SF in All Its Glory – A Review of “The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction”

My first introduction to SF was Flash Gordon – an old black and white movie my parents took me to, in our tacky local theatre. I think I was five at the time.

It was not a grand success. As soon as those aliens started attacking Flash, I started bawling. I continued this throughout the movie until they were forced to take me home.

But when I met Flash again, in Indrajal Comics, I started liking him despite ‘Mandrake the Magician’ and ‘The Phantom’ being more popular titles in the franchise. Apart from the superhero Flash, I loved the spaceships, the outlandish landscapes, the weird aliens, the obsessive Zarkov, the beautiful Dale Arden – even Ming the Merciless. This was a totally new experience: imagination need not have a boundary.

I was in love with Science Fiction.

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Now I understand that Flash Gordon was nothing but ‘Space Opera’: somewhat looked down on as not sufficiently intellectual by serious purveyors of the form. But it pulled me into the magic of this genre, as it must have thousands of other youngsters.

I learnt that SF can be serious too, however, when I came across Isaac Asimov in my late teens. For a bookish, socially awkward youngster (I don’t know whether the term ‘nerd’ had been coined then) this was the perfect escape – stories written with the precision of science, very less of character conflicts, romance, sentiment and other time-wasting side avenues: there was a problem, there was a solution. Period.

Well, gradually my reading universe expanded, and I found out that the genre contained writers of much greater skill than Dr. Asimov (but I’d still give him top marks for sheer imagination) and it was much more than robots and space exploration. Instead of a genre, SF was a whole new way of forging literature, of tackling philosophical and existential questions, of analysing the impact of science on the human condition… above all, it was exhilarating. It was escapist, yes, but the escape was to a more sharply defined reality.

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The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction examines science fiction under three aspects. The first section examines the history, from its genesis as stories of wonder, through the ‘pulp era’ of American magazine SF, through the intellectual ‘New Wave’ when the boundaries between SF and Fantasy were blurred, on to the current ‘postmodern era’. The second section examines the genre through various critical approaches: Marxist theory, feminist theory, postmodernism and queer theory. The last section examines the various tropes of SF: its icons such as space ships, robots etc; various sub-genres such as space opera, alternate history, utopias, dystopias etc; and how politics, gender, race, religion etc, are handled in SF. Each section contains various chapters, written by well-known authors and critics, and presents a fairly comprehensive view.

The History

The origins of SF can be traced back to the fantastic voyages such as Gulliver’s Travels and dream journeys, where the authors tried to break the shackles of the requirements of realism. However, it was arguably Mary Shelley who wrote the first novel which could be really termed science fiction: Frankenstein is the tale of the quintessential mad scientist, tempting fate by trying to create life and playing God, and quite predictably coming to a sticky end. Edgar Allan Poe also used the tropes of science to expand the horizon of his fantastic stories. And most readers know Jules Verne, the purveyor of extraordinary voyages and H. G. Wells, whose stories are also social statements.

But it was the availability of cheap paper made from wood pulp, which made the publishing of magazines very cheap in the USA, that really contributed to the rapid growth of this genre. The so-called ‘pulp magazines’ gave birth to and nurtured many of the latter day greats like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Hugo Gernsback, whose magazine Amazing Stories was founded in 1926, was the pioneer in the sense that it restricted itself to publishing only SF; the flame was carried forward by the iconic editor John W. Campbell in Astounding Stories, who mentored most of the American greats.

Later on, SF moved away from the blood-and-thunder stories and adventure yarns of yore into more thoughtful fiction, with literary quality and speculative exploration given more importance than action, the so-called ‘new wave’. Currently it has reached the level of meta-fiction and ‘cyberpunk’ (where the action is mostly within virtual realities).

The section also examines film and television, with such iconic shows as ‘Star Trek’, and the still-continuing saga of ‘Star Wars’.

Critical Approaches

This section was a first for me. I never knew one could analyse so much within this genre which – well – most of us consider primarily entertainment. But consider this: from a Marxist viewpoint, isn’t each society imagined in SF conducive to a political analysis? For example, Wells’s The Time Machine is clearly a criticism of bourgeoisie society taken to its logical extreme: same way, his The War of the Worlds is an indirect criticism of British imperialism. However, on the whole, SF believes in a technology-driven society which provides a just society where everybody can thrive – in that it mostly follows the American ideal of free market capitalism. But of late, social criticism has become one of its significant aspects.

SF initially had women only for the aliens to kidnap and be rescued by the swashbuckling hero. But slowly, writers such as Ursula K. LeGuin and Joanna Russ (to mention two of the prominent authors) brought a distinctive feminine outlook to the field; and now, more and more novels and stories which can be interpreted from a feminist viewpoint are emerging.

This section also analyses postmodernism, where SF moves away from scientific exploration into societal exploration in the current turbulent world – moving beyond the boundaries of the genre itself: and queer theory, where SF’s obsession with the ‘other’ (as different from the normal) is analysed to examine the changing attitudes of society towards ‘deviant’ sexual practices. (I must confess that this section went a bit over my head!)

Sub-genres and Themes

This was the section I enjoyed most, as various critics and writers examine the beloved icons and themes of SF. There are rockets, robots and aliens as brave and pioneering adventurers venture outward; there equally exciting challenges within human biology, mutation and evolution, and the mind-boggling possibilities of genetic engineering as the hardy scientists labour here on earth. There is the ever-present threat of environmental destruction and the tantalising promise of terraforming a hostile planet. There is ‘hard’ science fiction where the problems of science are explored in a future setting and ‘soft’ science fiction where the science is minimal and the human aspect is all-important.

There is the “Space Opera” with intrepid heroes chasing diabolical villains across vast swathes of space: there are alternate histories where authors toy with the idea of what might have been – say – had Hitler won the war, and other such interesting speculations. Here we have the utopias where everything is hunky-dory for humanity, and the dystopias (infinitely more popular!) like 1984 where daily life is a nightmare.

This section also examines how politics, gender, race and religion are treated in SF, with iconic examples like Ursula K. LeGuin’s totally anarchic society of Anarres (The Dispossessed), her planet containing sexless beings who become male or female during breeding season (The Left Hand of Darkness), Orson Scott Card’s strange race of the ‘piggies’ in Speaker for the Dead etc. There are many more, and for an aficionado like me, it was pure pleasure to read the erudite analyses of so many old favourites.

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In short: for an SF fan, this is a book which cannot be missed.

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