As with all history, our understanding of the science fiction genre shifts over time. This happens both for individuals and for the field as a whole. For some, the standard history is clear: Verne (or Shelley), Wells, Asimov/Heinlein/Clarke, and on into the New Wave and beyond. That history has gotten wonderfully complicated thanks to recent scholarship. For instance, the role of women in the early days of SF magazines has become much better known thanks to Justine Larbalesteir. More recently, Ytasha Womack's Afrofuturism highlighted science fiction's relationship with African and African American artistic endeavors across literature, music, and film. Vintage Visions, edited by Arthur B. Evans, is a scholarly entry that helps expand our understanding of the field. As Evans succinctly states in his preface:
Although its origins and evolution continue to be the subject of lively debate among scholars, science fiction emerged as a genre in the imaginary voyages, utopias, and futuristic fiction of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. During the nineteenth century, it popularized its narrative recipe and ideological worldview in the gothic fiction of Mary Shelley, the extraordinary voyages of Jules Verne, and the scientific romances of H. G. Wells. And it eventually adopted its generic name and social identity in the American pulp-fiction magazines of the 1920s and 1930s.” (p. vii)
I'm especially happy to report that Vintage Visions helps illuminate some Latin American contributions to 19th century science fiction, although I would argue that it has some disappointing gaps as well.
Vintage Visions technically isn't offering anything new. It is a collection of essays from the pages of the academic journal Science Fiction Studies from the years 1976 to 2010. These sixteen pieces were chosen as ones that covered parts of the history of the field before the Golden Age began (using that term to mean when John W. Campbell started editing Astounding a little before 1940) in especially interesting and well-written ways. Having collections like this is important. When people start researching a particular field, it can be hard to look through the backlog of journals such as SFS, Foundation, JFA, and others—if they're even available. It is much easier to find a book like this in the library, bookstore, or through interlibrary loan. In my years writing seriously about SF, I've found books such as the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (ed. James and Mendlesohn) to be tremendously valuable in providing me with an outline of the field that I can then fill in over time from other sources. Each book, from the very broad (David Seed's A Companion to Science Fiction) to the very specific (Larbalestier's Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction) adds to our understanding. So what does Vintage Visions add?
The chapters are arranged chronologically by subject, starting with a look at the fantastic voyages imagined by the historical Cyrano de Bergerac. Sylvie Romanowski's essay is a very clear explanation of how these two stories, L'Autre Monde ou Les Estats et Empires de la Lune (The Other World, or, the States and Empires of the Moon) and Les Estats et Empires du Soleil (The States and Empires of the Sun) fit into a context of competing and converging philosophical schools of thought in the 17th century. de Bergerac was clearly using SF as a way of writing satire about matters both political and philosophical, and it is interesting to see what "science fiction" looked like before what we think of as "science" was defined in the way we understand it today. This essay is an excellent choice to lead the volume not only because of its chronologically earliest subject matter, but also in the way that Romanowski uses a variety of analytical techniques, including close reading, historical, and philosophical approaches, to yield a multidimensional analysis of the texts at hand. And while the writing is challenging, assuming a solid scholarly audience (appropriate to the readership of SFS), it is always clear and readable.
The theme of early science fiction as a mode of satirical literature is quite prevalent in these essays. Paul K. Alkon brings to our attention a work both obscure (most copies of it having been destroyed by the author) and not particularly good, Samuel Madden's Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, written in 1733. Alkon himself refers to it as failed satire. However he argues that in this little known work we find one of the first instances where utopian/satirical literature shifts in time rather than in space (looking to the future instead of to a faraway land or island), and that that represents a fundamental shift in the conception of where literature can go, one that becomes foundational to what science fiction will later become. As Alkon points out: "Pope, Swift, and Gay parodied such familiar forms as epic, critical treatise, travel narrative, astrological projection, and opera. Madden chose history, perhaps the only major genre not yet turned upside down for comic purposes, and created another mock genre: the future history" (p. 35). Although the work can't have been particularly influential, as copies of it were so scarce, it is an interesting milestone in the evolutionary journey of this form of literature. The next chapter deals with "German Theories of Science Fiction" (by William B. Fischer), covering the writing of German authors Jean Paul and Kurd Lasswitz in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This helps maintain a perspective outside of English language writing and expands on the Samuel Madden essay's notion of time as an explorable realm along with space.
After these less well-known subjects, we move to an essay on Frankenstein, and I do not envy the editor’s task in picking just one article out of the dozens that have been published on this key text. The choice of Josh Bernatchez's "Monstrosity, Suffering, Subjectivity, and Sympathetic Community in Frankenstein and 'The Structure of Torture'" is a bold one. Bernatchez reads Frankenstein in conjunction with Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain (1985) "in which Scarry argues that an individual's perceptual world can be recoded by pain, which annihilates subjective identity by its systematic interruption and reversal of efforts of self-extension—that is, the individual's attempts at connection with others" (p. 66-7). This is a much different approach to the Frankenstein story than the close readings, feminist readings, or historical perspectives that can be found in other volumes of scholarship. I can't say that I left the chapter entirely convinced of the applicability of "The Structure of Torture" to Frankenstein, since much rests on the equation of torture of the body with monstrous social relationships, and expanding the limited space of the torture chamber in Scarry's work to the broader social world of Shelley's. I suspect that some of Bernatchez's arguments would be clearer if I were familiar with both source texts instead of just Frankenstein.
It's a bit of a shame that this particularly thought-provoking piece is followed by one of the shorter and weaker chapters, Evans's own essay on Jules Verne. In it he makes an argument that Verne was doing something different than science fiction, but undercuts it in his afterword by stating: "[S]ince its publication in 1988, my opinions on Verne's place within the genre of sf have shifted . . . my personal definition of sf has evolved . . . Accordingly I no longer view Verne as representing a separate genre called 'scientific fiction'; instead, I now see him as exemplifying one important variant of science fiction, 'hard sf'"(p. 95). I believe that Evans has produced much stronger scholarship on proto-SF in general and Verne in particular (he is the editor of several Verne volumes in Wesleyan University Press's valuable Early Classics of Science Fiction series) and I hope he didn't feel constrained by page count to pick this article out of his CV for inclusion.
From Shelley and Verne we move into the late 19th century with I. F. Clarke's article on "Future War Fiction: The First Main Phase 1871-1900" which details the many, many speculative and fictional stories during those years predicting what the next big war would be like. This essay is a little disorganized, but it details some fascinating examples of how people were extrapolating from the smaller wars and technological advances of the late 19th century to the first major war of the 20th—and generally getting it completely wrong, especially those thinking that advancements in war technology would mean shorter wars. Like the examples in the earlier chapters of Vintage Visions, Clarke makes it clear that most of these stories were written with a specific political goal in mind, hoping to shape public perceptions of war and its consequences one way or the other.
From there we go through Allison de Fren's "The Anatomical Gaze in Tomorrow's Eve," which finds its main text in the early French SF novel L’Eve future and uses it to examine early speculative/sf film making, especially in the treatment of the female body. This article makes a number of interesting points and brings up material I wasn't previously familiar with, but I also found it the hardest to follow as it jumps between different texts, historical periods, and analytic approaches. I was grateful to get to two of the most interesting chapters, those on Latin American fiction. Andrea Bell covers "Desde Júpiter: Chile's Earliest Science Fiction Novel" and Rachel Haywood Ferreira describes three texts in "The First Wave: Latin American Science Fiction Discovers its Roots."
Desde Júpiter, like Samuel Madden's work discussed above, is more important than it is good. The full title translates as From Jupiter: The Curious Voyage of a Magnetized Man from Santiago, written by Francisco Miralles in 1878. By traveling (accidentally) to Jupiter and learning about their society, the hero brings back important messages about his own. As Bell puts it: "One of the most alluring qualities of science fiction is the unique freedom it gives us to reinvent reality. . . . This can be especially attractive to historically marginalized voices. Desde Júpiter is an early example of the appropriation of these powers by a citizen of a nation whose sovereignty and right of self-determination have usually been heavily compromised by external forces" (p. 166). In criticizing both the religion and politics of the day, Bell dryly notes "Miralles does well to distance himself from these and other harsh comments by putting them in the mouths of aliens" (p. 167). As well as discussing the work itself, Bell provides us with a sketch of enough Chilean history to give the reader a sense of its context.
Ferreira's article looks three texts, and according to the introductory note this was the genesis of her 2011 book, The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction. From Argentina she discusses Viaje maravilloso del Señor Nic-Nac (1875-1876) (The Marvelous Journey of Mr. Nic-Nac). At the time Argentina was feeling confident in its place in the New World and its path towards civilization and prosperity, comparing itself favorably to its American neighbor in the North. Likewise Brazil felt it was surging ahead at the time, and this was reflected in Páginas da história do Brasil escripta no anno de 2000 (1868-1872) (Pages from the History of Brazil Written in the Year 2000). The earlier short story from Mexico, "México en el año 1970" (1844) ("Mexico in the Year 1970"), was less optimistic than the previous two, but still saw technological progress making a real difference to the country as a whole. Ferreira does excellent primary source research in uncovering the texts themselves (not all of Brasil 2000 survives, serialized as it was in perishable periodicals), and information about their authors. "México 1970" was written pseudonymously by Fósforos-Cerillos in a magazine, El Liceo Mexicano, dedicated to educating people about scientific and humanistic progress, surrounded by "articles on topics ranging from railroads, the daguerreotype, aviation, and electricity to hygiene and education, to Mexican history, literature, and figures of note to poetry, fashion plates, and musical scores" (p. 184).
Brasil 2000 was written by a high profile individual, Joaquim Felício do Santos. "A lawyer by training, he also worked as an educator, a businessman, a politician, and a newspaperman . . . he himself considered his greatest work to be his multi-volume project rewriting the Brazilian civil legal code" (p. 188). Brasil 2000 was aimed squarely at the emperor of Brazil and political events of the day, spread out over its publication run of four years. It is both a history of the time as it would look to people in the future, and a description of a future utopian society. In contrast, Nic-Nac was written near the same time by a man of science, Eduardo Ladislao Holmberg. "[A] licensed medical doctor, an Argentine Linnaeus who worked to catalog the national flora and fauna, and educator who taught in most branches of the sciences . . . and the director of the national zoo" (p. 199). In the story, Nic-Nac travels to Mars through the agency of a medium and has a number of adventures. The Martian society has utopian elements but is also used to satirically mirror Argentine society of the time.
I hope you'll forgive me for rushing these last chapters a bit, as I'm afraid I've already gone on too long. The remaining chapters of Vintage Visions are solidly in the 20th century. Nicholas Ruddick discusses H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds and how a minor contemporary reference can be quickly forgotten and misunderstood. Kamila Kinyon gives us a fascinating comparison of different translations of Karel Capek's famous play R.U.R. and how small subtleties of languages can have large effects of the understanding of the text. For instance Kinyon notes the use of the pronoun "I" by the robots, noting that "In Czech grammar, it is possible to construct a sentence without the explicit subject 'I'" (p. 246) and noting that it is pivotal when the robots start using the term. Patrick McCarthy discusses Zamyatin's We in the context of its antecedents in classical literature, although the article doesn't seem to have a strong central thesis. Gary Westfahl brings his excellent bibliographical skills to an essay about Hugo Gernsback's early efforts at defining the nascent genre of science fiction. However, there's an odd tendency in the article for the footnotes to argue with the text and the afterword to argue with both of them, leaving the reader a bit confused as to the upshot of it all. William J. Fanning Jr. looks at science fiction between World Wars I and II, specifically in the technology of the "Death Ray"—both how it was used in fiction and how it was being worked on by real scientists. Susan Gubar looks at the career of C. L. Moore who had to work as an "irrational" woman in a "rational" genre, and how her fiction reflected that tension—and how her heroines reflected herself. This article uses somewhat more dense academic jargon than others in the collection, but an afterword by Veronica Hollinger provides welcome context. Finally the volume concludes with an essay by Stanislaw Lem on Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, which examines it as a work of serious philosophy and finds it wanting (which I would say rather misses the point of Stapledon's transcendent fiction).
So that's what’s in the book! But here's what isn’t in it: China, Japan, the proto-SF of J. C. Bose and others in India in the 19th century, the utopian fiction by African Americans of the late 19th century (as documented by in Afrofuturism), or that by Margaret Cavendish in the 17th century (although she features prominently in Vintage Visions's excellent bibliography). It maybe that the editor was hampered by the project's scope: to only select from articles published in Science Fiction Studies from its beginning to 2010. It may be that no articles on these topics appeared. In which case I would be happy to push for a volume that drew from a wider variety of scholarly sources, including Foundation, Extrapolation, and The Journal for the Fantastic in the Arts at the very least. A book that is so cognizant of non-English language SF leaves one wanting quite a bit more. I am grateful to Arthur Evans and Wesleyan Press for releasing this volume for future students to find on library shelves, and I hope that it sets an example for similar volumes in the future.
Karen Burnham is vocationally an engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She edits the Locus Roundtable blog, and she can be emailed at email@example.com.