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The Cambridge Companion To Science Fiction
editors: Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn
Cambridge University Press paperback £16.99
review by Tony Lee
Like Brian Aldiss' magnificent Trillion Year Spree, this book explores the view that SF is as much a literary mode as it is a genre, but it offers more than just a succinct history of its subject. The distinguished editors have assembled a collection of brilliant essays from a line-up of contributors that reads like a who's who of eminent genre critics, including Andrew M. Butler, Gary Westfahl - making the case for postmodern space opera, John Clute (of course!), and subgenre or thematic surveys from some of the top authors in the field.
Opening with writings about SF history, Brian Stableford looks at the familiar territory of 'proto-SF' and discusses the books that qualify in retrospect as science fiction, despite being written before the term itself was coined. Following Brian Attebery's survey of the magazine era (identified as 1926 to 1960), Damien Broderick examines the highpoints of the groundbreaking 'New Wave' (Moorcock's editorship of New Worlds magazine made the biggest splash, of course) and its backwash, before Clute looks back over the last 20 years, and champions Gene Wolfe as one of the most influential SF figures of the recent times. Mark Bould's chapter on film and TV is necessarily sketchy, but reminds us how corporate structures have dominated the media, often to the detriment of creativity and innovation. Gary K. Wolfe closes the history lessons with a piece on SF editors (not just Gernsback and Campbell), showing how anthologists (from August Derleth to Gardner Dozois, and the underrated Terry Carr), paperback editors (Wolheim's 'Ace Doubles' are cited) and the likes of Judy-Lynn del Rey helped to promote SF editors as professional enthusiasts.
The section on critical approaches is a mix of heavy and heady stuff, skimming through Marxist theory, cyborg socialism, feminist utopias, and queer theory, and Butler strives heroically to make good sense out of postmodernism frequently confused and confusing relationship to SF. Agreeable definitions emerge here, which has an understated impact on the rest of this book. Gwyneth Jones writes concisely about SF icons, while Kathryn Cramer does a sterling job explaining what hard-SF is really about, Andy Duncan visits the offbeat realm of 'alternate history' and Edward James weighs in with an informative appraisal of utopias and dystopias, acknowledging that sometimes it's difficult to spot the difference!
Ken MacLeod offers an excellent article on politics in SF, Helen Merrick tackles gender, Elisabeth Anne Leonard addresses issues of racial and ethnicity in SF, observing this is a much-neglected field of study, and Mendelsohn turns our attention to religious faiths of orthodox, fundamentalist, and primitive varieties that seem to permeate SF like a kind of background radiation.
The SF chronology (1516 to 2002) is obviously as contentious a listing as any other of its type, some fans (me included) might quibble over the lack of namechecks for their 'genre' favourites but the book's index enables a worthwhile second sitting through the various texts.
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