Keith Brooke (ed.), Strange Divisions & Alien Territories

Keith Brooke (ed.), Strange Divisions & Alien Territories: The Sub-Genres of Science Fiction (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), xiv + 222 pp. £18.99 pb. ISBN 9780230249677.

What makes up a genre? This volume proposes to examine science fiction (sf) by scrutinising its component parts, offering twelve introductory essays on sub-genres from cyberpunk to space opera. The book’s strength is that these essays are written by practitioners as well as critics, and include contributions from some of the genre’s current leading lights; its weakness is that its disparate contributors and extremely broad mission statement make for somewhat uneven reading. This deficiency, though, does little to mar the book’s usefulness as a resource for sf scholarship, and I suggest that it is also what makes the book so interesting to those interested in Literature and Science.

Literature and Science, seen a certain way, is a study of categories: what interests us are the tensions and opportunities suggestively thrown up by the ways in which humans have subdivided knowledge. Strange Divisions also concerns itself with the procedures of taxonomy, arguing that sf – notionally a subset of ‘popular’ or ‘genre’ writing categories – is itself a literary landscape constantly altered by the shifting borders of its internal subdivisions: 'the genre is a continual stream,' says Keith Brooke’s postscript, 'of discussion, argument, negotiation, jokey banter.' The essays in this book, then, explore the protean constituents of a literary discourse often regarded from the outside as singular and unified. Taken together, they do much to belie the apparent simplicity implied by the term ‘science fiction’ as well as that of any label attached to one of its component discourses.

'Generically,' writes one of the contributors, 'fiction divides itself neatly into subgenres.' On the contrary, however, these essays show that the divisions between the different ways we write (and read) are far from neat, and anything but intrinsic. The same novels and stories are invoked by different contributors as totemic examples of distinct modes; some themes and methods are sometimes presented as shared across vast swathes of writing, whilst others seem so alien to each other than it seems incredible that the label ‘science fiction’ could encompass them both. As the essays continue, it becomes evident that there are even different types, as it were, of type. Cyberpunk – portrayed in this book as a distinct literary movement originally precipitated by an identifiable enclave of writers – seems to have a different order of existence from, say, 'topian fiction' (that is, utopian and dystopian writing), which is presented as a strain discernable in a variety of sf texts.

Popular genres have been mapped and re-mapped just as enthusiastically as the academic disciplines, and the processes by which the two provoke and resist shifts and redefinitions – both in themselves and in their relation to their fellows – remain closely analogous. This book’s insight into the complexity (and sometimes outright self-contradiction) which lies behind the name of just one genre, from the pens of those who write it, is a reminder that simple terms – ‘Literature’, ‘Science’, ‘sf’ – disguise complex ideas. Those ideas shift constantly, in the eye of the beholder as well as in the historical moment. ‘Literature’, for some members of the BSLS, will not include sf at all. To these scholars, it will seem peculiar that this volume has been reviewed here. Others may find anything matching their definition of ‘Science’ quite thin on pages frequently describing imaginative projects in which experimentally verifiable ontology holds little sway.

Nevertheless, there is a discussion central to the classically-conceived Literature-Science relationship going on in this study of a mode of popular fiction. For several of the different contributors, there is a recurrent concern with plausibility: one chapter argues that alternate history deserves inclusion under the sf umbrella because of the rigor with which its counterfactual notions must be ‘worked through’ for the reader, whilst another discusses hard sf as a sub-genre especially poised (unlike some others) around the sustainability of its imaginative elements in current scientific theory. If genre is indeed a conversation, then a big part of that conversation – which is ongoing – seems to be about Literature’s obligation to scientific truth: the attention which authors need to pay to the sometimes conflicting demands of narrative and plausibility. This subject, which will inevitably be encountered by anybody pursuing a detailed understanding of the driving forces behind sf, is also an important one from a Literature and Science perspective.

The most captivating thing about this book, then, may well be the disharmonies between its individual chapters. Some display markedly different understandings of what is meant even by superficially basic terms like ‘sf’ and ‘sub-genre’. In this difference, and its consequent mutability, lies one of sf’s great strengths – but this is a subtlety which the reader wanting straightforward introductions to the some basic elements of genre fiction may not always have patience with, and it is certainly true that the inconsistencies between the essays (which, it must be said, are sometimes also inconsistencies in quality of writing) can be exhausting. This is counteracted to some extent by the provision of reading lists at the end of each chapter, each suggesting a manageable number of primary texts for further exploration – and the focus on ‘primary’ is, in this context, a commendable one. This is also a book with an exhaustive and useful bibliography, thus successfully blending a refreshing lack of overly-academic language (from most of its contributors) with the reassuring weight of referenced research.

The bibliography and reading lists alone make this a worthwhile resource for any student – especially one new either to sf or to any of the notional sub-genres discussed – considering a voyage into alien territories. But Strange Divisions, as its title implies, also offers a snapshot of the different and highly subjective realms conjured up by the term ‘science fiction’, and with it a reminder that the genre as a whole is larger and more complex than any one definition or perspective can manageably encompass. This reminder is a salutary one for anyone who routinely deals – as we in Literature and Science do – in big, catch-all terms.

Will Tattersdill (King's College London)