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How great science fiction works

By Michael Dirda

For 25 years and counting, Gary K. Wolfe has been the principal book reviewer for Locus,
the essential magazine for anyone interested in fantasy and science fiction. A professor of
the humanities at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, he is also the editor of the Library of
America’s “American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s” and is currently
at work on a companion set focusing on the 1960s. Over the years, I’ve often heard him
speak about established, neglected and emerging science-fiction writers, always with
precision and measured elegance. As they say of James Bond, nobody does it better.

You’ll recognize this as soon as you begin to listen to Wolfe’s Great Courses lectures in
“How Great Science Fiction Works.” He opens by defining his subject by borrowing a
simple, but useful observation from Samuel R. Delany: Realistic fiction is concerned with
events that could have happened, fantasy with events that could not have happened, and
science fiction with events that have not happened or not happened yet. Following a brief
nod to some instances of proto-sf (Lucian, Thomas More, Swift), Wolfe then begins in
earnest by examining Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”

[You may also enjoy: ‘The Madonna and the Starship,’ by James Morrow]

To date the birth of modern sf to this 1818 novel isn’t a new idea. Brian W. Aldiss first
suggested it in the initial version of “Trillion Year Spree,” a standard history of the field,
which he co-authored with David Wingrove. Wolfe forthrightly acknowledges Aldiss, as he
did Delany. This same critical graciousness runs throughout these lectures. When Wolfe
talks about utopias and dystopias, pulp magazines, “the robot from Čapek to Asimov,” the
spaceship as an icon, or the themes of evolution, deep time and the wasteland, he brings to
bear everything he has thought and read and reviewed. He clearly loves science fiction and
wants you to understand why. His accompanying booklet consequently offers
recommended readings, discussion questions and an extensive, annotated bibliography of
both primary and secondary texts.

Above all, Wolfe reminds us that modern sf isn’t “all that Buck Rogers stuff,” let alone
comic-book movies consisting largely of special effects. H.G. Wells’s “The Time
Machine,” Olaf Stapledon’s “Star Maker,” George R. Stewart’s “Earth Abides,” Walter M.
Miller Jr.’s “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness,”
Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun” — these are serious works of literature, as
thought-provoking and beautifully written as any fiction you will ever read.

To underscore contemporary sf’s global reach and cultural diversity, Wolfe devotes his
penultimate lecture to the novels of Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor and Lavie Tidhar. He
then brings his thoughtful and wonderfully entertaining course to a close by pointing
listeners to one final classic: Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon.” No one who has ever
read this heart-rending story can ever doubt the artistry and literary power of great science
fiction.
(Black Coat
Press)

While Gary Wolfe is a superb critic, reviewer and teacher, Brian Stableford is something
even rarer: fantastic literature’s leading scholar and historian. In just the past year, he has
brought out two long-planned, magisterial works of literary excavation, “New Atlantis: A
Narrative History of Scientific Romance” (Wildside, four vols; paperback, $15.99 each)
and, late this spring, the even more groundbreaking survey, “The Plurality of Imaginary
Worlds: The Evolution of French Roman Scientifique.”

In these parallel studies, Stableford argues for national differences in the American, British
and French traditions of fantastic literature. To overgeneralize, American science fiction
grows out of pulp-magazine storytelling, while the British scientific romance emphasizes
social criticism and satire. But in France, as Stableford shows, the “roman scientifique” or
“scientific novel” is primarily idea-focused, being rooted in both the philosophical fables of
Cyrano de Bergerac and Voltaire and in the distinctly transgressive works of 18th-century
pornographers and 19th-century political radicals.

“The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds” meticulously tracks French representations of the


marvelous from the early Middle Ages to the outbreak of World War II. Yet only a few of
the writers covered are likely to be familiar to American readers: Jules Verne, of course;
probably astronomer Camille Flammarion, author of “Omega: The Last Days of the World”
(1893); and, perhaps, J.-H. Rosny, who wrote my own favorite alien encounter story, “The
Xipéhuz” (1887), as well as the novel behind “Quest for Fire,” the 1981 film about
prehistoric humankind. Happily, Stableford summarizes virtually all the works he
discusses, and even more happily has been translating many of them for Black Coat Press.

On the most basic level, “The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds” provides a book list for the
adventurous reader. Stableford tells us that Restif de la Bretonne’s “The Discovery of the
Austral Continent by a Flying Man, or The French Daedalus” (1781) is “undoubtedly the
most significant work of science-based speculative fiction produced before the 1789
Revolution.” We learn that Louis Geoffroy’s “The Apocryphal Napoleon” (1841) might
well be the first work of alternate history. In it, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia proves
successful and the Corsican upstart eventually becomes the Sovereign of the World.
Humorist Albert Robida’s “Saturnin Farandoul” (1879) takes its Baron Munchausen-like
title character and has him tangle with Captain Nemo, Phileas Fogg, Michael Strogoff and
other Jules Verne heroes. In “The Blue Peril ” (1911), Maurice Renard brilliantly depicts a
race of spider-like aliens who live in the upper atmosphere of the Earth. Villiers de l’Isle-
Adam’s “Tomorrow’s Eve” (1886) features a female android created by none other than
Thomas Edison. In “Caresco, Superman” (1904), André Couvreur imagines the perfect
utopia as a kinky sexual paradise.

As a scholar, Brian Stableford can’t be faulted, at least not by me. However, his prose,
while clear enough, does tend to be loose and baggy, and sometimes a word — through
inattentive proofreading — will have been left out of a sentence. Such quirks and blemishes
hardly matter, though, given that “The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds” invites its readers to
explore an entire galaxy of unfamiliar and exciting fiction.

Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.

Read more:

Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl,” winner of the Nebula Award


HOW GREAT SCIENCE FICTION WORKS

By Gary K. Wolfe

The Great Courses. 12-1/2 hours. Available on DVD, CD and for download

THE PLURALITY OF IMAGINARY WORLDS


The Evolution of French Roman Scientifique

By Brian Stableford

Black Coat. 672 pp. Paperback, $49.95