11 March 2013

Review: Trillion Year Spree by Brian W. Aldiss with David Wingrove

Trade paperback, 511 pages
Published 1986
Acquired April 2012

Read August 2012
Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction
by Brian W. Aldiss with David Wingrove

Perhaps the most important place for the history of a genre to begin is with defining its topic. Aldiss and Wingrove open by calling science fiction "the search for a definition of mankind in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode" (25). Later they clarify that the Gothic emphasizes "the distant and unearthly" and carries "us into an entranced world from which horrid revelations start" (35). This definition is at least partly circular, for it makes Frankenstein (1818) the first work of sf-- but it seems to have been designed to do so. Every now and then they let loose with another (usually perceptive) defining nugget:
  • Stipulations apply only to individual writers, not a genre. (155)
  • One of the pleasures of sf is considering its plausibility, experiencing a “sense of veracity” (155). Perhaps this is why so much early sf has plausibility-increasing frame stories? (Frankenstein, The Last Man, The Mummy!, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, The Purple Cloud, &c.)
  • Sf is like Nazism(!) in that both link modernity and the past into a sort of "technological romanticism" (176).
  • Prophecy is uninteresting. (340)
  • Good sf speculates and entertains. (363)
  • The delight of a first novel (in a series) is a new world; the delight of later novels is reacquaintance. (398) Not necessarily lesser, just different.
In any case, though Aldiss and Wingrove claim that they will modify the definition as they go, it comes up virtually never again. The idea that it involves "the search for the definition of mankind" seems unnecessary, but to reformulate it along the lines of saying something like that it 'takes us into an entranced world made possible through our advanced state of knowledge' would seem to come close to something more accurate and useful. I also like their comment that "transposition of reality" is what distinguishes sf from fantasy (49). They perhaps overplay the influence of the Gothic, but it’s a useful point to make.

The most useful thing that Aldiss and Wingrove do with genre is simply to be very, very careful about it. They point out that genres exist for readers, writers, and publishers, and though Swift was certainly not writing sf (they push against the tendency of genre fans to claim things for their genre), readers now read Swift for much the same reason that they read Wells or Asimov. Hence, their history of the genre charts not just works that exist within the genre, but the works that the genre is responding to, other works read by its readers, and writers outside of the genre undertaking similar projects.

They do fall into the trap of confusing the rhetorical project of genre with its features. For example, they mention Hardy as someone who has a "tremulous awareness set against the encompassing mysteries of space and time" and deals with the scientific revelations of his time, including Darwin (98). Surely the thing that stops Hardy from being an sf writer is that he doesn’t undertake a transposition of reality that relies on our advanced state of knowledge? But according to Aldiss and Wingrove, the reasons Hardy is not an sf writer are: 1) the changes in the social order he records aren't for novelty or sensation, but to impact characterization, 2) his tone is not rapid and light, and 3) he is a genius, whereas sf attracts talents at best (99-100). None of these are defining aspects of sf: Le Guin gives us changes in the social order for characterization, no one would accuse Orwell of being rapid and light, and sf has probably had more than one genius, and even if it hadn't  that’s a stupid thing to say. But otherwise, their tracing of these people outside the genre is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of their project, as is their careful delineation of who is connected to whom within the genre: when discussing the 1930s, they separate out the magazine tradition of Gernsback and Campbell from folks responding to the same ideas like Čapek, Kafka, Huxley, and Lewis.

Their discussion of 19th-century sf is interesting, but not groundbreaking. I suspect the Frankenstein thing was at the time, but now it's a critical commonplace! (Still right, though.) Part of the problem with this section is that it doesn't get the time the other ones do; the careful delineation that shines in most of the book isn't present here, with utopian fiction, future-war fiction, Verne, and the dime novels all dealt with together a little carelessly. His connection to Sherlock Holmes is nice: in talking with a friend, I suggested that both sf and mysteries rely on the existence of a rational universe to some degree.

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