Non-Fiction Reviews


The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction

(2003) Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (eds), Cambridge University Press, 16.95/US$24.00,
pbk, xxxvii +295 pp, ISBN 0-521-01657-6, and 45.00/US$60.00, hrdbk, 0-521-81626-2

 

Cambridge University Press and the editors have done us a great service in producing this volume; one for which we should be most thankful. It is vitally important that I state this up front and that you truly understand that I am genuinely appreciative of this publication and the various contributors to this volume. I mean this most sincerely.

However, as you may well suspect, there is a bit of a 'but' coming along, and you need to be absolutely clear that while I may criticise this work of analysis, this book is valuable and deserves to be read by anyone who seeks to do more than enjoy science fiction. Nonetheless, in reading this work do please make your own mind up as to the validity of the comments made and the way issues are explored. A reason for this is that one of this work's strengths is that it probably genuinely reflects the current state of SF scholarship within the 'establishment' (here meaning western higher education establishments). SF scholarship's current state is, of course, embryonic. It is far from being a traditional, let alone a more mature area of study. In short academic SF is currently as weak as a wet paper bag. (God, how I hate wet paper bags.) To academic students this Cambridge Companion is a challenge for them to develop a more sophisticated, and all-encompassing, appreciation of the genre. (It also informs them as to what today's course examiners both in the US and UK may expect them to refer to and views to consider: but please don't let that stop students for thinking for themselves outside of coursework, and here, as I'll demonstrate, this guide can also help as a counter to students' own (I hope) rational analyses.)  To the lay-reader who has many year's of familiarity with the genre under their belt, it is interesting to see the ivory tower perspective this work provides.

It is difficult to know where to begin as to be quite frank so much of this book is so awful that my impression tarnishes the many worthy insights The Cambridge Companion also contains. So best to start at the beginning. Its title is The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, with the 'Cambridge' bit providing a stamp of academic authority (which the Press has as its commissioning procedure indicates). But beware of the reference to 'Science Fiction' in the title for turn to the front promotional blurb and line one we see that SF (at least here) is defined as 'a literature'. Yes folks, this is a 'serious' academic work and we are going to take SF seriously. So please (quietly) be careful of what we discuss... For instance no mention of demeaning comics, be it Dan Dare, Metal Hurlant or 2000AD. They are not 'literature' and so according to the Companion's perspective cannot be SF. And as for film and TV, you get the feeling that only because these are such major cultural dimensions, and that, as they relate to SF, they have audiences of billions and similar dollar/pound revenues, they are included. Of course this inclusion is only as an aside and not as a major strand to the genre. Consequently with visual SF's large following and economic turn-over, it appears that the editors found that SF films were hard to ignore even though they and the contributors are such serious academics. So there is space given to SF film but just for a section devoted to this aspect of the genre (aside from passing mentions elsewhere). Just the one devoted chapter: yes, a tad begrudging I know. Of course you might expect a 'companion to science fiction' (even a literary one) to spend a fair bit of time on the 'science' dimensions? Nope, we also only get just one essay on that, and that is confined to the life sciences. (More of this later.) And if you are interested in areas of SF such as computer games or psychology of SF, which has a number of fascinating themes to explore such as 'fictional science and science fiction' as well as applied psychological topics (such as SF in advertising), then forget it. These simply ain't included.

Of course this is a sociological work, and here I mean the non-social science part of sociology. That is the bit of sociology that is not at all science-like and eschews data and hard quantifiable links to the real world. So this 'companion' makes no attempt to outline the size and nature of a number of key SF markets and how these have developed with time, let alone does it quantifiably relate the genre to society (other than in the abstract): perish the thought, that would mean focussing one's thoughts and bringing in reality. The Companion largely consists of the contributors' unsupported perceptions validated only by a career of previous peer review and that that accompanied this work's commissioning process.

Returning to the book's formal introduction, its first page states that SF is both a 'body of writing' and 'a mode of writing', together with another reference to SF as 'literature'. So you can see that the editors (and we can take it the contributors) are serious about the genre being an equally serious area worthy of serious study by people who should academically be taken as, well, 'seriously' and that the SF genre is fundamentally to do with writing and literature. This, banging on about SF being a body and a mode of writing, of course, may well be in part correct, but why keep on referring to SF solely in its written form? SF is far, far more than that. What about speculation? Thought experiments? Sense of wonder? Alternate perceptions and mechanisms thereof? Spectacle? These can be expressed visually, in drama, statues, a variety of other ways...

Before continuing to pick a little further at this work (there are some statements I simply can't let pass unchallenged), I should point out one of this book's strengths (other than the afore mentioned that it is a reasonable (and worthy) reflection of SF-academia's embryonic stage). That is that the book is a list collector's dream. If you want a list of early SF works, SF magazines 1926-1960, SF as it relates to Marxism, feminism and gay sexuality, then there are sections on each of these dimensions (and more) which each contain many references. You are in effect given a list of SF as it relates to each of these. However these lists are not complete (which is fair enough as a 'companion' is not an 'encyclopaedia') but neither are they representative, if only because this companion fails to define with sufficient coherency the territory it covers as it proceeds. Consequently each section's conclusion tends to be amorphous. For example, we learn that much of the fiction from the pulp era is quaint and forgettable and that some is not. However it is left to us to work out why, and how, which work is in either camp. On the books in the section on 'SF from 1980 to the present' we are told in conclusion that, 'These novels are pure SF. By articulating the world (sic), they differ from the world.' Which leads me to ask what on Earth is this contributor on? He continues: 'They demonstrate the continued usefulness of the trusted and tested toolkits of SF.' Sorry, I read the section in question and this lost me: there was no reference to analytical mechanisms, procedures or tools that I could discern (though exemplars were given). Continuing still: 'They are adherent to the underlying, shaping urgency of the genre.' (?) And it ends: 'They speak to the future of the genre. To save the ground of instant habituation, as they seem so clearly to demonstrate, the answer may be as simple as this: that the right way to figure SF is to write it.' Well, I can hardly argue with a hypothesis, but maybe I am too used to science where we tend to put our principal hypothesis first and work towards a conclusion rather than the other way around, and while I recognise that there is occasional validity in (artists and scientists) doing the reverse, this instance takes the biscuit (or is it animals' liquid detritus)... Also, if the only way to figure SF is to write it, then what are students (one of the Companion's key target readerships) doing studying the genre as instead they should be out there writing SF.  And then there is the conclusion to the section on 'science fiction and queer theory' which tells us that 'SF and queer theory' [a term undefined (tough luck students) but an obscure citation is footnoted] 'frequently share both a dystopian view of the present and a utopian hope for the future'. Yeah right, like the reverse in SF is not as equally frequently true.

And then the companion is littered with the ludicrous which we are meant to take seriously. Such as, 'critics have suggested that [Alien]... indirectly comment[s] on the idea of 'male pregnancy', that is to say, how we think of pregnancy if it happened to men.' Now call me conservative but this SF reader, for all his enjoyment of exotica and the weird, has difficulty in believing that this sort of perspective was significantly mentioned in the film's scripting sessions let alone on set. I mean can you imagine director Ridley Scott reminding John Hurt that he is to symbolise giving birth? "Remember John, your breathing."  Give me a break.  All a statement like this does for me is to confirm that there are some critics with weirder perceptions than my own. Good luck to them. (Besides, the one reference to this was in the film Aliens [Ripley and Newt in the med unit] and that was to debunk the idea.)

The afore came from the section on SF and the life sciences about which I previously promised more. And, oh dear, oh dear. What a pigs' dinner. Here there are (as there is with the rest of this companion) some interesting observations but these are undermined by other statements that are simply incorrect. They are wrong. The contributors are in error. For example, 'mutation is the basis of all biological change'. (The underlining emphasis is mine.) Really? Well cling on to that thought if it comforts you that as the World warms, or a tornado wipes out your local woodland, or a pandemic decimates a species. Alternatively, try to explain the following biological changes primarily in terms of mutation: the gradual differing in height between the 17th/18th century Irish and English populations; crocodile sex determination; ecological succession; or predator-prey cycles of population change... The statement is as true and useful as saying that 'changes in shared atomic orbitals are the basis of all biological change'.  Then there is reference to the great strides recently made in 'human cloning'... 'Human cloning', honestly? Now I am aware of clones of several species being 'artificially' created (twins are 'natural') but a fully-grown human clone? Methinks they are referring to research involving cell lines.  Then it is alleged that 'Frank Herbert's Dune (1966) portrays living ecosystems in mechanistic detail consistent with contemporary ecological science.'  Is that so? Well it tells this life scientist, and member of British Ecological Society, that neither of the section's authors have ever conducted an ecological survey. I doubt if they have even witnessed one being done either.  Dune does have an ecological dimension, and indeed a vaguely ecological message to impart, but please don't say that it will stand up to meaningful comparison with real ecological science. (Rather, you can say it, but don't expect to retain any credibility with ecologists.)  It horrifies me to think that people like this are shaping the minds of students. Students: for God's sake think for yourselves and develop your own crap detector.

I could go on but then to unpick this companion further would be to undermine much of its entertainment utility as well as its value as a modest work of reference. For in addition to being, in effect, an interesting collection of lists, it contains much to contend with that really should not go unchallenged, and the challenging is quite fun. (If not fully-fledged entertainment as there are loads of outrageous statements which if you read them out loud can't but help make you laugh.) But God help the poor sods who sign up to full-time university courses on SF if this really is (as I believe) representative of the current state of SF academia. One really wonders whether such students would be getting their money's worth? Whether in tax payers' (university funders) or growing student debt terms, this is a non-trivial question.

I'll be keeping an eye out for a completely re-worked edition in several years time (assuming that this book garners the attention and sales for CUP to commission another edition). However it will have to be substantially improved if I am going to recommend it so enthusiastically and as whole-heartedly as I have this volume. (Remember my comments at the beginning of this review. I am genuinely giving this book my support and recommending it. Though I admit not for the reasons that the editors, contributors or publishers might welcome.)  Meanwhile if I had to sum this book up in one word then it'd be 'pretentious'.  All students of SF need to be aware that some SF academics (hopefully not all of them) operate at this level if they are to get good marks for their coursework. The rest of us get some lists, a laugh, and a chance to hone our own crap detectors.

Having said all of the above I would like to apologise to any of the contributors to this Companion for any offence I may have inadvertently caused in this review. I know a number of these folk and indeed for a while I (and other members of the Concat' team) studied SF under one of them at the City of London Institute for Literature. (Though while nearly all of us already had university degrees, we were not precious about academia or pretentious as to our SF studies: we called ourselves the 'City Illiterates'.) Those contributors I know (and I presume the others too?) truly have a wealth of knowledge of SF to share, it is just that their display of this in this book was at times a tad off as explained above. While I may apologise for any distress I do not apologise for alerting such emperors as to their new clothes. It would be far more cruel to remain silent. You deserve honesty and I honestly believe you can do better. It is not your individual fault that SF academia is in its embryonic stage or that its current standards are frequently so low (which this Companion reflects and is part of its value). Collectively though, when in future you embark on ventures such as this, more focus and less obfuscation please.

Jonathan Cowie

One of the Companion's editors has asked that we link this review to a page detailing its contributors. We are happy to oblige click here.

Footnote. From the above you may be surprised to learn that Jonathan is actually a supporter of academic resources being applied to science fiction and that for a number of years he was a subscribing 'Friend of Foundation' supporting the SF Foundation in the UK which continues to be a most worthy venture based at Liverpool University.


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