Non-Fiction Reviews

Lost Transmissions
The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy

(2019) Desirina Boskovich, Abrams Image, £22.99 / Can$37.95 / US$29.99, hrdbk, xii + 276pp, ISBN 978-1-419-73465-6


We all have our favourite Science Fiction novels, films and television series and we all have our personally much-loved lesser-known works.  All well and good as it is the way of things that there are the famous and the lesser known works: human culture is heterogeneous.  But also there are key works and the backstory to key works that never had a wide airing or, if they did, became largely forgotten.  With Lost Transmissions – The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy Desirina Boskovich has, with the additional help of over a score of others providing essays, given us a window on some of the back-stories and works that the average person, or even casual SF fan – indeed younger sercon (serious & constructive/conscientious) fan – are likely to be unaware.  It's a gosh-I-never-knew-that book for perhaps more dedicated, broad church, SF aficionados, covering as it does: film, literature, TV art, fashion architecture and pop culture.

An example of the considerable ground it covers is the opening section on Johannes Kepler (he of Kepler's laws of orbital motion) on his proto SF story Somnium.  Yes, many of you will have heard of it concerning a 50,000 mile journey to the Moon where its inhabitants are met.  It is sometimes cited as being published in 1634 but it actually appears a first draft that may have been written in 1593 and thereafter further drafts were circulated among Kepler's friends.  What I did not know, and may be some of you you did not too, was that in 1611 a copy fell into the hands of someone less friendly to Kepler.  As Somnium features spirits, daemons and as it had autobiographical elements, Kepler's mother, Katharinia, was accused of witchcraft.  As her aunt had previously been burnt at the stake for witchcraft, Katharina was interrogated by witch hunters and spent fourteen months in jail.  It took Kepler five years to clear her name, so little astronomy was done in that time. Kepler died without formally publishing the book, which his son Ludwig did in 1634…  There's a lesson somewhere in there for aspiring SF/F writers.  Sadly, Desirina Boskovich points out, there are few translated copies from the original Latin.  It is about time something was done to rectify this.

Lost Transmissions covers some ground, which I suspect may not be that lost. For example, that C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were friends is, I guess, known by most of the more avid fans of either author. That they also both used to hang out with Charles Wilson and Owen Barfield among others, who were writers and who collectively called themselves the 'Inklings', is perhaps less known but not unknown and there has been a recent feature film on this relationship and even a book (nominated in 2008 for a Hugo).  However, as there are literally millions of Tolkien and Lewis readers who are arguably more casual fans of these writers, it is quite possible that many such fans are unaware of the connection and the impact they had on 1940s British speculative fiction that reverberated down through the ages to today.  So perhaps this could be categorised as a 'lost transmission' secret history of SF?

What is certainly less known, as is revealed in the next but one section, is the incomplete Lewis story The Dark Tower which though published a few year's after his death, has not garnered nearly the same traction with the public as his Narnia books or his SF trilogy that began withOut of the Silent Planet.

The Dark Tower is a somewhat creepy time travel story.  Following Lewis' demise, in 1964 the apparently complete manuscript was discovered but in1978 a prominent Lewis scholar denounced it. Controversy continued but, as Desirina Boskovich points opines, such is the balance of evidence that the emphasis arguably now needs to be with those claiming the found manuscript is a fraud to prove their case.

Other ground covered includes Harlan Ellison's overly late anthology The Last Dangerous Visions that was to follow up two critically successful Dangerous Visions (1967 & '72) anthologies.  Having been in fandom since the 1970s I was aware of the outlines of this story (many younger fans may not?) but not the detail: I was not aware that Ellison had been sitting on so much of other authors' works that there could be several volumes of Dangerous Visions anthologies if it was all published!

The film section entreats us to see Metropolis, George Lucas' THX 1138 (by far his most cerebral work) and Phase IV (1974).  I have enjoyed all these and all three are only very rarely screened on TV these days and never at peak viewing time.  Younger genre buffs may be missing out, so it may well be that Desirina Boskovichi s right to have it included these as 'lost transmissions'.  I was though, unaware that the ending of Phase IV had changed but – I gather from Lost Transmissions -- my original understanding of the film as to what was going on was perfectly clear.  On a personal note, I love the bit in Phase IV where the biologist stands in front of the towers he has broken that the uplifted intelligent ants had built, shouting the line, "Right. Now perform." (Would that life science experiments be that easy to conduct….)

There are also sections on music, fashion, art, music and architecture.

The thing is with Lost Transmissions is not to take it as a definitive guide to 'the secret' history of SF.  As is pointed out in Jeff Vandermeer's foreword, and Desirina Boskovich also emphasises in her introduction, there are other secret histories of SF covering many little-known back-stories and under-appreciated works. So perhaps my one minor quibble is that this book should instead have been subtitled A Secret History…, rather than The…, so laying open the compiler to provide further volumes. And there is ample room for more, much more.  Lost Transmissions is a firework burst of information on lesser known SF dimensions.

The short chapters, each of only half a dozen pages, make this a ideal book for dipping into, or reading on the daily commute or at bedtime.  The book's production values are also high: it is full colour through out with many illustrations. Also there is no loose fly jacket but a colour front incorporated as part of the board cover: I prefer these as fly-jackets damage all too easily over the years.

This is a delightful book worthy of all genre buffs' bookshelves.  Treat yourself.

Jonathan Cowie


[Up: Non-Fiction Index | Top: Concatenation]

[Updated: 20.1.15 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]