rare in the sf field until the commercial successes of Heinlein and Herbert during the 1960s. To focus on novels, while excluding short fiction and space-sagas, is in effect to put some 50 years of sf (from 1913 through the late 1960s) under erasure. The comparative neglect of earlier writers (in terms of their writings, not just as figures introduced into historical listings) will tend, as sometimes happens here, to obscure their contribution to the work of more modern writers who have remained close to the genre’s traditions. The late-20th century revival of space opera is, for instance, well noted in Freedman’s chapter on Delany (401), Hollinger’s chapter on postmodernism (244), and Mendlesohn’s chapter on Banks’s Excession (556). Yet the originals that inspired these revivals come in for rough treatment, as in Mike Ashley’s description of the Gernsback serials as "juvenile literature of little merit" (63). The sprawling early space-sagas should surely receive analysis, however, and not simply as footnotes to sf’s development. Some might have inspired later texts: one example is C.L. Moore’s swashbuckling "Jirel of Joiry" tales (the first in which this character appears was written in 1937 by Moore with Henry Kuttner; it was their first collaboration) and their possible impact on Joanna Russ’s marvelous early protagonist "Alyx."

Several contributors here evidently assume that space-opera tropes were devised by silly early writers but then revisited with postmodern subtlety by serious late-century ones. Such a presumption flatters modern sensibilities as it ignores (for instance) Edgar Rice Burroughs’s use of the space-travel saga as an instrument of flamboyant (if intermittent) social critique. The priest-caste in his Martian novels (the first was published in 1913) consume the flesh of the duped faithful, and monogamy is a capital offense among his Green Martians. Today’s sf has no monopoly on irony. This is not to deny that Burroughs is often silly; but there are factors (beyond even his incredible story-sense) that make his narratives interesting to critics today. Some of the powerful stories that Burroughs initiated are still driving the popular tradition, as Heinlein asserted.

Incidentally, while finishing up this review, I received the July 2006 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction, with Brian Stableford’s provocative lead essay on David G. Hartwell’s and Kathryn Cramer’s new anthology The Space Opera Renaissance (2006). Stableford’s informative analysis takes the other side of the case I’ve argued here, offering a contrary view on where to place space-sagas. His review recapitulates the evident difference of opinion between British and North American consensus that struck me while I read this Blackwell’s Companion. My own sense is that to refuse to look at early or popular sf as fiction is to re-enact the error of stubborn mainstreamers who refuse to read any science fiction whatever because so much of it is embarrassingly bad. Yet why should critics dismiss a genre (or subgenre) on the basis of its worst examples? Early space-opera is often perceived as the evil twin of rationally extrapolated speculative writing (the "good" sf, at least in its high seriousness). To invoke the Frankenstein analogy again, however, isn’t it the case that Victor would be of precious little narrative interest if it were not for his insane (and divertingly fruitless) attempts to repress and deny his hideous offspring?

If an unexamined privileging of the later writers was an intermittent concern for me as I read along, several contributors hone their readings more precisely. Latham’s chapter on the New Wave begins its survey a decade before the 1960s; he situates this important British movement within the traditions of the genre as a whole. Self-consciously "literary" sf began with the new digests founded soon after World War II. Fantasy & SF in particular "emphasized stylistic accomplishment as a prerequisite of successful stories" (Latham 204). John Clute’s magisterial chapter on Asimov also places this key post-war author within broad science-fictional contexts.

Is the sf genre meaningfully alive, a new thing brought to life (rather like Victor’s Creature) by an interaction of emerging technologies and ancient mysticism? Or is much of the genre grotesquely misbegotten stuff that should not be allowed to propagate? Several contributors here do wonder aloud whether the genre’s day is over, in which case this Companion to SF presumably serves as a fancy monument. Most, however, perceive a continuing uncanny vitality in the field.

It is really no surprise that this thoughtful volume should raise (again) some fundamental questions; that is what such projects are designed to do. The main strengths here are the distinguished roster of contributors, who have plenty of thought-provoking ideas, and the rich coverage of the field today that they provide. The volume is stronger on theoretical, historical, and cultural contexts than on texts. Yet anyone seeking an immersion course in the history and criticism of sf today will find that their time is well repaid. Perhaps it goes with the territory (an academic handbook) that the default sf canon, as implied by the sections offering extended readings of authors and texts, is probably too highbrow, reinforcing rather than rethinking some of the recurrent critical problems raised by the genre. Sf might have looked livelier (and more coherent) if its steady vitality—the brightness of a very few of its best writers in every generation, from the beginning—had been more consistently showcased.

Science fiction did not come of age during the 1960s, the 1980s, or the post-2001 era. Like any other genre, sf comes of age with every new generation and every new author. Most sf, like most mainstream fiction, will not survive its own cultural milieu, which is all the more reason that the tiny percentage of good work, early and late, should receive analysis. Blackwell’s Companion is carefully designed by its editor, David Seed, to offer a clear orientation to the field as it developed historically and as it is practiced today. The volume may have missed an opportunity, however, to provide a more extensive reconsideration of the popular tradition—its authors and especially its texts.


Franklin, H. Bruce. Robert Heinlein: America As Science Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.

James, Edward and Farah Mendlesohn, eds. Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. New York: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Gray, Chris Hables, Heidi J. Figueroa-Sarriera, and Steven Mentor, eds. The Cyborg Handbook. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Stableford, Brian. Rev. of The Space Opera Renaissance, ed. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. The New York Review of Science Fiction 18.11 (July 2006): 1+.

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