Science Fiction (history)

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Luckhurst, Roger, Science Fiction. London: Polity, 2005.

Reviewed by Mark Bould, Extrapolation 46.4 (Winter 2005): 527-41, our source for this citation and an important essay in itself (including a highly useful Works Cited [pp. 539-41]).

Bould notes that Luckhurst "restricts his treatment to English and American literature, excludes references to fandom, and leaves other fantastic genres alone." However, working more broadly, "Luckhurst conceptualizes the place of this 'literature of technologically saturated societies' (3) in modernity in terms of its complex relations to Mechanism [sic on capital]. In the 19th century, 'High Culture" largely turned 'away from treatments of Mechanism,' making sf 'a valuable historical resource for investigating the cultural impact of this central aspect of modernity" (Bould p. 529). On this point, cf. and contrast O. B. Hardison's 1989/90 Disappearing Through the Skylight: Culture and Technology in the Twentieth Century.

Luckhurst's Science Fiction is divided into three parts: Emergence, 1880-1945; Elaboration, 1945-59; and Decade Studies (Bould p. 529).

The Emergence of SF was facilitated by "the rapid and visible transformation of culture by scientific and technological innovations as, 'for the first time . . . the everyday life experience of nearly all [was saturated] with Mechanism' (16-17)" (Bould, 530, his ellipsis and insertion). Note UK "class distinction [...] between the theoretical scientist and 'the artisanal or proletarian business of the mechanic'" vs. greater regard in US for mechanical engineers and "'practical'" inventors. Along with Thomas A. Edison and the self-made myth, Luckhurst holds "it was the reality of Edison's practice — the industrialization, commodification and scientific management of innovation — that so effectively conflated modernisation and Americanisation" (Bould, p. 530, and "sic" on the British "s" where US usage has a "z" — and other British conventions elsewhere).

Ch. 3: US pulps, and the "'engineer paradigm'" where "Mechanism confronted Nature as an empty space to be surveyed, traversed[,] and subjected to human will and engineering feats." Important parenthesis: "The contrast with the British privileging of scientists and theorists is evident in Garrett P. Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898 [for the short story — RDE])[1] in which Edison's 'mechanical genius ... elevates' (57) him over [William Thompson, 1st Baron] Kelvin and Roentgen."[2] Luckhurst discusses Ralph 124C41 + as a kind of pivotal (if incoherent) work and moves on to the major figures in the US pulp tradition culminating "with the somewhat unexpected example of AE Van Vogt and Dianetics, merging "'the engineer paradigm with the evolutionary paradigm'" of the British and starting "'the synthesis of American and British traditions'" (Luckhurst p. 75, quoted Bould p. 531).

Part Two, on the period after World War II and

"techno cultural conjuncture," [... with] a chapter each to US and UK sf. Luckhurst starts with the Manhattan project, treating it not just as a bomb-building program but as exemplary of Mechanism's dominance of postwar life through the bureaucratic interweaving of government, military[,] and big business which massively restructured the American economy and social life — from the threat of nuclear war to domestic appliances [...]. Eschewing technological determinism, Luckhurst argues for far more complex and overdetermined processes of reshaping, while discussing rockery, cybernetics[,] and UFOs. After critical engagements with Martin Heidegger,[3] Jacques Ellul, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer,[4] he poses two questions: "Was SF a genre uniquely placed to address the technological saturations of the post-war world? Or was it merely a primitive reflex, a passive reflection or even degraded celebration of l'homme machine?" (91) (Bould p. 532)

Finishing up his review, Bould regrets that for the 1990s Luckhurst did "not return to Mechanism" since at the end of the 20th into the 21st century, "Mechanism has become the room rather than the elephant in the room, invisible because ubiquitous. Yet so much of its history is also that of the globalization of capitalism, the laying waste of the 'third world' for the sake of the 'first.'[5] Maybe it is time to bring to centre stage those voices whose relationship to technology and capital and Mechanism and progress is very different to those which have shaped Anglo-American sf" (Bould p. 536).

Also reviewed by Brooks Landon, "A Cultural History of a Hybrid Genre," which see.

RDE, finishing, 3Ap22, 8Nov22