Fantastic Reviews - Nonfiction Book Review
Science Fiction cover  Science Fiction by Adam Roberts

Routledge - copyright 2000
184 pages

Book reviewed in August 2002

Rating: 8/10  (Highly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          Science Fiction is a critical study of what the SF genre is all about.  It is aimed primarily at an academic audience, but should also appeal to any serious reader of SF.  Adam Roberts can address his subject with credibility because he has an academic background, including as a Lecturer in English at the University of London, and also has recently written several well-received SF novels, including On, one of the most fascinating and inventive novels to come along in many years.

Although Science Fiction is not intended as a comprehensive survey of the genre, in the course of his study Roberts discusses a wide range of written SF.  Roberts displays broad knowledge of the field, notwithstanding the occasional error such as crediting Bruce Sterling rather than William Gibson with coining the term "cyberspace."  Roberts also considers landmark filmed SF, including Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, and even Men in Black, along with a brief mention of music with SF themes.

Science Fiction is part of Routledge's New Critical Idiom series, first published in the U.K. but also widely available in America, the stated goal of which is to give a clear account of currently prevailing literary terminology.  As a book directed at an academic audience, I was quite skeptical that it would actually be "clear."  Sure enough, Roberts occasionally gets bogged down in lit-crit jargon.  (Amateur reviewers like me must of necessity cling to our reverse snobbery against those who have actually been trained in literary criticism.)  For the most part, however, Roberts succeeds admirably at discussing complex ideas with straightforward language.  (I don't know if the other entries in the New Critical Idiom are as successful, and I feel no need to investigate.  You are invited to smack me if you ever catch me with a copy of Intertextuality.)

Perhaps unintentionally, Roberts demonstrates how comparatively and admirably understandable his language is by frequently quoting the opaque statements of other critics.  He repeats, for instance, Australian SF author/critic Damien Broderick's wordy definition of science fiction, filled with phrases like "foregrounding of icons and interpretive schemata from a collectively constituted generic 'mega-text.'"  Bah!

Because Roberts writes more clearly than most critics, and because of the breadth of science fiction that he examines, thoughtful SF fans will find a great deal to interest them in this book, even if they have no liberal arts academic background.

Roberts' clarity is put to the test in the first of the five substantive chapters of the book, on the definition of science fiction.  I have never accepted the notion, widely held within the SF community, that "science fiction" defies any attempt at definition.  Many definitions get tangled up with the word "science" - the term "science fiction" is a misnomer, since SF often has nothing to do with science.  If one avoids that pitfall, and allowing for the inevitable debates at the margins, the basic concept is rather simple:  fantastic literature goes beyond the boundaries of the real world, while science fiction is fantastic literature that remains plausible.  That is how Roberts defines it, albeit with more precision.

Specifically, Roberts tells us that imaginative fiction is "a literature of ideas predicated on some substantive difference or differences between the world described and the world in which readers actually live."  Science fiction is the subset of imaginative fiction in which the deviations from reality are "made plausible within the structure of the text.  This means that the premise of an SF novel requires material, physical rationalization, rather than a supernatural or arbitrary one."  It is this method of rationalization that allows SF to depart from the real world, yet often still be written in a "realist" mode.  Note that Roberts does not require scientific validity.  His definition justifies our implicit understanding that, for example, a story set in a faster-than-light spaceship is science fiction, even if FTL travel is arguably not scientifically plausible, because it is treated in the text as having a physical rationalization.  The particular departure from reality that drives a science fiction story Roberts refers to as the "novum" ("nova" in the plural), a term he credits to critic Darko Suvin.  These nova are the manifestations of strangeness or otherness without which, by this definition, a story cannot be science fiction.

The second chapter discusses the history of science fiction.  Roberts notes the division between those who trace the origins of SF back hundreds or thousands of years and those inclined to say the field began with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.  He attributes this gap to two views of science fiction, one that SF is "a specific artistic response to a very particular set of historical and cultural phenomena" such as the Industrial Revolution, and the other that SF "speaks to something more durable, perhaps something fundamental in the human make-up, some human desire to imagine worlds other than the one we actually inhabit."  Since I prefer the latter view, this insight explains why I have always been discomfited by the notion that the field began with a particular work or author, perhaps Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as Brian Aldiss contends, even when I am hard pressed to name many earlier examples of the form.

Roberts correctly observes that either way, there is no getting around the fact that there has been an explosion of new SF within the last century.  Roberts believes Paradise Lost lit the fuse.  He argues that Milton's characterization of Satan was the first powerful vision of the other, which later inspired gothic and romantic writers including Mary Shelley.  From the gothic and romantic tradition, he traces the development of SF through Wells and Verne, the pulp magazines, the Golden Age, and the New Wave (a term Roberts uses much more broadly than I usually think of it, even including Dune within it).

The next two chapters deal with gender and race.  Roberts offers some reasons for the growing number of female and minority writers and readers in the field.  Star Trek fans will be pleased by the credit he allows that show for expanding SF's base.  He discusses the leading feminist and black SF writers with great approval, although he does not ignore their shortcomings.  (For example, he describes The Female Man by Joanna Russ as "effectively hijacked by a feminist agenda.")  The chapter on gender ends with a lengthy, thoughtful discussion of Ursula K. LeGuin's classic The Left Hand of Darkness, defending it persuasively against its noisome detractors within the feminist community.  The highlight of the chapter on race is an explication of Samuel R.  Delany's The Einstein Intersection, which I enjoyed rather more than I enjoyed reading The Einstein Intersection.  (For SF from an African American's perspective, I'll take Octavia Butler over Delany any day.)

The final chapter addresses technology.  Roberts chooses to isolate spaceships, robots, and cyberspace, in each instance emphasizing how these are employed in SF to fuse together the organic and the inorganic.  This combination can be used to mirror reality or to show us something utterly different.  He expresses sincere admiration for the Borg race in Star Trek, which he sees as a fusion of organic and inorganic with a result that is utterly outside our experience or ability to understand, although he regrets that Star Trek undermined the alien-ness of the Borg later in the franchise, for instance by giving them a queen.

Throughout the book, Roberts focuses on the ways science fiction portrays otherness or "alterity," saying that the encounter with difference is the "key trope" of SF.  He reserves his strongest praise for SF that succeeds in conveying a true sense of alterity, particularly works that embrace diversity, such as Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy.  He is quick to denounce SF works - even many that he otherwise admires – when they portray otherness in a negative light.  He tends to label as sexist, racist, or otherwise -ist stories with "good" white male heroes and "bad" aliens.  As a generalization this strikes me as unfair, but it is difficult to argue with some of his specific examples of the "demonization" of otherness.  In Dune, for instance, why should it contribute to the impression of Baron Harkonnen as a despicable villain that he finds young men attractive?

I wonder if his emphasis on SF's depiction of otherness doesn't cause Roberts to limit unduly his consideration of the field.  He is correct that by definition SF must involve elements outside of our real-world experience, and he is correct that the nova, the aspects of otherness, that SF employs provide concrete metaphors for alterity in the real world, including race and gender.  But the strength of SF is that, through its various nova, it creates a huge range of possible metaphors for anything, not just the quality of otherness that the nova themselves exemplify.  Roberts tackles SF metaphors for gender and race issues in detail, but what about SF metaphors for other important social issues?  That illustrate other aspects of human nature and psychology?  That raise questions of morality, ethics, or theology?  How about discussing meaningful scientific speculations in SF?  Roberts wades into some of these issues effectively in the last chapter, in his analysis of William Gibson's Neuromancer, but I would have liked more discussion of them.

In fairness, it would not have been possible to consider all of these topics in detail in such a short book.  At only 184 pages (not counting the glossary, bibliography, and index), the brevity of Science Fiction is both a strength and weakness:  a strength because Roberts covers a number of topics concisely - the reader will find many thoughts provoked without being asked to make a great time commitment - but a weakness because Roberts does not always take the time to pursue the implications of his observations.

For example, Roberts notes at several points how the devotion of SF readers has allowed, or perhaps caused, the field to be backward-looking - modern SF texts are deliberately filled with references to past works, to a remarkable degree for a "popular" genre.  This is true, and an essential observation to make in a critical study, the audience for which presumably includes people who wish to understand SF even though they are not fans.  But it begs the very important question of what implications this has for the current state of SF and its future development.

The extent of allusion and pastiche in modern SF can be great fun for a long-time reader, but I worry that it restricts writers and discourages new readership.  Read some of the Hugo Award short fiction nominees of recent years and you'll see stories from very talented writers like Michael Swanwick and James Patrick Kelly, who seem to be limiting their visions of the future, deliberately invoking the genre's traditions with tongue in cheek because they are so conscious of the history of the field and in whose footsteps they are following.  How is a young reader to be drawn into the SF genre, when so much of it presumes knowledge of a great body of past works?  Adam Roberts and I are part of the last generation that could reasonably be expected to "catch up," to go back and absorb the history of the field so that we could appreciate what is now being published.  Today catching up takes too much effort, and most young readers are too savvy to want to do it - they can recognize the weaknesses of Doc Smith and Isaac Asimov, and the grand scope of their visions is no longer novel enough to make up for the flaws.

          As a longtime fan of science fiction, I think we need more new writers devoted to revitalizing the ideas of those old masters, to recreating the tropes of science fiction without caring if something's been done before, to working on the same scale as the Golden Age classics but with a greater degree of skill and craft.  There are new writers out there who have that kind of imagination and that kind of talent and, as it happens, Adam Roberts is one of them.
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Copyright 2002 Aaron Hughes

More Adam Roberts book reviews by Aaron:
Jupiter Magnified and Park Polar

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Links to websites about Adam Roberts:
Adam Roberts - Science fiction author, critic, reviewer and academic
Adam Roberts - an infinity plus profile
The SF Site Featured Review: The New Critical Idiom: Science Fiction

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