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About this book

This Guide summarises the main critical trends and developments surrounding the popular genre of science fiction. Brian Baker reviews the attempts to formulate a critical history, connects the major developments with the rise of theoretical paradigms such as feminism and postmodernism, and introduces key critical texts and major critics.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Science Fiction: At the Borders of Literature and Genre
Abstract
For a long time, science fiction struggled with what might be called ‘a crisis of legitimation’. By this I mean that science fiction (SF) was regarded as an ephemeral popular form, of little cultural value, relegated to a cultural and social margins designated by such words as ‘pulp’ or ‘trash’ or in the characterisation of those who consumed SF as ‘nerds’, ‘geeks’ or the rather less pejorative ‘fans’. This meant that many SF writers, upon achieving a certain degree of career autonomy, sought to leave the genre behind. Kurt Vonnegut, notoriously, once rationalised his own writing trajectory away from genre SF towards a ‘postmodern’ literary fiction by suggesting that critics often mistook the drawer marked ‘science fiction’ for a urinal. As little as 20 years ago, in researching and writing about SF at postgraduate level, a reflex response to an enquiry about what you were working on would be conditioned by defensiveness, the desire to explain that SF was a legitimate area of study, that it had been taught at undergraduate level for 30 years, that the texts themselves were interesting and worthy of that kind of study. Now, in a sense, many of these battles have been won.
Brian Baker, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter One. Definitions: What is Science Fiction?

Abstract
What is science fiction? That seems to be an easy question to answer. Science fiction (SF) is a literary mode that deals with spaceships. Or aliens. It’s about the future. Or, it’s about technology. There might be some science in it. (Or there might not.)
Brian Baker, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Two. A History of the Histories

Abstract
Just as there is no agreed critical definition of SF, so there is also no agreed critical history, despite an entire number of Science Fiction Studies being devoted to it in 2010. Instead, there are many versions of the history (or evolution, or archaeology) of SF, some of which are produced implicitly by publishing imperatives, such as Penguin’s SF list of the 1950s and 1960s, or Wesleyan University Press’s contemporary series Early Classics of Science Fiction, which has brought back into print many early SF works. There are, of course, shared elements in all of the histories I shall explore and summarise in this chapter, and the differences between some of them are simply a matter of emphasis. However, as Adam Roberts suggests, generic histories reveal the formal assumptions of the historian: what kind of mode or genre SF is, or is not, is revealed by the origin point, duration and characteristics identified by the particular critic.
Brian Baker, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Three. Science Fiction Writers on SF

Abstract
In the previous two chapters, we looked at the origins and history of SF, and the difficulties in providing a definitive and agreed statement about what SF is, and what it does. In this chapter, we will concentrate on SF writers who have written on or theorised SF. Although this book is largely written with the student of SF in mind, and concentrates on academic criticism of the genre, critical writing on SF goes back much further than the books or monographs published on it, or the institution of academic journals on the genre: Extrapolation (US) was the first, begun in 1959; followed by Foundations (UK) in 1972 and Science Fiction Studies (Canada/US) in 1973); and the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts (US) in 1988. The emergence of Wells’s SF in the late nineteenth century, whose very name (the ‘scientific romance’), was taken from a book by C. Howard Hinton, provoked some critical debate at the time. The first books of SF criticism, as we will see shortly, were collections of reviews and short pieces published in magazines in the 1950s; and it is in those magazines that a science fictional ‘critical discourse’ first emerged, in editorials and in letters columns, as a dialogue between those who wrote SF and those who read it (with a significant overlap between the two, of course) that had been developing over several decades.
Brian Baker, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Four. British Science Fiction

Abstract
As we saw in Chapter 2, Anglophone SF has typically been understood in terms of what is called the ‘twin traditions’. This idea, intended to mark out the different emphases of British and American SF, stresses national traditions and a dialogue between writers and texts within these traditions, rather than across the Atlantic. (It also largely excludes non-Anglophone SF from the dialogue.) It is a useful conceptual beginning, however, and in this chapter and the next one, we will see how each of the ‘twin traditions’ has been analysed, and how major writers within these traditions have been investigated and understood. To begin, we will investigate how the role of Empire has become increasingly central to critical work on British SF.
Brian Baker, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Five. The US Tradition

Abstract
As we saw in Chapters 1 and 2, locating an agreed origin point, or even history, of science fiction has proved almost as impossible as agreeing a definition. This is complicated in Anglophone SF by the conception of the ‘twin traditions’, the divergence between US and UK types of science fiction that is the conventional understanding of how the genre developed in the twentieth century. We should be wary of too absolute or reductive a division between the two; as we will see, there is plenty of traffic between US and UK science fiction even when the two traditions seem far apart. To begin, we will look at how some critics have considered the work of Edgar Allan Poe, hitherto absent from our considerations, as an ‘ancestor’ of American SF.
Brian Baker, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter 6. Utopias and Dystopias

Abstract
At the end of the first chapter, I noted how William Gibson, in his short story ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, implicated the techno-futurism of what John Clute has called ‘First SF’ (the ‘Golden Age’ of pulp SF, adventure stories with galaxy-spanning empires, faster-than-light ships and heroic action) with a kind of cultural pathology. Beneath the dazzling surfaces of the silver cars and shining spires of 1930s SF lies a dream of totalitarianism:
They were white, blond, and they probably had blue eyes. They were American. … [T]he Future had come to America first, but had finally passed it by. But not here, in the heart of the Dream. Here, we’d gone on and on, in a dream logic that knew nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel, or foreign wars it was possible to lose. They were smug, happy, and utterly content with themselves and their world. And in the Dream, it was their world.
Brian Baker, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Seven. Feminism and Cyberpunk SF

Abstract
In charting the history of feminist criticism of SF, there are clear overlaps with the impact of second-wave feminism culturally and historically. Subsequent to the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), there grew, both in Europe and in North America, an increasingly politically urgent attempt to focus not only on representations of women in the cultural sphere, but also on the socio-political condition of women in the patriarchal societies of the ‘democratic West’. Many female writers engaged a paradigm of hidden oppression, institutionalised disadvantage and disenfranchisement, extending into overt expression of sexism. By the end of the 1960s, a wave of French feminist critiques influenced not only by de Beauvoir, but also by Lacanian revisions of Freud, began to be translated for English-speaking academics and activists. The work of Julia Kristeva — whose writing on abjection would come to have a deep impact on film studies (see Chapter 8) — Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray encouraged feminist thinkers and activists not only to revise their understanding of patriarchy and the social condition of women, but also to interrogate foundational premises regarding the construction of the subject itself. This chapter will also focus, particularly latterly, on how SF, and SF criticism, has engaged feminist discourse in investigating the body and embodiment.
Brian Baker, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Eight. Science Fiction Cinema

Abstract
Once upon a time, SF film was the ‘B-movies’. Low in budget, weak in script, with limited actors, on the bottom half of a double-bill or drive-in movie, SF film was a genre that lacked ‘cultural capital’, a sense of innate cultural value. Unlike the Western, the musical or film noir, it had no major star attached to it, and critically, no major director or auteur was seen to work with its motifs and tropes. While the latter may still be argued, SF has become not only mainstream in Hollywood film production, but one of the predominant genres. Later in this chapter, we will consider the critical renegotiation of SF cinema — under-regarded even compared to its literary sister — in the 1970s and 1980s, and where the formerly derided elements of the SF film’s pleasures — spectacle, special effects, the visual ‘ride’ — are now given direct critical attention. While much of this is due to the growing importance of SF in the popular cinematic consciousness, it also follows from a revision of film history and historiography itself, which was inaugurated by the work of Tom Gunning.
Brian Baker, Nicolas Tredell

Conclusion

Science Fiction as a World Literature
Abstract
As we saw in the Introduction, the formation of a genre is dependent as much on exclusions as it is upon inclusions or claims for particular inheritances. In creating a ‘history’ of SF, or even in defining the genre, some attempt has to be made at what has become known as ‘border policing’, deciding upon what is and is not ‘really’ SF, or part of an SF tradition. As Roger Luckhurst wrote in ‘The Many Deaths of Science Fiction’ (1995), ‘revolutions’ inside the genre, assumptions about SF’s ‘death’ and its need for renewal, can be seen retrospectively as a series of sub-generic tributaries that are eventually subsumed into the main generic river: the New Wave, or Cyberpunk, for instance. Literary history, a genre’s retrospect, tends to smooth out the conflictual or dialogical nature of the genre’s development, as though all writers were in some sort of negotiation with the whole body of ‘science fiction’, a version of T. S. Eliot’s famous essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919). Traditions, however, are constructed rather than organic entities, and from a particular vantage point.
Brian Baker, Nicolas Tredell
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