fjm has, as she has explained here to those of you who receive her LJ pieces, been attacked by Rob Latham for her "ill-tempered and wrongheaded" review of Roger Luckhurst's new book on science fiction in the New York Review of Science Fiction. So, Latham, why have you ignored my ill-tempered and wrongheaded review, in the Summer issue of Foundation? The Luckhurst book is in fact capable of making anyone bad-tempered, I think, but perhaps historians above all. Those of you interested in the gory details will find my review below...
As someone who has twice tried to produce an introduction to science fiction, once on my own (Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, OUP 1994) and once with Farah Mendlesohn and other contributors (The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, CUP 2003), I have a pretty fair idea of how difficult a task it is, and how impossible it is to satisfy everybody. Luckhurst has done a scholarly job; the book is remarkably free of the kind of errors that so marred Adam Roberts’s Science Fiction (Routledge, 2000). (When errors occur, indeed, sometimes they are no more than quirks, like Luckhurst’s reluctance to add the middle initials which people like Delany, Dick and Le Guin use when they publish; he talks about “Philip Dick”, for example, on p.108.) The book covers a wide chronological range, from the 1880s to Miéville’s manifesto for the New Weird, and offers numerous insights into particular texts. But what defines it above all is its own manifesto: to produce a cultural history of sf.
The book appears in a series called “Cultural History of Literature”, and Luckhurst takes care in his opening pages to announce what he understands by “cultural history”. It is probably this which caused me the most problems with the book: not what he actually argues at any particular point, but the theoretical and methodological underpinnings which he has chosen for his “cultural history”. To start with, for Luckhurst, cultural history is “the New Cultural History”, known above all since Lynn Hunt’s 1989 book of that name. The New Cultural History begins with the unspoken premise that the Old Cultural History has little to offer. Cultural history as practiced by historians before 1989 (among whom I count myself, just to nail my colours to the mast) was empirical; in other words (and here I provide my own reading), it looked at evidence, and let evidence determine the outcome. The New Cultural History may, actually, sometimes do this as well. Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre, usually taken as a classic of the genre, may use techniques of cultural analysis derived from Clifford Geertz’s work on Balinese cock-fighting, but it is actually as soundly based on a holistic understanding of the surviving evidence from eighteenth-century France as the work of any traditional historian. But for many New Cultural Historians, theory – derived from a familiar litany of names, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and so on – has been more important than grubbing around in archives. While denying that any text can be read in a straightforward way, they produce a reading of that text which purports to illuminate the society which created that text – or, at least, the aspect of that society which interests them, since the New Cultural Historians frequently focus on the marginal and the hidden, rather than the central and the obviously significant, which Old Cultural Historians had, in their naivety, thought worthy of study.
Luckhurst draws three conclusions from the work of the New Cultural Historians. Firstly, that it offers an opening to those who look at what is traditionally regarded as marginal – such as science fiction itself – and a chance to understand that marginalisation. Secondly, the cultural historical approach allows one to situate sf texts “in a broad network of contexts and disciplinary knowledges” (p.2), This will not be a literary history, he proclaims, looking at a broad range of texts, but one which selects texts that “are rich and overdetermined objects becaue they speak to their specific moment in history” (p. 3). And thirdly, Luckhurst aims to draw from cultural historians a desire to look at identity and meaning in society, but, more specifically, to use science fiction to illuminate humanity’s relationship to Mechanism (the old word for technology, which Luckhurst prefers). “SF texts capture the fleeting fantasies thrown up in the swirl of modernity” (p. 3), which itself is the product of Mechanism. Sf texts are cultural productions; in consequence (or so it seems) both Brian Aldiss and myself get castigated for making literary value judgements (for daring to suggest, with differing degrees of vehemence, that the legacy of 1930s American pulp sf was not wholly beneficial for the quality of the the sf of later decades).
Much of this agenda should be applauded. But the seeds of the problems inherent in this book are there in these three conclusions. The most problematic, I think, is the second. What are the sf texts which are “rich and overdetermined” and which “speak to their specific moment in history”? How are they selected? How does this selection undermine the pretensions of the work to offer an introduction to science fiction?
The book is divided into three parts: “Emergence, 1880-1945”, “Elaboration, 1945-1959”, and “Decade Studies” (four chapters dealing with the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s in turn).
Part I initially introduces in the machine age of the late nineteenth century, from which science fiction emerged, both as a product and a reaction. This is followed by two chapters which contract the British and American experiences: the former concentrates on Wells, seeing the evolutionary theme as central, and the latter looks at the development of American pulp sf from Frank Reade Jr through to A.E. Van Vogt, singling out the engineering theme (and its social emanation, technocracy). Luckhurst’s analysis of Van Vogt is fascinating. He is placed at the end of this evolution of pulp sf, but as a man who introduces “modern” sf by his synthesis of the evolutionary and engineering themes. With Van Vogt (and Hubbard) “The Engineer has moved from the self-made boy inventor to the professional technocrat to be a membver of an elite cadre of new biological beings” (p.75).
Part II begins with a rumination on the significance of 1945, and the atom bomb (with the help of Heidegger, Ellul, Adorno, et al.). But then, in a sense, this interesting new chronology for science fiction is temporarily abandoned, and we retreat to the familiar history, with Campbell’s 1939 editorials for Astounding and Heinlein’s “Blow Ups Happen” (1940) (correctly, “Blowups Happen”). American sf in the twenty years from 1939 is shown in terms of Cold War commentary (Campbell, Heinlein, Merril, Bradbury, Shute, Miller, and Dick) and social criticism (very largely Pohl and Vonnegut, with some commentary on the significance of Galaxy magazine). These are certainly two important elements, but only two of several that he could have picked, and he does not really bring out the tremendous expansion of sf in the first half of the 1950s. The separate section on British sf (unfortunate, perhaps, since his earlier point had been the growing convergence of American and British sf) begins with the fantasists (Lewis, Tolkien, Peake) and continues, interestingly, with Clarke and Wyndham. Part II ends, in 1959, with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch, “the two extremes to which written SF might travel by 1959. They also give early warning of the profound schisms that were about to take place in both British and American SF in the 1960s” (p.137).
Luckhurst’s first two parts, although they present some issues about selectivity, nevertheless offer a new and stimulating approach to the origins of sf. They also do look systematically at science fiction as a reflection of Mechanism: a stated aim which gets increasingly forgotten thereafter. The problems I had with the book in fact emerge most obviously and clearly in Part III, “Decade Studies”, which deals, coinsidentally, with the four decades which I have experienced directly as reader, fan and critic.
The 1960s, says Luckhurst, “have a strong historical and cultural identity, even if this rarely fits into the decade itself” (he suggests that the 1960s are really 1959 to 1974) (p. 141); and this identity is characterised by the usual – “Swinging London”, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, “Summer of Love”, civil rights, anti-war protests. Inexorably, therefore, this chapter turns into a discussion of the New Wave in science fiction. There are sections on “The British New Wave, 1964-1970”, on “Ballard, Jerry Cornelius, Zoline”, and “Was There an American New Wave?” The problem with this concentration is, of course, that the first four years of the 1960s (or five if it began in 1959) are largely ignored, and that only a tiny part of the total sf production of the period is discussed at all. Within the section on the American New Wave, Luckhurst recognises that it is more complex than he really has time to deal with; he notes that “this is where the waters become muddy” (p. 160). The counter-culture, he admits, did not pick up on New Wave sf at all, but on Stranger in a Strange Land, Dune and The Lord of the Rings. He points out that it was “an irony” (p. 165) that Larry Niven, the archetypal traditionalist sf writer, helped finance Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology, and notes rightly that even though Edward James regarded this book as a New Wave product, in fact it employed various old-time writers and was much more of a reanimation than a breakthrough. He does not, however, point out that Larry Niven was one of the most popular of sf writers of the late 1960s. Why write about Ballard (in detail) or Zoline as texts which “speak to their specific moment in history”? Why not write about Heinlein or Herbert or Niven, all of whom also speak to their specific moment in history (as all writers must, by definition), and who also spoke much more loudly, in that all three of them reached a very much wider readership than Ballard or Zoline? Heinlein, Herbert and Niven (not to mention Tolkien) do more than “muddy the waters”; they suggest that the picture of sf in the 1960s which Luckhurst presents is so distorted as to be a travesty.
It is, to start with, a 1960s without Star Trek. Admittedly, Luckhurst says that he is writing about literature and not television or the cinema (though he chooses to ignore that when he comes to the 1990s, because The X-Files fits in with his schema), but to leave out Star Trek is to leave out something essential. And, if I can draw on my own experience, one of the most eagerly awaited books of the mid-1960s among British fans was not the latest Ballard collection or the latest Jerry Cornelius, but Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. How many of the 1960s Hugo-winning novels are mentioned by Luckhurst; by my count, just 3. His approach is like that castigated by Dominic Sandbrook, who pointed out recently (see Zoë Williams in The Guardian, April 19 2005) that while a few records sold a million copies, each week twenty million Britons watched The Black and White Minstrel Show. To characterise the decade in terms of “drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll” is to capitulate to cliché and, more important, to ignore the experience of the bulk of the population; to characterise the sf of the decade in terms of the New Wave does exactly the same, ignoring the experience of the bulk of the sf-reading and sf-writing population.
The fact that Luckhurst is constructing an alternate history of the 1960s is finally acknowledged in the last sentence of the chapter, when he notes that “When we turn to the 1970s, it becomes even more possible [my emphasis] to write flatly contradictory accounts of the cultural and historical trajectory of SF” (p.166). The two accounts of the 1970s he is referring to are the one which sees that 1970s as breakthrough (occasioned by the success of the New Wave project), and the other which sees the 1970s as a time when genre fantasy and the success of mass “sci-fi” movies “obliterated all the hopes which had been entertained for science fiction” (the words of the perennially and deliciously gloomy Brian Stableford, writing in 1998). Luckhurst suggests that the reality is that there was a period of confused equilibrium between “the two strongly identifiable movements that bracketed the decade: the New Wave in the 1960s and Cyberpunk in the 1980s” (p.166). The history of sf can thus be linked to the “outside world”, the “undecade” of the 1970s, as Stephen Paul Miller called it, which is also a period of confused equilibrium, apparently (characterised by the energy crisis, social unrest, and a general questioning of established ways of doing things). But how much of this really holds water? What Luckhurst sees as “two diametrically opposed accounts” in fact mesh together very well: a development which one person sees as “breakthrough” is another person’s “capitulation to market forces”. Moreover, the two themes Luckhurst actually concentrates on in this chapter – the continuation of the British New Wave into the 1970s, and the rise of feminist sf – do rather mitigate against getting a clear and rounded view of what is happening in the decade. Neither Joe Haldeman nor Anne McCaffrey, for instance, get a mention (they are at least not indexed); yet both, in their own ways, are among the most popular writers of the 1970s. Is Luckhurst making the value judgements he condemned in Aldiss and James? Are the New Wave and Cyberpunk really so significant in the history of sf that they even help define the 1970s, as well as the 1960s and 1980s?
Luckhurst’s picture of the 1980s and 1990s are similarly narrow and non-inclusive. “The 1980s” looks briefly at the concept of the “postmodern” before discussing cyberpunk in one section and radical attitudes to the body in the second (splatterpunk and Octavia Butler – the only female author Luckhurst discusses in any detail after his section on the feminism of the 1970s). “The 1990s” is the New Space Opera (mostly Simmons and MacLeod – and not Lois McMaster Bujold, who I suppose writes Old Space Opera, although her work has proved immensely popular) and Apocalypse and Alien Abduction (neither of which themes actually figured very large in the production of sf authors in the 1990s, however popular they may have seemed in Hollywood). He recognises that Robinson’s Red Mars “might be the representative 1990s text” (p.221), above all in the way it situates itself within the sf genre, but this is not an avenue he wants to explore; it seems to him to demand some lament about the decline of sf into pastiche. Here again we have an alternative history he does not want to write; instead he wants to pick out the elements of the 1990s which look towards what he sees as a positive future for science fiction. The end of the book is a discussion of the New Weird, and of the current trend towards “generic slipperiness” (p.243).
The pattern Luckhurst established as early as Part II of this book is continued to the end: each time he picks just two themes to characterise each of the periods which he isolates. Of course one has to select – and thus inevitably distort – in the writing of a general book (just as I have had to select in the writing of this review), but the degree of distortion creates views of the science fiction of the last four decades of the twentieth century that are largely unrecognisable to me. In the process, of course, he also creates views of the changing culture of the later part of the twentieth century which may also bear only partial resemblance to what I hope I can call (in this post-postmodern era) the “real world”. The book is full of stimulating ideas, certainly, and (for me at least) full of the potential for irritation. But we need books which irritate, and readers of Foundation, knowledgeable people who will be able to spot the problems, should read it. But no one should be tempted to give this book to a student as a first introduction to the study of science fiction.