Non-Fiction Reviews

On Monsters
An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

(2009/2011) Stephen T. Asma, Oxford University Press, £10.99 / US$17.95, trdpbk, 351 pp, ISBN 978-0-199-79809-4


The monster is one of speculative fiction's (science fiction's as well as fantasy's) core tropes. They even have their own sub-tropes: aliens, mutants, zombies and so forth. There are even non- and semi-biological monsters: the Daleks and the Borg to name but two. So a work looking at these is more than a little appropriate for genre aficionados. Here, philosophy lecturer (Columbia U.), Stephen T. Asma, has done a commendable job examining these throughout the ages. This book originally came out in 2009, but this 2011 edition is its first paperback appearance.

Now I have to say, that for me a lot of what humanities 'academics' get up to does leave me cold: so much of it is unqualified and often impenetrably coded pap with undefined pseudo-jargon that covers up for the lack of substance in the fare being offered. However in this case Stephen Asma has presented a formidable overview, clearly written, and importantly a perspective that takes us beyond speculative fiction. (The only marginal downsides being that he does confuse sci fi with science fiction, but then only seasoned SF buffs know the difference (though we are accustomed to mundanes' use of one as a supposedly-trendy abbreviation – as opposed to a sub-genre – of the other) and that finally he succumbs to arts' waffle when trying to wrap up his presentation at the book's end: 'empirical data of freedom' being but one unexplained humanities' jargon he uses.) His taking his examination of monsters beyond SF is equally fascinating, and a little horrifying, as monsters in reality do tend to do what monsters tend to do so well, and that is to scare.

So with Stephen Asma's On Monsters we not only get an exploration of monsters from the past (in ancient and medieval fantasy legends), and present (fantasy/horror and SF), and future (hard SF), but also real biological monsters be they cryptozoological, real biological mutants and even – for me the most frightening of all – torturers serving extremist regimes: the picture and explanatory text of 'the Khmer Rouge bed' was unsettling. For the SF enthusiast this non-SFnal aspect is interesting because it is one of the stepping stones between SF as an art form and its real-world relevance.

The book is balanced towards text but there are illustrations, both line and mono-photo, every several pages. You might have thought that a more text heavy book would not work given that monsters are so very visual, but Asma's easy-to-read style with facts coming along as regular as clockwork, means that sustaining the reader's attention is not difficult. End-of-book chapter note explanations and a subject index also mean that this work can be used as a reference for both genre-buffs who like to analyse the subject and arts students. In short, a recommended reference work.

Jonathan Cowie

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