Science Fiction: A Literary History

The genre which casts perspective on our present and the ever shifting future, the forms of science fiction have a longer history than even some who work within it realise, though few would disagree that during this long course it has rarely received the recognition it deserves as a valid literary form, looked down upon as vulgar, common and childish, both injustices comprehensively addressed by editor Roger Luckhurst and his contributors in Science Fiction: A Literary History, published by no less an august body than the British Library itself.

In eight sections, academics Arthur B Evans, Luckhurst himself, Caroline Edwards, Mark Bould, Malisa Kurtz, Rob Latham, Sherryl Vint and Gerry Canavan conduct an exploration from Early Forms of Science Fiction through the shift from Scientific Romance to Science Fiction, Utopian Prospects, Pulp SF, After the War, the New Wave “Revolution,” From the New Wave into the Twenty First Century and then to New Paradigms After 2001.

There are areas of overlap but each contributor has their own focus and interpretation of events and much of the sheer wealth of material will be largely unfamiliar to some, a whole world of science fiction revealed by adopting a global perspective. Opening with a list of the different terms used the very definition of science fiction itself has changed, and much which would now be considered within the literature of the fantastic would not have been thought of as science fiction at the time it was written even had that frame of reference existed.

Even prior to 1900 trends were emerging, subterranean worlds, interplanetary voyages, travels through time, with the first suggestions of the recently revived and refined idea of panspermia featuring as early as 1753 in Charles-François Tiphaigne de la Roche’s Amelic, and examining the present with a critical eye while reaching for a better, brighter tomorrow there are themes which remain present, satires of the current political situations, the hopes of utopia, often technologically advanced and frequently absent of religion, Judith Merril quoted as saying that in America of the 1950s science fiction became “virtually the only vehicle of political dissent.”

Editor Luckhurst’s own chapter an easy read which covers the technological and societal changes which caused the various literary genres to further differentiate into their more recognisable forms, accelerated by the spread of literacy and the growth of mass-produced newspapers and journals paying writers to fill their pages along with the advances in science itself, the long-form science fiction novel is a relatively modern invention which supplanted the short story or serialised fiction, this evolution of form and its consequences on content closely examined.

While on first thought Luckhurst’s comment about “readers new to the genre” may seem a ridiculous notion with science fiction so ubiquitous and dominant as an entertainment force across all media, on further consideration with a generation brought up on comic books, graphic novels, video games, streaming television shows and the megafranchises of Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe it is conceivable there are those who have never had the reason or encouragement to pick up a printed copy of The War of the Worlds.

Surprisingly dismissive of the work of H G Wells, grouped with writers who “fantasised” about weapons of mass destruction in the years prior to the Great War, it is implied that they did so with yearning, never that their words should be seen as a warning of the days to come, of a future to be avoided, though it is interesting to note that Jules Verne was also somewhat caustic of his contemporary, regarding Wells’ work as inferior to his own.

Progressing through the twentieth century the names become more familiar as the genre diversified and evolved though the “golden age,” but despite the provocative experimentation of editors Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison on opposite sides of the Atlantic in the late sixties and their encouragement of others to do the same, science fiction has often been regarded as fundamentally inferior, a fallacy countered here by the breadth of writers who have worked within it, from E M Forster (The Machine Stops) to Cormac McCarthy (The Road).

Similarly, Kurt Vonnegut, William Burroughs, Anthony Burgess and J G Ballard, though all obviously writers of science fiction, managed to avoid wearing the badge of that particular ghetto through their existing acclaim, instead being regarded as literary writers who utilise the tools of the genre, while Margaret Atwood correctly points out that there is nothing in her work which qualifies as science fiction, her dystopian visions all too disturbingly plausible.

Those who have witnessed the infantile behaviour of the “sad puppies” in recent years may not be aware that these are not the first conflicts within the science fiction community, that there have been many before led by authors and editors rather than the hurt feelings of an irked fanbase frightened of change and the obsolesence of their favoured styles, a notion which seems to fly in contradiction of the very concept of this progressive genre which has demonstrably never been the sole province of straight white men; if you doubt it, just ask Samuel R Delany.

Given the surprising volume of material to be covered little can be done for many works other than listing and categorising them but that is still worthwhile, and no matter how well versed in the genre there will be many new discoveries for the reader and each section kindly offers key recommendations from among the diverse works discussed in more depth therein, up to and including Oryx and Crake, The Three-Body Problem, The City & The City, Ancillary Justice and Aurora.

Like technology and the science which underpins it, that rate of change and progress in science fiction has accelerated enormously in the past decades, Canavan observing that we now live after a future which never happened, ecological crises now pre-empting nuclear war as the defining concern of modern science fiction even as a shift occurs in the very format and fixed state of the written word with the introduction of digital media, a fundamental shift in literature and one which science fiction has not only anticipated but is already embracing, ready to open the next chapter in its proud history.

Science Fiction: A Literary History is available now from the British Library



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