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Edward James & Farah Mendlesohn, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction

Isabelle BAUDINO
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Edward JAMES & Farah MENDLESOHN, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge University Press, 2003, 326 pp., €27.68, ISBN 0-521-01657-6

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1This volume, which includes a discursive introduction and twenty essays by twenty-two contributors (both scholars and practitioners of science fiction (SF), offers a comprehensive analysis of a literary genre which stands at the intersection of numerous fields. In the opening pages, editor Farah Mendlesohn warns that the authors of this book are addressing a reader who is not completely unaware of what SF is, one who might even have read a few novels and seen a few movies. The book is not structured as a general introduction for lay readers looking for a gradual expansion of knowledge on the subject; an anthology of SF writers and key SF works would have been more suited to this purpose. This initial reserve put aside, the volume is an ideal up-to-date companion for advanced undergraduate and postgraduate students as well as a reliable teaching resource with a chronology, a bibliography (from which websites are absent) and a useful index complementing sophisticated essays. The address to this academic readership is significant. In the Foreword, Professor James Gunn presents the book as a testimony of the advent of SF scholarship in the last three decades of the 20th century (xvi) and traces the “extraordinary journey” of its academic recognition: SF was first being taught by fans then became the subject of pioneering conferences before finally being admitted to British and American universities (xvii-xviii).

2Even if the expression “science fiction” dates back to 1929 when Hugo Gernsback — the editor of the first English-language magazine entirely devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories — coined the phrase, the body of writing that falls under this category is “less a genre... than an ongoing discussion”, to quote Farah Mendlesohn (1). Although respectable and generally accepted, SF nevertheless challenges attempts at being defined, and the book, while focusing on SF, primarily addresses this fascinating question: what is a literary genre? The first answer hinted at (i.e. “a battleground”, 1) could trigger an interesting sociological analysis... Yet the editors and authors have adopted neither a sociological nor a textual perspective as a starting point, favoring a case-study approach instead in their examination of Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder as an exemplar SF text (2). From a close scrutiny of Egan's book published in 2002, Mendlesohn draws the distinctive features of an SF narrative. Although the plot structure could be extracted from any other literary genre SF is powered by a sense of wonder combined with presentism (3). As an encoded narrative, SF relies on a style (made of lexical inventions or narrative embeddings) and on a specific language which transforms the reading of an SF story into “an active process of translation” (5). The cognitive estrangement (i.e. “the sense that something in the fictive world is dissonant with the reader's experienced world”, 5) is inextricably tied to the encoded nature of SF and has been achieved in more or less didactic terms since the early days of the 20th century. From the “info-dump” technique (i.e. when a character lectures an audience so as to provide readers with essential knowledge) to endless layering, SF narratives have been clever at creating a kind of dissonance that allows readers to play an active part in either understanding or filling the gap and creating new meanings (6).

3To account for this polysemic narrative the editors and authors of this volume chose to put this problematic genre into historical perspective in the first section (15-109). Historicizing SF means tracing its origins back to the rich — but ancient — tradition of utopian fantasy and imaginary voyage. However SF writer Brian Stableford convincingly roots SF in nineteenth-century scientific romance. From Edgar Allan Poe to H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and the Vernians on both sides of the Atlantic, Stableford maps out the literary production of the period to describe the overlapping of scientific romance with both utopian and dystopian categories and its hybridization with other literary forms. Wells stands out as the inventor of the crucial Time Machine, “a paradigm example of a whole new class of narrative devices” (24). In the second chapter entitled “The magazine era,” Brian Attebery deals extensively with SF magazines, edited between 1926 and 1960, such as Amazing Stories, Astounding, New Worlds or Galaxy Science Fiction, and with SF's subsequent entry into popular culture. Even if important authors (such as Huxley or Orwell) published outside the SF community, many novels now considered as classics (by Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, Cordwainer Smith etc.) either appeared in such magazines or grew out of short stories published in them. It is during this pulp era, before the transformation from magazine to book format, that a sense of SF as a distinctive genre arose. As related in the third chapter by Damien Broderick the decades between 1960 and 1980 were ones of unprecedented creativity with Frank Herbert as the emblem of the New Wave, and other authors drawing their inspiration from gonzo novels or the psychedelic movement. Since then SF readership has considerably broadened but most importantly SF culture has become increasingly visual since the primary site of popular SF has been TV (for both films and series). Emphasis is laid, throughout this historical outline, on the development of SF and all endeavours have been made to give the most complete description of it. Occasionally authors make the connection between the evolution of SF and the great historical landmarks of the 20th century : the 1st World War inhibiting the genre and lending encouragement to its skeptical and pessimistic elements (28); the Cold War fostering the threat of an imminent destruction of the world with the atomic bomb (48-49); and more generally since the 2nd World War a growing sense that SF is pervading the real world and so challenging contemporary practitioners of the genre (64-65, 78).

4The relationship between SF productions and the historical context is further analysed in the second section which deals with four critical approaches: Marxist, postmodernist, feminist and queer (113-160). Chapter 7 puts into historical perspective the connection between SF and Marxist thought: from the early affinities between SF and Socialist utopian fiction, which were both concerned with imagining progressive alternatives to their contemporary living conditions, to the anti-communism of most SF writers in the first half of the 20th century and the changes brought about from the 1960s by contestatory culture and its new utopian trends. Chapter 8 examines the difficult relationship between SF as “the literature of change” and the slow recognition of the historical contingency and cultural conventionality of our ideas of gendered social roles. Until the 1950s, gendered roles for women were hardly challenged and SF provided an outlet for the conventional power fantasy that led most SF (male) writers to represent the perfect woman as a “woman built to the specifications of man.” (126) Veronica Hollinger gives a most interesting account of the emergence of feminist SF (128) and of feminist utopian thought. Chapter 9 tackles the interplay between several theories of postmodernism (namely Lyotard's, Jameson's and Baudrillard's) and SF, while chapter 10 questions the exploration of human sexuality in SF. Drawing on Foucault's classics but also on Judith Butler's assertion that all gender is a performance, queer theory provides new ways of looking both at the depiction of sexualities (and at the normative use of categories such as heterosexual or homosexual) and at the construction of performative sexuality in SF.

5In the final section (163-275), which focuses on the various sub-genres and themes of SF, a closer look is taken at its social and political dimensions with chapter 16 dealing with utopias and anti-utopias, chapter 17 politics, chapter 18 gender, chapter 19 race and ethnicity and chapter 20 religion. Each of these chapters takes aspects of theories dealt with in the previous section and applies them more widely and in greater detail. It has to be stressed that chapters 11 to 15 – which examine the various devices used to create an imaginary world other than our own — are thoroughly enjoyable since most SF fans are reminded here of all the paraphernalia and mechanisms of a genre that includes all genres.

6Despite the fact that the book has several contributors it retains coherence in style and purpose throughout to the great credit of the editors.

7Winner of the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Non-Fiction in 2003.

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Isabelle BAUDINO, « Edward James & Farah Mendlesohn, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction », E-rea [En ligne], 4.1 | 2006, document 5, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2006, consulté le 25 février 2018. URL :

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Isabelle BAUDINO


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