The editors of The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction are to be highly commended for assembling a superb team of contributors and producing a volume that is both an outstanding work of reference in its own right and a comprehensive guide to science fiction and the scholarship surrounding it. This is a book which will last, informing and challenging scholars at all levels for many years to come. Its success will not be measured simply in sales or the number of subsequent editions, but in the work it will inspire as SF continues to grow as an academic field.
The Routledge Companion is divided into four parts: "History," "Theory," "Issues and Challenges," and "Subgenres." While the "History" is impressive, and will be returned to later in this review, it is the "Theory" which anchors the book within academic discourse. I am aware that this claim is open to misinterpretation. For example, it might be taken in some quarters as meaning that the theory section first alienates lay readers through abstract attempts to make it look as though SF writers were actually motivated by abstruse theoretical concerns; then further compounds the alienation by deterministically reading these external concerns into the story; before finally excluding non-academic readers completely through the use of impenetrable professional jargon. However, nothing could be further from the case. Not only are these pitfalls avoided, but the relevance of theory to SF and, crucially, SF to theory is so clearly established that it will be impossible for any general challenge to ever be taken seriously again (although specific cases will remain open to debate, as we shall see).
Presumably the editorial briefs for contributions to the theory section stressed the need to demonstrate such direct and mutual relevance; certainly all of the chapters could conclude on a similar note (with relevant substitutions) to William J. Burling's account of "Marxism": "Even this short and admittedly selective survey demonstrates the essential interconnection between sf's representations of the production and consumption of technology and the resulting implications as theorized by Marx and later Left thinkers" (p. 245). Now, it might be argued that Marxism forms a special case amongst theoretical perspectives because virtually all SF entails the production and consumption of technology in some form. However, Burling is going further than this to argue that much SF is implicitly or explicitly Marxist or socialist in its implications. To which end, he convincingly discusses work by Kim Stanley Robinson, Iain M. Banks, Ken MacLeod, China Miéville, Tricia Sullivan, and Gwyneth Jones in his closing paragraphs alone. In particular, it is undeniable that "British sf, ever since the days of Wells," as Paul Kincaid notes in his earlier contribution on "Fiction since 1992," "has commonly expressed a left-leaning perspective" (p. 179). However, another way of expressing this persistent tendency of almost all SF can be found in De Witt Kilgore's identification of "spaceflight as the key to fantasies about changing the social and political realities of human society" (p. 189), which is described by Isiah Lavender III in his account of "Critical Race Theory." Lavender, and Kilgore, are focusing on "examples of an idealized human future where race can be imagined positively or at least differently" (p. 189), but the same fundamental impulse underlies SF's attraction and importance to all theories of emancipation. As Veronica Hollinger suggests in "Posthumanism and Cyborg Theory": "one history of sf is the story of the end of 'Man' as the unique human(ist) subject" (170). In "Queer Theory," Wendy Gay Pearson asks: "If sexual difference is the question for our times, it is therefore a question for sf, but one might also ask whether it is a question of sf. Is the meaning and 'identity' of sf constituted by its various crossings over this particular question?" (p. 300). After detailed analysis of Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Candas Jane Dorsey's A Paradigm of Earth (2001), and Joy Parks's "Instinct" (2006), the question is emphatically answered by her closing call: "bring on the lesbian, gay, and bisexual vampires, and the queer blue aliens" (p. 307).
Reading these sections, it quickly becomes apparent that not only is theory allowing the full implications of SF to come out, but also that SF is a much more complementary partner for theory than mainstream literature: SF texts are already as weird and abnormal as anything that can be read into them. In her chapter on "Cultural History," Lisa Yaszek provides a useful summary of the relationships between different generations of SF scholars and literary and critical theory, noting how both disciplines are opposed to "the three major distinctions informing traditional liberal arts scholarship: learned versus popular texts, production versus consumption, and reality versus fiction" (p. 199). Not only is SF amenable to the anti-traditional stance of cultural history, but it is a form of cultural history itself: "pertain[ing] to everything from the development of nuclear weapons and kitchen technologies to ongoing debates over literary aesthetics and the history of sf history itself" (p. 199). Therefore, it can be seen that The Routledge Companion is as much subjecting theory to SF as SF to theory. For example, Michelle Reid explains that her chapter on "Postcolonialism" shows "how postcolonialism enables a nuanced examination of sf's complicity in and criticism of colonial discourses, and how sf provides ways of imagining futures that counter the argument that postcolonialism looks backward to the imperial centre and colonial past" (257). Fruitful work has been done in this 140 page section and it is incumbent on scholars of both SF and literary/critical theory to build on it in the coming years.
Of course, there are challenges to be overcome, and some of these are to be found in the cleverly named Part III, "Issues and Challenges." It is ironic, but not perhaps surprising to those possessing familiarity with how these discourses tend to function at an institutional level, that the entry in The Routledge Companion which is least open to SF is the discussion of "Ethics and Alterity" by Neil Easterbrook:
Like most works of literature, sf typically presents pithy moral apothegms rather than complex ethical dynamics. Most "anti-science" sf—Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birthmark" (1843), E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" (1909), Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains" (1950), James Tiptree Jr.'s "Houston Houston Do You Read" (1976), Marge Piercy's He, She and It (1991), Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003)—adopts this form. Such cautionary morality tales possess the subtlety of sledgehammers. (p. 386)
One of the conceits of theory is that it has eliminated the idea that there is such a thing as a correct reading of a literary text, but that doesn't mean that there are no such things as misreadings; and this is an example of blatant misreading. None of the texts listed above do as much "violence to others" (p. 385) as this critical interpretation. Leaving aside the question of subtlety, let us examine the argument with respect to the four female authors. While it is probably possible to construct a convincing anti-science reading of both Frankenstein and Oryx and Crake, it also needs to be acknowledged in the case of the latter, and arguably of the former, that the anti-science content follows as a secondary consequence of an overriding anti-patriarchal stance. However, despite equal, if not stronger, anti-patriarchal stances, neither the Tiptree nor the Piercy text can even plausibly be construed as anti-science. As if aware of the way that his argument looks, Easterbrook continues the paragraph:
But sf can also confront audiences with more difficult, ambiguous conclusions, as with Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975): "Now the moral of this story is that all images, ideals, pictures, and fanciful representations tend to vanish sooner or later unless they have the great good luck to be exuded from within, like bodily secretions or the bloom on a grape" ([New York: Bantam]: 154). Such notions need to be parsed, argued about, and discussed: confronted more than recited, interrogated more than memorized (p. 386).
This sounds as though it is taking Russ seriously but is actually deeply problematic. Russ's "moral" is not that of The Female Man as a whole but of Janet's story of the old Whileawayan philosopher, who tells her disciples to "exercise [their] projective imaginations on people who can't fight back" (Russ, 154). In other words, it is a Whileawayan folk warning against philosophical posturing. No wonder Easterbrook thinks it should be deconstructed out of existence: in this context, "confront" and "interrogate" connote neuter. The reader interested in a genuinely radical account of the ethics and alterity of "Feminist sf" would be much better served by the entry of that name by Gwyneth Jones, which can be found in the "Subgenres" section of The Routledge Companion. In her discussion, which includes a beautifully weighted and economical analysis of the consequences of the Tiptree revelation (pp. 486-7), Jones does not historicise the "'feminist decade' of the 1970s" (p. 488) but shows how its material after effects continue to surround us and, in so doing, makes feminist SF into a real challenge: something that confronts and interrogates us, "women, men and shades between" (p. 487, 488).
Returning to "Issues and Challenges," we can see that the particular challenge in the case of well-established methodologies such as ethics and alterity, is to go beyond the existing "synergies" (p. xxi), as the editors diplomatically phrase it, and develop the theoretical approach to a point where it would become central to the study of SF. This problem is foregrounded by Joe Sutliff Sanders's discussion of "Young Adult sf," which tries to map out the turf analytically: "In addition to satisfying whatever criteria are necessary for the text to be called 'sf,' [YASF] must also address the real needs and experiences of adolescent and teen readers" (p. 443). The fact that the phrase "address the real needs and experiences of" is employed instead of the more intuitively sufficient "be directed at" is telling; the "real" here masks an amazingly didactic and proscriptive agenda. Anything is allowed we are told, "as long as the literature under consideration is relevant to young readers' real experiences" (p. 444). This is fair enough in the case where a book which would be clichéd from a strictly SF perspective is praised in a YASF context as a good read. It is more problematic when we start getting on to the "problems for new scholars in the field" (p. 447); in other words, how this discipline is going to be policed: "Children's literature scholarship does regularly use the word 'inappropriate' to condemn a book, but only if it uses formatting, narrative strategies, or subtleties that do not match up with the abilities of readers of the age for which the book is intended" (p. 447). Apparently, the "apprentice reader" and what they "can understand, what they often prefer and what their cognitive needs and inabilities are" (p. 447), are known, scientifically proven factors beyond challenge. One size fits all! Sanders should at least be praised for following his argument through to its logical end point. Writing about a New York Review of Science Fiction article, in which Farah Mendlesohn complains about the tendency of YASF to turn inward and so close down the universe for children, he concludes: "Indeed, the mission of YASF might be so different from the mission of sf that there is no reconciling the two" (p. 448). The real challenge here is for SF scholars to abandon the limiting strictures of the "children's literature perspective" and develop a new theoretical approach for YASF. Sanders does, however, provide the beginnings of an interesting discussion of Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton (pp. 444-5) and it would perhaps have been more fruitful if YASF had been included as an entry in the "Subgenres."
But if some of the challenges are negative, others, such as Joan Gordon's "Animal Studies" and Roger Luckhurst's "Pseudoscience" are overwhelmingly positive, provocative calls for work in the field that deserve to be taken up and, as the editors hope, become worthy of moving from this third section to the second in the inevitable future editions of The Routledge Companion. In particular, Istvan Csicery-Ronay Jr.'s "Empire" is a tour de force, insisting on SF's centrality to the social and cultural experience of the twentieth century:
Sf has shaped the contours of a new social-political imaginary tied not to personal rulers, nations and territories, but to the utopian vision of the consolidation of existence into one world, one polity, and one mode of awareness, through the expansion of technological rationalization: a technoscientific empire. (p. 362)
We live in this world that "feels like nature"—a world of the entertainment industry, advertising, propaganda, and "the daily transformations of everyday experience that occur when populations are compelled to depend on constantly and rapidly 'upgraded' machines and communication networks simple to survive" (p. 371)—and SF is the cultural medium which makes this "empire" habitable by the imagination. That is really the point of SF in academic terms: not only has it become increasingly acknowledged to be, as Luckhurst notes, "a literature of modernity" (p. 403), but also it is becoming increasingly clear that it is the literature of postmodernity or globalising hypermodernity, as Csicery-Ronay Jr. describes it. This is the situation that has triggered the current growth in the field in British academia and it is one that impacts on a traditional field of SF scholarship: the history of the genre itself.
The influence of this emergent context can be seen in the History section of The Routledge Companion, which is, in effect, introduced by Adam Roberts's "The Copernican Revolution." Roberts observes that his chapter "is a small example of 'long history' sf," which takes SF as "a cultural mode of relative antiquity," and contrasts this approach with "short history" models viewing SF as a nineteenth or early twentieth-century development (p. 3). As he quite rightly points out, the trouble with the "short history" model is that it has difficulty accounting for all the older work including recognisable SF features. In chapter 2, "Nineteenth-Century sf," Arthur B. Evans notes that while some SF historians see Frankenstein as the ur-text for the entire genre, others—and here he cites Luckhurst's Science Fiction—insist that "sf is a literature of technologically saturated societies" and a "genre that can therefore emerge only relatively late in modernity . . . " (p. 14). Rather than take sides in this debate, he goes on to establish the importance of H.G. Wells within this divide: "Wells's creative genius was to breathe new life into the many sf topoi and tropes that he inherited from the sf tradition that preceded him, pushing them toward new cognitive and aesthetic frontiers" (p. 21). John Rieder's "Fiction, 1895-1926" adds another layer to the emerging picture, by starting from what we might call the Wellsian moment and holding it up:
against the backdrop of the generic turmoil associated with the growth and increased diversity of reading audiences and with the marketing practices of what would soon come to be called mass culture. Sf attains the status of a recognisable genre within this mass-cultural transformation of the entire system of literary genres. (p. 29)
Rieder goes on to argue that this heterogeneous, mass-cultural context is far more typical for a genre than the more homogeneous conditions that underlay the "Golden Age" and was indeed reflected by Hugo Gernsback in his choice of stories for the first issue of Amazing Stories. Therefore, when the first three chapters of The Routledge Companion are considered together, we see a complex account of prehistory, Wellsian moment, and posthistory which collectively describes a process analogous to that outlined by Georg Lukács in The Historical Novel (1937): the development of a genre distinguished from what had preceded it by the conscious employment of a technoscientific sense which, despite fluctuations in its capacity to register its own content and the consequent processes of renewal, remains the most potent form of cultural intervention in the mass societies we inhabit.
As a result of its success in opening up the field in the manner described above, I am convinced that The Routledge Companion will prove indispensable, and worthy of shelving alongside John Clute and Peter Nicholls's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993). With three of the four editors and many contributors working in the UK university system, it is also a landmark for the academic study of science fiction in Britain, which has lagged behind North America in this respect. In recent years, however, the number of British SF university courses has grown, the number of PhD applications in the field has increased significantly, and there are now academics holding SF-titled positions. Following recent key British academic books such as Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn's Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003), Adam Roberts's The History of Science Fiction (2005), and Roger Luckhurst's Science Fiction (2005)—a work that has quickly gained canonical status to judge from the number of citations here—the appearance of a work of the scope of The Routledge Companion represents confirmation that SF has incontrovertibly established itself within the walls of UK universities. The doors are now open: we can expect more publications, more courses, more conferences, and more full-time SF academics over the coming years.
Nick Hubble lives in Brighton and lectures in English at Brunel University.
You must log in to post a comment.