Sunday, November 6, 2011

Trillion Year Spree, Twenty-Five Years Later

Twenty-five years ago this month Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove published a massive update of Aldiss' Billion Year Spree (1973), appropriately named Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1986). On first seeing this book a decade ago I was struck with admiration for its scope and comprehensiveness in covering the history of science fiction - unmatched by any other study of the genre I was able to find. That remains the case today, so that I have probably turned to it more frequently than to any other single critical volume.

I was less impressed with some of the book's rather iconoclastic judgments. In fact, on the first reading it seemed to me that they gave the Golden Age authors less than their due (the chapter labeling several giants of the Golden Age "dinosaurs" seemed to me rather snide), while praising the New Wave authors excessively. (At the time, my limited and haphazard reading had left me knowing little of print science fiction's history but the Golden Age writers, while my experience of the New Wave was limited to a couple of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius stories, a bit of J.G. Ballard and Ursula Le Guin, and some Harlan Ellison, and out of that I'd only liked the Ellison.)

However, as I read more deeply and widely in the genre I also became more appreciative of their appraisals, both of the broad evolution of the genre, and of the achievements, failings and significance of particular editors and writers. Reading Asimov's The Robots of Dawn (1983), a work he published in the same years that Rudy Rucker riffed entertainingly on his Three Laws of Robotics in novels like Software (1982), it was hard for me to not feel that Asimov had become a dinosaur by the '80s. Meanwhile, reading much more Moorcock (especially the Pyat quartet, and the Oswald Bastable novels, and the John Daker and Elric of Melnibone sword and sorcery series'), and the works of Norman Spinrad, and Aldiss' own books, like the brilliant Non-Stop (1958) and Greybeard (1964), made me feel that, if anything, it is the New Wave authors who are underappreciated.

Still, while the book remains essential reading for anyone taking a serious interest in the genre's history, it has one significant limitation: its dating after twenty-five years, almost twice the length of time that lapsed between Aldiss' original publication of his study, and his massive update of it in 1986. Certainly much of what it had to say about the state of science fiction in the 1980s holds true for it today. Yet, these years have not been uneventful as particular works Aldiss and Wingrove cover in their book reshaped it. We have seen the booming of alternate history, steampunk and its cousins; the flourishing of cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk and the new space opera; an explosion of "science fiction about science fiction" and the evolution of the genre in film and television.

Then again, there has been little effort to deal with science fiction's last three decades in a comprehensive way, one reason why I have made the attempt in After the New Wave: Science Fiction Since 1980 – what I hope will not be the last attempt to fill in this gap in the critical literature.

"Review: Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard, by Mark Finn."
New in Print . . . (After the New Wave: Science Fiction Since 1980)
Review: Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy, by Michael Moorcock

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