Thursday, June 1, 2017

On the Historiography of Science Fiction

Writing my book Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry I produced a history of science fiction that was most concerned with the genre's most recent decades. This was in large part because it seemed to me that, in contrast with earlier periods, these decades had not been dealt with in a comprehensive fashion.

Still, to properly ground that discussion it seemed to me necessary to look at what came before--and going over the relevant history I quickly found that it was not quite as well-studied as I thought it was. Certainly a vast number of works gave overviews of it. However, Jonathan McCalmont quite justified in declaring that
science fiction lacks the critical apparatus required to support the sweeping claims made by people who use [the historical] approach. Far from being a rigorous analysis of historical fact, the historical approach to genre writing is all too often little more than a hotbed of empty phrases, unexamined assumptions and received wisdom.
So did it go in the works I found. By and large the history was a "folk history," rather than rigorous scholarship--empty phrases, unexamined assumptions, received wisdom that, even when essentially correct (as, in hindsight, it often seems to have been), explained its claims vaguely and grounded them poorly, and in the process not only left us understanding it all less fully and well than would otherwise have been the case, but inhibited further work rather than encouraging it.

Of course, there were numerous exceptions to this, but these tended to be in relatively obscure, specialized works dealing with relatively small pieces of the field. Colin Greenland's The Entropy Exhibition is excellent at treating key aspects of the New Wave, while Brian Stableford's The Sociology of Science Fiction was particularly insightful in its discussion of John Campbell's work as an editor--and more recently, Mike Ashley's outstanding The Gernsback Days was truly formidable in its study of the formative, "pre-Campbell" period, deeply rooted in close examination of the relevant material.

By contrast the larger, more general works, even at their best, tended toward the folk history approach, as with Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove's Trillion Year Spree (an old review of which you can find here). The book, again, has much to commend it. Its coverage of the field is vast, the highlights all mentioned, and certainly it is packed with interesting insights that, after many years of additional reading and consideration, still strike me as valuable. But on such topics as the pulps of the '20s and '30s, for example, the book largely settles for the received wisdom, summing it all up as "Gosh-wowery . . . Bug-Eyed Monsters . . . [and] the trashy plots that went with them" (216-217). To be fair, there is truth to this--and Aldiss and Wingrove do manage to say some interesting things about the material for all that. Yet, this is less specific and well-grounded than it might be (just as it is more dismissive than it ought to be).

It seems to me that the situation is getting better, the body of better-researched, more useful coverage increasing, but all the same, the synthesis of it all has really lagged. And all that being the case one can hardly avoid the question--why has this situation persisted for so long? Certainly one factor would seem to be the history of the genre having been a fan enterprise to such a degree, for so long a time--while the scholars took little interest. (While there were earlier precursors, it was only in the 1970s that academics began to pay very much attention to science fiction, which sounds like a really long time but is not really so long in academic terms; the more so because science fiction is still a fairly marginal area of study next to more canonical work.)

Another would seem to be the conventional wisdom of literary scholarship itself, much more interested in some things than in others. To be blunt, scholars who unquestioningly embrace Modernism and postmodernism as defining what is "important" literature, who take technical experimentalism, epistemological apathy and obsession with identity as the sine qua non of what is worthy of study, and whose non-literary study has been of kindred schools of philosophy and psychology (Foucault, Lacan and the rest), are either disinclined or unequipped to deal very well with key concerns of science fiction, and accordingly much of the work that, from the point of view of the genre, is most important to its history. Instead they gravitate to those works that happen to fit in with the intellectual preoccupations they bring with them, without much interest in how they fit into the history of the field. (Consider as an example the level of attention, and the kind of attention, that Ursula K. Le Guin gets from more academic students of the genre.) And of course science fiction practitioners themselves have been influenced by all this, at least since J.G. Ballard's efforts to remake the genre in the image of the Modernists. (Tellingly Aldiss and Wingrove, while interested in and often insightful about science fiction as a genre of ideas, still tilt in favor of the more purely literary in their analysis--not least in their tracing science fiction's history not to Scientific Revolution/Enlightenment/Industrial Revolution interest in natural and applied science, and its implications for the increasingly studied shape of society, but to Romantic-Gothic sensationalism.)

The result was that in developing my image of the genre's pre-1980 history (which the first four chapters of the book are devoted to outlining, because of how foundational they are to what follows), I found myself having to spend much more time just figuring out for myself what the facts were before I could settle down to figuring out the larger picture than I'd initially planned on. The folk history had enough in it to be a guide along the way (there were at least presumptions I could investigate, test out), but alas, it was just that, such that I had as much work to do in this supposedly well-covered territory as I had in the less well-charted decades that were my original concern.

Toward a History of Video Gaming
Review: Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life, by Chris Kohler
A Fragment on Fan Writing
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
Just Out . . . (Star Wars in Context, paperback edition)
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
Trillion Year Spree, Twenty-Five Years On

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