Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint, The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction

Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint, The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction (London: Routledge, 2011), xi + 247pp. £15.99 pb. ISBN 9780415435710

If Literature and Science may be said to have such a thing as a ‘project’, then Science Fiction’s place in it remains unclear: on the one hand, the very name ‘Science Fiction’ seems to place the genre squarely on the fault line between science and imaginative writing, but on the other, a critical relationship with scientific thought can appear quite low on an SF text’s priority list. The stereotypical genre SF tale, in which science, if present at all, is an enabling magical veneer authorising unbounded adventure and romance, is surely of limited use to scholars interested in acute cultural encounters with scientific thinking. SF texts carrying a little more cultural capital are often ultimately interested in philosophical problems and possibilities rather than scientific mindsets or actualities – we need not, therefore, necessarily resort to the simplistic idea of academic snobbery to explain why the ‘Literature’ in studies of Literature and Science has tended to have a capital L.

This said, anybody who suspects that SF might be have something to offer to Literature and Science students could find far worse starting points than Bould and Vint’s new guide, which rejects a simple canon-based history of the genre (of which many already exist) in favour of a Latourian conception of SF as a constantly evolving collective of actants. One of the first things for a newcomer to learn is that SF cannot be exhaustively defined by the pulpish stereotype of rocket ships and laser beams – indeed, it has consistently resisted all attempts at rigorous definition of any kind, refusing to fall squarely into the pigeon hole of any one medium, style, philosophy, or practice. Bould and Vint see the repeated attempts to pin down SF (or ideologically appropriate it), and its resistance to them, as part of the genre’s mechanism for growth and change, presenting a century’s-worth of disputes over enrolment as the lifeblood of a discursively-shaped entity not subject to any one definition, but rather continuously redefined by the connections between its constituents.

A key aspect of this network-based understanding is a certain equality of emphasis, and Bould and Vint are repeatedly at pains to emphasise the roles of editors, producers, directors, and fans, as well as of writers and texts, in the ongoing process of SF. They do spend the vast majority of their time focussing on the printed word, despite an evident awareness of and engagement with SF’s other media, especially cinema. Though print-centric, however, their account is unconstrained by the familiar story of SF’s linear development (Pulps; New Wave; Postmodernism), paying it heed when necessary but often approaching it as a starting point to be read against far less famous texts and perspectives drawn from the margins. This approach is echoed in the authors’ treatment of media: one refreshing aspect of their work is the attention which they pay to magazines, particularly in their account of the first half of the twentieth century, when SF was arguably led from its magazine culture. Where possible, Bould and Vint are at pains to give both magazine and book publication dates for the works they cite – it is thus that we can understand (for instance) the importance of Arthur C. Clarke to the 1940s (when many of his stories first appeared in magazines like Astounding Stories) as well as the early 1950s (when many of them were published as more durable books, the dates on whose copyright pages are all too easily taken at face value).

This is just one example of the attention to detail which Bould and Vint display throughout their work. Others include the exhaustive index, bibliography, and further reading lists – guaranteed to offer something for every student of science fiction – and a glossary of critical terms – several pages of succinctly-written definitions which are a thoughtful inclusion for new students, and which it would hurt none of us to read again. The text boxes intermingled with the main chapters I find less convincing: though they may be useful to those planning reading lists in some cases, they seem a little lacklustre, neither plentiful enough nor separable enough from the main flow of the chapters to ever make the work feel like an out-and-out textbook. This is all to the good, however, since the Concise History, densely printed and lacking illustrations, rejects a textbook’s implicit claims to didactic authority in favour of a heavily-evidenced academic argument about the ways in which genres are constructed and sustained. Bould and Vint are explicit about their inability to be comprehensive: indeed, the breadth of what might be considered material for their project is the substance of their argument, and the reader planning for Martians and robots will be surprised to find themselves reading about Vita Sackville-West, Ziggy Stardust, and the My Lai massacre (to pick just three at random) in addition. Following the authors’ movements from emergent theme to theme, one can sense the indistinct shape not just of SF, but of the last hundred-odd years of Anglophone culture – this, of course, is one of the potential values of studying popular literature.

Meanwhile, those approaching the guide from a specifically Literature and Science perspective can also take something from SF’s staggering diversity and adaptability. SF has been, and is, visible in everything from comics to literary criticism, and continues to shift as new ways of understanding it come into competition with each other and draw different actants into the spotlight. This makes it a more, rather than less useful lens on the culture of which it is both product and producer. By showing that SF’s richness is in many ways a consequence of its resistance to linear definition, Bould and Vint do more than provide Literature and Science scholars with a history lesson, or an introduction to a new corpus of texts: they also remind us that in addressing ourselves to our own diverse curiosities, unification behind a comprehensively-articulated ‘project’ may be less desirable than it first appears.

Will Tattersdill, King’s College London