Skip to content

An Author’s Journey: “Amazing Stories” of Science Fiction: Book Review of James & Mendlesohn’s “The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction,” 2

An Author’s Journey: “Amazing Stories” of Science Fiction: Book Review of James & Mendlesohn’s “The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction,” 2

The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction

The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction

Good Afternoon, Everyone!

I’m in the midst of starting the summer season by re-reading both Frank Herbert’s Dune series and Terry Pratchet’s Discworld books, literary journeys that should keep me entertained well into fall.  Revisiting Arrakis and the sustained, millennia-long tale of the Atreides family also goaded me into picking up a copy of The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, a wide-ranging collection of essays on various aspects of sf (edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Andrew M. Butler's essay—Chapter 9's

Andrew M. Butler’s essay—Chapter 9’s “Postmodernism and science fiction”—groups Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 book, “Slaughterhouse-5,” as among ‘postmodern’ sf works. (Here: Tralfamadore)

Kazuo Ishiguro & Neil Gaiman (

Kazuo Ishiguro & Neil Gaiman (“Let’s talk about genre,” BBC Radio 4, 5/28/15)

Although published 12 years ago, the book’s comprehensive view of Science Fiction remains relevant in an entertainment industry that teems both with various expressions of the sf genre & little agreement on what’s meant by the term. (For a recent discussion of the blurred lines of “genre fiction” in today’s marketplace — and whether science fiction and fantasy are pejorative labels — jump to this 9-minute BBC radio interview with Neil Gaiman & Kazuo Ishiguro

Robert A. Heinlein,

Robert A. Heinlein, “Starship Troopers” [1959 introduction of idea of powered armor exoskeletons]

Ursula K. Le Guin,

Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Left Hand of Darkness” (Alex Ebal)

Back?  Great.  Let’s return to James & Mendlesohn’s text.  Last time I reviewed the ‘history’ section of The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, and today we’ll conclude with some highlights from the its last two parts, ” Critical Approaches” and “Sub-Genres and Themes.”  While one might argue that the diversity of works in the “The History” section are themselves exercises in critically surveying sf, four essays give readers a sense of some possible academic “Critical Approaches”:  Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.’s “Marxist theory and science fiction,” Veronica Hollinger’s “Feminist theory and science fiction,” Andrew M. Butler’s “Postmodernism and science fiction,” and, finally, Wendy Pearson’s “Science fiction and queer theory.”

The conflict between Morlocks and Eloi in H.G. Wells's

The conflict between Morlocks and Eloi in H.G. Wells’s “The Time Machine” as an example of “science-fictional estrangement” for social models in Csicsery-Ronay’s essay, “Marxist theory and science fiction” (Here, Morlocks from the 1960 film, “The Time Machine”)

Csicsery-Ronay’s essay on Marxist theory is a superb example of the possible rewards awaiting sf readers who want to critically reflect on the field:

…Marxist theory has played an important role in sf criticism, especially in the last third of the past century.  Since the 1960s, many of the most sophisticated studies of sf have been either explicitly Marxist in orientation or influenced by Marxist concepts adopted by feminism, race-criticism, queer theory and cultural studies. Although relatively few critics and writers in the genre have been avowed adherents of Marxism, sf and the closely related genre of utopian fiction have deep affinities with Marxist thought in particular, and socialist thought in general.

Utopia becomes dystopia: Arthur C. Clarke's

Utopia becomes dystopia: Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” [concept art by Neal Adams]

In its simplest terms, sf and utopian fiction have been concerned with imagining progressive alternatives to the status quo, often implying critiques of contemporary conditions or possible future outcomes of current social trends.  Science fiction, in particular, imagines change in terms of the whole human species, and these changes are often the results of scientific discoveries and inventions that are applied by human beings to their own social evolution. These are also the concerns of the Marxist utopian and social imagination.

Feminism & revival of sf utopianism in the 1970s: Joanna Russ,

Feminism & revival of sf utopianism in the 1970s: Joanna Russ, “The Female Man” (art by Peter Andrew Jones)

Marx’s system combined a sophisticated critique of the capitalist economic system, a conception of history as the dialectical process of human self-construction, and a vision of a universally just and democratic way of life in the future as the goal of human history.  Although Marxism’s role as political practice and prophetic mode has weakened with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the ascendancy of multinational capitalism, many of its key concepts have been adopted by other critical social movements and branches of scholarship. Race-critical and feminist thought has borrowed the Marxist historical model, substituting people of colour and women for the working class as emphasized historical agents. It frequently models racism and sexism on bourgeois ideology, as racial hegemony and patriarchy are modeled on the capitalist mode of production.  Thus marginalized humanity acts like the proletariat in a model of progressive coming-to-consciousness and revelation of the contradictions between ideology and its practice…From its earliest forms, utopian fiction has depicted imaginary just and rational societies established in opposition to exploitative worldly ones...

Planetary ecology & world-building in Frank Herbert's

Planetary ecology & world-building in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”

Again, while the book was written in 2003, Part 3’s “Sub-genres and themes” offers a host of essays that essentially characterize the state of the sf through the present-day, a testimony to the comprehensive editorial approach taken by editors James and Mendlesohn.  A short list here of the authors and essay titles should give a sense of the thoroughness and expansive coverage of the work:

'Hard sf' & Allen Steele's

‘Hard sf’ & Allen Steele’s “Chronospace” (2001)

Gwyneth Jones, “The icons of science fiction”
Joan Slonczewski & Michael Levy, “Science fiction and the life sciences”
Kathryn Cramer, “Hard science fiction”
Gary Westfahl, “Space opera”
Andy Duncan, “Alternate history”
Edward James, “Utopias and anti-utopias”
Ken Macleod, “Politics and science fiction”
Helen Merrick, “Gender in science fiction”
Elisabeth Anne Leonard, “Race and ethnicity in science fiction”
Farah Mendlesohn, “Religion and science fiction”

Alexei Panshin,

Alexei Panshin, “Rite of Passage” (1968) — What Gwyneth Jones calls the “complete starship” novel where social engineering, town planning, & education share the adventure story.

Gwyneth Jones essay, “The icons of science fiction,” is an essay that accomplishes much ground in ten pages; from a clearly stated premise ― “the icons of sf are the signs which announce the genre, which warn the reader that this is a different world; and at the same time constitute that difference” — Jones defines sf “icons” as representing “something both supernatural (or at least other-worldly), artistically conventional (in that certain features are mandatory) and yet clearly belonging to the public domain.” She proceeds to divide the article according to the most commonly found sf topoi: (1) Rockets, spaceships, space habitats, virtual environments; (2) Robots, androids (and gynoids); cyborgs and aliens; (3) Animals, vegetables, and minerals; (4) Mad scientists and damsels in distress; and, finally, a conclusion that points to (5) “Traditions and challenges” with which the new generation of sf writers will have to contend as the modern world’s technological advances (quantum research) and entertainment expectations (CGI) intrude into the borderlands of the future once reserved solely by sf writers and futurist visionaries.

The text is a superb contribution to the academic side of sf studies, and even the casual reader will appreciate the well-exemplified arguments made throughout the book; indeed, each chapter/essay offers a chance to revisit the sf genre from its origins to the state of the field in the early 21st Century, and I well understand how the book earned the 2005  Hugo Award for “Best Related Non-Fiction Book.” Check it out!

Have a great week, and thanks for visiting!


No comments yet

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: