Edward James and Farah Mendelsohn’s The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction

cambridge-companion-to-science-fictionYou know that science fiction has arrived at some sort of respectability when you are confronted by something like The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. This is not really a new phenomenon — science fiction has been the subject of Ph.D. dissertations since the 1950s (although rarely until much more recently), and the critical literature has grown substantially since the publication of Damon Knight’s In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction (1956) and Kingley Amis’ New Maps of Hell (1960).

What editors Edward James and Farah Mendelsohn present us with is a handy, one-volume précis of scholarly thinking on the genre science fiction, and in a way on what I can only call the meta-genre of speculative fiction (a term first brought into prominence by writer and critic Judith Merril in the 1960s and 70s which seems to me to be as convenient a designation as any other for that sprawling mode that encompasses science fiction, fantasy, their hybrids and offshoots).

Mendelsohn begins with a cogent introduction that makes several important points about that “genre” referred to variously as “science-fiction,” “sf” (either upper or lower case), or “sci-fi” (the mark of a true outsider to the field). Acceding to the generally held view that the term “genre” mostly misses what science fiction is about, she calls it “an ongoing discussion,” and later, a “mode of writing,” which echoes the sentiments of a number of commentators. (See my comments on Speculations on Speculation for more discussion of this particular stance.) She also notes that, contrary to the oft-stated (usually with a sniff of disapproval) designation of science fiction as “popular” entertainment, science fiction literature is not really popular: it is a minority literature, which I think is a fundamental idea in many of the discussions that follow. Annoyingly enough, however, she picks as her iconic text Greg Egan’s Schild’s Ladder, a book I haven’t read. (This doesn’t really affect understanding of her discussion, but I hate having to rely completely on information provided by someone else.) At any rate, this is not an introduction to skip, as Mendelsohn touches on many of the topics that will be discussed in more detail throughout the anthology and provides the reader with a sense where this book is coming from.

Mendelsohn’s groundwork is followed by a series of historical studies on the genre, beginning with a long look back to the utopian “travelers’ tales” of the seventeenth century (which somehow, very bravely, I think, manages not to mention Thomas More’s Utopia [1516]) through the “scientific romances” of the nineteenth and early twentieth; the history of the pulps, beginning with Hugo Gernsback’s epoch-making Amazing Stories through the Golden Age of the 1940s and 50s, the New Wave of the 1960s, and the advent of cyberpunk, slipstream, and whatever we have now from the 1980s on. Attention is paid also to science fiction in film and television, a very different animal from that portrayed in literature, and, an area that is critically important, a look at the editors who have shaped the field.

The section on critical approaches is illuminating, if only because it reveals the poverty of ideologically driven critical stances in relation to a field as amorphous as science fiction. Marxist theory, with its insistence on historicity and utopian vision, reveals itself inadequate to analyze any but a few works of science fiction that fit its own self-imposed boundaries. In a field that figures that anything in the universe is fair game, this is nothing short of suicidal. Feminist and queer theory don’t really fare much better; mostly railing at the field for what it hasn’t done, although both at least give nods to what it has. (I should point out, however, that both feminist and queer theory offer powerful tools for analysis in those areas dealing with “other,” which is, after all, one of the main elements of science fiction). Postmodern theory seems to come closest to a fit — neither the theory nor its subject (in this case, at least) are sympathetic to definitions, and postmodernism’s abandonment of history parallels to a certain extent a thread that has established itself post-New Wave (although I must confess that the edges of this phenomenon seem to waver between ahistorical and hyperhistorical). It is no accident, I think, that postmodernism is one of the most common critical approaches in this area, although it seems to have attached itself somewhat symbiotically to cyberpunk and missed rich pickings in the works of such authors as Gene Wolfe and Dan Simmons. This is not to say that none of these schools has anything to say about science fiction — quite the opposite is the case, actually, but one has to take their approaches with a grain of salt and a good awareness of what they are not addressing.

There is a great deal of overlap between the critical approaches and the section dealing with subgenres and themes, as might be expected, although this last section, while delving into some of the more common “types” of science fiction, also offers a glimpse at possible futures (in itself somewhat ironic, considering science fiction’s historic focus). These are, however, only glimpses, since this section, as in the rest of the volume, is essentially historical in outlook. (The very brief discussion, for example, of biology, reproduction and sexuality ties very neatly into the essays on feminist and queer theory.)

The contributors are a distinguished group, including voices prominent as both writers and critics, although most of the contributions come from academia, which only reinforces my initial comment about respectability. There is, at the very beginning of the book, a somewhat idiosyncratic timeline, which does begin with Thomas More, but is mostly a compendium of stories and novels selected because, I would imagine, someone thinks they are significant. I also think some of them are significant, but the complete lack of annotation leaves me wondering about others.

The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction turns out to be interesting not only for the context it provides for science fiction (not exactly the same, of course, as the context anyone else has provided, but then, we are dealing with an area in which scholars and practitioners cannot even come close to agreeing on a definition), but as a look at the state of scholarship itself, its lacks and shining moments and its near misses. Given, however, that its very indefinability is one of the most attractive things about the field, this anthology holds its own moments of illumination.

(Cambridge University Press, 2003)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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