The first question that always needs to be asked about any non-fiction book is who is it aimed at and the second question is does it succeed? As Science Fiction becomes a more respectable area for academic study and the number of courses or modules that consider it, the more books are produced to assist the students. Some volumes, especially in the United States, detail the plots, character traits and mentioned places in enough detail so that the student doesn’t have to actually read a book in order to complete their course. There is also a tendency at some US colleges to discourage students from actually thinking about what they are reading but instead to collect and reassemble the thoughts of those who have gone before. Both of these approaches seem like cheating. In order to understand a subject, it is essential to immerse oneself in all aspects of it. There is no substitute for actually reading the original material. That said, newcomers to academia do need some hints as to where to start. It is to be hoped that the tutors are well enough versed in their subject to guide their charges in the right direction or, at least, recommend useful books that actually stimulate the analytical processes. Similarly, those reasonably familiar with a literary genre or wanting to know about one they are not very familiar with may want discussion essays to point them in other directions.
‘A Companion To Science Fiction’ is not aimed at those just wanting to gather information the easy way but at the serious connoisseur. The volume consists of a range of essays, each complete with its own bibliography. A glance at the list of contributors shows a line-up with academic clout, most holding university posts in a variety of countries. Some of the names, such as Tom Shippey, Brian Stableford and Farah Mendlesohn will be familiar to readers who have either attended Science Fiction conventions or who follow critical journals such as ‘Foundation’. There is also an excellent index.
The format divides the volume into sections and tries to cover as wide a range as possible. ‘Part 1: Surveying The Field’ discusses not only the challenges of reading Science Fiction as opposed to literary fiction as well as discussing the origins of the genre in both literature and magazines.
‘Part II: Topics And Debates’ considers how Science Fiction has concerned itself with major themes and concerns of the times when it was being written. The writers of the articles consider diverse themes such as Utopias, Religion, Ecology and Feminism. The authors of the day used Science Fiction as a vehicle to either express their own views or knock down those of others without courting libel suites or upsetting too many sensibilities. Science Fiction could either be dismissed as pure speculation or treated seriously as an argument for changing our ways.
Even within the field itself there have been a number of styles and approaches which have had their aficionados both as readers and authors. Hard Science Fiction is the kind which deals mainly with exploration and adventures in space and has the kind of ethos that expects the science to be correct as known at the time. The New Wave was much softer and at times could be surreal. Science did not have to be all about the machines and astrology and allowed the authors more leeway for experimental writing. Cyberpunk deals more with the arcane technology in human society and around the projected developments in computers. It embraced and tried to predict modern society. These are some of the areas discussed in ‘Part III: Genres And Movements’.
Science Fiction is not just about the written word but has a distinct presence in other media. ‘Part IV: Science Fiction Films’ examines the contributions the genre has made to both American Film and British Television. In some ways this seems to be a very narrow look at the field as there are fine examples of visual treatment of SF themes in film and television from other countries. However, the scope of the discussion does open out in ‘Part V: The International Scene’ which discusses contributions from other parts of the world notably Canada, Australia and Japanese/Chinese. This leaves out whole swathes of various continents. There has been a great tradition of SF in Europe and Russia and some South American writers have been influential in the field. To be fair, to consider the influences from all parts of the globe would require an entire book, at least as large as this one.
To try and reach a consensus as to who were the key writers to influence the scope and development of Science Fiction as a field of literature is not something that can easily be reached. Readers and writers will both see different influences and what is key for one will not be for another. This volume has selected nine authors, most of which many will accept as playing an important role in the shaping of a part of the genre. There is an argument that equally important writers have been left out. In this ‘Part V’ as in the previous one, there is not sufficient room to include everyone. What the compiler has done is to select an important representative of branches of the original thrust of Science Fiction as popularised by HG Wells (the subject of the first of these essays). To adjust the balance, the final part of this volume takes ten different authors and discusses particular books by them. The difference is that while the entire oeuvre of a writer can influence other writers, sometimes one book in a particular author’s catalogue can resonate with the readers in such a way that the contents will be recalled long after the ideas in other books have been forgotten. It is this section that demonstrates the real purpose of Science Fiction, to make the reader think about the issues within and positively affect their mindset.
What any book of this kind offer is only a taster of the richness of the literature of Science Fiction. Each article is tailed with an extensive reading list to carry the student deeper into the subject. It is a volume that needs to be read alongside the works that are being discussed in order to fully appreciate the contexts. No student should ever rely on one source for their studies, but this is a good starting point.
(pub: Blackwell Publishing. 612 page enlarged paperback. Price: £30.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-4051-8437-3)
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