John Rieder, Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System

John Rieder, Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2017) viii + 208 pp. $22.95 Pb, $75.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-0-8195-7715-3

Rieder’s thesis in this innovative approach to the history of what we understand to be science fiction is that 'it is an organic genre of the mass cultural genre system' (9). He positions science fiction and the associated genres of the detective story, modern romance, western, horror and fantasy, as composing a genre system that is distinct from the pre-existing classical and academic genre system that includes the epic, tragedy, comedy, satire, romance, lyric, etc. Rieder supports his thesis by exploring the actual communities, practices, the market and wider social conditions that since the late nineteenth century till today have come to define what science fiction might be and for whom, rather than positing some formal property intrinsic to the type of writing itself. In the Introduction he thus challenges Darko Suvin’s  influential formalistic definition of SF as a 'literature of cognitive estrangement', that would by default – and also rather strangely – exclude any tropes of supernatural fantasy as a pathological aberration.  Nevertheless he also gives due credit to Suvin for trying in the late 1970s to establish SF as worthy of academic study albeit through a misguided strategy of assimilating it to the classical-academic genre system. Starting from this rather witty criticism of Suvin, Rieder develops his historical argumentation across six well-structured chapters, which move us elegantly towards his conclusion about three major periods of SF: the formative years from the 1860s to the 1920s; the formation and maturation of the SF subcultures from the 1920s to the 1970s; and the bifurcation of mass cultural and subcultural SF after the Hollywood breakthrough.

Rieder’s emphasis in Chapter One that SF is to be understood as historical, mutable, with no essence nor point of origin, not as a set of texts but rather relationships between them which are actively produced though its distribution and reception, at times leaves the reader wondering what then exactly we are talking about when we talk about science fiction – especially if we know we are still dealing with the common narrative tropes such as a futuristic setting, ideal society, alien creature, interstellar journey, etc. Rieder manages not to slip into relativism and comes up with a neat argument about 'boundary objects' as  'the set of objects that all the relevant communities of practice point to in common' when they point to science fiction (30).

Chapter Two goes on to expand upon the historical conditions for the emergence of mass cultural system in the second half of the nineteenth century, and what Rieder sees as its key format, the commercial advertisement, with which all other genres interact. In the context of the spread of education and a mass school system, and the shift to national languages and literatures, Rieder discusses three major developments that are intricately entangled with the SF trajectory: the serialisation of novels, the stratification between the high academic and low mass cultures, and the development of niche markets within the mass cultural system, which would form subcultures. Within this overall historical framework, Chapter Three goes into some detail to foreground certain key moments of intervention into SF practices. One of them is the absolutely unavoidable Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley, which emerged into the field of Gothic romances, that were often written by women and considered low in cultural status, thus prefiguring the later stratification between mass and high cultures. Towards the end of the century the reception of the novel significantly shifted, and its scientific elements were rediscovered by writers such as H G Wells in the context of the professionalization of science. Subsequently, Hugo Gernsback’s journal Amazing Stories and others in the 1920s prompted the emergence of specialized niche SF, and 'by the later 1940s the splitting of SF into mass cultural, subcultural, and an older literary set of practices was complete' (92).

From this historical vantage point, the next chapter goes on to explore how Philip K Dick’s fiction manages to speak across the SF split: at the same time inheriting from the older literary tradition, participating in mass cultural seriality, and challenging mass cultural protocols. Dick’s novels  function as the earlier defined ‘boundary objects’ of SF precisely by calling into question the by-then-formed SF genre itself in relation to mainstream realism,  through his method of metafictioning, as Rieder convincingly argues, while at times his detailed discussion of the specifics of Dick’s plots might prove challenging to an uninitiated reader.

The last two chapters look at the more recent developments in the era of Hollywood SF blockbusters, and how their normative narratives can be and are resisted in subcultural SF milieus. Chapter Five contrasts the mass cultural politics of the blockbusters such as Duncan Jones’s Source Code (2011), and the feminist SF convention WisCon and its annual Tiptree awards dedicated to writing that imagines alternative gender and sex relations. Continuing with the contrastive method, Chapter Six focuses on the issue of racial difference within SF and the related invasion plot, as it foregrounds the subcultural imaginaries of Afrofuturism and Indigenous futurism. Rieder first explores the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its politics of white, middle class heterosexual normalcy threatened by a communist alien conspiracy, and then moves on to discuss, among others, the short film The Cave (2009), which is based on an indigenous, Tsilhquot’in narrative of colonial encounter, that is repositioned as science fiction. While Rieder’s discussion proceeds along the lines of the identified bifurcation between the mass cultural and the subcultural, I would suggest that he is at his most intriguing when he seems to suggest ways in which this bifurcation might become blurry: Invasion of the Body Snatchers is on second look convoluted and deeply self-contradictory, as the quasi-communist alien invasion eerily starts to merge with monopolistic corporate capitalism; while re-positioning the indigenous narrative of The Cave as science fiction has implications that reach wider than a critique of colonialism, that of questioning the very distinctions between capitalist, scientific rationality and indigenous modes of knowing. Such intriguing insights could be fruitfully taken towards further explorations, and Rieder’s effort is indeed much more than an innovative, historically well-grounded history of SF, as it provides us useful tools to continue examining the practices and communities of contemporary and future SF, by focusing on its persistent 'abilities to imagine alternatives to the dire realities of the neoliberal capitalist regime' (168).

Fani Cettl, Central European University