Letter From The Editor - Issue 65 - October 2018

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
February 2018

Title: The Astounding Illustrated History of Science Fiction
Author: Dave Golder, Jess Nevins, Russ Thorne, Sarah Dobbs
Publisher: Flame Tree Publishing

This book certainly can’t be faulted for lack of ambition. As the first of its eight chapters and the corresponding timeline make clear, nothing related to science fiction is outside of its intended purview. That means we should expect coverage not only of books and magazines, and TV and movies and video games, but also radio serials, stage plays, comic books, and so on. The idea of condensing the key works of all these media into some one-hundred-and-ninety lavishly illustrated pages of cohesive and critical commentary on genre history is a captivating one, and someday someone will perhaps attempt such a quixotic task. This tome is not that.

I appreciate the chronological approach, and I think the eight time period divisions work well, for reasons elucidated in the text itself. Dave Golder kicks us off with “Science Fiction Unbound” (pre-1500 to 1894) and “New Frontiers” (1895-1925); next Jess Nevins discusses “The Rise of the Pulps” (1926-1942) and “A Time of Transition” (1943-1959); Nevins is followed by Russ Thorne’s “Reinventing the Genre” (1960-1976) and “Back to the Future” (1977-1989); finally, Sarah Dobbs brings the proceedings to a close with “The Information Age” (1990-2008) and “The Future is Now” (2009-2020).

Golder’s two starting chapters are really strong, and provide an excellent proof-of-concept for the book’s theoretical remit. Golder has a knack for being simultaneously thorough and fun to read, and his chronicle of the early days of science fiction is jam-packed with fascinating tidbits and insights, sprinkled with clever comments and punning titles. Even readers familiar with science fiction history in a general way, who will surely be aware of key literary works by Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Cummings and other pioneers, will likely encounter a whole catalog of other writers they’ve never heard of before, such as Adam Seaborn, Percy Greg, Albert Robida, Anna Bowman Dodd, Gustavus W. Pope, Arthur C. Train, E. V. Odle, and so on. One of my favorite discoveries from these pages is Edward Page Mitchell, who anticipated many of Wells’s key ideas and explored, for example, scientific invisibility, a time travel machine, faster-than-light travel, thinking computers, matter transmission and mind transfer—all before the year 1900. Golder reveals the first use of the words “science fiction,” “astronaut” and other terms most of us take for granted. His chapters should also be praised for explicitly tracing the connection between proto-instances of now-assumed concepts and their later incarnations in works of pop culture, as well as for his inclusion of non-Anglo works. I’d be surprised if these two chapters didn’t send readers scurrying off on bibliographic quests.

The text becomes noticeably drier and more sober in Chapters 3 and 4, which contain a great deal of interesting information about the growth of the pulp magazines, alas not rendered in a particularly compelling way. Nevins’s focus here is on lists and statistics, on economic and publishing trends, on differences of genre and market appreciation, rather than cultural insights or memorable nuggets about selected works. His observation, for example, that the science fiction that appeared in slick magazines and genre non-SF magazines outnumbered that which appeared in dedicated SF pulp magazines, while intriguing, is somewhat arcane and probably doesn’t merit being repeated several times. And while we are told what the differences between these types of science fiction are at a high level, a few illustrative quotes would have been nice. I was disappointed to come away from these chapters, which span critical decades, without a real sense of the works discussed.

Russ Thorne picks up the pace again in Chapters 5 and 6, providing solid reportage on 1960 through 1989, but at this point the book starts to emphasize movies and TV shows more and more, neglecting other forms like comic books or video games almost completely. (The timeline for 1990 through 2016, for instance, only contains one graphic novel.) It’s a trend that worsens in the last two chapters by Sarah Dobbs. Novels and short stories are hardly treated, which is a shame, as it’s one of the discussions I was most looking forward to, particularly considering the renaissance of short stories, the birth of new literary subgenres and the reinvention of old ones (e.g. new space opera) since the year 2000. Overall, many important writers are at least name-checked, but there are surprising omissions too, like Andre Norton or Connie Willis, to name two random examples. Meanwhile we get long lists of superhero films, and almost no lesser-known movies. The text tries to justify this change in approach by arguing that science fiction itself has primarily become visual spectacle, but I’m not convinced.

These shifts in tone and depth make this book a bit of a bumpy road if one reads through it sequentially. Patt Mills’s “Foreword” talks about the role of science fiction in taking us out of our comfort zone and challenging “fake realities,” but the history that follows only does so about half the time. There are also signs of hurried production or insufficient editorial oversight. For example, the blue color coding of comic book titles in the timelines is so dark as to make them illegible. There are typos, like “colck” for “clock” in the caption at the bottom of page 33. On page 90 the book title is changed from “astounding” to “astonishing”. The illustration on page 109 supposedly shows novels from the 1960s and 1970s but mixes in reprints of earlier works with originals from that time period. On page 169 The Last Jedi should be listed as Chapter VIII in the Star Wars saga and dated 2017, rather than appearing as Chapter IX and being listed for 2019, and so on. Finally, I wish all the illustrations were credited. Which Frankenstein film adaptation is the source of the still on the top right hand corner of page 15, and who is the artist behind the imagined city of the future on page 28? I have other questions.

Despite these grumbles, I think this book may be diverting and possibly inspiring to the casual reader with little or no knowledge of science fiction. As more of an occasional coffee-table volume rather than a dedicated history or reference work, its cool art and solid recap of basic concepts and genre milestones will reward browsing. For those looking for more in-depth material in a similar heavily visual format, I’d recommend John Clute’s Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. It’s over two decades out of date, but retains its charm.

Title: Elysium Fire
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Orbit

Alastair Reynolds’s latest folds into his Revelation Space series, is technically a prequel to Chasm City (2001), and also a sequel to The Prefect (2007)—recently republished as Aurora Rising (2017)—but can be enjoyed as a standalone. The novel’s setting rivals its characters for appeal: the Glitter Band is a “circling river of worlds,” a system of ten thousand artificial habitats that orbits the planet Yellowstone, and at the time of this story is home to one hundred million descendants from Earth. Each of these ten thousand worlds is self-governing, bound to the whole only by “the iron rule of universal suffrage,” as every citizen everywhere is polled on all matters of import via instant neural implants: “Our demarchist system is as perfect as it can ever be. Flawless, instantaneous mass democratic participation. The will of the people, without interference. No government, no hierarchies, no vested interests, no possibility of bias or corruption.”

But of course flawless is precisely what it isn’t, and Elysium Fire sets one of its central imperfections beautifully aflame. The Panoply—the taskforce that oversees the integrity of the democratic polling process—is made up of so-called prefects. Enter three of our five main point-of-view characters: prefects Tom Dreyfus, Thalia Ng, and Sparver Bancal. “You don’t have to like us to count on us,” says Thalia, and that could serve as the Panoply’s motto. A nice Panoply PR line: “We are the servants of democracy, not its masters.”

Plot wheels are rapidly set in motion for the three prefects within the first few chapters, all connected through the “wildfire” epidemic. Thalia retrieves the head of a man who’s suffered a neural implant overload and partners with Sparver in the search for connections with similar victims; Dreyfus finds himself provoked by a separatist with an army of followers, and sets out to interview the simulated copies of those who have died, while also bargaining with a god-like intelligence named Aurora. As if all this wasn’t enough, we’re introduced to twins, Julius and Caleb, whose unique environment and training aren’t connected in any obvious way to the other stories until much later in the book.

Reynolds has demonstrated a mastery of balancing exposition with action in previous novels, and he continues to do so smoothly here. Each individual plot thread is suspenseful while providing plenty of moments for character reflection. As with other off-world science fiction novels set centuries in the future, part of the story’s fun is figuring out new concepts and technologies. There’s no shortage of them: we’re treated to whiphounds, painflowers, quick matter, hyperpigs, beta-level instantiations and much else besides. Some of these terms—like hyperpig—are obvious in context and have direct twenty-first century analogues, but others come loaded with intriguing philosophical implications. The story itself combines as much super-science as it does whodunit elements, and some developments easily double as political commentary on current issues. Consider the following as it applies to Brexit or the 2016 U.S. presidential election: “True democracy embodies the possibility of its own dissolution. If a ballot were put to the people to abandon our demarchist principles, and the votes carried the day. . . what then? You may say that no such vote would ever be cast. But that is to neglect the pressures that may apply during times of crisis, during emergencies and times of economic hardship, or when wild and seductive new ideas run rife.”

For all this, the story’s central philosophical preoccupations are a pretty straightforward discussion of ends vs means, at times sidestepped by plot reveals, and more compellingly, meditations on the nature of consciousness and memory. I enjoyed how all this arises organically from the specific story of the wildfire epidemic and its genesis, but I’m not sure characters were delineated as sharply—or perhaps profoundly—as they could have been. If pressed, for instance, I couldn’t give you much besides key backstory events that set Sparver apart from Dreyfus. Characters are given to musings such as “how curious it was that the universe could make any prior situation seem only mildly troublesome, when at the time it had seemed to encompass all conceivable woes,” which fit in perfectly with the book’s tone but at times feel interchangeable from one character to another. Ironically, the character I enjoyed most was the non-human Aurora, whose unique voice and observations consistently entertained: “I can read you like a book. A very simple book containing mostly pictures.”

Fans of Reynolds’s work and anyone seeking a well-plotted, tightly-paced, multi-layered space-opera-ish police procedural won’t be disappointed, but readers expecting to find humanity radically reimagined may be underwhelmed. When the final plot twist is exposed, in a Hercule Poirot-style monologue, it reveals that the motivations of Glitter Band humans—at least the ones we meet in Elysium Fire—remain on a par with those in Agatha Christie stories, albeit written on a grander technological scale. Still, I think there’s plenty of the Glitter Band we haven’t yet seen, and I wouldn’t mind another go-around. The line, “There are always more holes. If there weren’t, we’d be out of a job,” certainly hints at sequels.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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