Science Fiction: A Literary History edited by Roger Luckhurst

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Reviewed by Annabel

Once upon a time SF was a subculture haunted by small populations of nerds and geeks. Star Wars (1977) changed that, …

Science Fiction: A Literary History edited by Roger Luckhurst

SF author Adam Roberts says this in his preface to the British Library’s volume of essays surveying the rich literary history of science fiction. He’s right – in a way – SF truly began to achieve mainstream acceptance once George Lucas’s epic hit the screens. We all view SF these days, but I’d wager that on the page, it’s still mostly the nerds and geeks (including me) that read it, except when the likes of Margaret Atwood or Kazuo Ishiguro step over the genre boundaries.

Roger Luckhurst in his editor’s introduction, alludes to a story by Borges featuring forking paths as a metaphor for the development and divergence of SF into a plethora of branches and thematic groupings in which, he hopes, there is something to attract every reader. The following eight essays, each by a different author, follow a broadly chronological structure, taking us through the history of SF through generations, and following some of those side branches down interesting paths.

In the first chapter, we explore early science fiction with Arthur B. Evans, and it begins before Jules Verne and H.G.Wells – but everyone has differing opinions on where and when!  Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia (1516) is suggested by many as one of the first SF novels; others argue for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), later in the 1880s, or even in the American pulps of the 1920s. As Evans says:

For much of its history, science fiction was a literary genre without a fixed label, known by different names at different times and in different cultural milieus. But, as early as the eighteenth century, a number of European science-fictional texts were already being recognised as constituting a distinct narrative tradition, occupying a separate branch on the literary tree.

In 1787 French publisher Garnier collected up many of these ‘speculative fictions’ – from Cyrano de Bergerac’s Other Worlds (1657) to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Voltaire’s Micromégas (1752) to name just few. After discussing some of these early works, we move on into the 1800s and begin to meet some of the great names we’re more familiar with. However, for every mention of Verne or Wells, we encounter potential hidden gems such as 1892’s The Electric Life by Albert Robida – another Frenchman – set in 1955 in a ‘hyper-technologised future’.

The next chapter by editor Luckhurst looks in depth at the fifty years before WWI, particularly British ‘scientific romances’ and the arrival of some of the greats like Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle on the scene, alongside Wells who is discussed in further detail.

The third essay takes ‘Utopian Prospects, 1900-49’ as its title and Caroline Edwards introduces us to the feminist utopia of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland in which parthenogenesis, “has enabled a women-only society to exist for more than 2,000 years,” as a key work. We then turn in the opposite direction to look at the first “proto-dystopian” novels such as Karel Kapek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots – the first use of that word) and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s influential We – the template for so many future dystopias. The 1920s were a golden age for Russian SF. The rise of Nazism would take dystopias to a new level, as would Stalin’s purges – bring on Brave New World and 1984.

I found these early chapters which concentrated primarily on European SF fascinating. The following chapter explored the pulps, and then we are into the post-WWII era – with John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (the first proper SF book I read as a teenager), and Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz being popular touchstones either side of the pond. However, in this survey, for every 1960s SF classic I had read from this period onwards, I discovered authors new to me like Judith Merril and Pamela Zoline. 

Science Fiction’s New Wave in the 60s and 70s brought us Michael Moorcock taking over the helm of New Worlds magazine in the UK and Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthologies in the US – giving us a new world of SF shorts and introducing many new exciting authors.

The period between the New Wave and the millennium gives us William Gibson’s cyberpunk and Kim Stanley Morrison’s environmental space sagas alongside another wave of feminist SF with Ursula Le Guin and Angela Carter, also more authors of colour, notably Octavia Butler.

All of this brings us to the twenty-first century – what next?  Gerry Canavan looks at the present and future of SF in the final chapter ‘New Paradigms, After 2001’:

We live in an era of obsolete futures and junked dreams. It has now been over fifteen years since 2001 with nary a monolith in sight, much less manned missions to Jupiter or increasingly malevolent computer superintelligences refusing to open the pod bay doors. […]

How can one even write science fiction when, in 2016 alone, Britain unpredictably voted to exit the European Union, a planet was discovered around Alpha Centauri in the habitable zone, the Arctic ice sheet went through further catastrophic reduction, bee colonies further collapsed, and Donald Trump was elected President of the US?

Naturally he argues that there is still plenty for SF authors to speculate about. The environment is to the forefront, there is New Weird as exemplified by Jeff Vandermeer’s excellent Southern Reach Trilogy, Slipstream is the new thing as the boundaries continue to blur, and Afrofuturism is inspiring more world-SF from further afield too.

He says that SF is in good hands, even if it is viewed more than read – which brings me back to the beginning of this review. However, Canavan does believe that there is still a place for long-form prose SF to continue the traditions started by all those classic authors – I do hope so!

This ‘literary history’ of SF was very much that – a (mostly) serious survey of the major movements in the genre, accompanied by some fabulous old book covers in the monochrome illustrations. There is a little scene-setting overlap in some of the chapters, but then paths typically diverge and head off in different directions. Making this book an anthology of chronologically based essays by different authors gives us a much broader feel for the genre.  I wouldn’t suggest that this is a book to win over a non-reader of SF, but to lapsed, occasional readers and fans alike, there will be much of interest in this volume, and the bibliographies and reading lists at the end of each chapter are essential reference for anyone wishing to enliven their reading of this diverse genre.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors.

Science Fiction: A Literary History edited by Roger Luckhurst (British Library, 2017) ISBN 9780712356923, hardback, 256 pages.

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