- The History of Science Fiction
The definite article in Roberts's title irritated at least one previous reviewer of this book, with its implication that Adam Roberts was staking a claim for a "True History" of science fiction at a time when many if not most critics [End Page 177] seem to be accepting that there are many histories of science fiction and many science fictions. Roberts does note, rightly, that claims to uncover histories of science fiction are fraught with danger and (whatever else they are) will almost certainly be untrue. Nevertheless, he has his own sense of what sf is and does. While for Brian Aldiss, science fiction began with the composition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), John Clute locates it not with an urtext but with a change in the approach to Time in the Enlightenment, "the period between about 1750 and 1820 . . . when the dynamic between Ruins and Futurity . . . began to shake our hearts loose," as he writes in his review of The History of Science Fiction in Canary Fever (2009, 249 [originally published in Interzone, August 2007]). Other critics, such as Gary Westfahl, point to a much more recent creation of "the idea of science fiction" in the editorial matter and selection policies of Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories. Roberts seems to have two not uncontradictory "moments" in his history of that mode of writing we call sf, which certainly exist in other accounts but which he is claiming as significant in ways that are more than simply the sense that they look like, or even feel like, sf.
The first is the existence of speculative space travel in the ancient Greek novel, which exists in the context of the kind of imaginary voyages the second-century Lucian Samosata satirized in his True History and the actual speculations of Greek and Roman philosophers about the nature of the universe. Such proto-sf can be read not as a hinterland of sf look-alikes but as a kind of writing that does for its period very much what sf does today and (in the case of Lucian) was certainly drawn upon by imaginative writers in the post-Copernican era, who were locating "other worlds" as venues for satirical or scientific speculation while grappling with a change in the material understanding of what these other worlds might be. Roberts's second sf "moment," therefore, is the argument that the moon and planets might be worlds like our own and that these worlds might be inhabited and even reachable, a moment that extends from Giordano Bruno, executed in 1600, who had previously posited the first two of these suggestions, through Francis Godwin's Man in the Moone (1638) and John Wilkins's Discourse Concerning a New World and Another Planet (1640), which took seriously the third, and beyond. Roberts contextualizes this particular moment within "the dialectic between 'Protestant' and 'Catholic' (or, if one prefers less sectarian terms, between 'deism' and 'magical pantheism') that emerges out of the seventeenth century" (xi-x). [End Page 178]
So is it the more material, technology-oriented discourse of the Protestant Reformation that replaces the more symbolic, even sacramental discourses of Catholicism that forms what we call modern sf? While Roberts's argument at times looks like that, he himself is at pains to emphasize the fact that this model is a dynamic, a tension, a dialectic; and early on in his preface he notes the great sf writers operating within a Roman Catholic ideology. However, Roberts's use of the Copernican debates and the idea of interplanetary spaces as the locus of the move toward a kind of writing we can identify as sf means that his narrative vanishes between the rise of Christianity after Lucian's time and the burning of Bruno; indeed between his second chapter, "Science Fiction and the Early Novel," and his third chapter, "Seventeenth Century Science Fiction," is a section titled "Interlude: AD 400-1600." But he rather overlooks the way in which various imaginative "otherworlds" act as spaces for thought experiments in...