In 1999, Michael Levenson had this to say on the reputation of modernism: "Our contemporary imperative to declare a new period and to declare ourselves citizens of a liberated postmodernism has badly distorted and sadly simplified the moment it means to surpass." Since then, this tendency has been countervailed by attempts to trace the legacy of modernism for the present: for example, the journal Textual Practice and King's College London solicit entries for their "creative responses to modernism" prize, which contemporary novelists such as Will Self and Rachel Cusk have publicized by giving talks about their own engagements with modernism. Oversimplifications of modernism have also been counteracted by numerous studies that seek to complicate and expand our ideas about what that term entails, including Bad Modernism, the 2006 collection edited by Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (which declares that "Modernism is hot again" and questions how modernist works can be both canonical and subversive) and Kristin Bluemel's 2009 edited collection Intermodernism (which is committed to exploring working-class cultures, political radicalism, and non-canonical, even mass genres).
Paul March-Russell's incisive and readable, if rather compressed, Modernism and Science Fiction (2015) challenges narrow conceptions of the period in both of these ways. He not only suggests the impact of modernism on postwar science fiction, but also opens up the term itself. Like the "Modernism and . . . " series it belongs to, which includes titles such as Modernism and Totalitarianism by Richard Shorten and Modernism and the Occult by John Bramble, the book broadens ideas of modernist thinking by exploring its entanglement with an area it is not generally associated with. Modernism is often linked with high art and SF with pulp fiction, but March-Russell complicates this binary throughout the book. He also positions SF interestingly in relationship to Roger Griffin's formulation of modernism, which defines it very broadly beyond aesthetic considerations as any cultural or social attempt to achieve a sense of transcendent meaning despite the loss of a value system in a time of secular modernity. March-Russell argues that SF often represents this search for purpose in ironic ways, exhibiting both desires of transcendence through technological mastery and doubt about such Gnostic fantasies—often in the form of a fear that technology could supplant humanity. March-Russell begins by tracing the poles of transcendence and immanence in both late Victorian science and in SF's predecessor, scientific romance, arguing that both are guided by a modernist desire for cultural regeneration and self-transcendence. While "science" once denoted any systematic form of knowledge, including theology, it acquired its narrower, secularized meaning in the 1870s. Scientific romances like those of H.G Wells were lauded as a means of popularizing science and secularizing society and as antidotes, with their clear, vigorous prose, to the degenerate decadence of fin-de-siècle art. March-Russell also argues that both scientific romances and avant-garde works invested new technologies with erotic appeal and depicted both celebratory and queasy meshings of human and machine: often (rather misogynistically) woman and machine. While March-Russell is to be commended for bringing in French authors such as the intriguingly named Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, whose Tomorrow's Eve (1886) features a female android, and Raymond Roussel, whose female characters have metal lungs and hair that produces music via electrical sparks, some more context on French SF and its seeming obsession with mechanical women as well as some comparison with Anglophone literature—which is his focus—would have been welcome.
In his next chapter, "Utopia in the Time of Apocalypse," March-Russell turns from discourses of self-transcendence to fantasies of transcendence on a political and/or social scale. David Trotter writes that "apocalypse was one of the things modernist writers imagined most fondly. They saw themselves as inhabitants of a social and cultural system which had stagnated to the point where it was no longer susceptible to reform, but could only be renewed through total collapse or violent overthrow." SF, argues March-Russell, while sharing this desire for renewal, also challenges revolutionary enthusiasm by suggesting that such aims may lead to dystopia. Wells's early work, he points out, "veers between the exhilaration of apocalypse and the calm certainties of utopia." In A Modern Utopia (1905), he suggests that society would best be governed by a scientific elite, which may also be the suggestion of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932); March-Russell wisely sides with those who consider the novel ambiguous.
The next chapter, which focuses on on pulp modernism, hangs together slightly less well than other chapters, partly because it sometimes jumps from the general to the very specific without enough intervening explanation. For example, March-Russell opens with an intriguing point about the Protestant work ethic as a way of countering disenchantment in both modernism and in pulp SF, but then gets too specific too quickly by focusing on the heroic figure of the engineer, often modeled in the myth of Thomas Edison. He is more successful when he delves into comparative-literature territory, suggesting, for example, that while for Soviet writers Mars signified a break with the past, for writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs journeys to the red planet allowed white Americans to reassert their supposed racial superiority. For another, he interestingly characterizes Arthur C. Clarke's work as a fusion of the American pulp tradition with British scientific romance.
In his final chapter, March-Russell successfully demonstrates that the New Wave SF "movement," often associated with the journal New Worlds, was more heterogeneous than generally acknowledged. Anxiety about American influence in the postwar period drove writers such as Brian Aldiss and Christopher Priest to emphasise a British tradition of SF in the spirit of Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells, while others such as J.G. Ballard rejected Wells and were more open to American models. New Wave writers were both eclectic and collaboration-minded: they resisted the status quo and played up to SF fans. The rise of computers occasioned both hope about warding off thermonuclear disaster and fears about the loss of individuality in an age of universal adaptation to the machine. This chapter traces the influence on the New Wave both of earlier avant-garde artists such as the technophilic Blaise Cendrars (whose 1926 novel Moravagine, about a Jack the Ripper killer-turned-SF-writer, prefigures the nexus of sex, death, and technology later to be found in writers like Ballard) and of other countercultural forces such as the International Group of artists, including Edward Paolozzi. March-Russell is particularly good on genre-spanning techniques, such as how Susan Sontag's aesthetics of silence could be applied to Aldiss in his information-overload novels and to William Burroughs's use of feedback loops. He concludes by arguing that despite the postmodernism of cyberpunk, modernism continues to influence more recent SF, including the works of Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson, and China Miéville.
It is a shame March-Russell did not have more space to elaborate on his arguments, which sometimes seem too compressed. He makes some excellent points about gender politics in SF, arguing for example that while Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1921)—like many works he discusses—portrays female sexuality as disruptive, misogyny is part of the indoctrination that characters must shake off. More room, however, might have enabled him to discuss the work of female SF writers in greater depth. March-Russell writes that John W. Campbell, a pulp writer and editor of the influential magazine Astounding Science Fiction from 1937 until his death in 1971, analogized SF fans to the misunderstood yet superior (male) heroes of many stories; he adds that C.L. Moore offered a much more ambiguous account of superpower in her story "Of No Woman Born" (1944) but does not offer even a sentence explaining how. He compares Charlotte Haldane's Man's World (1926), set in a future society ruled by male scientists in which eugenically fit women must either become mothers or be sterilized, with Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night (1937), set 700 years into a Nazi-controlled future in which women are kept in cages and used for breeding; while he is right to praise Burdekin's book for disrupting the gender essentialism of the former, he misses how Haldane's novel interestingly positions pregnancy as protest or its influence on Brave New World.
More importantly, instead of—or in addition to—being discussed under headers such as "feminist dystopias," works by women should be mainstreamed, as they have a lot to say about all manner of issues. Anti-eugenic fictions such as Naomi Mitchison's 1913 play Saunes Bairos—written when she was 15 and featuring a teenage Aldous Huxley as an enforcer of the status quo—and Rose Macaulay's novel What Not (1919) powerfully criticize eugenics as symptomatic of a modern obsession with strict social organization and rule by scientists. Futhermore, discussing works by women under "feminist" headers rules out anti-feminist dystopias by women, such as Bridget Chetwynd's Future Imperfect (1946), in which women take over, deprive men of the vote, and destroy society by causing infertility and the failure of artificial-womb technology. Work by women writers of SF should be read more broadly for its insights in many areas, not just—or even primarily—for those about gender. All in all, however, Modernism and Science Fiction is an excellent read that prods us to rethink the relationship of the two and suggests many avenues for future study.
Fran Bigman is currently a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in Medical Humanities at the University of Leeds. In 2014, she received a PhD in English from the University of Cambridge for a dissertation on abortion in British literature and film, a topic she has written about for The Conversation and discussed on BBC Women’s Hour.
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