Book Review: ‘The History of Science Fiction’ by Adam Roberts

'The History of Science Fiction', by Adam Roberts

‘The History of Science Fiction’ by Adam Roberts (UK HBK 0333970255; Palgrave, November 2005)

Literary histories are not the type of book that many literature fans feel inspired to read. The prospect of a thick slab of academic examination of texts spanning a few hundred years is hardly a thrilling one, and one imagines many of them are as dry as one might expect – aimed more at scholars and professional critics rather than the average consumer. Roberts’ ‘History of Science Fiction’ is undoubtedly an academic work, as one would expect from a professor of literature, but has the merit of being written by someone with a genuine love for the subject under scrutiny. While it’s not a light read by any stretch of the imagination, it is replete with detailed insights into an often misunderstood and misrepresented genre of the arts, and holds together well as a structured history at the same time as providing a coherent theory of how science fiction, as a medium, can be defined.

Roberts, like most commentators on genre fiction, has an over-arching theory that he uses to plot the evolution of what is now referred to as ‘science fiction’. Unlike many others, though, he traces its roots back way further into the past. Many historians have claimed that SF was born with Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ – Roberts takes us right back to the writings of ancient Greece and Rome to examine the origins of the genre’s driving force.

For Roberts, what defines ‘science fiction’ is a dialectic between what could be described as ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ world-views. He admits himself in his after-word that these terms are loaded with potential sectarian value-judgements, but they are used as terms of convenience. The ‘Catholic’ worldview, he argues, is roughly in line with what we might define as ‘fantasy’; the belief in a spiritual facet to existence, a certain mysticism in outlook. The ‘Protestant’ view is more technological, driven by materialism and rationalism, a belief that all things can be explained in a ‘scientific’ manner.

These are gross oversimplifications on my part, of course, as to fully explain and illustrate them has taken Roberts years of study (and a thick book) to achieve. But that is a sketch of the essence of his argument; that science fiction is at its best, at its most ‘science fictional’, when it articulates the clash of these two polar ideas, rather than sticking closely to one or the other. He draws on a huge selection of texts to make his point; not just stories and novels but art, cinema and television too, examining the underlying assumptions and philosophies of the works and their creators in his attempt to map the progress of the genre.

Literary theory aside, this history is illuminating purely as a metatext of the genre, as a listing of highlights (and lowlights) along the journey. Roberts’ status as a fan ensures that the subject is treated with a seriousness and respect that ‘external’ commentators might find hard to bring to bear. However, he has not shied away from making some potentially contentious points that fandom as a whole might find a trifle hard to swallow.

For instance, he argues that, far from crippling SF as a genre, television and cinema has in fact invigorated it and allowed it to take its place in the common culture of the art world. He acknowledges that the values of visual SF are different, driven far more by spectacle and imagery than the ‘literature of ideas’ that fandom claims to be SF’s primary mode. But he also claims that this insular attitude of fandom, and its inability to interact with the world outside of itself, actually hinders the acceptance of SF as a mainstream genre – in other words, SF’s elitism is its own worst enemy, and furthermore is completely unjustified.

He rightly points out that SF readers have more quality titles to choose from each year than almost any other subsection of literature; that they have a close-knit, informed and intelligent community that produces huge amounts criticism and analysis; that the scene has a coherence and sense of identity unparalleled elsewhere. Yet still the scene hunches its shoulders against the rest of the world, refusing to share its toys while claiming that no one else would understand or enjoy them anyway. It’s probably a bitter pill for any fan to swallow, especially the old hands, the die-hard SMOFs and fanzine writers. But one feels there is truth in what Roberts is saying, as much as it sticks in one’s throat to admit it. The (perceived) decline of SF literature is very much overstated, and indeed inconsequential when compared to the decline of interest in literature in general. Fandom may well have less to complain about than it thinks.

All in all, Roberts’ ‘History…’ is a book that anyone seriously interested in SF’s merits as an art form (rather than simply its value as an escapist pastime) is sure to find enlightening, if occasionally contentious. His theory, and the arguments that support it, are cohesive, well thought-out and clearly stated, and copiously referenced and researched. Whether one agrees with his assessment or not, it cannot be denied that he has something of great relevance to say about the genre. And he certainly provides grist for the mills of any reviewers or critics, not just of his own works, but of the genre in general.

Adam Roberts’ website

7 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘The History of Science Fiction’ by Adam Roberts”

  1. I wanted to thank you for including this review on your site. I am a huge science fiction fan and I am always looking for a good book to read. I the review this week and I have ordered the book from online already. I have been looking for a good book for a while, but kept finding the same things. And then I saw the review on your site. I liked what I read and figured I had nothing to lose. It sounds like it is right up my alley and I can not wait for it to come to my house so I can drive right into it. I also plan to write a review of my own when I finish it. Maybe I will give it the same level of praise that he has given it. I am not going to pull any punches though. Just giving you some fair warning.

  2. I’ve just started reading this book (I found it in my local library) and so far find it very absorbing, and was glad to discover this review by Mr. Raven.

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