Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction

Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). xvii + 368 pp. £15.99 pb. ISBN 978-0230546912.

Ever since the definitive Clute and Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction appeared some fifteen years ago, there has been a need—now amply supplied by Adam Roberts—for a new narrative history of the genre from the earliest times to the present day. Not only is this work, first published in 2005, more scholarly than its predecessors, but it breaks new ground in the attention it gives to recent multimedia SF, including cinema, television, graphic art, comics, video and computer games, and even music (going back to Holst’s ‘The Planets’) alongside literary works of all kinds. At the same time, Roberts has a strong thesis to argue about the nature of science fiction and its role in Western culture since the Reformation.

After a brief chapter on fantastic voyages in the ancient world and a still briefer medieval ‘Interlude’, his chronological account effectively begins in 1600, the year in which Giordano Bruno was condemned by the Catholic Inquisition for his speculations about the plurality of worlds. In Roberts’s view, science fiction of the last four centuries reflects a double dialectic. First there is the conflict between Catholic rationalism and Protestant empiricism, often taking the form of a split between magic and science although Roberts is careful to stress the existence of ‘Catholic’ as well as ‘Protestant’ SF. That the conflict remains relevant to this day is evident from the superhero figures and messianic complexes of so much big box-office ‘sci-fi’, including Spielberg’s E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which Roberts significantly sums up as a ‘secularised quasi-religious myth’. Secondly, he suggests that in its direct engagements with scientific thought SF oscillates between two poles, the ‘Russellian’ and the ‘Feyerabendian’. Bertrand Russell argues in The Scientific Outlook that science provides systematic generalisations explaining the truth of the material world, while Paul Feyerabend maintains in Against Method that science can never be univocal and that knowledge is advanced by the free-for-all proliferation of alternative theories. Russell was in favour of rule by scientific experts whereas Feyerabend’s politics are manifestly anarchic. There is no need to say which of these positions Roberts most favours. Science fiction, he argues, provides a space in which ‘brilliantly unorthodox thinkers bounce ideas around regardless of how strange they seem at first’. But of course that is not the only use that has been found for science-fictional space.

It follows that Roberts cannot endorse any hard-and-fast definition of science fiction, although he cites Martin Heidegger’s 1953 essay ‘The Question of Technology’ and leans towards a Heideggerean notion of ‘technology fiction’. Moreover, he finds it axiomatic that ‘science fiction’ long predates the term now used to describe it. Many critics, most influentially Darko Suvin, have sought to incorporate the utopian tradition within science fiction, but for Roberts utopia is a ‘parallel development’ descending from More’s work which is, he suggests, firmly in the authoritarian Catholic tradition. The overall framework of this study, therefore, is distinctly controversial, but it is none the worse for that. Above all, it enables Roberts to pursue an engaged, provocative, and often highly original discussion of an astonishing range and variety of texts. A graduate of Classics and English Literature, he regards what used to be called the ‘prehistory’ of the science-fiction field without a trace of condescension, and his chapters on the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries are among his most stimulating. But he is also himself a contemporary SF novelist and is intimately engaged with the genre’s most recent trends. The style of this work is well adjusted to the long haul, and a crisp turn of phrase with a taste for the unexpected adjective—‘goofy’, ‘wincing’, ‘gnashing’, ‘Marmitey’, ‘Molesworthian’, and more—enlivens many a dutiful plot summary.

There are, of course, some disadvantages inseparable from pursuing an outspoken thesis across such a huge swathe of cultural territory. Accounts of individual works are necessarily compressed and simplified, sometimes misleadingly so: for example, Roberts describes the crablike monsters at the end of Wells’s The Time Machine as the descendants rather than the successors of mankind, making nonsense of the author’s grasp of evolutionary theory. Some works make an appearance for no clear reason: Kafka’s The Trial is ‘obviously SF’ (which will be news to many), but we are not told why. Then there is the strange omission of major American writers such as Hawthorne, Twain, Jack London, and Kurt Vonnegut, not to mention Thomas M. Disch and Frederik Pohl. Doris Lessing is not mentioned, nor is the subgenre of the ‘prehistoric romance’ to which she has most recently contributed, although prehistoric romance has a long history as a legitimate extension of SF. Another consequence of Roberts’s approach is that it is necessarily Anglocentric and Eurocentric, however hard he tries to include French, German, Russian, and other non-English language fiction. Is this a limitation inscribed in the DNA of science fiction itself—at least until recently—or would a differently placed observer see things differently? I have mentioned that Roberts has a brief ‘Interlude’ covering the years 400-1600 AD during which there was next to no science fiction in Europe, although there were crucial developments (unmentioned here) in mathematics, science, technology, and medicine outside Europe. Is there nothing to be said about traditional Arabic, Chinese, Indian, and Persian literatures in relation to modern science fiction? I could wish that Roberts had asked this question, even if he were unable to answer it satisfactorily.

It would be wrong to end on a negative note, since the lasting impressions left by this History of Science Fiction are of the author’s eye for detail, his understanding of the pervasiveness of the science-fictional in contemporary culture, and his astonishing critical energy. It is humbling, too, to realise that this book was completed without the research assistance that has eased the path of so many less significant recent scholarly contributions in Britain. When he applied for funding to what was then the Arts and Humanities Research Board, Roberts notes in a waspish paragraph at the end of his otherwise generous acknowledgements, he was turned down without explanation.

Patrick Parrinder, University of Reading

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