Review of Adam Roberts’ 'The History of Science Fiction'
2nd Edition, Published in 2016 by Palgrave Histories of Literature
I’m a long-time fan of science fiction. I love the genre in its ability to expand the reader’s mind into the ‘what-if.’ I ran across a review Adam Roberts had published on Margaret Atwood, while I was writing an article on speculative fiction. I ultimately sent the piece to Roberts, and in so doing, discovered his book, The History of Science Fiction.
Sometimes history can appear to be dry after the astringency of the moment has passed, but I found Roberts’ book fascinating in his meticulous excavation of ancient literature to discover the bones of science fiction. His thorough research progresses from ancient times to the opening of the twenty-first century to build a comprehensive history of science fiction, including sci-fi novels, magazines, artwork, cartoons, television and films.
Roberts begins with a comparison of Greek mythology to science fiction by underlining how the human mind creates fantastical worlds in which to place heros and heroines into danger, both physically and morally. Particularly, the Greek tragedies were penned to magnify society’s ills and the weaknesses of the human soul. And because of our lingering humanity, these Greek tragedies are still compelling.
Likewise, many of the enduring modern science fiction stories delve into the psyche of society. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), 1984 (George Orwell), Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein), The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula K. Le Guin), and The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) dissect the extremities of the human condition, laying bare the diseased parts for all to examine.
As the book proceeds, Roberts speculates that without the Reformation, science fiction might not exist. I hold some skepticism of his entire premise, but there are points in favor of his theory. As Roberts expounds on the absolute power grip that the Catholic Church had on every aspect of society, including the sciences, I realized that he was on to something. For without liberty to freely research and publish the results, which might infringe on the centrist power of the Catholic Church, then to speculate in a science fiction sense is also forbidden. The blossoming of rational thought drove scientific discovery and the ‘what-if’ nature of science fiction, but the bonds of the Catholic Church had to be broken before free-thinkers could live without fear of excommunication or even death.
Science fiction came into its own during the Enlightenment—the time of Newton, the poetry of physics and the satires of Jonathon Swift and Voltaire. Roberts shows us how Swifts’ Gulliver’s Travels and Voltaire’s Micromégas are classic science fiction in their world-building via the ‘voyage extraordinaire’ and speculation of the human condition. Political turmoil created excellent fodder for writers, and in France, the French revolution sparked a surge in science fiction novels.
Throughout my life, I've read voraciously, including classic science fiction, and I loved the writings of authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood. But I was happy to learn of, or in some cases, be reminded of, the numerous female sci-fi authors leading up to contemporary science fiction, such as Margaret Cavendish (17th century), Marie-Anne de Roumier-Robert (18th century), Mary Shelley and Jane C. Loudon (19th century). Roberts notes that the best screenplay written for the Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back, was written by Leigh Brackett. The biases of the times don’t always stymie genuine voices, but the history of these authors is many times forgotten.
The industrial revolution created a clash of technology versus humanity—nothing like angst and fear to drive a good sci-fi story. Roberts details the lives and influences of great writers such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. And I was amazed to learn how many well-known authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe, had dipped their pens into the science fiction well from time to time (pun intended).
The first half of the twentieth century was chaotic: two world wars, the advent of the atomic age, and the dawn of space travel. The excitement and anxiety of the twentieth century triggered a new wave of sci-fi and, with the advent of modern media, the genre expanded into magazines, comics, film and television.
The disillusionment of the second half of the twentieth century brought a social consciousness and mysticism to the genre. The deft hands of talented sci-fi authors revealed a dark underbelly of our humanity, like Robert Heinlein’s, Stranger in a Strange Land and Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale. In our current century, sci-fi has developed new sub-genres, such as cyberpunk and a fresh wave of environmental novels.
I particularly enjoyed the subtle humor sprinkled throughout the book: “The unfortunately named Richard Head . . .” Roberts also makes clear his opinions of the novels and authors, which I found enlightening and quite impressive that he himself had read the incredible collection of works that are referenced in this book.
As a sci-fi author myself, I know the derision some critics have for the genre, so it was with interest to read a quote Roberts included from essayist and literary critic, Sven Birkerts:
“Science fiction will never be Literary with a capital L . . .”
But author Hugh Howey’s [WOOL, 2011] answer to a similar question I posed in an interview with him in 2017, as to disdain of SF, perfectly illustrates the issue:
“I noticed this in my years of working in bookstores. Anything from the genres that was considered great was moved into the literature section. Frankenstein, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, Brave New World. Others were called “classics,” like [novels written by] Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Retailers and publishers pluck all the best genre works and decide that they can’t be genre, because genre sucks and these things are good.”
I believe it is the booksellers who place a novel on a science fiction “shelf” and the one variable in this selection appears to be any story in which a time element is twisted whether into the past or the future. With the alteration of that one element as a sole variable, it seems silly, and frankly arrogant, to “trash” science fiction as not literary. In writing, it’s about the quality of the story and characters, just as these criteria are used to judge any literary work, whether it is “genre” or not.
Because of its ability to magnify the excitement of discovery or the ills of our society, science fiction is an important thread in our cultural fabric. A quote from the Roberts’ book I believe wraps up the essence of science fiction:
“SF is exhilarated by and superstitiously fearful of technological advance, or alien life, or the scale of the cosmos.”
Roberts parses science fiction into its multitudes of sub-genres with knowledge, respect and a touch of humor. Beautifully researched, this is a book for readers who enjoy history as well as science fiction—not a light read, but like a good dinner of prime rib and a glass of Malbec—a satisfying one.
Please read my interview with Margaret Atwood on FUTURISM