The History of Science Fiction (Second Edition) by Adam Roberts

The History of Science Fiction (Second Edition) by Adam Roberts


Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 548 pages


Review by Teika Marija Smits


Approaching a subject as tricksy as science fiction, Roberts, quite rightly, begins his history with definitions. In essence, he reviews various critics’ attempts to describe what science fiction is, but then points out that those definitions are widely debated.


“The present study has been unable to avoid the, often, tedious debates concerning definition, but my aim is to present a historically determined narrative of the genre’s evolution rather than offering an apothegmatic version of the sentence ‘SF is such-and-such’.”


Roberts certainly succeeds in his aim. He covers a lot of history – first examining the potentially science fictional texts of some 2000 years ago (i.e. the novels of the classical era), and then proceeds chronologically. Predictably, less than 200 pages are given over to the centuries preceding the 20th century, and a further 300 pages given to the science fiction of the 20th and 21st centuries. Yet for all Roberts’ apparent caution in providing a definitive explanation of what exactly science fiction is, he is very clear that:


“Fantasy is supernatural, SF extraordinary, and there is the world of difference between those two terms. Once we accept that a wizard is a form of priest, we see that there is always a priest in fantasy. This priestly role is almost always taken (in effect) by a technological artefact in SF.”


Roberts’ central thesis is that science fiction, as an easily recognizable genre of writing, fully emerged in the period of the Protestant Reformation in the 17th century when Copernicus’s radical new worldview – that the Earth revolved around the Sun – really took hold in Europe, a key event of this time being the execution of Giordano Bruno the Nolan. Bruno was burnt at the stake by the Catholic Inquisition for his religious, philosophical and astronomical views. (Bruno held fast to the idea of cosmic plurality and an infinite universe.) Unlike Brian Aldiss (and many others ) who propose that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the true starting point of science fiction, Roberts believes that Kepler’s Somnium, written in 1600, the same year as Bruno’s martyrdom for science, is ‘the first unambiguously science fiction novel’.


It is difficult to argue with Roberts’ reasoning, yet, it will be contested because the science of the 17th and 18th centuries (as well as the classical era) bears so little resemblance to science – and technology – as we know it today. However, whether you fully agree with Roberts’ thesis, or not, doesn’t really matter since the book succeeds in its main aim to deliver ‘a historically determined narrative of the genre’s evolution’. Highly inclusive, indeed comprehensive, it covers the works of hundreds of science fiction writers, expanding greatly on those novels by some of the most significant and well-known contributors to the field. (There is a whole chapter on the works of Verne and Wells.) Significantly, Roberts also covers the evolution of science fiction on the big and small screen, concluding that SF in prose form is only a small – and relatively insignificant – part of the science fiction universe nowadays, when you consider the impact of Star Wars and the way science fiction, as visual extravaganza, is now part of mainstream culture.


Though largely academic in nature, Roberts’ writing is engaging, his observations thought-provoking and occasionally humorous; his close readings of many famous texts enlightening. I particularly appreciated Roberts’ insightful remarks on the ‘ghetto-isation’ of science fiction i.e. the way it is boxed into a clearly delineated literary genre, and the subsequent negative effects this has had for writers and literature in general.


Roberts’ approach is analytical and all-encompassing. He draws from a wide range of esoteric sources, and develops his ideas with critical deftness. Even when his arguments seem provocative or idiosyncratic, they demonstrate an astonishing breadth and depth to his research. Roberts’ evaluations of some of the writers and their novels won’t be to every science fiction fan’s liking – there’s an impossible task! – however, Roberts’ comprehensive tome is a necessary addition to every fan’s bookshelves, covering the great texts, the not-so-greats and the plain overlooked in the wide, wonderful field that is science fiction.