London: Palgrave, 2006; £60 hb; xvii + 368pp
reviewed in Foundation 98, Autumn 2006
To write a history of something is to define it. A history needs to know where the thing starts and ends, what constitutes it, what shape it has. But when your subject is science fiction, famously undefinable, a protean literature that takes on the characteristics of its observer, no history can be anything but partial. My first argument with this book, therefore, is with the title. This is not the history of science fiction, most of us would consider very different science fictions from that defined by this particular exercise. It is, at best, a history. For the most part it is a good history, in that it is valid, engaged, engaging, generally accurate (though with such wayward moments that you feel like tearing your hair out and screaming), but it is a history of one perspective upon science fiction. Throughout the book, Roberts refers to his enterprise as a ‘critical history’, and that would have been a far better title, implying as it does argument, criticism, the understanding that there may be other, different perspectives, other, different science fictions.
Two basic ideas provide the skeleton around which Roberts has fleshed out his history. One I disagree with profoundly, though in the end I don’t think it affects this history in any overly significant way; one I agree with just as strongly, though I think it creates problems that are never adequately answered in the book.
Let us deal with the disagreement quickly. Roberts characterises science fiction in terms of the ‘extraordinary voyage’, appropriating the Vernean term, which means that he can identify Kepler’s Somnium (1634) as the first work of modern science fiction. (Actually he predates this with an interesting discussion of science fiction in ancient novels, primarily Greek and Hellenistic, and just as importantly he discusses why science fiction then disappeared from literature for something like 1,500 years. One of the best things about this book is the breadth of discussion.) He backs up this notion of science fiction right at the beginning of the book when he says: ‘I cling … to the belief that the worlds encountered in the genre’s best texts are more than simply modified forms of this world – which is to say that SF embodies a genuine and radical Will to Otherness.’ (viii) Will is capitalised here, one comes to realise later, because Schopenhauerian and Nietzschean notions of Will play a significant part in his discussion of science fiction from the late nineteenth century onwards.
Personally, I cannot help but feel, like J.G. Ballard, that sf is a way of writing about today, and thus while the best texts might display a will to otherness, they will also, and more significantly, open a window onto the moment. This is a radically different view of science fiction from that espoused by Roberts, who presents little in the way of historical context when discussing most of the texts he picks out. The voyages of Columbus and the effect of the discovery of the New World upon European thought, for instance, play no part in this history. Moreover, it is a view which brings other works into the discourse of science fiction. Thus, although Roberts accepts utopian literature as ‘a sort of para-SF’ (ix) he excludes it from the main body of science fiction because it is primarily a ‘satiric mode’ (viii). This is a curious argument, since satire has always seemed to be one of the most powerful weapons in the sf arsenal, and utopia strikes me as one of the fundamental building blocks of the genre . One wonders, for instance, what Frederic Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth might think about such a characterisation of the genre (though, curiously, neither is mentioned in this history).
But Roberts does not display the banner of the extraordinary voyage unwaveringly throughout this history; by the time we get to the nineteenth century utopian and satiric science fictions, stories that entail no voyage, extraordinary or otherwise, are quietly considered in and among the broad mix of science fictions. (Though one must wonder if some remnant of this perspective is behind the fact that, of the two most important British authors of the 1960s, Brian Aldiss gets a section to himself focussing on the extraordinary voyage of Hothouse (1962), but J.G. Ballard is just lumped in as one of a number of other notable writers.)
A more consistently held and more thoroughly argued position is that modern Western science fiction grew out of the Protestant Reformation, and here I am in complete agreement with Roberts. I find it impossible to imagine modern science fiction without the emergence of the Protestant mind-set. Where Catholicism emphasised the collective, the word of God mediated through a hierarchy; Protestantism emphasised individual engagement with God. From this change of emphasis came the growth of education, the spread of literacy, the encouragement of a questioning, sceptical and materialist approach. This was already inherent in the emergent philosophies of the Renaissance, humanism, rationalism and empiricism. Though these were not necessarily Protestant traditions they led to an undermining of unquestioned assumptions which, at a time when the Catholic Church was already under political threat, came to be seen as an intellectual threat that could not be tolerated. Hence the gradual Catholic rejection of contemporary science during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the suppression of Copernican ideas, the breaking of Galileo, and the event which Roberts takes as the starting point for modern science fiction, the burning of Giordano Bruno in 1600.
Roberts comes close to saying, at a number of points, that Fantasy is Catholic, science fiction is Protestant. It is a broad-brush position that, as in all such sweeping generalisations, has a lot wrong with it. Nevertheless there is a core of truth. Except that much, perhaps the majority, of seventeenth to nineteenth century science fiction came from Catholic Europe, notably from France. One thinks, for instance, of Cyrano de Bergerac’s Empire of the Moon (1657) and other works by Charles Sorel, Bernard de Fontenelle, Voltaire, Louis Sebastien Mercier, Restif de la Bretonne, Cousin de Grainville and on all the way up to the work of Jules Verne. For Roberts these present the interface of Protestant and Catholic, he talks about such an interface all through the book but does not fully lay it out. So important is this religious aspect to his notion of science fiction that he is assiduous in identifying every modern writer who is Catholic (he is considerably less assiduous in identifying those who are protestant or atheist). But most of these writers were working solidly and unquestioningly within their own tradition, Cyrano was a Catholic writer not an interface writer. The spread of science fiction in Catholic France as much as in Protestant England, it seems to me, represents more importantly the intellectual impact throughout Europe of such things as the explorations of the New World or the observations of Galileo. Religion might affect the way such ideas were propagated or how they were responded to, but that alone is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the development of science fiction.
Nevertheless, the religious emphasis of Roberts’s work proves to be an interesting and fruitful critical stance from which to examine science fiction. I find myself in broad agreement with his characterisation of science fiction as ‘that form of fantastic romance in which magic has been replaced by the materialist discourses of science’ (xi), and it is certainly refreshing to find another major critic of the genre presenting sf unequivocally as a form of fantastic rather than realist literature.
There is little general agreement about which work constitutes the first modern science fiction, though most critics who have not had to make a choice seem to have meekly gone along with Brian Aldiss’s contention that it was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Though I don’t suspect many would agree with Roberts in naming Somnium (I certainly don’t), the fact that this is the first major history of the genre which treats the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as part of the story, not as some ‘proto-SF’ to be hurried over on the way to the real stuff, is refreshing. It is good to see writers such as Cyrano and Francis Godwin and Margaret Cavendish weighed as part of the continuing development of the genre, even if looking at their work purely in terms of the religious argument over the plurality of worlds (if other inhabited worlds had their own Christ figure what does that say about the uniqueness of Christian revelation? If not, are they existing in a state of pre-lapsarian perfection?) passes over much that makes these works interesting. And avoiding other forms of context, such as Cavendish’s relationship with the Royal Society, and especially with Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), leaves a curious work more baffling than it should be.
Context also feels to be missing in his consideration of the eighteenth century, for instance in the way that he talks about the Gothic without any reference to Romanticism or Burke’s notion of the Sublime. (This can be quite galling, since later chapters consistently refer to the sublime without once providing any sense of what this is.) As might be expected from a Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature, his chapters on the period from Mary Shelley to H.G. Wells are the best in the book, with lavish and interesting attention paid in particular to Verne and Wells. Things start to fall apart, however, as the story moves into the twentieth century; it is the enduring problem of histories such as this, too much ground to cover in too short a time. Thus British scientific romance disappears from the story completely, which means that when we move onto the catastrophes of John Wyndham they can be seen solely as a response to Britain’s changing role after the Second World War, not as part of a literary tradition.
Although for the most part Roberts’s discussion of literary science fiction avoids descending into meaningless, context-less lists of names (and given that he conscientiously and admirably pays attention to non-Anglophone science fiction from France, Germany, Russia, Japan and elsewhere throughout the book that is no mean achievement), there have to be choices and omissions, and some of these are questionable. He devotes welcome attention to Christopher Priest, but stops his discussion with A Dream of Wessex (1977), which means that Priest’s complex and challenging engagement with the whole discourse of science fiction, carried out in novels such as The Affirmation (1980), The Prestige (1997) and The Separation (2002) are ignored. Yet M. John Harrison, whose work is on a par with Priest’s, and whose influence is, if anything, much greater, is mentioned only in passing and then only in relation to Light (2002). In an appendix he gives a chronology of key titles in science fiction (five pages which, alone, are enough to provoke endless debate and head-scratching in sf circles) in which he includes Pavane by Keith Roberts (1968), yet Keith Roberts is not mentioned once in the text. Similar omissions and elisions, inevitable though they may be in a work of this scale, can be identified among American science fiction writers, and perhaps even more so among non-Anglophone writers (he repeatedly refers to Jorge Luis Borges as an influence on other writers, for example, without once saying anything about Borges’s own ficciones). Yet he can devote quite extensive coverage to Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996), Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (1973), Giles Goat Boy by John Barth (1966). These are excellent books, and I would be the last person to criticise anyone for broadening the scope of science fiction, nevertheless they are hardly central works in the history of the genre, and a briefer mention of these in exchange for any mention of Frederick Pohl or Bob Shaw or Lois McMaster Bujold or any Australian novelist in addition to Greg Egan might have been more proportionate.
One of the most welcome aspects of this book is that, in addition to his coverage of the literature of science fiction (abbreviated as that may become as he gets closer to the present), Roberts also provides extensive coverage of science fiction illustration, film, television, comics, computer games and more. This recognition of how broadly the genre has now spread, and how thoroughly it has infiltrated the daily awareness of people who would never dream of reading a science fiction novel, is one of the most interesting parts of the whole enterprise. Even if these chapters come much closer to the list format than those devoted to books, and if the judgements tend to be more personal and idiosyncratic (and Roberts is never afraid of expressing his own feelings about things he finds boring or silly), their presence shifts our perspective on what constitutes science fiction. It is in these chapters that he expresses perhaps his most contentious argument: that science fiction has become primarily visual, constructed upon an aesthetic of spectacle and sensation rather than on ideas and logic. In the battle for the heart and soul of science fiction, he implies, the sensational image has already won out over the thoughtful literature. I’m not sure the case is yet made or the outcome decided, but it is none the less a well made argument that deserves consideration.
This is, as I hope my review has suggested, a contentious and polemical work. On a number of occasions when Roberts stands up to be counted I would be very happy to shoot him down, on just as many occasions I would join him at the barricades. It is this willingness to engage in debate about the nature of science fiction that makes this a valuable book. It is made slightly less valuable by a slapdash approach, there are for instance numerous repetitions of phrases, often within a few lines of each other, that should have been caught by a half-way decent copy editor. There are errors, and though a work of this nature is always going to contain some mistakes, the inclusion of Michael Chabon in a list of current British science fiction writers should never have been allowed to pass. The prose is all too often marred by cute phrasing, such as when Percy Bysshe Shelley is described as ‘husband of the more famous Mary’ (91). Though at the same time you can forgive almost anything of a writer who says of A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) that it ‘has a rather Marmitey, love-or-loathe taste about it’ (165). It is, in other words, as Roberts himself recognises, a book to argue with. As the history of science fiction it is very wide of the mark; as a history it is an excellent contribution to the ongoing critical debate.