BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A reference of science fiction subgenres and detailed analyses of 20 representative novels.
PROS: Insightful; handy subgenre reading lists; informative and educational; stokes your interest in science fiction.
CONS: Would have come across as more authoritative if they had left out the occasional bits of commentary.
BOTTOM LINE: A fascinating reference work that puts science fiction subgenres into historical perspective.
It’s difficult to be a fan of science fiction literature without enjoying discussions about the genre itself. Reference books like The Science Fiction Handbook by M. Keith Booker and Anne-Marie Thomas serve to feed that meta-hunger by offering an overview of science fiction subgenres, and deeply detailed discussions of representative texts and authors. What the book does not attempt to do (nor can it do with any reasonable expectation of high quality) is be comprehensive – sf is just too big – so instead it wisely handpicks a few subgenres and discusses them at length. The decision to choose depth instead of breadth is a trade-off, of course; some subgenres (like military sf and steampunk) are omitted. But the trade-off is minor given the major subgenres that are included.
The authors’ introduction “Science Fiction in Western Culture” opens the book with a meta-discussion of the definition of sf. They note the difficulty of defining science fiction, even citing James Gunn’s categorizing (not defining) sf in his essay “Towards a Definition of SF”. The authors then assert that their own working definition comes from Darko Suvin and his notion of sf being a literature of “cognitive estrangement”. This is the idea that readers are put in a world different than their own, causing them to view their own world from a different perspective. The intro continues using this definition as it broadly skims the evolution of American and British sf. Their conclusion is that the sf field is thriving creatively with no signs of abating soon. This is used as a basis for describing the focus of the book, which is to be a survey of subgenres, prominent representative authors, and detailed analyses of their key books.
The subgenre coverage here includes many of the categorizations one would expect, oftentimes dipping deeper (and with spoilers) into those works considered key works of that subgenre. The subgenres covered include:
- Time Travel – including many of the tropes storytellers employ: time machines, the paradox, the time cop, the mutability/immutability of history, etc.
- Alien Invasion – Much of the discussion revolves around film – particularly the films of the 1950’s and their allegory for political paranoia – but a few books are examined in the context of the ways in which they approach the subject of the alien invasion.
- Space Opera – From the pulps of the 1930’s through modern literature, this section surveys space opera (here defined generically as space adventure) from its beginnings as a widely denounced form of throwaway literature to a genre that seriously examines social and political issues.
- Post-Apocalyptic Fiction – Looks at how the Post-Apocalyptic fiction acts a platform for social commentary about nuclear weapons, environmental concerns and genetic engineering.
- Dystopia – Even more so than Post-apocalyptic fiction, dystopian fiction is described as the most “important” and “useful” genre to examine social, political and economical issues.
- Utopias – Gives examples of texts that suggest solutions to the dystopian scenario, often achieved through the use of technology.
- Feminism and Gender – Largely concerned with showing how sf provided women “a medium through which to explore their own sense of alienation within the genre itself and society at large.”
- Satire – The exploration of using humor and absurdism to achieve cognitive estrangement for the purpose of social commentary.
- Cyberpunk & Posthumanism – Deals with sf that examines how technology blurs or alters the definition of humanity; a movement originating as a negative response to sf that posited a bright technological future.
- Multicultural SF – Shows how the predominantly white, middle-class male point of view of sf days past (which admittedly had examples of writers that did showcase other cultures) gave way to writers from non-western cultures…who subsequently used sf to show the point of view of the “Other” archetype. Much of this section specifically looks at the works of Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler.
There is a lot of name- and title-dropping in these subgenre overviews allowing the curious sf reader a well-rounded reading list for any given subgenre – a list which is conveniently listed at the end of each section. These surveys were both informative and educational, though perhaps would have come across as more authoritative if they had left out the occasional bits of commentary.
Another section of the book includes brief biographies of 19 authors, including an overview of their seminal works. A nice-to-have for this section would have been a summary listing of these works like was done as in the previous section. The subsequent section offers a detailed analysis of 20 books these authors have written – chronologically from The Time Machine (1895) to River of Gods (2004). The analyses are incredibly detailed and insightful and are sure to either stoke your interest in an unread novel (understandably spoiling it at the same time) or illuminate a subtlety of the text you might have otherwise overlooked.
In short, The Science Fiction Handbook is a fascinating reference work that puts science fiction subgenres into historical perspective while offering more detailed analyses of representative corresponding novels.