[Science Fiction by Roger Luckhurst. Polity Press, 2005. 224 pp. ISBN 0-74562-893-1.]
Roger Luckhurst, a Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London, succeeds at creating a matrix, a historical framework in order to understand science fiction and the forces that shaped it. His book Science Fiction tells the intertwined stories of British and American science fiction as seen through the eyes of a critical theorist rather than those of a practitioner or fan.
Luckhurst writes that the major historical trends that shaped the emergence of science fiction were the sometimes utopian, but more usually fearful, reactions to the major technological developments (such as telegraphy, electricity, electrocution, and phonography) during the tail end of the nineteenth century. After acknowledging forerunners like Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and Jules Verne, Luckhurst starts the story of modern science fiction towards the end of the nineteenth century, the principal figure being H.G. Wells, the acknowledged father of modern science fiction, who wrote “scientific romance” and explored the “evolutionary paradigm.” Luckhurst credits Wells, the “new Dickens” and who Joseph Conrad called a “realist of the fantastic,” with separating science fiction from mainstream literature.
In America, the torch was carried in the pulps by editors and writers Hugo Gernsback and John Campbell (and his stable of writers which included Heinlein and Asimov), who were concerned with the “engineering paradigm.” In particular, Campbell’s career promoted the belief in an authoritarian social vision and a technical elite. Chronicling the twentieth century, Luckhurst calls the dropping of the bomb the “technocultural conjuncture”: “Science fiction, a literature that privileges the promise and terrors of technical and scientific development, gained a sudden deadly relevance after August 1945.”
Luckhurst sees this as a pivotal moment, and goes so far as to call the Golden Age a “myth” whose technocratic dreams were challenged as a result of the atomic bomb which created a new epoch. It was in this post-atomic age that science fiction renewed its tradition of social criticism. As Luckhurst explains, Heinlein “berated” some of the fashionable writing of his day which he claimed was not able to interpret the new world of atomic power. In contrast, Luckhurst writes of England as “allergic to scientific modernity,” with its pre-atomic famous Luddite fantasies from the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, and C.S. Lewis. At the same time, there were others like John Windham and Arthur C. Clarke who explored the evolutionary paradigm in cosmic frameworks, with Clarke envisioning our future evolution towards a communion with the galaxy wide Overmind in Childhood’s End (1953).
Luckhurst writes: “The period between 1945 and 1960 is the most complex and multistranded period in science fiction history, the epoch in which the Golden Age was both consolidated and contested, when SF claimed scientific, political and social-critical relevance yet was also condemned as an exemplar of detestable mass culture.”
Luckhurst’s book goes on to bring the history of science fiction to the present with decade studies of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and beyond the millennium. He provides a broadly chronological survey. What one needs to understand, and Luckhurst alludes to the fact, is that there have been many different sidelines and trends which have not been well substantiated, appreciated or documented. There are alternated realities that have not been explored or remembered in the history of science fiction which had also been declared dead a number of times. Science fiction has also had its famous contenders who are not widely known, but maybe should have been.
He defines the 1960s (which lasted until 1973 by his reckoning) by anti-establishment activism and literary trends like the New Wave, which manifested in America with Harlan Ellison’s speculative anthology Dangerous Visions and in England with the works of J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius, and the works of Pamela Zoline. Defending this new style, Ballard argued the inner space, not outer space, needed to be explored, and “actually remained committed to science fiction as the only literature capable of recording the transformation of human subjectivity by the technological revolution of the 1960s.” Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius was a deliberate attempt at myth making, the creation of an age of science messiah. Anarchistic and counter culture rebellious Cornelius seeks liberation from “crippling social conformity” and the dead hand of history. The New Wave “equated” with modernism. Luckhurst also writes that the ’60s were also notable for the works of Philip K. Dick, who was concerned with empathy and tried to “shake off the oppressions of consensus reality,” and Samuel Delany, who like a number of others did not identify himself with the New Wave.
The book has a harder time characterizing the 1970s, which come between the distinction of the ’60s and ’80s. The British New Wave continued through much of the 1970s, but there was also an affliction of melancholia caused by the “reduced, post-imperial and post-industrial English nation.” To emerge in America was a greater interest in feminist science fiction including Pamela Sargent’s retrospective Woman of Wonder anthology (1977), the revelation that “James Tiptree Jr.” was actually Alice Sheldon, and the success of writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and Octavia Butler, who received the major science fiction awards. Their inclusion opened up science fiction to a broader and more inclusive spectrum of concern.
Luckhurst finds the science fiction of the 1980s easier to characterize, and he distills them to a reaction to the political allegiance between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the New Right, which ruled England and America for much of the 1980s. He points to cyberpunk as a reaction to and criticism of the predominant political culture which created a new world order. Cyberpunk was the literature of postmodernism, which argued against grand narratives, worried about global capitalism, and sought to explain the advent of new technology and multiculturalism. For Luckhurst, the dominant science fiction text for the 1980s, second to Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” plans, was William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which “provided the formal and thematic template for much of the subsequent writing in the sub-genre.” Luckhurst also points out that “cyberpunk was formulated in the way it was precisely because of the prominence of the SF megatext in the fantasy life of the American New Right.” The core group included William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley and later Pat Cardigan. Cyberpunk was also resentful against a small group of science fiction writers who dominated the field in the past.
The 1990s saw the collapse of Soviet Communism and the expansion of free market capitalism into China and Russia. But Luckhurst writes that “[W]hat is striking about SF in the 1990s is that it responds to the intensification and global extension of technological modernity not with new forms, but rather with ones lifted from the genre’s venerable past.” Numerous British authors used the space opera to explore political issues set in differing camps out there in the cosmos. The “cyberpunk’s slum” was superseded by the “transgalactic space opera” to comment on globalization. Here Luckhurst does not give credit to Arthur C. Clarke who, before these new space opera writers, also famously placed fascinating extraterrestrial “artifacts” out in the great beyond (to be discovered in “The Sentinel”). Also explored in the chronicling of the 1990s was the fascination with the new apocalypse and the new millennium, and the success of The X-Files: “The X-Files tended to tip the balance towards the sublime excess of received scientific and social knowledges, turning speculative SF into alluring but elusive truth.”
Luckhurst does capture and reveal the contention of science fiction writers who had philosophies that at times were diametrically opposed. For Luckhurst, the history of science fiction is not just a collection of stories, but rather a history of reactions to what was occurring in “the real world,” something that is also contested. Almost equally referenced as the science fiction practitioners are the literary and cultural theorists who have complicated, profound and insightful things to say about history and science fiction. Here one will find references to many of them and many philosophers too, including Baudrillard, Foucault, Lacan, Jameson, Derrida, Hegel, Heidegger, Marcuse, etc. These sometimes literary theorists and intellectuals have been used to conquer the field of literary studies. In some sense they can be likened to an alien invasion or the Borg, for those who do not want to do all the necessary and painstaking work to get up to speed with postmodernism and cultural theory. But they do add a framework to understand the historical developments to which the “megatext” of science fiction reacted.
Luckhurst ends his story of science fiction by pointing out science fiction’s recent reconnection with its roots in a new form of hybridity, a return to the “conditions of writing that dominated the emergence of SF in the late nineteenth century.” The boundaries or borders have been taken down between various genre forms and literary forms. One can again find literary concerns in science fiction and science fiction tropes in mainstream literature. Luckhurst calls this “hybridity” and finds this trend evident in the genre-defying works of China Miéville, Jonathan Lethem, Walter Mosley, David Foster Wallace, and others. Luckhurst does not argue that the genre has gone full circle, but rather to “point that the genre has always been a mixed, hybrid, bastard form, in the process of change.” Despite this interest in hybridity, the book does not have a lot to say about border genres such as fantasy and horror.
Luckhurst’s flawed but fascinating work is too short to encompass the long history of science fiction, but he does attempt to bring the history of science fiction alive, and will succeed with some readers. Luckhurst is a fan of the field, but had disparaging things to relay about some of its most famous practitioners. He also does not find space for the discussion of the careers of many of its most influential practitioners including Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Neal Stephenson, etc.
He seems well aware of his own limitations, though, and frankly calls his work partial. His focus is also primarily aimed at science fiction literature; he makes only passing references to television and film. Luckhurst also neglects a study of the fan base of science fiction, and he will likely not find much appeal amongst those fans — his work is unduly sophisticated and verbose. Luckhurst “proposed that a historicist definition of SF necessarily produces a broader, more inclusive definition of SF than a formalist or conceptual one.” It is quite a challenge to understand every text from the perspective of all their limitations.
Science fiction here is also presented in an “adult” or “mature” way, as a field which sought to engage readers with topical problems and issues. Science fiction is not explored as a field for escapism, but rather a reflection on societal trends. However, science fiction has also been a means of escapism. For example, there have been yarns about the planet Mars that have no basis in what was known about Mars at the time, but are part of a fantastical tradition and meant to merely entertain. They have. There is also hard science fiction which seeks to educate about our technological developments rather than delve into our social problems. Luckhurst's chronicle of the field is weighed down by meaning and history, and at times seems to belittle one of the field’s goals: to make the cosmic connection which we have yet to embrace, i.e., we are all “earthlings” in a vast cosmos and we are still fighting wars amongst ourselves.
The work does provide a partial framework on which we can improve our understanding of the science fiction books we read. But much is missing from the work, which does not spend a lot of time discussing famous and influential movies and television shows; The X-Files is the exception. Missing are detailed analysis of undeniably influential works like Star Trek, Star Wars, 2001 and 2010, and The Matrix. One may find the dense and complicated book not comprehensive enough, and it could be expanded into many more areas. Luckhurst creates a “matrix” to understand the literary history of science fiction, and he recognizes that science fiction is a multiverse with different histories, perspectives, and parallel and forgotten universes. Different historians and readers will have different opinions about what is definitive. There are different ways to tell the story of science fiction. British and American science fiction is presented here as developing in tandem, rather than at odds with each other. Luckhurst has left us with a map or matrix, but there are clearly places that are not marked upon it, and places that he did not have the space to tell us enough about.