Non-Fiction Reviews

Science Fiction
A Very Short Introduction

(2011) David Seed, Oxford University Press, £7.99 / US$11.95, pbk, 147pp, ISBN 978-0-199-55745-5


This is a short non-fiction text in the usually very competent and interesting series of pocket books from Oxford University Press. The series aims to do what it says on the can: provide 'very short introductions' for 'anyone' to a range of topics and as such they are in the main ideal for those seeking to at least begin come to grips with, and certainly gain a sense of the scope of, a topic be it: paganism, law, leadership, Puritanism, the brain…

Now, my view of this book vacillated between liking it and being disconcerted by it.   First, being a short introduction I succumbed – weak-willed creature that I am having the moral fibre with the breaking strain of a Mars bar – to having a quick flick through before settling down to read. The first thing I noted was that this is a guide to SF primarily in its book form and very much second it cinematic dimensions with TV and comics barely getting a mention and other forms of the genre such as computer games (where SF's single, largest value franchise currently lies) are ignored in the main body of the text. Then my view changed again as I read David Seed's introduction when he explained that he had to focus on certain areas of the genre (largely ignoring others) simply due to the space constraints afforded by the book series' format: its small! Fair enough. Of course the good news is that it is quick to read; which is, after all, the series' purpose.

A good introduction is the sign of a good guide or 'companion' text to any subject: it sets out the stall being presented. We (Tony and I) had a similar problem with Essential SF: A Concise Guide and most (with the literal exception of a couple) of our book's reviewers took this onboard as it sets out the specific approach we took and all that follows is in this light. And with Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction, David Seed does an admirable job of setting out his stall. He openly admits that much that could have been included is left out (SF poetry being another example). So nobody can (or should) fault the author on those grounds.

David Seed then takes us through 6 chapters that individually cover one of five broad areas of the genres tropes: space travel; aliens; technology; utopias/dystopias; and time. The last chapter is entitled 'The field of science fiction'. Then there is a section on suggested further reading before this short volume is rounded off with a rather useful subject index.

Given the constraints of the series, the author has done a commendable job of portraying at the very least a sense of the breadth of the genre. This is probably the most valuable thing this book provides its readers. Science fiction is not just facile rockets and ray guns as is caricatured by many mundane (non-SF) critics and others allied to the mainstream arts community, and David Seed does a worthy job of dispelling this myth: so give the man a cheer. (Hooray!).

Having said all this I do have two types of problem with this guide. The first stems from who I am and not who some other of the book's likely readers are going to be. I am someone who is into science (professionally) and I have had a lifelong interest in the genre in many of its forms. As a consequence of both these, one of my interest in the genre are the way it is a genre that has a relationship with, or (as Carl Sagan puts it) dances with, science. OK, that is from whence my genre perspective comes.   Others may be aficionados from other walks of life (butchers, bakers and candlestick makers) and others still, even so-called academics with a humanities take on the genre.   Now I say 'so-called academic' not to be derogatory but academia is a very different environment for scientists compared to that for humanities. In science vitally we depend on the scientific method; hence fact and data, with opinion only arising out of verifiable or potentially falsifiable (see the works of Karl Popper). Conversely, in the humanities opinion seems to dominate and some of its academic papers can even be devoid of data (containing only opinion whose values is unverifiable), other than the citation of other humanity works similarly devoid of data.   This is not a criticism just a fact of life that both areas of study are markedly different. You may have an opinion as to the utility of one form over the other (I make no bones that I have) but surely the world would be a poorer place of either the humanities or the sciences were lost: there is value in both even if the balance as to the worthiness of the two is debatable.   (And yes, this is a loose generalization: of course I do recognise that some areas of the 'arts' – being a broad umbrella term – do greatly value the verifiable/falsifiable, and here the study of history is but one example. And also I do recognise that some with science qualifications do equally get off on the artsy approach: good for them for being so broadminded.)

Now say all this so as not to cause offence. I know that some found my own take on The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction unpalatable, and if you were one of those you may wish to stop reading this review right now!

With regards to Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction , it soon becomes apparent from the off that the author's take to 'over-viewing' the genre is purely artsy. Personally I find this a shame (if not unforgivable) if only because 'science' is actually within the term 'science fiction' and SF has arisen as our society has become increasingly dependent on the technology arising out of science, and not least because many SF readers (and indeed quite a few of its writers) have a science or technical (applied science) qualification. But it is not just the science take that is missing, we do not, for instance, even get a half page on the increasing economics of the genre which itself is indicative of its growing social value.

Starting with the introduction. As said, the author does a commendable job of setting out the (publishing format constrained) limits of his approach that are largely determined by the limited space afforded him. He then goes on not to give a specific definition of SF (who can blame him for ducking that one) but gives the views of a few others (which is fair enough). However he might have adopted a systematic approach ('systematics' refers to the way different elements [things] relate to each other) and noted that the two of the most common approaches as to the relationship between science fiction and fantasy are quite different. One has SF as an overarching genre encompassing fantasy. The other has speculative fiction as the overarching genre with SF and fantasy as separate but overlapping subgenres within it (science-fantasy is at their overlap).   This last is arguably preferable as it designates more information to the terms. Of course you can say (and some do) that SF is fantasy but that not all SF is fantasy. (See the Clute-Nicholls Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction.) Either way, presenting the systematic approach enables much to be conveyed quickly and simply. But then again this criticism of mine might be due to who I am: biologists are really keen on systematics as applied to species' classification.   What I really find wishy-washy is David Seed saying that: "to call science fiction (SF) a genre causes problems because it does not recognise the hybrid nature of many SF works. It is more helpful to think of it as a mode or field where different genres and subgenres".   The reason this is wishy-washy is that most things in human life (music, architecture, soap operas, Yorkshire pudding, and so forth) are a mixture of things: is Gone with the Wind a western or a romance? My grumble here is that this is an attempt to make some sort of defining guideline from a fairly feeble draw in a filing cabinet located within the Department of the Bleeding Obvious. (I wish I could say that such comments belong within university humanities departments but we tax-payers fund those and we deserve value for money.)

Moving on, the subsequent chapters dealing with space travel, aliens, technology, utopias/dystopias and time travel are fair enough in that they do indicate the breadth of the genre: which is what a concise introduction such as this should do.

Maybe part of the problem is the lack of space the format of this book series allows. Other topics in this book series are given room to spread. For instance this 'Very short introduction' series has separate titles on Christianity, Anglicanism, Christian Ethics, The New Testament, The New Testament As Literature, Pentecostalism, Puritanism, Science and Religion, Theology and even Christian Art. So Christians should be happy. All we SF aficionados have from the series is this single volume, and so the author really has to have to work hard to make a coherent whole. Consequently, I found the times when he went into artsy mode irritating: don't waste the space, I kept thinking. And then when sometimes you look at the artsy comments the reader (unless they are an artsy type) is left high and dry. For instance, there are a number of references to SF and Marxism but no explanation as to what it is in Marxism that SF relates. Imagine if I had mentioned 'systematics' earlier without any explanation as to what it is then you would be lost.

I can of course forgive the compiler for his own take on various works, though I did not think while watching Blade Runner, during any of the several times I viewed it, that the close-up of the eye at the beginning represented the society being watched over with computer surveillance: I thought it was, as the author also mentions, more to do with the Voigt-Kampff test used to distinguish humans and the andys/replicants.   I can also forgive occasional aggrandisement such as calling the 'magazine' New Worlds a 'journal'.   I can even forgive the occasional author mistake; we all make them. For example the throwing of the bone by the apeman (Australopithecus spp.) in 2001: A Space Odyssey does not segue into an orbiting space station but a US orbiting nuclear device (the clues include that the bone was used as a primitive weapon and the orbiting satellite has no windows or docking portal – it is in fact a modern weapon)*. But I accept that you need to be a bit of a buff to know that.

Also I can forgive things where there are genuine areas of debate: I leave it to the curious among you to decide whether Metropolis was made in 1926 or 1927.   What I cannot forgive are really blatant errors. To continue with the 2001 example, please note David Seed that Poole was not killed by Hal opening 'airlocks' but instead by Hal attacking Poole with an EVA pod while he was already outside checking out the antenna! (The airlock (singular) scene is of Bowman getting back aboard the Discovery.)   Then again, when talking about Clarke's Childhood's End we are told: "The Overlords begin to produce children on Earth who have telepathic abilities…"   Actually humanity was 'naturally' evolving (a bit like Iain Banks' advanced species subliming in his 'Culture' series) and the Overlords were merely acting as mid-wives to this process.   Such errors only undermined my confidence in the rest of the guide where books and films of which I was less familiar were discussed: I simply could not trust the detail. And of course if I could not trust the detail then why (assuming I should at all want to) should I trust the artsy comment?

The guide ends where it began with the artsy and another comment on genre boundaries.   We are told: "Debate still continues on the question of whether the collapse of generic boundaries in contemporary SF implies the collapse of textual meaning as tropes lose their traditional significance. However experimental an individual work might be, it will generate meaning partly through its interacting with the accretional 'meta-text' built up by science fiction over the decades."   What 'debate'? If there is any 'debate' then I do not see it on the main SF blog sites, frequently discussed at conventions (though some may do so), or in SF magazines, or even (apart from very occasionally) by authors or film directors (unless that is they are fighting against their works being pigeon-holed). Such debate, if it takes place in any meaningful way, I suspect only occurs among a very small cadre of critics (as opposed to reviewers) many of whom I guess somehow are possibly connected with the handful of SF 'education' courses (or perhaps scores of modules within other courses) run in Britain and the US. This number is a miniscule fraction compared to the millions (if not billions) who consume Anglophone SF in some form or another… And this is just me on just the first word of this book's concluding, high noise-to-signal, sentences: I am not even going to bother to unpick the rest as your (and more importantly my) life is too short. Such concluding comments and other asides in the book (however supposedly worthy to some ivory tower minority) are not relevant to the far broader readership that this 'very short introduction' is likely to attract and indeed is aimed at.

Now, please do not get me wrong. This is not a bad 'very short introduction'; it is just not a very good one worthy of an Oxbridge University Press. What it does successfully do is to convey the breadth of SF to someone who is beginning to have an interest in the genre. It certainly can be used to identify possible works that might interest someone starting to explore science fiction. What readers need to be wary of is using it where more rigour is required, such as a shortcut to a school essay on SF: it would not be wise for readers to take the accuracy of the book/film summaries for granted (unless the pupil is gambling that the teacher is not particularly steeped in the genre).   Of course a reader who is doing an artsy course will be able to pick up on the pseudo-academic cant and so distil some specious comment on genre narratives that subvert the meta-text linking its tropes that overrides the author-reader experience within a postmodern context (reminiscent of a Marxist approach) in an increasingly technological society that itself seemingly is beginning to reflect science fiction... (Yes, I am taking the nephridial product.)

Now please do not get me wrong. I am not having a pop at the author (though I am not shy as to passing comment on emperor's clothes, and emperors are free to wear (or not) what they want and invite comment when they go public). Actually, I blame the OUP series' commissioning editors. First, if the series, as OUP says, is "for anyone wanting a stimulating and accessible way into a new subject" then the book must be written for a general readership and not from a narrow perspective (in this case that of an arts academic) on the specialist subject in question (in this case SF).   Second, if the series is by definition to be made up of 'very short' books then planning is required. Here it would arguably have been helpful to have commissioned three or four books simultaneously. Perhaps they might have been on The History of SF, SF in the 21st Century, SF film and TV and then an over-arching introduction that skates over the others but in the main additionally includes SF's size compared to other genres, economics, relationship with science, appeal, comics, computer gaming, key internet sites, and even fandom, etc. i.e for the OUP series to do for SF what has been done for other topics within the same series (I gave the example of Christianity earlier, but it could equally have been Islam, art, etc as these each have a number of books in the 'A Very Short Introduction' series). Important to this commissioning process would be to let each author know of the other titles being prepared and to give them a co-ordinated brief. This way the 'A Very Short Introduction' series would have a meaningful addition by the inclusion of SF. As it stands all I can give Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction by way of a rating is that OUP (and possibly the author) could do better. Nonetheless, for the uninitiated seeking an introductory feel for the genre's breath, this guide does its job well enough.

Jonathan Cowie


* In addition to the US orbiting nuclear weapon (shown immediately after the Australopithecus threw the bone in the air) the 2001 space waltz also showed a German and a Chinese orbiting nuclear device… Oh dear, I think my nerdish aspect is showing.

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