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Fifty Key Figures in SF cover

According to Q magazine, Dear Science by TV On The Radio is the seventh best album of 2008. According to Empire magazine, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is the second best film of all time. Magazines love lists. They love lists because we love lists and so we buy the magazines. And why do we love lists? It seems to me to boil down to two things: their accessibility and their wrongness. A list provides an entry point for the casual consumer. You don't have to watch unsigned bands play gigs in tiny venues every night or be an expert in French New Wave cinema to have an opinion. This can even be a relatively informed opinion. And because everyone has an opinion there is always something to complain about in a list. What sort of hellish top five features both Kings Of Leon and Coldplay? Star Wars is better than Casablanca? Are you mad? So lists draw us in and get us arguing. This is a double-edged sword: the conversation can be derailed before it has even begun.

Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction is a list. A non-hierarchical list, but a list all the same. With my introduction in mind, in this review I am going to do my best to praise its accessibility and assess its quality without getting bogged down in its wrongness. This may be tricky.

It is a companion to The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, also edited by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint. The comments to the Strange Horizons review of that book posed a question that I think is usefully deployed here: what is the point of this book? The point, it seems to me, is to broadly map a large and fragmented territory in a way that engages the interested general reader and stimulates further investigation. The editors also consciously decide to sweep away some of the theoretical questions which can bog down such enterprises. So they give us half a page rounding up different approaches and definitions of science fiction by the usual suspects but conclude:

Rather than endorse a particular point of view of SF, we have included figures that point to a number of these competing understandings of the genre. (p. xx)

This is welcome, as is the plurality of approaches to this plurality of figures. There are 36 contributors—the editors allow themselves multiple entries and Neil Easterbrook and Roger Luckhurst have a couple each—and they have all been given a free hand:

Some entries analyze key works, while others are more biographical than critical, placing the figure in his or her context or in relationship to a specific movement. (p. xxii)

The contributors are all academics (except Gwyneth Jones, herself an entry), Routledge is an academic publisher, and students are clearly the market for the book, but it is equally suitable for the average Strange Horizons reader, perhaps more so than the Routledge Companion (I equivocate because I have not yet read that volume, nor am I likely to until the substantially more affordable paperback edition is published in 2010).

I emphasise the positive aspects of such a format because, as with awards, discussion of what has been omitted from a list can dominate to the detriment of discussion of what has actually been included. In addition, the reason I want to sidestep the issue of wrongness is because such wrongness is universally shared. If I think the inclusion of Nigel Kneale is too parochial and the inclusion of Nalo Hopkinson too tokenistic then I will allow that this is only my own personal wrongness, and I imagine you will have little interest in that. That said, there are some peculiarities of the list that are worth mentioning.

Let's start with the most predictable target: Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007). Butler gives—as much as is possible in four pages, one of which is spent recapping fellow travellers like Derrida—a nice introduction to the man and his work but, as he says, Baudrillard is not a science fiction critic or even a theorist of SF but rather a "science-fictional theorist" (p. 25). This is a rather slippery thing to pin down and, though I found the entry useful, I did not come away convinced Baudrillard embodies this concept in the same way I did with Donna J. Haraway (1944–), a similar figure. Even Butler himself does not seem particularly convinced of the worthiness of his inclusion and, outside of the academic context, this is the inclusion of a figure from an otherwise unrepresented periphery at the expense of the core. But is it any use even within the academic context? Surely any student would be better served by a full introductory text on Baudrillard that could be applied more generally.

Likewise the most modern entry in the book, for China Mieville (1972–), preferences plurality over essence. The late William J. Burling writes a fine chapter (from—quite sensibly—a Marxist perspective) and Mieville is a gifted and undoubtedly influential writer, but the problem is suggested towards the end of the entry when Burling notes "an SF novel is rumoured to be forthcoming" (p. 160). It seems perverse to declare that a writer who has published nothing that could be unambiguously considered SF is one of the fifty key figures of the genre. Burling's limp justification is that New Weird mixes fantasy, horror and SF, which is fine as far as it goes but that isn't very far (Mieville himself provides the chapter on Weird Fiction in the Routledge Companion and presumably goes further).

It seems equally perverse to include someone who doesn't exist, but here is The Doctor (1963–), who Peter Wright describes as "the most prominent character in British SF, and a significant figure in popular culture" (p. 71). In a similar book for detective fiction (a genre which is more strongly mapped by its central characters) you would not include Sherlock Holmes, but rather Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This points to the problem with taking a key figures approach: by its nature it excludes more collaborative art forms, particularly film, television and comics. It is a difficulty that the editors acknowledge and are at pains to overcome (with a great deal of success), but this entry still seems a rather uncomfortable compromise. Still, we are to be grateful that Dolly the Sheep (1996–2003) did not make the final cut (she was considered).

Despite my scepticism about its inclusion, this is, in fact, an excellent chapter with Wright neatly detailing the way the various incarnations of The Doctor reflects British political anxieties (except, that is, for the "intellectually numbing, politically complicit, and culturally stagnant" (p. 74) Anglo-American film starring Paul McGann). It is only a shame that there is no space to dwell on the Whovian interregnum between 1989–2005 when sleeper cells kept the franchise alive.

Unfortunately lack of space is a recurring theme for Fifty Key Figures; the other side to accessibility is lack of depth. Take the entry on Iain M. Banks (1954–) by Andrew M. Butler, which includes the following three sentences:

With rare exceptions, such as Flash Gordon (Hodges, 1980), these revived space operas used nostalgia and pastiche to disguise essentially conservative ideologies. However, Banks, as a Scot, was writing in a (problematically) postimperial world and was well aware of the politics of sexism and racism. His writing still had literary aspirations in terms of narrative structure, characterization, and theme, as well as demonstrating a strong sense of irony. (p. 18)

The exception of Flash Gordon is fascinating but must remain completely ignored, orphaned by the need to focus solely on Banks. I found myself wishing for a full chapter on space opera, such as that provided by Andy Sawyer in the Routledge Companion. If the first sentence is tantalising then the latter two are remarkably compressed. In what way problematic? How does being a Scot open your eyes to the politics of sexism? When does a particular approach or, indeed, a basic skill become an aspiration? Again, there are whole chapters here. At its most extreme, this compression means that Sheryl Vint is only able to devote two sentences to Gwyneth Jones's (1952–) 25 young adult novels, published as Ann Halam.

This is, of course, part of the point of such a book—it opens up new avenues of exploration for the reader, it points the way for deeper delving—but it is still frustrating. Elsewhere such generalisations prove more troublesome. Butler notes the distinction between the two personas of Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks and that "the latter's work is purely SF" (p. 18) before going on to state that "Inversions (1998) may or may not be a Culture novel" (p. 19). I do not think, given knowledge of the Culture, that it is valid to read the novel as anything other than a continuation of that sequence. If, on the other hand, you do not read Inversions as a Culture novel (which is possible from the text alone) then it clearly is not SF. It is not that Butler is wrong, it is that he is forced into contortions. This tendency is most noticeable for those figures, such as Greg Egan (1961–), whose work requires the most explication.

As an aside, Banks is introduced as a "Scottish novelist and short story writer" which is a bit unnecessary given that he has only published half a dozen short pieces in his whole career. These one liners seem superfluous and lacking in consistency. Equally superfluous are the "see also" attempts at intertextualisation that close each piece. For example, the entry on Mieville ("British fiction author, literary critic, and political theorist") ends:

See also: J. G. Ballard, Iain M. Banks, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Nalo Hopkinson, Gwyneth Jones, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Mary Shelley, Olaf Stapledon, and H. G. Wells. (p. 161)

See also? Why? It is a fine list of writers but an opaque one. The connection between Mieville and, say, Stapledon is not immediately clear or relevant. The link is presumably political philosophy and social activism but there is nothing in the one entry that enriches understanding of the other. Given the lack of space to provide much context within the entries themselves it seems a mistake to signpost an illusory context by way of compensation through these endnotes, particularly when explicit links are flagged in bold within the entries. Context could perhaps have been better served by arranging Fifty Key Figures chronologically rather than alphabetically.

This is minor carping, though; questions of formatting can be filed as another manifestation of individual wrongness. The only substantive problem with the book, as I've stated, is a limitation by design. This leaves us will a collection of short essays which, by and large, do the most they can. Not all entries are great—Nicholas J. Cull, for example, is pedestrian and commonplace on Gerry Anderson—but none are outright bad and several are excellent. Luckhurst is especially surefooted at navigating the path between brevity and meaningful explication in his entries on J. G. Ballard and Greg Bear, the latter focusing on catastrophism in his fiction.

Is that enough? To paraphrase Jonathan McCalmont in the comments to the Strange Horizons review of the Routledge Companion, what are these entries beyond being merely interesting? Well, if the Routledge Companion is not intended as an introduction to the genre then this makes a very good one. When I was fourteen I received the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction for my birthday and read it cover to cover. It was certainly an education, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it and I wish someone had thrust this book into my hands as well. That was half a lifetime ago, but my understanding of the genre is still remarkably jagged, formed as much by chance encounters in secondhand bookshops as by diligent research. Fifty Key Figures smoothes this out. Of course, by its nature, it is somewhat jagged itself, fifty spikes jutting up from the vast plains of the genre. As I suggested earlier, however, these figures give a good impression of the general shape of the genre whilst drawing attention to areas which require further examination and avoiding the potentially unattainable comprehensiveness that a more conventional history of the genre demands of both author and reader.

This also brings us back to accessibility and, because of the nature of the book and the venue of this review, I feel I must close with the question of audience. I think any reader of Strange Horizons will find it a valuable addition to their library, I think (dare I say it) many fans would enjoy it too, and whilst it has been lying around flat several non-SF reading visitors have picked it up and commented with surprised approval on its readability. This may pose a concern for the more academically minded reader and, as I have said, there has been a sacrifice of depth. In my opinion, this trade-off was well worth it and led to the creation of a wonderfully versatile book.

Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice.



Martin Petto has also reviewed for Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice, and generally goes about his business.
One comment on “Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sherryl Vint”
Nick Hubble

I enjoyed this review of a book I haven't read but feel I know vaguely through its evil twin. I think the point about how these types of books play at different ages is key. The book that inspired me to literary criticism ot to thinking about literature as literature was a Pears Cyclopedia - I remember reading and re-reading the entry on Angus Wilson (although of course I never read any of his books until many years later). Maybe that is just me being marginally autistic - but I guess the point is that even the most unpromising of these types of list books can be a godsend to certain people at the right time. And this sounds more than unpromising ....

 

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