BSFA Review – Vector #267
The Routledge Concise History Of Science Fiction by Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint marks the conclusion of a sustain period of genre activity from the academic publisher. First in 2009 came the Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, a vast work edited by Bould, Vint, Andrew M Butler and Adam Roberts. The prohibitive price put it out of the reach of pretty much everyone but academic libraries until a paperback edition was published at the beginning of the year. It is this edition which Glyn Morgan reviews over the page.
In the course of doing so he notes “the companion to the Companion”: Fifty Key Figures (edited by the same foursome). I reviewed Fifty Key Figures for the online magazine Strange Horizons where I suggested the point of the book “is to broadly map a large and fragmented territory in a way that engages the interested general reader and stimulates further investigation…. Of course, by its nature, it is somewhat jagged itself, fifty spikes jutting up from the vast plains of the genre.”
Now we have the Concise History – the companion to the companion to the Companion, perhaps – which smoothes out that landscape somewhat. At the same time, it brings new risks; Fifty Key Figures does at least avoid the “potentially unattainable comprehensiveness that a more conventional history of the genre demands of both author and reader.” This sentiment is echoed by Bould and Vint themselves in their introduction: “Writing the history of science fiction is an impossible task, and even writing a history is daunting.” Their solution is to acknowledge their limitations, set out their boundaries and provide signposting.
So the use of the word ‘concise’ is important. Compare this book, for example, to the recent Palgrave History of Science Fiction, edited by Adam Roberts (him again). After dealing with the problems of definition, Bould and Vint devote a single chapter to “science fictions before Gernsback.” Roberts spends six chapters and 150 pages getting to the Twentieth Century. This is not a criticism of Roberts’s book, simply a suggestion that the Concise History is more likely to find favour with the general reader, the reader who is perhaps less interested in the genre emerging in the 17th Century as a dialogue between Protestant and Catholic worldviews and more in the themes and concerns of the last eighty years of modern SF.
Each chapter is short – about 20 pages including interpolated text boxes pointing in other directions – starts with a paragraph overview and ends with a bulletpoint summary. We are briskly taken from the Thirties to pretty much Now (the last word goes to China Miéville’s The City & The City). From the outset there is an emphasis on a plurality of approaches. For example, in the chapter on the Thirties (“Proliferations”) care is taken not just to address the rise of the pulp magazines but also comics and radio and TV serials. The editors remark that “histories of the genre usually marginalise or exclude such SF” but they are surely right that our collective understanding of what SF has been as much informed by the latter as the former. This careful look at “enrolment”, the way some works are brought into the canon of science fiction and others moved into other boxes (such as fantasy or horror), lends a gentle but persistent (and entirely welcome) air of revisionism to the book.
Whilst the Routledge Companion and Fifty Key Figures are clearly primarily orientated towards students, they are also of considerable interest to the general reader. The same is even truer of the Concise History, an ideal book for a new SF reader who wants to know where we’ve come from. It is a book I’ve always wanted, a book I wish I had as a child.
- The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sheryl Vint (Routledge, 2009) – Reviewed by Glyn Morgan
- The Mervyn Stone Mysteries: Geek Tragedy, DVD Extras Include: Murder and Cursed Among Sequels by Nev Fountain (Big Finish, 2010) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
- Sci-Fi London Film Festival: Dinoshark (2010), Sharktopus (2010), One Hundred Mornings (2009), Zenith (2010), Gantz (2011) and Super (2010) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
- Ignition City, written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Gianluca Pagliarani (Avatar, 2010) – Reviewed by James Bacon
- Twin Spica: Volume 1 by Kou Yaginuma (Vertical, 2010) – Reviewed by Nick Honeywell
- Mardock Scramble by Tow Ubukata, translated by Edwin Hawkes (Haikasoru, 2011) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
- Gantz (2011) – Reviewed by Lalith Vipulananthan
- Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (Harper Voyager, 2010) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
- The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
- On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers (Corvus, 2011) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
- The Broken Kingdoms by NK Jemisin (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
- The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Sue Thomason
- The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz, 2011) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- The Scarab Path by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor UK, 2010) – Reviewed by Nic Clarke
- The Wolf Age by James Enge (Pyr, 2010) – Reviewed by A.P. Canavan
- Blood and Iron by Tony Ballantyne (Tor UK, 2010) – Reviewed by David Towsey
- The Evolutionary Void by Peter F Hamilton (Pan MacMillan, 2010) – Reviewed by Martin Potts
- Point by Thomas Blackthorne (Angry Robot, 2011) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
- Embedded by Dan Abnett (Angry Robot, 2011) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
- The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar (Angry Robot, 2010) – Reviewed by Niall Harrison
- The Rivers Of London by Ben Aaronovitch (Gollancz, 2011) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
- Secrets of the Fire Sea by Stephen Hunt (Harper Voyager, 2011) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
- The Horns Of Ruin by Tim Ackers (Pyr, 2010) – Reviewed by Simon Spurrier