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Reviewed by:
  • Reading By Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction
  • J. E. Steinbach
Damien Broderick. Reading By Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1995. xvii + 197 pp.

While science fiction (sf to its fans) has been a staple of popular culture, it has only recently come to be accepted by academic audiences because, as Damien Broderick asserts in his introduction to Reading By Starlight, “sf’s imaginative texts often baffle or dismay readers trained to enjoy only the literary or ‘canonical.’” Broderick’s contention is that when we (as readers of science fiction) try to “uncover the codes and strategies of science fiction,” we evoke the central paradox of the genre. This is a paradox for the twentieth-century reader, who has been located in a conflict of mutual incomprehension between the cultures of the sciences and the humanities, a conflict which in turn [End Page 933] engenders the contemporary theorized interest in sf. Broderick, a writer of science fiction himself, argues that for the last 70 years much of the science fiction genre produced in the English language has evolved from a set of protocols depicting the objective world of rigorous empirical observations to the creative invention of imagined subjects drawn from typical literary fictions, leaving sf in a neutral space open to interpretation by literary and scientific metatheorists.

Reading By Starlight is constructed around the argument that we have reached a time of crisis in theory and criticism for both literature and science; since the purpose of theory is now to challenge and problematize the established canon (and the criteria for inclusion therein) traditional modes of critical exposition should also be rethought. Part one of Reading By Starlight serves as a review of recent theory on sf. The factor that sets Broderick’s work apart from that of several other recent critics of sf is his informative and insightful synthesis that ties together the sometimes disparate assumptions of his theoretical predecessors to offer both a history of sf’s development—from early formula fiction to postmodern text—and an assertion that these narratives should not be considered as a “genre” but rather as a “mode,” a way of thinking rather than literary formulation.

However, Broderick’s theoretical positioning creates a contradiction in his position. While he asserts that the theoretical interest in sf is due to “the rise of popular culture studies, discourse theory and deconstruction [which] de-privilege in various ways the literary canon which excluded sf from serious critical attention,” he also maintains that one hindrance to the acceptance of sf by more “literary” audiences is that “rich responses to sf texts require a sort of apprenticeship by the reader.” This problematizes the question of Broderick’s intended reception of this text; Reading By Starlight is very much an academic treatise, but the small number of literary academics who have also undertaken the sf apprenticeship greatly diminishes his target audience. Perhaps for that reason most of Broderick’s text is limited to examining the theory surrounding the acceptance of sf and only offers a limited reading of actual sf itself.

This is not to say that the readings of sf scattered through the latter half of Reading By Starlight are not insightful. Broderick’s examination of Samuel Delany’s The Eisenstein Intersection is intriguing. He coins the term “allography” in order to describe this text and to argue that [End Page 934] it may be read as an allegory for writing and reading sf in general, using this text to offer an extensive reader-oriented approach to sf. However, in his treatment of another Delany text, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (as well as in his readings of cyberpunk and Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia cycle), his critique, though informative, may well stand alone and does not necessarily extend the critical groundwork he lays before us at the outset.

Reading By Starlight is, however, an engaging and provocative reassessment of the reception of contemporary—that is, as the subtitle of the text indicates, postmodern—sf. While the “new model of sf textuality” Broderick promises in his introduction is more a postmodern montage, an argumentative collage combining aspects of multiplicity and indeterminacy with reader-based theories...

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