Science Fiction: A Literary History, edited by Roger Luckhurst. Book review

Science Fiction: A Literary History, edited by Roger Luckhurst, The British Library, 2017, £20

Reviewed by Sandra Unerman

This historical survey of science fiction consists of a preface from Adam Roberts followed by essays by eight academics. The essays are broadly chronological, after an introduction in which Roger Luckhurst discusses problems of definition. As he says, ‘SF is such a vast and diverse field that any single volume can only be haunted by all the choices not made, the books not mentioned.’ His aim is to map some of the important routes through the genre, which allows individual contributors to track key developments as they see them. They focus on SF as literature, with only brief mentions of other media as they affect the written form.

The first two chapters are about prehistory, before SF was recognised as a genre. They go back to ancient stories about imaginary voyages and early attempts to illustrate science in fictional form, such as Johannes Kepler’s Somnium of 1634. I found it fascinating to see how many of the themes of later SF are foreshadowed here. These include utopias, from Thomas More onwards, interplanetary travel, female governments and post-apocalyptic scenarios. The Industrial Revolution is identified as inspiring, for the first time, visions of the future radically different from the past and a growth in stories which speculate about science. The great boom in popular fiction of the 1890s provides the context for the scientific romances of H.G.Wells, while the period’s interest in the occult and in colonialism affect the development of SF, through Rider Haggard, for example, by way of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Chapters 3 and 4 deal with the first half of the 20th Century, with particular reference, first to utopias and then to the growth of American pulp magazines. Both topics are set in their historical and social context, with responses to war, fascism, racism and feminism being reflected in dystopias or flawed utopias as well as technological speculation and adventure.

Chapters 5 and 6 cover the post-war expansion of SF up to the 21st Century. SF becomes self-conscious in this period, so that these chapters look at the arguments about what kind of stories should be written, as well as successive attempts to break new ground or take new perspectives on old themes. Far more of the writers covered here are likely to be known to today’s readers than those of the earlier periods but this is not the place to look for a detailed analysis of their work. Instead, we are given a survey of different developments. The New Wave is seen as part of the counter-culture of the 1960s, hard SF is contrasted with explorations of the human condition, environmental SF, cyberpunk and the reinvention of space opera are all touched upon, in a way which demonstrates the richness of the genre and the scope for exploring stories with many different styles and themes.

Chapter 8 begins by comparing the world we live in with the unfulfilled visions of stories written in the past. This gives perspective to a consideration of work being written now to spot trends which will seem significant in the future. Climate change and artificial intelligence are identified as dominant themes, with time travel and space opera regarded as classic topics given interesting new treatments.

Different readers of this book may regret the absence of different topics or authors. I would have liked to see more discussion of the crossover between SF and the growth of fantasy as a separate genre in the 1970s and later. On the other hand, I found the material that is covered consistently interesting and stimulating, as well as free from jargon. Throughout the book, I particularly enjoyed the way SF works are considered as reflections and explorations of the social and political context of their time. In addition, there are brief discussions throughout of SF in non-Anglophone countries, including India, China and Russia, which help build up the wider picture of the genre as a cultural phenomenon.

Each chapter ends with a list of recommended reading and the book has an attractive set of black and white illustrations, mostly from old magazine or book covers.