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Palgrave History of SF cover

Here is the news: you are not special. Film at eleven.

If there is any debate in the whole of literary criticism which can match the "which book constitutes the first novel?" controversy blow-for-blow in terms of its circular tedium and irresolvable pointlessness, it is "what is science fiction and when did it start?" The truth is that, because both of these questions contain the very terms they seek to define, they are essentially impossible to answer satisfactorily. The inquiry begins at a contested starting point, and therefore cannot hope to proceed with the full support of all its readers.

When it comes to the novel, it may be easier to speak of the development of prose narrative. A sly sidestep, perhaps, but for most purposes (i.e. those not involving circular tedium and irresolvable pointlessness) one which at least allows potential for dialogue. In The Palgrave History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts similarly sidesteps the genre's central definitional question, and chooses to begin his review of the mode, and his search for its exemplars, at more or less the birth of literature. I have a certain sympathy for both these sleights of hand: for a literature based on leaps of unpredictable imagination, the enthusiasm for definition and delineation displayed by SF's critical community has always struck me as self-defeating, and Roberts's forgivingly loose treatment of the question (a review of previous definitions, a synthesising theory that SF is simply stories about the space, clash, and negotiation between what the Greeks called episteme [loosely, "theoretical knowledge"] and technê [even more loosely, "practical knowledge"]) is satisfyingly airy. In addition, I have always felt misled by arguments that science fiction stretches back only to Gernsback or Wells or even Shelley, as if the modern instances of science fiction—that is, science fiction with science we do not deride as naïve—are the only instances of this stripe of fantastical fiction to which SF should claim relation.

Roberts should, therefore, be commended for attempting to re-frame critical discourse on these two issues. Traditionally, science fiction histories have virtually revolved around questions of definition: most famously, perhaps, Brian Aldiss defined the mode in the precise way necessary to ensure that his favoured candidate for the position of SF's ur-text, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, won exactly that place in the pantheon outlined in his Trillion (née Billion) Year Spree. As argued above, such manoeuvres should be distrusted: stifling definitions deny SF its principle strength—its elasticity—and embracing the idea that SF is in truth legion, that it will be and always has been, provides the kind of critical narrative which can free the critic to examine this most imaginatively daring of literatures in a less hamstrung fashion.

And all-embracing the Palgrave History certainly is. Not content merely to stretch its attention from Ancient Greece to contemporary India, it also does that which so many reviews of SF fail to do—include media other than books. There is a kind of wounded denial at work within the SF critical field which seeks to airbrush from the genre and the mode its most popular manifestations: movies, TV series, comic books, even pop music. Roberts refuses to indulge in this snobbery, even going so far as to make an impassioned and logical defence of screen SF, arguing that it is in fact vital and nourishing to the wider genre, and that when judged on its own terms (the visual rather than the theoretical) it should be rescued from the disparagement and prudish disdain with which the "literary" SF community so often view it. In addition, an illuminating (if hardly revolutionary) reading of comic books, particularly the superhero variety, and a fascinating and unbending analysis of what is often termed "fandom," contrive to produce a wide-ranging work with the admirable aim of considering science fiction as an expansive form with a long history and deep roots widely spread. Again, Roberts should be applauded for his lack of cant.

Because, in writing such a book, he is certainly leaving himself open to attack. The first line of this review is deliberately flip, but, quite aside from the fact that "literary criticism" is in and of itself often derided by SF "fans," there is a sense in which The Palgrave History of Science Fiction tramples all over the genre's favoured shibboleths: SF is not new or particularly twentieth-century in origin; it is not a unique type of fiction which spectacularly and uniquely addresses the modern human condition; fandom is as much a curse to the genre as it is a boon; what has been ludicrously termed "media" SF, as if paper is in some way something more than mere medium, is fundamental to any true understanding and examination of the genre; the short story is a drop in the science fictional ocean, not its very ebb and flow. These things are often said outside of the genre, but too often rebound off the ghetto walls, or are thrown back like live grenades by the brave policemen of the battlements. It is not necessarily the case that all of these assertions are 100% true; rather, it is the case that nor is the conventional wisdom. Roberts asks questions of the genre—particularly the genre, as distinct from the mode—whilst he tells us its history. His inquiry is a probing one, a sceptical ramble across open country rather than mere cartographical exercise.

The book is laudable in both aim and approach, then. It is a refreshingly irreverent attempt to look at science fiction without blinkers. Of course the book has an agenda and a thesis, but the openness with which Roberts expresses them, and the degree to which both embrace multiplicity, engenders confidence rather than scepticism. It is a pity, then, that at the level of its detail The Palgrave History of Science Fiction begins to lose that confidence, if not the reader's goodwill.

It's possible to pick holes. For instance, "the Ancient Greek novel" is not a particularly useful phrase, and not widely used, but it appears in the first few lines of Roberts's preface, and is repeated throughout the study. In addition, his writings on particularly Renaissance literature but also eighteenth-century fiction are less than assured, sometimes vague and often unconvincing (though when discussing nineteenth-century literature, in which he holds a professorial chair, he is a confident and knowledgeable guide). But it is possible to split hairs too readily—the book covers a huge breadth of time and texts, and some inexact sentences can be forgiven, even if it is difficult to pass by the attribution of Wuthering Heights to Charlotte Brontë or the decline in the book's potency and argument just as it reaches the date at which Roberts's science fiction truly begins (1600, with Kepler's Somnium). Nits can always be picked, but this review began by insisting that this is a pastime best left to silverbacks. What must instead be said, then, is that the conclusions Roberts reaches, and the arguments he uses to reach them, too often fail to convince.

The first, that science fiction is "Protestant" whilst fantasy is "Catholic"—that is, one is rationalist, north-eastern European in origin and outlook, and strives for personal relationships with knowledge and the world, whilst the other is superstitious, derogates authority to unseen higher powers, and involves worlds more hierarchical and ordered—is one which even Roberts seems to lose faith in. He makes the argument fairly strongly in his preface, but proceeds to hedge his bets for the rest of the book's closely-printed 392 pages. He didn't really mean "Protestant" and "Catholic"; the division is of course not perfect; there is "Catholic" SF and "Protestant" fantasy, too. The back-pedaling is furious.

The reason Roberts ties himself in such knots is that he needs to account for what he perceives to be the total lack of science fictional writing between Lucian of Samosata and Kepler. His scapegoat becomes Roman Catholicism, making the Reformation the spectacular return of free thought and love of seeking knowledge for its own sake. Anyone familiar with the Renaissance and Reformation periods will immediately identify how limited an analysis this is, but it is necessitated by Roberts's attachment to the term "science fiction." For all the book's desire to wrest control of SF's history from the twentieth-century exceptionalists, it still occasionally misses the point that, if "science fiction" is merely a subset of fantastical fiction (as fantasy itself is), then individual works must be seen in their contemporary contexts. In this light, "science fiction"'s' progression into its modern form is less fitful, and its explication requires no grand theory of epistemological conflict.

If Roberts thus falls prey to the trap of stretching SF's boundaries whilst remaining if not married to then at least co-habiting with its current form, it may explain his History's greatest failure. It is not that the Palgrave History argues that science fiction started before Christ—certainly, Roberts is as confident as anyone that what we today recognize as SF is a far more modern beast, probably arising out of the curious alchemy between its previous forms and the Gothic, and appearing fully-formed for the first time in Wells. But what Roberts does try to do is identify a tradition of science fictional writing—some genealogical sense that SF has been being written for centuries in various ways. This is undoubtedly true, but Roberts struggles to show it. What he instead gives us is, in turn, a variety of types of story with science fictional elements. That is, he gives us utopian fiction (uf), moon fiction (mf), invasion fiction (if), last man fiction (lmf), and any other number of different subsets of fantastical fiction which he fails to prove had any influence on each other. There can be no "science fictional" tradition unless Kepler was aware of and building upon the work of Lucian, for instance, and Roberts does not convince that, in writing The Battle of Dorking, Chesney was conscious of or interested in the interplanetary fiction of Trueman's The History of a Voyage to the Moon.

What is occurring here is the unearthing of the revelation that today's science fiction is yet another instance of, another incarnation of, and another community devoted to, a type of storytelling which has been written for centuries. The Palgrave History manfully handles this discovery whilst attempting to place it into the context of modern science fiction, but this is a teleological effort: if we start at Ancient Greece, we must do so without the baggage of modern science fiction. The latter develops organically from the former; if we attempt to view the past from the vantage point of the present and seek to make sense of it in that fashion, we are likely to require a thesis which will not convince.

The Palgrave History of Science Fiction, then, sets out along the right road, but doesn't have the right fuel mix to get there. It makes mistakes, chooses long ways round, and is sometimes just plain wrong. It is the sort of book that needs to be checked when it says something, just in case. But it asks crucial questions, and seeks to shake off all the baggage of science fictional critical discourse—it seeks to blaze a trail. Roberts is too often idiosyncratic in his theses and even sometimes sloppy in his research, but if he has failed to find the North West Passage, and wound up getting lost somewhere in the Dakotas, he's at least set out with the right equipment, and he deserves to be read.

Special? Maybe.

Dan Hartland is a British writer of various words, of which some are occasionally about science fiction. He retains a perspective decidedly outside of the genre, one which could conveniently be described as well-wishing frustration. He awaits the day he can do this for a living and copy-write for fun.



Dan Hartland's reviews have appeared for some years at Strange Horizons, as well as in publications such as Vector, Foundation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He blogs intermittently at thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.
Current Issue
29 Nov 2021

It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that our donor's choice special issue for 2021 is titled—simply—Friendship.
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29 Sep 2021
Opening to fiction submissions for the month of November!
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